J.J. Abrams needs to make us believe again.
What am I talking about? Star Wars. I am a huge Star Wars fan, ask anyone that knows me, or heck, just ask me. I’ll tell you.
These days I have to qualify that. I am a fan of the Original Trilogy. Capital O, capital T. That is because George Lucas, back in 1999, decided to give the world a horrendous film I’ll call The Phantom Menace. And then in 2002 and 2005 he gave the world two more films, which I will call Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Technically these three films are preceded in their titles by the words “Star Wars” but I shudder at the association. The Phantom Menace is just a horrible movie, all by itself, but to be fair half of Attack of the Clones and two thirds of Revenge of the Sith are passable as movies. Where they fail is in the Star Wars-ness. Sure, there are lightsabers and lightspeed, and lightning but there isn’t that magical ingredient that makes a Star Wars film a Star Wars film: belief.
One must believe what one is seeing.
All three prequel trilogy films, Menace Clones and Sith, are too bland and computer graphics heavy to make us believe. I didn’t believe a little eight year old kid was special. I didn’t believe his big, goofy computer generated Gungan friend was funny, I didn’t believe the politics were real, I didn’t believe the Jedi were noble, I didn’t believe Anakin was evil, I didn’t believe Obi-Wan was that naive, I didn’t believe Padme and Anakin were in love, I didn’t believe they were in a real galaxy on real starships fighting a real war in the stars. I didn’t believe any of it.
All three original trilogy films, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, make us believe. I believe that Tatooine is real. It feels hot, and sandy, and scratchy under the tunic. The twin sunlight blinds me in the day time and makes me wistful at sunsset. I feel cold on Hoth, feel the icy bite of the wind. I believe that Han and Leia are in love, despite their bickering and protestations. I believe that C-3P0 is funny because I cannot stop laughing at him. I believe that Jabba the Hut is repugnant, I mean, just look at the guy, all slimy and gross. You can practically smell him, and are thankful you cannot. The Millennium Falcon and Luke’s X-Wing feel real. I believe those spaceships actually fly through space. I believe the Rebels are in a desperate war across the stars with an evil Empire. I believe all of it.
And then Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney and Disney hired J.J. Abrams to make another Star Wars movie and I thought: “Here we go again.” I recently told my brother that my expectations were low. How low? I said something like, “it will be better than Phantom Menace but not as good as Attack of the Clones.” Boy, those are low expectations. Lucas did such a good job of destroying my belief that I cannot even feel excited about the prospect of new Star Wars movies. When I was a kid, through 1998 and the spring of 1999 I couldn’t shut up about Star Wars. I was at a fever pitch. They were my three favorite movies of all time, seriously, ask anyone, and here they were making another one!!! and I couldn’t be more excited. I hunted down every photograph, every scrap of pre-vis footage, every concept art drawing, every casting rumor, every set leak, every Bothan spy network intercept – everything I could find. And remember, this was early days of the Internet searching. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no social media. Star Wars barely had a dot com. Some stuff I read in real print magazines, it was that old school of an info hunt. And then Phantom Menace came out and, oh, sigh, the disappointment. Disappointment that lasted and wasn’t assuaged by Clones or Sith. Disappointment that endures today.
Today I can know anything I want about Star Wars Episode 7. I just don’t bother to look, or to hunt. My disappointment is that bitter.
So what? Why am I going on about this? Because today I caught something, just a taste, just the barest whiff of something. Today I caught the whiff of belief. J.J. Abrams released a video from the set of Star Wars in Abu Dhabi. In this video he talks about the chance to visit the set, meet the cast, and be in Star Wars, all to raise awareness for UNICEF Innovation Labs and Programs. In this video, while he is talking, from stage right emerges a small alien being. The set is that of Tatooine, little huts and run down stalls. The wind blows and sand whirls. This small alien being is some habitant of Tatooine, some denizen of the dessert. He is hunched over, and walks with a slight limp. On his back several crates, two three times as tall as he is. In these crates, lashed together, are belongings and some form of foul. This alien shuffles from behind J.J. Abrams, stops, watches him talk for a second. Suddenly aware that something is behind him, Abrams stops talking, turns, and looks in to the alien’s eyes. For an eternity in a moment, they stare at each other. The alien then turns and shambles off stage left. Abrams continues his spiel.
In that short video, in that brief interaction, I believed that Tatooine was real again. I believed that alien was a real being, some background cast member from the outer rim on his way to set for a second unit shoot or something. For a second, I even believed that Star Wars could be real again.
Look, I know that Star Wars is just three movies. I know they are film fakery and industrial light and magic. But they are also a huge part of my childhood, my life, my cultural upbringing, and my psyche. I love them. They are a part of who I am. And that’s why this is such a big deal to me. George Lucas took something that I loved made something else like it, but trashier and called it the same when it wasn’t. And now J.J. Abrams is at the task, on the brink of doing something similar, and for the first time I felt that maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe Abrams could make something called Star Wars that would appeal to the adult me, be as magical and as life building as the originals were and are and will continue to be.
Maybe J.J. Abrams can make a true Star Wars film. I don’t know, and my expectations remain low, but today I caught something that made me feel young again, as when the Star Wars universe was new: the whiff of belief. And I think…maybe. Just maybe.
May the Force be with you all.
Catch the video here.