Lucasfilm must have ponied up one of those gigantic novelty checks, several solid gold pyramids, and all pertinent executive personnel’s first-born children to sign J. J. Abrams to direct the seventh installment of the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens. That’s the only possible explanation for a director willingly taking on what must be the most paralyzingly high-pressure gig in recent cinematic history. It might seem like the opportunity to take the reins on a boyhood favorite could be a fantastical dream come true, but just imagine the suffocating pressure imposed both from within and without. One wrong move and you’ll have to contend with the guilt of having desecrated one of your graven blockbuster idols, not to mention the pitchfork mob of Star Wars diehards who will be calling for your head on a pike before you can say “Alderaan.” All of this is to say that Abrams had an unenviable task ahead of him when he agreed to resurrect the most popular series of films ever made.
A sequel with such brutally high expectations as this one is faced with great responsibilities. The perfect Star Wars 7 needs to be, in essence, two films at once: Going in, Abrams has to appease the existing fanbase without resorting to pale mimicry of feats gone by, all while establishing his films as a distinct work existing for their own sake as well. His job, in the most basic terms, is to reconcile the past with the present — no big deal.
The promotional materials alone have amply communicated Abrams’ commitment to maintaining reverence for the past in present works. The assorted trailers that have already stoked fan anticipation to a fever pitch usually build to a big cathartic payoff of nostalgic recognition. There’s no shame in admitting that a goosebump-raising chill went up your spine when a greying but sturdy Harrison Ford appeared once more as Han Solo to announce “We’re home,” and John Williams’ iconic score came thundering in. Trailers are all meticulously calculated down to the tiniest detail; that sudden surge of sentimental warmth that flooded your heart was the result of deliberate efforts from the team editing these spots together. They’re accenting the aspects of Abrams’ film that pay homage to the characters, settings, and other elements of story and style that fans know and love. By reincorporating Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Leia, Chewbacca and other holdovers from the original trilogy, Abrams has already signaled his intention of remaining faithful to that which has preceded him.
However, that still leaves plenty of room for error. Spend too much time saluting the original darlings and the newer installment feels like a hollow imitation, a meager greatest-hits cover compilation instead of a new studio album. It’s not just a matter of dreaming up a few new worlds for our heroes to travel to and sketching out some cool new bad guys (with a requisite cool new facemask) to challenge them. Audiences expect Abrams to blaze fresh territory without straying too far from the tone and style with which the series has become identified. Those viewers familiar with Abrams’ other work on the Star Trek reboot franchise as well as the underrated Super 8 like to joke about the director’s signature lens flares, but it’s also an example of him putting his personal stamp on a franchise, which is something he’ll have to do with Star Wars as well. The reason audiences in the ’70s fell head over heels for the idiosyncratic space opera at first brush wasn’t just because the film was so outstanding, but because it was all so outstanding and new. Pulling off the same miracle — selecting groundbreaking technical effects, Joseph Campbell-approved adventuring, and combining until mixture is thick — six times in a row isn’t quite as impressive.
Piloting a ship as massive and complicated as the Star Wars franchise is all about navigating precarious balances: between allusion and originality, between the old and new, between the familiar and the challenging. For the seemingly endless stream of leaked details, some of them almost hilariously minor, Abrams has done a bang-up job of keeping the real core of his film under wraps. Crowds expected to shatter box-office records are all eager to find out what he’s got up his sleeve. But whatever Abrams ends up doing, if he wants to pull off this Herculean labor, he’ll need to find some way to make the hyperjump between 1977 and 2015 feel like it could fit in a few glorious seconds.