If the Fast & Furious team made Casablanca 2 ('Morocco Drift') it would be a more artistically credible, better acted, and more entertaining movie than Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Vin Diesel’s Victor Laszlo may have gained an impressive set of guns fighting for the Czech resistance since we last saw him - shame, too, about the hair loss - but at least he wouldn’t spend even one second of the film talking about 'midi-chlorians'.
In his decision to revisit the Star Wars universe and create a trilogy of prequels, George Lucas looked upon the epic vista of his cinematic triumph and decided to open-cast strip mine it for cash. Lucas fracked, drilled and dynamited such magnificent characters as Darth Vader by depicting them as first a boy who could not act and then a young man who really could not act, and who was struggling with teenage angst and bad hair. Lucas took the greatest villain in film history and trafficked him for six hours and 50 minutes through a tunnel of pure excrement until he came out the other side two and a half billion dollars worth of awful.
The decision to pick Vader’s molten face mask up from the charred embers of the bonfire that was once our childhood dreams comes from Disney. A company not known for turning down the opportunity to make a few coins from a plastic doll, broadway musical, or straight-to-DVD spinoff, Disney benefited from the basement level expectations for any further Star Wars movies. The prospect of another frame containing Jar Jar Binks’s face had fans stoically bracing themselves for a trilogy which they would hate-watch several times at the cinemas before buying the extended editions on Blu-ray only to discover how much worse they could have been. For proof of the impossible, go on to youtube and watch the scenes George Lucas cut from the prequels, for a sense of how, given the opportunity, these movies could have been even worse.
The saviour of this plan has been J.J. Abrams, who if the teaser trailers are to be believed, has remembered what Star Wars was always supposed to be about. Abrams’s Star Wars is a galaxy of dust and sweat. Somewhere between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, Lucas developed a Howard Hughes-like aversion to the dirt which made his original trilogy so believable. Those shabby sets and asteroids made out of potatoes gave the trio of space operas a soul. By building as much as possible, Abrams is grounding his movie in reality. There is no greater example of this than the new droid, BB8, who in the first trailer looked to be solely a CGI creation, but at the launch of the second teaser was revealed to be a fully working prop.
That level of commitment to portraying a believable Star Wars universe which isn’t purely green-screened is how Abrams hopes to win back the fans. His Star Trek reboot had audiences weeping at the emotional intensity of James Kirk’s birth by the time the titles ran. His Star Wars: Episode VII, rumoured to see the death of Han Solo and a Luke Skywalker who has fallen to the dark side of the force, will doubtless pack a real emotional punch. The reveal of the beached star destroyer, appearing like a sandy mountain in the first shot of the second teaser trailer, hints at a movie which will be suitably epic in scale. It is a shot reminiscent of the young Kirk stealing a car in Abrams’s Star Trek, driving it in a chase with a space station looming in the distant background. Abrams has the skill to handle the fans deftly, without indulging in ‘fanservice’ to the detriment of the casual audience.
If Abrams is the man to take the ship out of harbour, Disney have picked an even more skilled director to write and direct Episode VIII which will follow. Rian Johnson did not make his name churning out action movies, but with a small clutch of beautifully realised and brilliantly scripted indie films. First, the high school noir masterpiece Brick, and most recently Looper, the best time-travel caper since Back To The Future, a sci-fi film which established Johnson’s bona fides to be trusted with the world’s most iconic cinema real estate. Between the pair of directors, there is almost no chance that this trilogy will not be at least as good as the original movies, and possibly better. There is a disturbance in the force, and for the first time since 1983 it will be awesome.