A lot of the internet reaction has been and will continue to be around the fact that the custodian of one of the two pillars of sci-fi cinema is being chosen to direct the other (and all that that entails), but as far as Disney is concerned the appointment is both exciting and safe. Abrams is still young (at 46), but with a significant and respected body of work in movies and TV. Crucially, his Star Trek was the perfect template for a reboot: respect the lore, beef up the action, make the plot intelligible and cast fresh faces. If Abrams can apply the same to Star Wars, few people will complain.
I think the bigger concern here is that he is a technically brilliant director who either won’t or can’t imbue his films with much warmth and empathy. Abrams deserves a ton of kudos for successfully reviving not one but two huge franchises, and in both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible 3 he showcased razer-sharp narrative focus as well as a remorselessly no-frills approach to action. Super 8, meanwhile, invited comparison with Steven Spielberg, and like the great director Abrams has a real flair for the set-piece: the UAV attack on the bridge in M:I–3 and the train crash in Super 8 are particular highlights.
Where Abrams’s oeuvre does cause some disquiet for the new Star Wars film is the fact that in all his films there runs a strange streak of cruelty and sadism. He has a penchant for capture, torture and violent death which is imprinted on on each of Abrams’s three films: Keri Russell’s death scene and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s interrogation of Tom Cruise in M:I–3; Captain Pike’s torture at the hands of the Romulans as well as the indulgent frequency and length of fist fights in Star Trek; the scene between the alien and one of his captive humans in the underground lair towards the end of Super 8. It’s almost as if his way (perhaps, for him, the only way) of keeping his films from sliding into mundanity or mawkishness is to add scenes of sensational and unforgiving violence regardless of the tone of the rest of the film. Super 8 will be held up as evidence that he can bring the human element to the table, but I think it’s somewhat misleading. Super 8 was, among other things, a well-intentioned tribute to the Spielberg movies of the yesteryear, but the similarities were mostly surface. It replicated the period look and the crafty set-pieces and the accomplished special effects, but lacked the warmth and sense of discovery and wonder that defined E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The child actors were great and were afforded lots of screen time and trust, but there was never the feeling that they were avatars of the director himself. Abrams ended up making a film that checked the list of E.T.’s selling points, without succeeding in evoking its whimsy or its tender treatment of innocence at the brink of responsibility.
So now we come to Star Wars. In so many ways, it could not have gone to a better director. Abrams will no doubt bring his mastery of set-piece cinema and relentless forward momentum to a franchise that, after George Lucas’s prequel debacle, is close to being moribund as a Hollywood asset (in other media such as games, however, I think there’s still a lot left to mine). M:I–3 and Star Trek were exactly the sort of movies that the respective brands needed, being punchy, no-nonsense thrill-rides that asked for no quarter from existing fans. I do fear, however, that Abrams’s Star Wars will be needlessly violent and cruel, or at least have needlessly violent and cruel moments in it, and so leave the devotees with a slightly sour taste in their mouths.