Michael Arndt is out. JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan are in. Star Wars fans fondly recall Kasdan’s name as the screenplay co-writer for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and of course, JJ Abrams is the sci-fi god of modern film and television, so this pairing seems great on paper. Nothing at this point has been confirmed about the story, so whether this change of writers is a good or bad thing is purely speculative. But I think that if Star Wars fans look a little more closely at the track records of these writers, they will find that this move could damage not only the next movie but the entire franchise.
For the last year, the Internet has been swirling with rumors about Episode VII. Many of the most prominent and widespread rumors have pointed to the idea that the protagonist for the new trilogy will be a young woman, possibly the daughter of Han Solo and Leia Organa. I found this idea immensely appealing: after focusing so long on whiney boys and their daddy/son issues (Anakin & Luke), it would be a breath of fresh air to move the franchise in a new direction and open things up to a more diverse and rounded cast. Most Star Wars fans seem to agree that the franchise needs new life; many feel this way because of a negative reaction to the prequel trilogy. I for one enjoyed the prequels, but am nonetheless ready and excited for a lead character more complex and interesting than the bland Anakin or his son Luke, and I think having a female lead would be good for the franchise.
Honestly, I don’t know a lot about Michael Arndt other than that he won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine and that he also wrote Toy Story 3 (which I still haven’t seen) and is adapting the screenplay for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I don’t have particularly vivid or fond memories of Little Miss Sunshine, but I know that it was a solid character drama focusing on family dynamics and not action—something the Star Wars franchise could definitely use. Any screenplay writer with Oscar credentials would be an upgrade from the bland, monotonous dialogue of the last couple of movies, particularly the awful sweet talk between Anakin and Padme. And although I haven’t yet seen Toy Story 3, I know the movie was a huge success commercially and critically, with viewers and critics alike lauding the film for re-igniting a franchise thought to be over, which to me indicates that Arndt might be the right choice for a franchise like Star Wars. And finally, the second Hunger Games movie, which isn’t out yet, was written by Arndt—which, assuming the movie is decent, indicates that he’s capable of writing a high-profile sci-fi/action movie with a strong female lead. So as far as I was concerned, all the ingredients were there: the man can write award-winning character drama, can re-invigorate old franchises, and can handle sci-fi movies with a female protagonist. Good choice, Disney!
But not so fast. Just recently, Lucasfilm announced that JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have taken over for Arndt. Producer Kathleen Kennedy issued a very positive statement thanking Ardnt for doing a “terrific job getting us this far”—whatever that means. Of course she’s positive—she’s the face of the company. Meanwhile, fans are content knowing that big-name, well-credentialed writers are taking the reigns. But let’s stop and think about this a little more carefully.
First, Kasdan. Yes, he co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back (the best of the franchise) and Return of the Jedi. But let’s begin by putting an asterisk next to that credential, because (1) The Empire Strikes Back was co-written by female sci-fi writer Leigh Brackett, and (2) Return of the Jedi was co-written by George Lucas. Given fans’ mixed reaction toward Jedi, is it possible that Brackett’s influence with shaping Empire helped it become the strongest entry to the franchise? Let’s also consider the immense and invaluable impact of Empire director Irvin Kershner. For example, in the famous scene in which Princess Leia says, “I love you,” and Han Solo responds, “I know,” the original Kasdan-penned screenplay called for Solo to respond, “I love you, too” before Kershner encouraged Harrison Ford to ad-lib on set. Or another original-script scene on Cloud City in which Han Solo says to Leia, “You look beautiful. You should wear girl’s clothes more often.” This was later changed thanks to the involvement of sensible minds. The point is that Kasdan wasn’t the only reason Empire was the best of the Star Wars movies, and there’s no guarantee that his involvement will improve the new movie. Kasdan became famous for penning the first Indiana Jones film, a male-centric macho-driven film that’s great fun but certainly no blueprint for Episode VII—and since Jedi, what has Kasdan done that’s noteworthy? A quick visit to his Rottentomatoes.com page shows a long list of critical and commercial duds. Kasdan had a terrific string of successes in the 1980’s—and now, an entire generation later, the man is in his sixties and hasn’t written anything noteworthy in at least twenty-five years. Is this really the man who should be given the keys to a franchise he hasn’t touched since 1983?
Then there’s JJ Abrams, King of the Nerds. I’ll admit that Abrams is a competent, if sometimes overly flashy, director. I truly enjoyed his film Super 8, and I thought both his Star Trek films were fun if not particularly memorable. But throughout his career as director, his films have had a motif: male-centric action films that, while sometimes quick-witted and fun, are also almost self-consciously trying to be cool. RedLetterMedia’s review of the 2009 Star Trek pointed out that the movie made a highly conspicuous attempt to portray all its male characters as straight, woman-loving, macho men—even when doing so seemed irrelevant for the story. The boy in Super 8, Joe, loves makeup and models, but is also conspicuously infatuated with Elle Fanning’s character—it’s as if JJ Abrams feels he must make it clear that his movies are about straight men with a strong sense of masculinity. Consider the scene from Star Trek Into Darkness in which Alice Eve’s character strips into her underwear so that the camera can give us a full frontal shot of her body—a shot that did raise eyebrows with many critics (and for which screenwriter Damon Lindelof later apologized, though it is ultimately the director’s responsibility for what appears on screen) due to the sheer conspicuous nature of it, given that the shot was completely unnecessary to further the plot or provide an important detail for the story or her character. JJ Abrams is obsessed with cool boys who love hot girls. His writing credits include the film Armageddon—a movie which I loved as a kid, but again, is not a blueprint for Episode VII—although it’s fun, it’s also crass, stupid, male-obsessed, and forgettable. If you haven’t seen it, just read Roger Ebert’s review.
So these are the two guys that Lucasfilm decided to pair together to re-write Episode VII. It’s worth noting that my entire opinion and argument is based on speculation and intuition—for all we know, Abrams and Kasdan are just polishing Ardnt’s script; or maybe Ardnt’s script truly was a train wreck, and the two new guys will make it great. My feeling of disappointment and dread might be entirely unjustified. And maybe looking at this situation from a more feminist perspective is the wrong way to do so—after all, Star Wars has always done fine with its male leads at center stage. But I just can’t shake this feeling from my gut that something may have been lost—a chance to bring Star Wars into a new era that would match Empire in its depth and complexity, deepening the mythology by finding new ways to explore it, focusing on characters over action, and perhaps having a female lead, with story and drama taking priority over the writers’ or director’s obsession with showing off just how cool boys can be.