J.J. Abrams was born in 1966, making him 11 years old when the first Star Wars movie came out. Yeah, they got him young.
The son of two prominent producers, he always had Hollywood in his blood, and apparently one iconic science fiction franchise just wasn't enough for him: having directed the first two films in the Star Trek reboot, he switched gears to join that galaxy far, far away.
We can't say we're unhappy with the decision.
Directing came slowly to Abrams, who started out writing and producing before really rolling up his sleeves behind the camera. He gained early success by writing the screenplays for movies like Taking Care of Business and Regarding Henry. (That last one also starred Harrison Ford.)
His directing opportunities first came in television, where he co-created the drama Felicity, which made a star out of Keri Russell. The success of that begat the spy series Alias, which made a star out of Jennifer Garner, and then Lost, which made a star out of…a lot of people.
Those last two series had a lot of science fiction elements, making them big draws for fanboys and giving Abrams street cred in that department. He took that with him when he turned his eye to directing feature films. His first was Mission: Impossible III, which set up his (sinister?) plan of hopping onto existing franchises and adding his own touch to them.
From there, Abrams jumped onto Star Trek, helming the impressive 2009 reboot and its somewhat less impressive 2013 sequel. In between, he found the time for Super 8, which is basically the greatest Steven Spielberg movie that Steven Spielberg didn't direct.
All of that on his resume means that he had spent years soaking in the kind of pop culture vibes that created the original Star Wars. And his work on Star Trek and Mission: Impossible showed that he could handle existing movie properties the right way.
When George Lucas turned Star Wars over to Disney in 2012, he apparently handpicked Abrams for the gig. (Source)
As a filmmaker, Abrams has a distinct visual style as well as recurring themes that he likes to touch on. They work very well for the Star Wars universe, which again is probably why he scored the job.
He likes to take a "you are there" approach to filmmaking, which means a fair amount of shaky cams, weird angles, unexpected zooms, and an infamous lens flare fetish that's become something of an internet joke. (Source)
All of that is intended to convey a sense of being on the ground with the blaster fights: it's like he went out and filmed an actual battle between actual starship fleets, instead of just assembling it all on a computer somewhere.
And that's in keeping with how Star Wars was put together. One of the things that made A New Hope such a phenomenon was the fact that Lucas made space all grungy. Before then, science fiction films were always antiseptic and clean, as if the future was full of cybernetic supermaids cleaning up everyone's messes.
Star Wars was dirty, dusty, and had mold growing in the corner. The spaceships seemed to be held together by chicken wire and string. Stuff broke down, a lot, and had to be spackled together just to stay running. (Can you even count how often the Millennium Falconjust refuses to work?)
That grunge had no place in sci-fi movies before Star Wars, and Abrams' filmmaking techniques made sure The Force Awakens has the same feeling right from the get-go.
To see it all come together, take a look at Rey and Finn's escape from Jakku in the Falcon. Rey first calls the ship "garbage" (matching Luke Skywalker's initial impression of the ship in A New Hope).
When they get aboard, they're kind of hanging on for dear life: rough takeoff, skidding through the planet's junk heap, making stuff work basically by slamming the controls as hard as they can. If you've ever driven an old car, you can relate to what these guys are going through (though no TIE fighters were trying to destroy you).
Now, look at how Abrams shoots it. The first shot in the clip comes from a static camera. It doesn't change its position; it just follows the characters as they run…just like a documentary filmmaker would do if he were shooting a scene in actual combat. The next shot is shaky and unsteady: running ahead of the characters and kind of bobbing and weaving along with them. It's frantic and spontaneous, like Abrams got caught by surprise by the action and is just trying to keep up.
Abrams made this seat-of-your-pants feel part of his directing style. When you add that to his ability to pop into the middle of a franchise and make it his own without overturning the whole apple cart, it's no surprise that he stepped into this movie like he was made for it.
After all, in a lot of ways, he was.
For 35 years, Star Wars was associated (for better or worse) with George Lucas, who created it in the first place and directed and wrote the screenplays for four of the first six films.
And while the guy's a bona fide genius, screenwriting really isn't the man's strong suit.
That's why, when Disney bought the rights to the property and announced that they were going to be making a whole new slew of films, there was this huge combination of anxiety and hope. Would the scripts be better than those of Episodes I-III? And, more importantly, would they still feel like Star Wars?
Frankly speaking, we didn't know the answer until the film actually opened, but looking at the caliber of the screenwriting team, we had every reason to be confident. It started with Michael Arndt, who won an Oscar for his first screenplay, Little Miss Sunshine, in 2007. From there, he hitched his wagon to the Pixar train, penning the script for Toy Story 3 as well as helping out on 2015's Inside Out. He has science fiction chops, too, writing the screenplays for the Tom Cruise movie Oblivion and the second Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire.
Arndt couldn't nail down the final version of the script for this one, but he did hit upon a number of key concepts, such as keeping Luke Skywalker out of the film until the end:
It just felt like every time Luke came in and entered the movie, he just took it over. Suddenly you didn't care about your main character anymore because, "Oh f–k, Luke Skywalker's here. I want to see what he's going to do. (Source)
With that as a foundation, he turned things over to a second team, consisting of director J.J. Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan. Abrams had done the whole screenwriting thing himself (and he's covered over in the "Director" section), but Kasdan was the name that made most Star Wars fans do the Snoopy dance.
Why? Well, he was the guy who wrote the screenplays for the two Star Wars films that Lucas didn't write: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. You know, the two that are widely regarded as the best written.
Kasdan trained in poetry and intended to teach it before screenwriting came along. In addition to those earlier Star Wars films, he penned the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as became an accomplished director in his own right with the likes of Grand Canyon and Silverado. His training in poetry gives his dialogue an elegance and an ease of pronunciation that Lucas simply couldn't manage, and with two of the most beloved Star Wars movies under his belt, he knows this universe like no one else.
Along with Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt hit the right notes for the film: something a little retro and nostalgic, but pointing the way to future movies that will stand proudly on their own. Doing all that and still making a great stand-alone movie can take a lot, but this particular trio of musketeers seems to keep it all in hand.
When you think of Star Wars, you naturally think of such immortal characters as Jabba, Boba, Yoda, and…Donald Duck?
Star Wars as a property was purchased by the Walt Disney Company in 2012, and the Mouse is now calling the shots. (Source)
That didn't change the production company, though. Lucasfilm had always made the Star Wars movies. Things didn't change a whole lot after Disney's buyout, and in fact, the House of Mouse dropped their own title logo from the movie, leaving it solely a Lucasfilm deal.
The company was, as you may have guessed, the brainchild of George Lucas, visionary filmmaker and noted control freak who wants a great deal of say in how his movies get made. His first theatrical project, THX 1138, bombed at the box office after Warner Bros. tinkered with it and refused to support it once it hit theaters. Lucas wasn't interested in repeating the experience.
So he did what any enterprising master of the universe would do—set up his own production company. Lucasfilm Ltd.'s first project was American Graffiti, an exercise in '50s nostalgia that turned into a massive hit (and paved the way for such similar throwback projects as the TV show Happy Days).
With that ammo in his corner, Lucas could operate with a lot more impunity. His next project was Star Wars, a film everyone thought was going to bomb and which required such innovative special effects that Lucasfilm had to set up an entirely different company—Industrial Light & Magic, or ILM—just to handle them. It had disaster written all over it…
…until the film opened to earth-shattering box office records and basically changed the face of movies as we knew it.
From then on out, Lucasfilm could write its own ticket, and boy, did it. In addition to the Star Wars movies, they've handled production of the Indiana Jones films, Labyrinth, Willow, and the original The Land Before Time. It also found a way to back some really quirky movies like Twice Upon a Time (as well as at least one flat-out turkey, Howard the Duck.)
Along the way, it has maintained its reputation not only as a sorting house for various Lucas projects, but ILM is renowned as being one of the most innovative special effects companies in the world. All of that is on proud display in The Force Awakens—the heir to the production company's greatest triumph, and a reminder that, while Uncle Walt's crew may own the deed to this movie, its soul comes from the guys who created it all in the first place.
The first Star Wars trilogy (i.e., not the prequels) relied hugely on practical effects and miniatures: actors in monster masks rather than CGI beasts, for instance, and real-world ship models to achieve all of those fantastic space chases.
The second trilogy (i.e., the prequels) used a huge amount of CGI, and these days, that tends to be the way you put movies like this together.
J.J. Abrams took the middle road. He wasn't about to let the years of technological advancement since the first trilogy pass him by, and today's CGI toys are far more sophisticated than they were in 1999 when The Phantom Menace opened.
On the other hand, going whole-hog CGI would destroy some of the things that make the original Star Wars movies special, so the model shop got to fire back up and get to work.
The result is a mix of old and new that matches the movie's vibe perfectly. This is a movie about the old giving way to the new after all, for the characters and for the whole franchise.
The CGI pops up where it needs to: Maz, for example, is a motion-capture creation performed by Lupita Nyong'o, while the outer space scenes are largely done on a computer. But the locations are real, and while Maz may be CGI, many of the patrons in her bar are plain old actors with masks.
That helps give The Force Awakens its retro feel without losing the cutting edge that's always defined Star Wars, and it's another smart decision in a movie production that is full of them.
The Star Wars universe is gradually moving beyond its original composer, who was a whopping 83 when The Force Awakens opened, and ceded composing duties to another for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
But when they first got this thing off the ground—10 years after the last Star Wars movie and with the tang of Episodes I-III still lingering in everyone's mouths—there was no way they'd trust this baby's music to anyone but the guy who'd been there since the beginning.
John Williams, legend of legends, stepped up to continue the legacy he started in 1977…and, along with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, was the biggest reason for the Star Wars faithful to breathe a sigh of relief.
Williams began composing movie soundtracks as early as the 1950s, moving out to Los Angeles where his family lived after attending the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City.
He mainly did a lot of television, where he came into contact with producer Irwin Allen. Allen moved into movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he brought Williams along. He composed the soundtracks to a lot of Allen-backed disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. They were bad movies—so very, very bad—but they had great scores, and Williams earned a lot of street cred along the way. He even picked up an Oscar for Fiddler on the Roof, all before hitting the streak that turned him from a good composer into a living legend.
The starting point for that? Jaws, a movie that fit the disaster-movie mold in more ways than one.
Director Steven Spielberg suffered through all kinds of production delays, interference, crabby actors, and a mechanical shark that sank to the bottom of the ocean at one point. He needed something to pull it all together and make it work. Enter Williams, who delivered…well, if you haven't heard the Jaws theme by now, please take us with you back to your alien planet.
That ominous theme saved the movie, and a couple of years later when Spielberg's friend George Lucas needed a soundtrack to hit all the right notes for a little sci-fi flick called Star Wars, Williams was recommended to give all the special effects a little more emotional pep. Williams hit it out of the park, and again, we're pretty sure everyone out there can hum his themes by heart. It goes almost without saying that he won Oscars for both.
He even gave us the NBC News theme and the Olympic fanfare. With a few tiny exceptions, Steven Spielberg never made another movie without him, and, of course, he came back to compose the awesome themes to the Star Wars prequels.
He was 80 when Disney bought the rights to Star Wars, and most of us figured he'd be happy to take a pass on this one. Luckily, most of us were very, very wrong.
Frankly speaking, it's not the most innovative Star Wars soundtrack he's done. It's has a similar problem that faced the creation of Kylo Ren: with so many great themes and ideas out there already, how do you either top it or do something different?
Williams opts for something safer: nostalgic, leaning heavily on earlier pieces, but finding enough distinction to give the score its own identity (if not the pure slice of awesomeness that is, say, "The Imperial March," or "Yoda's Theme").
Still, it's good stuff. It's new enough to be thrilling while still connected to the larger musical canvas that is Star Wars. These stories are very straightforward, by design. There's not a lot of musing about the depths of the characters or the emotional significance of a given moment in the dialogue. That's Williams' job.
For example, listen to "Rey's Theme" from the soundtrack. It's understated. It uses a lot of woodwinds, which Williams doesn't usually lean on (he's a John Philip Sousa kind of guy: brass, brass, and more brass), and it's very quiet, at least at the beginning.
But it develops into something stronger and bolder as it goes on, letting you feel the journey she takes without leaning on the script.
Kylo Ren gets similar treatment, though he's much louder and scarier. With Ren it's all brass and minor keys, as befits a bad guy. Williams wants to stress the Darth Vader vibe this guy's got going on (and indeed leave him in Vader's shadow to a certain extent) while still making sure we see him as his own character, not just a clone of bad guys past.
It's a bit of a balancing act, and it gets trickier when the old guard enters the picture. Han, Luke, and Leia all have their own themes already, and yet they're doing new things here. So Williams has to respond by weaving their existing themes into new material.
You can see that here, in Han and Leia's theme. It starts out with the established theme from Empire, then goes off in different directions (reflecting Leia's role as a general and the things she has to get done to stop the First Order), then goes back to their theme, then cuts to Luke's theme when they talk about getting their friend back.
That shifts gears more than the owner of an old VW, but Williams makes it all sound smooth and organic. The best always make it look so easy, and at least some of the incredible power of the film's finale belongs to the guy with the conducting baton.
It may seem surprising that Williams could still bring it 40 years after Jaws. But as the subject of one of his scores once said, "I'm full of surprises."
About those Star Wars fans…
In point of fact, just about everyone is a Star Wars fan in some capacity or another. It's like The Wizard of Oz on that front, and—disappointing prequels notwithstanding—if you find someone who doesn't like Star Wars, you may just start to wonder what's wrong with them.
It's hard to overestimate the kind of excitement the original Star Wars generated: it was the blockbuster to end all blockbusters and an instant icon that's kept us all whooshing with our make-believe lightsabers for over 40 years.
The fans have responded with gatherings, dress-up, fiction, and art enough to choke the whole internet.
Conventions are the centerpiece of a lot of it: Star Wars is big enough to support a few of its own, such as Celebration. But fans also show up in (ahem) force for more general conventions, like the famous San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic Con. Any kind of science fiction convention is apt to have a few people in Star Wars outfits...or, you know, a whole lot of them.
That dedication has radiated outward. Not only can you not cough on the internet without finding Star Wars fansites, but fan fic covering favorite characters is an ongoing process, as is art depicting any character you can imagine.
Then there are clubs like the 501st Legion, whose members dress as stormtroopers and march in parades as well as support various charities with their work. Lucasfilm has responded to these fans' enthusiasm with charities of their own, ensuring that the light side prevails whenever anyone says the name Star Wars.
It's safe to say that The Force Awakens has plenty of fans of its own as well. When a film makes more money than any movie in history, it tends to do that.
And, in fact, The Force Awakens may have benefited from the cool reception given to the prequels. And while there have been animated series like The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, people tended to feel like they'd never see Star Wars the way they remembered it again.
And then, suddenly, with previews here and advance images there, The Force Awakens let everyone know that they were wrong, that Star Wars could tell new adventures that were just as awesome as the old ones.
Since the movie opened in late 2015, Leia cosplayers have had to share the stage with Rey lookalikes, while the fan community has devoted even more time to analyzing the film frame by frame and mining every little tidbit they can. One of the genius things about Star Wars is that every figure on the screen has a story, and fans delight in delving into the backstories of the most minor characters.
The Force Awakens isn't any different…as anyone who has talked to a Phasma fan can tell you.
Ironically, all of those goodies on the shelf got Disney into a lot of trouble with the fans. In marketing all the toys and games and whatnot, someone forgot to include the main character. Rey got short-changed when it came to action figures, lunch boxes, and even board games. She got dropped in favor of Kylo Ren, whom the bean counters thought would be a bigger hit. (Source)
It's weird because Rey is the hero of the whole movie, and while they scrambled to correct the massive boo-boo, the damage had been done. Cries of sexism went up—not unfounded, in our opinion—and the resulting kerfuffle helped shine a light on the way Hollywood can marginalize and dismiss strong female characters.
Hopefully they've learned their lesson, especially considering that the next movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, features another strong female heroine.