Why J.J. Abrams is far more than a ‘safe’ pick to direct ‘Star Wars: Episode IX’

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We can't just point to Abrams's 'The Force Awakens.'

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Star Wars creator George Lucas, left, and writer/director J.J. Abrams at the 2015 premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

J.J. ABRAMS has just accepted an assignment that’s a far Wookiee cry from what he delivered just two years ago.

Now that Abrams has been announced as the new director of “Star Wars: Episode IX,” fans of the franchise are weighing in, as their opinions of his 2015 film, “The Force Awakens,” color their expectations of his 2019 Star Wars project. Yet making too many comparisons between these Star Wars trilogy bookends is a fraught endeavor.

From geek websites to Comic Riffs’s own comments thread Tuesday, “The Force Awakens” is being strafed anew as a “rehash” — as somehow proof that for “Episode IX,” Abrams will simply reheat a mess of old ingredients. This from a filmmaker who is widely being called the “safe” choice to land the sequel trilogy’s big finish.

Let’s step back for a moment, though, and remember where Star Wars was in the fall of 2015.

Just a decade earlier, George Lucas had delivered “Revenge of the Sith” (aka “Episode III”), wrapping up his Clone Wars prequel trilogy with a film that landed like an acid test for Lucas fans. To this day, the movie gets an audience score of a relatively low 65 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — compared with 89 percent for “The Force Awakens.”

Abrams’s mission upon new owner Disney’s reboot of the Star Wars galaxy wasn’t simply to deliver a compelling movie that could kick off fresh sequels. Abrams was tasked with resuscitating fan interest by reviving the joy that we felt for Lucas’s original trilogy.

One weapon that Abrams chose to deploy liberally, of course, was nostalgia. The sandy terrain was littered with feel-good callbacks (what the “South Park” creators might call “member berries”). This was the “barn door” approach to winning back fans, as Abrams cast the excavated Millennium Falcon’s entry doors as shamelessly wide as possible to get us all back on board the franchise.

Having succeeded at winning that massive fan return — to a $2 billion-plus gross worldwide — Abrams is freed up to take bigger chances. Nostalgia can be burned off like a first-stage rocket, allowing “Episode IX” to focus on further elevating its next-gen heroes (especially as the film alters its plans to spotlight the late Carrie Fisher’s Leia).

Abrams, too, surely learned valuable space-sequel lessons from his second Star Trek film, “Into Darkness,” which was inventive but also included a studio compromise or two that he later said he regretted. Only wiser, he grows.

Yes, Abrams was a “safer” pick by Kathleen Kennedy, the Lucasfilm president. But that speaks more of their creative harmony (and Star Wars is no longer an auteur’s ride). They are on this journey together, as producers of an enterprise that, while worth billions, is allowing them the growing clout to take chances with the trilogy’s finish.

The franchise’s main films will likely never afford the creative risks that the Star Wars one-offs can take. But Abrams — working with writer Chris “Argo” Terrio, among others, with Lawrence Kasdan always hovering — is not going to play everything “safe.” He just wants to play it smart.

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