The biggest ways J.J. Abrams surprised us in Episode VII

When we learned that J.J. Abrams was going to take over directing duties Star Wars: The Force Awakens, sci-fi geeks everywhere either shuddered with either terror or delight…or sometimes a mix of both. Would he just be making another Star Trek reboot, or would he seamlessly continue the story of Star Wars? Is the guy who created Felicity really capable of taking the reigns of something so huge and unwieldy? Would the film just be a bunch of disappointing filler like the middle seasons of Lost? Turns out that Episode VII was actually pretty great, and here are some ways in which we were pleasantly surprised by Abrams' magic touch.

Minimal Lens Flares

If there's one signature filmmaking technique Abrams is known for, it's his overly dramatic use of lens flares. While they may be appropriate for giant explosions and dreamy summer days, they don't always fit into every single scene. Abrams is well aware that his obsession with light effects can sometimes be over the top, so it's been reported that he actually had Industrial Light & Magic go back over the film and cut out a bunch of the extraneous flares. As a result, The Force Awakens still feels like a real Star Wars film, and not just another sparkly Abrams joint. Even better, it doesn't feel like the prequels.

Respect

A lot of what Abrams did with the Star Trek reboot-alternate-universe thing felt like it just trashed all of the stoic, philosophical charm of Trek and replaced it with an unnecessary, edgy modernization of familiar characters. Klingons were awesome way before Abrams got his hands on them. Fortunately for The Force Awakens and its fans, everything Star Wars feels like it's still in its place. Episode VII is not a reinvention, but a continuation of something great. Abrams could have thrown in another Jar Jar or packed the film full of slapstick comedy for the bored kids, but he knew how to walk the right line through a very diverse audience.

No Romantic Junk

Even though Abrams cut his teeth by writing scripts for Felicity, The Force Awakens is completely devoid of sappy romance. Yes, the universe is full of small moments of love, but they're all pretty reasonable and not excessively sentimental. Han and Leia lament their lost son and failed marriage; Chewy mourns for his lost pal; Rey and Finn express concern for one another after escaping a dozen perilous situations. Far too many films force protagonists together into rushed embraces and premature declarations of love, but we got through this one clean. If anyone's going to kiss, let's finally give C3PO some action.

Cameos And Easter Eggs

Abrams knew that fans would be watching very carefully. The universe of Star Wars is just too big to not incorporate a few clever hiding spots, so the director included small roles for his friends, former co-workers, and even just people he really likes. If you keep your eyes open, you'll see guests from Felicity, Lost, Downton Abbey, and whatever else Abrams, the eternal fanboy, felt like including. None of these cameos feel intrusive, but when you spot them, it's a small thrill. And Boba Fett's Mandalorian insignia above Maz Kanata's castle? Goosebumps. We're just waiting for the Blu-ray do we can see where he probably snuck the USS Enterprise into a battle scene.

Effective Effects

When you have an enormous budget and the world's best effects studio at your fingertips, it's probably incredibly easy to overdo it—especially if George Lucas' re-edited Special Editions are any indication. Adding more lasers, aliens, and spaceships isn't always a good thing, though, and if you add too much visual trash, you basically have a Michael Bay assault. Abrams was able to create exciting battle scenes without confusion, aliens without a heavy and obvious reliance on CGI, and even though he could have done literally anything with special effects, he managed to make them all sensible and unintrusive, which is nothing short of a miracle.

A Little Bit Of Mystery

The Force Awakens could have told us nothing or everything. Audiences went into the film with a thousand questions, and almost all of them were answered. Who is Kylo Ren? Why is he a jerk? What's Finn's deal? Where's Luke Skywalker? What's a Snoke? Will Chewy have to use a cane? Did C3PO find true love? Abrams answered a lot of the big mysteries, but also left enough ambiguity and obfuscation to keep people interested in Episode VIII, even though the First Order seems pretty much obliterated. Who is Rey? Will Luke ever speak? Will Ben Solo renounce the Dark Side when he remembers Darth Vader's true legacy? Stay tuned.

It Felt Like Star Wars

Most Star Wars fans still feel bruised by the prequel trilogy, and it's hard to mask that old pain when you're limping into a new Star Wars film. Despite all odds, and above most geeky cynicism, Abrams kept the spirit of Star Wars alive. You can still feel the terror inflicted by Kylo Ren and the First Order, and feel for the humanity of the fighters of the Resistance, just like in the originals. And giant weapons? We got the universe's most insane weapon with the Starkiller, an entire planet designed to channel the energy of a sun to destroy solar systems. Sometimes, a little more of the same can be a good thing.

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