Star Wars: Spiritual Successor – Part 2

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This is a fantastic piece of writing, but you should really read Part 1 before going any further. And yes, this is about Star Wars. What do you mean, “confusing header image”?

Descent is essentially a board game translation of D&D that gets as close as possible to being an RPG without truly being an RPG. I was still in the midst of my gaming hiatus when first edition Descent was having its heyday, and I never got a chance to play it. I picked up the second edition at a discount about two years after its initial release. My wife and I played a few scenarios, but the experience ultimately left us feeling unsatisfied, and I eventually sold it.

Occupying a hybrid space is a delicate balancing act. Descent is an engaging boardgame with tons of components and mechanics, including campaign play, that reaches the furthest boundaries of what can still be called a board game. It cleaves very close to being an RPG without including all of the rules and mechanics that would allow it to really be classified as an RPG. It’s certainly an impressive package, with great miniatures, sturdy map tiles, and cards upon cards and more cards (and did I mention cards?). But after taking all of it in, and then taking a step back to reflect on how much work is required to set up, organize, and play, it begs the question: with all of the effort required to play a boardgame version of D&D that doesn’t offer the advantages of actually playing D&D (collaborative storytelling, more freedom of choice and player agency outside of what’s pre-written into the scenario), why not just play D&D? (Or Pathfinder? Or 13th Age? Or Savage Worlds? Or any of the other myriad RPGs that exist?)

Descent has its fans and detractors, and I think the game can serve as a boardgame equivalent of a Rorschach: how you respond to it depends on what you bring to the table, as it were. For those who are more comfortable sticking with the board game milieu instead of taking the leap over to full-fledged RPGs, or for veteran RPG players who just want something different, Descent fills those niches quite well. For the record, as much as I really didn’t care for the game, I don’t consider myself a detractor; I’d certainly be willing to join a group of experienced players looking for another adventurer to join their party. I just don’t want to invest the time to learn the game well enough to teach it to other people, and if I were going be an Overlord, I’d much rather be a Dungeon Master instead.

So, it should be abundantly clear by now that this post is about Star Wars. [/extreme dry sarcasm] When Fantasy Flight announced another Star Wars game in the summer of 2014, my interest was certainly piqued. I’m not quite at the rabid fanboy level of either FFG or Star Wars, but I am definitely a fan and I enjoy both of them, both individually and from their collaborative efforts in the form of X-Wing Miniatures and Armada, so I was eager to see what this new game would be like. There was certainly the potential for it to be a lot of fun, and of course it included all of the borderline decadent components that have become FFG’s trademark. However, I had been curious about Descent 2.0 since its release, and when I learned that Imperial Assault was going to be using a slightly modified version of the Descent 2.0 rules, a decision needed to be made over which of which of these games to get. For some people, the obvious solution would be to circumvent the decision and get both, but I try to keep my boardgame collection at a manageable level, and it’s hard for me to justify owning what is basically two versions of the same game. In terms of IP, I’ll choose Star Wars almost every time over FFG’s fairly generic fantasy setting, but a Black Friday sale on Descent 2.0 a few months later decided it for me.

Fast forward to several months after selling Descent 2.0: this time, there was a big sale on Imperial Assault, so I picked up a copy. Although there are officially two different ways to play the game, the one that seems to be get the most attention is the campaign mode, so despite my lackluster experience with Descent 2.0, this is what I was focused on. I thought that perhaps the Star Wars setting might make the pseudo-RPG gameplay more appealing. It didn’t really help, but I didn’t sell the game this time either.

It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more focus on skirmish play. It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized what was sitting on my shelf: a possible way to recreate the fun and excitement that I had experienced with Epic Duels all those years ago! And this time, there were more characters to choose from, deeper and more refined gameplay mechanics, higher-quality components, and I could even choose the units I wanted to use! I might eventually go back and play the campaign mode at some point, but right now, when it comes to Imperial Assault, skirmish is where my attention is.

Is Imperial Assault the spiritual successor to Epic Duels? I don’t know if I can really answer that question – at least not on a subjective level, which is the more interesting one. You can compare the two games objectively, looking at how they’re both essentially skirmish-level miniatures games in board game trappings, comparing physical components, mechanics and so forth.

Skirmish mode of Imperial Assault certainly fills a similar niche to Epic Duels, and they share several similar aspects — the big one being the theme of taking characters from that universe (both named ones as well as anonymous mooks) and pitting them in battles against one another. Movement is conducted using a grid rather than a tape measure, characters have their own distinct stats and abilities, and players use cards for added tactical flexibility. However, even in their similarities, their differences set them miles apart. At the time of Epic Duel’s release, Episode II was still in theaters. Characters were drawn exclusively from the five movies that had been released up to that point. Imperial Assault reaches deeper into the Expanded Universe, but doesn’t go back farther than the original movie. Epic Duels contained everything in one box and felt like a board game. Characters and supporting units came bundled with their deck, allowing for no customization. Imperial Assault feels more like a true miniatures game, with tons of expansions available and the ability to customize your force. The cards are the driving mechanic in Epic Duels. In Imperial Assault, as in a true miniatures game, customizing your force to create unit synergies and to mitigate the randomness of the dice have is how you win.

So in an objective sense, yes, I think Imperial Assault could validly be considered a worthy spiritual successor of Epic Duels: a different game, but one that captures the essence of the original and improves on it in significant ways. But determining the status of “spiritual successor” is more than a cold, detached examination of empirical evidence; it’s about the experience you have when playing the game, a question that requires you, in the words of an  infamous Sith Lord, to “search your feelings” in order to truly answer.

On the subjective level, I really don’t know. Based on what I can remember of playing Epic Duels, I think I would say that it is, but I can’t be certain. The reason I don’t know is that the last time I played Epic Duels was a long time ago in a place far, far away from where I am now, both in a literal sense and in who I am as a person. I wasn’t as deep into tabletop gaming back then as I am now, but even beyond that, I’ve gone through several significant life experiences since then: getting married, having a daughter, suffering the loss of two miscarriages, and in just a little over the past year alone, losing my father, launching a business, and buying a house (experts say you should always definitely do those last two at the same time, by the way). All of these things change a person, and if I were to play Epic Duels today, the way that I would experience it now would be different than how I did in 2002. Would it really make sense to try to compare my experience of Imperial Assault now to my experience of Epic Duels back then?

Maybe the best answer is to let them each be their own game, their own experience. I’ll always have fond memories of Epic Duels, but like a relationship that comes to an end for one reason or another, it’s probably best to leave it in the past; I probably won’t spend much more time trying to chase down a copy of Epic Duels or comparing the two games. Epic Duels was a good game. I’m playing Imperial Assault now, and it’s good too.

Oh yeah, and I eventually got back together with that girl that I mentioned earlier and married her, so it’s all good!

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RIP, Carrie Fisher

You’ll always be my princess. Thank you for being part of something that has meant so much me, and to many others.

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NOTE: This is a pic I came across in my FB feed. I quickly copied and saved it for my personal files before deciding to make this blog post. I went back and did a search, but I couldn’t find it again on FB or using Google. If anyone knows who the creator is, please leave a comment or send me a message so that I can give proper credit. Thanks!

Some Thoughts on Rogue One

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

This past weekend, I engaged in what is likely to be an annual ritual for as long as Disney decides they want to keep printing money with their movie franchise set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Rogue One held great promise and potential, telling a story that fleshes out key details of the Star Wars saga that any fan would want to see. I don’t see many movies in the theater, but this was one that I was eagerly anticipating. As I sat in the theater watching the end credits roll, and for a long time after I walked out, I mulled over my reaction to the film.

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Of course, when I ran into this guy, I told him it was the best movie ever, especially his scenes.

One of the most striking things for me is that I didn’t really feel connected to any of the characters. Even if the motivation stems purely from crass commercial reasons, I like the fact that we’re seeing greater diversity in Star Wars movies. However, there wasn’t enough dimension to any of the characters for me to really be able to care that deeply. Ironically, I found myself enjoying K-2SO more than any of the human characters; it’s hard not to like the character who gets the best lines and provides comic relief in an otherwise grim story, especially when he’s voiced by Alan Tudyk.

One might argue that were just too many characters to allow any of them to develop (which would not actually be an argument that justifies the lack of characterization, but rather just another reason for why it exists). A simple rebuttal would go something like this: Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2, Darth Vader. That’s a whopping eight characters who in their first outing, a film with approximately the same running time as Rogue One, all managed to achieve their own unique characterization and make us care about them (or fear them, as the case may be).

Allowing for a moment, for sake of argument, that there were simply too many characters in Rogue One, why squander precious screen time with ancillary characters whose role is completely unessential and could’ve been absorbed by a different character? Some quick research shows me that Saw Gerrera originated in the Clone Wars TV series. I have nothing against stories and intellectual property crossing over into different media, with different parts of the story being told. This can actually create a richer experience for people who make the effort to keep up with all of the material that’s created and allow for stories that wouldn’t work well in one format to be told in another (for example there’s a comic book that describes what happened to Vader immediately after the Battle of Yavin 4 when he went spinning off into the cosmos in his TIE fighter).

However, the story told in each format must be able to stand on its own and not require familiarity with the entire body of work across all forms of media to be comprehensible. Fans of the show will probably enjoy seeing Saw Gerrera on the big screen, but for audience members who are unfamiliar with The Clone Wars, the presence of this character doesn’t make much sense.

There’s been a fair deal of buzz about Vader’s presence in this film. Fans and filmmakers will naturally relish the opportunity for the ultimate Star Wars Big Bad to get more screen time; however, this is an endeavor fraught with peril as there is significant risk in damaging him as an icon, and a comparatively smaller chance of enhancing his status.

In his first scene (one that manages to simultaneously waste Vader and hammer home just how weak the main villain in this movie is), he tosses off a lame joke about choking on ambition while subjecting Krennic to his favorite force power. Perhaps it was intended as a riff on the “Apology accepted, commander” line from Empire, but this line seemed so cheesy and jarringly out of place with Vader’s character that it feels like something out of bad fan-fic than a bona-fide Star Wars movie. On the other, we have the climactic scene where Vader ruthlessly and effortlessly takes down an entire squad of rebel troops — something we had no doubt he was capable of, but something we had never actually seen him do before on the big screen. This portrayal of Vader as a relentless, implacable force doesn’t undo the pointlessness of his previous scene, but it does enhance Vader’s status as an iconic cinematic villain.

The misuse of characters was not limited to story elements. The casting for Mon Mothma was spot-on. Perhaps finding an actor who could convincingly take over for Peter Cushing in both appearance and acting ability chops proved to be too big of a challenge and justified the use of CGI to re-create Grand Moff Tarkin for this movie. But why bother showing Leia’s face? To anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the original movie, avoiding showing her face would have been a classier and more artistic move. For the imaginary person who watches Rogue One and has no idea who she is, the significance of her inclusion in that final scene will be lost, and they will be left wondering why the filmmakers used a CGI actress (CGI has come an incredible way, but we’re not out of the uncanny valley just yet). Homages work best when they stay true to one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking: suggest, don’t show. Bail Organa making a reference to a friend who “served [him] well during the Clone Wars” who the audience realizes is Obi-Wan? Good. Princess Leia CGI? Not so good.

Everything I’ve said up to this point has dealt with the technical merits of Rogue One. But I want to turn to topics of much greater importance. A trend that started with The Force Awakens and which continues in this film is that the tone of the new movies has shifted darker. The true essence of Star Wars movies is one of daring adventure and heroism, good guys vs. bad guys. It tends to be simplistic in its morality, but that’s not always a negative trait in stories, and it has its place. With The Force Awakens and Rogue One, it’s starting to feel like Star Wars is putting on its big-boy pants, but is what it’s becoming true to the spirit of what makes Star Wars Star Wars?

In A New Hope, the destruction of Alderaan is depicted with clinical detachment on the part of Tarkin, Vader, and the rest of the Imperials, and the audience sees an orbital-level view of the destruction that lasts for only a few seconds. An unspeakably horrific act, but portrayed in such a way that makes it tolerable for even young children to watch. In The Force Awakens, not only is the amount of destruction greater (five planets for the price of one!), but the depiction of what is taking place is much more disturbing, as this time, we the audience witness the look of horror and despair on the faces of the people on the planets as they realize what is taking place. It is essentially the same act taking place in both films, yet the lighter tone and literally zoomed-out perspective of the first film allows it to be used as a plot point to establish just how truly ruthless the empire is while glossing over the enormity of what has taken place, whereas the latter film’s conveying the horror on a personal scale creates a darker, grittier tone.

I enjoy darker, morally ambiguous, challenging stories and characters, but I also like simpler stories with more clear-cut morality as well. Star Wars isn’t the place for grimdark. Perhaps Star Wars is maturing with its audience; but a significant part of Star Wars’ staying power and appeal is the sense of nostalgia that it brings with it, and its relatively simple stories of good vs. evil — stories that adult fans who were fans as children want to share with their own children now, but will have a difficult time doing so with the latter films. It happens so early and quickly that it’s easy to forget, but did you pause for a moment at how Andor callously murders his informant at the start of the film?

For all of my criticism, I don’t think Rogue One is a bad film; it’s not a great one, but I might go as far as saying that it’s pretty good overall. It’s certainly better than the prequel trilogy, but that’s a low bar to clear. The heart of the matter is that I want every Star Wars movie to be great! The only reason I’ve written as much as I have is because that’s how much I care about Star Wars. I never go into any movie hoping that it’ll be bad; I love Star Wars — and for that matter, I love much of the Marvel cinematic universe, and much of geek culture in general. I want every new movie in these franchises to be the best one ever, to be better than the one that came before. Sadly, it’s rare that a truly outstanding movie is made (in any universe or genre).

As I wrote this essay, I could actually feel my recollection of the movie causing it to grow on me. I would like to see it again, if not in the theater, then definitely when it comes out on Blu-ray. I’ve read snippets about how the filmmakers wanted it to be a “different kind” of Star Wars movie. If that was indeed their intent, they certainly succeeded. In light of this, I suppose it’s rather appropriate that the movie is titled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, not Star Wars: Rogue One.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about this movie in and of itself. Two of my friends who I saw it with quipped that the final battle scene would’ve made a better Star Wars video game than a movie. I imagine that I’ll end up enjoying this film in a way that’s similar to the way I enjoy the prequel trilogy: not enjoying watching the movies themselves, unfortunately, but appreciating the contributions they make to the lore and the way this enhances the story as a whole. For example, although it’s a brand-new addition to the story, I already feel like the explanation for the critical weaknesses of the first Death Star is an indispensable part of the lore that always existed but which we didn’t know until now. The story of Galen Erso sabotaging its construction feels like a natural fit, a perfect explanation for what previously had been a plot hole. (Contrast this with the wholly unnecessary and and rage-inducing introduction of midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace.) At the risk of damning with faint praise, while I may see Rogue One as failing to achieve all that it could have as a film, saying that a prequel that feels like it was part of the story all along is one of the highest accolades I could give.

Star Wars: Spiritual Successor – Part 1

That summer introduced me to what was to become my first true boardgame love and, sadly, one of my shortest. It first came to my attention from a TV commercial heralding its release, in what was probably the final instance of my first hearing about a new product from someplace other than the Internet. A game where you could control the most iconic characters from the Star Wars films and have them battle it out? Detailed components and cards that you used to manage your characters’ stats and abilities?? Star Wars miniatures?!? Yes, please! I speak of course, of Star Wars: Imperial Assault Epic Duels. One 30-second commercial was all it took; I decided then and there that I wanted that game. A quick trip to the mall, and it was mine. This was also one of the last times in my life I deliberately went to the mall to purchase anything. Again, I have the Internet for that now.

I remember the feeling of getting home that day, anxious to try out my new game. I was able to tear my best friend away from Dark Age of Camelot (a popular MMORPG at the time, before the coming of WoW) and convince him and my girlfriend to try it out with me. I don’t remember exactly how those first few games went – who played which characters (I think my best friend chose Mace Windu for the first game and I chose Darth Maul or Vader), who won, or even if anyone else besides me even enjoyed the game, but I thought it was great! We played it a few more times that summer, but the demands of school, work, and other social activities, not to mention a painful breakup with aforementioned girlfriend eventually pushed Epic Duels into a drawer somewhere, and I never played it again. (College was a great experience for me, but those years remain an anomaly in the sense of hardly doing anything gaming-related during that time).

Somewhere along the line, I misplaced my copy of Epic Duels, possibly during one my moves during college. I occasionally wondered where it was, but didn’t give it much thought for a year or so, again with school, work, and non-gaming-related social life occupying practically all of my time. Sometime in 2004, on a random trip to a mall (seriously though, I rarely go to malls anymore), I saw a stack of them at a Kay B Toy Store on clearance for five bucks each. In what has become one of the only moments of my life that I wish I could go back and change, I decided not to buy one – or twenty; new copies of Epic Duels go for $150+ these days when you can find one. I briefly considered getting one but decided that while I had fun with it, I just didn’t have much time for games with everything else I had going on. Again, it was a strange time in my life.

As the years went on, I came to regret my decision that day. The popularity of Epic Duels had grown to achieve cult status, and I chided myself numerous times for not plunking down a measly five bucks for a game that I had remembered as bringing me so much enjoyment during the brief time that I had played it. But that was back in the days before being introduced to hobbyist board games; back then, Axis & Allies was the pinnacle of my boardgaming experience, and vanilla RISK would usually be the game of choice on those rare occasions when my friends and I would choose to play a board game. We eventually graduated to Axis and Allies: Pacific when one of my friends acquired a copy, and it saw its fair share of plays; it’s probably obvious that the concept of “deep” boardgames existing that were about anything other than “dudes on a map” fighting each other for world domination, one parcel at a time, was completely foreign to us.

Better games have come and gone since then. Nowadays, I could justify dropping $150 on a copy of a long-lost game if I really wanted to get it, but at this point, I suspect my response at being reunited with Epic Duels would be similar to how I felt about finally getting a chance to play Space Hulk over a decade since first seeing those awesome pictures on the Hirst Arts website: a decent game, but not one I want to spend much time with when there are so many better options available. No, better to let my memories of playing Epic Duels remain fond ones rather than risk disappointment by coming back to it so many years later.

I realize I could have gotten into WOTC’s Star Wars miniatures game if I wanted to find something to fill the gap left by Epic Duels, but for various reasons, I never did. A big reason was that while the paint jobs on the Epic Duels minis were about the level of quality that one would expect from mass-produced prepaints (that is to say, mediocre), the entire package was a one-time $20 purchase, and everything there was to get was included in the box. A starter set for WOTC’s game was probably around the same range – with an unlimited amount that you could spend afterwards building your collection. I’m not knocking it for those who enjoy the chase and the collecting aspect, and it’s possible the game was even pretty good in its own right, but I wasn’t enthused at the prospect of easily spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a collection of low-quality miniatures.

The popularity of Star Wars continues to grow, and there are few places where this juggernaut IP doesn’t have a presence, board games and miniatures games being no exception. I enjoy the pace and thrilling dogfights of X-Wing Miniatures. I’m looking forward to getting into Armada and engaging in fleet-level space battles between Rebels and Imperials. And it appears that Fantasy Flight will soon have another winner on their hands with Star Wars: Rebellion, in which players participate in the events set during the timeline of the original trilogy, in a similar epic storytelling vein as Twilight Imperium and War of the Ring.

So many options for great Star Wars games, yet none of them provides the same experience as the game that I got back in the summer of 2002. I had thought that Epic Duels was my last hope for a skirmish-level miniatures game pitting iconic Star Wars characters against each other. But I have realized that there is another…

Star Wars Ring Theory & Rey’s Lineage

I came across a couple of interesting Star Wars-related essays recently.

The idea of Star Wars as an example of the ring structure of storytelling has been around for awhile. It’ll be interesting to see if the model can still be applied once the third trilogy is complete. The only comment I’ll make about applying this model of storytelling to Star Wars is that if it’s true, it’s an example of superior technical skill combined with mediocre storytelling (which pretty much describes the prequels on an individual level as well).

The other essay is about a theory which has a shelf-life that’s likely set to expire somewhere near the beginning of Episode VIII when the big mystery of Episode VII is resolved: Rey is not Luke’s daughter, but is actually the granddaughter of Obi Wan. I have to admit, there are some good arguments here for why this is actually the case, and there are some really compelling thematic elements that this would create which the author describes.

Some Thoughts on Episode VII

A Few Thoughts on Episode VII

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

I think it’s fair to say that The Force Awakens is probably the best Star Wars movie we could have hoped to see from JJ Abrams. That is, it’s a competent, entertaining film that plays it safe, hitting familiar beats intended to please fans, while managing to avoid committing any grievous errors. However, the cost of playing it safe is that it doesn’t take any real risks, doesn’t add anything truly new to the saga. There’s a fine line between parallel storytelling and merely retreading old ground that has already been explored in a previous film or six.

At times this is taken to an extreme; there’s something deeply disappointing about finding out that after everything that they’ve been through, Han and Chewie are basically back to where they started in A New Hope. The First Order is essentially a fledgling version of the Empire, just with marginally different uniforms. Even their leader, seen only as a giant-sized hologram (or perhaps he is actually giant-sized – that would be different!) shares many similarities with the Emperor, both visually and in his role in the story. This time around, instead of a Death Star, we have… a Starkiller. As the film explains, there’s really no comparison between the two; you see, the Starkiller is much, MUCH bigger than a Death Star. Like, forget moons, this thing’s as big as an entire planet even! Oh, and it’s so enormously powerful that it can blow up FIVE planets at once. Let’s see your puny little Death Star do THAT! Even Kylo Ren, who begins as a powerful, intimidating presence, falls victim to retreading and more or less degenerates into a petulant brat with anger-management issues by the end of the movie, evoking the worst characteristics of his grandfather. And by “worst characteristics” I don’t mean moral failings that help create a compelling villain who we can empathize with on some level; I mean characteristics that make us want to roll our eyes. Perhaps this was Abrams throwing a bone to the people out there who genuinely enjoy the prequels and the spectacle of an angst-ridden Anakin Skywalker.

“Virtuoso” is the word that comes to mind for a one-word description of JJ Abrams as a director; there is no doubt that he possesses a high degree of technical ability and talent. And while I don’t think any of his work is bad, I have never experienced any of it as rising above the level of technical excellence to qualify as a true artistic achievement, or which at least manages to be profound on some level. It’s the difference between a twelve-year-old hitting the correct buttons to bang out “Through the Fire and Flames” on Guitar Hero and Herman Li and Sam Totman pouring their hearts into shredding their solos.

With The Force Awakens, Abrams seems to be taking a page from his second movie from that other immensely popular sci-fi series. The Kirk-Kahn story arc was fantastic; what could possibly have been gained by trying to retell it in a slightly different way – furthermore, retelling it without the strength of the existing relationship between Kirk and Kahn providing backstory and depth for The Wrath of Khan? Seriously, if you’re going to reboot the original Star Trek with a new continuity and timeline, why squander the opportunity to go in new directions and tell new stories? I can’t help but wonder if some of this is what was going on in The Force Awakens; homages are fine, even expected even in a movie like this, but for the love of the Force, give us something more interesting than a lightsaber with a cross-guard.

I realize that my opinion of The Force Awakens is probably coming across as overly negative. While I did find some of callbacks and references to the previous movies to be too much at times, the truth is that I actually did quite enjoy it and I think that it’s a pretty good movie overall – good, not great, but not just good in comparison to the prequels, but pretty good judged on its own merits. I’m not the biggest Star Wars fan, but any criticism I have of this film is based on a love for Star Wars and a desire to see future movies be great movies.

Perhaps this is what the saga needed at this point: a well-made, entertaining, movie that showed, after the disappointment of the prequels, that it’s still possible to make a Star Wars that’s fun and which recaptures some of the excitement and adventure of the originals; a movie to restore the faith of the die-hard fans, and have a broad enough appeal for those who aren’t die-hard fans, setting up for a glorious second act from Rian Johnson, with some people speculating that Episode VIII will be the Empire Strikes Back of this new trilogy. If this was one of the driving intents behind The Force Awakens, then it meant this film would have to play it safe, hitting the notes that fans were expecting, but not venturing too far into unknown territory. At the risk of damning with faint praise, if this is indeed the case, then there was perhaps no better director for this film than JJ Abrams.