• Adam Johnson

Return of the Jedi: J.J. Abrams to Direct "Star Wars Episode IX"

A little less than a week ago, it was announced that Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams would return to close out the trilogy, creating an intensely mixed response among the Star Wars fanbase. Is it really a bad thing, though, that Abrams is back?

First, can we just acknowledge that J.J. Abrams is the luckiest son of a gun in the world? The man has not only worked alongside Steven Spielberg on a tribute to the guy (Super 8), but he's also been a part of the legendary comedy troupe The Groundlings, wrote some crappy movies in the 90s and lived to tell the tale, and came out of it working on Star Trek, Star Wars, and one of the most talked-about shows in the history of television (Lost). If I were him, retirement would sound pretty good after 2019 because there's no else to go but down.

Now back to the news at hand. I have to admit, Lucasfilm after the Disney purchase has had rough waters lately. Sure, it started out mixed as it became clear that Disney's future goals were to remake its animated films and dominate the cinematic marketplace with franchises. Episode VII, though, proved to be a success with an insanely positive reception amongst fans and critics. Shortly after, though, there were reports that Rogue One was undergoing significant reshoots that changed the third act almost completely, with writer Tony Gilroy filling in for director Gareth Edwards. Still, this was welcomed by a large margin of the Star Wars community. Earlier than that, director Josh Trank (Fant4stic) was removed from an untitled anthology film (rumored to be a Boba Fett story), but after the titanic wreck that his Fantastic Four film turned out to be, nobody cared (except probably Josh Trank). But now in 2017, Lucasfilm's drama has reached a head with two major replacements. First, Han Solo directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were publicly fired from the film as production was nearing its end and replaced by Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Cocoon). Second, Episode IX's writers, Trevorrow and his writing partner Derek Connolly, were going to have their script rewritten by playwright Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) before all were replaced by J.J. Abrams. Many on Twitter and Star Wars podcasts have called it "a safe choice." Others with stronger opinions have created a petition to fire Abrams from the Episode IX position.

Let's break this down. First of all, Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy could easily be painted as the villain of this scenario, firing directors left and right, refusing to be daring. I don't think this is the case, though. With Rogue One, it doesn't sound like the vision, or what made it stand out from other Star Wars films, was compromised in reshoots despite the radically different third act and missing shots from the trailers, though it is curious that Edwards was not present for them. From what it sounds like, Han Solo's directors were going off-book from Kasdan's script, which at one point was called one of the better Star Wars scripts around. Apparently, the improvisational style that they employed on the Jump Street films was not gelling with a franchise based so strongly in debating what is canon to the franchise (RIP 2003 Clone Wars). In this case, it sounds like the replacement with Ron Howard, who has more hits than misses under his belt (and even most of those misses began with a less-than-stellar script per critics), may be best for the franchise. And as mentioned before, nobody seems to care that Josh Trank got the boot from the franchise (except, to echo, probably Josh Trank).

So what does this mean for Episode IX? I don't think all the blame can be put on Colin Trevorrow and what his plans for the film were. After all, The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson had written a script treatment for the last chapter of the sequel trilogy that, as far as we know, had been approved. Two years went by and Trevorrow was still on board. Unfortunately, Carrie Fisher passed away before the trilogy could be completed and the plans to have General Leia Organa at the forefront of IX had to be scrapped. The once-steady ship was rocked, and with the major changes that had to take place, creative differences were going to happen--and they did.

While it is unfortunate that Episode IX was undergoing script problems, I was not in agreement with the writer slated to polish Trevorrow and Connolly's draft. Jack Thorne, though an award-winning writer with more success than I'll probably ever see writing paragraphs on the interwebs, did not do a good job, in my opinion, with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It isn't a terrible mess and it's completely readable. There are some major developments in there, though, that just weren't right for the series, so you can understand why I was less than enthused when he was slated to work on a major Star Wars film.

Now J.J. Abrams will finish the Skywalker Saga, with Chris Terrio (Argo, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) co-writing the script. After Trevorrow left the project, there were only few options that Lucasfilm was going to let finish the trilogy, and they were those who had previously worked on a Star Wars film, and preferably those who already knew the world of the sequels. After the drama with Rogue One, Edwards was probably not going to be invited, but a Rogue One feel for Episode IX probably wasn't going to be right, anyhow. Ron Howard has his hands full with plugging the holes in the sinking Falcon that is Han Solo. George Lucas himself is enjoying retirement, and Josh Trank is probably still bitter about getting booted off of his Star Wars film. Rian Johnson, although enjoying a reportedly smooth production on The Last Jedi, publicly announced he would have no involvement in Episode IX after his treatment couldn't be used, so the only practical option was Abrams.

I like The Force Awakens. I think Abrams made a heck of an entertaining film. Most of my qualms with it are symptoms of all the Disney-Lucas films thus far and not entirely a J.J. Abrams problem. Overall, my view on it is based on Abrams's simulaneously-great strength and weakness. It's a really good pilot episode for the trilogy even though it doesn't stand alone as well as it probably should. Walking away from the film, I'm carrying a lot of mysteries that the film emphasizes. Who are Rey's parents? What was that lightsaber vision all about? How does Rey have the Force? Why does Maz Kanata have Anakin's lightsaber? Who the heck is Snoke? Is his name Sheev, too? Why does Luke look so grumpy?

To me, this seems to be the trend with Abrams-related projects. Though I never saw Lost, fans generally agree the initial seasons' intrigue was superior to the final seasons' conclusions. Abrams has also had a close hand on the Cloverfield films, and while I love them, they are essentially awesome pilot episodes to the Cloverfield franchise: Cloverfield sets up the world, 10 Cloverfield Lane sets up actions. How they all connect is still a mystery that hopefully will one day be revealed (maybe in 2018's God Particle?). Super 8 was hardly his directorial voice (it was much more a Spielberg impression). Mission: Impossible 3 and Star Trek all restarted franchises--not ended them.

I think more than anything else I'm intrigued by the decision to have Abrams take over. I want to see how he ends something! He started it off fairly strong, so hopefully he can finish it strong. The move to December 2019 will certainly give him and Terrio more time to craft a stunning conclusion to the 40 year-plus journey we have been on. I think Star Wars, while maybe in "safe" hands, is in reliable hands, and certainly not in uncreative hands. To tell you the truth, I have a good feeling about this.

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