The last week has been a tumultuous one for Lucasfilm. Colin Trevorrow stepped down as director of Star Wars: Episode IX, with initial reports indicating Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy was unhappy with the quality of his script. Fans initially hoped that Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi, would step up. Unfortunately, Johnson didn't seem willing to take on Episode IX; he's still focused on The Last Jedi, due for release in December.
Now, Lucasfilm has finally made their choice: They've chosen J. J. Abrams, the sci-fi enthusiast who directed #TheForceAwakens, effectively launching the Sequel Trilogy. They've bumped the release date back to December 20th, 2019, giving Abrams time to work with Chris Terrio on rewriting the script.
The decision to go with Abrams is sure to divide fans and even leave many of them frustrated. The Force Awakens is heavily criticized, not least for its overdose of nostalgia. So why has Lucasfilm made the choice to bring Abrams back?
Lucasfilm Can't Afford Any More Problems With 'Episode IX'
You have to understand that Lucasfilm is in danger of developing a reputation for problems with their directors. Back in June, the as-yet-untitled Han Solo spinoff hit problems when they parted ways with Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Lord and Miller's vision — described by insiders as a sort of "screwball comedy" — just didn't fit with the overarching Star Wars universe. It didn't take long for Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy to sign up a more experienced director, Ron Howard, who's probably best viewed as a "safe pair of hands" for the movie.
Similar problems seem to have plagued Episode IX. In the wake of Trevorrow's departure, Hollywood insiders have been repeatedly calling him "difficult" to work with. Remembering back to Jurassic World, one studio exec told Vulture:
"During the making of Jurassic World, he focused a great deal of his creative energies on asserting his opinion. But because he had been personally hired by Spielberg, nobody could say, ‘You’re fired.’ Once that film went through the roof and he chose to do Henry, [Trevorrow] was unbearable. He had an egotistical point of view— and he was always asserting that."
Matters evidently came to a head over the script, with rumors that Trevorrow's relationship with Kathleen Kennedy became "unmanageable." Ultimately, Trevorrow got the boot, and Lucasfilm's now moved the film back to December 20th, 2019. Even with that delay, though, Lucasfilm can't afford any more problems. The last few months have damaged the studio's reputation, and fans and industry figures have openly questioned Kennedy's leadership. Meanwhile, the studio continues to aim to release one Star Wars movie every year. Any further delays will damage their business plan.
All this means that Lucasfilm have to go with someone they know they can work with, who can create a film matching their vision for the continuing Star Wars story.
Abrams Is A Logical Choice
Abrams fits that description perfectly. He and Kennedy are actually close friends, as Kennedy first hired Abrams as a 16-year-old filmmaker back in 1982. They've stayed close ever since, and Kennedy clearly loved working with Abrams on The Force Awakens. At the film's premiere, she looked back at Abrams's career, and remembered him as the only director she even considered for the film. In an emotional speech, Kennedy mused that his entire career seemed to have been headed towards the Star Wars franchise, and joked that it must be the will of the Force.
It's become almost fashionable to complain about The Force Awakens. Yes, the film was strongly derivative, and heavily influenced by nostalgia. But it's undeniable that Abrams successfully recreated the classic tone and style of the Original Trilogy, to the extent that long-term Star Wars fans essentially felt they'd come 'home.' When you remember how much the brand had been damaged by the Prequel Trilogy, that accomplishment stands as a remarkable one.
It's also worth remembering that The Force Awakens was a massive blockbuster success. It grossed just shy of $1 billion in the domestic box office, and actually broke $2 billion worldwide. In Abrams Lucasfilm has hired a writer and director they know they can work with, and who has already proven he can give them the kind of success Star Wars deserves. With the clock ticking, and Rian Johnson out, Abrams was pretty much the only game in town.
The Challenge of 'Episode IX'
You have to understand that Lucasfilm's production team are facing an incredibly challenging situation, and working to a tight deadline.
The script has been dramatically rewritten as a result of the tragic death of Carrie Fisher. We've been told that Fisher's iconic character, General Leia Organa-Solo, is a major character in The Last Jedi — and would have played an even more significant part in Episode IX. Reflecting on Fisher's death, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy noted:
"She was having a blast. The minute she finished, she grabbed me and said, ‘I’d better be at the forefront of IX!’ Because Harrison was front and center on VII, and Mark is front and center on VIII. She thought IX would be her movie. And it would have been."
Lucasfilm has ruled out recasting the role, or using CGI to recreate the character as they did in Rogue One. Trevorrow had been working on his original script for over a year when Fisher died, and he spent months adjusting his vision to the painful reality. Clearly unhappy with his progress, Lucasfilm hired British writer Jack Thorne (Skins, This Is England, and The Fades) back in August to finish it off. They finally announced Trevorrow's exit only a fortnight later, and now, Abrams and Terrio have taken over this difficult script.
The second challenge facing Abrams though is one of Lucasfilm's own making. They launched the Sequel Trilogy without first establishing the backstory, and are essentially making it up as they go along. According to Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi won't even reveal the identity and backstory of Supreme Leader Snoke.
Fans will be expecting Episode IX to wrap up the story of the Sequel Trilogy in a satisfying manner. And right now, there are so many unanswered questions; where did Snoke come from? With the New Republic's leadership destroyed, how can the galaxy possible organize itself against the ascendant First Order? And what mysteries of the Force will be unveiled as the Trilogy continues?
Now, I'm not saying that every question will be answered. Lucasfilm's Pablo Hidalgo recently argued that the best movies leave unanswered questions.
"A good story doesn't have to answer all your questions. You're thinking of a wiki article. Which often aren't good stories."
No doubt many of the Sequel Trilogy's mysteries will ultimately be resolved in the tie-in novels and comics. Still, the fact remains that some of the most important questions must be resolved in Episode IX. Otherwise, the film will fail to live up to its own hype, and the Sequels will come to a disappointing close.
I can understand why many fans will be frustrated at this choice, but right now it's clear Lucasfilm was simply looking for another safe pair of hands. Given that's the case, J. J. Abrams was always going to be at the top of the list.
Abrams and Terrio will be facing a tremendous challenge. They've got to write and produce a film that somehow draws together all the threads of the Sequel Trilogy, bringing them all to a satisfying conclusion. With the film still set for release in May 2019, they don't have long to work their magic!