Earlier today, Lucasfilm announced that J.J. Abrams would return to direct Star Wars: Episode IX and co-write the script with Oscar-winner Chris Terrio (Argo). This news comes after a bit of a whirlwind regarding the film’s director after Colin Trevorrow left the project due to creative differences last week. Although initial reports looked like Lucasfilm wanted Star Wars: The Last Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson to close out the sequel trilogy, it appears that Johnson passed on the gig, and so Lucasfilm turned their attention to Abrams.
From a business perspective, Abrams is the ideal choice. Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened to over $1 billion worldwide, it received positive reviews, and basically reassured fans that the new Star Wars movies would be something they could enjoy rather than something they endured, like the prequels. He’s already worked with Lucasfilm in the past, so there’s a familiarity with his directing style and they must have enjoyed his presence enough that they’d go through it again despite the rocky production on The Force Awakens and Abrams being notoriously indecisive. That being said, The Force Awakens was the heaviest lift of any Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back and he made it work.
What Lucasfilm needs right now is familiarity and stability, and that’s what Abrams brings to the table. Star Wars: Episode IX is due to open on May 24, 2019 by hook or by crook. They can’t have another director who they’ll need to fire. They also can’t get Johnson back because he’ll be busy with The Last Jedi until the end of the year and then he needs to do press for it. Furthermore, he’d probably want at least a year to fine-tune the script. Bringing Abrams in gets the train moving now with someone who has proven he can reach the station.
Lucasfilm flirted with directors who could bring a change of tones to the Star Wars universe, but after running into difficulties with Gareth Edwards on Rogue One, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller on the Han Solo movie, and now Trevorrow, they look like they’re going to go with tried-and-true over rising stars who have made a splash (see: Ron Howard on Han Solo and Stephen Daldry on Obi-Wan). Abrams is going to give the fans, and more importantly, Lucasfilm, what they want.
Which is also the drawback of hiring Abrams. If you want to give Abrams the benefit of the doubt, you can say that with a compressed timetable on The Force Awakens, he basically made the safe bet, put all his chips into new characters but balanced it out by relying heavily on nostalgia. Since Abrams is a gifted mimic, he gave people that classic Star Wars feeling mixed with new characters they could enjoy. You still got Harrison Ford doing Han Solo again and trying to blow up a bigger Death Star, but you also got on board with Rey, Finn, et al. There was also the requisite mystery box stuff (Who is Snoke? Who are Rey’s parents?).
The question becomes what kind of movie does Abrams want to make with only a little under two years to get the film into theaters? Does he continue to rely on nostalgia or does he take the series in a new direction? If Episode 9 is the conclusion of a story, does that mean he’ll stay away from the mystery box stuff since he should be answering questions rather than setting up new ones?
Abrams excels at setting up mysteries, but he hasn’t really ever had to conclude a major story before. He was off filming Mission: Impossible III when it was time to bring Alias to a close. He never really seemed to know what to do with Star Trek. Does he have an answer with regards to Rey’s parents or Snoke’s identity? Johnson has teased that those answers are already in The Last Jedi to some extent, so where does that leave Abrams? For example, Johnson has said that we know enough about Snoke that he basically just functions like the Emperor did in the Original Trilogy. And even beyond answering the questions he posed in The Force Awakens, he simply has to conclude the story unless the sequel trilogy isn’t a trilogy as much as it’s a way to spawn future installments.
My largest concern with regards to Abrams is that while he’s a talented director, his skill as a storyteller is debatable. I have no doubt that his Episode IX will be fun, fast-paced, and character driven, but will it thematically and narratively hold together? For example, Super 8 looks like a perfect Spielberg riff, but when it comes to the themes, it falls apart and he spends too much time trying to obscure the creature. He thinks the monster in that movie is like E.T. except E.T. didn’t kill any of the townspeople, so trying to tearfully send the murder monster away just because it’s a metaphor for grief doesn’t really work.
I also wonder what kind of collaboration Johnson and Abrams will have. When Johnson came on to The Last Jedi, he potentially moved the story in a direction that Abrams didn’t intend. Now that The Last Jedi is on the way, will Abrams build on what Johnson did, or will he try to steer Episode IX back to what he envisioned when he was working on The Force Awakens? Will The Last Jedi end up feeling like the odd movie out?
Of course, the artistic elements of Episode IX are pure speculation at this point. We have no idea what Abrams wants to do, and the best we can infer comes from how he’s approached movies in the past. He’s a director with strengths and weaknesses like any other, and as a Star Wars fan, I of course hope that he’s able to make a great movie. While there are certainly other options out there that may have been more exciting, from a business perspective, Abrams is the clear choice.