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12th Sep 2017

What does JJ Abrams returning to Star Wars tell us? Disney are done taking risks

Episode IX is in safe hands, and therein lies the problem

Rich Cooper

Less than a week after Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow was fired, Disney have announced his replacement.

JJ Abrams, the man responsible for rebooting the dormant franchise with 2015’s The Force Awakens, will return to write and direct Episode IX.

As is the way with all things Star Wars, there was rampant speculation in the days following Trevorrow’s departure as to a) why the director was fired and b) who would replace him.

On the first question, the general consensus seems to be that Trevorrow was notoriously difficult to work with, and that Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy dumped him after his most recent film The Book of Henry took a critical and commercial drubbing.

On the second, it was open season. Fans dared to dream big, with names like Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and It helmsman Andy Muschietti being thrown into the hat. In the wake of Han Solo spin-off directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller’s firing and replacement with Ron Howard, others thought Disney would stick with a name they trusted.

Despite the rumours and fervent fan hope (even though the film isn’t out yet), The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson ruled himself out of taking on the follow-up, so where would Disney be looking? It turned out that instead of looking to the stars, they looked backwards.

Not that far backwards, though: there was no way George Lucas was getting a look in, as some suggested.

The prequels, though massively hyped and financially very successful, were poorly received, to put it kindly. Now Disney are in charge, and there was no way they were going to risk anything of the kind. To reboot the franchise, they wanted a crowd-pleasing, popcorn blockbuster that fans and general movie-goers would enjoy equally, and there was only one man for the job.

The Force Awakens was exactly the right film to bring Star Wars back, and JJ Abrams was exactly the right director to make it, achieving the perfect balance of nostalgia and freshness needed to revitalise the franchise. Equal parts old and new, The Force Awakens delivered on every level – except, arguably, the cerebral.

The hope is that The Last Jedi will change that up, following the original trilogy’s beat: A New Hope – fun space romp, kitsch costumes, everything’s tied up nicely with a bow on top; The Empire Strikes Back – Luke gets his hand chopped off, finds out in the same breath that the bloke who did it is also his father, the universe is cold and unforgiving.

Hiring someone like Rian Johnson is a clear statement that Disney wants the film to go in that direction, and both the cast and promotional material released so far have teased a much darker entry in the canon; who didn’t mutter a small “Oh shit” under their breath when the blood red Star Wars logo rounded off the first The Last Jedi trailer.

Colin Trevorrow’s appointment always stuck out like a sore thumb. Like Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, Trevorrow had only really directed two films: sci-fi indie Safety Not Guaranteed and a little film called Jurassic World. The latter suggested that he was certainly capable of handling a massive production, but while it delivered on spectacle and made a killing at the box office, fans expect more from a Star Wars film.

After The Book of Henry, a film described in the Guardian as an “insidiously terrible film” that “could hardly get any more skin-crawling,” Trevorrow was out. Hot on the heels of Lord & Miller’s firing, coupled with Gareth Edwards being forced into extensive reshoots with Hollywood veteran Tony Gilroy on Rogue One, it seems that Disney realised their gambles weren’t going to pay off and decided to cash in their chips while they were ahead.

Now JJ is back in the saddle, and fans are a little deflated. Most would certainly take Abrams over Trevorrow, knowing that they’re at least guaranteed an entertaining conclusion to the latest trilogy, and hopefully the story that Rian Johnson has set in place in The Last Jedi will naturally lead Episode IX into waters unknown.

But Abrams’ appointment likely signals the end of Disney’s experiment. Lord & Miller’s improvisational style of filmmaking was reportedly at odds with what Disney wanted, and they’re well-established and successful filmmakers in their own right. On paper, they seemed like the perfect choice to take on the movie about everyone’s crotchety space smuggler.

Sadly, it was not to be. Now we’ve got Ron Howard, who can and will make a film, be in no doubt. JJ Abrams will also make a film and it will probably a good film, but ‘good’ doesn’t feel like it’s good enough for Star Wars. It’s just a bit of a shame that Disney seems to be done taking risks.