As they say, it's always good to know where you're going before you get in the car.
This is a piece of advice that the founders of the Star Wars sequel trilogy certainly could've used, as the well-documented lack of an overall direction for the narrative took the franchise out at the knees in many ways.
Excitement for Star Wars was at its peak when the new trilogy of films was announced in late October 2012, and ran all the way through the release of The Force Awakens. While some were disappointed, optimism was the fandom's mood at large until The Last Jedi dropped in 2017 and shook things up in ways unforeseen. The Rise of Skywalker attempted to close things out, but by that point the lack of a plan was blatantly clear.
JJ Abrams, one of the writers and directors behind the construction of the project, has been silent on all things Star Wars since Episode IX closed things out in December 2019. For the first time in well over a year, the creator has addressed the approach to the sequel trilogy and what he took away from the experience...
JJ ABRAMS LEARNED THAT HAVING A PLAN FOR STAR WARS IS "CRITICAL"
In an interview with Collider, The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker writer and director JJ Abrams was asked about the creative hand-off approach to the sequel trilogy, and whether the films would have benefited from having a plan from the outset. Abrams prefaced his response by alluding to his experiences with working on TV series:
“I’ve been involved in a number of projects that have been – in most cases, series – that have ideas that begin the thing where you feel like you know where it’s gonna go, and sometimes it’s an actor who comes in, other times it’s a relationship that as-written doesn’t quite work, and things that you think are gonna just be so well-received just crash and burn and other things that you think like, ‘Oh that’s a small moment’ or ‘That’s a one-episode character’ suddenly become a hugely important part of the story."
As a result of those experiences, Abrams says he's learned to prepare for the "unexpected":
"I feel like what I’ve learned as a lesson a few times now, and it’s something that especially in this pandemic year working with writers [has become clear], the lesson is that you have to plan things as best you can, and you always need to be able to respond to the unexpected. And the unexpected can come in all sorts of forms, and I do think that there’s nothing more important than knowing where you’re going.”
The director discussed ways in which things have and have not gone as originally conceived for several projects he's been a part of, and the ramifications as such:
“There are projects that I’ve worked on where we had some ideas but we hadn’t worked through them enough, sometimes we had some ideas but then we weren’t allowed to do them the way we wanted to. I’ve had all sorts of situations where you plan things in a certain way and you suddenly find yourself doing something that’s 180 degrees different, and then sometimes it works really well and you feel like, ‘Wow that really came together,’ and other times you think, ‘Oh my God I can’t believe this is where we are,’ and sometimes when it’s not working out it’s because it’s what you planned, and other times when it’s not working out it’s because you didn’t [have a plan].”
All this is to say, Abrams now realizes a plan is needed going in:
“You just never really know, but having a plan I have learned – in some cases the hard way – is the most critical thing, because otherwise you don’t know what you’re setting up. You don’t know what to emphasize. Because if you don’t know the inevitable of the story, you’re just as good as your last sequence or effect or joke or whatever, but you want to be leading to something inevitable.”
STAR WARS AND THE LASTING IMPACT OF AN UNPLANNED STORY
JJ Abrams has a remarkable talent for saying quite a bit while not really saying anything at all. The question the above comments are in response to is Star Wars-specific, but the director gave more of a generalized answer that only alluded to his takeaways from working on Star Wars.
To say that tackling the sequel trilogy unplanned was a mistake would be an understatement. As baffling as it is Disney acquired one of the most popular IPs for $4 billion and gave the green light to wing it on their tent pole project, more shocking is that so many creative minds didn't see the need for a plan in the first place.
There are some obvious things that could be considered planned out in the trilogy, such as the downfall of the First Order and the redemption of Ben Solo, but even those events seemed like inevitabilities and were handled in strange fashion.
While the trilogy started with a film that left things open-ended and offered more questions than answers, it was Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi that proved there was no clear sense of direction when Luke Skywalker was handled in the manner which he was, Snoke was surprisingly whacked, and the importance of Rey's origins that were heavily alluded to in Episode VII were instead turned into a "nobody" scenario.
As much as the film promised to take Star Wars into uncharted territory, intriguing possibilities were often roads untraveled, and Episode VIII ultimately resorted to the usual tropes, minus a few key players. There's hardly an issue with trying to shake things up, but with one film to go in a trilogy and forty years of history requiring respect, more attention needed to be paid to the ramifications of some of Johnson's more daring creative choices.
Abrams wasn't exactly without room to work for Episode IX; original director Colin Trevorrow's take on the story proves that the Emperor somehow returning wasn't a requirement for the heroes to have a dangerous threat to face. However, because things went unplanned from the outset, Abrams was left with 18 months to make things up as he went along, often times re-writing the script on set the day of shooting.
The result was largely a disaster, whether one is a fan of the final product or not. Some see the sequel trilogy as a brilliant addition to the pre-existing storyline while others find it destructive. There are plenty who find the films enjoyable in a vacuum, but the divide the project has created within the fandom cannot be denied. There will forever be bickering over what should and shouldn't be taken seriously, how the story could have gone differently, and who's responsible for the mess, or gift to mankind, depending on one's certain point of view.
With the prequel trilogy still having a largely negative perception at the time, it's likely Disney and Lucasfilm wanted to emulate the approach taken with the original films. Copy-and-pasting key story elements from those movies with a new coat of paint aside, the biggest issue with the passing of the baton approach was that there was no George Lucas - that is, the trilogy didn't have one person overseeing the creative direction.
That's how things can pivot from Rey "Nobody," to Rey Palpatine and, sort of, Rey "Skywalker" in the course of just two films. It's also how Snoke can go from being an ancient creature to a cloned creation, how the Emperor could have been behind everything the entire time, how Leia actually did train to be a Jedi, and how the First Order can go from the primary threat to one that isn't present at the final battle.
Without the oversight to maintain a cohesive story with similar themes and teachings that stay true to the rest of the franchise, it's impossible to pull off a trilogy in a manner that will satisfy the majority.
Hopefully, Abrams truly has learned from these shortcomings and will plan his projects extensively going forward, despite that no longer having any bearing on the Star Wars franchise. For their part, Lucasfilm appears to be listening to the voice, as The Mandalorian has been an enormous success and is growing into its own major storyline, and Ewan McGregor will finally don the Jedi robes once more when Obi-Wan Kenobi lands in 2022.
It's disappointing that a seemingly common sense lesson had to be learned at the expense of the beloved main saga, but there's little that can be done about it at this point. The only thing Star Wars fans can hope for is that lessons were truly learned, and that Lucasfilm continues the streak of pumping out quality streaming. And hopefully, soon enough, theatrical Star Wars projects can mend some of these wounds.