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The news that director Rian Johnson is staying in a galaxy far, far away after Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a surprise on a number of levels, and one that suggests that Lucasfilm is learning from mistakes made over the past couple of years.
After all, there’s a lot that’s different in the announcement of Johnson’s new trilogy from what has been Lucasfilm’s process since the company was purchased by Disney some years ago. Lucasfilm took pains to point out this will not be part of the “Skywalker Saga,” so this isn’t Episodes X, XI and XII here. And while both Lucasfilm and Disney have made attempts to expand Star Wars outside of the “Skywalker Saga” movies with Rogue One and the upcoming young Han Solo movie Solo, neither of those have had the scope or ambition of this new move, as they have been tied to existing characters and concepts… and yet, this new trilogy news is still likely to cause less anxiety amongst studio executives.
The difference, at least as far as that last point goes, is that Johnson is a known quantity to Lucasfilm in terms of being a creative partner. Indeed, although the movie has yet to be released, even trailers teasing his work on Last Jedi have prompted a level of excitement amongst fans and executives alike that rival that for J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens back in 2015. It’s not just that Johnson loves Star Wars, and has a particular affinity for the original movies — the same could be said for everyone the studio has partnered with since the franchise relaunch — but that the helmer has demonstrated quite how well he plays within the studio’s sandbox and works with the various other entities involved in the maintenance and creation of the larger franchise.
Compare this to Gareth Edwards, whose Rogue One: A Star Wars Story underwent extensive reshoots under the direction of Tony Gilroy, or to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, removed from Solo: A Star Wars Story before initial production had even been completed. Or, for that matter, Colin Trevorrow, the original director of 2019’s Star Wars: Episode IX, replaced before production had even started by returning helmer J.J. Abrams. Although the details of what happened in each case remain somewhat murky — and, likely, always will — it’s clear that, for some reason or another, they didn’t necessarily fit the creative vision of Lucasfilm as a whole, even when creating small offshoots of the larger story, filling in backstory and gaps in ways that seemed not exactly risky.
This new trilogy, by comparison, feels like the fulfillment of something that Lucasfilm has been searching for for some time. Not only in terms of length — a new trilogy, which feels like something on par with the “Skywalker Saga,” which is also told in three chapter chunks — but in subject matter, as well. By focusing on, in Lucasfilm’s words, “new characters from a corner of the galaxy that Star Wars lore has never before explored,” Johnson is actually managing to expand the galaxy beyond the central storyline that everything to date has dealt with, in the process setting the franchise up for a longevity that it arguably lacked previously. After all, there’s only so far that you can go with the Skywalkers and their friends, especially with stand-alone movies strip-mining that series for parts as it goes along.
The news does make me wonder what the long-term future of the Star Wars Story movies is; to date, the two that audiences know of have had difficult births, which might make Lucasfilm reconsider the original plan of releasing one every two years — especially if this new trilogy might want to take that slot in the release schedule instead. (Or perhaps we’re headed towards an era of multiple Star Wars movies a year, a la Disney’s other big nerd engine, the Marvel movies.) Also, if Johnson is charting new space with his trilogy, does this mean future Star Wars Story movies could move further afield from mining the era between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, if the series continues? We can but hope.
In many ways, the Johnson trilogy feels like a culmination of Lucasfilm’s Disney era to date, something that could only have come after the growing pains of hiring and firing directors to fully comprehend how elastic the franchise can be in terms of narrative voice and subject matter, as well as finding a creator who is as engaged with the material and the process of making Star Wars as Johnson turned out to be. It’s taken a few years, but this might be just where Disney wanted Star Wars to be all along.