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Spent force: why is making a good Star Wars film so hard?

What is so hard about making a half-decent Star Wars film? Even two-time Razzie nominee George Lucas was able to produce a trilogy of them in the 1970s and 80s. Is there something inherently complex about stories emanating from that galaxy far, far away, such that so many famous names in Hollywood have metaphorically fallen into the Sarlacc’s pit when attempting to craft fresh episodes of the long-running saga?

The latest pair to fall foul of the Star Wars curse are Game of Thrones co-creators David Benioff and DB Weiss, who revealed this week that they are too busy fulfilling their new contract with Netflix to bother with the deal they made only last year to work on a new trilogy for Lucasfilm owner Disney. “We love Star Wars,” the pair told Deadline. “When George Lucas built it, he built us too. Getting to talk about Star Wars with him and the current Star Wars team was the thrill of a lifetime, and we will always be indebted to the saga that changed everything.”

At least the pair apparently got the chance to walk away on their own terms. Another heralded duo, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, directors of The Lego Movie, were removed by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy after having the temerity to try and bring their zany improvisational directing style to 2018’s ill-fated Solo: A Star Wars Story. Industry veteran Ron Howard took over the movie partway through production, and delivered a film of dedicated professional craftsmanship with every last ounce of charm and brio removed. It was the movie equivalent of a slick 1980s Phil Collins LP.

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The middling reviews that followed, combined with a lot of online fuss and nonsense over Rian Johnson’s diverting The Last Jedi, seem to have sent Star Wars into a bizarre nosedive that Disney will be desperately hoping JJ Abrams’s forthcoming Rise of Skywalker can help it pull out of at the last minute. Abrams, of course, is a late if welcome substitute for Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow, also dismissed, for unknown reasons, by Kennedy. Lucasfilm’s president also sacked Josh Trank from a mooted Boba Fett movie in 2015 (TV’s The Mandalorian looks like the abandoned project’s natural heir) and brought in Tony Gilroy to help Gareth Edwards when 2016’s Star Wars: Rogue One appeared to be struggling.

John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran in The Last Jedi (2017), which saw subjected to an online backlash.

John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran in The Last Jedi (2017), which saw subjected to an online backlash. Photograph: Allstar/Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures

Trank was allegedly acting strangely on another Disney project, while the addition of Gilroy rescued a troubled production. But Star Wars’s directors must feel like the Hollywood equivalent of all those unfortunate Imperial admirals in the original trilogy. One misplaced Rebel fleet and it’s instant death by studio chokehold.

There was a time when it looked as though we would be getting multiple new concurrent Star Wars trilogies, with one or two episodes arriving each year, Marvel-style. But it now seems that Episode IX may be the last to hit the multiplexes for some time. Johnson’s planned trilogy, announced with much fanfare in November 2017, seems to be back at the gestation stage. “The truth is they’re still figuring out their schedule, their game plan,” he told the Evening Standard last month while promoting his forthcoming murder mystery Knives Out. Johnson even suggested he may have time to fit in an additional film before returning to Star Wars.

Perhaps the problem is that nobody has quite worked out what Star Wars is supposed to be in the modern era. Abrams’s 2015 party-starter The Force Awakens successfully reminded fans why they loved the saga in the first place, with its return to knockabout space larks after the tedious, glacially-paced storytelling of the prequel trilogy. But it did not show a way forwards.

When Johnson tried to do that, by subverting many of the saga’s founding principles in The Last Jedi, he faced a minor backlash. All indications are that Rise of Skywalker will attempt to square the circle by restoring original trilogy players such as Emperor Palpatine to a key position in the tale. Once again, hardcore fans may be delighted but the series will potentially find itself at a stalemate, like a particularly disappointing game of hologram chess in which the loser may end up getting his arms ripped off by Chewbacca.


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