New ‘Star Wars Story’ Solo scored $103m at the U.S. box office over the weekend. A huge number that doesn’t sound like a flop. But with a budget of $250m it’s the most expensive film in the franchise thus far. And when you consider that The Force Awakens opened with a whopping $248m total, Rogue One kicked off with $155m, and The Last Jedi debuted with $220m, it doesn’t look good. Especially as Solo did little better internationally, and those numbers are dropping off hard and fast. So is the franchise in trouble? And if so what can be done to get it back on track? We have some thoughts…
Fix the Behind-the-Scenes Turmoil
Lucasfilm needs to get its house in order. The studio started solid, with J.J. Abrams directing return movie The Force Awakens. Writer Michael Arndt left the project because he needed more time to make the script work. Which isn’t ideal. But equally isn’t unheard of in the time of release dates being announced years in advance. Abrams took over the reins with veteran screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and the film they produced seemed to satisfy both audiences and critics alike, striking gold at the global box office.
But it all gets a little shaky around the first ‘Star Wars Story,’ Rogue One. Gareth Edwards — who previously helmed indie hit Monsters and monster smash Godzilla — directed. But the studio wasn’t happy with his cut, so brought Bourne writer Tony Gilroy onboard to retool the entire movie. Gilroy recently spoke to The Moment podcast about the situation, saying that when he arrived “they were in such a swamp… they were in so much terrible, terrible trouble that all you could do was improve their position.” Gilroy now gets a screenplay credit, while his re-shoots are said to make up the majority of the movie released.
Around this time there was the very strange business with Fantastic Four helmer Josh Trank and a standalone Star Wars. Followed by the grim saga of Jurassic World‘s Colin Trevorrow writing and directing Episode IX. Then directing and co-writing. Then maybe directing but not writing. Then neither writing nor directing Episode IX. Conversely, it sounds like things went well with Rian Johnson on The Last Jedi, the writer-director now developing his own trilogy following that film’s success. But it’s fair to say things did not go well on Solo.
Lego Movie guys Chris Miller and Phil Lord landed the directing gig but, reportedly, there was serious trouble onset, with Lucasfilm head honcho Kathleen Kennedy apparently unhappy with the style and tone of their film. Mid-way through the shoot, the pair therefore left due to “creative differences,” and Ron Howard was brought onboard, his reshoots said to make up 70% of the finished film.
All of which sounds like chaos and confusion is reigning at the top of the tree. The studio repeatedly employing the wrong people in the first place, and realising so late in the process that it costs a fortune to put right. Or alternatively employing the right people, but not having the courage to let them see their creative visions through.
We don’t know if the quality is suffering as audiences will probably never get to see those early cuts or footage. But until Star Wars gets its house in order behind-the-scenes, it seems unlikely that great things will happen in front of the camera.
Stop Making Prequels
Rogue One and Solo might not be called prequels, but the way in which they intertwine with the main series means they very much are. And it’s pretty clear that their box office takings are inferior to sequels The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. That may be because audiences are more emotionally attached to the Skywalker saga that’s been playing out onscreen for decades. And therefore more likely to view those films in larger numbers. But I think it’s more than that.
Because prequels commonly lack stakes. And tension. And jeopardy. In a sequel, anything can happen, meaning beloved heroes can die. It was a genuinely jaw-dropping moment when Kylo Ren killed Han Solo in TFA. Similarly, when Luke Skywalker died in TLJ, you could hear audible gasps in the cinema.
Try as they might, prequels rarely create such moments. Star Wars fans went into Rogue One knowing that Jyn Erso’s crew would very probably die. And that they’d definitely succeed in stealing the Death Star plans. Where’s the excitement in that? Similarly, even though Solo places Han, Chewie and Lando in danger at regular intervals, you’re never on the edge of your seat. Because you know they’ve got further adventures ahead. Which makes for a frequently flat film-going experience.
There’s also the problem of prequels answering questions audiences weren’t asking. Darth Vader is a truly terrifying character in the original trilogy. But having watched Episode III, audiences also now know that he yelled out “Nooooooooo!” in deeply silly and melodramatic fashion when he became Darth Vader. Which makes him a lot less scary.
It’s the same in Solo. I’ve already written about the fact that we don’t need to know why how he got his last name, or where he got his blaster from, or the origin of the nickname Chewie. Because sometimes a little ambiguity goes a long way. Han is cool because he shoots first. Explaining why takes away a little of that cool. The Kessel Run was intriguing, and it stirred both debate and conjecture amongst fans. Onscreen it ended up being a somewhat forgettable action sequence.
Filling in those blanks spoils whatever history or backstory audiences had formed for themselves over the last four decades, which is why it’s hard to love them. But prequel-itis shows no sign of abating, with middle-aged Obi-Wan and Boba Fett movies recently announced. So for Star Wars to truly win back the hearts and minds of the fans, the franchise needs to stop looking back to the past, and start embracing the future.
Get ‘Episode IX’ Right
Episodes I-III were written and directed by George Lucas. Episodes IV-VI were directed by Lucas and two other guys, but clearly had his fingerprints all over them. The result is — Luke and Leia’s kiss aside — a cohesion and overarching vision that’s plain to see.
Episodes VII and VIII were directed by two different people, who clearly had very different visions for how the franchise should play out. The result is that Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi spends a fair amount of time ridding the franchise of concepts and characters that J.J. Abrams had carefully set up in The Force Awakens.
“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to” are Kylo Ren’s words in TLJ. But they could just as easily describe Johnson’s actions. From the moment Luke Skywalker throws his lightsaber off a cliff in slapstick fashion — thereby undermining the dramatic final moment of TFA — it’s clear that this is going to be a very different kind of Star Wars movie.
So Kylo Ren smashes his mask. Rey’s parents mean nothing. Snoke is little more than a punchline without a past. The Knights of Ren may as well be the Knights Who Say Ni. Turns out, much of what you invested in from that last movie MEANT NOTHING.
Daisy Ridley recently told GEEK magazine “J.J. wrote Episode VII, as well as drafts for VIII & IX. Then Rian Johnson arrived and wrote TLJ entirely… I believe Rian didn’t keep anything from the first draft of Episode VIII.”
Now we want an auteur like Johnson to make his mark on the movies. And he’s welcome to do whatever he wants in his own forthcoming trilogy. But as far as this one’s concerned, it’s Ridley’s second sentence that’s most worrying. Because we’re building up to the finale of the greatest sci-fi saga in film history. Nine features that have been working towards a climax for more than 40 years. And for the bloke who is making the penultimate instalment to throw out everything the guy before him had planned is not ideal for those of us hoping that this trilogy of trilogies will make sense come the end.
J.J. is back for Episode IX. Which seems sensible given the circumstances. Though the challenge ahead of him is huge; to make a sequel to a movie that seems to hate what came just before. But Ridley also said “I believe there was some sort of general consensus on the main lines of the trilogy… Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams met to discuss all of this.”
So fingers crossed they figured it all out, and have something approaching an overarching plan that will tie everything together. Because new Star Wars stories — courtesy of Johnson, Jon Favreau, and the guys behind Game of Thrones — aren’t planned for years. And with the floundering prequels the only alternative we’re getting right now, the future of the franchise could depend on Episode IX. Indeed it could be our only hope.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas now. For another suggestion regarding how the Star Wars movies could be improved, check out Drew Dietsch’s piece below…