Is the Force in danger of running out?
As ‘The Last Jedi’ approaches, Robbie Collin asks if the Star Wars franchise can stay fresh while keeping the magic formula intact
The Last Jedi
You might recall an early scene in Star Wars – the first one – in which Luke Skywalker sits down to dinner with his uncle Owen and aunt Beru in their humble farmstead. While talking about a mysterious message from a princess he found in the memory banks of the family’s new R2 unit, the young lad pours himself a creamy turquoise beverage, and takes an absent-minded swig.
This was blue milk, and it had – let’s be clear – absolutely no bearing on anything that has ever happened in any Star Wars movie. It was just a funny, weird, throwaway prop. But like so many funny, weird, throwaway odds and ends in George Lucas’s original films, blue milk left a mark on the Star Wars audience that wouldn’t wash out. Blue milk was a simple idea, but its blend of the comforting and the fantastical is satisfying in a way only Star Wars seems to be. It’s nursery food with a galaxy-far-away twist. And these days, it’s the essence of the entire $7billion franchise. Lucasfilm is in the blue milk business, and its current business plan is to pour the fans cup after cup after cup, for as long as they can bear to drink it.
When Disney spent $4billion on buying Lucasfilm from its creator in 2012, work immediately began on a new Star Wars trilogy – the second instalment of which, The Last Jedi, arrives in cinemas next week. Kathleen Kennedy, Lucasfilm’s president, always understood that the studio’s future hinged on recapturing the tactile, fairy-tale spirit of the first three classic instalments. Star Wars had remained so popular because nothing since had come close to reproducing that – not least Lucas’s own significantly less well-received prequel trilogy, with its muddled storytelling, drab digital sets and the widely loathed CGI comedy sidekick Jar Jar Binks.
The first move was audacious and brilliant. JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens, which was to all intents and purposes the Star Wars comeback film, mirrored the shape of Lucas’s 1977 original so closely that it felt like a handed-down retelling of an old, familiar myth.
Both films are about a lonely orphan on a desolate, sand-covered planet whose seemingly chance encounter with a small droid leaves them with a top-secret message that could help topple the galaxy’s ruling fascist regime. Their life suddenly imperilled, they flee home, whereupon they meet Han Solo and Chewbacca, whose shady connections lead them in turn to a group of plucky freedom fighters, who destroy the regime’s enormous, spherical super-weapon. Meanwhile, a wildcard villain in a black mask and cloak has taken an unusual interest in all of the above because of a billion-toone odds familial connection. He then kills the orphan’s mentor, tries and fails to do the same to the orphan, and finally slinks off stage-left, where the sequel awaits.
Audiences spotted the similarities immediately – and, for the most part, loved them. They had been starving for something that felt like Star Wars should, and for once, they unquestionably got it. The sets and creatures and props all hit the blue milk sweet spot. The Force Awakens was made of the precise stuff that had fired up their imaginations so many years ago – nursery food with a galaxy-far-away twist – and it took $2 billion worldwide. Even for Star Wars, that’s a lot.
That very particular kind of success helps explain the two years of chaos that followed. Very quickly, five further films appeared on Lucasfilm’s release slate: two more numbered episodes, and three stand-alone “Star Wars Stories” detailing further, tangential adventures on the fringes of the franchise. But today, only one of the directors of those five films – The Last Jedi’s Rian Johnson – has managed to survive Star Wars entirely unscathed. Whatever Johnson has done with the new film, it sounds like it’s worked. Kennedy has already charged him with writing and directing the first part of the franchise’s next trilogy – ie, wherever it goes after the as-yet-untitled Episode IX – as well as overseeing the following two instalments.
But his former colleagues have not been so favoured. The summer before its release, Rogue One underwent almost two months of reshoots, which were overseen not by the film’s director Gareth Edwards but its co-writer, Tony Gilroy – reportedly because Edwards’s big climactic battle was too bleak and frantic to look like it belonged in a Star Wars film.
In September, Episode IX lost its initial director, Colin Trevorrow, when Kennedy disapproved of his reworking of the script. (He was replaced by Abrams.) Josh Trank was let go from an untitled standalone film, thought to be about the bounty hunter Boba Fett, in the wake of his troubled Fantastic Four reboot for Fox.
And in June, Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s young Han Solo film was reshot almost from scratch by the trusty journeyman filmmaker Ron Howard, amid concerns that the original directors’ comic improvisatory style had strayed too far from the Lucasfilm blueprint.
Aside from the Trank case, which had more to do with jettisoning a filmmaker whose recent conduct had raised all kinds of red flags, the sackings had one thing in common: good old creative differences. One of Kennedy’s first acts as studio president was to establish the Lucasfilm Story Group, a tight-knit Jedi Council of trusted writers and development types who could keep the franchise on the right path, in visual, tonal and storytelling terms.
Kennedy is almost certainly the most powerful woman in Hollywood, with a CV of mega-hits stretching back to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and she understands that Star Wars requires iron stewardship. But it’s not clear she ever realised that hiring a range of directors with their own styles and ideas would result in a line-up of films reflecting that. Perhaps she and the Story Group realised variety wasn’t what they wanted only when the rough footage came in from Rogue One, and by then the juggernaut had already picked up speed.
Even the Marvel superhero films have made space for improvised comedy – most conspicuously in this year’s Thor: Ragnarok, one of the most popular and critically acclaimed entries in the franchise. But not Star Wars – or at least, not yet.
In an interview on the Rogue One Blu-ray disc, Edwards describes the unique creative pressures that approach brought to bear on the project. “There’s an incredibly difficult fine line that you have to navigate the entire way of making the film,” he explains. “If you go a little bit to the left, it’s not Star Wars. And if you go a little bit to the right, you’re just copying Star Wars, and not doing anything new. And to try to find this new ground was really tricky.”
Part of his solution did actually involve blue milk. In an opening flashback to the childhood of the film’s heroine, played by Felicity Jones, there’s a pitcher of it on the kitchen worktop. And when Edwards was introduced to the fans at the 2015 Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California, he took photographs from a 30th birthday visit to the original Star Wars sets in the Tunisian desert – including one of him chez Skywalker, drinking a jar of homemade blue milk he’d specifically taken with him on the trip. I was there, and the crowd’s faces lit up. By showing he understood the importance of blue milk, he had shown that he understood Star Wars.
At the following year’s Celebration event in London, Rian Johnson didn’t have any similar snapshots to share. But he did have a list of films he’d asked his crew to watch in preparation for The Last Jedi: the classic war films Bridge on the River Kwai and Twelve O’clock High, both of which had been formative influences for Lucas, but also the mordant Japanese swordsman drama Three Outlaw Samurai and the stark, poetic Soviet adventure film Letter Never Sent. This time, the crowd reaction was murmured puzzlement.
Whether any trace of these films is actually detectable in The Last Jedi we’ll discover next week, but Johnson has the right idea – and that will be particularly useful when it comes to his new trilogy, which will have to somehow work within a tightly circumscribed stylistic remit while effectively starting from scratch. Star Wars probably is every bit as fragile as the new regime at Lucasfilm believes, but new ideas have to be stirred into the franchise somehow.
Even the most thoroughly homogenised milk, blue or otherwise, eventually goes off.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens on Thurs
Familiar: Chewbacca, Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi and Han Solo in Star Wars (1977)
In control: Daisy Ridley (main picture) in The Last Jedi. Above, with John Boyega