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 Daily Telegraph - - Style & Features -

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

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