New Star Wars: where will Disney take it?

With three more Star Wars films in the offing, LucasFilm and its new owner Disney will have to tread carefully not to disappoint fans. So who will they pick to star and direct?

It says something about the enduring allure of Star Wars that even though there hasn't been a really good movie under the banner for almost three decades, the announcement of a new trilogy of Disney-backed films is the only story on the fanboy radar this week. Rifle through the blogosphere and you'll find pieces arguing that this or that novel from the Star Wars expanded universe ought to form the basis of Episode VII, that original stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher ought to be wheeled out again, and that directors such as Brad Bird, David Yates, Matthew Vaughn, Sam Mendes and JJ Abrams ought to be top of the producers' wish list.

As for the first point, it's now looking likely that we can forget about the introduction of fan favourites such as Mara Jade, Jacen Solo and Ben Skywalker from the expanded-universe novels in the new trilogy. Eonline quotes a LucasFilm source suggesting that the next three films will be based on an original story. That's hardly surprising given that George Lucas tends to vacillate about whether the dozens of books that have emerged since 1977 are in any way canonical, occasionally stealing the best bits (such as the name of the Republic's capital city Coruscant from 1991's Heir to the Empire) but usually going his own way.

With regard to recasting Hamill, Ford and Fisher (not to mention other favourites such as Billy Dee Williams), all we know is that Hamill and Fisher were among the first people to be told about the new trilogy, suggesting that they might yet have a role in it. "Last August, [Lucas] asked Carrie and I to have lunch with him and we did," Hamill told Entertainment Weekly. "I thought he was going to talk about either his retirement or the Star Wars TV series that I've heard about. So when he said: 'We decided we're going to do Episodes VII, VIII and IX,' I was just gobsmacked."

"I can see both sides of it," added the 61-year-old actor, who is best known these days as a voice artist. "Because in a way, there was a beginning, a middle and an end and we all lived happily ever after, and that's the way it should be – and it's great that people have fond memories, if they do have fond memories. But on the other hand, there's this ravenous desire on the part of the true believers to have more and more and more material. It's one of those things: people either just don't care for it or are passionate about it. I guess that defines what cult movies are all about. We'll see. I'm anxious to know what's going on, but the main story was the sale to Disney … Even now I'm nervous about saying anything. I just don't know!"

As for directors, it doesn't seem that Disney or its now wholly owned division LucasFilm has reached out to anyone just yet. Both will have to tread very carefully because the wrong choice could unleash an angry fan backlash, triggering a torrent of bad publicity for a series that will only recoup the $4.02bn spent by the Mouse House to purchase it if it keeps its audience on side.

So where should Disney take Star Wars? Well, here are five suggestions that if heeded might just result in – at the very least – a return to respectability.

1. Avoid telling a story so panoramic that it stifles the focus on individuals. The original trilogy worked so well because it introduced us to the Star Wars universe via a young man, Luke Skywalker, whose understanding of it was initially not very much more advanced than the viewer's own. Our hero's development from antsy youth to fully fledged Jedi knight over the course of the three films mirrored the audience's increasing immersion into the galaxy of the former Republic: epic and galaxy-spanning as the stories were, we saw them almost entirely from the perspective of Luke and other individuals we knew and cared about.

2. Go easy on the CGI. Star Wars borrows heavily from genres such as planetary romance, which are fantastical in the extreme. This makes it vital that realism is injected into the new films wherever possible. The prequel trilogy eschewed this approach by constantly offering widescreen shots of planet surfaces, sometimes flitting back and forth from one system to another in the space of a few minutes. Thanks to the use of pretty but uninvolving CGI, this left the viewer feeling abstracted from the worlds on screen. Who can remember in detail any of the numerous planets depicted in Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith half as well as Jabba's lair in Return of the Jedi, the cave scene on the ice world of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back or Yoda's swamp-like Dagobah home in the same film? Sometimes less is more, and Episode VII desperately needs to return us to grimy, mysterious and genuinely threatening locations, rather than ones which look like offcuts from naff computer games.

3. Tread carefully before making the new film a direct sequel to Return of the Jedi. Lucas himself has had decades to think about the possibility of bringing a sequel trilogy to the big screen, but as recently as 2008 did not see how it could be done. "I get asked all the time: 'What happens after Return of the Jedi?' and there really is no answer for that," he said during promotion for that year's ill-fated animation Star Wars: The Clone Wars, adding: "The movies were the story of Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker, and when Luke saves the galaxy and redeems his father, that's where that story ends."

Here's where the return of Hamill, Fisher and Ford might make some sense, but is also risky. A long enough period needs to have elapsed since the events of Return of the Jedi for new threats to have emerged in time to be faced down in Episode VII, and presuming that each actor is cast according to his or her real age, there would be 32 years between the two episodes – just about long enough. On the other hand, taking the series into an era thousands of years in the past or future would allow the new writers far more room for manoeuvre when it came to imagining the new films. Of course, Disney and LucasFilm might make the best of both worlds by borrowing from Star Trek and introducing time travel into the universe, but Star Wars has been more space opera than sci-fi and such a move could feel incongruous.

4. Don't be afraid to kill someone off. If the new film does feature characters from the original Star Wars series, some of them ought to be culled to drive the action along. The weakness of the expanded universe stems largely from Lucas's refusal to allow writers to kill anyone important, resulting in novels that were forced to off the likes of Chewbacca. The original series bade farewell to Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader himself, each death delivering vital poignancy and pathos. Even the best bits of the prequel trilogy centred on the deaths of Padmé, Anakin's mum and Qui-Gon Jinn, though all the important characters had to be kept healthy for their appearances in the (canonically) later triptych. Imagine the impact of bringing Hamill back as Luke Skywalker but sending him to sleep with the fishes halfway through Episode VII.

5. Whoever they are, be brave and give the new writers and directors freedom to reimagine. The forthcoming sequel trilogy ought to be a plum job for whomever Disney recruits. The appointment of a talented journeyman such as David Yates would probably appease acolytes because he did a decent job on the final films in the Harry Potter series, but Star Wars needs a more visionary creative team if it is to return to peak fitness. Alfonso Cuarón is a name that no one seems to be mentioning, yet his Potter instalment, The Prisoner of Azkaban, in my view stands as easily the best of the series (not to mention the best genre children's film of recent times). Crucially, the Mexican film-maker managed to deliver a genuinely eery and atmospheric movie that kept viewers of all ages happy and did not threaten the fantasy series' vital cohesiveness.

Of the other contenders, JJ Abrams might bring a touch of Spielbergian awe to the proceedings but would be a controversial choice given his Star Trek connections. Joss Whedon would have to seriously tone down his very adult postmodern pop culture sensibilities, though he would make a brilliant choice to rewrite any flagging dialogue. Brad Bird would be an excellent choice for this kind of material, as anyone who has seen The Iron Giant or The Incredibles will attest. Who's top of your wish list?

Whichever director takes on the job, Disney and LucasFilm are not going to get the best people on board if they insist on forcing them to work within a pre-existing framework based on Lucas's old ideas. Lucas, still ostensibly on board as "creative consultant", has clearly run out of good ideas, and new blood is needed. Let's hope producers make the right choice to deliver a fresh and vital new trilogy which truly deserves the prefix Star Wars in its title, rather than one that finds itself dragged down by the weight of the series' past glories.


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

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