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Star Wars: Episode 9 - The Return of J.J. Abrams Has Us Divided

Column: The Force Awakens director is going back to that galaxy far, far away... and we see both pros and cons to the situation.

J.J. Abrams, who of course reignited the big screen Star Wars franchise in 2015 with The Force Awakens, has now been confirmed to be returning to the series as the director and co-writer of Star Wars: Episode IX. He'll be replacing the recently departed Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World).

While Abrams represents a tried and true helmer who should bring a stabilizing presence to the final installment in the new trilogy (the second film in that arc, The Last Jedi, will be released this December and was directed by Rian Johnson), not everyone sees the filmmaker as the magic bullet who will solve all of Star Wars problems. Meanwhile others don't see Star Wars as having too many problems at all! With that in mind, I got together with IGN's Jim Vejvoda and Joshua Yehl to break down the two sides of the argument below. Consider this the pros and cons of J.J. Abrams directing Star Wars: Episode IX...

LUKE'S LOST FAITH:Mark Hamill told EW about how Luke's connection to the Force has been shaken by his past experience with his nephew and fallen pupil, Ben Solo (now Kylo Ren). “[Luke] made a huge mistake in thinking that his nephew was the chosen one, so he invested everything he had in Kylo, much like Obi-Wan did with my character,” said Hamill. “And he is betrayed, with tragic consequences. Luke feels responsible for that. That’s the primary obstacle he has to rejoining the world and his place in the Jedi hierarchy, you know? It’s that guilt, that feeling that it’s his fault, that he didn’t detect the darkness in him until it was too late.” As Hamill put it, “The fact that Luke says, ‘I only know one truth. It’s time for the Jedi to end…’ I mean, that’s a pretty amazing statement for someone who was the symbol of hope and optimism in the original films."

ROSE-COLORED GLASSES: Although he initially posed as a member of the Resistance in The Force Awakens, Finn's heroic stand against Kylo Ren at the end of that movie and subsequent injuries has made a legend of the former First Order stormtrooper designated FN-2187. “He’s a hero to people like Rose, who fight for the Resistance because their homes have been destroyed by the First Order," actor John Boyega said of Finn's relation to Kelly Marie Tran's character, Resistance mechanic Rose Tico. “He appreciates the adoration for a second, but when he meets her, Finn is trying to escape the whole war. He’s trying to leave,” said Boyega. “And she comes in and basically gives him a depiction of himself that wasn’t necessarily true.” Boyega added that Rose's starry-eyed view of Finn as a hero inspires him "to be the best he can be."

THE PORGS: Although we learned of these adorable critters' existence awhile back, EW's fall movie preview revealed some more tidbits about the porgs. They are puppets created by creature designer Neal Scanlan. The porgs were inspired by puffins, the cute little birds that inhabit Skellig Michael, the rocky Irish island location that doubles for Ahch-To. The porgs are so ubiquitous on Ahch-To that one even finds its way inside the parked Millennium Falcon, as EW's exclusive photo of Chewbacca and a porg reveals.

THE CARETAKERS: These hybrid aquatic-avian beings inhabit the island on Ahch-To where the first Jedi temple (and, for the last several years, Luke Skywalker) resides. Director Rian Johnson says these all-female Caretakers "tolerate" Luke's presence on the island and communicate with him in "a blubbery sort of Scottish fish talk." Johnson added, “They’ve been there for thousands of years, and they essentially keep up the structures on the island. ... Neal Scanlan’s crew designed them, and costume designer Michael Kaplan made these working clothes that also reflected sort of a nun-like, spartan sort of existence." Actors in creature suits portray the Caretakers.

SNOKE & MIRRORS: Don't expect to learn too much about who exactly Supreme Leader Snoke is in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Director Rian Johnson insists "we’ll learn exactly as much about Snoke as we need to," reminding fans of how much mystery Emperor Palpatine was shrouded in until the later prequels explored his backstory.

SNOKE AN "ENTIRELY CG CREATION": While a behind-the-scenes video shown at D23 Expo got some fans thinking that perhaps the villainous Snoke might be brought to life as a puppet, Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson shot that down: "No, it’s entirely a mo-cap performance. ... [Creature designer] Neal Scanlan built a maquette that we had on set for lighting reference and to give the actors a sense of what it was going to feel like." Johnson sang the praises of Snoke actor Andy Serkis, the world's foremost performance-capture actor thanks to his turns as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films and as Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes series: "It’s one of those performances where after every line, I’d look over at whoever’s standing next to me with an expression on my face like, ‘Oh, my God, we just got that.'"

SNOKE'S PRAETORIAN GUARD: They may bear a resemblance to Emperor Palpatine's Royal Guard from the older Star Wars movies, but Supreme Leader Snoke's elite Praetorian Guard -- a nod to Roman history -- were designed to look more combat-ready than their crimson-clad predecessors. As director Rian Johnson explained: “(The Royal Guard) looked like they were more ceremonial, and you never really saw them in action. The Praetorians, my brief to [costume designer] Michael Kaplan was that those guys have to be more like samurai. They have to be built to move, and you have to believe that they could step forward and engage if they have to. They have to seem dangerous.”

EMPIRE REDUX?: Director Rian Johnson gets why some fans could see The Last Jedi as treading ground similar to that covered in Empire Strikes Back -- the young hero seeking out an old Jedi hermit/mentor on a remote, watery planet, the other heroes' mission to a shiny city (Empire's Cloud City on the planet Bespin, Last Jedi's casino city of Canto Bight on the planet Catonica) -- but insists it's not an intentional homage to Star Wars Episode V. “I just tried to kind of ignore that aspect of it and have the story take the shape that it needed to," Johnson said. “But look, Rey is off in a remote location with a Jedi master, and the Resistance is in a tough spot, and we’re intercutting those stories. By its very nature, there are some structural parallels. But these are new characters, they’re dealing with new things, and that ultimately is what defines the movie. So I think that’s g

The Light Side

Search your feelings... you know it to be true. Abrams is a producer, writer and director with plenty of Hollywood tentpole street cred. Aside from already reviving Star Wars with The Force Awakens two years ago -- the film made over $2 billion in box office -- Abrams brought Paramount's Star Trek back to the big screen before that. He's also had a ton of other successes on the small screen as well, and he's the ultimate go-to-guy in town who doesn't just have a vision as a writer-director but can also make things happen as a producer.

As he's proven time and again, he isn't just able to navigate the pipeline of a project this big, from script to production to marketing -- which he is known for having a big hand in as well -- but he's also able to play the political side of things, which is perhaps as important as any inherent creative talent he may have when dealing with a studio.

That's surely why Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy has returned to Abrams now to complete the trilogy, after several misadventures with younger directors on the new crop of Star Wars movies.

Plus, of course, he was the key creator of our new favorite characters -- Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron, and BB-8! He took the classic Star Wars cast and brought them back as George Lucas has promised he would do all those years ago to complete their story. If The Force Awakens had been a failure, we'd probably be looking at a very different Star Wars movie scenario right now rather than the Golden Age of yearly films that we're getting.

But perhaps most importantly, Abrams is a fan himself. He's often said it himself: Star Wars was his thing growing up, and you can tell it's true when watching The Force Awakens (even if, yes, that sometimes means the film hews a little too closely to the original Lucas movie). Who better to close out the tale of the Skywalker saga?

The Dark Side

Here’s the thing about J.J. Abrams returning to write and co-direct Star Wars: Episode IX: It’s the kind of thinking that will prevent Star Wars from ever being truly great again.

Sure, The Force Awakens fine. But all the things fans complain about when talking about that film – the copycat-itis of it all – represent a trait that Abrams has exhibited in his movies before, and it’s what will ultimately make Episode IX a safe bet that will make loads of money for Kathleen Kennedy but not necessarily take the series to new heights.

In his too-eager-to-please-the-crowds mindset, Abrams resorts to what you could call the meme-ification of his subject matter. Star Trek Into Darkness is the worst example of this, where only two movies into the rebooting/rethinking of that series, he was already going to the Khan well. Of the vast universe of possible original concepts and ideas that Star Trek could explore, Abrams couldn’t help himself and had to adapt its most popular and identifiable storyline. And within his film, he unleashed awful spins on iconic moments and lines from the original Wrath of Khan, whether it was Zachary Quinto screaming “KHAAAAN” – instead of Kirk this time! – or Chris Pine dying in the engine room – instead of Spock! You see that same trend in Force Awakens’ aping of A New Hope, though in a less crass way, perhaps because Abrams has always been a self-professed Star Wars fan rather a Trekkie. All of this has happened before...

Kathleen Kennedy’s original impulse to hire fresh young talent to make Star Wars has obviously backfired, and certainly she has had a hugely successful and long career in Hollywood and knows what she's doing. But the bottom line is, Star Wars used to be the brainchild of one guy: George Lucas. Like it or not, he owned it and he was in charge of it, prequels and all, until he sold Lucasfilm to Disney. It was his overall, guiding hand and his vision behind the series from day one. Essentially, it was the most expensive and longest-running independent film project. But the day Disney acquired the thing, it became corporate. And corporate don’t play, especially with hotshot young directors who want to take risks with beloved – and lucrative – IPs.

And so that brings us back to Abrams, who knows how to make a movie of this size within the system. Abrams is a visually talented, slick filmmaker, a P. T. Barnum for the multiplex who will make Disney a ton of money with Episode IX. And there's no doubt the resulting film will be entertaining and hit all the beats that a modern Star Wars movie is expected to hit. But there was a time not that long ago when Star Wars seemed like it could truly grow and evolve into something more; now it’s clear that was a foolish belief to have. There’s just too much at stake now for Kennedy and the studio.

Star Wars: Episode IX will now be released on December 20, 2019, Lucasfilm announced today.

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