Yesterday’s news that Disney purchased Lucasfilm and now plans to make Episodes VII, VIII, and IX of a new Star Wars trilogy was a bombshell that hit with the force of a superlaser slamming into Alderaan. But in a good way! Theories are abounding about the direction the saga may now take. (Check out Moviefone's take here.) Only one thing is certain, though. When "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." next pops on screen, it won't be preceded by that symphonic 20th Century Fox fanfare.
George Lucas and new Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy say they already have a treatment for a new Star Wars trilogy, though we don't know who's written it or anything at all of what it will be about. The thing is, Star Wars: Episode VII could take the franchise literally anywhere, because that legendary Galaxy Far, Far Away is one of the most expansive, detailed fictional universes ever created. Lucas, and the writers and artists he’s authorized to explore his galactic playground through the franchise’s Expanded Universe of novels, comics, and videogames, has created a Star Wars galaxy full of hundreds of memorable planets, alien races, spaceships, and nifty gizmos, thousands of characters, and millennia of galactic history. Quite simply, there’s no other legendarium riper for the cinematic picking. The six films that have already been made barely scratch the surface of what diehard fans know the Star Wars galaxy has to offer.
The funny thing is, until yesterday, it seemed entirely likely that we would never see a new Star Wars movie on the big screen again. George Lucas quickly reduced his initial plan in the early ‘80s for nine to twelve episodes of the space opera to six, with Return of the Jedi as the natural end point. The Emperor and his forces were destroyed, Darth Vader was redeemed, and Luke Skywalker could now begin the task of rebuilding the Jedi Order. All wrapped up in a neat bow, huh?
Well, not quite. Even if the Skywalker family had come full circle, common sense would tell you that the Star Wars galaxy itself would still have a lot of challenges to face. Namely, that the Empire still controls just about everything, even without old Papa Palpatine around to administer his unique form of lightning-based governing. Through a series of several-dozen novels—and a few graphic novels—written by various authors, Lucasfilm has allowed for the period after Return of the Jedi to be explored extensively. These books show how the Rebel Alliance becomes the New Republic and continues to beat back the Empire until the once-mighty dictatorship is just a sad little rump state full of petty, scheming Moffs. These also show Han Solo and Princess Leia getting married, having three kids named Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin (after the lad's grandfather), and Luke setting up an academy to train a new Jedi Order. Right now, the timeline after Return of the Jedi has been explored up to about 40 years after the events of that film, and Luke, Leia, and Han are nearing the galactic equivalent of AARP status, meaning that many of the novels published today focus as much, if not more, on the “next generation” of Jedi. Keep in mind, Lucasfilm has established that all of these books are canon. So that means this established galactic history, along with the template provided by the recent, highly successful reboot of another space-set franchise, may offer a roadmap for what we can expect from Episode VII. Here are eight points to consider when pondering what direction the new trilogy will take.
1. Will Episodes VII-IX still be about the Skywalker family?
I would venture to say, yes. George Lucas has made it very clear that the core arc of his big-screen saga is the story of the Skywalker family. That’s not to say that other non-Skywalker-centric movies could be produced. Especially considering that, in an investors’ phone call yesterday, Disney stated they’re looking at producing a new Star Wars movie every two to three years, beyond even this new trilogy. Joe Johnston, director of Captain America: The First Avenger and creator of Boba Fett back in 1978, may yet get to make the Fett movie he's talked about for ages! But when we’re talking about the actual Episodes, those have always been about the Skywalker clan, their discovery of their unique gifts, and their struggle to maintain the purity of their intentions in a chaotic universe. In that family, and in the particular father-son dynamic of Anakin and Luke, Lucas found a mythopoetic struggle between darkness and light, between intent and consequence—in short, a heroes’ journey worthy of his spiritual muse, Joseph Campbell. If Episode VII isn’t directly about Luke or Leia, it could very well be about Leia’s children or Luke’s son, Ben. That said, is Star Wars: The Next Generation really what the fans want to see?
2. Could Luke, Leia, and Han be recast?
Let’s face it. What Star Wars fans really want to see are more adventures with Luke, Han, and Leia. Their swashbuckling heroism and screwball interplay have pretty much set the standard to which all subsequent action-adventure films aspire. But it also seems pretty unlikely that we’d have fifty-something Carrie Fisher, sixty-something Mark Hamill, and seventy-something Harrison Ford playing these characters. Luckily, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot brilliantly established the idea that you can replace beloved actors in iconic roles. Who would have imagined anyone as James T. Kirk but William Shatner? Or anyone donning Spock’s pointy ears but Leonard Nimoy? Yet Chris Pine ably took his seat in the captain’s chair, and Zachary Quinto proved himself a fine 21st century logician. The new Star Wars trilogy could indeed take place just a few years after Return of the Jedi…but with new actors in the roles made famous by Hamill, Fisher, and Ford. If that’s the case, could any of the Expanded Universe novels or comics be tapped as story material for the new trilogy? Yes, and there are three likely contenders.
Summer-movie season is built on expectations and excitement, both from escapism-seeking fans and money-seeking studios. But like just about everything else, there’s no guarantee that all will go according to plan: For moviegoers, Cowboys & Aliens might not turn out to be the Next Great Superblockbuster, which seemed like a foregone conclusion at one point. Let’s take a look at the most highly anticipated movies during the run-up to summer 2011 and how they actually turned out, as well as some blockbusters that had lower expectations going in.
Anticipation: It’ll be sufficient, not great; an appetizer to other superhero movies’ midsummer entrees – with a smidge of doubt about whether Kenneth Branagh, heretofore best known for Shakespeare adaptations, is the right choice to bring one of Marvel’s most beloved characters to the big screen. And who’s this Hemsworth guy?
Reality: Better than our wildest dreams. Branagh enabled Thor to be tense, tight – but he also prevented it from being tightly wound or too tense; this was not a typical Branagh production, and that’s a good thing. Hemsworth, too, did a fine job in the title role, proving that a relative unknown can be good for a high-profile role. The movie earned a somewhat ho-hum (by summer-expectations standards) $448 million in box office around the world, but that’ll go higher with the subsequent Thor entries.
Anticipation: An off weekend. A comedic bridge between tentpole releases. A chick-flick Knocked Up tolerable for dudes – although the much-talked-about “bathroom scene” might detract from that a bit.
Reality: The comedy of the year. Written by chicks and about chicks, featuring an almost all-chick cast, but make no mistake: This was no chick flick. This was fresh R-rated comedy with a fresh voice, and it made a lot of people laugh – and rich.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Anticipation: Why, Johnny, why? Don’t you already own enough islands? We still love you, though!
Reality: No surprises whatsoever in this cash-grab. Possibly better than the previous two Pirates flicks, but nowhere near Curse of the Black Pearl in any way – except moneywise (it’s the eighth-highest-grossing film of all time), which is why there’s no end in sight for this franchise.
The Hangover Part II
Anticipation: The first one was impossible to replicate – and not because it was that amazing – but, of course, here we go again. And, man, does the trailer look bad.
Reality: It made a ton of money, especially internationally (hat-tip to Todd Phillips for setting it outside the U.S.), so there’s that, but can anyone really say this wasn’t a huge step back? Gone was the element of surprise – we know the Galifianakis shtick by now, since he’s cinematically ubiquitous; ditto Ken Jeong – and in its place was lackluster, forced hijinks courtesy of Phillips and Co. in a sequel that just wasn’t meant to be, unless you had a financial stake in the franchise.
X-Men: First Class
Anticipation: Marvel fatigue hasn’t yet set in, and this prequel – at least judging by the trailer – looks like an exciting, quasi-fresh restart. Plus, the studio went the “good actor” route over the “big-name” route. Wise choice, probably.
Reality: Superb acting from non-household names McAvoy and Fassbender and directing from Matthew Vaughn breathed new life into this franchise – in the form of gravity and more serious overtones. Box office ($350 million worldwide) was adequate but not superb.
Anticipation: The next E.T.! It’s got the best, most buzz-building prerelease campaign of any summer movie – not to mention Steven Spielberg as an exec producer and the next Spielberg behind the camera. It can’t fail!
Reality: Meh. Perhaps the buzz was too high, perhaps we were all a little more fatigued from the NBA Finals than expected – and we didn’t even play! – but J.J. Abrams’ unabashed homage to Spielberg didn’t quite deliver on its hype. Box office returns, even on a “shoestring budget” of $50 million, weren’t great, and the movie itself, while undeniably exciting and fun at times, was ultimately a bit of a style-over-substance letdown. An ever-so-slight disappointment from the not-quite-next Spielberg.
Anticipation: This’ll finally be Ryan Reynolds’ long-deserved breakout, catapulting him to the A-list and movie-franchise roles and … [trailer finishes buffering] that cost $200 million to make?? Yikes.
Reality: Reynolds’ ascension probably remains on track, but Lantern was a relative calamity. The movie was a mess, from the disappointing special effects to the non-chemistry to the “Are you kidding me?” storyline(s) – and the box office was even uglier: The movie couldn’t even recoup its budget, which rarely happens for summer movies, even if it means a studio bigwig has to buy millions of dollars in tickets to prevent such a financial travesty.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Anticipation: Oh, right – this franchise still exists. Looks like more of the same: Michael Bayness, minus the shock and awe of the first movie’s groundbreaking effects. Minus Megan Fox, too.
Reality: The most surprising adequacy of the summer. The merciless barrage of effects was par for the course and, unlike the previous Transformers entry, decent enough new-fashioned fun, even with another overlong run time. Also unlike its predecessor? It crossed the $1 billion mark at the (worldwide) box office and wound up in the all-time No. 5 spot.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Anticipation: No Potter finale will please us all (unless J.K. Rowling pops up at the end and says, “Psych! There’ll be one more movie!), but just … blow us away like never before, David Yates.
Reality: Actually, it did pretty much seem to please us all – to the tune of over $1.2 billion grossed worldwide, good enough for third best, ever. And director Yates turned in the steadiest, best, and probably most-faithful-to-the-book Potter flick of the entire franchise. It’s safe to say that the highest expectations of the year were surpassed with Part 2. Satisfying, in every way.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Anticipation: Typically, the worst superhero movie of the summer is saved for last. And Joe Johnston (The Wolfman) does anything but inspire confidence. But hey – never know…
Reality: Not bad. Perhaps aided by the somewhat lukewarm anticipation (and the surprisingly solid reviews), the movie was good popcorn fun, nothing more but certainly nothing less. Chris Evans earned his spot in the Marvel universe, and Johnston deserves credit for helping the movie outgross some of the bigger titles heading into the summer season. Speaking of Cowboys & Aliens…
Cowboys & Aliens
Anticipation: Indiana Jones and James Bond? A brilliant genre-mash concept? Jon Favreau directing? Another movie that just cannot fail!
Reality: Surprise of the Season (Bad Version). Cowboys & Aliens might not quite be remembered as this summer’s Jonah Hex, but, well, it likely won’t be remembered, period. For such an original idea, the execution and end results felt as stale as any token blockbuster wannabe: aimless action, gratuitous explosions, crazy noise for no good reason and altogether ‘WTF?!’-ness. And those box office earnings? Let’s just say that even though the tally will not be finalized for a while, it’ll probably come in at about 10 percent of what the studio was hoping for – and there’s a good chance it won’t even make its money back with worldwide gross factored in.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Anticipation: Before the trailer, almost no expectations. After the trailer – with what looked retro-CGI apes! – almost no positive expectations.
Reality: Surprise of the Season (Good Version). James Franco was innocuous, and the movie, whose trailer resembled a last-gen video game, turned out to be well-done summer fun. It’s already a box office success, with much more money still to come, and probably a sequel or two.