After four decades, Star Wars is drawing to its epic conclusion. Lev Grossman goes behind the scenes with director J.J. Abrams and the cast for the inside scoop on The Rise of Skywalker. With exclusive photographs by Annie Leibovitz.
There’s a desert valley in southern Jordan called Wadi Rum, or sometimes “the Valley of the Moon.” There are stone inscriptions in Wadi Rum that are more than 2,000 years old. Lawrence of Arabia passed through there during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. More recently, J. J. Abrams went there to film parts of the latest Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker, because it’s largely uninhabited and starkly beautiful and looks plausibly alien, and one of the things that has always made the Star Wars movies feel so real—as if they had a real life of their own that continues on out beyond the edges of the screen—is the way they’re shot on location, with as few digital effects as possible. George Lucas shot the Tatooine scenes from A New Hope in southern Tunisia. For Skywalker, it’s Wadi Rum.
They don’t do it that way because it’s easy. Abrams and his crew had to build miles of road into the desert. They basically had to set up a small town out there, populated by the cast and extras and crew—the creature-effects department alone had 70 people. The Jordanian military got involved. The Jordanian royal family got involved. There was sand. There were sandstorms, when all you could do was take cover and huddle in your tent and—if you’re John Boyega, who plays the ex-Stormtrooper Finn—listen to reggae.
But in a way that’s the whole point: you’re out there so the world can get up in your grill and make its presence felt on film. “It’s the things that you can’t anticipate—the imperfections,” says Oscar Isaac, who plays the Resistance pilot Poe Dameron. “It’s very difficult to design imperfection, and the imperfections that you have in these environments immediately create a sense of authenticity. You just believe it more.” When Isaac arrived in Wadi Rum for his first week of shooting, Abrams had set up a massive greenscreen in the middle of the desert. “And I was like, ‘J. J., can I ask you a question? I notice we’re shooting on greenscreen.’ And he’s like, ‘So why the hell are we in the desert?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ And he said, ‘Well, because look: the way that the sand interacts with the light, and the type of shots you would set up—if you were designing the shot on a computer you would never even think to do that.’ There’s something about the way that the light and the environment and everything plays together.” It’s that something, the presence and the details and the analog imperfections of a real nondigital place, that makes Star Wars so powerful.
It was powerful enough to bring 65,000 people to Chicago in April for Star Wars Celebration, a fan convention where you could see a giant Stormtrooper head made out of 36,440 tiny Lego Stormtrooper mini-figures, which is a world record of some kind, though I’m not sure exactly what, and where people were dressed up as Muppets who were themselves dressed up as Star Wars characters. But the main event was the launch of the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker, which was held in a 10,000-seat arena and was such a big deal that even though the trailer was going to be released on the Internet literally seconds after it was over, I—an at least theoretically respectable member of the media—was not only tagged, wristbanded, escorted, and metal-detected, but sniffed by a K-9 unit before I could go in.
I sat down with Abrams a couple of hours later. For the occasion, he was wearing a suit so black and sharp, he could have been doing Men in Black cosplay, but his most distinctive feature is his dark curly hair, which is upswept in a way that is only slightly suggestive of devil horns. Abrams talks rapidly, as if he can barely keep up with the things his racing brain is telling him to say. When I told him that not only was Star Wars the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, but that all 10 of the Top 10 trending topics were Star Wars–related, and that he personally was No. 5, he was visibly stunned.
Then he recovered enough to say: “Well, I aspire to No. 4.” (For the record, No. 4 was the late Supreme Leader Snoke, who frankly did seem beatable. If you’re curious, No. 11 was pro golfer Zach Johnson, who had just accidentally hit his ball with a practice swing at the Masters. Life goes on.)
Disney executives talk about how important it is to “event-ize” Star Wars movies; i.e., to make them feel not just like movies but like seriously momentous occasions. They won’t have much trouble with this one: The Rise of Skywalker isn’t just the last movie in the Star Wars trilogy that began in 2015 with The Force Awakens; it’s the last movie in a literal, actual trilogy of trilogies that started with the very first Star Wars movie back in 1977, which began the saga of the Skywalker family. The Rise of Skywalker will finally, after 42 years, bring that saga to an end.
We all thought the story was over in 1983 with Return of the Jedi, and then we really thought it was over in 2005 with Revenge of the Sith. But Star Wars has always been an unruly beast, too big and powerful (and profitable) to be contained in one movie, or even in a trilogy, or even in two trilogies, let alone numberless novels, TV shows, comics, video games, Happy Meals, and so on. Now Abrams has to gather all those threads and bring closure to a story that was started by somebody else, in an America that feels a very long time ago indeed. “That’s the challenge of this movie,” Abrams says. “It wasn’t just to make one film that as a stand-alone experience would be thrilling, and scary, and emotional, and funny, but one that if you were to watch all nine of the films, you’d feel like, Well, of course—that!”
Like a lot of things that we now can’t imagine life without, Star Wars came really close to never happening in the first place. In 1971, Lucas was a serious young auteur just five years out of film school at U.S.C. He had only one full-length movie on his résumé, and that was THX 1138, which is the kind of visionary but grindingly earnest science-fiction epic that only the French could love. (They were pretty much the only ones who did.) Everybody expected Lucas to go on and make serious, gritty 1970s cinema like his peers, Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola. At the time Lucas and Coppola were actively planning a radical epic set in Vietnam with the provocative title Apocalypse Now.
But Coppola would have to finish that one on his own, because Lucas went a different way. “I had decided there was no modern mythology,” he said in 1997. “I wanted to take old myths and put them into a new format that young people could relate to. Mythology always existed in unusual, unknown environments, so I chose space.” Lucas tried to acquire the rights to Flash Gordon (that would’ve been a dark timeline indeed), but when he couldn’t, he came up with his own original science-fictional epic instead. He called it The Star Wars.Like The Facebook, it would have to shed a direct article on its way to glory.
Even though American Graffiti had made Lucas a bankable director, Star Wars still came together slowly. In the first draft, Luke was an old man, Leia was 14, and Han Solo was “a huge green-skinned monster with no nose and large gills.” Fox executives were baffled by Star Wars, and they squeezed Lucas relentlessly for time and money. We forget now how jerry-rigged the first movie was: the cantina aliens weren’t finished, and the monumental Star Destroyer that dominates the opening shot is, in reality, about three feet long. The Death Star interior is basically one set re-arranged several different ways. To make Greedo’s mouth move, the woman in the Greedo suit had to hold a clothespin in her mouth. “What I remember about working on the first film,” says John Williams, the legendary soundtrack composer, “is the fact that I didn’t ever think there would be a second film.” (He also, like everybody else, thought Luke and Leia were going to get together, so he wrote them a love theme.)
But wherever real mythology comes from, Lucas had gone there and brought something back alive. People wanted movies that gave them something to believe in instead of relentlessly autopsying the beliefs that had failed them. We’d had enough of antiheroes. We needed some anti-antiheroes. “I realized after THX that people don’t care about how the country’s being ruined,” Lucas said. “We’ve got to regenerate optimism.” Like American Graffiti, Star Wars is a work of profound nostalgia, a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate anthem of longing for the restoration of a true and just power in the universe—the return of the king. And at the same time it’s a very personal hero’s journey, about a boy who must put right the sins of his father and master the strange power he finds within himself, and in doing so become a man.
Star Wars is also an incredibly enduring vision of what it’s like to live in a world of super-advanced technology. Science fiction often ages badly, turning into kitsch or camp—just look at Flash Gordon—but Star Wars hasn’t. More than any filmmaker before him, Lucas successfully imagined what a science-fictional world would feel like to somebody who was actually inside it—which is to say, it would look as ordinary and workaday as the present. He even shot it like it was real, working close-in and mostly eschewing wide establishing shots, more like a documentary or a newsreel than a space opera. “It feels very grounded,” says Naomi Ackie, who’s making her Star Wars debut in Skywalker playing a character named Jannah, about whom she is allowed to say literally nothing. “There’s the kind of spectacular-ness, and the supernatural move-things-with-your-mind magic stuff, but then there’s also this really grounded, rugged nature where everything is distressed and old and kind of worn out and lived-in. And I think playing with those two ideas means that you get this feeling that it could almost be real. Like, in a galaxy far away, it could almost be the case that you could have this.”
When Lucas made the first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, he cheekily labeled it Episode V,then went back and re-labeled the first movie as Episode IV, as if the movies were an old-fashioned serial that the rest of us were all just tuning in to. Around that time, he also started talking about Star Wars as a nine-part epic—so in 2012, when Lucas retired and sold Lucasfilm to Disney, it wasn’t exactly heresy that Disney announced more movies. At the time, Kathleen Kennedy had just been named co-chairperson of Lucasfilm, and she tapped Abrams to direct the first Disney-owned post-Lucas Star Wars movie. It was a bit like saying, Make the lightning strike again, please. Exactly here, if you could. Oh, and could you also earn back that $4 billion we just spent to buy Lucasfilm? (Narrator voice: He could.)
At first blush, Abrams’s debut Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, looked like an elaborate homage to the original. Just like in A New Hope, there’s a young Force-sensitive person on a poor desert planet—that’s Rey, played by Daisy Ridley—who finds a droid with a secret message that’s vital to the Rebellion (or wait, sorry, it’s the Resistance now). There’s a villain in a black mask, just like Darth Vader, except that it’s his grandson Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), né Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia. Kylo has a planet-killing weapon, much like the Death Star but way bigger, which becomes the target of a desperate attack by Resistance X-wings. There’s even a bar full of aliens.
Abrams also insisted on keeping to the analog aesthetic of the original trilogy: those aliens had to be latex and yak hair, not bits and bytes, and everything possible was shot on location using film cameras, not digital ones. Even Lucas had abandoned that approach by the time he made the second Star Wars trilogy, but many fans consider those movies to be a cautionary tale. “Famously, the prequels were mostly greenscreen environments,” Abrams says. “And that was George himself doing that, and it ended up looking exactly how he wanted it to look—and I always preferred the look of the original movies, because I just remember when you’re in the snow on Hoth, when you’re in the desert on Tatooine, and when you’re in the forests of Endor—it’s amazing. If you put a vaporator here, there, all of a sudden almost any natural location suddenly becomes a Star Wars location.”
But the more interesting thing about The Force Awakens and its successor, The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, was how they subtly complicated Lucas’s vision. Thirty years have gone by since the ending of Return of the Jedi, during which time the newly reborn Republic became complacent and politically stagnant, allowing the rise of the reactionary neo-imperial First Order, whose origins we will learn more about in Skywalker. “It was almost like if the Argentine Nazis had sort of got together and actually started to bring that back in some real form,” Abrams says. Just like that, the rules of the Star Wars universe changed. It wasn’t all over when the Ewoks sang. Obi-Wan Kenobi and all those Bothans had died in vain. Even Han and Leia split up. It’s all a little less of a fairy tale now.
The feather-haired godling Luke suffered the trauma of having a Padawan go bad on his watch. It’s an echo of what happened to his old mentor, Obi-Wan, with Anakin Skywalker, who became Darth Vader. But where Obi-Wan made peace with it, waiting serenely in the desert of Tatooine for the next Chosen One to arrive, Luke’s guilt curdled into shame. He hid himself away, so that his Chosen One, Rey, had to spend most of The Force Awakens searching for him, and then another whole movie convincing him with the help of Yoda’s Force ghost to keep the Jedi Order going at all. Star Wars arrived as an antidote to the disillusionment of the 1970s—but now, in its middle age, Star Wars is grappling with disillusionment of its own.
By dint of advanced Sith interrogation techniques, I was able to obtain valuable advance information about The Rise of Skywalker. Here it is: common emblem.
Anthony Daniels, who plays C-3P0, is the only actor who has appeared in all nine movies of the Star Warstriple trilogy, so if anybody’s entitled to leak, it’s him. Daniels says he loved the script for The Rise of Skywalker, but he didn’t get it until the last minute, right before shooting started, and for some reason he just couldn’t memorize his part. “My first line would not go in my head!” he says. In person Daniels is like a C-3P0 whose preferences have been reset to charming and voluble. “The line that I couldn’t say was two words: ‘common emblem.’ Common emblem, common emblem—I would say them thousands of times. My wife would say it back. I just couldn’t say them!”
Fortunately C-3P0’s mouth doesn’t move, so he could add the line in postproduction. Anyway, there’s the big scoop: “common emblem.” I don’t know what it means either. (Also I 100 percent guarantee that they will change the line before the movie comes out so that this scoop will end up being fake news.) Daniels also told me that C-3P0 does something in this movie that surprises everybody—but he wouldn’t say what. “He keeps his clothes on. It’s not like he suddenly does this thing, but …”
The only other member of the old guard on the set this time was Billy Dee Williams, who plays the charismatic Lando Calrissian. At 82, Williams has lost none of his roguish charm, but now it comes wrapped in a kind of magisterial dignity. People tend to remember Lando for the deal he cut with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, rather than for his redemptive comeback in Return of the Jedi, and Williams appears to have spent the last 45 years defending him. “He’s a survivor. It’s expediency for him,” Williams says. “You know, he was thrown into a situation which he didn’t look for and he had to try to figure out how to deal with an entity which is more than just a human.” And, he adds, with the weary air of somebody who has spent way too much time justifying the behavior of a fictional character, “nobody died!”
Chewbacca is still here, too, but it’s not the same man in the suit. The original actor was Peter Mayhew, a seven-foot-three-inch gentle giant who was working as a hospital orderly in London when Lucas cast him in the first movie. Mayhew retired after The Force Awakens, and he died on April 30 at 74. His replacement is Joonas Suotamo, a fresh-faced former professional basketball player from Finland who always wanted to be an actor but was hard to cast because he’s six feet 11 inches tall. “When I first met [Mayhew] he told me I was a wee bit too skinny,” Suotamo says. “But we also had a Wookiee boot camp, which lasted for a week. He told me all kinds of things about the moves that Chewbacca does, how they came to be and his reasoning behind them.” Suotamo has now played Chewbacca in four movies and enjoys it about as much as I’ve ever seen anybody enjoy anything. “It’s very much like silent-era film, with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin,” he says. “He’s a mime character and that’s what he does, and I guess in that minimalism comes the beauty of the character.”
Other things we know about Skywalker: We can safely assume that the Resistance and the First Order are headed toward a final smash, which will be a heavy lift for the good guys because, at the end of The Last Jedi,the Resistance was down, way down, to a double handful of survivors. They’ll face a First Order who suffered a stinging but largely symbolic loss at the Battle of Crait, and who, I feel confident, have learned something from the previous eight movies. The Empire built and lost two Death Stars. The First Order has already lost one super-weapon in The Force Awakens. Presumably it won’t make the same mistake twice, twice.
But the stakes go even higher than that, cosmically high. Sources close to the movie say that Skywalker will at long last bring to a climax the millennia-long conflict between the Jedi Order and its dark shadow, the Sith.
The hottest area for speculation, however, is the identity of the titular Skywalker, because at this point there aren’t many Skywalkers left to rise. One is General Organa, the former Princess Leia, Luke’s sister—but Carrie Fisher, who plays her, passed away in 2016. That was a deeply painful loss for Abrams personally, but it also presented him with an impossible choice as a filmmaker. He needed Leia to tell the story, but Abrams didn’t feel like a digital Carrie Fisher could do the job, and there was no way Lucasfilm was going to re-cast the role.
But then a strange thing happened. Abrams remembered that there was some footage of Fisher left over from The Force Awakens, scenes that had been changed or cut entirely, and he dug them up. “It’s hard to even talk about it without sounding like I’m being some kind of cosmic spiritual goofball,” Abrams says, “but it felt like we suddenly had found the impossible answer to the impossible question.” He started to write scenes around the old footage, fitting Leia’s dialogue into new contexts. He re-created the lighting to match the way Fisher had been lit. Bit by bit, she found her place in the new movie. “It was a bizarre kind of left side/right side of the brain sort of Venn diagram thing, of figuring out how to create the puzzle based on the pieces we had.” Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, appears in the movies as a Resistance officer named Lieutenant Connix, and at first Abrams deliberately wrote her out of the scenes in case it was too painful—but Lourd said no, she wanted to be in them. “And so, there are moments where they’re talking; there are moments where they’re touching,” Abrams says. “There are moments in this movie where Carrie is there, and I really do feel there is an element of the uncanny, spiritual, you know, classic Carrie, that it would have happened this way, because somehow it worked. And I never thought it would.”
The only other member of the surviving Skywalker bloodline—that we know of!—is Leia’s son and Luke’s former Padawan, the fallen Jedi Kylo Ren. Kylo probably isn’t capable of actual happiness, but things are definitely looking up for him: by the end of The Last Jedi he has taken control of the First Order and killed or at least outlived his actual father and both of his symbolic fathers-in-art, Luke and Supreme Leader Snoke. Sources at Disney also confirm that his long-rumored Knights of Ren will finally arrive in Skywalker. “And then he had been forging this maybe-bond with Rey,” Driver says, “and it kind of ends with the question in the air: is he going to pursue that relationship, or when the door of her ship goes up, does that also close that camaraderie that they were maybe forming?”
Darkness in the Star Wars movies tends to come from fear: for Anakin Skywalker, Kylo’s grandfather, it was his fear of losing his mother and his wife. After two movies it’s still not so easy to say exactly what Kylo Ren himself fears, even though he’s as operatically emo as Vader was stoic. He’s fixated on the past—he made a shrine to his own grandfather—but at the same time the past torments him. “Let the past die,” he tells Rey in The Last Jedi. “Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.”
Presumably whatever’s eating at Kylo started in his childhood: maybe being the kid of literally the two coolest people in the galaxy isn’t as fun as it sounds. Driver—who has obviously thought this through with a lot of rigor—points out that, as cool as they are, Han and Leia are both obsessively committed to lifestyles (smuggling, rebelling) that don’t leave much room for kids. He also points out that, unlike Luke and Rey, Kylo never got to go on a nifty voyage of self-discovery. Instead he grew up under the crushing pressure of massive expectations. “How do you form friendships out of that?” Driver says. “How do you understand the weight of that? And if there’s no one around you guiding you, or articulating things the right way … it can easily go awry.” By the emotional logic that governs the Star Wars universe—and also our own—Kylo Ren is going to have to confront the past, and his fears, whatever they are, or be destroyed by them.
Where Lucas’s trilogies tended to follow the roots and branches of the Skywalker family tree—their personal saga was the saga of the galaxy writ small—the new movies have a slightly wider aperture and take in a new generation of heroes. There’s Rey, of course, who sources say will have progressed in her training since the end of The Last Jedi to the point where it’s almost complete. With that taken care of, all she has to do is reconstitute the entire Jedi Order from scratch, because as far as we know she’s the Last One.
If Kylo Ren can’t be redeemed it will almost certainly fall to Rey to put him down, in spite of their maybe-bond. Their relationship is the closest thing the new trilogy has to a star-crossed love story on the order of Han and Leia: a source close to the movie says that their Force-connection will turn out to run even deeper than we thought. They’re uniquely suited to understand each other, but at the same time they are in every way each other’s inverse, down to Kylo’s perverse rejection of his family, which is the one thing Rey craves most. “I think there’s a part of Rey that’s like, dude, you fucking had it all, you had it all,” Ridley says. “That was always a big question during filming: you had it all and you let it go.”
Rey is also, according to totally unsubstantiated Internet theories, a leading candidate to be the Skywalker of the title, pending some kind of head-snapping reveal about her ancestry. (For the record, the other leading unsubstantiated Internet theory has the “Skywalker” of the title referring to an entirely new order of Force users who will rise up and replace the Jedi.)
Rey seems ready for it all, or as ready as anybody could be. “It’s nice having that shot at the beginning of the teaser,” Ridley says, over avocado toast at a fancy Chicago hotel, “because I think it’s quite a good visual representation of where she is now: confident, calm, less fearful.… It’s still sort of overwhelming, but in a different way. It feels more right—less like inevitable and more like there’s a focus to the journey.” Focus is a good word for Rey: on-screen Ridley’s dramatic eyebrows form a wickedly sharp arrow of concentration. I asked Ridley what she’s thinking about when Rey is using her Force powers, and it turns out Rey seems focused because Ridley is actually seriously focused. “I literally visualize it. When I was lifting rocks I was visualizing the rocks moving. And then I was like, Oh, my God, I made it happen! And obviously there’s loads of rocks on strings, so, no, I didn’t. But I visualize that it’s really going on.” (That scene, which comes at the end of The Last Jedi, is another example of classic nondigital Star Wars effects: those were real rocks. “It was actually really amazing,” Ridley says. “It was sort of like a baby mobile.”)
There’s also Finn, the apostate Stormtrooper, played by the irrepressible Boyega, who in person practically vibrates with energy and speaks with a South London accent very different from Finn’s American one. In some ways Finn has gone through a complete character arc already: he confronted his past—by beating down his old boss, Captain Phasma—and found his courage and his moral center. He has had a tendency to panic, if not actively desert, in clutch situations, but at the Battle of Crait he proved that he was past that. “I think he’s just an active member of the Resistance now,” Boyega says. “Episode Eight, he couldn’t decide what team he was fighting for. But since then he’s made a clear decision.” (Cast members tend to refer to the Star Wars movies by their episode numbers: four is the original movie, seven is The Force Awakens, and so on.)
Finn still has to make a clear decision about his romantic situation, though. As Boyega put it at Star Wars Celebration: “Finn is single and willing to mingle!” The movies have been teasing his emotional connections with both Rey and the Resistance mechanic Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran, with whom he shared a fleeting battlefield kiss in The Last Jedi. Rose seems like the more positive choice, given that she stops Finn from deserting early in the movie and saves his life at the Battle of Crait, and that the precedents for romantic involvements with Jedi are extremely bad. Tran is the first Asian-American woman to play a major role in a Star Wars movie, and she has been the target of both racist and sexist attacks online. But she has come through them as a fan favorite: when she appeared onstage in Chicago, she got a standing ovation.
Finally there’s Poe, who has mostly struggled with his own cocky impulsiveness, because he’s a loose-cannon-who-just-can’t-play-by-the-rules. Poe will have to step up and become a leader, because the Resistance is seriously short on officer material. In fact, some of that transformation will already have happened where The Rise of Skywalker picks up, which is about a year after the end of The Last Jedi. “There has been a bit of shared history that you haven’t seen,” Isaac says. “Whereas in the other films, Poe is this kind of lone wolf, now he’s really part of a group. They’re going out and going on missions and have a much more familiar dynamic now.” Star Wars has always been about friendship as much as it is about romance, and as of the end of The Last Jedi, Rey, Finn, and Poe are all finally in the same place for the first time since The Force Awakens.
The Rise of Skywalker introduces some new players, too. There’s a tiny one-wheeled droid called D-O and a large banana-slug alien named Klaud. Oh, and Naomi Ackie, Keri Russell, and Richard E. Grant have all joined the cast, though, again, we know practically nothing about who they’re playing. Going from being outside the Star Wars leviathan to being right in its belly can be a dizzying experience for a first-timer. “I actually tried to do this thing while we were filming,” Ackie says, “where I’d go one day, walking through London without seeing a Star Wars reference somewhere. And you can’t do it. You really can’t. So it’s extremely surreal to be in it and see how it works from the inside.”
If anything, Star Wars is only getting more omnipresent. The franchise under Lucas was a colossus, but he still ran it essentially as a private concern. He could make movies or not, as his muse dictated—he was beholden to no shareholders. But Star Wars under Disney makes the old Star Wars look positively quaint. Between 1977 and 2005, Lucasfilm released six Star Wars movies; when Skywalker premieres in December, Disney will have released five Star Wars movies in five years. “I think there is a larger expectation that Disney has,” Kennedy says. “On the other hand, though, I think that Disney is very respectful of what this is, and right from the beginning we talked about the fragility of this form of storytelling. Because it’s something that means so much to fans that you can’t turn this into some kind of factory approach. You can’t even do what Marvel does, necessarily, where you pick characters and build new franchises around those characters. This needs to evolve differently.”
A useful example of that fragility might be the relatively modest performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story in 2018. Solo was a perfectly good Star Wars movie that has made almost $400 million worldwide—but it’s also, according to industry estimates, the first one to actually lose money. In response Disney has gently but firmly pumped the brakes: the first movie in the next Star Wars trilogy, which will be helmed by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the duo behind Game of Thrones, won’t arrive till Christmas of 2022, with further installments every other year after that. There’s no official word as to what stories they’ll tell, or when a second trilogy being developed by Rian Johnson will appear.
But even as the movies pause, Star Wars continues to colonize any and all other media. In addition to video games, comics, novels, cartoons, container-loads of merch, etc., there are not one but two live-action TV series in the pipeline for Disney+, Disney’s new streaming service: The Mandalorian, created by Jon Favreau, and an as-yet-untitled show about Cassian Andor from Rogue One. I have personally tried a virtual-reality experience called Vader Immortal, written and produced by Dark Knight screenwriter David Goyer. At the end of May, Disneyland will open Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a massive, 14-acre, $1 billion attraction where you can fly the Millennium Falcon, be captured by the First Order, and drink a blue milk cocktail (it’s actually nondairy) and Coca-Cola products out of exclusive BB-8-shaped bottles at the cantina. It’s the largest single-theme expansion in the park’s history: Take that, Toy Story Land. The Disney World version will open in August.
You realize now that, under Lucas, Star Wars always slightly had the brakes on—we were always kept a little starved for product. With Disney driving, we’ll really find out how big Star Wars can get.
When people talk about the new Star Wars movies, they tend to talk about how faithful they are to the originals. What’s harder to say is how exactly the new films are different—how movies like Skywalker keep their connection to the past while at the same time finding a way to belong to the world of 2019. Because regardless of whether or not Star Wars has changed since 1977, the world around it has, profoundly. “There’s a loss of innocence, a sense of innocence that existed in the 70s that I don’t think to any extent exists today,” Kennedy says. “I think that has to permeate the storytelling and the reaction to the stories and how they’re set up. It has to feel differently because we’re different.”
We know things, as a people and as an audience, that we didn’t know back then. For example: back then it felt sort of O.K. to like Darth Vader, because even though he was evil he was also incredibly cool, and the kind of fascism he represented felt like a bogeyman from the distant past. But now fascism is rising again, which makes the whole First Order subplot look super-prescient, but it also reminds us that fascism is not even slightly cool in real life. “Evil needs to feel and look very real,” Kennedy says, “and what that means today may not be as black-and-white as it might have been in 1977, coming off a kind of World War II sensibility.” In the Star Wars–verse, Dark and Light are supposed to balance each other, but in the real world they just mix together into a hopelessly foggy, morally ambiguous gray.
But the changes are liberating too. Star Wars doesn’t have to stay frozen in time; if anything it’s the opposite, if it doesn’t change it’ll die. It will turn into Flash Gordon. For Abrams, that means he can’t go through this process so haunted by the ghost of George Lucas (who is of course still alive, but you get what I’m saying) that he winds up doing a cinematic Lucas impression. At some point Abrams has to let Abrams be Abrams.
The Rise of Skywalker might be that point. “Working on nine, I found myself approaching it slightly differently,” he says. “Which is to say that, on seven, I felt beholden to Star Wars in a way that was interesting—I was doing what to the best of my ability I felt Star Wars should be.” But this time something changed. Abrams found himself making different choices—for the camera angles, the lighting, the story. “It felt slightly more renegade; it felt slightly more like, you know, Fuck it, I’m going to do the thing that feels right because it does, not because it adheres to something.”
There are a lot of small subtle ways that Abrams’s Star Wars is different from Lucas’s, but if there’s a standout, it’s the way that the new movies look at history. Lucas’s Star Wars movies are bathed in the deep golden-sunset glow of the idyllic Old Republic, that more civilized age—but the new movies aren’t like that. They’re not nostalgic. They don’t long for the past; they’re more about the promise of the future. “This trilogy is about this young generation, this new generation, having to deal with all the debt that has come before,” Abrams says. “And it’s the sins of the father, and it’s the wisdom and the accomplishments of those who did great things, but it’s also those who committed atrocities, and the idea that this group is up against this unspeakable evil and are they prepared? Are they ready? What have they learned from before? It’s less about grandeur. It’s less about restoring an old age. It’s more about preserving a sense of freedom and not being one of the oppressed.”
The new generation doesn’t have that same connection to the old days that Luke and Leia did. It’s not like their parents destroyed the Old Republic. We don’t even know who their parents were! They’re too young to remember the Empire. They’re just here to clean up the mess they got left with, the disastrous consequences of bad decisions made by earlier generations, and try to survive long enough to see the future. Is any of this resonating with 2019? Might there possibly be a generation around here somewhere that’s worried about the consequences of its own decisions for the future? Star Wars has never been and probably never should be a vehicle for political arguments, but to paraphrase Ursula Le Guin, great science fiction is never really about the future. It’s about the present.
You could even—if you’re into that kind of thing—imagine the story of the new Star Wars trilogy as a metaphor for the making of the new Star Wars trilogy. In fact, I was totally prepared—because I am into that kind of thing!—to try to push this overthought metafictional hot take onto Abrams … but I didn’t have to. Abrams got there ahead of me. “The idea of the movie is kind of how I felt going into the movie as a filmmaker,” he says, “which is to say that I’ve inherited all this stuff, great stuff, and good wisdom, and the good and the bad, and it’s all coming to this end, and the question is, do we have what it takes to succeed?”
Kylo Ren has it all wrong: you can’t bring back the past and become your own grandfather, and you can’t kill the past, either. All you can do is make your peace with it and learn from it and move on. Abrams is doing that with Star Wars—and meanwhile the Resistance is going to have to do that, too, if they really are going to bring this saga to an end. Because we’ve been here before, watching a band of scrappy rebels take down a technofascist empire, and it seemed to work fine at the time—but it didn’t last. The same goes for the Jedi and their struggle with the Sith. To end this story, really end it, they’re going to have to figure out the conditions of a more permanent victory over the forces of darkness. Their past was imperfect at best, and the present is a complete disaster—but the future is all before them. This time, finally, they’re going to get it right.
Costume design by Michael Kaplan; production design by Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins; creature & droid FX creative supervisor, Neal Scanlan; for details, go to VF.com/credits.