Can ‘Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker’ Finally Solve J.J. Abrams’ Mystery Box?

By William Hume (Twitter: @Serious_George)

The most fascinating contradiction about Writer/ Director/ Producer J.J. Abrams is that he’s staked his entire film career on creating mysteries that lie within established branded boundaries.

  • The Rabbit’s Foot – Mission: Impossible III
  • Is Cpt. John Harrison Khan? – Star Trek Into Darkness (12)
  • Rey’s Parentage – Star Wars: The Force Awakens (7)

In his famous TED Talk The mystery box he admits as much: “[M]ystery boxes are everywhere in what I do!” Twelve years, almost 6 Star Wars movies later(!)… the case remains.

The advice given for his speech “Don’t worry about [what to talk about], just be profound.” echoes his whole career. He moves between franchises (Felicity, Alias, Lost, Fringe, M:I-III, Star Trek, Star Wars) with the sure-footedness of Tom Cruise, it is no wonder he worked with him on his confident feature film directorial debut. He supplies much of the popcorn spectacle Spielberg would have done 20 years earlier with much of the same world building. It would be nice to see Cruise work directly with Abrams again now that he has matured as a director and Cruise is out of a working relationship with Spielberg. Had Abrams hit his stride in an earlier Hollywood era, might he not have been the subject of corporate interest he would have had a more creatively interesting film career. Imagine him making a mark of original movies in his own league rather than piggybacking on other franchises. Yet there is not a lot to complain about his films, and in making them he appears to be just as business savvy as his predecessor. His career timeline is basically perfect. He hit his successful stride in his thirties, hit the mainstream in his forties and has a good mix of youth and experience now entering his fifties. He is perfectly suited to the franchise branding of Hollywood today off the post star-driven era. His best movie, the post E.T. proto-Stranger Things riff Super 8. One of five films Spielberg has been a mainline producer on, but not directed (Poltergeist is another example). One can argue The Rise of Skywalker could represent his directing peak. He’s the same age Spielberg was when he made Saving Private Ryan, but on his 6th film (equivalent to Spielberg’s E.T.) versus Spielberg’s 17th. [To be fair no one is as efficient as Spielberg, that guy is a movie-making machine.] Abrams has the energy, spirit, & vision of Spielberg, but none of his creativity.

In criticizing Abrams’ TED talk YouTube commenter Quill said:
“I think he’s missing a fundamental aspect of what makes mystery boxes satisfying. There has to be a reasonable expectation that the contents… will live up to what is expected. In all the examples he listed, Star Wars, Jaws, etc. the mysteries have an answer, or hints of one that make sense. There’s always a sense that, while mysterious, there is something tangible and real behind the mystery. Every good mystery box has to be built on smaller reveals that lend credence to the idea that the one big mystery ha[s] an answer, even if that answer is never revealed. And it seems like in his own work he doesn’t do a good job of that. If every small mystery is never satisfactorily revealed, what foundation does the audience have that the larger mystery has any real significance? I love mysteries and unresolved plot points, but I hate cheap mystery boxes from the store. [P]ast experience (like JJ Abram’s films and shows) has taught me not to expect a result that matches expectation. It doesn’t matter if the mystery box is unopened… the expectation and anticipation it is supposed to have is undermined by the rest of the movie/show.

With Abrams’ previous film The Force Awakens a re-skinned version of ‘A New Hope‘, and The Last Jedi despite taking some narrative risks echoing ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ it is reasonable to expect that The Rise of Skywalker will repeat much of Return of the Jedi with a stronger B-plot centered around the new series characters. Dangling legacy plot threads (Where has Lando been? What happens to Leia?) and simply seeing more of these characters play off each other in this world is all Episode IX really needs to be successful. It’s all Episode VI was. For the record they consulted George Lucas on how to wrap up the story. Worth noting since Episode III is the strongest wrap up the series has seen. Speaking to IGN Abrams said:

“This movie had a very, very specific challenge, which was to take eight films and give an ending to three trilogies, and so we had to look at, what is the bigger story? We had conversations amongst ourselves, we met with George Lucas before writing the script,” Abrams revealed. “These were things that were in real, not debate, but looking at the vastness of the story and trying to figure out, what is the way to conclude this? But it has to work on its own as a movie, it has to be its own thing, it has to be surprising and funny and you have to understand it.”

My small wish is for minor elements of the prequel trilogy to lightly pay off. Those films, although written inferior to the originals (however III is better than VI) grew the mythology and fan base exponentially and have been more unfairly maligned than any film in history.

To give Star Wars fans a heart attack (we always need a reason to have one, the beating heart of the franchise) producers enlisted Academy Award-winning writer of Argo, Chris Terrio to co-write the screenplay with Abrams. Argo was decently done on a medium scale and Hollywood is a small town that sometimes thinks too small. Hearkening back to the production and scope of original trilogy provides narrative focus but does not align with the spirit of what Star Wars should be today. It’s Star Wars, not Sand Planet Skirmish. Where is everyone and the awesome planets we saw in the prequels? (Rogue One got that new texture down but was placed in a neutered and rudimentary film). Terrio’s large-scale efforts are a rewrite of David Goyer’s script for the terrible and fascinating Batman V. Superman and co-writing the serviceable but bland Justice League. Star Wars has always been more visual than writing dependent with the exception of the original Star Wars, it is arguably a director’s vehicle.

Congratulations to J.J. Abrams for becoming the first person after George Lucas to write and direct two mainline Star Wars movies. Is there any possible way he can wrap up a 9 film series while paying service to All the films that came before? My guess is yes because it relies on Abrams’ greatest strength of recycling the old into new.

But how?

The Peacemaker [Luke Skywalker]: He focuses on incorporating all the strokes of VII and VIII however disparate they may be into an uneven trilogy

The Negotiator [General Kenobi]: A gentle retcon of what came before. As James Cameron said, nobody dies in Sci-Fi. How do you solve the villain problem for Episode IX? Drumming up an old enemy, who if you re-watch the originals is underutilized as a villain and only solidified by the prequel mythology. The Evil Emperor’s inclusion is a perfect way to tie old and new.

The Crowdpleaser [Yoda]: Abrams would be wise to follow the playbook he set in The Force Awakens as well as cull from his mentor Steven Spielberg (and maybe make a few original movies afterwards? 5 of his 6 films are from franchises) and just give the audience what they want, no funny business. Callbacks with Lando, The Emperor, Princess (now General Leia whose theme is present throughout the trailer). All the major audiences want and expect is loose improved remake of Return of the Jedi. Considering VII’s approximation of A New Hope I’d say that’s well within reach. Considering J.J. Abrams’ directing talent, as a fan I’d hope for more. Everyone wants to make the best movie possible.

Approximations based on Facts and Research:

  • J.J. Abrams is directing a screenplay he has co-written with Chris Terrio
  • The story will be large in scope
  • There will be mystery boxes
  • Not all will be solved
  • An old enemy will be drummed up from the past
  • An old friend will be drummed up from the past
  • All the heroes will be together to grant narrative focus
  • It will visually rhyme and follow the template of the old trilogy

*Abrams TED TALK in 2007 – 2008 The Clone Wars/ 2015 The Force Awakens/ 2016 Rogue One/ 2017 The Last Jedi/ 2018 Solo/ 2019 The Rise of Skywalker/

What do you think will happen in Episode IX? Does it have a chance at being the best Star Wars movie?


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