The arrival of a new Star Wars movie is typically greeted with the kind of fanfare one associates with rare astronomical events. Like a meteor shower or a total lunar eclipse, it prompts people to behave strangely, don peculiar costumes and stay out at ungodly hours, all for the chance to catch a glimpse of something with the potential to inspire feelings of wonder and awe. Just last week, hundreds of millions of viewers from across the globe fought back joyful tears as they laid eyes on Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) for the first time in three decades in the new trailer for The Force Awakens.
That sense of momentousness is a big part of what makes Star Wars so special to its fans. The agony and the ecstasy of waiting on further adventures makes the release of each new installment seem all the sweeter when the time finally comes. There were three-year gaps between each episode of the Original Trilogy, and 16 years — call them the Dark Times — passed between Return of the Jedi and the false dawn that was The Phantom Menace, an underwhelming mess that benefited from one of the finest marketing blitzes in cinematic history. What happens, however, when the extraordinary becomes ordinary, when the sight of an eclipse becomes as familiar as a sunset? Disney appears intent on finding out.
During a panel on the final day of last weekend’s mammoth Star Wars Celebration fan event in Anaheim, director Gareth Edwards and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy unveiled their plans for the first in a planned series of Star Wars spin-offs. Between these films and the previously announced sequel trilogy fronted by The Force Awakens, every year from 2015 onward will see the release of at least one new Disney-produced Star Wars movie in theaters. It sounds like a fantastic proposition for cineastes who crave nothing but dessert, but it also runs the risk of diluting the brand George Lucas spent his life cultivating.
Edwards’ movie, now saddled with a December 2016 release date and the cumbersome title Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One, does boast an admittedly enticing premise — the director describes it as a rousing wartime epic with the soul of a spy thriller centered on the untold story of how the newly founded Rebel Alliance managed to steal the plans to the first Death Star immediately prior to the events of the original Star Wars. This daring raid, often referred to but never explicitly detailed in the now-defunct Expanded Universe canon, seems ripe for dramatization, especially given Edwards’ professed desire to make a film devoid of the usual Jedi and Sith power struggles, focusing instead on the street-level guerilla tactics of the Rebel commandos and the surprising moral complexity of the tenacious Imperial officers who oppose them in their mission.
The film’s prospective cast reflects Kennedy’s ongoing commitment to inject diversity into A Galaxy Far, Far Away, no mean feat for a franchise known for featuring only one major female character in its first three installments. So far the only confirmed player is Felicity Jones, the British actress who earned positive notices as Stephen Hawking’s dutiful wife in last year’s gauzy melodrama The Theory of Everything. The Oscar nominee, who can currently be seen playing Jonah Hill’s strong-willed spouse in True Story, will reportedly portray a Rebel agent who proves instrumental in securing the Death Star plans by infiltrating the unfinished battle station with an elite team of spies and soldiers.
Jones’ co-stars will likely include Riz Ahmed as a fellow insurgent and Ben Mendelsohn — best known for The Place Beyond the Pines and the Aussie crime thriller Animal Kingdom — as a ruthless Imperial inquisitor who answers directly to Darth Vader. Ahmed, a British actor with Pakistani heritage whose list of credits includes The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Four Lions, is probably most familiar to American audiences as Jake Gyllenhaal’s tragically dim-witted assistant Rick in last year’s L.A. neo-noir Nightcrawler.
The casting seems on point and the setup is certainly intriguing, but what about the guy steering the ship? Is Edwards truly the best choice to direct Rogue One? The answer depends on which version of the filmmaker shows up when production gets underway this summer. If it’s the Edwards who made the surprisingly affecting indie creature feature Monsters for less than $500,000, the Skywalker brand is in good hands. If it’s the Edwards who killed off the most interesting character (Bryan Cranston’s guilt-ridden nuclear engineer) roughly a third of the way through the Godzilla reboot and spent the balance of the runtime playing a $160 million game of kaiju peekaboo, we might be in serious trouble. Hopefully Zero Dark Thirty cinematographer Greig Fraser can inspire the director to rise to the occasion.
So what about the other Star Wars spin-offs? Only one other stand-alone movie has been announced so far, and its fate is in many ways still uncertain. Josh Trank, who helmed the superpowers-in-suburbia drama Chronicle and is currently in post-production on Fox’s upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, was announced as the director early on, but the filmmaker was conspicuously absent from last Sunday’s panel, which was supposed to feature both Edwards and Trank talking about their respective projects. The movie, which is rumored to be a prequel revolving around either Han Solo or Boba Fett, currently has no title, no cast attachments and no logline to speak of. It’s possible that Disney is waiting to see how Fantastic Four performs before deciding whether or not to proceed with Trank, whose big budget bonafides are still unproven.
If Kennedy hopes to expand the Star Wars universe without risking overexposure, she would be wise to follow the model set forth by Marvel Studios head honcho and USC alumnus Kevin Feige, who has been saturating the market with superheroes for the better part of seven years now. Feige and his army of creatives have staved off audience exhaustion through their willingness to continually experiment with style, tone and genre, creating a cinematic universe whose moving parts, from the concrete jungles of Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen to the glittering spires of Thor’s Asgard, feel simultaneously cohesive and distinct. The Star Wars saga also contains multitudes of characters and stories, each demanding their own interpretation by gifted filmmakers, writers and actors. The real trick will be to maintain the quality as the quantity grows. The release of a new Star Wars movie might not be rare anymore, but it should always feel special.
Landon McDonald is a graduate student studying public relations. His column, “Screen Break,” ran Fridays.