A couple of nights ago, when I emerged from “The Book of Henry,” the rather ludicrous turkey that opened the Los Angeles Film Festival (full disclosure: I saw it at a screening room in New York), I knew that its director, Colin Trevorrow, had been chosen to direct “Star Wars: Episode IX,” but my instinct was to give him a pass. I knew that the “Star Wars” assignment had nothing to do with “The Book of Henry” — that this was just a trivial indie dud the director happened to have made.
Then I thought back to the movie that did net Trevorrow the “Star Wars” gig: “Jurassic World,” the number-one blockbuster of 2015. When it came out, it had been 14 years since “Jurassic Park III,” and the nostalgia factor, mixed with a next-generation show-me-the-dinosaur factor, added up to an overpowering global gross of $1.6 billion. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist — it just takes grade-school math, or maybe a grade-school imagination — to understand why Trevorrow was handed the reins of the final film in the current “Star Wars” trilogy. (I say “current,” because I’m assuming that there will be 17 more “Star Wars” trilogies.) In Hollywood, big breeds big, and that, right or wrong, is the way the game is played.
If I was going to question that game (as I do on occasion), it would be unfair to turn Trevorrow into the poster boy — or whipping boy — for it. He earned his “Star Wars” stripes the old-fashioned way, by making a deluxe mega-smash that a lot of people liked. Once in a while, though, it’s healthy to question, or at least hold up to the light, the values that undergird the system that produces the movies that most people want to see.
Personally, I was not a fan of “Jurassic World” — and in fact, it’s a film that has been debated across the Internet ever since it came out. It has its defenders, but a lot of haters too, and to be honest, I can understand where the derision comes from. I thought the film was strikingly short on verve, surprise, thunder-lizard choreography, and general awesomeness. I found it oppressive, and still feel cheated when I think back to how it built up to the idea of this monstrously oversize new dinosaur (which turned out to be an ever-so-slightly larger T. Rex). The real thing missing from “Jurassic World” was any trace of human dimension. It was a robotic CGI stomp machine, a case of franchise imperatives consuming the soul of what a movie can, and ultimately should, be.
After the disastrous reviews that greeted “The Book of Henry,” there was a collective questioning, among “Star Wars” cultists, of whether Trevorrow was really the right person to steer their sacred franchise. I’m not a “Star Wars” cultist (far from it), but to a degree I get their trepidation. Let’s look at the track record. To my mind, Trevorrow has never made a movie in which he has told a powerfully and convincingly emotional story. His aesthetic seems to lack the human factor. (I’d include in that assessment his first dramatic feature, “Safety Not Guaranteed,” one of those indie baubles that’s the sum of its quirks.) It all raises the question of why he, of all people, has been entrusted to shepherd the climactic episode of the most beloved film series of the last half century. We know the answer, of course (it’s all about the incredible success of “Jurassic World”), but “Star Wars” fans still have the right to ask: What are Trevorrow’s values as a filmmaker?
The question could hardly be coming along at a better moment. It arrives just when the critical and commercial success of “Wonder Woman” — a new kind of glass-ceiling smasher — has put a bold new issue on the front burner. You probably think the issue is: We need more women directors in Hollywood. And you’d be right. But there’s a subtler issue lurking behind it. When we say that we need more women filmmakers, that’s partly a statement about equality and opportunity, but it’s also about hoping that women directors can bring something fresh to the party — a glint of a new vision, which is to say, a spin of humanity. The blockbusterization of Hollywood that has been going on since “Jaws” and “Star Wars” is very much a boy thing (or, more accurately, an overgrown boy thing). Boys invented it, and still feel like they own it.
But if I can speak for “Star Wars” fans, maybe what they’re saying is this: that they do get the politics of blockbuster filmmaking, but that 40 years ago, when the original “Star Wars” invented those politics, the movie symbolized something more than its own hugeness. It symbolized, within the world of special-effects sci-fi, a mysterious humanity of storytelling. That’s why it was powerful enough to change movies, to change America and the world.
Sure, there are franchises around that seem to be little more than colossal junk heaps comprised of jammed-together spare parts (I’m talking about you, “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” films). For a while, even the “Star Wars” series reflected some of that degraded notion (I’m talking about you, “Phantom Menace”). But this is the bold and reborn new era of “Star Wars.” Colin Trevorrow has been entrusted with a legacy that people care about, and they have a right to scrutinize what, exactly, he has done to earn that trust. They have a right to say: If he’s going to bring this off, he’s going to have to raise his game.