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The Force That’s Now Driving ‘Star Wars’: Fear (Column)

The announcement that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of “Game of Thrones,” would be departing from the “Star Wars” universe before they’d barely had a chance to climb aboard it looms as the most high-profile breakdown yet between Lucasfilm and the roster of filmmakers it keeps recruiting — and kicking out of — “Star Wars.” (It was reported in Variety that Benioff and Weiss were “summarily dismissed.”)

You could say that each of the three previous departures had an air of infamy about it. In 2015, director Josh Trank was fired from a stand-alone “Star Wars” adventure, rumored to be a Boba Fett movie, in the wake of the critical and box-office debacle of his crashed-and-burned superhero film “Fantastic Four.” In 2017, Phil Lord and Chris Miller were dismissed during the shooting of “Solo” due to clashes between them and the Lucasfilm executives over the film’s tone; the makers of “The Lego Movie” and “21 Jump Street” were aiming for a breezier comic attitude, whereas the series’ overseers wanted a more straight-arrow approach. (That’s why they hired Ron Howard.) Several months after that, Colin Trevorrow, of the massive hit “Jurassic World,” was fired as the director of “Star Wars: Episode IX,” a dismissal that might have been the result of a falling-ax snowball effect, and that certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that Trevorrow had just released an indie trifle called “The Book of Henry” that was embarrassingly bad.

In the case of Benioff and Weiss, the vague lingering issue of “creative differences” hangs over the departure, but the situation is more ambiguous, since the two writer-producers signed on for a major deal with Netflix that would have gotten in the way of their delivering a new “Star Wars” trilogy in a timely fashion. Yet when you stand back and look at this four-year series of “Star Wars” creative generals falling like dominoes, it’s clearly far from a coincidence.

What does it mean? The most obvious thing it means is that Disney, which owns Lucasfilm, is a famously controlling empire, one that doesn’t necessarily want filmmakers who are going to rock the boat (or are coming off films that are high-profile failures). Yet what’s inarguable, and seems stranger the more you think about it, is that it was Lucasfilm, led by Kathleen Kennedy, that hired all these people in the first place. We can only guess what “Solo,” directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, might have looked like, but when the decision was originally made to bring these filmmakers on board, their brand was defined precisely by the spark of entertaining irreverence that ultimately got them canned. In the case of Benioff and Weiss, there are obvious ways that “Game of Thrones” aligns with the sensibility of “Star Wars” (the whole neo-medieval royalty-and-creatures fantasy thing) and obvious ways that it doesn’t (it’s racy and naughty and ultra-violent). So who knows, exactly, what they were planning?

In almost every case, what’s been demonstrated is that the executives in control of the “Star Wars” empire are being driven by a conflict they have not figured out a way to resolve. They want “Star Wars” to evolve…and they want it to stay the same. They want to grow it into something beyond what it has been…but they don’t want to let go of what it has been. Can they have it both ways?

The intensity of the dilemma makes sense. Their mission is to sustain the identity of the ultimate movie franchise. But what all the beheadings and second-guessings, the four-year wave of whipsaw indecision reveals is that the Disney empire is now confronting the supreme existential challenge any blockbuster franchise has ever faced. It is this:

How do you keep “Star Wars” going once “Stars Wars” is over?

“Over” isn’t a word that anyone at Disney wants to hear, or utter, in connection with the “Star Wars” universe. It’s not just that the studio wants to keep its space-opera cash cow going (who wouldn’t?). It’s that what “Star Wars” has come to represent is a kind of capitalist religion: the notion that Hollywood can create a universe that’s so powerful, such a golden goose, that it never has to end. The birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in 2008, was a direct iteration of this philosophy, one that emerged in spirit out of what George Lucas had accomplished with his prequels. And in an odd way, it was the very mediocrity of “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” that became central to their meaning in the global entertainment marketplace. The mediocrity suggested that when the brand is mythological enough, if you build itthey will come…even if the films don’t measure up.

In building his dramatically scattershot, technologically fetishized prequels, what George Lucas defeated was the entropy that had always been built into sequels. It’s worth recalling that back in the ’80s, when sequel fever first kicked in and changed the industry, a sequel, with its stacked-deck fan base, could make a lot of money on its opening weekend (before doing a quick fade). But in that now-quaint Roman-numeral epoch, for every sequel that was actually able to match (or, at times, even surpass) its predecessor in box office and topical-cultural mojo, like “Rambo: First Blood Part II” or (yes) “The Empire Strikes Back,” there were two dozen others like “Poltergeist II: The Other Side,” “Grease 2,” “Porky’s II: The Next Day,” “Conan the Destroyer,” “Caddyshack II,” “Staying Alive,” “Crocodile Dundee II,” “Cocoon: The Return” — movies that had no organic reason to be, and were forgotten practically the day after they were released.

When you scan those titles, what that junkyard of rusty, forgotten duds adds up to is the larger truth about sequels: They exist, as art and as business, to remind you of something that existed before. They are parasitical by design. That’s why, well into the ’90s (the era of “Another 48 HRS.,” “RoboCop 2,” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control”), they were a form greeted with a mixture of (momentary) enthusiasm and (mostly) mockery.

But all that changed in 1999 with “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.” It was a movie that few pretended to like (well, actually, a lot of people pretended to themselves that they liked it — for about two months, until reality set in). Yet it created a new template. It extended a three-film series into a six-film series, with no lag in box office, and with the attendant promise that it would become a nine-film series. It became the prototype for the dream of the movie universe: a form of Sequel Mania 3.0 that was really a way of triumphing over the old sequel burnout. According to the new way, the fans would not burn out, because they were connected to the universe — entwined in it — as surely as the films in the universe were connected to one other. The audience now wasn’t just hooked; it was enmeshed. So that it wouldn’t be able to let go.

The “Star Wars” universe has lasted for 42 years. And though it has given us vital new characters (Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren), what has sustained its juggernaut status is its primal nostalgia for the foundation stone of 1977: the first “Star Wars,” the Holy Grail it keeps trying to get back to. “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” will be the last film that touches the saga of Luke Skywalker. But what the corporate backers of “Star Wars” must then do is sustain that level of excitement with the creation of something new. Imagine if that was your job. Do you think it might make you nervous?

The most telling departure in the recent history of “Star Wars” firings was the dismissal of Phil Lord and Chris Miller from “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” I wasn’t alone in being disappointed by that firing, and I was probably at the extreme end of things in finding the film that Ron Howard reshot to be a busy and joyless bore. (Let’s be honest: Whoever was behind the camera, Alden Ehrenreich, as the young Han Solo, just didn’t have the X factor.) But since the film enjoyed the dubious distinction of being the first financial disappointment in the “Star Wars” universe, I’m far from alone in wondering what the Disney executives, in hindsight, thought of their decision. If they could have done it all over again, would they have stayed with Lord and Miller?

My guess is: No, they wouldn’t have. Because even though the film performed below expectations, the hiring of Ron Howard kept the look and feel of “Solo” on brand. And that’s the larger agenda — to keep “Star Wars” going the way it has been.

But what does that mean now that the extended saga of Luke Skywalker is nearing its completion? The fear of making a mistake, of inventing the next age of “Star Wars” only to see the universe fall off a cliff, cannot be overstated. That fear is immense; billions and billions of dollars are on the table. Yet it’s more than just the money. What’s at stake is a belief system, the philosophy that has ruled not just Disney but Hollywood for four decades, the one that says: Shoot the moon — and when you hit it, repeat and repeat, and repeat again. And when in doubt, don’t just shoot the moon. Build the moon. Build a universe; that’s how you control the universe. No wonder there’s so much antsy, trigger-finger indecision. When it comes to the pivot point that “Star Wars” is fast approaching, post-“Episode IX,” the rulers of the franchise must now rise to the executive equivalent of playing God. They have to figure out how to see the future and say, “Let there be hits.”

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