The revolving space door of film directors attached to the Star Wars cinematic empire is swinging again as news broke on Tuesday that Colin Trevorrow is no longer directing Star Wars: Episode IX. And, within seconds, fans and critics took to social media to make their predictions and demands for who should replace him. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter all that much who directs any given Star Wars movie. Fans think it does, but generally speaking, a Star Wars movie is far bigger than its director, even if that person is George Lucas.
If you count the Han Solo movie, The Last Jedi, Episode IX, and the yet to be revealed anthology film, which is probably about Obi-Wan, there are twelve Star Wars movies that we know about. Of those films, four are directed by George Lucas, which means if you’re watching a Star Wars movie between now and 2021, there’s a 33 percent chance he was the director. But, if we’re getting real, the only two Star Wars films that fans don’t have any complaints about are the original 1977 film, A New Hope, and The Empire Strikes Back. Broadly speaking, literally all the other Star Wars movies — including the ones that haven’t come out — have some points of contention among fans.
From the prequels to The Force Awakens to the behind-the-scenes kerfuffles on the Han Solo movie, and now Episode IX, Star Wars fans have negative opinions about every single Star Wars movie, except for Empire and A New Hope. So, if you’re watching any given Star Wars movie — counting the four that haven’t come out — there’s a 16 percent chance you don’t have a problem with it. (We’ll leave aside special edition changes, because if we don’t, then Star Wars fans have a zero percent chance of being satisfied with any Star Wars movie, which is crazy considering how popular these movies are.)
With that in mind, if you’re a Star Wars fan, there’s a 99 percent chance you think Irvin Kershner is a genius, and a perfect director, and the sole reason why The Empire Strikes Back is such a great movie. The problem with that is that Kershner (RIP) does not have a great track record as a director of other science fiction or action movies. He directed the embarrassing Sean Connery knock-off Bond movie Never Say Never Again and also helmed the totally wack Robocop 2. Obviously, his choices on The Empire Strikes Back matter, but it’s not like he could turn bad scripts into gold just by being a hard-ass on the set. If that were true, we’d list Never Say Never Again and Robocop 2 among his other triumphs, but we don’t. And that’s because the writing of Star Wars movies matters way more than the directing, at least in terms of critical reception. It was true during the original trilogy and it’s true now.
Why is Revenge of the Sith the most watchable of all the “bad” Star Wars prequels? Is it because George Lucas got his shit together as a director? Nope. Sith is a poorly edited slog, replete with pivotal moments in which people are sitting on the couch discussing who turned to the dark side and why. The reason why Star Wars fans like Sith (or hate it the least of the prequels) has literally nothing to do with the way it’s shot or edited. In discussing almost any other movies — maybe even George Lucas’s other movies — the aueter theory of film directors applies. But it doesn’t apply to Star Wars movies, ever, because there are so many other factors in determining why they are popular with fans.
Here’s a good example: supposedly most Star Wars fans hate the prequels, and yet, if there’s going to be an Obi-Wan Kenobi movie, you’re damn sure we want Ewan McGregor to play him. In my screening of Rogue One, people actually applauded Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa sauntering into the Rebel war room. I think that’s because even though they may hate Jimmy Smits in Attack of the Clones, they like remembering those movies existed. The Rogue One Jimmy Smits thing just proves we Star Wars fans love continuity and canon more than perceived good taste. More to the point: Star Wars fans generally value the basic story over literally everything else, even if that story doesn’t make sense or is confusing. We value the events in the story even if we disagree with those events fundamentally.
So, in early 2005, could anyone have predicted Revenge of the Sith would be better liked than the two previous prequels written and directed by George Lucas? Yes, but knowing that it was written and directed by George Lucas had nothing to do with that prediction. Knowing that Anakin was getting into the Vader suit is what counted.
Here’s another way to play this game: ask a casual Star Wars fan who directed The Empire Strikes Back, and they can probably tell you. But who directed Return of the Jedi? Only diehards know it was Richard Marquand, someone who was basically George Lucas’s puppet. Do the good aspects of Return of the Jedi have anything to do with Richard Marquand’s talents? Sure, maybe. But, again it doesn’t really matter because no one cares. By the time Return of the Jedi comes out — as far as fans are concerned — these movies are basically directing themselves.
Bond movies are similar. Yes, Sam Mendes won an Oscar in 2000 for American Beauty, and then directed the Bond movie Skyfall in 2012. People loved Skyfall, and complimented how great it looked, but other than the opening sequence of Mendes’s second Bond movie —Spectre — it’s not like we’re dealing with some kind of triumph of cinema. Bond movies, like Star Wars movies, just sort of come out, regardless of who is directing them. Return of the Jedi is one of the most famous movies ever made, bar none, but I don’t remember J.J. Abrams mentioning how he tried to honor Richard Marquand’s vision when he directed the sequel, The Force Awakens.
From producers to various screenwriters, to editors in charge of reshoots, most Star Wars movies have a myriad of factors that make them what they are. Rogue One’s success can partially be attributed to it coming from the VFX department, first. The point is, the director of a Star Wars movie rarely seems to be the nexus of why the movie is good or perceived to be good. More often than not, fans tend to do the opposite: use the directors (like Lucas or Abrams) to point out why the movies are bad.
The only wrinkle in all of this seems to, oddly, The Last Jedi, which is being billed in nearly every single interview as something that comes from director Rian Johnson’s mind exclusively. Make no mistake: this kind of director as the singer-songwriter is uncommon in Star Wars films, even the ones which were controlled by George Lucas. So, if The Last Jedi ends up becoming every fan’s favorite Star Wars movie ever, they will likely credit Rian Johnson with that triumph. But, all that will prove is that that there’s less than a 1 percent chance that a director of a Star Wars movie will have an impact on whether or not we care about that Star Wars movie. And those are bad odds, even for Han Solo.
Who will we credit with the triumph of Episode IX if it’s good? Right now, the bizarre answer will probably be Jack Thorne. Unless of course, there are other screenwriters in the mix, or if the new director comes up with a brand new script.
So, what is the right question about Episode IX? Because Star Wars fans value story above all, we probably won’t know that question until we see The Last Jedi.