Why ‘Star Wars: Episode IX’ Needs to Ditch the MacGuffin Cliché 

The search for the mysterious object feels like a classic Star Wars plot, but the ending of the Skywalker saga needs to be about people, not mystery boxes.

When Star Wars: Episode IX ends, there probably won’t be a post-credits scene hinting at the future of the series. In fact, if the rumors are to be believed, Star Wars doesn’t actually have a future, in a literal sense. Not only are all these movies a perpetual prequel to our own present day (a long time ago…) rumors suggest also Rian Johnson’s Star Wars films will be adjacent to the existing stories, while the Benioff and Weiss films will probably be set even further in the past. So, it seems possible that Episode IX is the furthest we’ll go into the Star Wars future, at least for a while.

For that reason, we should all hope Episode IX is all about its characters, and mercifully not about the search for a mysterious, map, data crystal or missing lightsaber. In other words, if this pivotal Star Wars episode relies on a cliché MacGuffin plot, it might be doomed.

Speculative spoilers for Star Wars: Episode IX ahead.

Recent rumors and speculation from Now This Is Podcasting (the podcast connected to Making Star Wars) suggest the plot of Episode IX could revolve around a MacGuffin that has been described as both “controversial” and “delightful.” One rumor is that it’s somehow connected to C-3PO’s erased memories, implying some of the plot of the movie is centered around decades-old gossip C-3PO may have heard about Anakin Skywalker doing…something. (Maybe this is just a subplot about Kylo Ren trying to find the same chest wax product his grandfather used?) Would this be cool? Maybe, but Star Wars films actually have a rocky track record with MacGuffins, even though the entire saga was arguably jump-started with the most MacGuffiny of MacGuffins; the Death Star Plans.

Relative to cinematic storytelling, the term “MacGuffin,” originates with Alfred Hitchcock who said: “The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.” In an old James Bond movie, like say, From Russia With Love, the MacGuffin is a decoder machine called a “Lektor” and Sean Connery is trying to snag it. But really the movie is mostly about sneaky train rides and love coming from Russia. Ditto for Raiders of the Lost Ark; Indiana Jones and the Nazis want it, but who is going to get it first? Does anyone care about what is in the Lost Ark? Not really.

The Death Star plans reveal a design flaw in 1977
The Death Star plans reveal a design flaw in 1977

Still, the original Star Wars (A New Hope) wrinkled this a bit with the Death Star Plans since without them, the last act of the movie isn’t possible at all because the Death Star Plans are what tell us about the Death Star Trench and that pesky exhaust port. (Star Wars is so obsessed with this particular MacGuffin, it made an entire movie dedicated to explaining it in excruciating detail. You may have seen it. It was called Rogue One.)

But, let’s get one thing straight. The Death Star Plans are the only good Star Wars MacGuffin, possibly because it manages to defy the Hitchcock notion of the audience not caring about it specifically. The Death Star Plans do matter, because in some ways, the Death Star almost feels like a character, or at the very least, the technological extension of the douchebaggery of the Empire. It’s great, and it still works. But other MacGuffins in Star Wars? Not so much.

Seriously, name another Star Wars MacGuffin that works as well as the Death Star Plans. You can’t. That’s partly because Star Wars isn’t a spy movie but also because it also transcends some the cliches George Lucas was trying to emulate. In the early ‘70s, Lucas wanted to remake Flash Gordon but couldn’t get the rights, so he created something original. In doing that, Star Wars actually became retro and contemporary at the same time. In other words, it could have its dusty old MacGuffin and blow it up, too. This is literally the only time this has worked well in all existing 10 Star Wars films. And that’s because, other good Star Wars movies usually don’t have MacGuffins.

Everyone can agree The Empire Strikes Back is good, and it doesn’t really have a MacGuffin. Return of the Jedi arguably, starts off with a MacGuffin — a frozen block of carbonite containing, Han Solo, and then sort of becomes a different movie after that is resolved.

The prequels have a bunch of half-assed MacGuffins, all of which are either frustrating (a piece of a hyperspace engine?), too vague (where is Jedi Master Sifo Dyas?), or an utter lie (Palpatine’s elusive life-after-death powers he promises Anakin.) Now, one could argue that the reason the prequels have a problem is they never had a good MacGuffin, but I’d argue the reverse. Because all the MacGuffins in the prequels were flimsy, it meant the movies had to rely on the characters, who were unable to have dynamic storylines since their destinies were predetermined by the existing movies.

Star Wars The Last Jedi Rose Tico
Rose and Finn in search of the codebreaker in 'The Last Jedi'

This brings us to the contemporary Star War films and their MacGuffins. Literally, all of these MacGuffins are wonky as hell. The map to Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens is probably the most eloquent, but it also makes the least amount of sense. Meanwhile, The Last Jedi relies on cracking a weird hyperspace tracker, which would be fine, it’s just that it seems shoehorned in and a little rushed. Yes, that’s right Last Jedi haters, I’m saying the movie would have been better if Rose and Finn had spent more time on the Casino Planet, because it would have given the search for the MacGuffin (the codebreaker, etc.) a little more oomph. Instead, quite famously, Rose and Finn don’t succeeded, at all, rendering their search for the MacGuffin slightly pointless. From a creative standpoint, this is probably the most subversive use of a MacGuffin in a Star Wars movie, which is part of the reason why The Last Jedi is so funky and interesting.

What’s left? Well Solo’s MacGuffin is expensive space gas and we’ve already know about Rogue One. So, if Episode IX has a MacGuffin revolving around C-3PO’s severed head, it could be cool, but it might not be entirely necessary.

Famously, Episode IX director and co-writer J.J. Abrams loves to put strange and confusing mysteries into his projects. In 2008, in an (infamous?) TED talk, Abrams described what he calls “the mystery box.” Essentially, Abrams thinks that a lot of exciting storytelling comes down to having a mystery which can’t exactly be solved. He’s partially right. One reason we stay on the hook for twisty stories like Star Wars (or recent Marvel movies) is because there’s always an elusive plot element just out of reach. “Mystery is more important than knowledge,” Abrams says in the talk, and then, proceeds to describe the plot of (you guessed it) the original Star Wars.

As Alfred Hitchcock and Abrams both know, keeping that thing just out of the reach of the characters can help the audience stay focused. Sometimes that means you need an object to wrap up all those expectations inside of. Sometimes you need a MacGuffin.

But, supposedly Star Wars: Episode IX will be a film about resolution, a time for opening the mystery box and dumping it out. This doesn’t necessarily mean Episode IX will be the most exciting or the most twisty of Star Wars films, but if it’s going to be a satisfying conclusion, it might be wise for the film to avoid mysterious MacGuffins that needlessly complicate the plot. Star Wars has a murky track record with this kind of thing anyway, and with the end of the final installment of the Skywalker saga, it’s time for answers, not more mysteries.

Star Wars: Episode IX* is out everywhere on December 20, 2019.

Media via Lucasfilm, TED, Inverse