What is the next Star Wars? If you ask someone at Disney right now, the answer to that question is easy: More Star Wars. With at least 10 new TV shows and several films on the horizon, the story of "a long time ago" will continue for another decade.
Even if those Disney execs have a profitable point, Star Wars cannot actually be the next Star Wars; it'll never be new again. If you consider the decades-long life of Star Wars, the Fandom Wars of the last few years (Marvel vs. DC; Game of Thrones vs. Stranger Things) are a blip on the timeline.
If you love everything about new Star Wars, even The Rise of Skywalker, you're still probably ready for a new space opera. These times have been rare, after all.
There have been three moments where a mainstream space opera briefly eclipsed Star Wars in the zeitgeist:
- The reboot Battlestar Galactica series
- For a hot second, the J.J. Abrams Star Trek in 2009
There hasn't been a Star Wars movie everyone could agree on since The Force Awakens, and even the mega-popular Mandalorian has been somewhat divisive in its Season 2 finale. More Star Wars is coming, but it feels to me like the Force's cultural momentum is slowing.
What can replace Star Wars in 2021? The answer is Dune.
Since 1977, mainstream sci-fi has been looking backward. The instant popularity of Star Wars proved one thing to risk-averse studios: Space-opera sci-fi can become the most popular cinematic genre of them all if the movie is also firmly rooted in nostalgia.
While the cinematic techniques used to make the original Star Wars were new and often cutting edge, the success of Star Wars was connected to its ability to feel instantly familiar.
Star Wars was derivative of a variety of zeitgeist wells — from Westerns to Kurosawa to WWII flicks and pulp science fiction like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. These familiar elements reveal the various psychological reasons why A New Hope connected with so many. It felt both new and old at the same time.
Star Trek vs. Star Wars sets the stage for Dune
But is that true now? Star Wars has been the most popular sci-fi thing of all time since dethroning Star Trek in 1977. Except for in rare moments, the Trek franchise has never tried to "win" a mainstream audience on the scale of Star Wars — which is why it's been more consistent and had a steadier output for over five decades.
Star Wars is just now edging into the sci-fi TV game that Trek has owned since the '60s. Before 2018, Star Trek was a massive TV show that also had a few movies, while Star Wars was only a series of movies with a few cartoons. The Mandalorian arguably changed all that, but no one would mistake an episode of Star Trek: Picard for The Mandalorian.
Pretending the Trek and Wars franchises are in competition is a false equivalence in any "geek" discourse.
Trek is the underdog.
Wars is the prom king.
The goals are wildly different, which is shaped by history. Star Trek is also inherently more progressive and leftist than Star Wars, which, if you're being honest, means there are limits to how popular it can become.
A new-yet-familiar sci-fi thing can swoop in. Yes, it really could be Dune.
Despite trying to co-opt "Warp Speed," let's assume that very few Trump voters love the ideals of equality at the heart of Star Trek: Discovery or Star Trek: Picard. But plenty of those people like The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker.
This isn't a dunk on Star Wars. It's just that it's a lot more populist, centrist, and wishy-washy on politics than its progressive fans would like to admit — despite the casting decisions that are undeniably powerful in making Star Wars fans who aren't white and American feel like they can see themselves up there on the screen.
The fairy-tale quality of Star Wars actively discourages contemporary allegories. Sure, George Lucas had Anakin basically quoting George W. Bush in Revenge of the Sith, but when viewed in context with the rest of Star Wars, that film is probably the closest Lucas got to political commentary. (Even if he claims the Empire is supposed to represent America in the Vietnam War.)
Why Dune is poised to eclipse Star Wars
The status-quo of Trek and Wars isn't likely to change soon. If you take two steps back from any internal (read: Twitter) fandom wars, Trek is Trek and Wars is Wars. But new-yet-familiar sci-fi thing can swoop in. Yes, it really could be Dune.
Like Star Wars, Dune seems to be a coming-of-age-story rooted in the Hero's Journey. Paul Atreides is forced to leave his utopian home planet of Caladan for the sandy desert world of Arrakis. Atreides leaves behind the Federation-esque comfort of Star Trek and goes to live on a planet that looks like Tatooine (if you squint). In this way, Dune is a Space Opera that is somehow minimalist and maximalist at once.
Imagine if The Expanse stayed in the Belt for the entire series. Imagine if the Skywalker family tried to rule the galaxy from Tatooine. Imagine if Spock lived on Vulcan for all of Star Trek. All of those scenarios describe Dune. There's a big galaxy out there, but the stakes are tied to some dirt and some grit, and yes, literal sand on a planet nicknamed for having a bunch of sand.
The political leanings of Dune are also left of Star Wars, but not quite as progressive as Star Trek. In terms of something the masses are going to love .... Dune feels so good for 2021.
Politically speaking, if Star Wars is like John McCain, and Star Trek is like Barack Obama, then Dune is pretty much the Biden of space opera, and not just because Biden's situation is comparable to what Duke Leto faces in the first book.
Dune is about good people making the best of a bad situation
Dune appears to be an old-school narrative, but it's a little more cynical than Star Wars. Arguably, Dune has less hope and optimism than Trek or Wars. Dune isn't about winning the revolution or boldly reaching for a better future, Dune is about good people making the best of a bad situation. Herbert himself said that his overall message of Dune was "beware of heroes."
This type of political heroism is actually untested in mainstream sci-fi, at least in terms of something becoming super-popular.
Atreides might appear to be a "chosen one" like Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, but he's really not. Paul is a political animal and, briefly, a hero.
If Denis Villeneuve puts that combination into a compelling and beautiful cinematic package, it's possible, at least for a little while, the debates about the Skywalker family could be replaced by our very passionate feelings for House Atreides.
Dune will be released on October 1, 2021