J.J. Abrams gets one surprising thing right about the Star Wars sequels
Nothing about Star Wars, or any big sci-fi/fantasy success story has been well-planned. Ever.
Everything about the Star Wars sequels could have been better if only Lucasfilm had a plan, right? While this argument is attractive, it falls apart under the smallest amount of scrutiny. Especially if we consider how Star Wars films have been planned historically.
In an interview with Collider, J.J. Abrams made fairly innocuous comments about how much having “a plan” matters in large creative projects with several moving parts like TV shows or big giant movies. The internet reacted pretty much exactly like you’d expect.
But what did Abrams actually say? And is he even right? Here’s why reading this as a roadmap to the various failures of the Star Wars sequel trilogy utterly flies in the face of any kind of reason or knowledge of how these movies get made.
Did J.J. Abrams admit to not having a plan for Star Wars?
Although the Collider article is framed as a “J.J. Abrams Reflects on Star Wars and When It's Critical to Have a Plan,” in the excellent interview conducted by journalist Adam Chitwood for the anniversary of Super8 — Abrams doesn’t come out and say, Having a plan is always good, I was wrong to not have a plan with Star Wars. Just so we’re clear, this is not what he said at all. Here’s what he actually said: (emphases mine.)
“I’ve been involved in a number of projects that have been — in most cases, series — that have ideas that begin the thing where you feel like you know where it’s gonna go, and sometimes it’s an actor who comes in, other times it’s a relationship that as-written doesn’t quite work, and things that you think are gonna just be so well-received just crash and burn and other things that you think like, ‘Oh that’s a small moment’ or ‘That’s a one-episode character’ suddenly become a hugely important part of the story. I feel like what I’ve learned as a lesson a few times now, and it’s something that especially in this pandemic year working with writers [has become clear], the lesson is that you have to plan things as best you can, and you always need to be able to respond to the unexpected. And the unexpected can come in all sorts of forms, and I do think that there’s nothing more important than knowing where you’re going.”
Abrams is not saying that having an ironclad, inflexible, fully mapped-out plan for a narrative project is always the way to go. In fact, he points out that sometimes “you feel like you know” the direction of the project but something changes. Yes, he does say, “you have to plan things as best you can,” but he follows that up with. “the unexpected can come in all sorts of forms.”
In no way is he saying he (or anyone) should have planned out the Star Wars trilogy out better. Abrams wasn’t even supposed to direct Episode IX in the first place, so the lack of planning there wasn’t exactly his fault. Plus, something pretty unexpected happened when Carrie Fisher died. Who could have planned for that?
The original Star Wars trilogy was not well-planned
If you’re saying that the Star Wars sequels are bad because they weren’t planned out, you're accidentally creating a maxim that claims: creative projects like film trilogies or TV shows are successful because of good planning.
This is obviously false. In fact, mountains of evidence to the contrary. Within Star Wars, the fact that the sequel trilogies weren’t planned out and “failed” is actually kind of weird. Based on the track record of Star Wars, the fact they weren’t planned should have helped! And that’s because the original trilogy wasn’t planned as well as you think.
Just like the sequels, the classic Star Wars trilogy consisted of three films helmed by different directors. Both trilogies have a beginning film that was fairly well-liked, a second film that was daring and controversial, and a final film in which the only major female character is randomly retconned into an existing family — even though that wasn’t really the plan before.
Yes, Mark Hamill and others have gone on record several times saying he and Carrie Fisher were unconvinced that George Lucas always planned that Leia was secretly a Skywalker. This is just one example. There are countless others, including the fact that it’s also not clear the famous Darth Vader twist in Empire was well planned either.
The reason nobody complains about Vader getting retconned as Luke’s father or Leia suddenly becoming his sister is that those twists mostly work. Objectively, Leia being Luke’s sister makes no sense in the context of Empire or A New Hope. Not from a plot perspective or a thematic one. It’s just simply something those movies got away with. Things either work or they don’t. The Leia thing shouldn’t work, but it kind of does.
If Return of the Jedi came out now, everyone would hate that twist and accuse the trilogy of being poorly planned. (Which it is!)
Rey being a Palpatine just didn’t work. The fact that it was unplanned is beside the point.
Planning in sci-fi and fantasy is overrated
There is not one interview with a great science fiction film director (like Ridley Scott) or legendary fantasy novelist (like Tolkien) in which they reveal the secret to their success is just rigorous planning. “The reason my book/movie/TV show is so great is that I really planned it out really well,” said nobody ever. Most of Blade Runner was revised and fixed on the fly. Tolkien rewrote huge parts of the Hobbit to make it match up with Lord of the Rings way after the fact. Spock in “The Cage,” (the first Star Trek pilot) is nothing like what the character would become.
This isn’t to say things should be made sloppily, and the cynical person would say that’s what happened with the Star Wars sequels. Sure, some kind of planning is needed to pull, but to pretend there’s some inherent virtue to meticulously planning complex sci-fi and fantasy is absurd. Having a plan is great (sometimes), but art is not the result of being hyper-organized. What J.J. Abrams says is smart and highlights the need to be both thoughtful and flexible. He also just admitted to learning how much planning matters when you’re making art during a pandemic.
Could The Rise of Skywalker have been better had everybody had a little more time? This seems like a giant duh. But let’s not pretend the will of the Force cares about a plan. It never did before, and if the next round of Star Wars films succeeds, we’ll chalk it up to luck and not credit a mystical energy field called “planning.”