With the news that J.J. Abrams has been hired to cowrite and direct Episode IX, Lucasfilm’s message is clear: It’s time to restore peace to the Star Wars galaxy. The last year has been a particularly chaotic one for the franchise, which has endured the third-act triage of Rogue One; the filmmaker-switcheroo on next year’s Han Solo movie; and the recent parting-of-ways with original Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow. The recruitment of Abrams—who, along with cowriter Lawrence Kasdan, helped turn 2015’s The Force Awakens into an Oscar-nominated, box office-blasting smash—signals that Lucasfilm, at least for now, is less interested in bringing new perspectives to the Star Wars world, and more interested in doubling their efforts in order to get these movies back on track.
To some Star Wars fans, even the ones who loved Force Awakens, the decision to draft Abrams is reason enough to send up a few flares (not to mention a lot of lens flare jokes). With Looper‘s Rian Johnson overseeing this December’s Episode VIII, it appeared as though Lucasfilm was intent in taking more behind-the-camera chances with the franchise than George Lucas ever did (Lucas directed four of the Star Wars movies released between 1977 and 2005, and held creative sway over the rest). So when Trevorrow exited last week, Twitter collectively floated a who’s-next wishlist of possible replacements, with names like Ava DuVernay, Edgar Wright, Patty Jenkins, and Star Wars Rebels co-creator Dave Filoni all making the rounds.
Those are, admittedly, far more intriguing prospects than Abrams. That’s not meant as a ding: His Force Awakens was a heavy lift—he somehow had to make a movie that would appease old-timers while tractor-breaming newcomers—and, even under those constraints, Abrams wound up making one of the (relatively) springiest movies of his career. Yet audiences have already seen what a J.J. Abrams Star Wars movie looks like: Sturdy and respectful, with a sometimes pleasing, occasionally fan-pandering sense of how to soothe our neediest pangs of nostalgia. For Force Awakens, that worked fine. But the Star Wars saga is now one of the longest-running stories in popular culture, and, as evidenced by the can’t-reverse-course stiltedness of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, it’s a tale that suffers when one person hangs around in the cockpit for too long. Fans still dream of what would have happened if David Lynch hadn’t turned down Return of the Jedi, and with good reason: Star Wars, for all its charm, has always needed a bit more wildness, the kind you can only get when bringing fresh eyes to an overcrowded narrative. (And besides: Who wouldn’t want to see Jack Nance as a rancor trainer?)
Still, to paraphrase a famous Jedi: When you consider just how shaky things have been in the Star Wars galaxy (and this is a lot of tumult, even in the teetering-tentpole era), Abrams’ hiring makes sense, from a certain point of view. The Disney-owned Lucasfilm has already slotted a May 2019 release date for Episode IX, and while there’s surely some wiggle room on the calendar, a production this oversized, and this deadline-driven, needs to be up and running in a matter of days, not weeks. Bringing someone like Abrams, who’s lived in this universe before—and, most crucially, has on-the-ground relationships with the franchise’s stars, technicians, and producers—helps Lucasfilm avert a gazillion different headaches. He’s not the daring, Han Solo-like risk-taker that fans want, but he may be the Wedge Antilles that they need: A reliable, experienced hand who can at least pull the fleet out of trouble. Here’s hoping that, once he’s helped stabilize the Star Wars universe, Lucasfilm decides to open it up to others.