This Could Be The Most Comprehensive Star Wars Article In The Galaxy

18 December 2019
Star Wars, J.J Abrams, The Rise of Skywalker, Stormtrooper, Movie
Images: Annie Leibovitz
After four decades, Star Wars is drawing to its epic conclusion. We went behind the scenes with director JJ Abrams and the cast for the first look

There’s a desert valley in southern Jordan called Wadi Rum, or sometimes “the Valley of the Moon”. There are stone inscriptions in Wadi Rum that are more than 2000 years old. Lawrence of Arabia passed through there during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. More recently, J. J. Abrams went there to film parts of the latest Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker, because it’s largely uninhabited and starkly beautiful and looks plausibly alien, and one of the things that has always made the Star Wars movies feel so real – as if they had a real life of their own that continues on out beyond the edges of the screen – is the way they’re shot on location, with as few digital effects as possible. George Lucas shot the Tatooine scenes from A New Hope in southern Tunisia. For Skywalker, it’s Wadi Rum.

They don’t do it that way because it’s easy. Abrams and his crew had to build miles of road into the desert. They basically had to set up a small town out there, populated by the cast and extras and crew – the creature-effects department alone had 70 people. The Jordanian military got involved. The Jordanian royal family got involved. There was sand. There were sandstorms, when all you could do was take cover and huddle in your tent and – if you’re John Boyega, who plays the ex-Stormtrooper Finn – listen to reggae.

But in a way that’s the whole point: you’re out there so the world can get up in your grill and make its presence felt on film. “It’s the things that you can’t anticipate – the imperfections,” says Oscar Isaac, who plays the Resistance pilot Poe Dameron. “It’s very difficult to design imperfection, and the imperfections that you have in these environments immediately create a sense of authenticity. You just believe it more.”

When Isaac arrived in Wadi Rum for his first week of shooting, Abrams had set up a massive greenscreen in the middle of the desert. “And I was like, ‘J. J., can I ask you a question? I notice we’re shooting on greenscreen.’ And he’s like, ‘So why the hell are we in the desert?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ And he said, ‘Well, because look: the way that the sand interacts with the light, and the type of shots you would set up – if you were designing the shot on a computer you would never even think to do that.’ There’s something about the way that the light and the environment and everything plays together.” It’s that something, the presence and the details and the analogue imperfections of a real nondigital place that makes Star Wars so powerful.

It was powerful enough to bring 65,000 people to Chicago in April for Star Wars Celebration, a fan convention where you could see a giant Stormtrooper head made out of 36,440 tiny Lego Stormtrooper mini-figures, which is a world record of some kind, though I’m not sure exactly what, and where people were dressed up as Muppets who were themselves dressed up as Star Wars characters. But the main event was the launch of the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker, which was held in a 10,000-seat arena and was such a big deal that even though the trailer was going to be released on the internet literally seconds after it was over, I – an at least theoretically respectable member of the media – was not only tagged, wristbanded, escorted, and metal-detected, but sniffed by a K-9 unit before I could go in.

I sat down with Abrams a couple of hours later. For the occasion, he was wearing a suit so black and sharp, he could have been doing Men in Black cosplay, but his most distinctive feature is his dark curly hair, which is upswept in a way that is only slightly suggestive of devil horns. Abrams talks rapidly, as if he can barely keep up with the things his racing brain is telling him to say. When I told him that not only was Star Wars the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, but that all 10 of the Top 10 trending topics were Star Wars-related, and that he personally was No. 5, he was visibly stunned.

Then he recovered enough to say: “Well, I aspire to No. 4.” (For the record, No. 4 was the late Supreme Leader Snoke, who frankly did seem beatable. If you’re curious, No. 11 was pro golfer Zach Johnson, who had just accidentally hit his ball with a practice swing. Life goes on.)

Disney executives talk about how important it is to “event-ise” Star Wars movies; i.e., to make them feel not just like movies but like seriously momentous occasions. They won’t have much trouble with this one: The Rise of Skywalker isn’t just the last movie in the Star Wars trilogy that began in 2015 with The Force Awakens; it’s the last movie in a literal, actual trilogy of trilogies that started with the very first Star Wars movie back in 1977, which began the saga of the Skywalker family. The Rise of Skywalker will finally, after 42 years, bring that saga to an end.

We all thought the story was over in 1983 with Return of the Jedi, and then we really thought it was over in 2005 with Revenge of the Sith. But Star Wars has always been an unruly beast, too big and powerful (and profitable) to be contained in one movie, or even in a trilogy, or even in two trilogies, let alone numberless novels, TV shows, comics, video games, Happy Meals, and so on. Now Abrams has to gather all those threads and bring closure to a story that was started by somebody else, in an America that feels a very long time ago indeed. “That’s the challenge of this movie,” Abrams says. “It wasn’t just to make one film that as a stand-alone experience would be thrilling, and scary, and emotional, and funny, but one that if you were to watch all nine of the films, you’d feel like, Well, of course – that!”

Members of the crew shade and shine Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), the only cast member to appear in all nine of the Skywalker films, while BB-8 looks on

When Lucas made the first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, he cheekily labelled it Episode V, then went back and re-labelled the first movie as Episode IV, as if the movies were an old-fashioned serial that the rest of us were all just tuning in to. Around that time, he also started talking about Star Wars as a nine-part epic – so in 2012, when Lucas retired and sold Lucasfilm to Disney, it wasn’t exactly heresy that Disney announced more movies. At the time, Kathleen Kennedy had just been named co-chairperson of Lucasfilm, and she tapped Abrams to direct the first Disney-owned post-Lucas Star Wars movie. It was a bit like saying, “Make the lightning strike again, please. Exactly here, if you could. Oh, and could you also earn back that $4 billion we just spent to buy Lucasfilm?” (Narrator voice: He could.)

At first blush, Abrams’s debut Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, looked like an elaborate homage to the original. Just like in A New Hope, there’s a young Force-sensitive person on a poor desert planet – that’s Rey, played by Daisy Ridley – who finds a droid with a secret message that’s vital to the Rebellion (or wait, sorry, it’s the Resistance now). There’s a villain in a black mask, just like Darth Vader, except that it’s his grandson Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), né Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia. Kylo has a planet-killing weapon, much like the Death Star but way bigger, which becomes the target of a desperate attack by Resistance X-wings. There’s even a bar full of aliens.

Abrams also insisted on keeping to the analogue aesthetic of the original trilogy: those aliens had to be latex and yak hair, not bits and bytes, and everything possible was shot on location using film cameras, not digital ones. Even Lucas had abandoned that approach by the time he made the second Star Wars trilogy, but many fans consider those movies to be a cautionary tale. “Famously, the prequels were mostly greenscreen environments,” Abrams says. “And that was George himself doing that, and it ended up looking exactly how he wanted it to look – and I always preferred the look of the original movies, because I just remember when you’re in the snow on Hoth, when you’re in the desert on Tatooine, and when you’re in the forests of Endor – it’s amazing. If you put a vaporator here, there, all of a sudden almost any natural location suddenly becomes a Star Wars location.”

But the more interesting thing about The Force Awakens and its successor, The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, was how they subtly complicated Lucas’ vision. Thirty years have gone by since the ending of Return of the Jedi, during which time the newly reborn Republic became complacent and politically stagnant, allowing the rise of the reactionary neo-imperial First Order, whose origins we will learn more about in Skywalker. “It was almost like if the Argentine Nazis had sort of got together and actually started to bring that back in some real form,” Abrams says. Just like that, the rules of the Star Wars universe changed. It wasn’t all over when the Ewoks sang. Obi-Wan Kenobi and all those Bothans had died in vain. Even Han and Leia split up. It’s all a little less of a fairy tale now.

The feather-haired godling Luke suffered the trauma of having a Padawan go bad on his watch. It’s an echo of what happened to his old mentor, Obi-Wan, with Anakin Skywalker, who became Darth Vader. But where Obi-Wan made peace with it, waiting serenely in the desert of Tatooine for the next Chosen One to arrive, Luke’s guilt curdled into shame. He hid himself away, so that his Chosen One, Rey, had to spend most of The Force Awakens searching for him, and then another whole movie convincing him with the help of Yoda’s Force ghost to keep the Jedi Order going at all. Star Wars arrived as an antidote to the disillusionment of the 1970s – but now, in its middle age, Star Wars is grappling with disillusionment of its own.

Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Ridley, Daniels, and John Boyega (Finn) await the call to action for a chase scene

Where Lucas’s trilogies tended to follow the roots and branches of the Skywalker family tree – their personal saga was the saga of the galaxy writ small – the new movies have a slightly wider aperture and take in a new generation of heroes. There’s Rey, of course, who sources say will have progressed in her training since the end of The Last Jedi to the point where it’s almost complete. With that taken care of, all she has to do is reconstitute the entire Jedi Order from scratch, because as far as we know she’s the Last One.

If Kylo Ren can’t be redeemed it will almost certainly fall to Rey to put him down, in spite of their maybe-bond. Their relationship is the closest thing the new trilogy has to a star-crossed love story on the order of Han and Leia: a source close to the movie says that their Force-connection will turn out to run even deeper than we thought. They’re uniquely suited to understand each other, but at the same time they are in every way each other’s inverse, down to Kylo’s perverse rejection of his family, which is the one thing Rey craves most. “I think there’s a part of Rey that’s like, dude, you f****** had it all, you had it all,” Ridley says. “That was always a big question during filming: you had it all and you let it go.”

Rey is also, according to totally unsubstantiated internet theories, a leading candidate to be the Skywalker of the title, pending some kind of head-snapping reveal about her ancestry. (For the record, the other leading unsubstantiated internet theory has the “Skywalker” of the title referring to an entirely new order of Force users who will rise up and replace the Jedi.)

Rey seems ready for it all, or as ready as anybody could be. “It’s nice having that shot at the beginning of the teaser,” Ridley says, over avocado toast at a fancy Chicago hotel, “because I think it’s quite a good visual representation of where she is now: confident, calm, less fearful… It’s still sort of overwhelming, but in a different way. It feels more right – less like inevitable and more like there’s a focus to the journey.” Focus is a good word for Rey: on-screen Ridley’s dramatic eyebrows form a wickedly sharp arrow of concentration. I asked Ridley what she’s thinking about when Rey is using her Force powers, and it turns out Rey seems focused because Ridley is actually seriously focused. “I literally visualise it. When I was lifting rocks I was visualising the rocks moving. And then I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I made it happen!’ And obviously there’s loads of rocks on strings, so, no, I didn’t. But I visualise that it’s really going on.” (That scene, which comes at the end of The Last Jedi, is another example of classic nondigital Star Wars effects: those were real rocks. “It was actually really amazing,” Ridley says. “It was sort of like a baby mobile.”)

There’s also Finn, the apostate Stormtrooper, played by the irrepressible Boyega, who in person practically vibrates with energy and speaks with a South London accent very different from Finn’s American one. In some ways Finn has gone through a complete character arc already: he confronted his past – by beating down his old boss, Captain Phasma – and found his courage and his moral centre. He has had a tendency to panic, if not actively desert, in clutch situations, but at the Battle of Crait he proved that he was past that. “I think he’s just an active member of the Resistance now,” Boyega says. “Episode Eight, he couldn’t decide what team he was fighting for. But since then he’s made a clear decision.” (Cast members tend to refer to the Star Wars movies by their episode numbers: four is the original movie, seven is The Force Awakens, and so on.)

First Order leaders General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E. Grant) on the bridge of Kylo Ren’s destroyer

Finn still has to make a clear decision about his romantic situation, though. As Boyega put it at Star Wars Celebration: “Finn is single and willing to mingle!” The movies have been teasing his emotional connections with both Rey and the Resistance mechanic Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran, with whom he shared a fleeting battlefield kiss in The Last Jedi. Rose seems like the more positive choice, given that she stops Finn from deserting early in the movie and saves his life at the Battle of Crait, and that the precedents for romantic involvements with Jedi are extremely bad. Tran is the first Asian-American woman to play a major role in a Star Wars movie, and she has been the target of both racist and sexist attacks online. But she has come through them as a fan favourite: when she appeared onstage in Chicago, she got a standing ovation.

Finally there’s Poe, who has mostly struggled with his own cocky impulsiveness, because he’s a loose-cannon-who-just-can’t-play-by-the-rules. Poe will have to step up and become a leader, because the Resistance is seriously short on officer material. In fact, some of that transformation will already have happened where The Rise of Skywalker picks up, which is about a year after the end of The Last Jedi. “There has been a bit of shared history that you haven’t seen,” Isaac says. “Whereas in the other films, Poe is this kind of lone wolf, now he’s really part of a group. They’re going out and going on missions and have a much more familiar dynamic now.” Star Wars has always been about friendship as much as it is about romance, and as of the end of The Last Jedi, Rey, Finn, and Poe are all finally in the same place for the first time since The Force Awakens.

The Rise of Skywalker introduces some new players, too. There’s a tiny one-wheeled droid called D-O and a large banana-slug alien named Klaud. Oh, and Naomi Ackie, Keri Russell, and Richard E. Grant have all joined the cast, though, again, we know practically nothing about who they’re playing. Going from being outside the Star Wars leviathan to being right in its belly can be a dizzying experience for a first-timer. “I actually tried to do this thing while we were filming,” Ackie says, “where I’d go one day, walking through London without seeing a Star Wars reference somewhere. And you can’t do it. You really can’t. So it’s extremely surreal to be in it and see how it works from the inside.”

If anything, Star Wars is only getting more omnipresent. The franchise under Lucas was a colossus, but he still ran it essentially as a private concern. He could make movies or not, as his muse dictated – he was beholden to no shareholders. But Star Wars under Disney makes the old Star Wars look positively quaint. Between 1977 and 2005, Lucasfilm released six Star Wars movies; when Skywalker premieres in December, Disney will have released five Star Wars movies in five years. “I think there is a larger expectation that Disney has,” Kennedy says. “On the other hand, though, I think that Disney is very respectful of what this is, and right from the beginning we talked about the fragility of this form of storytelling. Because it’s something that means so much to fans that you can’t turn this into some kind of factory approach. You can’t even do what Marvel does, necessarily, where you pick characters and build new franchises around those characters. This needs to evolve differently.”

A useful example of that fragility might be the relatively modest performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story in 2018. Solo was a perfectly good Star Wars movie that has made almost $400 million worldwide – but it’s also, according to industry estimates, the first one to actually lose money. In response Disney has gently but firmly pumped the brakes: the first movie in the next Star Wars trilogy, which will be helmed by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the duo behind Game of Thrones, won’t arrive till Christmas of 2022, with further instalments every other year after that. There’s no official word as to what stories they’ll tell, or when a second trilogy being developed by Rian Johnson will appear.

But even as the movies pause, Star Wars continues to colonise any and all other media. In addition to video games, comics, novels, cartoons, container-loads of merch, etc., there are not one but two live-action TV series in the pipeline for Disney+, Disney’s new streaming service: The Mandalorian, created by Jon Favreau, and an as-yet-untitled show about Cassian Andor from Rogue One. I have personally tried a virtual-reality experience called Vader Immortal, written and produced by Dark Knight screenwriter David Goyer. At the end of May, Disneyland will open Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a massive, 14-acre, $1 billion attraction where you can fly the Millennium Falcon, be captured by the First Order, and drink a blue milk cocktail (it’s actually nondairy) and Coca-Cola products out of exclusive BB-8-shaped bottles at the cantina. It’s the largest single-theme expansion in the park’s history: Take that, Toy Story Land. The Disney World version will open in August.

You realise now that, under Lucas, Star Wars always slightly had the brakes on – we were always kept a little starved for product. With Disney driving, we’ll really find out how big Star Wars can get.

Changes can be liberating. Star Wars doesn’t have to stay frozen in time; if anything it’s the opposite, if it doesn’t change it’ll die. It will turn into Flash Gordon. For Abrams, that means he can’t go through this process so haunted by the ghost of George Lucas (who is of course still alive, but you get what I’m saying) that he winds up doing a cinematic Lucas impression. At some point Abrams has to let Abrams be Abrams.

The Rise of Skywalker might be that point. “Working on nine, I found myself approaching it slightly differently,” he says. “Which is to say that, on seven, I felt beholden to Star Wars in a way that was interesting – I was doing what to the best of my ability I felt Star Wars should be.” But this time something changed. Abrams found himself making different choices – for the camera angles, the lighting, the story. “It felt slightly more renegade; it felt slightly more like, you know, f*** it, I’m going to do the thing that feels right because it does, not because it adheres to something.”

There are a lot of small subtle ways that Abrams’ Star Wars is different from Lucas’, but if there’s a standout, it’s the way that the new movies look at history. Lucas’ Star Wars movies are bathed in the deep golden-sunset glow of the idyllic Old Republic, that more civilised age – but the new movies aren’t like that. They’re not nostalgic. They don’t long for the past; they’re more about the promise of the future. “This trilogy is about this young generation, this new generation, having to deal with all the debt that has come before,” Abrams says. “And it’s the sins of the father, and it’s the wisdom and the accomplishments of those who did great things, but it’s also those who committed atrocities, and the idea that this group is up against this unspeakable evil and are they prepared? Are they ready? What have they learned from before? It’s less about grandeur. It’s less about restoring an old age. It’s more about preserving a sense of freedom and not being one of the oppressed.”

The new generation doesn’t have that same connection to the old days that Luke and Leia did. It’s not like their parents destroyed the Old Republic. We don’t even know who their parents were! They’re too young to remember the Empire. They’re just here to clean up the mess they got left with, the disastrous consequences of bad decisions made by earlier generations, and try to survive long enough to see the future. Is any of this resonating with 2019? Might there possibly be a generation around here somewhere that’s worried about the consequences of its own decisions for the future? Star Wars has never been and probably never should be a vehicle for political arguments, but to paraphrase Ursula Le Guin, great science fiction is never really about the future. It’s about the present.

You could even – if you’re into that kind of thing – imagine the story of the new Star Wars trilogy as a metaphor for the making of the new Star Wars trilogy. In fact, I was totally prepared – because I am into that kind of thing! – to try to push this overthought metafictional hot take onto Abrams… but I didn’t have to. Abrams got there ahead of me. “The idea of the movie is kind of how I felt going into the movie as a filmmaker,” he says, “which is to say that I’ve inherited all this stuff, great stuff, and good wisdom, and the good and the bad, and it’s all coming to this end, and the question is, do we have what it takes to succeed?”

Kylo Ren has it all wrong: you can’t bring back the past and become your own grandfather, and you can’t kill the past, either. All you can do is make your peace with it and learn from it and move on. Abrams is doing that with Star Wars – and meanwhile the Resistance is going to have to do that, too, if they really are going to bring this saga to an end. The same goes for the Jedi and their struggle with the Sith. To end this story, really end it, they’re going to have to figure out the conditions of a more permanent victory over the forces of darkness. Their past was imperfect at best, and the present is a complete disaster – but the future is all before them. This time, finally, they’re going to get it right.