After Colin Trevorrow's departure from Star Wars 9, fans speculated who could replace him as the director of the final episode of the sequel trilogy. Trevorrow's sudden exit, coupled with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's replacement with Ron Howard, makes it seem that Lucasfilm is having trouble finding directors who understand Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy's vision for the future of Star Wars. Today, Lucasfilm announced that J. J. Abrams would take over directing and writing Episode IX. Abrams, who directed the successful and lucrative The Force Awakens (2015), is also serving as an executive producer of The Last Jedi (2017) which is set to come out this December. In many ways, Abrams is the safe choice: he's already directing a Star Wars film which was a commercial and critical success, which means that he has an understanding of the Star Wars brand and how Lucasfilm operates. In the official Star Wars site press release, Kathleen Kennedy said of Abrams:
With The Force Awakens, J.J. delivered everything we could have possibly hoped for, and I am so excited that he is coming back to close out this trilogy.
Lucasfilm clearly wants to build off of the success and excitement that The Force Awakens generated, but The Force Awakens should not be the model for Episode IX. If Abrams wants Episode IX to be successful, then he will have to consider the lessons that he learned in The Force Awakens. Episode IX can definitely grow from the ideas, characters, and spirit that Abrams helped to create in The Force Awakens, but Abrams will have to acknowledge that the final chapter's needs are different than first chapter's needs. As such, some things that were successful in The Force Awakens won't work in Episode IX, and some things that Episode IX will explore will need a level of maturity that The Force Awakens didn't need or have. If Abrams approaches Episode IX as a new chapter that requires a new strategy, then the final chapter of the Star Wars sequel trilogy can be the successful conclusion that fans want.
The Force Awakens - Why It Worked
Critics of The Force Awakens - both the people who loved it and the people who hated it - all agree about its similarity to A New Hope (1977). Abrams himself has discussed that the parallels between the two movies are on purpose; The Force Awakens is both an homage to the Star Wars original trilogy and its fans. The film's structure, characters, events, and even some of its locations bear a striking resemblance. Rey, as the "new" Luke Skywalker, is isolated from the action on a desert planet before she finds a droid with sensitive information and is caught up in a mission against the First Order (the "new" Empire). There's an escape from a First Order base, an evil super weapon which is like the Death Star (but bigger!), a cantina full of strange aliens, and an old mentor who sacrifices himself against the big, bad masked villain. There's also "I've got a bad feeling about this", and a joke about how the Millennium Falcon looks like garbage, some nostalgic shots of Han and Leia, and a very silly trash compactor joke. In other words, The Force Awakens takes all of the pieces of A New Hope, mixes them up and reimagines them as a slightly different film that hits on many of the same plot points and emotional notes.
Previously: J.J. Abrams Responds To New Hope Rip-Off Claims
At best, this is understood as a loving and self-aware celebration of Star Wars and Star Wars fans. It's the first Star Wars film directed by someone who grew up with Star Wars, and Abrams wanted fans to know that he was one of them. The repetition of plot could be seen as an exploration of the theme that history repeats itself, and having different characters take on parallel journeys strengthens the relationship that the film has to the films that came before it.
At worst, The Force Awakens could be seen as corporate pandering, meant to play on fans' nostalgia of the original trilogy in order to get them to buy movie tickets, t-shirts, and toys. In this case, history repeats itself simply in that fans are being resold the same movie under a new glossy veneer.
Whether you're a cynic or a Force Awakens fanatic, the fact still remains that The Force Awakens was a massive success. It did exactly what it set out to do: get fans excited about the new Star Wars empire that Lucasfilm was unveiling. Grossing over $2 billion worldwide, and almost $1 billion domestically, The Force Awakens became the third highest grossing film of all time.
This success cannot be divorced from The Force Awakens' use of A New Hope. It was a feel-good film that was steeped in nostalgia precisely because it was trying to revitalize and appeal to the Star Wars fandom. The Force Awakens did exactly what it was supposed to do, and the strategy that Abrams employed for The Force Awakens was a good one.