Today it was announced that Taika Waititi would be directing and co-writing a Star Wars film. It’s great news, but fans should probably not get too excited, writes Sam Brooks.
In 2017, when a user suggested on Twitter that Taika Waititi should direct a Star Wars film, the director quote-tweeted them with this retort:
I'd be fired within a week.
— Taika Waititi (@TaikaWaititi) September 6, 2017
Which is why it’s surprising to hear the news today that the Academy Award winner himself has signed on to direct and co-write, with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), a new Star Wars film. It’s cause for celebration – he’d be the first man of colour to direct a Star Wars film, definitely the first indigenous person, and as every New Zealander for the next 20 years will boast, definitely the first New Zealander. But, and sorry to set everybody’s phasers to stun for a moment, it’s also cause for pause. (If you got mad at that reference, congrats! You’re a nerd.)
Taika’s great. There’s no disputing that. He’s even great within the confines of a franchise; Thor: Ragnarok is inarguably one of the top-tier films of that franchise, with enough of his personality that it sits as easily within his own canon as it does the Marvel canon. But Star Wars is, frankly, a franchise that has struggled with personalities.
Let’s reflect on the past decade of Star Wars films.
In May 2014, Disney announced that director Gareth Edwards (the 2014 Godzilla) would be directing an anthology film that would turn out to be Rogue One. In August 2016, news broke that Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) would be directing several weeks of reshoots, so extensive that it would move him up from an uncredited script doctor to a credited screenwriter. Rogue One was released that year to mixed-but-largely-positive reviews.
In July 2015, Lucasfilm announced that director duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) would be directing a Han Solo anthology film. In June 2017, Lucasfilm announced that the directors had “left the project” and would be replaced by Ron Howard. Solo: A Star Wars Story was released the following year to middling reviews.
In August 2015, news broke that Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) would be directing the then untitled third film in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. In September 2017, news broke that Trevorrow had left the project over “creative differences”, and later it was announced that The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams would take over. The film would eventually be titled Rise of Skywalker, and almost nobody was happy with it.
There’s a pattern emerging here. Out of the five Star Wars films released by Lucasfilm (and Disney) in the past decade, only two have been released without severe, publicised interference from the studio or some form of creative differences. Star Wars is a notoriously precious and troubled franchise, with close to 50 cancelled projects across a range of media (games, TV, books, so on). A project announced is more likely to get cancelled than it is to make it to the hungry eyes of its fanbase.
Somehow, this hasn’t hampered the franchise’s commercial success. With the exception of Solo: A Star Wars Story, all have gone on to gross over a billion dollars. Personality or no, people are coming to see these films. To put it bluntly: Star Wars is not a director- or writer-driven product. It’s a studio-driven product. That was fine, when the studio was named after the guy who created it (and less fine, if you consider two-thirds of the prequels). But not everybody has the eccentric genius of George Lucas, unlimited when it comes to creating a universe, more limited when it comes to writing human emotions.
As Waititi will well know, cynics can point to examples where the franchise tries to bring in a personality, and that personality ends up being beat into shape to fit what the franchise wants and needs, or what the studio thinks it needs. And if they don’t bend, they break and they get replaced by journeymen like Ron Howard and Tony Gilroy. No shade to them, they get the job done. But if that’s what Disney and/or Lucasfilm wants, why not hire them in the first place?
Every franchise wants an auteur. Every franchise wants the spark of having somebody interesting and award-winning at its helm. But Star Wars, even more so than super-franchise Marvel, has shown itself as being incredibly resistant to actually utilising those people. Gareth Edwards directed Monsters, one of the most inventive and disturbing monster films, but you wouldn’t know it from Rogue One. There’s almost no trace of the zippy fun of Lego Movie or 21 Jump Street in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
The one person who seems to have been able to get his film out there personality intact is Rian Johnson with The Last Jedi. Look how that turned out for him. The film still grossed over a billion dollars, but a vocal minority – and it was a minority, it’s just that a minority looks like a majority when your fanbase numbers several hundred million – made it seem like a risky failure. Johnson is still regularly getting shit from Star Wars diehards, among the most boring people in the world, and the film that followed it ended up being even more reviled for trying to reconstruct what he tore down.
I think if Taika is left to do what he wants, he could make a great Star Wars film. My favourite Star Wars products are ones that mess with the canon, or critique the parts of it that hold up less well. I loved The Last Jedi, and how it messed with the idea of the Skywalker legacy as being the only one that matters. To be even more niche, I loved Knights of the Old Republic II, a clear ancestor to the Last Jedi, and one that tore down the rigid ideas of the Jedi Order as being just as bad as the chaotic ones of the Sith.
The franchise could use some of Waititi’s humour, and the way he lightens harsh emotional truths with it. I don’t think a Star Wars film is necessary the best place to deploy it, but I think he could bring something amazing to a television show – he’s already been in and directed an episode of The Mandalorian – which is where Disney seems to be a little more loose. (The other part of today’s announcement was a television show from Leslye Headland, who co-created last year’s excellent Russian Doll, which counts as an even more out-there personality for the franchise to rein in.)
The only director who has made the best or most interesting film in their career under the Star Wars brand is George Lucas. For everyone else, even if they get to the end of the film with the vision they intended, it’s a compromised vision that still has to tick the boxes set out way back in 1977. This is a franchise that has fired more directors than it has hired.
If Waititi makes it to final cut, personality intact, we could have a great film. But a Star Wars film will always be a Star Wars film first and foremost – all names come under the title. Waititi is capable of miracles, but it’s safest to keep your expectations in check: if you’re hoping for Hunt for the Sandpeople or Two Moons, One Night, you’re probably going to be disappointed.