The differences between Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi could not be starker. The first two episodes of the new Star Wars trilogy go in very different directions, which makes one wonder: What the hell is going to happen with Episode IX? Will the return of J.J. Abrams as the writer and director of Star Wars mean we'll also get a return to the more traditional sort of Star Wars story, or was The Last Jedi a signal that the galaxy far, far away is making a drastic shift permanently?
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the first new Star Wars movie in a long time. It was likely in large part because of that fact that the film made the decision to lean hard into previous Star Wars films for its inspiration. In many ways, the plot of The Force Awakens was similar to or the same as Star Wars: A New Hope. A droid with important data is being chased by the bad guys while being found by a random person who decides to join the cause and get the data to the rebels. Not everybody loved the way the film borrowed heavily from franchise history, but it's difficult to argue that the film wasn't a successful "Star Wars movie" because it did so.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a different sort of movie by nearly every conceivable measure. The movie sees traditional heroes acting in theoretically less than heroic ways, it uses traditional Star Wars story ideas only long enough to successfully subvert them. It takes the mysteries the previous film created and solve some of them in a way that many found unsatisfying, but certainly not unsurprising. It's a much more character-driven story than any within the previous trilogies.
Originally, the plan was to have a third director, Colin Trevorrow, come in to handle Star Wars: Episode IX, but that has fallen through and now J.J. Abrams will be directing the final episode of the trilogy, based on a script he is currently co-writing with Chris Terrio. One has to wonder what kind of movie these two are currently writing. Will it be something more akin to the first film in this trilogy, or the more recent one?
The fan criticism seems to be more vocal now than it was two years ago, though how much that's actually impacting box office results is hard to gauge. The Last Jedi isn't doing quite as well as The Force Awakens, though that's to be expected. The overall box numbers aren't suffering all that much. If they were, Lucasfilm might take that as a sign they need to pull back, but people are still going to see the movie, which will always be the determining factor for Disney.
It's easy enough to believe that with J.J. Abrams back in charge we're likely to get a movie like the last one he made, but the answer is actually far from clear. First of all, while Abrams wasn't directly involved in creating Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he is still an executive producer on the franchise. It's not like he had no idea what Rian Johnson was doing. It's a safe bet that if Abrams had an issue with the script's direction he would have voiced it, and while Abrams isn't the last word on the topic (that would be Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy) Abrams would certainly be listened to and there's a good chance such disagreement would have at least been rumored.
In point of fact, the information that we do have is quite the opposite. Frequent J.J. Abrams collaborator Greg Grunberg said two years ago that the director had told him that he liked the script for Episode VIII so much that Abrams said he wished he was directing it. Now that The Last Jedi exists and has generally been well-regarded (with some detractors), Abrams has his chance to follow Johnson and direct a movie like it with Episode IX.
At the same time, J.J. Abrams isn't Rian Johnson. He's got plenty of skill and ability but he's just never made a movie quite like the projects Johnson has made. It's hard to even imagine what a movie like The Last Jedi, but directed by Abrams, would even look like. Abrams has a particular style and we shouldn't expect a drastic shift away from it. Star Wars: Episode IX will still be a J.J. Abrams movie.
With two years to wait before this new trilogy comes to an end, there will be plenty of time to discuss what might happen in the final entry. However, thanks to the very different take of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the spectrum of possibilities is even broader than we would have otherwise believed.