Last week, Lucasfilm officially announced that production on Star Wars Episode IX is about to get underway, but there was something about the statement that was really strange. It wasn't the reveal that Richard E. Grant will be in the film (though that's awesome) or initially the lack of Kerri Russell's name being found anywhere. It had to do with the announcement that both Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill would be part of Episode IX. Not that the fact that the pair are in the movie is all that surprising; Hamill at least was widely expected to be in the movie. No, what was shocking was that we were actually told this information, rather than having it locked inside J.J. Abrams' "mystery box" for the next 17 months.
Not only was it confirmed that Mark Hamill would be back in Star Wars Episode IX and that Carrie Fisher would be back as well, we were told exactly how General Leia would be in the movie: via the use of unused footage from Star Wars: The Force Awakens that will be repurposed. This is a lot of information from a director who is known for keeping details close to the vest.
One of J.J. Abrams' most famous creations isn't a film, but his TED Talk about the "mystery box." It's a unique look inside the head of a filmmaker who goes into detail about the way he approaches the craft. He feels that creating a feeling of mystery within the viewer is of vital importance. You can see this in many of his TV and film projects like Lost, Fringe and Star Trek Into Darkness. Mission: Impossible III is all about a MacGuffin called a Rabbit's Foot, whose importance is never revealed at all. And then, of course, there's Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The Force Awakens was full of mysterious questions. Who were Rey's parents? Who was Supreme Leader Snoke? How did Maz get Luke's old lightsaber? One of the main reasons that Star Wars: The Last Jedi was criticized by many fans was because it failed to address these questions, or did so in a less than satisfactory manner. Even before The Force Awakens came out, the production itself was full of mystery. Why isn't Mark Hamill on the poster? Is it because he's evil? Is Luke Skywalker Kylo Ren? That's the way the process went and it was entirely intentional on J.J. Abrams' part. For him, mystery leads to engagement.
It feels now like J.J. Abrams may be making a slightly different sort of movie than we're used to seeing from him. It feels like the man behind The Force Awakens would have intentionally left Mark Hamill's name off the cast list, and possibly Billy Dee Williams' too. Perhaps he would have announced that Carrie Fisher, or at least General Leia, would be in the film, leaving fans to spend the next year and a half debating about how such a thing is possible. Instead, we actually have some answers.
It's true, we don't know how Mark Hamill will appear in Star Wars Episode IX, and there are still many questions about how General Leia will appear. Even if we hadn't been given these details, we would have some expectation of what the answers were, but that's never stopped J.J. Abrams before. He's been very honest that for him, the intentional withholding of information is engaging. So why not withhold this information?
I'm not saying J.J. Abrams has been radically changed as a director, but it does seem like something important happened last Friday. Information was not intentionally withheld simply for the purposes of contriving a mystery. Whether this was a J.J. Abrams decision, a Lucasfilm decision or some combination of the two, it certainly seems to imply that Episode IX will not take quite the same production path that The Force Awakens did. I love a good mystery as much as the next fan, but I'm not sure there was an answer to the question of Rey's parentage that could have possibly lived up to the hype of the question. Maybe the backlash to The Last Jedi hasn't resulted in Lucasfilm feeling like the answers were wrong so much as it has realized the questions were unnecessary, and Episode IX won't be looking to create new mysteries where they're not required.
Star Wars Episode IX will certainly do what it can to keep its plot under wraps, and I'm not saying J.J. Abrams won't contrive some mystery box moments, either during the production or inside the story. But the fact that Episode IX is forgoing that opportunity here certainly feels like a change in thinking. We'll find out for sure as news and rumors begin to roll out as Episode IX goes into production later this week.