‘What if?’ It’s a universally compelling question in life and in movies because it is in our very nature to wonder what might have been. In fewer pillars of pop culture is this question more fascinating and frequent than in Star Wars. This is especially true when it comes to the Sequel Trilogy. The latest and last trilogy in the Skywalker Saga has given us plenty of reasons to ponder many permutations of this question.
Questions like ‘What if Kylo didn’t kill Han?’ and ‘What if Rey joined Kylo?’ will always be a fun source of speculation and fan fiction. That said, the more interesting questions surround the making of the Sequel Trilogy films themselves and how behind-the-scenes decisions impacted the creative direction of these movies and the broader franchise.
One of the most interesting questions concerns the once and future Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, who directed the first Sequel Trilogy film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and returned to the franchise for this December’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Two out of three ain’t bad, but what if J.J. Abrams directed the entire Sequel Trilogy?
In lieu of a time machine, a tell-all book or a trip to an alternate reality (the Kelvin Timeline?), the answer to this question is largely unknowable given the available information. Nevertheless, we will forge ahead to examine the situation and try our best to answer what a fully J.J. Abrams Sequel Trilogy might have looked like.
There Would Have Probably Been An Overall Plan
It’s weird to think of an entire J.J. Abrams Star Wars trilogy because he never planned to direct any of the Sequel Trilogy films, including Episode VII. He had to be convinced by both Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, as well as his wife, to come aboard and help relaunch the Star Wars franchise. Likewise, J.J. Abrams had no intention of returning to close things out with Episode IX after Rian Johnson’s middle chapter, but return he did.
Plans change, and it is plans that are perhaps the most interesting aspect of this compelling ‘what if’ question. Because while directing even one, much less two Star Wars films was not what J.J. Abrams had in mind, I think we can presume that if he was hired to direct the entire Sequel Trilogy from the start, he would have had a plan for how the three films would play out.
While a lot of things have been said and we’ll probably never know for sure, it has definitely seemed like there was not an overarching plan for the Sequel Trilogy's story, and Lucasfilm kind of let both J.J. and Rian Johnson do what they wanted for their respective films. In contrast, if J.J. had known from the start that he would direct all three, he probably would have had an approximate goal for where he wanted to go and how to get there.
Sure, George Lucas didn’t necessarily know that he’d make Return of the Jedi when he did Star Wars, and he may not have had a concrete plan for how the story would unfold, but there is something to be said for having one creative vision guiding a series. And while Lucas didn’t direct Episode V or Episode VI, they are still his vision. If J.J. Abrams directed the entire Sequel Trilogy, it would be his vision through and through, and instead of making parts fit together, they naturally would.
J.J. Abrams may not have had a firm outline of every single story beat ahead of time, but he would have had a bit more time to figure them all out. The director has said that he is striving with The Rise of Skywalker to have a cohesive ending to the entire saga, but it’s hard not to think that if he directed all three, that job might be a little easier, at least as far as the Sequel Trilogy is concerned.
Episode VIII Would Have Been Very Different
With two out of the three Sequel Trilogy films carrying a ‘Directed by J.J. Abrams’ tag, that leaves only Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi as the odd film out and where the biggest difference would have been in this 'what if' scenario. J.J. Abrams has said that he isn’t trying to repair Star Wars after The Last Jedi, but he has also admitted that if he directed Episode VIII, he would have done things differently.
But what would have been different? Fist and foremost, it's probably safe to say that he would have handled Luke Skywalker differently. The question that Kathleen Kennedy asked J.J. Abrams that got him to sign on to Star Wars in the first place was ‘Who is Luke Skywalker?’ That question took him to a galaxy far, far away, but J.J. Abrams never even got to answer it, with Mark Hamill’s Luke only showing up at the end of The Force Awakens and never saying a word.
But had J.J. Abrams answered that question, I think his answer would have been different than Rian Johnson’s, with a different interpretation of Luke Skywalker and a different story for the character. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, when asked what surprised him about The Last Jedi, J.J. Abrams said the following:
I felt the biggest surprise was how dark Luke was. That was the thing that I thought: ‘Oh, that was unexpected.’
Based on that, I think it’s safe to say that J.J. Abrams would have gone in a different direction with Luke in Episode VIII. What that would have been, we don’t know, but if I had to guess, I would say that J.J. Abrams’ Luke never would have even considered murdering his nephew. And if J.J. were to kill Luke off, it wouldn’t have been until Episode IX.
Different Answers To Pressing Questions
In addition to the handling of Luke, one of the criticisms of The Last Jedi is the way Rian Johnson answered, or didn’t answer, the questions raised by J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens. Rey’s parents were nobodies after all signs in The Force Awakens pointed towards them being somebodies, and it didn’t matter who Supreme Leader Snoke was because he’s dead.
Some audiences liked this subversion and how The Last Jedi switched things up for the franchise, while others didn’t, feeling that the choices weren’t true to Star Wars. But either way, I don’t suspect that J.J. Abrams would have answered these questions in the same way. He wouldn’t have planted all these seeds if he didn’t intend on growing them into something significant.
In fact, Simon Pegg has said that J.J. Abrams had something else in mind for Rey than what we saw in The Last Jedi. So perhaps Rey would have learned who her parents were in Episode VIII, and she would have dealt with the repercussions of that knowledge in Episode IX. Now some of this may still be addressed in The Rise of Skywalker, so the answers Rian Johnson gave may not be the final answers.
That’ll definitely be the case with the question of Rey’s parentage, which will be answered definitively in The Rise of Skywalker. The very fact that we know this will be addressed in the December film guarantees that there is more to that story than Episode VIII told us. But will the answers be what J.J. had in mind in the beginning? Whether we get the same answers J.J. initially intended or not, it will have been a more circuitous route to get there.
Without seeing J.J. Abrams’ version, it’s impossible to say whether different choices about Luke Skywalker and different answers to big questions would have resulted in a better overall film, but they may have resulted in a safer overall trilogy.
A Safer, Less Bold Trilogy?
Would J.J. Abrams’ Episode VIII have been as controversial as The Last Jedi? Maybe, but based on everything we know and have heard, it seems unlikely. That's because J.J. Abrams’ Episode VIII and Sequel Trilogy probably wouldn’t have been as bold as what we got. It might be easy to forget amid the never-ending debate over The Last Jedi, but J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens wasn’t viewed as a perfect film.
Episode VII was heavily criticized for playing like fan service and being something of a rehash of A New Hope. J.J. Abrams surely heard those critiques and may have adjusted accordingly for Episode VIII to be a bit more adventurous, but what if he didn’t, or didn't do enough? Would his middle chapter have been viewed as just a rehash of The Empire Strikes Back? Would enthusiasm have dropped for the final installment after two 'been there, done that' entries? It is worth considering.
There’s also a case to be made that J.J. Abrams is making a better Episode IX now than he would have had he directed all three films. J.J. Abrams has said he feels more comfortable on The Rise of Skywalker than he did on The Force Awakens, despite the pressure, but he also feels freer, and that’s because of The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson’s film encouraged J.J. Abrams to be more daring and take risks on The Rise of Skywalker that he otherwise may not have.
If J.J. Abrams had directed the entire Sequel Trilogy, he may have gotten into a groove after the second film and not had the incentive or courage to really go for it in Episode IX. We haven’t seen The Rise of Skywalker yet, nor this alternate reality version of the film, so it’s impossible to judge. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we are getting a better Episode IX, the critical ending to this saga, because Rian Johnson directed Episode VIII, than we would have had J.J. Abrams directed the entire Sequel Trilogy.
What if J.J. Abrams directed the entire Sequel Trilogy? Although we can guess, the answer to this what if question ultimately remains a mystery. But we can find out what will happen in J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker when it blasts into theaters on December 20. Check out our 2019 Release Schedule to see what other movies are still to come this year, and let us know in the comments how you think J.J. Abrams’ Sequel Trilogy might have been different.