This week, major news from Lucasfilm gave Star Wars fans the world over cause for concern. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the filmmaking team behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, announced they were exiting next year’s as-yet-untitled Han Solo spinoff.
Both parties released statements, keeping the reasons behind the change purposely vague. "Unfortunately, our vision and process weren’t aligned with our partners on this project. We normally aren’t fans of the phrase 'creative differences' but for once this cliché is true," said Lord and Miller. Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, echoed: “It’s become clear that we had different creative visions on this film, and we’ve decided to part ways.”
Exactly whose decision it was for Lord and Miller to leave was unclear, but sources told The Hollywood Reporter that there was conflict on set between the directors and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan from day one. “Lord and Miller have a comedic sensibility and improvisational style while Kasdan favors a strict adherence to the written word — what is on the page is what must be shot,” the article reports. The move is especially startling since the Han Solo film was already five months into shooting and close to wrapping.
But this is not the first time a Star Wars film has been deemed “in trouble” this late in the game. Everyone remembers last June, when it was widely circulated that Lucasfilm wasn’t happy with Gareth Edwards’ cut of Rogue One and brought in Tony Gilroy to rewrite and reshoot scenes. While reshoots are nothing to sneeze at, it was a noteworthy development. An incisive piece in Vulture back then pointed out that before he was sidelined, “[Edwards] was suggesting that Lucasfilm’s Star Wars cinematic universe would be one in which directors were actually able to direct, to put their artistic imprimatur on franchise films instead of just coming in, coordinating a galaxy’s worth of moving parts, and then calling cut.”
Apparently, not so much.
The news about Miller and Lord seemed to take everyone by surprise, but in actuality, it shouldn’t have. Tonally, both The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street are different than anything we’ve yet seen in the Star Wars universe. It sounds like audiences hoping for a more refreshing, improvisational, and lighthearted Han Solo film are going to be disappointed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if Lucasfilm wanted a more mainstream, straightforward Star Wars tale, why hire Lord and Miller in the first place? It’s not like they didn’t know what they were getting.
As Hollywood continues to stratify across shared universes, we’re bound to see a this kind of thing happen again and again. Film franchises are becoming more and more like episodic television, in which each individual installment only serves a larger whole. Take the recent brutal reviews for The Mummy, which launches the latest shared cinematic “Dark Universe,” a revival of some of the classic creature features of the 1950s and 1960s. The Verge critic Tasha Robinson says The Mummy “feels like sitting down for a movie, and getting a feature-length trailer instead.”
What we’re seeing is that, as studios invest untold millions of dollars into franchises, and each movie in a universe has to carry not only itself but however many movies scheduled before and after it, Executive Producers and Studio Presidents are increasingly unafraid to flex their muscle and call the creative shots. Directors, once trusted to bring their own style and ouevre to a film, are asked to simply tow the company line, stick to the script, and deliver what works. Any room for experimentation is just too costly.
It’s already happened at the King of Shared Universes, Marvel. In 2014, Edgar Wright and the studio jointly announced similarly vague “creative differences” as a reason for parting ways on Ant-Man, a move that was just as shocking because Wright had been attached to the movie for eight years. I loved Ant-Man, but I also love Edgar Wright, and there’s no denying that Wright’s version of the film would have been much, much different than what ended up on the screen. In both cases, it sounds like Disney (who, coincidentally, also owns both Star Wars and Marvel) wanted to try something different, but decided against it in the eleventh hour.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with wanting all Marvel films or all Star Wars films to look and feel a certain way. Fans love it, and the Box Office certainly proves that the strategy is working. And yes, money has always driven Hollywood, but it’s a sad day when directors are given less and less creative freedom, and each film that comes out gets harder to tell apart from its predecessor.
Shortly after Lord and Miller’s exit (firing?), it was announced that none other than Ron Howard would take the helm on the Han Solo project to ensure the film makes its May 2018 release. Howard is a solid, safe choice: an Oscar winner, and a collaborator with George Lucas himself going all the way back to American Graffiti. He’s a vestige of Old Hollywood, a director without any particular style of his own in the same way Wright, or even Lord and Miller, are. With Howard, Lucasfilm sent a message loud and clear: They’re giving fans exactly what they want. And what they want is a Star Wars movie, plain and simple.
The fact that it’s also exactly what the studio wants goes without saying.