How 'The Force Awakens' makes things tough for the next Star Wars films

After retooling Star Trek, J.J. Abrams left a few headaches for the creators of its next films. Will his Star Wars movie be a similarly hard act to follow?

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Finn (John Boyega) will return in the next Star Wars movie, but has "The Force Awakens" made things tough for the filmmakers?


"Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" is out now, and it's a joyous return to a galaxy far, far away thanks to writer and director J.J. Abrams. But what does "The Force Awakens" mean for the next films in the planned trilogy when other writers and directors are taking over?

I'm wondering because Abrams shepherded Star Trek back to the big screen before Star Wars. And his first two Trek films have left the makers of the next Star Trek movie with a few problems...

And don't get me wrong -- I enjoyed "The Force Awakens". It's a return to what made Star Wars so great: breathless adventure with compelling characters on a backdrop of exotic locations and teeming alien life. Crucially, it's all done with delightfully real-feeling practical effects and deft, mostly unobtrusive CGI, which gives the film a fantastically physical texture. A huge amount of credit goes to J.J. Abrams for rediscovering the joy of the franchise. And I'm definitely not saying he's ruined Star Wars -- but I am worried that, as much as I enjoyed "The Force Awakens" in itself, it may have created huge problems for the next films.

Warning: This article contains a Sith-load of spoilers for "The Force Awakens" and "Star Trek into Darkness". Seriously, there are more spoilers than there are bathrooms on the Death Star. Happy? Then read on.

In the same week "The Force Awakens" blasted into movie theatres, a trailer also dropped for next year's "Star Trek Beyond" to remind us there's more than one action-packed sci-fi movie series in the galaxy. "Star Trek Beyond" is the third entry in a reboot of the long-running sci-fi series that has been masterminded by J.J. Abrams.

Abrams did a fantastic job giving the beloved crew of the Starship Enterprise a 21st-century facelift, but made several story decisions that have caused problems for the people taking over from him. Namely, in an interview with Birth Movies Death, "Beyond" director Justin Lin says that the new film, written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, has to ignore some huge aspects of the last Trek film, "Star Trek into Darkness".

In "Darkness", Abrams casually threw in not one but two huge problems for the series: interstellar beaming and magic dead-person-resurrecting blood. That's right, Abrams decided that the story of the most famous spaceship in the universe would be better if the characters didn't need spaceships at all. And as soon as you start bringing people back from the dead willy-nilly you seriously undermine any suspense or danger in future stories -- unless your magic Lazarus-like plot device is signposted as a one-off with clear limitations like, for instance, the Holy Grail in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade".

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"The Force Awakens" has already exploded box office records.


So how has Abrams made things tough for the people who will be taking on the Star Wars series after him? You might think I'm talking about the death of one of the major characters seen in "The Force Awakens", but I'm not. In real-world terms, the actor in question isn't getting any younger, and in story terms it's a huge and emotional moment that drives forward the emotional journey of the new generation of characters.

You know I mentioned "mostly unobtrusive" CGI? Well, that's my first problem: Snoke. Aside from having a silly name, Snoke is one of the only full-CGI creations in the movie. And where so many characters in the film are brought vividly to life by practical make-up and excellent acting performances, Snoke, the crucial leader of the bad guys, is far less convincing. When I recently rewatched all the Star Wars movies I was struck by what a great villain Palpatine is, so it will be a real problem for the new movies if Snoke doesn't measure up.

Still, we don't know much about Snoke, and perhaps the next films will reveal him to be a truly compelling baddie.

The bigger problem though is the Starkiller. I love that the First Order's planet-smashing base nods to the lore of Star Wars -- Luke Skywalker was originally named Starkiller in early scripts -- but it just doesn't belong in "Force Awakens". The new film is essentially a remix of the first Star Wars film "A New Hope", which ends with an assault on a space station. So Abrams does the same here -- but it's really clumsily tacked-on.

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In "A New Hope", the ominous-sounding DEATH STAR is named right at the start in the opening text -- in CAPITAL LETTERS, no less. We see it throughout the film. We witness its awesome power. It looms over the whole story. And throughout the movie, as Luke Skywalker enters a wider universe and learns to harness the force, his journey builds to the moment when he must prove himself by destroying the Death Star.

But in 'The Force Awakens", we don't really know what Starkiller Base is until right at the end, when the film comically announces "Hey, remember the Death Star? This is like that only, I dunno, a bazillion times bigger!!!!!!" Then the big climactic attack is led by some guy we barely know who hasn't even been in the film for over an hour. And while we're on the subject, the Starkiller's column of fire makes it look a lot like the planet-destroying mega-weapon of Abrams' "Star Trek".

So how will this affect the future movies? Simple. It's too big.

The Starkiller is not something you drop in the first movie of a series. It's something you keep back. Where can you go from there? "Remember the Starkiller? This is like that, only...a million-squillion times bigger!" It looks to me like once again Abrams has casually thrown in a plot element that paints the next film into a corner.

Of course, it's probably unfair to single out Abrams. A lot of people make a movie. He co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan. It's based on a draft by Michael Arndt, no doubt written in consultation with many others at Disney and Lucasfilm. But as the writer, director and producer, the buck stops with Abrams. And, as we've already noted, he has form with this sort of thing.

I want to be proved wrong. The key thing here is that nobody knows what's coming next. I would love to see Snoke turn into a classic baddie and I'd love to see them top the Starkiller with something amazing. After all, Abrams is a smart and creative filmmaker. And his successors are too: Rian Johnson, who will write and direct Episode VIII, is a man with enormous visual flair and storytelling panache. We've seen what he can do in the innovative "Brick", the delightful "The Brothers Bloom" and the hugely entertaining "Looper". Episode IX-helmer Colin Trevorrow, although less proven, has shown his talent with both a character-driven story in "Safety Not Guaranteed" and a big budget FXtravaganza in "Jurassic World". And that's not to mention the army of creative and talented people working on these movies.

Hopefully, in their hands, Star Wars will hit new heights. We'll find out in May 2017, when Episode VIII bursts into theatres. Fingers crossed!