It is a fascinating moment to be a “Star Wars” fan.
Right now, there is arguably more energy being expended on all things “Star Wars” than ever before. I remember the feeling in the early days of development on what became “Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” when there were just rumbles of a possible new film or even *GASP!* a new trilogy of films. Hell, I remember when the Special Editions were just a rumor. I remember when a friend of mine called and said, “They're not a rumor. I have something to show you.” He came by my house with a videotape, and on that videotape was the very first teaser trailer for “Star Wars: A New Hope – The Special Edition,” the very first new “Star Wars” footage in what had been fourteen years at that point. It was mind-blowing. It made me reassess what I had started to accept as the simple fact that there would never be more “Star Wars.”
That is not a problem at this point. Right now, the question is “Just how much new 'Star Wars' is there really going to be?'” Between the official story in “Episode VII,” “Episode VIII,” and “Episode IX,” and the spin-off movies being directed by Josh Trank and Gareth Edwards (with Joe Johnston just one of many names also rumored to be in the mix for the third planned spin-off), there are at least six movies coming between 2015 and 2020. That's not taking into account “Star Wars: Rebels,” which stars airing this year and any other TV projects they create, whether live-action or animated, and I'm sure Lucasfilm is exploring those options right now. *
But at this point in the process, what is known versus what is rumored versus what is a flat-out guess is getting very, very hard to discern, and we thought we'd take the opportunity to help you filter everything and make sense of what we do or don't know about the movie right now. Honestly, if you want to opt out of any and all “Star Wars” talk from now until the release of the film, I don't blame you at all. After all, there's going to be an avalanche of material coming out before the film reaches theaters on December 18, 2015, and I would imagine that the last four months before release, if you want to learn every single detail of the movie, you'll be able to do that. It will actually be a lot harder to maintain any sort of radio silence, and I'm curious to see what it will take for people to be able to protect themselves from all of those spoilers.
WHAT WE KNOW (**)
We strongly considered moving several of the items listed under “what is rumored” to this section because of how sure we are that the reports are right, but in truth, there's nothing that has been officially confirmed, and until we see moving images featuring these actors in character, everything has to be considered a rumor.
There are some images that we've seen that we would bet are completely real, including a fistful of shots of the inside of the Millennium Falcon and some images of the new helmet redesigns for the Stormtroopers, and there are some basic broad strokes of the new film's plot that seem like they've been the same each time I've heard anything from anyone close to the film. Even so, we are dealing with JJ Abrams, and if there's anyone who would be willing to expend energy misleading the press completely, it's him, and on this film in particular, I think he wants to guard the experience as much as possible.
The things we can call fact at this point have nothing to do with story, but more with the way things are being produced. As other directors have visited the set and talked about the experience, it's become clear that people are very impressed by the scale of the physical production this time around. They're building as much as they can, and they're trying to use physical effects for both creatures and environments. We know that they've got a huge model unit working as well, and that following a short hiatus to allow Harrison Ford to recover after injuring his leg/ankle, the main production unit is back at work and shooting with an eye on making their previously announced release date in 2015.
So keep that in mind. There are plenty of rumors and some of them seem to be very likely to be true, but in terms of what has actually been confirmed by Lucasfilm and Disney, the answer is “nothing.” We know that the cast includes Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Max Von Sydow, Lupita Nyong'o, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Kenny Baker. We know that JJ Abrams is directing from a script that he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan, based on an initial set of drafts by Michael Arndt. We know that Abu Dhabi and Iceland have been locations for the film so far, and that the majority of the production is happening at Pinewood Studios. Dan Mindel has spoken a bit about shooting the film on 35MM film instead of digital, with some sequences shooting in IMAX 65MM as well, and we know that John Williams will return to write the score, joining Ben Burtt, Rick Carter, Michael Kaplan, Gary Rydstrom, Matthew Wood, and Darren Gilford as crew members.
We know that they are going to visit a desert planet that looks an awful lot like Tatooine, and we know that the film takes place 30 years after the events of “Return Of The Jedi.” Beyond that…
WHAT IS RUMORED
Ahhhh, here's where things get interesting.
By now, the biggest and best-known rumor about “Star Wars: Episode VII” has to do with the opening image of the movie. One of the things that “Star Wars” fans know is how there are images and lines and ideas that echo from film to film, and the opening images have always involved spaceships, sometimes entering frame in unexpected ways. The rumor that was first reported by Badass Digest was that the new film would open with a hand tumbling through space before eventually falling to a planet, where the discovery of that hand would then kick off the events of the movie.
Fandom was, to say the least, very vocal about this possibility, and not in an overwhelmingly positive way. What I have heard from my own sources since this was reported is that it's sort of right, sort of wrong, and that we'll actually see a lightsaber, not a hand. That lightsaber will look familiar to “Star Wars” fans, since it is the property of Jedi master Luke Skywalker, who has supposedly been missing for at least a decade as this movie begins.
Structuring the movie as a search for Luke Skywalker is, I think, a fiendishly clever set-up for a new movie. If the reports are right and Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are indeed the main characters this time, this story structure is a perfect way to have them move from character to character, allowing us to catch up with familiar faces even as these new characters are being introduced to them.
Rumors so far have Han Solo and Chewbacca at the helm of a Super Star Destroyer, with Oscar Isaac now piloting the Millennium Falcon, and there were rumors of production art showing an older Princess Leia standing with a group of Hutts during what looked like a diplomatic meeting. It sounds like we're not just going to find the characters all sitting together somewhere, but that this is going to be a film that in some ways deals with putting the band back together.
We know that at some point they must find Luke Skywalker, especially since Mark Hamill ran that awesome photo of himself returning to work after the shooting hiatus, and there are rumors now that he's not just missing, but actually imprisoned. Who could have captured someone as powerful as Luke, and why? After all, if the Empire was dismantled, who could be out there causing problems for Skywalker's friends and family?
Well, according to Latino Review and Badass Digest, the main villains of the film are members of the Sith Order who have been working behind the scenes since the very beginning of the series, even during movies we've already seen. The word “Inquisitor” has been thrown around a lot in the last week, but the people I know who are working on the film insist that term is not accurate, and that there are no characters in the film referred to as “Inquisitors.” I notice that the denials I get specifically have to do with the word that was used and not the general description of the characters. It seems likely that we're going to be watching one primary Sith-based character who is responsible for keeping the Order alive a full generation after the death of both Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine.
Perhaps the most surprising rumor involving this character is that we're going to see a major flashback in the film in which Luke Skywalker explains how he's been working to uncover this secret history of the Sith, and we're going to see events that took place during the timeline of the earlier movies. We will reportedly see Billie Lourd (Carrie Fisher's daughter) play a young Princess Leia in one part of that flashback, and we're also supposedly going to see Darth Vader himself again.
There have never been any flashbacks in the “Star Wars” films, and it's sort of shocking to imagine them shaking up the storytelling technique that much, but I'm not opposed to it in theory. As long as they're telling a really good story, how they tell it is less important to me.
So those are the rumors… which only seem to raise a ton of questions. Which leads us, finally, to…
WHAT WE'RE GUESSING AND WHAT WE HOPE
Let's use the report of Han and Chewie helming their own Super Star Destroyer as a jumping-off point for this section. Once the Rebellion won at the Battle of Endor, we have to assume that everything changed, and as the Republic was re-established, the hardware that had become so closely associated with the bad guys changed hands. So when we're talking about Stormtroopers and Star Destroyers, then I'm going to assume that we're talking about the Republic, and that these are under the control of the new government, our good guys.
If these reports about the Sith are true, then we're going to see one of the main conceits of the prequel trilogy completely thrown out, and I like it. There was such a big deal made in “The Phantom Menace” about how there can only be two Sith at any given time. One Master, one Apprentice. That seems like a really, really, really stupid way to conquer a galaxy, though, and now it appears that it was never actually true. If there have been other Sith forces at work, quietly tracking down any potential Force users, then it may set up some really interesting dynamics for “Episode VII” and everything after. After all, if the Jedi Order is still a thing of the past, then who is out there teaching potential Force users how to harness their powers for good? Or for bad? Or for anything?
I have a feeling “Star Wars: Rebels” isn't going to be the full-blow “Episode VII” prequel that some people are already calling it, and producer Simon Kinberg has said repeatedly now that they are far more concerned about how their story leads into “A New Hope” than anything else. Still, having this show on the air for almost two full seasons by the time we get the first movie is going to give them a chance to introduce any ideas they want using the series, and since Kinberg is a big part of the spin-off films that are coming, there's a good chance he'll be seeding some of the other films we'll see in that show somewhere.
As I said at the start, this is an exciting time to be a “Star Wars” fan. What I hope, more than anything, is that this new trilogy is the final time the Skywalker family is at the center of everything, dramatically speaking. It's time to pass the torch, and it sounds like that's exactly what is going on, story-wise. The older characters will be important to these new films, but we're not just watching the story through their eyes anymore. Instead, it's time to start imagining the “Star Wars” galaxy as much bigger than it's ever been before, holding more stories than ever before, told from more perspectives than ever before.
In the meantime, enjoy the rumors, don't get too worked up about any of it, and appreciate that there was a point where it felt like this story would never be finished for all the wrong reasons, and now it feels like they'll never finish, but for the best possible reasons.
* This paragraph originally incorrectly listed Joe Johnston's name as one of the directors of the spin-off films.
** That Blu-ray rumor is wrong in all sorts of ways.
“Star Wars: Episode VII” is in theaters December 18, 2015.