Is Colin Trevorrow the right director for ‘Star Wars: Episode IX?’

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Chuck Zlotnick/Universal Studios/Courtesy

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Colin Trevorrow might not be a director on the public’s radar yet, but having been handed the reins for “Star Wars: Episode IX,” he soon will be. But is he the right choice for the galaxy from far, far away? His filmography is a mixed bag — “Safety Not Guaranteed” is truly great indie sci-fi, “Jurassic World” is, at best, critically divisive and “The Book of Henry” is proving to be a film comparable to “The Room” and “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” As such, declaring definitive support for his hiring is impossible — but so is being a complete Trevorrow detractor.

With this in mind, the debate over Trevorrow’s hiring must be approached with a level head and without bias. After all, only a Sith deals in absolutes. So, for the sake of fairness, I will attempt to consider justification for him, as well as a litany of reasons against him.

Reasons for Trevorrow

1. An effective screenwriting duo: The brilliance of “Safety Not Guaranteed” was the result of a collaboration between Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly, his longtime filmmaking partner. Their collaboration allowed for characters that were rich and likable, something lost in the big-budget mess of “Jurassic World” — with that film, Trevorrow and Connolly only contributed to a screenplay written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. While it’s hard to parse which writing duo wrote what, it’s not totally valid to expect the same results achieved by “Safety Not Guaranteed” in a project such as “Jurassic World,” where the film passed through several hands along the way. Further, with “The Book of Henry,” neither Trevorrow nor Connolly worked on the script at all — it was penned by Gregg Hurwitz. In this sense, the tonally jarring story isn’t completely Trevorrow’s fault, and it certainly isn’t Connolly’s. In contrast, the “Episode IX” script is set to be a team-up between Trevorrow and Connolly, just like “Safety Not Guaranteed.” As such, we can hope for the layered characters and storytelling of that film, rather than the hackneyed, flat characters of “Jurassic World” or the comically jarring story of “The Book of Henry.”

2. Trevorrow is following an established path: The work done by the filmmakers behind “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” will alleviate the pressure on the two screenwriters to build entirely new characters. Trevorrow and Connolly’s job is to bring closure to the characters set up by previous films, and while a difficult task, it is within the realm of plausibility. Trevorrow and Connolly shouldn’t encounter too many narrative issues, because they’ll be sticking close to the story set up by Rian Johnson, director of “The Last Jedi.”

3. Great performances: Trevorrow knows how to elicit good performances from actors, even in mediocre films. Even though “The Book of Henry” is more or less disastrous, actors Naomi Watts, Jacob Tremblay and Jaeden Lieberher still manage to impress. Not that it was ever in question, but at the very least, “Episode IX” should have strong turns from its performers.

Chuck Zlotnick/Universal Studios

Chuck Zlotnick/Universal Studios

4.  An emotional finale: There are some genuinely emotional scenes in “The Book of Henry,” especially toward the end of the second act, when the film becomes an exploration of grief — the one commonality among all of Trevorrow’s films is that they have (or attempt to have) a strong emotional core. The romance in “Safety Not Guaranteed” is absolutely adorable, something “Jurassic World” tries to replicate, albeit to cringey, cliched results. It is clear that Trevorrow is a director going after our heartstrings, even if his efforts don’t always succeed. Could “Episode IX” be the most emotional “Star Wars” film yet? With Trevorrow at the helm, there’s a chance it could be, especially as the film addresses Carrie Fisher’s passing.

5. Compliance with the studio: Perhaps most importantly, Trevorrow is a director who knows how to work within a studio system. Juggling a massive budget and vision while satisfying money-conscious studio executives isn’t easy. Just recently, the directors of the upcoming “Han Solo” film, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were fired by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy because of their creative clashes with her. This current debacle speaks to the importance of studio compliance, and the success of “Jurassic World” suggests that Trevorrow is willing to accept the micromanagement of executives such as Kennedy.

Reasons Against

1. Empty spectacle: It’s dangerous to hinge the hopes for a brilliant script on a single indie success. What faith I have in a strong closer for the new “Star Wars” trilogy begins and ends with one film only — “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Worse yet, there is nothing about Trevorrow’s filmography or directing that communicate a style ideal for “Star Wars.” The action in “Jurassic World” looked cool, but what can’t you do with CGI these days? In the dinosaur battle that closes “Jurassic World,” most of the action isn’t framed around the main characters. We see Owen, Claire and the kids react to the action, but they’re not essential to it.

"The Book of Henry" | Focus Features Grade: C

“The Book of Henry” | Focus Features/Courtesy

The characters don’t drive the action, and this fight scene becomes about spectacle alone. The fact that Bryce Dallas Howard running in heels is the big takeaway from that scene speaks volumes about its quality. By comparison, in “The Force Awakens,” director JJ Abrams is careful to frame action set pieces around characters. During the Millennium Falcon’s chase scene, we see Rey and Finn’s reactions and they are narratively proactive in propelling the chase’s action — Rey relies on Finn to blast away TIE Fighters, Finn tells Rey the TIE’s technical specs and Rey positions the Falcon vertically so Finn can take the decisive shot. This scene and “Jurassic World’s” climax both involve CGI spectacle, but Abrams’ more impactful action revolves around characters, not the other way around.

2. Wild variance of tone: With “The Book of Henry,” Trevorrow demonstrates an alarming inability to control a film’s tone (you can read all about its tonal shifts here). Similarly, tonal imbalance made “Jurassic World” a mess of a film, as cartoonish comedy collided with serious action. Trevorrow could have (and should have) done much to streamline the tone of both films — after all, a film is often markedly different from its script. By comparison, “The Last Jedi” helmer Rian Johnson is a master at managing tone, having directed Breaking Bad’s darkest episode (“Ozymandias”) and its most experimental (“Fly”). This control over tone makes Johnson the perfect candidate to helm “The Last Jedi,” which has been described as a darker film than “The Force Awakens.” Trevorrow hasn’t demonstrated an ability to craft tone in line with what the “Star Wars” franchise demands.

3. There are a plethora of more interesting directors: While I have no doubt that Trevorrow will strive to make “Episode IX” as great as it can be, there are several other directors that I think could bring interesting/unique/useful perspectives to the “Star Wars” universe — at least in an ideal world where Lucasfilm doesn’t limit directorial vision. Here are a few of them.

  • Bong Joon-ho: Writer Karen Han recently suggested the director of “The Host,” “Snowpiercer” and the upcoming “Okja” should take the helm. Unlike Trevorrow, Joon-ho has shown an aptitude for maneuvering tone, and as Han points out, deftly handles both fun and tragedy. “Star Wars” has plenty of both, and the franchise could benefit from Bong’s masterful direction.
  • Patty Jenkins: Let me preface this choice by saying that “The Last Jedi” will likely take Rey to much darker, serious territory than “The Force Awakens” (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). With “Wonder Woman,” Jenkins lifted an incredibly powerful woman out of the darkness of a previous film, and into a rollicking adventure that inspires hope as much as it does fun. If that doesn’t make her perfect for “Episode IX,” I don’t know what does.
  • Jordan Peele: Is there a more exciting young filmmaker working today than Jordan Peele? For a franchise concerned with fighting fascism in space, “Star Wars” has always had hints of political commentary, especially when the prequels (attempted to) become a commentary on the Bush administration and the Iraq War. In today’s political climate, “Star Wars” is prime for Peele’s combination of genre filmmaking and satire. Imagine a “Star Wars” film that is emblematic of the times we live in, representative of our fears and aspirations, like no other entry before it. I need that film.
  • Amma Asante: In “A United Kingdom,” Asante created an uplifting film about hope in the face of systemic racism. “Star Wars” has always been about combating widespread systems of evil, and the sense of hope that Asante could bring might imbue “Episode IX” with a touch of lightness to close the trilogy. As an added bonus, she could reteam with actor David Oyelowo, making him part of the live-action canon as well as the animated “Star Wars: Rebels.”
  • Matt Reeves: With the Shakespearean “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” Reeves weaved action and emotion together expertly, something necessary for the climactic showdown that is going to be inevitable in “Episode IX. If the raves about “War for the Planet of the Apes” are true, then Reeves will have shown himself to be adept at bringing a great trilogy to its conclusion, something necessary for “Episode IX.”
  • Barry Jenkins: This is a gigantic long shot, but Jenkins’ arthouse sensibilities intertwine with a masterful ability to elicit emotions from all facets of filmmaking — cinematography, music, dialogue and more. Plus, approaching the arthouse-minded Jenkins would be a callback to “Return of the Jedi,” when George Lucas approached David Lynch to direct (Lynch declined).
  • David Lynch: Persistence is key.
  • Me: I did not make “The Book of Henry.” I can’t say the same for Colin Trevorrow.
 "Safety not Guaranteed" | Benjamin Kasulke/Film District

“Safety not Guaranteed” | Benjamin Kasulke/Film District

Conclusion

Putting Trevorrow’s strengths and flaws aside, he’s still a “Star Wars” fan who will likely pour his entire being into developing the best film he can. At the end of the day, as someone who simply wants a great “Star Wars” film, that’s all I can ask for.

Besides, directors that seem perfectly suited to direct a film don’t always create a perfect result. Even though JJ Abrams is essentially a franchise defibrillator, “The Force Awakens” — endlessly criticized as a carbon copy of “A New Hope” — has its fair share of flaws. Gareth Edwards’ keen eye for visuals didn’t stop “Rogue One” from being plagued by reshoots that give the film a sense of disjointedness. Who’s to say that Colin Trevorrow won’t be successful with “Star Wars,” given that even directors that were seemingly perfectly matched for their respective films can make mistakes?

Trevorrow, ultimately, is a safe choice — he’s no Michael Bay (thank God), and his lack of a clear directorial style makes him ideal for Lucasfilm’s penchant for micromanagement. In a world where Kathleen Kennedy has fired two unique and talented directors — a decision that could compromise the entire “Han Solo” film — perhaps a more cookie-cutter director such as Trevorrow is the best option to prevent a complete disaster from marring the “Star Wars” franchise.

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].