Successful serials and franchises are small miracles given the complicated competing interests introduced by the business scale of modern blockbusters like the Star Wars saga. Empires are built around their marketing and production, but even writing a sensible core narrative is already hard enough. Weaving stories out of smaller pieces can be incredibly difficult, because in isolation, each piece tends to pull in its own direction, and it’s only through careful and deliberate oversight that they might eventually coalesce into something rational.
With that in mind, please sit tight for a moment and pardon this immediate tangent. We’ll get to Star Wars in due course, but in order to contextualize where it’s going, it may actually help to start with Alien. Ridley Scott’s slow and slimy space thriller was released in 1979, two years after Star Wars, and has been considered the benchmark for science fiction horror ever since. Personally, I’ve always been partial to the 1986 sequel Aliens, and not just because of its more plentiful action scenes. Its most engaging feature was the way director James Cameron skillfully built up the context, dreaming up both new ecosystems for the monsters we’d already met and also highlighting the specific ways in which familiar human corporate and governmental institutions would ineptly complicate their discovery. Alien takes place aboard a single spaceship, but Aliens spans worlds.
Nonetheless, Aliens ends largely the same way as the first film did, with protagonist Ellen Ripley drifting through space in suspended animation. This time, however, she’s frozen next to Newt, a young girl she saved, and Hicks, the marine corporal who had helped her do it. On this second mission, they’d killed not just one but countless aliens — an entire hive, as well as its enormous leader, a new primary antagonist— and we’d watched the results play out over a planet full of doomed colonists and the earthbound forces that initially conspired to put them in harm’s way.
The 1992 follow-up Alien³ is not a bad film either; indeed, it’s almost considered the endcap to the “true” trilogy, before the flood of garbage began with subsequent films. It sets Ripley down in the strange environment of a cult-controlled prison planet and gives her one more monster to fight — this time without any weapons available, since those would obviously be problematic in a prison environment. It’s terrifically weird and dark. The inmates try to kill the monster by trapping it in a maze. Ripley shaves her head to prevent lice.
But Alien³ is still reviled by many fans of the series precisely because director David Fincher had a vision for his entry in the series that was irreconcilable with the ending he’d been handed by Cameron. Hicks and Newt both die offscreen during the introductory titles, because where do you start with a fourth grader on a prison planet? Arranging for proper child care is already complicated enough even when you aren’t marooned on a planet of homicidal religious zealots with an angry biological weapon hunting you and the embryo of another gestating in your abdomen. Rather than try to resolve any of that, Fincher essentially chose to reboot, starting with Ripley alone again.
His film is probably better for that decision when taken in isolation, but that’s also the exact point at which the series became borderline nonsensical. Thirty years later we’re confused about whether 2012’s Prometheus was actually intended as a prequel and trying to forget abysmal spin-offs like Alien vs. Predator. In 1997, Alien: Resurrection lost the logical thread entirely, undermining the life cycle established by the first film’s infamously terrifying chest-bursting scene, while also bringing a new Ripley clone back to life with an alien embryo somehow already implanted inside her. More new films are currently in motion, but now they have to contend with retcons and divergent timelines. It’s a mess. Needless to say, it is Cameron’s comparatively sensible vision for the world of the xenomorph aliens that still dominates today.
The universe-building in Star Wars happens on a scale well beyond anything available to the Alien films, since the latter are anchored to the Earth we actually inhabit. As Wired puts it, “In A New Hope, the allusions were to a canon that didn’t exist. It’s hard to remember, after decades of accumulated story cruft, that when we first heard of the Imperial Senate or the Clone Wars, we didn’t know what they were. Obscure yet familiar, the ideas seem more alive, like the ads for life off-world in Blade Runner or the Weyland-Yutani corporate logos in Alien.” Or more to the point: “The universe can extend for 10,000 years forward and back from the moment Luke blows up the first Death Star.”
Maybe we won’t need the full 10K. Only about thirty years have passed since Return of the Jedi, but by the end of Episode VII it starts to look as though Luke is probably going to die soon. He was almost completely inconsequential in The Force Awakens, and he’s already had his trilogy, and a new successor has emerged. He now has a beard! So in the foreseeable future, he will probably impart some timeless wisdom, then die a dramatic death, and turn up as a “force ghost” during a celebratory ending. This is Star Wars. That’s just how things work here.
Much has already been made of the diversity of the cast: as director J.J. Abrams told BuzzFeed, “The Force binds all living things together — not just white dudes,” so we finally have a space cantina scene in which the range of humans isn’t shameful next to the wide array of aliens. “Princess Leia” is now known as “General Organa.” Episode VII will create several new Hollywood megastars, none of them white dudes.
The real power comes from the script, though. If Luke Skywalker is indeed ultimately a doomed Jedi sage, then Episode VII also becomes an exciting step in the Star Wars saga in much the same way as Cameron’s influence on the second Alien film, this time with even higher aspirations. It is as important a moment as either series has ever seen. With his turn building out the Star Wars universe, Abrams has left the franchise in a position, seemingly deliberately, such that Disney will have to risk a potentially devastating degree of plot incoherence in order to return control of all these galaxies back to white male leadership. It would practically be a reboot!
Under David Fincher’s guidance, Alien³ tried for precisely that kind of revisionism, and it proved almost catastrophic. The strategic and manipulative brilliance of Episode VII is not just its diverse cast, but also that its ending leaves no other path forward open for Episode VIII. Abrams has aimed the next five years of Disney’s formidable production budget in an unexpected new direction: at present there are no viable white men in the active cast from which to hang the future of Star Wars. If Disney now tries to introduce more a “traditional” sci-fi hero, his film will retroactively transform into a bizarre digression that could undermine the series for decades.
Maybe they will still find a way to do it anyway, in which case it will probably be a disaster, and good riddance to it all. Burn it down, blow it up, nuke it from orbit by lobbing a proton torpedo into the thermal exhaust vent that leads to the reactor core. One must hope that by the time we are able to fly personal spacecraft between galaxies at beyond the speed of light, we’ll have also tamed the bickering within our own species such that women and minorities becoming knights and senators won’t turn as many heads as it still does today. I don’t know if we’ll ever actually get there, but movie scripts like this one can help in the meantime, because picturing that world is the very highest calling for our imaginations.