There’s a striking image sitting at the end of the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker teaser trailer: The Death Star, broken and defeated, rising out of an ocean. But what’s the Death Star doing there? We might be able to figure that out, thanks to the long, convoluted false starts that eventually became The Force Awakens.
At least as far back as May 2011, George Lucas was thinking about retiring. In June 2012, he hired Kathleen Kennedy, a seven-time Academy Award-nominated producer and executive, as co-chair of Lucasfilm. They started to get Lucasfilm’s house in order.
Though it wouldn’t be announced until November 2012, Lucasfilm’s co-chairs hired screenwriter Michael Arndt before the Disney sale and brought in Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter of Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and co-writer of Solo: A Star Wars Story) as a consultant.
In October 2012, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney. The press release announcing the sale said that Lucas would serve “as creative consultant.”
In January 2013, three months after the sale, Lucas met with those working on the new movies, according to Bloomberg. He “provided his Episode VII treatment to the project’s creative team,” according to The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Then things kind of went to crap, at least between Lucas and Lucasfilm.
We don’t know precisely what caused George Lucas and his former company to part ways, but January 2013 seems to be an inflection point. Three important things happened that month: Lucasfilm announced that J.J. Abrams would direct Episode VII, Lucas shared his treatment, and producer Simon Kinberg (Star Wars: Rebels) and Kasdan began working with Arndt as consultants, according to The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
At some point (presumably after Lucas met with Lucasfilm in January 2013), Lucasfilm decided to depart from Lucas’ treatment. Arndt was now responsible for writing the Episode VII story.
In the ensuing months, Arndt changed the story. Instead of Luke training a new hero and leaving that emotional dark place, the search for Luke set the plot in motion. And at one point, someone visited an old Star Wars relic.
Except that things didn’t work out with Arndt, either.
In October 2013, Lucasfilm announced that Arndt would no longer write the screenplay. As Episode VII co-writer and director J.J. Abrams told Empire, Arndt “needed 18 months more than anyone had signed up for.”
With Arndt’s departure, Lucasfilm tapped Kasdan and Abrams to pen Episode VII’s screenplay. At a mid-December 2013 meeting, they pitched their version of the Episode VII story. Shortly thereafter, they turned in their first script draft. And their story departed from Arndt’s story, too. (Though Arndt still received a writer’s credit.)
But what does this have to do with the Death Star in the Episode IX trailer? Maybe everything. Maybe the work that Arndt did survives in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Not long after The Force Awakens’ release, Arndt and J.J. Abrams spoke with Entertainment Weekly about early ideas that didn’t make it into the movie. Among them:
The good news for Abrams was, he got to make a Star Wars movie. The bad news was, his toybox wouldn’t include a real-life Luke Skywalker action figure. Some of the early MacGuffins of the movie – the thing that drives a movie’s plot — were a search for Darth Vader’s remains, or a quest to the underwater wreckage of the second Death Star to recover a key piece of history about sacred Jedi sites in the galaxy.
And on page 34 of The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s a piece of concept art that shows this in detail.
The caption is titled “Death Star trench underwater.” It’s a quote from Star Wars artist Iain McCaig, reading:
“So when the adventure’s over, Kira [who’d later become Rey] finds a hidden map inside the Emperor’s tower of the second Death Star. And the map tells you where the Jedi are and where Luke is hiding.”
Of course, they found Luke in a different way in The Force Awakens. That part of the story changed. Nobody’s looking for the last Jedi anymore. But what are Chewbacca, BB-8, D-O, C-3PO, Rey, Poe, and Finn looking for — assuming they didn’t just stumble upon the Empire’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction?
If it’s the Death Star, then it’s probably the second one from Return of the Jedi. (The one from A New Hope blew up spectacularly.) It’s not out of the question to think that it fell to solid ground around the forest moon of Endor.
And given the evil laugh we hear at the end, they may also be looking for Emperor Palpatine, who died at Darth Vader’s hands on the second Death Star. If nobody’s ever really gone (at least, according to today’s teaser trailer), why wouldn’t that apply to good guys and bad guys alike?
We’ll find out when Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters on Dec. 20, 2019. But today, we have a Death Star rotting in the water. As the trailer ends, the Emperor laughs maniacally. Perhaps in Star Wars, no good idea is ever really gone, either.