With Star Wars: The Last Jedi out this actual month, the Han Solo spin-off movie slated for 2018, Star Wars 9 after that, and then whatever spin-off we’re getting after that, we are clearly, not at all, short for Star Wars films. But you know what? We could have had a whole lot more by now. We could have been drowning in Star Wars films. Choking on them. Cursing the day we ever ventured close to that slippery-sided, big pool of Star Wars films, or at least wishing we’d checked with the life guide whether it was safe or not (it wasn’t). Because between the release of the original trilogy and now, at least 11 different, cancelled, abandoned, or alternate Star Wars films have been mooted, and taken to multiple, wildly varying degrees of completion.
From a better sounding prequel trilogy, to a sadder Return of the Jedi, to a film composed of nothing but growls, these are the Star Wars films that could have been. And in one case, that might yet live again.
The original, pre-Phantom Menace prequel trilogy
When it could have happened: Right around the time it actually happened, but it would have been rather different.
What is was: The original prequel trilogy idea - as detailed by Gary Kurtz, the Star Wars producer who discussed it with George Lucas back in the idea’s early days - sounds like a rather slower, more detailed affair. Rather than jumping straight in with young Vader and following his rapid ascent from yelping toddler to Snark Lord of the Sith by way of multiple adolescent strops, the story would have told a much fuller story of the galaxy at the time.
Episode 1 would have detailed the actual formation of the Jedi, before Episode 2 introduced Obi-Wan Kenobi and developed his character. Only in Episode 3 would Vader have appeared, the third film largely dedicated to his life and downfall. It’s unknown how far into development this version of the prequel trilogy got, but upon watching the released version of Episode 1, Kurtz commented that it was far more shallow and surface-level than what he’d hoped for. As did we all, to be fair. But maybe it hurt Gary that bit more, knowing exactly what we could have had.
Like, for instance, maybe that better ending where Padme founded the Rebellion and nearly killed Anakin...
George Lucas' sequel trilogy
When it could have happened: At any point between 1984 and 2012.
What is was: Ye gods, it was a lot of things. From the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s, Lucas talked (mostly) consistently in terms of Star Wars as nine films, making up three trilogies, covering a sixty-year saga. This was apparently the product of the original Star Wars screenplay-cum-story-bible being about 18 hours long, later cut down into three separate stories – each of which was then later cut down into three separate stories itself.
First there was the original sequel trilogy idea, intended to be filmed by 2011, which would have had ‘a cameo’ from Mark Hamill in Episode 9. But then later, as detailed again by A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz, a more connected sequel trilogy was planned to detail Luke’s wider life as a Jedi, the appearance of his sister (not Leia in this draft), and the delayed appearance of the Emperor, who wasn’t originally planned to appear in Return of the Jedi (see next entry). Lucas’ biographer Dale Pollock also purports to have seen some story treatments, which upon his reading consisted of 12 films, and included Luke in his 30s. Clearly, a lot of ideas were going around.
Over the course of the rest of the decade, Lucas teased a whole bunch more story elements. Episode 7 would start 20–40 years after Return of the Jedi. It would deal with the rebuilding of the Republic. Luke would get a love story. Luke would only appear at the end, as an Obi-Wan figure passing on the mantle. But then, cut to 1997, and everything changes. Lucas says that he has no plans for a sequel trilogy, will not allow anyone else to make one(!), and has left instructions to block any planned Star Wars sequels after his death, because there are no real story ideas, no coherent, nine-film story, and anything added after Return of the Jedi would be "made up".
Let’s just step away from this one right now, shall we, and just be thankful for Disney’s chequebook.
The original, more sombre Return of the Jedi
When it could have happened: 1983 - i.e. When Return of the Jedi did actually happen.
What is was: A different, richer, more adult version of Return of the Jedi, with a lesser focus on pure, rollercoaster excitement, and a more sober, less fairytale ending. Leia wasn’t Luke’s sister, and would eventually become queen following the destruction of the Empire, but in doing so would also become isolated from her friends in the Rebellion. Han died, and Luke went on to explore the galaxy and his evolving Jedi journey alone. There were no Ewoks, and no second Death Star rehash finale.
All of the above elements were dropped during the making of The Empire Strikes Back, as Lucas refocused for a more straightforwardly crowd-pleasing approach. At the same time, some of the later story points that the original Jedi would have set up for Lucas’ proposed sequel trilogy were folded into Empire and the eventually released version of ROTJ. Thus, Luke and Leia are siblings after all.
The robots movie and the Wookiees movie
When it could have happened: God knows.
What is was: A tenth and eleventh Star Wars movie, that came out of George Lucas’ reworking of his original, gigantic story treatment. Very little is known about these two, except that they would have existed outside of the main, galactic story, and that one would have featured all droids, with no humans, while the latter would have been all about Wookiees. Ambitious and forward-thinking of Lucas, then – the rough idea pre-empts Disney’s Star Wars spin-off movies by at least 30 years – but given the technical challenge of making a 100% droid movie, pre-CG, and the creative challenge of a Wookiee script that presumably would have consisted solely of “Grrrllloooooww” in a variety of different intonations, it’s perhaps understandable that neither got past the basic concept stage.
Then again, Jim Henson made the 100% puppet-based Dark Crystal in 1982, so who knows?
Splinter of the Mind's Eye
When it could have happened: Straight after A New Hope, had things not gone so well.
What is was: In 1977, Star Wars was nothing like the sure thing it is today. Blockbuster sci-fi, unbelievable as it may be, just wasn’t really a thing back then. Thus, Episode 4 was a big risk before its release. But George Lucas being George Lucas, wanted to find a way to continue with Star Wars even in the event of disaster – an attitude that stood him in good stead throughout Episodes 1 to 3. And so he came up with a back-up plan in case the first film bombed.
That plan was to work out a small, low-budget sequel story idea, and then commission author Alan Dean Foster to flesh it out into a novel that could be used as the basis for a cheap movie follow-up, should Star Wars tank. Thus, we got Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, a story that saw Luke and Leia exploring a misty jungle planet without any of the rest of the cast, on the search for the Kaiburr Crystal – an early version of the Force sensitive, lightsaber-powering Kyber crystals featured in Lucas’ initial Star Wars drafts. The novel was finished and released, but then Episode 4 was quite popular, Empire was made, and Splinter remained a book. Albeit the actual, first original Star Wars novel ever written, and so actually still kind of a big deal in itself.
When it could have happened: It should have been well into production by now.
What is was: A spin-off side-story, in the manner of Rogue One, similarly set around the original trilogy, but focused on enigmatic bounty hunter Boba Fett. Although never officially confirmed to be the case, it’s by this point pretty much the worst-kept secret in Star Wars that the film was to be directed by Josh Trank, of Chronicle fame and Fantastic Four reboot infamy, with Trank himself originally scheduled to appear at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim in April 2015 to talk up the project.
Alas, Trank cancelled his appearance at Celebration, and departed the film shortly afterward. No official reason has been given beyond hints of creative differences - amid a great deal of plaudits from Trank for the Lucasfilm team - but reports claim that the director’s supposedly erratic behaviour on the set of Fantastic Four gave Lucasfilm misgivings about his continuing with the project, leading to his removal.
But! The Boba Fett movie is (likely) not dead, seeming to still be on the Lucasfilm slate, Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy unambiguously stated that the character is “a high priority on our list” in May 2015. It’s probably happening, and it will probably be one of the next two Star Wars spin-off films after 2018’s Solo. Possibly alongside the Obi-Wan Kenobi film that Ewan McGregor seems entirely willing to give his right arm to make. Cross all the things. Cross all of them.