STAR WARS, ALIEN 3, And The Purgatory Of Unproduced Scripts

Colin Trevorrow's leaked STAR WARS script raises interesting issues.

Colin Trevorrow’s unproduced and abandoned Star Wars Episode IX screenplay has been a highly sought-after item for a little while. A rundown of the script’s contents appeared online a few weeks ago, followed by a small deluge of concept art for Trevorrow’s project. Discussion exploded about this version of the movie - titled Duel of the Fates - and whether or not it would have made a better film than the one we got. Now, a draft of the script itself (dated 12-16-2016) has leaked onto the Internet, and we can see for ourselves.

I will not link to the script; nor will I say too much about its contents. I'd also ask that you don't post links to the script in the comments, lest ye crave a banning. If you want to find out more, it’s all out there.

It's an interesting read, for sure. Trevorrow's heart was clearly in the right place, and in concept, it tells a more complete story, follows up The Last Jedi better, and for me, rounds out the saga more satisfyingly than The Rise of Skywalker did. I really like its broad-stroke ideas of revolution and balance, and I like a lot of its smaller beats too. Most of its problems stem from its best thematic ideas being paid lip service only, as opposed to emerging through character decisions and actions. One can see how further development could turn it into a pretty good movie. Indeed, had Trevorrow stayed on, it would have gone through several more drafts and likely looked quite different by 2019. However, that the screenplay as-is feels more whole and satisfying than the released Episode IX is a testament to just how rushed the eventual production was. 

The leaking of the script is problematic, though, and not just for the leaker, who if identified is certain to be sued into the ground for breach of contract. It puts both the released film and the leaked script into an awkward sort of limbo. Obviously, The Rise of Skywalker is the genuine Episode IX. What’s done is done. But the existence in public view of an alternate version muddies the waters and raises some potentially thorny issues.

Significantly more screenplays get written than get produced. That much should be obvious, but it's not only true for the scripts your Uber driver has under his seat ready to throw at celebrity passengers. Studios often commission many scripts for potential franchise instalments, as it's a relatively inexpensive way to generate ideas. Warner Bros, for example, hired multiple writers at once to write dueling screenplays for Aquaman back in 2014. I'd bet there are at least as many unproduced Star Wars screenplays sitting at Disney - alternate versions, abandoned spec ideas - as there are produced films. It's common practice, and it's also common practice to keep all that stuff confined to the studio. After all, a screenplay is not a complete work of art in itself, and a draft screenplay is essentially a draft of a plan for an assembly cut of a movie.

Duel of the Fates occupies a unique position, then, in that it is a product of Lucasfilm, but intended for internal use only, disavowed in every respect other than a contract-mandated screen credit. It sits somewhere between fan fiction and official fiction, and many will latch on to it as their “preferred” ending to the Star Wars sequel trilogy. It’s probably only a matter of time before some enterprising fan filmmaker makes their own version of Duel of the Fates based on the script and the concept art. (They’d better work quietly, because Disney isn’t known for not litigating unauthorised use of Star Wars IP.)

Disney could try to make the most of this, by publishing a “What If”-style graphic novel based on the script's final draft. Doing so would pre-empt fan versions by offering something “official”; further clarify its status as an alternate-universe version of the story; and probably make a few bucks in the process (something I hear Disney likes doing). There’s even a pre-existing Star Wars brand they could publish it under: “Legends”.

A precedent already exists for doing this, and thanks to Disney’s insatiable hunger for other companies and their intellectual property, it’s actually kind of a Disney product itself. William Gibson’s radically different unproduced screenplay for Alien 3 leaked years ago, but last year Dark Horse released a quote-unquote “official” graphic novel adaptation. Reading it feels like looking at elaborate storyboards; it’s as close to seeing Gibson’s sequel to Aliens as you’ll ever get. Like Duel of the Fates, it’s rough around the edges, but it's not bad; it's definitely full of interesting ideas. One can imagine a similar process being employed on other not-quite produced movies, like Jodorowsky’s Dune, James Cameron’s Spider-Man, or even the other alternate Alien 3 developed by Vincent Ward.

That won’t happen with Duel of the Fates, of course, and at this stage it probably shouldn't. Lucasfilm is too obsessed with keeping canon under strict control to allow any alternate-universe malarkey to pass through its doors. Doing so would form an unprecedented implicit admission that The Rise of Skywalker was disliked, irrespective of whether or not that film was itself a mea culpa to critics of The Last Jedi. It'd be a sign of weakness, and frankly, it would only confuse the many audience members who had fun watching the movie, moved on, and never engaged with the ensuing discourse. Those blissfully ignorant bastards.

Reading early or alternate drafts of movies is a fun exercise in imagination, conjecture, and fantasy, and an enlightening glimpse into the development process. That's where it should probably stay; this script, like countless others before it, isn't going anywhere. Maybe twenty or thirty years from now, Disney will return to this well for some easy IP exploitation. But for now, let's look at this realistically. In the grand scheme of things, its existence doesn't mean much at all.