The Force Awakens
It was universally accepted at the time that the trailer for The Force Awakens was one of the best, most compelling trailers we have had in years. True, the bar may have been set unnaturally low with trailers that were either presenting the best lines from the entire film or were downright spoiling major plot components (see Batman v Superman). The trailer for The Force Awakens spoilt nothing, giving audiences a genuine sense of anticipation and wonder. When Disney acquired Lucasfilm, the Star Wars Expended Universe had hundreds of amazing novels, spanning thousands of years of story in the galaxy far, far away, dozens of video games, hundreds of comic book issues, and a Clone Wars era TV show on Cartoon Network. Disney decided to declare all this content non-canon (now called Legends) so that the upcoming movies (and subsequent forms of media) could tell an entirely new story. While I am sure some people were excited about this, true fans were outraged. The future of Star Wars was going to have no Jason and Jaina Solo, no Kyle Katarn, no New Republic, no Grand Admiral Thrawn (this changed later, when the character was brought into the Rebels TV show and Timothy Zahn, who wrote the now-Legends Heir to the Empire trilogy, came up with three new Thrawn novels). I distinctly remember being angry to the point of tears.
The trailer still managed to get me and everyone else on board the hype train. In retrospect, it’s easy to conclude that it would have been impossible for the new film to please the older generations of fans, be exciting enough to bring in an entirely new generation, and be at least as good as the Legends Expended Universe stories. J.J. Abrams had an impossible task, but few of us thought about that in 2015.
The movie is released and I go to the premiere and about two nights after I go to see it again with my dad. Credits roll, I turn to his, he grimaces and says “I’ve seen this movie before”. And this brings us to the first major problem with The Force Awakens. Abrams must have realised the enormity of what he had to do and decide to go beyond playing it safe and soft-reboot A New Hope. I cannot stress this enough, but besides Generation Z, who was seeing Star Wars for the first time and subsequently had no expectations, absolutely no one wanted this. Let’s do a quick recap of the story: Force-sensitive orphan hero is a nobody on Tatooine, now called Jakku, who is revealed to have a grander destiny shortly after they form a core team with two other characters and decides they want to help in the fight against space Nazis, no longer called Empire, but First Order. The space Nazis have a weapon, albeit larger this time around, capable of destroying planets with its laser blast, this time called Starkiller Base instead of Death Star. They are mostly led by a fallen Jedi dressed in black armor and helmet, who is later revealed to take orders from a mysterious, older, and creepier figure, now called Supreme Leader Snoke instead of Emperor Palpatine. A member of the core trio is captured and held prisoner on the new Death Star and a rescue team, led by the old, mentor figure, who is now Han instead of Obi Wan, has to infiltrate the base, extract the hostage and help destroy it. The mentor figure loses their life inside the base at the hands of the darkly clothed fallen Jedi. The Rebels, now called The Resistance, arrive at the location of the base and blow it up. Sound familiar?
This didn’t work partly because the idea of soft-reboots is idiotic in itself and partly because of Abrams’s ‘mystery box’ philosophy of story-telling and, unfortunately, film making. If you are unfamiliar with Abrams and his TED talk, or if you haven’t seen the ending of Lost, what that means in theory is it is better to leave certain aspects to the audience’s imagination. If he doesn’t tell you what’s in the box then the box has the metaphorical potential to hold almost anything inside it. What this means in practice, however, is no background, lazy world-building, and no explanations whatsoever for almost anything that happens on the screen. Admittedly, some questions received their answers in the last film of the trilogy, however a great many are still left within the domains of the mystery box. These include, but are not limited to: why hasn’t the Empire been defeated after Episode VI? Where did this First Order come from? How did the useless orange alien come into the possession of Anakin’s lightsaber that Luke lost on Bespin? Why did it say that the lightsaber calls to Rey? Where in Star Wars lore has it been established that lightsabers are mystical items that can “call out” to people? Why is the former diplomat Leia Organa a general in the army? And so on. Now, I realise that some of the complaints I voice here are resolved in the novels and comics that were published afterwards, but we are discussing the movies in themselves.
Let us turn now to the characters. I have absolutely nothing against having a (strong) female character as the lead. There is a plethora of media with women as main characters that I absolutely enjoyed, such as Wonder Woman (film), Horizon Zero Dawn (video game), Life After Life (novel), Rogue One (film), Tomb Raider (various), etc. However, something is horrible off with Rey. Strictly from the perspective of this movie (before finding out who she is in Rise of Skywalker), she comes across as a down-your-throat Mary Sue, written in as a almost a direct order from Lucasfilm’s progressive, female CEO. She has absolutely no flaw throughout the entire movie and no explanation is given for why is she so good at fighting with her staff, flying spaceships, using mind control despite having learnt of the Force a few hours previously, or defeating (albeit a wounded) Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel. It just didn’t work.
I found the idea of emphasising the humanity of Stromtroopers and showing they might desert quite interesting and I liked the Darth Vader wannabe Ben Solo. His inner conflict was the only shadow of depth that this film had. Not even to this day could I be bothered to care for BB-8; we had R2-D2, who was already such an iconic piece of pop culture that everyone knew and loved. Why did that have to be rebooted also? As for the rest of the characters, all of them were either there for nostalgia reasons or were completely un remarking.
As expected from a blockbuster, Disney production, the visuals were nothing short of incredible. Abrams did an amazing job making everything in the movie look and sound like Star Wars. Story aside, seeing lightsabers on the big screen brought many of us a unique sense of joy that hasn’t been there since 2005. Everyone had Vader hoodies, children were playing with Lego X-Wings, people were talking about Star Wars again in the news and on YouTube, we got a next-gen video game and novels and comics were starting to come out. This rejuvenation was the bright side of the Disney acquisition. The Force Awakens became the highest grossing film in North America.
All in all, it was a great time to be a fan.
The Last Jedi
Fast forward roughly two years and we had a new director and screenwriter, Rian Johnson, and a new trailer, which, once again deceived many of us into boarding the hype train. I assumed that we would get the story of what Luke was up to all of this time along with all the answers to the questions The Force Awakens left us with. Many people were voicing the fear that Johnson would follow in the footsteps of J.J. Abrams two years prior and remake Empire Strikes Back. For better or worse, depending on your view, this would not be the case.
I had problems with the movie right from the very first minutes. It became apparent that Disney believed Marvel-like humour should be mindlessly inserted into every film they come out with to help make it more family friendly and appealing. In the first scenes of The Last Jedi, however, it was an idiotic idea, which felt like a forceful addition and broke some of the tension they wanted to create. The original trilogy had wit; there’s a difference. Then there was the plot itself. The movie was about rebels (I’m sorry, Resistance) trying to escape the First Order (Empire 2.0) and my mind couldn’t (and still can’t) possible comprehend the why. If this was the story they wanted to tell then what was the point of Episode VI? Wasn’t the Empire defeated and tyranny removed from the galaxy? And if so, why was Leia and her band running again? None of this was going to be explained in either this or the following film.
Rey remains on the secluded island with Luke to train and learn about the Force. The now-old Jedi master, however, believed that the “legacy of the Jedi” was failure (and partly he was right since, to a certain extent, it was the fault of the Jedi Order that Anakin would go on to become Vader) and he had simply given up. To add insult to injury, it was revealed that the reason Ben Solo turned to the Dark Side was that Luke, sensing there is a slight chance Ben would turn, tried to kill him in his sleep, being afraid of what a new fallen Jedi could do to the galaxy. Now, Urban Dictionary defines “out of character” writing as what happens in “fan fictions” (God, how fitting this is here) when “the character that is being used isn’t acting like that character will act. Often happens because someone doesn’t know that much about the fandom or just not very experienced with that character”. The character that tried to kill his teenage nephew for having the potential of being touched by the Dark Side and has given up on everything is the same character that found the good in Darth fricking Vader and brought him back to the Light in Episode VI. Again, it’s like Return of the Jedi never happened.
Meanwhile, there is an entire sub-plot with Finn and an Asian actress forced down the audience’s throats for the sake of racial diversity in cinema (in the new secular catechism, this is a sort of higher value that society has to strive towards) that serves absolutely no purpose for the overall story other than to take up time in a movie that is already too long and riddled with dead moments. Like Marvel and every other Dinsey-owned IP, Star Wars was becoming a medium for the propagation of progressive, leftist dogma. This is absolutely no problem when the story being told is well written and thought out, which unfortunately was not the case here. There are two generals in this movie and both are women. Again, as Joe Rogan noticed, not this is the issue, but the fact that they are not believable as generals (as opposed to, someone with authority written all over their attitude and face, like Robin Wright) and are women simply for the sake of making a political point. Besides Leia, we have Admiral Holdo, played by Laura Dern (a terrible choice for such a position), who, from a story perspective, is so incredibly incompetent that she fails to share her military strategy with the soldiers, causing a mutiny.
Further story problems become apparent when Rey and Kylo Ren confront the Supreme Leader, who is killed after mere minutes of screen time, with no explanations as to who he was, how he got there, how he got to Kylo, how did he come to have knowledge of the Dark Side or any other semblance of coherent story. There will be an attempt to salvage all this in the final film, however, I am mentioning it now because of a personal theory that I will present when we discuss Rise of Skywalker. In 2017, however, it seemed Supreme Leader Snoke had been cut out from Star Wars as abruptly and meaninglessly as he had been put in. To make matters worse, after defeating the Imperial guard, Kylo Ren reveals to Rey that he knew her background and her parents were nobody. Again, an attempt to “fix” this will be made in the next movie, however, if we are to judge The Last Jedi in abstracto, it ripped the saga aspect out of Star Wars, by making a main character out of someone unconnected to the Skywalker family, which should have never happened.
I understand what Johnson was trying to do with respect to the approach to the Force, which is also depicted in the scene with the kid Force-grabbing the broom at the end of the movie: one does not need to be part of a predestined and special family. The Order was an optional additional, arouse out of the Old Republic’s historically determined circumstances, not a compulsory part of the galaxy and its story. New Force-sensitive people will always come up and pick up the mantle of the former Jedi. Personally, I believe this is why he chose to reveal that Rey’s parents were nobodies. Heroes can and will rise up from anywhere. It is a great idea that, unfortunately, materialised into the second greatest cinematographic disaster I have ever seen, only surpassed by the Season 8 of Game of Thrones.
The end of the film reiterates the plot problem I’ve been having from the very beginning. Why did the Resistance have to run away? Why was nobody coming to help Leia and her band at the battle of Crait? Where was the New Republic that won the galaxy over at the battle of Endor? In my old-fashioned beliefs, I expect a film to at least contour a resemblance of background and coherence, and not rely on subsequent novels or other pieces of media that no average movie-goer will even interact with to tell its story.
Absolutely nothing in The Last Jedi worked. At this point, fans had no longer any ghost of a hope that Disney will do right by the franchise.
The trailer for The Rise of Skywalker drops on YouTube, I watch it, I hear Palpatine’s laughter and I immediately know I was right.
The Rise of Skywalker
After the Rian Johnson disaster, Disney were no longer willing to risk the fate of the trilogy and brought back J.J. Abrams, who, despite fan objections, made not only a hugely successful Star Wars films, but one of the most successful films of all time. Before we dive any deeper into the plot, I want to get out of the way the fact that Rise of Skywalker was a very good movie, from a movie-only perspective (if that makes any sense). Abrams, who seemed to have realized that Star Wars was a saga, as suggested in the title, successfully brought back Lando to have him explain to the younger generation that the key is to stand together in face of adversity, tried to answer most of the questions we had about the overall story and abandoned his mystery box approach, paid tribute to the fans by using score composed for the original trilogy, constructed some genuinely emotional scenes, referenced previous films in smart ways, ended it where it all began, with the binary sunset on Tatooine, and wrapped all of these in the incredible cinematography and visual design that we have been accustomed to from Disney blockbuster releases. A complete detachment was achieved from almost anything (one aspect was saved, I will mention it below) that had something to do with The Last Jedi (which makes the Finn-Rose relationship completely meaningless, since nothing came of it). So, considering all this, why do fans hate it?
Because the answers the films offers in regards to the story offend common decency. Emperor Palpatine has been somewhat alive (in another body, albeit) and hiding in the Unknown Regions, from where he created Snoke to serve as a proxy in leading the First Order against the New Republic. Palpatine is responsible for turning Ben Solo to the Dark Side and for the existence of Rey, who is revealed to be his granddaughter. This is meant to fill the vacuum of backstory created by Johnson’s handling of Snoke and explain away the Mary Sue aspects that plague Rey in The Force Awakens. The reason I say this is offensive is that the audience is presented with the idea that this was the plan all along. In reality, it is clear that it is all a desperate, rushed, and last-minute attempt to fix the mistakes of past films. The reveal as a literary device works when it is carefully thought out in the appropriate context. The information to be revealed has to have been intelligently hinted at previously, so that it integrates with the rest of the fictional world in harmony. If this doesn’t happen, the audience will see it as the desperate and incoherent attempt to shock that it is. To believe that Abrams knew any of this in 2015 is to be incredibly naive, even despite the fact that Palpatine’s survival is very well rooted in the lore of the previous canon (Legends).
Like Episode VI (which Lucasfilm executives had watched since The Last Jedi release), the ending presented a bi-lateral conflict. The military engaged the space Nazis in a space and/or ground battle while the Force sensitives decided their part in the fate of the galaxy among themselves. The battle was, at least to me, greatly underwhelming. Since this was the last film of the Skywalker saga, I expected something akin to Avenger’s Endgame: a massive and lengthy confrontation with as many characters and starships as would fit on a cinema screen. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The Final Order (I know, I know) had managed to shrink the Death Star technology and incorporate it into Star Destroyers and amass an impressive fleet of said destroyers, which, in a very anti-climatic fashion, it did not get the chance to use.
The confrontation of the Force sensitives was not better. The ritual and Palpatine’s shifting plans were a clusterfuck mess that confused many members of the audience. To my understanding, what happened was this: initially, the Emperor wanted Rey dead and Kylo Ren to strike him down, completing the ritual and becoming the next emperor and Dark Lord. After his turning back to the Light, his plan changed to having Rey kill him and take his place in order for her to save the Resistance (who, at this point in the movie at least, were being decimated by Imperial forces). Then, after Ben Solo arrives at the scene and he sees that the two younger Jedi share a unique bond in the Force, he changed his mind again, deciding to use the energy of said bond to complete his resurrection and have the ritual finalized in his person. Why the spirits of the previous Sith had to be hosted in the body of Palpatine and those of the previous Jedi in the body of Rey is something I don’t understand myself and won’t venture to expand on (though if I were to guess, I’d say to add some finality to the Emperor’s death and the whole affair). There was also no satisfying, final lightsaber combat. Ben uses their link in the Force and the remaining of his life energy to bring Rey back, thus being redeemed by self-sacrifice, a la Vader.
The last scene has on old lady ask Rey what her family name is, at which point the Force ghosts of Luke and Leia appear and she says “Skywalker”, probably feeling that they were the closest things to parents she has ever had. Abrams’s attempt to save the ‘saga’ aspect again had the effect of confusing members of the audience. When we got out of the theatre, one of my friends asked me “but she doesn’t have any connection to the Skywalkers, right?”. That’s right, Abrams. That’s right.
(It is worth mentioning here that Disney cut a scene of two women kissing at the end of this movie from screenings in Singapore, showing the hypocrisy and shallowness of their liberal agenda)
Ever since the late 80s it was clear that Star Wars was so much more than a movie. It was one of those cultural phenomena, like Michael Jackson, so utterly singular and uniquely capable of touching the lives of tens of millions of people. I first saw A New Hope around the end of 1997 and it imprinted upon me an unparalleled sense of wonder and fascination that will never leave. George Lucas, despite his shortcomings as a director, was an incredible visionary who told an epic story of light and darkness and authoritarianism and hope and family and spirituality that forever changed the face of cinema.
With all this is mind, I admit that, even if Disney decided to take the sequel trilogy in an entirely different and original direction (as opposed to re-telling the same ‘space Nazis have Death Star(s) story’ that the originals did), fans would have most probably been disappointed either way. The sun is setting on the ability to re-capture the magic from 1977. Maybe forever.