The Star Wars “Problem”

*** WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER AND THE ENTIRE SKYWALKER SAGA. PROCEED WITH CAUTION. ***

Back in 2015, as the lights dimmed in the theater and those iconic words lit up the screen, and John Williams’ fantastic score transported the audience into the vast reaches of a faraway galaxy, I had tears in my eyes knowing I would finally get to experience a Star Wars film on the big screen. The Force Awakens reignited my interest in the revived, freshly Disney-purchased Lucasfilm franchise, just as it inspired a ton of new fans, including the little girl I saw in line at the theater this past Sunday, clutching her Rey doll in her hand and bouncing on her heels in excitement while waiting for her popcorn. Things like that warm my jaded, cold heart and make me earnestly believe that films are made in order to legitimately inspire others, not just to make money.

The Force Awakens was, in more than one way, an awakening. An awakening of new fans, of a new chapter in the franchise, of new cash flow for the House of Mouse, of new beginnings… and of an onslaught of criticism, backlash, and controversy, not entirely undeserved, which has culminated in a massive divide in fan reaction of the last release in the Skywalker saga, 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker.

Full disclosure: I’m not a lifelong Star Wars fan. I didn’t deep dive into the books or the extended universe, but I love the original films, I tolerate the prequels, and I liked all of the sequel films. I liked The Force Awakens. I liked The Last Jedi. And I liked The Rise of Skywalker. But I will say, as a whole, that the sequel films do not feel like a completely cohesive trilogy – and that is likely due to different approaches in directing and storytelling creating an over-arcing plot that stuttered when it could have truly shone, which probably has something to do with Disney’s overlords, too. No disrespect to the Mouse, of course. Y’all have plenty of my money, don’t worry.

Of course, my appreciation for the newest cinematic adventures long ago in a galaxy far, far away, and my defense of their merit is not to say that all three sequel films were without problems. Do I think certain things could have been different? Of course. TFA could have been less derivative. TLJ could have retained more elements of TFA to make them feel more connected. And TRoS could have felt less crammed, done less backtracking, and could have handled characters/stories better. And that’s the short list.

I don’t read reviews and try to avoid reactions for Star Wars films until after I see the films myself. When it comes to toxic fandoms, Star Wars is near the top of the list – as is expected with fandoms that are also highly passionate – so I like to steer clear of the horde yammering about “so and so should have happened” and “so and so should have done this” and “my theory was wrong and now I’m going to whine about it on the internet” and “well, in the lore they did this” until I can form an opinion on my own, untainted by the interpretation of others.

Many complained that The Force Awakens was too much like A New Hope – and it certainly does follow extremely similar story beats. A new hero rises to prominence and must go on an adventure with some recruited droids/friends and a reluctant mentor, there’s a conflicted bad dude in a mask, Rey witnesses Han’s death the same way Luke sees Obi-Wan’s, big spherical evil base gets destroyed, etc, etc.

So, when Rian Johnson took the helm for The Last Jedi, he abandoned many threads introduced in TFA and defied story tropes by claiming that our heroine, Rey, was actually “no one,” and thus an incredible Force user without strong blood-ties to a prominent family, by having Kylo Ren kill the “Big Bad” Snoke, by showing a divisive side of Luke Skywalker, and introducing the first female POC major character in the films, Rose Tico – and it sparked a volatile reaction among the fandom, despite critical praise. Toxic fans went after Kelly Marie Tran because they didn’t like her character, fans rebelled against the idea that Luke Skywalker would just “walk away” from being a Jedi, and many hated the idea that Rey was not related to anyone from the original films. Not invalid complaints by any means, but complaints nonetheless.

Perhaps due to the backlash kicked up by TLJ, J.J. Abrams took the reins back for The Rise of Skywalker, and, predictably, he picked up some of the ideas that Johnson had abandoned. Palpatine is back – or, rather, he was there all along. The Knights of Ren are back. Rey is revealed to be a Palpatine, thus explaining her strong connection to the Force. Kylo Ren – the “villain” – is redeemed, and his name of Ben Solo restored. Easter Eggs, fan service, and callbacks to the original films and other Star Wars media everywhere you look. And, yet again, fans and critics are calling it the worst film in the entire series. That is a bold claim after Phantom Menace (I kid, I kid… maybe).

I understand a lot of the criticism surrounding the newest release. Palpatine being the big bad regurgitates another villain. Rose Tico / Kelly Marie Tran – and her 76 seconds of screen time – certainly deserved better. Introducing Zorii Bliss as some old flame of Poe’s felt forced, though her character is cool. Jannah feels similarly short-changed, and I hope we see more of her in the future. We have no idea what Finn is going to do next. It was difficult to watch Ben Solo earn his redemption and take his name back only to give up his life force to save Rey, although it makes narrative sense. I mean, I loved Driver’s emotionally-charged portrayal in all 3 films and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is my favorite character in the new trilogy with the exception of General Hux, but that’s due to my crush on Domnhall Gleeson. A HEA between Ben and Rey might have worked and part of me would have loved it due to their incredible onscreen chemistry and their almost palpable bond, but it’s hard to just forget how many times over the series he gaslit and manipulated Rey to try and convince her to his way of thinking, including the whole “the only way you get to Exegol is with me” moment, which is a big no no in a relationship, but that’s also besides the point and I won’t drone on about it. I know he was basically a puppet and manipulated into becoming a villain from the start, and he was extremely conflicted about his evil deeds, and he did reject the Sith in the end, but that doesn’t entirely absolve him of things like killing his dad, even if Han forgave him. Would have at least liked to have seen him as a Force Ghost at the end, if not be permitted to take further steps on Redemption Road. The whole “Rey Skywalker” thing is… meh. I get it, but I also think she could have owned her Palpatine name instead of burying it. In all, TRoS is predictable entertainment, and it retreats into familiarity instead of breaking new ground… but as the finale to a trilogy of trilogies, one that must conclude a nine film saga, that is to be expected.

Basically… both TLJ and TRoS (and Johnson and Abrams, respectively) made an effort to undo what their predecessor did – one by taking daring new steps in a progressive direction, the other by sticking to a proven formula that honors tradition, and, at times, “caves” to the toxicity of the fandom. And the effect is certainly… jarring. TLJ feels the most out of place in both tone and plot – I’m not saying that’s bad, because it’s not, and the film certainly hearkens back to ESB the way that TFA does to ANH – and it’s sandwiched between two Abrams-directed films, which, as a result, makes the trilogy feel disjointed, and contributes to much of the dissatisfaction with the conclusion. TFA was too derivative, so TLJ made some changes, and TRoS undid those changes. I mean…. I’m not going to say it was a directorial pissing contest, but maybe it was – I’m not sure what went on behind the scenes. Then again, I also don’t know how much either director knew about what the endgame was, or how much overall plot was worked out beforehand, so I can’t criticize their decision-making too much. Point is, a lot of valuable plot time was probably wasted – especially in TRoS – trying to “fix” ideas from the previous film that fans and critics took issues with.

It’s easy to say what should have happened in retrospect, but I truly believe the films would have benefited from having the same director for all three. This one probably should have been Abrams, only because he started it off with TFA. I would have liked to see what he could have done if he had been behind the camera for the second film, as much as I appreciated TLJ – which features one of the absolute greatest scenes in the entire series in the Kylo Ren/Rey fight against the Praetorian guards. Like, imagine if The Two Towers was directed by… Michael Bay, instead of Peter Jackson. That’s an extreme and not totally equivalent example, but you get the point – it does make a difference. Cohesion is so, so important to a story. And when directors aren’t on the same page – and producers most likely aren’t helping matters by meddling, which did not help Solo or Rogue One either – you fail to achieve balance, and it will be noticeable in the final product.

That’s also why I hope Johnson gets his shot at a new trilogy or film, if he’s still on board for making one and if producers butt the eff out. If nothing else, moviegoers should check out his other work as well. Knives Out, which he directed and which is still playing in theaters – is one of the best films of the year, by far. He didn’t deserve the backlash he got for TLJ, and I, for one, would love to see what he could do with the Star Wars universe if given a totally clean slate. His ideas are compelling – and he could make some serious galactic magic.

As a fan, I was satisfied, but not blown away by the conclusion of the Skywalker saga. I have fallen in love with new characters, new worlds, and new droids – here’s looking at you, D-0. Do I think things could have been different, and perhaps better? Sure – they always could, no matter how great films are or how much we like them. But perhaps the biggest, baddest enemy in the Star Wars universe is not Emperor Palpatine… but the franchise itself, bogged down by it’s own nostalgia and strict adherence to tradition and the familiar. Listening to fans is not always the best policy. I can only hope that small sparks – like Solo, Rogue One, and The Mandalorian, which are of a more standalone nature – shall lead to a bright future and continued success for one of the greatest franchises of all time.

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