For my first blog post, I thought I’d tackle a small franchise called Star Wars. Probably never heard of it.
I adhere to the idea that moviegoers interact with big movie franchises like Star Wars as modern age mythologies. As ancient Greeks looked through Homer as a lens into real life, so we look through filmmakers like Lucas to tell us what it means to be human. We crowd the cineplex and follow these characters to find out what they do next, what does them in (if that’s what the budget calls for), or how their lives in some way reflect ours. When the latest movie of such a mythology comes out and you leave the theater thinking ‘that wasn’t what I was hoping,’ the reliance on the mythology can fade. It’s disappointing, in a way.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve watched the new Star Wars movies and you’ve enjoyed them to some degree, but you can’t help but feel there’s something holding them back. I’ve read very few Star Wars books, ‘canon’ or otherwise, so I’m not projecting what ought to have happened based on this or that book. I’m looking at these two entries of a new trilogy, Rogue One notwithstanding, from a purely cinematic experience. So far, there are things that keep the Star Wars mythology alive, and things that maybe could’ve done with a second look.
RIGHT: Lightsaber battles are on point.
Let’s start with something trivial: lightsabers.
In the original trilogy, lightsaber usage is raw, emotional, and rudimentary. There’s not a lot of flash, but there is a lot of story in each duel. There’s power and feeling behind each swing. Ok, the Obi-Wan vs Darth Vader duel in A New Hope could’ve used a little sizzle, but you get my point. There was a point to using the lightsaber.
Then there were the prequels, which thought they’d dazzle us with speedy, highly-choreographed lightsaber duels, and dazzled we were: for one movie. That Darth Maul fight is pretty fun. In the movies that followed, we came to our senses and remembered that Yoda shouldn’t bounce off the walls like Flubber, that flash does not equal strategy or even good fight choreography. One does wonder if Obi-Wan and Anakin are actually trying to hit each other in Revenge of the Sith. It’s no wonder their climactic duel goes on forever. With the new movies, lightsabers are treated more like broadswords than foam noodles, with real weight and effort behind each swing. While they aren’t as ‘flashy’ as the prequel duels, they lose none of their emotional potency. They resemble more closely the duels in the original trilogy, the ones that introduced us to lightsabers in the first place. I call this a win.
WRONG: Space battles are flat.
The Force Awakens, most of us can agree, feels overly familiar. The climactic battle over Starkiller Base is the pinnacle of familiarity. After all, we’ve had not one but two previous space battles over Death Stars. A third is just white noise. What’s more, it doesn’t feel quite as urgent as, say, the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, even though the stakes are practically the same. We’ve seen it all before, so we know how it ends.
With The Last Jedi, the opening space battle basically takes the evacuation of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back and moves it to space. This time, the Resistance has a trick up its sleeve: bombers that drop gravity-defying explosives over an unsuspecting Dreadnaught ship. Given that there are only a handful of bombers and fighters to protect them, this seems like a terrible plan* and the whole battle comes off as cartoonish. BB-8 is trying to keep an electrical fire under control with its claw things. Poe is delivering quip after quip. The sniveling leaders on board the Star Destroyers gonna snivel. The survival of the Resistance in the scene is just not taken as seriously as the Rebellion’s escape in Empire.
In the third chapter of the trilogy, I hope to see a darker, more desperate space battle along the lines of the Battle of Endor, or the Battle of Scarif in Rogue One.
*I understand this is important to Poe’s character development, but there has to be another way for the writers to get from A to B. Give the Resistance more to start off with and the First Order a trick up its own sleeve. I don’t know. Anything.
RIGHT: The ‘Star Wars’ aesthetic is present
The film world seems to be entering a more discerning era of CGI usage, and the new Star Wars movies are willing participants. Within the first few minutes of The Force Awakens, it’s clear the filmmakers decided to go with a look more in keeping with the original trilogy than the prequels. There are sets again, and actors, and actors for those actors to interact with. Aliens are people in costumes, or puppets. Scenes are shot on location in deserts, forests, and snow. The galaxy looks like a real, living place again, not a paycheck for the animation department.
Additionally, the new movies have successfully populated this recreated Star Wars galaxy with a wider range of characters. You know what I’m talking about. There’s more than one woman in the galaxy now, and minorities too. These characters reflect the fan base that has loved the saga for decades, and the trilogy has lost nothing for it.
WRONG: But where are the aliens I know?
I’m not expecting the props and costume departments to be slaves to the original trilogy’s art direction, but seeing that the galaxy hasn’t changed, I expected to see more of the same aliens and creatures that populated the universe in any of the previous trilogies. Case in point: Maz Kanata’s bar. There are dozens of different alien species and droids walking around, and they are all brand new. I’m sure the art department had a blast inventing new droid units and alien species, but we can’t have anything familiar? No cantina band? No R2 units? No wampas downing a pint (only kidding)? I’m only looking for, like, a 10% old to 90% new ratio. Just enough to place me in the same galaxy as A New Hope or any of the other movies.
RIGHT: Rey is a nobody.
Let’s dive deeper into the story. I really hope this one sticks through the third movie, with no hidden twists (“what I told you was true, from a certain point of view”). We’ve come to expect that everybody important in these movies is a Skywalker or connected in some such way. The saga was in danger of relying on too many coincidences to link the Skywalker family to the fate of the galaxy. It’s a big galaxy, after all. There are others contributing to its comings and goings. The Force felt an imbalance with Snoke and Kylo Ren on the Dark side. Luke Skywalker was emotionally unavailable, so it put its stock in a nobody on Jakku. I’m totally on board with this.
WRONG: Rey is inexplicably good at everything
Rey can fight. Rey can fix things. Rey can fly, speak any number of languages, and, you know, use the Force reasonably well without a minute of training. It seems the writers mistook writing a good female character with writing an impossibly capable female character. What makes characters compelling isn’t what they can do, but what they attempt to do despite their limitations. This is simple storytelling: a protagonist completing or not completing their task on account of their obstacles. What are Rey’s obstacles? Beats me.
RIGHT: The movies are as much about Kylo Ren as anybody
Whether you think Kylo Ren is a whiny emo kid or a malevolent force, you have to admit…he’s a question mark. You’re never quite sure what he’s going to do. He’s the most interesting Star Wars villain, in my opinion, outside Darth Vader and the filmmakers have chosen to give him quite a bit of screen time. While his narrative likely arcs toward redemption, that is not a sure thing. What’s more, he is an active participant in the protagonist’s decision-making process. When he and Rey discuss her parentage in The Last Jedi and he says ‘you’re a nobody, but not to me,’ he means it and that makes Rey’s choice of how to follow the Force all the more frustrating. It’s good stuff, is all I’m saying.
WRONG: But Finn is in danger of being wasted
When it was leaked that one of the characters in The Force Awakens was a runaway stormtrooper, I think everyone went ‘here….HERE is a character we’ve not seen before!” And this is true. In The Force Awakens, Finn covers ground we’ve never covered in a Star Wars movie. He’s simultaneously brave for betraying the First Order and helping Poe escape, but cowardly for running away, but brave again for helping to save Rey on Starkiller Base. I suppose I’d assumed we’d see Finn fight more of his inner demons in the second film, but his subplot meanders through a casino and a shoved-in love story. When he confronts Phasma again on the Star Destroyer, it feels like nothing has built up to that moment. It’s too bad. Let’s hope movie three ends his story in a satisfying way.
RIGHT: Han and Luke have satisfying endings
Look, Harrison Ford thought Han Solo should’ve gone out in Empire and maybe he was right. In Return of the Jedi, his character doesn’t really go anywhere. He gets jealous for a minute, and that’s about it. He’s along for the ride. It works out in the end, though, because he’s killed by none other than his own son in The Force Awakens. It’s a masterful set up; you know as soon as he steps out into the walkway that he’s the Obi-Wan Kenobi of this ‘New Hope’ (if you hadn’t figured it out already). Chewbacca is watching from afar, as are the two leads of the new trilogy, Rey and Finn. It’s a moving and fitting way for Han to go: trying to bring together a family he never thought he’d have.
As for Luke, I for one thought projecting his image across the galaxy to a different planet was an awesome feat of strength in the Force. He manages to save not only his sister, but what’s left of the Resistance from annihilation. The theme of The Last Jedi seems to be that the good guys will win by saving lives, not ending them. Luke’s actions, then, fit within the theme of the movie and satisfy his wishes to not return to the fray. Then, under two setting suns, his spirit gives up as he’s once again at peace with the Force. I think this is a fitting way for our favorite Jedi to go.
WRONG: The new trilogy should have started much, much earlier in the story.
With the Republic established, the First Order strong, the Jedi academy come and gone, Rey a nobody, Kylo Ren already evil, and Snoke already in power, I have to ask…why did they start the story where they did? It’s puzzling, because my number one complaint about the new trilogy is a lack of world building. In the original trilogy, you know exactly what you need to know about the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. You sympathize with Luke right away, with the fate of the galaxy falling in his lap, and it’s a fun reveal that his father is this monster terrorizing the galaxy. It made sense to start where it did.
The prequel trilogy is, if nothing else, world building. Should’ve started later, with Anakin as a teenager, but that’s another conversation.
So for this new trilogy, why not write a story about reforming the Republic? Or Luke’s Jedi Academy? Ben Solo growing up? In particular, I want to know more…a lot more…about the First Order and Snoke. With the Empire, we know that they believe they’re restoring peace to the galaxy through fear, that they are the established order and will do anything to keep it that way. We may disagree with their methods, but it makes sense. We have no idea what the First Order is about. Why are they cool with killing people –destroying worlds, even– even though they are clearly not in power? As with any antagonist, it’s important to know what Snoke wants and how he is convincing others to follow. How the remnants of the Empire were manipulated by Snoke and reinvented into the First Order is crucial information. Maybe this was me projecting, but in The Force Awakens I got the idea that the First Order was more or less the ISIS of the galaxy, a powerful but isolated menace with no regard for history (they destroy Maz Kanata’s ancient temple) and comprised mainly of easily-swayed youth (General Hux is, what, 30?). The Last Jedi throws that out the window with plenty of old officers around.
With the story starting where it does, we don’t have the luxury of feeling sympathetic toward the Republic’s destruction because we know nothing about it. Why the Republic doesn’t have an army and instead relies on the Resistance would be important information to explain (and since the Republic is in power, the First Order is technically the Resistance). We miss Snoke’s story, most of Ben Solo’s story, and are instead following Rey who is, we now know, nobody. So why is the story about her? Why is it set now?
You know what this feels like? This feels like the Star Wars movies are going in circles. It feels like Disney is a third grader sitting on its bedroom floor playing Star Wars with action figures making up a vaguely Star Wars story that will keep the universe going on and on and on. To recap, by the end of The Last Jedi, two of the three original leads are gone and we’re left wondering about the backgrounds behind these two entities—the First Order and the Resistance—that mimic but are not exactly the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Despite the title, the Jedi are going to go on without any lessons learned about the ways of the Force or the problems with the Jedi. We’re not treading much new ground thematically or narratively, not expanding the scope of the story, or learning anything new about the Star Wars galaxy.
In short, we’re one movie away from wondering…why was this story important enough to be told? Nevertheless, the mythology means enough to me that I will keep watching. In the meantime, Disney is going to sell a lot of BB-8 and Porg toys.