Inside Entertainment,  Media Rants

The Star Wars Conundrum

As a writer, I live by a simple rule when it comes to revision: if two of my alpha readers cite the same issue, then I must (absolutely non-negotiable) address that issue – even if I vehemently disagree with what those readers are saying. Where two people have seen a problem, others will also.

When I’ve worked as an editor, I’ve seen writers steadfastly defend their narrative. Working on an anthology about eight years ago, I had one author refuse to address a plot point that four editors had cited. I told him we were a representation of his readers. He refused to be moved.

The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy has problems. Lots of people have cited these same issues. Unfortunately, in the current environment critique is stonewalled. It’s much like that one author: lots of people are citing the same problems, but instead of there being any logical and constructive discourse, these people and their criticisms are arbitrarily dismissed.

I wanted to review The Rise of Skywalker. I tried it three different ways and wrote umpteen drafts. Every version degenerated into deconstructions of plotting, appraisals of the story, evaluations of the characters, etc., but that’s all been done. There are lots of great reviews around about why it’s a mess. Many of these reviews cite the same issues.

And yet The Rise of Skywalker has its defenders, as do its predecessors. How has the Sequel Trilogy generated this loyalty? When I looked at my other drafts, I realised this was the question I was actually asking: why are so many people sticking by the Sequels given the widespread criticism which is indicative of recurring narrative problems? This loyalty certainly didn’t happen with the Prequels. Once this question occurred to me, then I knew what I wanted to explore: that sad devotion.

I watched all the movies again in preparation to see The Rise of Skywalker (2019). The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002) didn’t move in my estimation (clunky with good moments), while Revenge of the Sith (2005) appreciated. I still find Rogue One (2016) dumb, and Solo (2018) harmless but largely forgettable. And The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017)? They grew more awful.

While the Sequel Trilogy is gorgeous visually, all I’ve seen throughout (from both JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson) is a lack of planning, plot contrivances, convenient solutions, new tech/abilities to push the plotting where the characters and storytelling can’t causally or justifiably move it, poor characterizations, very little in the way of character arcs, a horrible exploitation of the Force that comes with ready-made skillsets (far superior to anything shown in the two previous trilogies) and God-like abilities, a misrepresentation of legacy, and horrible structure.

I’ve always believed that movies in franchises with huge fanbases produce a skewed rating because there are blocks of fans so desperate to see their heroes portrayed on screen they’ll accept just about anything. They’ll believe in an average film – or even a bad one. The other thing is that, decades ago, terrible movies looked terrible. Now, everything looks brilliant. I think that the prettiness of movies nowadays encourages audiences to believe that a movie must be good because it looks good.

Several years ago, I had an argument with some random on Twitter about Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. We went back and forth on what we believed: I cited plot, character, and structure as recurring issues throughout that story. He straight out told me to ignore the movie’s problems (because every movie has problems, you see) and to just enjoy the ‘sweet visuals’. That has almost become the creed for modern Hollywood blockbusters: aim for sweet visuals, because the rest really doesn’t matter.

Now when I talk to anybody who likes the Sequels, I always feel like I’m having that same discussion I had with that Twitter random, but just in different ways. I can cite narrative issues, poor characterisation, and tacky derivation, and often it means little. People still champion these movies.

But why?

It’s certainly not because they’re filled with memorable characters, the way the Original Trilogy has Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, Chewbacca, R2D2, C3PO, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Yoda, and company. Even the Prequels have Qui Gon, Mace Windu, and Count Dooku. The Sequel characters are bland and don’t have much in the way of personality or arcs. Poor merchandise sales also reflect that. I also find I’m constantly having to pause to remember which one is Poe and which one if Finn.

And fans aren’t championing the Sequels because they tell a new or compelling story. While people laud Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, it effectively mimics The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It’s not original. The so-called subversion is just a shock tactic, without any genuine grounding in the narrative. The Rise of Skywalker and The Force Awakens definitely aren’t original. As JJ Abrams did with the Star Trek franchise, he has reiterated what’s been done before, just on a grander scale, and with little-to-no understanding of why it worked originally. Does that make it better? No. Does it make it interesting? No. Does it make it anything? Yes. An inferior copy.

So something else is at work that generates this loyalty. Something greater. Something almost mystical, much like the Force itself.

To discover what that is, you need to go back to the beginning of this franchise to understand the psychology of how these movies appealed to the public, how they’ve created a fandom, and the relationship that they’ve nurtured and abused in equal measure.

A New Hope (1977) popularised science fiction in film and revolutionised special effects in moviemaking. It was groundbreaking and told a simple but compelling story. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) wasn’t as well received at the time because it was darker and intellectualized the universe, but it’s now generally recognized as the best movie in the franchise. Return of the Jedi (1983) played it safer. Original discussions for early drafts had Luke becoming the new emperor, Han Solo being killed, and the Millennium Falcon being destroyed. While it ultimately played it safe, it satisfyingly closed the trilogy.

People wanted more Star Wars. George Lucas didn’t. But we had books and games and conventions. The series appreciated. There was nothing like it. Star Trek belongs to another category altogether (serious science fiction, rather than operatic science fantasy), and properties such as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Battlestar Galactica (to name a few) don’t have the same marquee. Obviously, there have been good science fiction and science fantasy movies, but nothing on the level of Star Wars.

When George Lucas finally decided to make the Prequels, he faced three immediate problems:

    1. there was tons of fiction and fan fiction that he didn’t want to duplicate
    2. his standing had grown to the extent that it felt as if the people who challenged him to improve the storytelling in the Original Trilogy were now yes-people, disarmed by the simple question, Who am I to question George Lucas?
    3. the Original Trilogy had become so beloved it would be almost impossible to live up to.

The result?

The Phantom Menace was well-received initially, but once the enthusiasm waned people began to look at it analytically and decided they weren’t liking what they found. Attack of the Clones was reviled. Revenge of the Sith had a better reception, but by then it was trying to undo a lot of damage. Here was the new trilogy and it was decidedly blah.

Each Prequel fell short of expectations. This had an accumulative effect. Fans were wounded. Their faith and investment in this universe was shaken. They wanted to feel the way they felt watching the Original Trilogy. Now that wasn’t happening, there was a backlash. People loathed the Prequel Trilogy with the same passion they loved the Original Trilogy. Others who’d never been committed to Star Wars, had never understood the fuss, and/or thought it was all stupid, found justification in their outlook.

As an aside, I also believe some hubris was involved. George Lucas had become this film-making deity who’d been behind the creation of two of the hugest and most popular franchises there is: Star Wars and Indiana Jones. For whatever reason, there’s that tall poppy syndrome that we like to see successful people fall on their butts. As far as Lucas went, let’s compound that with his love of CGI. Whereas now CGI has become an accepted device in film-making, Lucas seemed to be spurning the human equation with the Prequels and people didn’t like it.

It really was a perfect storm of shit.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, George Lucas handed over detailed treatments for a new trilogy that took the series down this abstract intellectual path. Lucas has always been something of an arthouse storyteller who became trapped in the commercialism of his own creation, so perhaps this isn’t surprising. Who knows what might’ve become of those stories had they been made?

Disney drew from those treatments, but decided to do their own thing. George Lucas himself has said Disney wanted to make a ‘retro’ film. Scuttlebutt is that Disney instructed JJ Abrams to make a movie like the Original Trilogy – and nobody denies The Force Awakens is derivative. Fans and defenders espouse it needed to be safe after the damage the Prequels inflicted. I don’t actually agree with that. As I always blog, just tell a good story. People won’t care what it is if it’s good – just as Joker was an atypical story for the DC (or any) superhero universe, yet became a commercial and critical hit.

When The Force Awakens was released, the response from many was … relief. The movie felt good and promising and full of potential not because it stood up in its own right, but because it wasn’t like the Prequels. It drew from the nostalgia of the Original Trilogy. It used the same beats. It retold the same story. That made audiences feel safe. And happy. They could re-embrace their love of this universe. Star Wars was back. Best of all, it wasn’t like the Prequels! So many people qualified their like of The Force Awakens this way: It’s better than the Prequels. Or they scoffed, You liked the Prequels better? The movie was graded on a curved and it was considered a welcome return to what Star Wars should be. It was the perfect launching pad for the new trilogy.

The critics lauded The Last Jedi, but it  divided the fans. People say it’s only a niche group of hardcore fans who hate it, but the movie has an audience score of 43% on Rotten Tomtatoes – that’s much more than a niche. Some fans who’d previously been enthusiastic about the Sequels now began to re-examine them –  the way the fans did with The Phantom Menace – and change their opinions. But others have continued to champion it. Mixed reaction has greeted The Rise of Skywalker. Some feel it betrayed The Last Jedi‘s vision. Others feel it repairs the damage The Last Jedi has done. Some have told me The Rise of Skywalker is the best of the Sequels.

Lots of opinions. Lots and lots of opinions.

And they’re all moot for one simple reason: this Sequel Trilogy is terrible. You cannot repair damage when the Trilogy is fundamentally flawed. It’d be like asking somebody to fix a door hinge on the Titanic as the ship is sinking. And you cannot derail a vision that doesn’t exist, or exists only as a pale derivation. Listen to the chorus. Look at the lack of merchandise sales. Look at Disney back-pedal and postpone or cancel future movies. None of these are symptoms of good health. But some people keep championing this Trilogy – either in part or parts, or in its entirety.

Because what’s the alternative? If there’s an acknowledgement that the Sequels aren’t very good, then people would need to start questioning their investment in this universe. They would need to reopen the wounds the Prequels inflicted. There’s eleven movies. How many have been good? Maybe three? Likelier, there’s been one great film, one very good film, two good films, and then a lot of piffle. That’s not a great return from eleven attempts. This isn’t the James Bond franchise, which largely resets with every adventure and can regularly soft-reboot with the introduction of every new actor (to play Bond). This is a continuing story in a shared universe. Wound it from one installment, and it has a bearing on the others. Take enough wounds, and what does that do to the body of the franchise?

We don’t want to think about that. We don’t want that to happen. Star Wars is magical. It fills us with hope and wonder and the belief that we can all become something greater than what we are – somebody who means something in a galaxy filled with turmoil. That’s what stories do: they take us on an adventure. They inspire us. They fill us with dreams.

And Star Wars did make us soar.

So people champion the Sequel Trilogy. They will refute logical analysis of why the characters are shallow or the plotting shoddy. They will shout down critics or blame niche groups or condemn individuals with labels to deflect their valid concerns. They will compare it to the Prequels as a means of building it up. They will talk about the sweet visuals.

They will do everything but actually look at these stories for what they are because the cost of truth is just too great.

This universe has grown creatively bankrupt. We all hoped we could get stories like A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, again and again, but that hasn’t happened. We can try fooling ourselves, but the truth is that maybe that magic we believed in was a fluke, and there really is no power in contemporary fairy tales.

And if that’s the truth we’re left with, if that’s not something we can hold onto any longer, what does that say about ourselves and our own lives?

And what does it say about our devotion to this franchise?