(I’m bored and I don’t have anywhere to put this so it might as well go here. Also this is really long but it didn’t even take that long to write so)
EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MAGNIFICENCE
Much has been made of the “perplexing” backlash to Star Wars: The Last Jedi — though in a fandom that harassed its own creator out of the franchise forever, I really don’t think this should’ve been much of a surprise — and much of it has been both true and well-intentioned. Harassment of actors and directors has no place in a fandom, and neither should alt-right trolls get to block an inspirational franchise from reflecting the diversity of our world. Yet sometimes in the media there’s a tendency to pretend this is all the backlash is — just a bunch of alt-right trolls and diversity-haters and neckbeards and lunatics. Usually it’s not explicitly stated, but this view is ever-present in the subtext of myriads of articles about the Last Jedi. Yet if this is so then one wonders why the equally diverse Force Awakens and Rogue One received only a fraction of the polarization that has engulfed this film. The other popular scapegoat, fan theories, hits closer to the mark, yet blaming the backlash to the film on external speculation rather than aspects of the movie itself still misses. There are plenty of reasonable people, with reasonable expectations of this film, who came away disappointed. And, after a few months to reflect, I’d count myself as one of them.
So if you’ve seen these articles about the Star Wars fandom and come to believe that they’re the whole truth, then hopefully a little more knowledge might light your way.
I still remember when the trailer dropped.
Not the first Force Awakens teaser. Honestly, my excitement for Star Wars had long since run dry back when that came out. It was a nice movie series from my childhood, and long ago I’d been a big fan, but I didn’t really like the prequels much anymore, and the originals were mostly just fond memories, and I wasn’t interested in the animated shows. Now Lord of the Rings, Star Trek… those were quality entertainment.
But then I watched that “kiddy animated series”, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and I realized just how much escapism, and wonder, and excitement the Star Wars universe had to offer, and I was more than ready to dive in again. It was like my inner elementary schooler waving around a lightsaber had never left. He’d only been waiting for the right moment to come out again.
And once I’d watched the prequels again and they’d become my favorite movies of all time, and once my love for the originals had been reignited…I was ready for that third TFA trailer. Sure, the second teaser had been more nostalgia trip than hype generator, but I was confident they’d come up with something new to tease Star Wars fans in our final drip of hype.
And I wasn’t disappointed. The trailer promised boundless new adventures, exciting possibilities…sure, the nostalgia element was present, but surely it wouldn’t overtake the movie.
Then the reviews came in. 97% on Rotten Tomatoes 2 hours after the embargo, and in the end only dropping to 92%. An 82 on Metacritic. Yeah, yeah, there was some babble about a Starkiller Base being a Death Star 3.0, but…surely it couldn’t be that big a deal.
Then it was Sunday, and I was ready for the movie. We waited over an hour in that line stretching out the whole theater. And “a long time ago, in a Galaxy far, far away” scrolled up the screen, and the main title blasted and the theater went crazy, and that still-unforgettable hook “Luke Skywalker has vanished”….and I was hooked.
I don’t really have a habit of giving in to hype, or loving a movie unconditionally at first. I can really only think of two movies where my opinion has dropped drastically from the theater to now. Coincidentally (or not?) they happen to be the Force Awakens and the Last Jedi.
So as one would expect, I walked out of that theater with a cocky grin on my face and an exhilarated sprint in my step. As the Falcon had soared through Jakku my mind had whispered (speaking for the first time that night) that this might even make the top 3 Star Wars movies. Even after Han swaggered in and stole the show, and Plotkiller Base ground out all the narrative electricity of the search for Luke, there was enough nostalgic power in that final shot to get it to #5, just below a New Hope and above Empire (my rankings are weird, I know).
My dad yammered about how it wasn’t as good as the originals, but he’d said that about the prequels too, so I couldn’t really take his word for anything…and I couldn’t wait to watch it a second time! But when I finally did, two weeks later, I realized that something was missing. I couldn’t pin it down, and after a third time the experience, while still very enjoyable, was even further watered down…into being just a movie. My opinion had surfed on the tide of the most-hyped cinematic event of my lifetime, but over the next few months it would come crashing down to earth. From #5 to #6, and then to #7, as I realized what, exactly, I was missing from this movie. Because when I stripped away the hype, and the experience, and the thrills…it was the first Star Wars movie that didn’t stick in my mind. It was just…bland. Inoffensive.
The first thing that comes to mind here is the unimaginably uncreative aesthetic. X-wings and TIE fighters to eternity, completely ignoring the vast universe created by the prequels, the Clone Wars, and so many expanded universe novels (this will become a running theme). This bothered me from the first trailer, but I was willing to (and for a while, did) let it go as long as the overarching story went into new directions. Starkiller Base, uncreative. Rey’s power development made no sense. Han regressed to smuggling for no apparent reason. The whole thing felt uninspired, Yet the actors were great, the characters likable, John Williams delivered a godly score as always, the visuals were beautifully done, and most importantly the film set something up, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what.
That was why I stayed invested even though TFA had fallen to by far my least favorite film. Visions, tantalizing references to things to come, plotlines seemingly set up for a mystical new look at the Star Wars universe. A year after the Force Awakens I was chomping at the bit to see Rogue One (a film which received plenty of alt-right backlash, including the #BoycottStarWars movement), and to this day that film ranks just beside A New Hope for me as a classic of Star Wars. Even in a story set alongside A New Hope they’d managed to fill a galaxy with things I’d never seen before, new things, great action scenes, a Star Wars that felt both natural and startlingly fresh. The Force Awakens, I was sure, had just been a one-off, a cautious attempt at starting a new universe before things really got into gear. The as-yet-untitled Episode VIII would take Star Wars back to glory.
The marketing campaign had its twists and turns. The Grey Jedi aspect seemed odd, and I wasn’t sure where they were going with it. The title was weird too — The Last Jedi? After they returned 30 years and 2 episodes ago? — but eventually I got used to that too. And once again the final trailer was a homerun, promising an epic Star Wars adventure, more sweeping and grand than anything before (except maybe Revenge of the Sith). And the fandom responded. Nobody wanted their theories to be confirmed (okay, maybe a few did, but a small minority). People just wanted to find out the answers, to see where the plotline established in the Force Awakens would go, to see this new trilogy develop its world that the Force Awakens had so lazily tossed into place and finally step into its place as a worthy part of Star Wars. And most importantly, everyone…everyone…wanted to see the hero of Star Wars, Luke Goddamn Skywalker, step back onto the screen once again.
So 2 years later I was in the theater again, swayed to the peak of excitement by even-more-glowing reviews, and once again I was swept away…but even after the first time something felt off. Even as I extolled how it was the best fantasy movie I’d seen that year (now all 3 Marvel movies, along with plenty of others, rank ahead of it) it felt… empty. It wasn’t the same thing as TFA — no, I could remember this one just fine. It was just…I’d convinced myself the portrayal of Luke as a depressed, broken hermit was realistic. That was character development! What else could be expected? Yet if Luke’s story was supposed to be an inspiring arc about finally becoming the legend you’ve always been held up to, then why…why did it feel like it was about how your victories will never last, and everything you do will just be torn down. If the movie was arguing against killing the past, then why did it make a big deal out of burning the Jedi texts, and only show Rey saved them in a 2-second, easy-to-miss, shot? That was what felt empty about the film — it marketed itself as being about hope even in the greatest darkness, but the emotional message I — and many others — got was one far more cynical. Because now Luke Skywalker was nothing, Leia was nothing, Han was nothing, every one of those characters who’d made us fall in love with the franchise was nothing because even Anakin and Obi-wan depended on Luke to actually make their arcs mean something. And maybe Luke projecting himself to save 12 Resistance soldiers means something, but it doesn’t balance out the coward we were shown for 75% of the movie in which he died. It was as if someone had waltzed through the original trilogy and claimed that all of this was just silly stuff for children, and here was reality. Tearing down the New Republic was realistic, the critics claimed in their showers of praise. It was about World War I becoming World War II! All those disgruntled fanboys just wanted their fanservice!
And when I saw that, I thought that they’d maybe seen the wrong movies. Because if the original trilogy matched any of those two wars, it was clearly the battle against fascism in the Second World War rather than the amoral muck of the First. Maybe our world is wracked by racism today, but nobody can say the Greatest Generation accomplished nothing, because the victories of that war lasted. Yet in a space opera about children redeeming their parents and morality and inspiration, the victory over fascism lasted less than 30 years. The “fairytale”, “unrealistic” ending of Return of the Jedi, the one the sequels wiped out so they could just do it all over again…that was what made Star Wars great. In the original six (as I now call them) there was an optimism at the core. There was a belief in giving the audience a world, not just a story. There was a belief in pushing the boundaries of special effects so they could show things never shown before instead of just banking on the glories of the past. There was a belief in family, and in the idea that great power requires hard training. And most importantly, there was a belief in human good. A belief in idealism. A belief in never giving up.
A belief in heroes.
And at their core, that belief is what the sequels lack.
EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CRITICISM
But, you might say, the Last Jedi doesn’t attack the idea of heroes! It just introduces complexity! How is that bad? It’s all about the arcs!
Ok, so if that’s true, then Luke’s arc should reflect that of a hero. And on the surface it does…it hits similar beats to a redemption just like the one Batman underwent in the Dark Knight Rises or Wolverine’s in Logan. The problem here is twofold — the justification for Luke’s fall and the execution of his rise…and the fact that he’s killed for seemingly no reason at the film’s end means that his grand redemption can’t really pay off, because this is the last we’ll ever see of a living, Mark Hamill-played Luke Skywalker on a big screen. This was it.
And it missed.
At the beginning of the film, of course, Luke is in a troubled emotional place, just as he (by all accounts) was in Lucas’ original treatments. Where The Last Jedi takes it too far is that Luke has given up. Looking at Luke’s character in the original trilogy, giving up and wallowing in failure is the one thing antithetical to both his arc and to the themes of the saga. Luke was an inspirational hero, one who never strayed from his undimmed conviction in the power of the light. Having him travel to Ahch-To just to die, having him not even care about his sister and his best friend because he’d fallen into nihilism — that’s the opposite of inspirational. That’s pathetic, just like his flimsy justifications for his random and contrived Jedi-hate (when did the Jedi ever claim to own the force? and since when did being defeated by Palpatine undermine a thousand generations of peace?), and his refusal to train Rey even though he knows the galaxy is under the attack of darkness, and his igniting that lightsaber over Kylo in a slap-in-the-face to everything his character had supposedly learned in Return of the Jedi. Yes, people in real life regress and repeat their mistakes. But Star Wars is not real life, and in stories character moments should mean something. If Kylo Ren decided to randomly put on the mask again, I suspect many defenders would raise an outcry about JJ regressing him, yet they defend the exact same with Luke.
“Okay, but people can change in 30 years!”
Sure they can, but removing the exact traits people love about a character is a sure way to make people think they’re seeing a different person. How could the Luke who cared so much about his friends in both Empire and Jedi be so…apathetic? The only answer is that he lost that compassion and courage.
“Yes, but it returned when he came to help on Crait!”
There are two problems here. The first is structural (and The Force Awakens takes a lot of the blame here as well). The Sequel Trilogy has managed to systematically burn every single accomplishment of the original trilogy, and Luke’s cowardly depiction amplifies that cynicism so much that it’s hard to really connect to that single moment (well-executed and acted as it is). The second is that Luke then dies. Yeah, he became a hero at the very end, but that’s not what many wanted from him. We’ll never get the chance again to do this, and Luke had a few minutes of awesomeness and then got killed by a Force projection that was seemingly no sweat for Snoke. Beyond that, Crait Luke seems no different than post-ROTJ Luke. He never grew in those 30 years. It was all just running in place, just like this whole saga. No accomplishments last, all great legacies get torn down. To quote a much more naturally cynical trilogy, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.
And beyond that, Luke’s arc shows symptoms of the same disease plaguing so much of the rest of the film — forced character arcs. There was an end goal here — cynical Luke on an island — and so everything that defined his character was pulled and twisted to reach that. Yes, much of writing works in this way, but at some point one has to consider whether the goal is even worth all the reaching one has to do to get there. In the end, what does Jake Skywalker really teach us? His “insights” about the Jedi are both trite and false, his grand comeback was only what was expected in the first place, and though Hamill’s acting is consistently amazing, the arc really seems to only exist because nobody could think of a better way to both give Luke screentime and not have him overshadow the rest of the protagonists. And because they couldn’t, his core was redefined, and the entire uplifting message of his original trilogy arc ripped apart into something darker, and more cynical, and more depressing. Key moments weren’t fleshed out — it’s still not clear why Luke thinks the Jedi are a curse on the galaxy, or why he decided that instead of owing it to Leia to make up for his failure with her son by fighting alongside her he, like a coward, should retreat into the shadows and sit around milking, or what he’s guarding those Jedi texts and living in the first Jedi Temple for if he just wants to die…
It just feels fake.
And for everything that Star Wars has been, that emotion was new to me.
EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SAGA
There are several other complaints I have about TLJ — the aforementioned one of forced character arcs, the lack of subtlety and nuance in political scenes, too little politics, inconsistent thematic storytelling, storytelling disconnects with its predecessor. But to end this one I’ll focus on something that’s been the core of Star Wars so far — worldbuilding.
I love worldbuilding. When I draft my fantasy novel it’s always a joy to get immersed in that realm, to feel yourself be somewhere else, a land of infinite possibility…
And Star Wars once met that ideal. From the masterful introduction of ANH to the grand sweep of the prequels, it was immersive to the fullest degree. There was a mystery behind it, a scope and a sense of a larger universe. In fact, Rogue One and Solo fit right into this world, introducing new possibilities even though they, unlike the sequels, are hamstrung by the original trilogy’s constraints.
Yet in the sequels something has been off. Existing alien species have just been ignored — the Force forbid they show any Rodians! The originals were filled with namedrops (and the prequels just went ahead and showed huge parts of the universe) but the sequels seem to actively shy away from referencing any larger scope. Star Wars is known for its action scenes, yet the sequels again seem to actively avoid trying to wow the audience, preferring to skulk in the originals’ shadows. The political situation of the saga, so contradictory to everything set up in the previous episodes, is given lip service, never even given a short scene like that wonderfully effective Death Star boardroom in A New Hope. Both the logic and the possibilities of a fictional universe are consistently ignored in favor of doing the bare minimum to make the movie look like something resembling Star Wars. Planets, ships, situations…everything is just ripped straight from previous films and given a new coat of paint.
And that, more than anything, is the sequels’ greatest crime to the spirit of Star Wars. In the modern age, the 80s nostalgia prevails…
Some might say that criticizing this movie so many months after release is excessive, yet so many thinkpieces have been written about its supposed greatness. If there’s no timeline for praise, then there isn’t one for criticism. And if writing this long a piece about Star Wars seems excessive, that’s because it is. Yet for me, an aspiring storyteller, Star Wars for a long time has represented the power of exactly the kinds of imaginative fantasies I want to tell. So this piece is less about one movie series and more about an entire category of storytelling, and how creativity can fade from even the brightest of franchises.
But that’s not to say nobody is doing the job of providing awesome, powerful escapism, because one company is in fact doing it extremely well…but AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (and other, related things) is a story for another time.
Perhaps it’s a story for a long time ago, or a long time in the future, or in the next couple of weeks (though I’ll probably have something else to write about then), in a galaxy so, so close to home.
P.S.: I wrote a lot of this in a very fast and continuous way, so it honestly didn’t take nearly as much time as it probably looked like, and there are probably a lot of stylistic and grammatical issues. I haven’t been wasting my life on this, I promise!