The latest Star Wars trilogy began in 2015 with the weight of high expectations. Fans were burnt out by George Lucas’s much-maligned prequels, and for the briefest of moments, thought that the franchise would improve under the stewardship of the Disney corporation. This was the entity that had constructed our childhood’s most prized stories. Surely they would do justice to the galaxy very far far away.
That was then.
Now, five Star Wars movies later, it doesn’t seem like Disney ever had a clear vision for the franchise beyond merchandising rights and theme park expansions. The movies we have seen thus far lack a clear artistic vision, and sadly, this has everything to do with Disney prioritizing fan egos over good story-telling.
A New Movie
Directed by fame rebooter J. J. Abrams (e.g., Start Trek, Mission Impossible III, etc.), the trilogy started with The Force Awakens. The film aired with rave reviews by critics and moviegoers alike. While some sexist viewers disliked that the lead was a woman (gasps), by and large, people were excited that a Star Wars movie had aired without the cringy dialogue of the prequels.
Abrams was all about telling a story fans enjoyed. A self-described Star Wars fan himself, he promised to give moviegoers:
“…an experience that makes them feel. That they laugh and cry and scream and have an experience that is even a fraction of what I had when I was a kid and saw Star Wars.”
When the initial excitement of the film parted, however, it didn’t take long for criticisms to emerge. The most prevalent was that The Force Awakens was a carbon copy of A New Hope, which was the first film in the original trilogy. The parallels between the two are apparent. They are both about a group of ragtag heroes bringing information hidden inside a droid to a resistance fighting evil space nazis. The climax then has the group band together to successfully destroy the space nazi’s planet-destroying superweapon.
Some critics thought that this repackaging of the original trilogy was lazy. As South Park creator Matt Stone remarked:
“I like the movie. I thought it had amazing acting and I don’t wanna sit here and bad mouth that, but this is like lab-grown meat. This is a secondary derivative of something that was from 40 years ago. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s like the same movie [from] 40 years ago.”
The Force Awakens had another, more systemic problem; however, that would go on to haunt its later installments. To reset the series back to the original formula, Disney had to undo all the progress made by the Rebel Alliance from the first trilogy while still simultaneously continuing that narrative. This rushed table setting created a story where the emotional beats of A New Hope simply don’t fit well inside this new story.
For example, just like in A New Hope, the evil First Order (i.e., the Empire’s successor) blows up a planet halfway through the first movie with their superweapon Starkiller Base. This world is the capital of the New Republic, and because of rushed storytelling, its destruction meant nothing emotionally. When the Empire blew up princess Leia Organa’s (Carrie Fisher) homeworld of Alderaan halfway through A New Hope, we had her face on screen to contextualize that pain. It’s destruction meant something because we could emphasize with her loss. We didn’t have a similar character on the New Republic’s capital world, Hosnian Prime, a planet so underdeveloped that chances are you didn’t know the name until just now.
When the new resistance waxes poetically about saving the galaxy from the First Order’s superweapons, there quite frankly aren’t faces for us, the audience, to feel emotionally connected to. We never got a chance to understand the geopolitics of how this universe works, and that lessened the stakes for future installments. In the words of Richard Brody in The New Yorker:
“Some of the grandest moments can be seen coming around the corner, the colossal battles and colorful catastrophes feel anticlimactic, and the meticulously designed futuristic weaponry and outfits never rise to symbolic significance.”
Disney’s desire to go with the formula they thought fans wanted, created a shaky foundation to build from. Where do you go when you are effectively retelling a story that everyone has already seen?
The second movie would try to up the emotional stakes by subverting the Star Wars’ universes well-worn tropes. Fans would not be pleased with this interpretation.
Not pleased at all.
A Disturbance In The Director’s Chair
The second movie — The Last Jedi (2017) — was directed by Rian Johnson, and it’s fair to say that he’s a different kind of director from Abrams. Where Abrams is famous for flashy action movies such as the 2009 Star Trek reboot, Johnson tells action stories that are a lot more comprehensive. Before The Last Jedi, he was best known for the time-traveling thriller Looper (2012), where an assassin (Bruce Willis) has to stop his past self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from killing him.
Johnson likes to tell thought-provoking stories, and it was clear that he wanted to break new ground in The Last Jedi in a way that was not beholden to fan interests. When asked in a recent interview for Radio.com about satisfying fandom expectations, he said:
I think approaching any creative process with [making fandoms happy] would be a mistake that would lead to probably the exact opposite result.”
The Last Jedi unsurprisingly tackled a lot of underlying tensions within the Star Wars community, and that shift triggered some “devoted” fans. The Star Wars mythos, for example, has traditionally been very male. Except for Princess Leia, there are few women on screen in the first few films, or the prequels for that matter, and even fewer that aren’t love interests.
To his credit, Abrams recontextualized this starting point by recasting the traditional masculine archetypes of the Star Wars trilogy with women and people of color. The Luke Skywalker “chosen one” archetype is now a woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Princess Leia is a general in the new resistance. The other primary cast members include Finn (John Boyega), famous for being “the first black stormtrooper,” and Poe Dameron (who was played by Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac).
Johnson took this starting point and made a significant part of his movie a deconstruction of the masculine, guns-blazing archetype that previous installments had praised. Poe, the new Han Solo roguish type, is penalized throughout the second movie for acting against orders — a decision earlier narratives would have rewarded him for. The person who punishes him is Holdo (Laura Dern), a resistance Vice Admiral who presents quite feminine. This decision made a lot of viewers uncomfortable. In the words of Martin Daubney for his article in the Telegraph, “Liberal identity politics has ruined Star Wars for the fanboys”:
“Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Laura Dern, who plays Vice Admiral Holdo, sports purple hair that wouldn’t look out of place on a Tumblr user’s unicorn avatar.”
The Last Jedi was detested for more than #feminism; however and rebuked many of the universes’ underlying assumptions. It’s clear from watching the first film that Abrams wanted Rey to be special. There is an unanswered plot thread about her upbringing. She was abandoned on the planet of Jakku, and by the end of the first film, we don’t yet understand why.
There is also the origins of the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). How did he come from nowhere, and within a few short years, build a formidable force capable of overturning the New Republic in an instant?
There was a lot of fun fan speculation behind these two characters. Some people thought that Rey had famous origins, such as being the daughter of Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or even Emperor Palpatine. Others believed that Snoke was secretly a fan favorite such as Darth Plagueis, Mace Windu, or even Emperor Palpatine.
Fan speculations have long factored into the Star Wars fandom, and it’s something that the original creator, George Lucas, heavily played into. When we look at some of his most famous scenes — such as the Tatooine, Mos Eisley cantina scene in A New Hope — every character has a mapped out origin story, including characters who do not have lines. This in-depth type of lore-building is canon.
The Last Jedi viscerally refuted fan speculations. Snoke was not special. He was someone his apprentice, minor antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), cut down with ease. Rey did not belong to some special bloodline. She was a “nobody.” Arguably, there is something powerfully meritocratic about saying that greatness — both good and bad — can come from nonaristocratic roots. This point was lost on some fans. As writer Eric Robinette commented on the situation in CheatSheet:
“Then The Last Jedi came out in 2017, and to hear some fans tell it, writer-director Johnson ruined everything. He turned Luke Skywalker into a grumpy coward. He introduced lame comedy. He made Leia fly. And worst of all, he dared to tell audiences that Rey wasn’t really part of the Skywalker dynasty, as many fans had predicted.”
Despite high box office returns of over $1 billion worldwide, the future would not get any better. When it came time to end the trilogy, Disney would revert to the formula fans loved, and it would lead to a terrible story.
Revenge Of The Abrams
The Rise Of Skywalker would see the return of Abrams to the director’s chair, and with it, his original vision of prioritizing fan expectations over good storytelling.
Some parts of the Internet have claimed that “denying” Johnson the third film was a malicious act on Disney’s part, but this isn’t true. This erroneous claim highlights yet another way fan frustrations can spiral. It was never in Johnson’s contract to direct the third film. He was hired to direct the second film as well as to write a story treatment (i.e., the rough draft of a screenplay) for episode nine. The directorship was initially given to ‘Jurassic World’ Director Colin Trevorrow in 2015. This decision was made years before the release and consequent fan backlash to The Last Jedi in 2017. The passing over of Johnson for episode nine was most likely due to scheduling conflicts. He is, in fact, reportedly behind the helm of a new future Star Wars trilogy, so there is no animosity between Johnson, Abrams, or Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy.
This didn’t mean the project was dramaless, though. Trevorrow would leave the project in September of 2017 (three months before The Last Jedi) due to creative differences with Kathleen Kennedy. J.J. Abrams was tapped to take over, which is something that has been quite common under Disney’s stewardship of the galaxy far, far away. In the words of Adam Chitwood for Collider:
“It’s no secret that behind the scenes, the last few Lucasfilm movies have undergone some serious issues. Star Wars: The Force Awakens underwent fairly extensive reshoots, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story found its entire third act reworked and reshot by a different director, and Solo: A Star Wars Story had its directors fired during production and replaced by Ron Howard.”
Yet, a lack of professional animosity aside, Abrams still came into the project with different directorial priorities than his predecessor. While Abrams has publicly claimed that his film is not trying to undo Johnson’s story in the Last Jedi, we cannot really take his word for it. Such an admission would sink his own movie, and if there’s one thing that Abrams isn’t, it’s stupid.
The Rise Of Skywalker is undeniably a radical departure from the second film. The movie restructures everything around validating the fan theory that Emperor Palpatine was behind The First Order’s machinations all along. We learn that Palpatine was the person who created Snoke and that Rey is his granddaughter (I wonder where that came from?). He now wants to kill her for reasons.
This new pivot completely disregards the emotional themes of the second movie, and consequently, The Rise Of Skywalker has to move at breakneck speed to make even a modicum of sense. There are concepts introduced and dropped without much explanation: we learn that Rey and Kylo Ren are a force diad, though what that means still escapes me; Emperor Palpatine has constructed a fleet of ten thousand death stars in between now and Return Of The Jedi; also, Supreme Leader Snoke maybe was a clone?
This movie is bonkers, and somehow, it’s supposed to be tied together by the fact that Emperor Palpatine is the one true villain.
Listen, Emperor Palpatine was only in the original trilogy for 6 minutes and 15 seconds. His most significant character development comes from the much-hated prequels where it is implied that he’s doing everything for the sake of cheating death. Still, because those movies were almost fifteen years ago, it’s not like anyone really remembers him or what he’s about. We know him in the popular zeitgeist for his evil laugh, not because of his internal motivations.
Since the latest trilogy has had an ideological fight with itself over what it’s even about, it’s not like anyone bothered to establish Palpatine as the Big Bad. This movie had to establish the fact that Emperor Palpatine survived the end of Return Of The Jedi (1983), created Snoke, was the reason behind why Rey’s parents (who were secretly Palpatine’s children) died, and that he was the puppet master behind the First Order.
The Rise Of Skywalker has to do all of this while continuing the threads of The Force Awakens and gives Palpatine only 5 minutes and 15 seconds of screen time to do so. Most puzzling of all, the majority of this time is devoted to a final monologue where he reveals to Rey that he doesn’t want to kill her, but that he wants her to kill him (DUN DUN DUN). His reasoning here is very convoluted, and this justification is undercut moments later where he does decide he wants to kill Rey after all.
A Mess, this movie is.
The most frustrating part of The Rise Of Skywalker is that there is a good movie buried beneath all the noise and confusion. The aesthetic of this film is stunning. There were clear draws from Indian and African aesthetics, and such diversity has been lacking in the artistic design of previous installments. #morediversealiens.
There were also themes that resonated with our current times. One underdeveloped plotline was about how totalitarian regimes rely on people believing that they can’t change things. The resistance calls out for help in the final battle, and briefly, we think that no one else will come, but then they do. It was beautiful to see half the galaxy jump into the Exogol system like the Riders Of Rohan to combat The First Order. This moment was especially poignant given the grim reality that half the real world is backsliding into nationalistic authoritarianism. It’s an important message that would have benefited from some more fine-tuning.
Additionally, the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren was quite compelling. Kylo’s need for redemption is an aspect many authoritarian leaders across history have shared, and it would have been nice if we had explored that motivation more deeply.
By inserting Emperor Palpatine into a story that already had a lot to explore, Abrams sabotaged his own movie. He prioritized honoring the Star Wars fandom over the story being told, and it led to the creation of a messy product. Reshoots can’t fix a product that lacks a clear direction, and Disney would be better served by prioritizing story structure over IP optimization.
In the end, we saw a lot of explosions and pretty colors signifying nothing.