Star Wars Eats Itself

The decidedly uneven reaction to The Last Jedi, combined with the dismal box office performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story leads to one inescapable conclusion: Star Wars is in the midst of an existential crisis.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

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When Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, George Lucas agreed to hang up his laser sword and the original trilogy cast signed on to return, the future of the saga looked assured. Under Kathleen Kennedy’s confident stewardship as the most successful movie producer of all time, it seemed an inevitability that the series would once again crush the box office underfoot with the ease of an Imperial Walker trampling Rebel snowspeeders. Indeed, the first film out of the gate — 2015’s The Force Awakens — did just that. Yes, some fans had nitpicks here and there, but overall it did exactly what was expected, i.e. engage wide audiences, smash box-office records and make Star Wars cool again. But, with the benefit of hindsight, were there signs of trouble right from the start?

Burying the Prequels

The Force Awakens is as much a critique of George Lucas’s prequels (the Star Wars films that immediately preceded it) as it is a return to filmmaking values of the original trilogy. In many ways, it’s the exact polar opposite of the prequels, for better — and for worse.

It is lazy (and incorrect) to think of The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) as universally terrible, with no redeeming qualities whatever. Yes the writing is comically wretched, the acting (mostly) wooden, the direction workmanlike at best, and the special effects simultaneously too rich and too cartoon-like — any one of these would be enough to sink a franchise blockbuster, even one aimed at children. And yet I must give Lucas credit for his world-building, and for trying to tell a completely different story than before, with a different aesthetic. For many fans of the 1970’s originals, these just didn’t feel the same — which is because Lucas didn’t intend them to. He took a big risk and it didn’t pay off, but he was still brave enough to try.

When the tide of public opinion turned against him after the much hyped debut of Phantom Menace, Lucas (perhaps understandably) became outwardly defensive:

I see my audience and my audience is me, you know? I make these films for myself more than I make them for anybody else.

— George Lucas

He repeated this mantra so often that I wonder if he began internalising it, to the point that forgot about the audience entirely. The fundamentals of storytelling (the art of which he had once been an absolute master) started to slip, and he became apathetic, to the point of laziness.

His successor J.J. Abrams wanted to show the world that yes, it was possible to make new Star Wars films that felt right, and that the original classics weren’t lightning-in-a-bottle one-offs. In doing so he reacted strongly against the prequels and strove to put as much daylight as possible between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens. Perhaps too much:

I have a thought about putting Jar Jar Binks’s bones in the desert

— J.J. Abrams

Abrams already had one eye on the previous films, whereas his one and only objective should’ve been to delight an audience. Unlike the prequels, The Force Awakens was light, funny, character-driven, engaging, favoured practical effects, and wasn’t overly concerned with franchise baggage. However, it also diverged from the positive aspects of Lucas’s second trilogy: the galactic politics were muddled and confusing; the story was unoriginal and repetitive; the visual aesthetic (particularly the ship design) was unambitious.

The saga was starting to furtively eye its own tail.

Let the Mystery Box Die

The production of Disney’s 2017 sequel to its own The Force Awakens is an account of a franchise starting to self-harm. Rather than the exercise in close collaboration that one would expect from writers Abrams & Kasdan handing the baton on to Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi (2017) feels more like the result of a stuck-up prom queen being handed a love letter by a geeky kid, who relishes the prospect of ripping it to pieces in front of his face.

What I said before about the powerful cannon about to shoot it into the Earth, I’m feeling the reality of that. I guess now it’s just hoping to God that I’ve loaded a decent cannonball into the gun.

— Rian Johnson

Episode VII left us with several questions that needed addressing somewhere down the line. Instead of coming up with interesting answers (or at least deferring them) Johnson contradicts the previous film by insisting they’re not important questions at all. Expectations subverted? Definitely. Contemptuous? Sure looks like it.

Eyebrows considerably raised.

  • Who were Rey’s parents? “Nobody”
  • Why does the lightsaber call to Rey? “No reason”
  • Who is Snoke? “Not important”
  • What are the implications of the Resistance’s victory in destroying Starkiller base? “None”
  • What will we learn of Finn’s origins? “Nothing”
  • How will Finn & Rey’s relationship develop? “It won’t”
  • Who are the Knights of Ren? “Not important”
  • Why was it so important for Luke to return? “It isn’t; he won’t”

The more you look at it, the more Johnson’s effort appears to be a disdainful dismissal of everything Abrams and Kasdan set up in Episode VII, as well as a direct contradiction of what Star Wars meant to those guys. This is a film with very little interest in appealing to a general audience or satisfying longtime fans. Quite the opposite: it was clearly written with the express intention of tearing down everything that came before. The more angry and upset fans became, the more Johnson was satisfied, as is evidenced by his social media posts.

Star Wars has become self-obsessed and navel-gazing, while trying to appeal exclusively to people who don’t like Star Wars. The tail may taste good for now, but this is a franchise in its death throes.