I’m supposed to be writing a book. I finished one. All but finished. I’m working on another, going through the second or third draft, and I’m hitting a wall. What’s the point? Around my house, the hills are on fire due to local idiots. The Coronavirus is claiming lives all over the world (partially due to idiots; well, not helped by idiots). My brain cannot fart out another bad thing to ignore instead of reading. The only natural course of action is to think about “Star Wars.” Particularly about why the sequel trilogy failed. Why it never stood a chance.
I feel dirty using that word. “Failed.” It’s the internet’s word, and it brings such click-bait power that I think it’s gross. But when it’s appropriate, there we are. We use “fail.” Because it did. It failed to tell a compelling story on its own.
I’ve been giving the Sequel Trilogy a recent re-thinking (not a re-watch; certainly not. That way lies madness). A couple YouTube film critics threw some interesting takes out there that have started my feeble brain up and at ‘em again. One from Center Row (which itself is a quote of someone’s suggestion) was a pretty good take on a simple way to fix “Rise of Skywalker” by having Anakin show up to convert Kylo Ren instead of Han Solo. The other from Posh Prick Reviews, who talks about how the real guilty parties who “ruined” “Star Wars” are the fans themselves, who demanded so much and refused to be satisfied that they scared away the original creator, and basically whined a major media company into changing direction twice in three movies!
These are both insightful and good takes. They are not wrong. They are so not wrong that they make me think that the REAL problem lies in the middle: the Sequel Trilogy was made by fans who were hampered by their own fan ambitions as well as the demands of the production company.
In short: Fans killed it. From the inside. Because the directors were fans, too.
I’ll explain. Like I have to. You get it. Anyway…
JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson are obviously enormous “Star Wars” fans. The success of Abrams’ “Star Trek” series comes down to him making a version of “Star Wars” (aka “Star Wars Trek” or “Star Trek Wars”). Up until recently, Johnson was very vocal about his love of the series, and had been given the chance to make his own trilogy (still pending?). “Star Wars” is big enough that it’s safe to assume any filmmaker working today owes his or her inspiration to it. So if we take that for the fact that it is, we must also assume these filmmakers went into the making of their films with a fan’s perspective.
“That’s great,” you say. “It worked for ‘Lord of the Rings.’” And that’s true. Peter Jackson was/is a Tolkein fan, which somehow allowed him to build upon the text rather than simply making word-for-word,-page-for-page adaptations of the books. He made MOVIES of the books instead of filming the books, if you see my point. And actually, Jackson’s success points to exactly what Abrams and Johnson did; they just happened to do it in the wrong way, and in a different context.
Jackson took popular books that had not been filmed before and attacked them as a fan and a filmmaker. He hired good actors, and was willing to expand here and there, trim here and there, all for the ultimate good of the movies at hand. This means taking a moment like Gandalf fighting a lava monster — a moment that takes less than a page of the book — and making it a whole set-piece. Tolkein purists may have complained, but MOVIE viewers still enjoyed it. It was a movie moment, and it worked in the movie. This was Jackson playing with the toys he’d been given.
On the other hand, you have Abrams and Johnson also playing with the toys they’d been given to different affect. They were less concerned with the movies and stories being told and more concerned with “playing Star Wars.” A lot of times, these decisions created cool moments, but those moments did not always gel into a cohesive movie.
Take for example the gunner station of the Millennium Falcon. This was a feature used exactly ONE TIME in the original trilogy. Despite the fact that the Falcon is used for multiple escapes in “Empire” and “ROTJedi,” the gunner station was not accessed. Even if it would’ve made sense to do so!
Compare this to the prequel trilogy. The gunner station features in all three movies. And while I can entertain reasons explaining why it might be helpful to use such a feature when entering hostile situations, the fact remains: … all three films?
Why am I fixated on this? It’s just a difference in filmmakers, right? RIGHT?
Yes. And that’s the point.
The Original Trilogy films were (mostly) concerned with showing new things in each movie (second Death Star being the obvious exception, but even that they made it unique to that movie). They show light speed and the gunner station in the first movie’s Falcon scenes? The second movie shows the engine areas and the frustrations with the malfunctioning old ship. Furthermore, there’s some kind of unwritten action movie rule that says characters may use a tool for ONE ESCAPE ONLY. These were movies built on creativity, and thus returning the same place to do the same thing again would have been, well, uncreative.
The Sequel Trilogy, however, was not concerned with creativity. Not in the same way at least. Those movies were concerned with (ideally) rebuilding post-Prequel good will in the franchise and (realistically) mining the Original Trilogy for all it was worth. When Disney bought “Star Wars,” there wasn’t a person in their company who thought “Great — now we can do more podracing!” More like, “Now I can play with the Falcon.” And when you play with the Falcon, you play with the gunner seat.
This is the root of the problem. Each director was hired with the idea that this might be their one-and-only shot at directing a “Star Wars” movie. Even Johnson, with his promised trilogy, had to think nothing was set in stone. Given the limits of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to direct (read: “play”) with the greatest set of filmmaking toys ever assembled, both directors had to think — either a little or a lot — and probably a lot — they had to think, “I’m gonna use the Falcon.”
And “I gotta have a lightsaber fight.” And on and on and on. All the things they grew up with were essentially at their disposal.
Do you see the difference between that kind of movie making and the kind where you set out to tell a story?
I do. It’s very clear. It’s also clear that this was the problem baked into the Sequel Trilogy’s DNA. The commitment to playing with toys directors didn’t know if they’d ever get to play with again limited the decision-making process. Who cares if it doesn’t make sense, really, that Rey take the Falcon with her to see Luke, or that she flies it back with Chewie, or that Chewie comes along at all when most of “Force Awakens” paired her with BB-8? Nope. “I’m making a ‘Star Wars’ movie, so I’m putting in the Falcon, and Chewie and that’s that!”
I feel like I’m flying off the edge a bit, and I might not be making a coherent argument. I might be throwing a bunch of random details at the computer wall, creating the typed version of a crazy person’s bunker. It all seems so clear to me, but it might be to only me.
Let me give another example: the biggest problem (to date) with “The Last Jedi” is that it ends like it’s the ending of the trilogy. Well, a lot of it does. It certainly doesn’t end like “Empire Strikes Back.” It wants to think it does, but it doesn’t. Given the filmed and presented evidence, it feels more triumphant than a middle chapter should be — especially a middle chapter setting up the final one to come. While mostly enjoying the movie, many people including myself have argued that the movie could have stopped right after Kylo “proposed” to Rey, and after Holdo blows up the Destroyer. That would have been a genuine cliffhanger, we might have wondered if she would seriously join him, the rebels would have still been in dire straights and on the run. Almost NOTHING changes with the last 20 minutes of the movie. It does a little, but not enough that you couldn’t finish it in the next movie.
The problem with cutting those last 20 minutes is that they’re actually pretty good minutes. Taken on its own, I love the Luke showdown. I love how it looks, and how it pays off the character. I like Force Kid and what it says about the state of the galaxy and where it could go. It’s a powerful ending statement.
And that’s the problem: it’s an ending when it should have only been a middle.
Johnson’s own movie — the first 3/4’s at least — seemed designed to go against fan expectation (which, when you think about it, also starts from a fan perspective). It killed the main villain, challenged our assumptions on Luke, and on and on. So why didn’t Johnson stop before the big Luke hero moment?
Because he couldn’t help himself. There may be many other reasons, but this is one one I don’t think I’ve heard. He could not resist. He was signed for one movie in the series. He could have set-up the Luke pay-off for the third one. It might have been great. But given the chance to hand it to another person who may or may not do it — and it seems with the evidence of “Rise of Skywalker” it would be more than likely NOT done — he took the more certain option and put it in his own movie. Even though, trilogy-storytelling-wise, it didn’t need to be there.
Maybe that’s clearer.
Critics have pointed out how obsessed with the OT these sequels were, and they’re correct. But none of them seemed to go very far into why that obsession thrives, and why it is so destructive to the forward momentum of new stories. Sure, it’s an obsession many people share — here I am to prove it again! — but this is less an obsession with “Star Wars” the myth and the story and the characters, and more an obsession with PLAYING “Star Wars.”
That’s why the movies never went far beyond the reach and scope of the original movies. That’s why the imagination feels limited. Because it was. By design. By greed, in a way. These directors wanted to play with the best toys they could get access to instead of asking, “Do these toys actually tell the best story?”
There are a million other little nitpicks and reasons and “reasons” why these movies feel off, but I think this is the biggest one. The root cause for all the problems. They were never interested in expanding the universe more than playing with the old one. They could not resist the temptation to put in ANOTHER gunner-seat scene in the Falcon, or cut a movie where it should have ended, or or or. They couldn’t do it because they are fans. Fans don’t create, exactly. They put things on pedestals and praise them. They deify. They follow rules instead of creating new ones for their stories. For A story.
Anyway, the book’s still not done.