A Needlessly Long Breakdown Of Disney's Star Wars Trilogy
Disclaimer - this piece went through about three rewrites, because I feel like there's so much to say. I've tried to trim it down a bit and focus on an overall breakdown rather than dissecting individual scenes or ideas. It's probably still a bit of a mess, but hey, so are these movies!
Star Wars. I don't think anyone on Earth could have predicted the cultural phenomenon that the original 1977 movie release would go on to become. Following the success of original trilogy and the controversial prequel trilogy, Disney announced that they would be producing a new sequel trilogy of films, after the LucasFilms buyout in 2012. I was cautious of the announcement at the time, and documented my caution in a now-deleted YouTube video back in the day. I have mixed feelings on sequels for the sake of sequels, but now that the dust has settled on this sequel trilogy and everyone has had time to process their thoughts and feelings on it all, I think it's time to delve into more depth than any fictional film series deserves, and work out what the hell is going on with Disney's Star Wars trilogy.
This is another fairly lengthy entry yet so strap yourselves in - this is where the fun begins.
"They wanted to do a retro movie."
Many fans were left with a somewhat bitter taste in their mouths after the prequel films. They're a divisive trilogy of films, but there's nothing about those films that I could say here that hasn't already been said. Like them or not, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, felt like too much of a departure from the original trilogy for many, and fans were turned off by the likes of Jar Jar Binks, Anakin and Padmé's love subplot, the politics and overall shift in tone. It seemed, then, that the return of Star Wars on the big screen had to be a surefire hit for all of the fans. After all, Disney had just paid $4.05 billion for the IP. In November of 2015, George Lucas recorded an interview with Charlie Rose detailing how he had been a consultant during the early stages of production and scriptwriting for the new film, but that he felt "they wanted to do a retro movie. I don't like that. Every movie, I worked very hard to make them different … I made them completely different - different planets, different spaceships to make it new." Director J.J. Abrams reportedly agreed with this sentiment, detailing that The Force Awakens had to "take a couple of steps backwards into very familiar terrain" in order to resonate with fans and ensure success.
And; this is absolutely evident in the final product. The Force Awakens is an exciting thrill ride of a film, jam-packed with familiar characters, droids, ship designs and themes. Even in the initial trailer, you see the Millenium Falcon, X-Wings, and the instantly recognisable screech of TIE Fighters. Oh, and there's something rather familiar about the plot. The Force Awakens is five years old at this point and I'm not going to keep pointing out how similar it is to A New Hope. Despite playing it very safe, I think that Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren, BB-8 and Snoke all felt like interesting enough new characters, and their introductions were compelling enough for fans to be invested in them, rather than simply following the original cast. Han, Chewie, Leia, Luke - they were all still here, but they were no longer the focus of the story.
I think the main takeaway with Awakens is that it was designed to be a soft reboot of the franchise, and that every element of it was meticulously crafted to be as successful as possible to a disillusioned Star Wars fanbase. It's a really fun film, but it seems to me that the teams at Disney and LucasFilm were so invested in making it feel familiar and ensuring its success that they didn't focus enough on a long-term plan for the trilogy as a whole. The "retro" setting of the film, and by extension the whole trilogy, perfectly encapsulates the lack of intuition and the over-reliance on the imagery and setting of the original films that is required to fully enjoy Disney's creations.
"This is not going to go the way you think."
The Last Jedi will probably go down in history as one of the most divisive films of all time. I know plenty of people who are staunch defenders of it, and equally as many people who shudder at the very thought of the film. It had big boots to fill, following the enormous success of Awakens. If Awakens was A New Hope, The Last Jedi was surely going to be the new Empire Strikes Back, right? Wrong. Oh, so very wrong.
I think watching The Last Jedi for the first time was like going to a diner and ordering your favourite burger, but being given a steak instead. It's still delicious, but it's not what you expected, or what you wanted. Rian Johnson was brought in to direct the second film in the trilogy, and it's clear that his vision for the direction of the saga was a bold one, and a bold one that was perhaps at odds with what many folks wanted. It feels like somebody at Lucasfilm took the criticism of Awakens being "too familiar" a bit too seriously, and I'm very torn on this movie. There are definitely elements of it I don't like, but I think it does a lot to move the story away from retreading old ground, and does away with many things that people predicted would happen. It pulled the rug from under the sweaty feet of many fans, and I think this is partly why they responded poorly to the film. It wasn't another Empire Strikes Back. It didn't follow in the footsteps of The Force Awakens by simply copying and pasting the original trilogy into the modern day.
People's main complaints seemed to centre around three things: Luke, Rey's parentage and Snoke's death. Upset viewers complained that Luke's actions seemed to go against the character we knew in the original trilogy. I disagree - Luke's self-imposed exile is no surprise, it's exactly what both Obi-Wan and Yoda did after failing to destroy the Sith back in Episode III. They both spent 20 years in desolate locations away from civilisation, and no-one kicked up a fuss then. Similarly, some complained that Luke would never be this pessimistic, and that he was always hopeful in the originals. While this is mostly true, YouTuber Nerrel has created a nice compilation of examples of Luke's more negative and hopeless attitude (16:24 - 17:10) across the original trilogy. Very few characters are so one-dimensional that it would be impossible to believe that they were capable of wallowing in their failure and despair. Also, it was reportedly George Lucas's idea for Luke to be in seclusion on a remote planet after going to a "dark place", and not Rian Johnson's. He tried to train a new generation of Jedi, but the Dark Side rose up again amidst these pupils and he felt that history was repeating itself. Everyone wanted to find Luke again in the hope that he could single-handedly face down the First Order and defeat them. At this point, Luke has become legend in the Star Wars universe, and he knows that he cannot possibly live up to the expectations set upon him.
Rey's parents turn out to be nobody of significance. After Awakens sparked countless fan theories on just who Rey was, many were left disappointed and unsatisfied with the explanation from Kylo Ren that they were "drunks who sold her off for drinking money, and died in a pauper's grave". Up until this point in the series, it has been established that the ability to be Force-sensitive is hereditary, as proven with the Skywalker lineage. I can understand people's desire for Rey to be related somehow to another character in the series, but ultimately, I'm completely okay with the idea that Rey just happens to be Force-sensitive. Plenty of Jedi and Sith are simply naturally attuned with the Force and aren't reliant on their bloodline for their power. It was a subversion of expectations that I think played well into the mantra of "Let the past die - kill it if you have to". Rey's fixation on her parentage and ties to Jakku were distracting her from moving forward with her training, and the moment between Kylo Ren and Rey where he says "You're nothing - but not to me" perfectly encapsulates one of the key themes of this film. You don't need to have an intricate connection to what has come before in order to be significant - The Last Jedi made many bold decisions that went against the grain of what audiences had come to expect from a Star Wars film, which is why it is still so divisive. It's brave, and it's trying to explore ideas that Star Wars has typically shyed away from in favour of a more typical "hero's journey" fairytale in the past.
The Last Jedi is a film about failure, and learning from failure. Yoda himself directly states this in the film - "Weakness. Falling. Failure also. Yes - failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is." Every character's arc in this film is focused on failure, and overcoming it. Poe is headstrong and determined to face down every threat from the seat of his X-Wing, and his constant desire to win the battle but not think about the war results in him losing many allies. Only through failing, and learning this the hard way, does Leia finally place her trust in him at the end of the film and appoint him as her next in command. Rey wants to learn how to become a Jedi Master from Luke, but her misconceptions about the Force and her desperate desire for answers about her own identity lead her to the Dark Side. She ends up failing to convince Luke to join her, and spends much of the rest of the film trying to convince Kylo Ren to come to the Light. Kylo Ren on the other hand, wants to lean into the Dark Side and kill his mother, but is unable to do so. He desperately tries to please Snoke but fails at doing so, deciding ultimately to kill his master and attempts to convince Rey to join the Dark Side; and again, fails. He is furious at Luke and wants to see him dead, to the point where he falls exactly into Luke's trap in the final act. Luke himself wants nothing to do with the war against the First Order initially, and he thinks that by not getting involved, he is doing the right thing. He is wrong, and is eventually convinced to re-join the fight, but not in the way that anyone could have expected. He projects the very image that everyone expects at the battle of Crait, and exploits Kylo's anger in order to buy time for the fleeing Resistance. Snoke is too critical of Kylo Ren and underestimates him, firmly believing that he can turn Rey to the Dark Side and control both of them at once. He is proven wrong and is betrayed by Kylo, and ultimately killed. Finn...I'm not so sure about Finn. The film sort of lost me with Finn. However, almost every single character's vision of what they wanted and how they wanted things to play out is proven wrong during the course of the film, and they emerge more knowledgeable through their failures.
My two biggest issues with The Last Jedi are the length of the film, and the awkward Rose-Finn kiss. It is the longest Star Wars film, clocking in at 2h32m. The Canto Bight sequence with Finn and Rose could definitely have been streamlined, along with the "mutiny" sequence with Poe and Holdo. At least a good 15-20 minutes could easily be shaved off this film without it suffering as a result. Additionally, Rose's awkward kiss with Finn wasn't earned - at no point in this film did I see any chemistry between the two characters. It was shoehorned in and the film would have been better off without it. It's not perfect, and it's certainly not what I expected from a Star Wars film. It was novel and brave, but it's just not what a lot of fans would have wanted I suppose. Which brings me nicely onto Episode IX.
"A Jedi's weapon deserves more respect."
Every fibre of The Rise of Skywalker's existence feels like it stands directly in opposition of The Last Jedi. It feels almost like it's trying to be two films that follow on directly from The Force Awakens, and it does its utmost to undermine and play down the bold choices that were made in the previous instalment. On a surface level, this does result in a much more "traditional" Star Wars experience. The film follows a more traditional and straightforward plot, with more of a focus on lighthearted adventure and the ragtag bunch of rebels facing down a seemingly impossible force and emerging victorious with the help of the Force. It reverts back to borrowing from the originals, and even includes a sneaky Ewok in the finale celebration, in what is clearly an homage to Return of the Jedi. But, did it need to play it so safe? Did it need to refer so blatantly again to other Star Wars films in order to be successful?
My favourite thing about The Rise of Skywalker is that we get to see a lot of playful, friendly interactions between the main cast, much more reminiscent of the dynamic of the originals. The Last Jedi suffered for containing many separate story threads and keeping characters apart from each other. An excellent example of this is that Rey only introduces herself to Poe at the end of The Last Jedi - that's two thirds of the way through the trilogy! These guys are the main characters! It's evident that this film is actively trying to cater towards the complaints of its predecessor, and in many ways it pleased people by doing so.
However, it's rather clear to me that the two films are at odds with one another. The Last Jedi is attempting to elevate Star Wars and free it from the tropes it's so famous for, and Skywalker chooses to ignore that and doubles down on playing it safe. It turns out that Snoke was created by Palpatine, who was pulling the strings behind the scenes the whole time. It turns out that yes, Rey's parents were nobody, but that she is the granddaughter of Palpatine. Oh, and grumpy old Luke, who threw his lightsaber off a cliff? He scolds Rey for attempting to throw that same saber into a fire. It's almost comical to watch the two films back to back, because there are so many minor, throwaway details that have been put in that deliberately try and distance the finale of the series from many of the more controversial moves made by Rian Johnson. I think Palpatine's return deserved more of an explanation, and a lot of what seem to be quite intricate plot points in this film are just casually glanced over because Abrams wanted to cram so much content into the film. It results in a more fast-paced affair with lots of characters, locations and events going on, but I wish that it had given the plot beats a little more time to breathe. He's so keen to get the characters onto the next location and plot beat that it feels like someone lent on the remote and we're watching the film in fast-forward. It feels like specific characters' "arcs" are less clear here too. Kylo Ren and Rey are clearly the focus of this film, and it feels like a lot of the supporting cast are sidelined somewhat as a result. There's also the unfortunate circumstances regarding Carrie Fisher, who unfortunately passed away before filming began, but the filmmakers did a decent job of utilising deleted scenes and leftover material to give Leia enough of a presence in the film. It's not ideal, but what are you gonna do? I do also have to give a quick shout out to Ian McDiarmid - however ridiculous his character's return may have been, I never get bored of seeing his excellent performance as the Emperor. His evil chortles and menacing tone are just perfect.
As I look back now on Disney's Star Wars trilogy, I am frustrated by a few missed opportunities. Awakens played it too safe but is ultimately a very fun film if you look past the fact that it clearly copied A New Hope's homework. The Last Jedi is genuinely different and I admire it for that, but The Rise of Skywalker tries to hard to forget about it that it ends up doing damage to itself and The Last Jedi. There's at least two films worth of content in Skywalker, and the jarring back and forth in tone and plot ideas between the two films is enough to give the viewer whiplash.
Watching Star Wars is almost a mystical experience to me at this point. I'm conditioned to respond to the masterpieces of John Williams, watch in awe as lightsabers clash and shamelessly repeat the lines of my favourite characters as I rewatch the saga through for the twentieth time. I'm fully aware that I give many of the series' mishaps a free pass for this, but I don't really care. Ultimately, I enjoyed Disney's Star Wars trilogy, warts and all. I think if I were to sum them up, I'd describe them as a beautiful mess. They look like Star Wars, they sound like Star Wars, and... they are Star Wars. They don't hold the same special place in my heart that the original trilogy (and, to a lesser extent, the prequel trilogy) do, but they are Star Wars. They're not intricate masterpieces in scriptwriting, story or drama but they are beautiful, engaging thrill rides that tug on your heart strings (although they maybe rely a little too heavily on nostalgia to achieve this). Do I wish that there had been a more coherent, unified framework established for the trilogy before filming had begun on them? Sure. Do I resent the wasted screen time that was spent by Abrams and Johnson fighting over their own visions of how they wanted the stories to play out? Absolutely. But in the end, I had a good time anyway.
May the Force be with you.