I didn’t want to hate Disney Star Wars. I was “meh” about it because, as a Trekkie and son of two Trekkies, I’ve been “meh” about Star Wars for my entire life. But now, after five films in as many years, varying in quality from “oh, god” to “meh” to “goddamnit, you almost had something there” I may actually hate Star Wars in general. Especially since the “oh, god” side of the scale just got a whole lot heavier.
There are those in the Critic’s Guild who believe Star Wars is inherently reactionary. That the original trilogy ended an era of American film – the so-called “New Hollywood” era – that at least tried to make movies with some manner of “relevance” to the society that created them. This…isn’t wrong…but phrasing it that way only perpetuates the idea that we critics are all joyless scolds whose Hot Takes always boil down to, “That thing you like? Guess what? It’s bad. And even though we say you shouldn’t feel bad for liking bad things, there’s a multi-billion dollar industry out there whose only job is to make people identify with the brands they consume, to the point where they take any criticism of a brand personally. But it’s okay! We can totally fight that by yelling at people even louder.”
Fighting against that idea is one of my damn fool, idealistic crusades. After all, say what you want about George Lucas (and some have said far too much) but is it his fault every other producer in Hollywood suddenly wanted to be him after 1977 (and certainly after 1981, when he and Spielberg made Raiders)? No – it’s every other producer’s fault. They could’ve chosen to be literally anyone else…but the love of money is the root of all evil…
So when I came up with my own Star Wars Theory my first instinct was to bury it and play more Bloodborne. Because, even if it isn’t inherently reactionary, I am now overcome by the idea that each new Star Wars Trilogy is a portent of Doom…and I don’t mean Eternal. Check the time line and tell me I’m wrong. Original Star Wars came out in 1977, when it looked like President Jimmy Carter was about to cruise to re-election on the strength of Not Being Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford. Two years later, the hostage crisis happened in Iran, and Ronald Reagan ratfucked Carter out of solving it before the election. This gave the American right wing twelve good years to proudly march the country backward, into the Gilded Age, and we were all made poorer, sicker and dumber for it, to the point where Bill Clinton started to look good.
Fast forward to Phantom Menace, in 1999, when it looked like Vice President Al Gore was about to cruise to his first actual election in years, on the strength of Not Being Bill Clinton, despite being the heir apparent to gutless, Clintonian Third Way-ism (basically “Ronald Regan Lite – tastes like crap, less filling”). Then, just over a year later, the Supreme Court handed the election to Ronald Reagan’s Vice President’s dry-drunk son in a manner so obviously fraudulent they included a line in their own ruling, basically saying, “Don’t cite this in the future, for anything. Like, at all. Ever.”
Skip to December, 2015, when it looked like Former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the true heir to gutless, Clintonian Third Way-ism, was about to cruise through an uncontested primary to yet another actual election. And she was so confident she’d beat the racist game show host who ate the Republican party, she barely bothered to campaign in Michigan or Wisconsin. Oops. Couldn’t have been her fault, though – must’ve been those sneaky Russians and their insidious Facebook posts. Or it could’ve been Star Wars. I’m not saying, “correlation equals causation,” I’m saying, I live on the West Coast, where we learn the hard and painful way that, when all our animals start acting weird for no real reason, there’s probably an earthquake coming.
And that’s the only thing close to an original thought I had watching Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. You don’t need me to tell you it’s an incoherent mess of a movie, clearly stitched together at the last minute by a studio that’s as cowardly and hypocritical as it is rich and powerful. You already know this. They made an entire New York Times article about it the week before this came out – meant to be damage control, but taken by me as a warning shot. You have to read between the lines a bit, but real heads know. Co-writer Chris Terrio is quoted in that article, comparing making “a movie like this” to being in a war, and as the co-writer of Justice League, he’s speaking from experience. I feel like I’ve been in a war just trying to write about the damned thing. I’m sure being there on the day would’ve killed me.
This movie low-key killed the brains of most civilian critics and turned we nerd critics into the same kind of insufferable pedants who’ve been trying to out-Plinkett Plinkett since 2010. Its incoherence perfectly lends itself to the strain of stage-drunk-close-reading Red Letter Media popularized, invigorating a form of critique that’s like the guy in the zombie movie who hides his bite wound until it’s too late. But that’s inside baseball, a game Plinkett “himself” played in his Force Awakens review to middling effect, because he was being careful. We were all being careful…except for those of us who jumped on the Rampant Speculation and Fan Theory Train. Let me offer sincere apologies, and congratulations, to all the broken clocks out there who turned out to be right about one thing at least: there actually was a reason Daisy Ridley was the only one in this cast allowed to use her British accent.
Seriously, that’s what made people call the final twist in this needlessly convoluted Mystery Box of a trilogy. J.J. Abrams doesn’t big-up the Mystery Box as much as he used to, but it’s served its purpose. Every marketing department in Hollywood pants like Pavlov’s dogs whenever they catch a whiff of J.J., his production company, or his padawans – like Linedelof and Kurtzman. And that’s not likely to change, despite this sucker making a billion less than Force Awakens and three hundred million less than Last Jedi. These are the “diminishing returns” your Economics texts talked about. The very thing that drove Disney to abandon its original plan for these movies in the first place.
This was supposed to be a Colin Trevorrow joint. He got hired right off of Jurassic World, brought his Jurassic World co-writer Derek Connolly with him, and no matter what they did for the two years they worked on it, they still get story credit, so some of their stuff is still in here. Were they the ones who came up with the fleet of Star Destroyers, armed with Death Star cannons and constructed in secret by…um…hey, look over there, space horses! I don’t know, but considering they came up with the Indominus Rex (a dinosaur created by a rapacious corporation attempting to focus-group-test the Next Big Attraction at its theme park), I want them to be responsible. And somebody already came up with the “Death Star, but bigger.”
Regardless, Treverrow figured he’d balance his karma out by releasing a cheep little indy-looking drama in between franchise blockbusters. It was called Book of Henry, and it got laughed off the festival circuit so hard even we internet critics noticed, and happily joined the dog pile. Three months later, Treverrow and Connolly left, citing the usual “creative differences,” which tells us everything and nothing.
Stepping back, we can see the history of Disney Star Wars as a history of reactionary panic, and of a studio either burning out, or dicking over, their directors, leaving them flapping in the breeze. Or on Twitter, where there’s nothing to do but go crazier.
So I wasn’t surprised when Disney pulled J.J. back in, or when he, Terrio, and the Lucausfilm brain trust supposedly responsible for ensuring the “quality” and “integrity” of all Star Wars-branded things immediately walked back even the most tepid, half-hearted stabs at creativity Last Jedi brought to its first two acts. “Oh,” the finished film seems to say, “were you interested in what might happen if a Star Wars protagonist had to figure out her place in the universe without recourse to any of the franchise’s various aristocratic bloodlines? Did you want to see what might happen to a Star Wars antagonist who rejected the chance for redemption? Who actively chose to become the Big Bad himself after killing the previous one, as all Sith have done before him since the time of Darth Bane? Did you like how Rian Johnson managed to soft-remake Empire and Jedi at the same time, clearing the decks for the climactic act of this trilogy to strike out in a bold, new direction? Well, fuck all that. We’re gonna remake Return of the Jedi again, and we’re gonna do it so hard, we’re gonna go all the way back to Endor’s Sanctuary Moon. We’re even bringing back the Emperor, and sending the whole cast on a glorified fetch quest to find out where he’s hiding. At last, all three of our leads will be on screen at the same time. Will they do anything interesting? Not really, but at least you’ll get to look at them, being hot together.”
In the old Star Wars Expanded Universe of novels and comic books this trilogy supplanted, another version of Palpatine used the same cloning technology that created the Grand Army of the Republic to survive past the end of Return and become a re-occurring antagonist for the fledgeling New Republic. Movie Palpatine must’ve used the Force to peek across dimensions, because it seems he did the same thing, and even his failures come out seven feet tall and able to choke people out from the next star system over. And so Shiv Palpatine is revealed to’ve been the secret Big Bad working behind the scenes This Whole Time. A Phantom Menace to the last.
But about halfway through the film, he also comes up with this cockamamie scheme to posses his granddaughter’s body with old Sith Magic. Which is actually the exact same scheme he came up with in the same comic book miniseries trilogy that introduced his cloned-body backup plan in the first place. Only differ1ence being, back in Dark Empire, he planned to possess the body of Han and Leia’s son, Anakin Solo. But we’ll get to his modern reincarnation in a bit…wait your fucking turn, mate.
My original theory only gets stronger over time: that Disney is basically Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. They bought Star Wars in order to dismantle it and sell its parts back to audiences who didn’t read in the 1990s and, in all likelihood, read even less now. Hard to get invested in an Expanded Universe after the last one disappears – a problem of which we comic book fans are all too aware. Somebody from the Marvel office should’ve probably had lunch with somebody from the Lucasfilm office and explained this at some point in the last five years. Maybe they did, and that’s where The Mandalorian came from. I don’t know, because the only sources I have at the moment are glorified press releases. Like that New York Times article, which seems designed to be calm the nerves of the type of people who call the New York Times “fake news,” and piss off literally everyone else.
Mission accomplished, I guess. The Rose Tyco fan club, the Finn/Poe shippers, the Rey/Finn shippers…hell, even the Reylos walked away disappointed. We all got teased, because the Mystery Box really is just a big ol’ tease, as anyone who called the ending of Lost back in season one can tell you. The trick is not the open the box until you already have the audience’s money. Luckily, you can just lie to people, with no consequence. Hell, the more shameless your lies are, the more you’ll be rewarded. “No, they’re not dead and this isn’t purgatory!” or, “No, we’re totally not just remaking Wrath of Kahn!” Or, “No, we’re not just going to remake Empire and Jedi again. It’ll be totally different. We priomise.” “Rise of Skywalker is the most divisive J.J. Abrams’ film!” cry the children of the village, who must’ve wiped Star Trek Into Darkness from their memories. Lucky bastards.
The Mystery Box Mode of production “works” because it creates space for the audience to make a film in their head months before they see the one on screen. That’s why so many people are criticizing Rise of Skywalker‘s “wasted potential.” What they mean is, they had five whole years to envision this movie, and since none of their brilliant ideas appear in the finished product, obviously the “potential” of this film got wasted. They’re right, but for the wrong reasons, as usual. Most people can’t imagine much more than This Ain’t Star Wars: Episode IX – A XXX Parody, and so they are terminally sad that, while our three core heroes don’t get to fuck, Palpatine sure did at one point.
But if you want to talk about wasted potential, look no further than every dead Stormtrooper in this franchise – a waste of a potential ally ever since FN-2187 had his Moment of Clarity in Force Awakens. Or so we thought, until about halfway through this film, when Finn and the gang find another band of ex-Stormtroopers chilling on Endor’s moon. Finn has a chat with their leader, Jannah (formerly TZ-1719) and both describe the sudden, inexplicable revelations that led them to overcome a lifetime of First Order brainwashing. “It’s like a Force…” Finn says, and my brain broke right then and there, with a sound that was like Batman’s back breaking over Bane’s knee. I had to look around the theater to make sure no one else heard. “Oh,” I thought, “so the Force decides which Stormtroopers get PTSD from all the mass casualties they bare witness to/cause, and which ones get to whistle while they slaughter whole villages. Great. Wonderful. Not the most insulting bullshit I ever heard at all.”
Back in the Force Awakens review, I worried that, while Disney’d tossed George Lucas’ ideas for this trilogy it the trash, they’d kept his overriding ethos of, “The Force decides who wins and who loses because that’s the way I wrote it.” Great, George – glad to know I shouldn’t actually care about any of this. Great on, Disney, too, for proving me right. Boy do I hate being right all the time. It actually sucks, folks. Be wrong about everything, all the time, loudly. You’ll go a lot further, especially in my shithole country.
We can see the final form of this Lucasian Predestination ethos in the climactic battle, as the ghosts of the old Sith Empire assemble to watch their avatar give his Final Order, and the disembodied voices of every Jedi in this franchise with a speaking part (including Qui-Gon and little orphan Ani) give Rey one last pep talk. It’s supposed to be a big, inspirational moment, but fuck that, Jedi and Sith alike. Luke Skywalker might’ve been wrong to run away and bury his head in the sand, but he was not wrong that the two orders are trapped in a cycle of escalating violence that’s already to the point of blowing up whole star systems. How long until we’re destroying whole galaxies? Only the characters in this film are foolish enough to believe one dead Palpatine will actually solve anything.
Since Star Wars loves to quote itself so much, I will too. Because we are now all, “pawns watching other pawns go through their predetermined motions at the behest of a corporate boardroom so spectacularly out of touch, they thought Marvel and Star Wars were ‘boy franchises’ before they bought them. Their words, not mine.”
“But Dave,” you say, “we had to give the people what they wanted! They wanted to see Ben Solo redeemed. They wanted a perpetual fetch quest plot leading to a land-sea-and-air battled that’s the final confrontation between Good and Evil.” So you say, and I’m sure you could come up with plenty of evidence to justify that. Same way I could come up with just as much demonstrating that people don’t actually know what they want. And by “people” I mean everyone, including myself and the Lucusfilm Committee to Restore Star Wars by Telling The “Creatives” What To Do.
All that committee seemed to do is play Star Wars video games. Hence the Jedi Healing, which we finally see on screen…nine movies in. Wow, that could’ve come in handy at so many points throughout…good thing it never came up before. Or the committee scans the internet for articles about “plot holes,” that are really about desperate entertainment writers reaching for something that’ll go viral by pissing people off. Hence, we got a whole movie justifying the Death Star’s fatal structural flaw, another one justifying why Han Solo’s starts off A New Hope such a cynical bastard, and at the end of this one, Chewie finally gets his medal. Whoop-de-fuckin’-do. Our main character, and our original point of view character, both get the legs cut out from under their arcs for no reason I can see, other than to placate those who think blood quanta should determine your Force powers because they don’t know how genetics work. But it’s ok, cuz Chewie got his medal. The Falcon should be his real medal for surviving all this, but he’s probably gonna wind up sharing that with Yet Another Goddamn Hummie.
Fuck all them haters, though, right? Speaking of which, let’s talk about Kylo. Good ol’ Ben Solo, who spends the movie trying to run the same con on Palpatine that Vader tried to run with Luke, because history is a wheel. Until he feels his mother die, and that makes him realize, “Well, this sucks. I should probably pull a face-turn.” It’s the exact opposite of what happened to his grandfather when great-grandma Shmi died. You see, it’s like poetry: they rhyme. Making everyone I’ve talked to think Leia should’ve died in the last movie.
After I saw Revenge of the Sith, I can vividly recall standing on the edge of my friendly neighborhood theater’s parking lot, looking back, and saying to no one at all (my friends being smart enough not to join me), “Well, at least that’s over.” After Rise of Skywalker, I stood in the same place and said, in the immortal words of the boss in Silent Night, Deadly Night: “It’s over! Time to get shitfaced!” Except nothing is over. Nothing ever ends.
This film’s real problem is its truncated lead time. They had five years to work on this Star War…but then, two years on, the guy they hired to do the job either got fired or left (“creative differences” always reads, to me, like a bit of both). This left them with only three years to make this Star War. Even George, in the depths of his prequels, gave himself three years between entries…and the results speak for themselves. Then, a few months later, their top-billed star had a heart attack while flying back from London. Leaving them with two years to work on this Star War…and that’s nowhere near enough. Say what you want about the prequels (and some of said far too much) but watching them never felt like watching a cartoon character build a bridge over a chasm, never falling into it until they actually looks down and see the drop.
And they still made a cool billion off it. Which means nothing is over. I can already hear the next last Star Wars film howling at me from the future. But to me, Star Wars was never much more than a successful SF franchise with a too-invested-for-their-own-good fanbase. Now it’s just that with more bad movies to its name than good – whose TV shows, novels and comics are orders of magnitude better than the majority of its feature film entries. And as a Trekkie, son of two Trekkies, I have a lifetime of experience with handling something very much like that. So if any of you Warriors out there need some counseling, my DMs are open.