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Why the Rise of Skywalker broke me

So, four months on, it would appear that I’m still not over the Rise of Skywalker.

(Spoilers ahead, obviously. But if you haven’t seen it by now, do you really care at this stage?)

So, first of all, I should say what kind of Star Wars fan I am. I was two when the original film came out, but because my parents were kind of nerds, I was almost weaned on it and Spielberg’s early blockbusters. I had some of the Kenner toys (although not as many as my friends), obviously. Aside from reading the Dark Empire comic and its follow ups (quite liked the first at the time, although it hasn’t dated well – hated the rest), I never really bothered with the Expanded Universe stuff, which I generally considered to be hackneyed trash (an opinion I still broadly hold having read some of the “classics”). Didn’t think much of the Special Editions. Don’t rate the Prequels, although I was never one of those “these films simply don’t exist” people. Liked the Tartakovsky Clone Wars. Was slow to warm up to Filoni’s The Clone Wars, but when I did at around season three, I fell for it hard, and there for Rebels. I was going through some stuff when the Disney era of Star Wars media began and, as such, consumed most of the early comics and novels, although I’ve fallen off the wagon over the past couple of years. Broadly liked The Force Awakens and Rogue One and while I don’t think Solo was great, I can name many many worse films that have a better reputation.

Oh, and, most defining of all (it would appear), I’m very much Team The Last Jedi. Not because I think it’s a perfect film; I’ve watched it several times and could spend many hours pointing out all of the bits that don’t work for me. But when it does work, it’s wonderful. I guess I’ll get more into that later.

I’m a fan who considers this to be a film franchise first, a TV franchise second, and I can take or leave most other things (with the exception of the tabletop game X-Wing, which I’m a little obsessed with).

So, back to the Rise of Skywalker. By now this has been a very widely dissected film – and I’m by no means the only person who didn’t like it. I think my position is probably best summarised as being somewhere between these two video essays:

I don’t have an awful lot else to add to those essays. I do take issue with the argument often stated in various parts of the internet that the films should have been “planned” better. The original trilogy wasn’t planned at all, and the Prequels were presumably better planned than any other films in the franchise, but it didn’t make them any better. The first two Sequel films actually complement each other well; the problem is that while Rian Johnson very much took a “yes, and” approach to The Last Jedi, Abrams is clearly a much less generous collaborator. As Patrick Willems said in a previous video, Abrams is someone known for starting series not for ending them – and that ended up being a major problem.

I also wonder to what extent Lucasfilm had actually planned for this film, which ended up getting trashed at a fairly late stage. I got the Art of the Rise of Skywalker a few weeks ago and it is notable that not a single piece of pre-production art of Palpatine exists in it (as opposed to this mysterious Oracle), and only one image of the Sith planet Exegol. Given that this book was mysteriously delayed for four months, they had time to insert this art if it existed.

Similarly, if you read the Aftermath novels it’s established that part of the Emperor’s Grand Design in the event of his death was to have a loyal cadre of Imperials go off to find a mystery place somewhere in the Unknown Regions that he had identified and build the First Order. You can still see the skeleton of that idea in Rise, but it ultimately contradicts this. For one thing, how did they get there if they didn’t have either of the Wayfinders? Secondly, why are the First Order and the Final Order different things? It’s all such a mess.

And then there’s Snoke. The most baffling thing for me is why Snoke just got casually dismissed as a clone instead of being something interesting – the idea was he was always intended to be little more than a head in a jar seems unlikely. People have picked up on how Rise seems to trash so much of The Last Jedi but there’s a lot set up in The Force Awakens which is treated with similar disdain. It’s such a depressing experience. This for me is a far more egregious contradiction than the “Rey nobody” twist in Last Jedi that upset so many people.

Interesting Failures

Of course, to be a Star Wars fan is to live in disappointment. Return of the Jedi was fairly critically panned at the time, and while I think I was too young to see it then, it certainly feels like a step down from the first two now. I had spent much of my early life looking forward to nine Star Wars films, which I imagined would be coming out like clockwork, every three years, from 1986 to 2001 and, well, that didn’t happen. In fact for a long time it didn’t look like it was going to happen at all. What we did get were the Special Editions which did some frankly horrible things to some of my favourite bits of the original trilogy. And when we finally did get episodes 1 to 3, it’s fair to say that they weren’t rapturously welcomed by those of us who had spent the best part of 20 years waiting for them.

But at the same time, people have short memories. People forget that Return of the Jedi was panned, and even the Prequel loathing has softened over time. And I guess you can shrug and dismiss the Rise of Skywalker hatred as just part of the same cycle. For me it’s different though.

You see, for all of Return of the Jedi‘s flaws, it does ultimately satisfyingly complete the story started in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. It is harder to defend the Prequels, which are objectively bad movies, but they are at least interesting failures, with interesting things to say. I’d rather watch films like that – the Matrix sequels also fit into this category – than safe cash grab sequels.

That are the Prequels about? It is admittedly sometimes hard to see through the terrible dialogue and garish CGI, but ultimately the story they tell are about how civilisations fall: it isn’t because a cackling villain turns up and ruins everything, it’s because the institutions designed to stand as a defense against tyranny (in the case of the Prequels, the Republic and the Jedi Order) grow complacent and lose their sense of purpose. And yeah, Palpatine has to come along to push it over, but the edifice was already crumbling before he came along.

That, to me, feels incredibly relevant right now – as it did back in the early 2000s when we were fighting a stupid preventable war like the one that informed Lucas when he set out to make the original films (Vietnam).

I kind of hate the fact that the themes of the Prequels resonate as strongly for me as they do, because I so dearly want them to be part of much better films. Fortunately I now have the Clone Wars to tell that story far more dramatically and entertainingly. But I give Lucas credit for trying to say something complex and nuanced in a film about space wizards.

But what does Abrams have to say? I know exactly what Lucas is saying in both his trilogies; and it’s clear what Johnson is saying in The Last Jedi, but ultimately in the Abrams films, it’s just stuff… that happens. I can give him a pass for The Force Awakens, which is just setting up the trilogy and is entertaining enough, but how do you set about finishing a epic a series as the Skywalker Saga without having anything to say?

Nostalgia and World Building

The biggest fundamental problem with Abrams’s films is that they are rooted in nostalgia at the expense of everything else. With The Force Awakens, that is understandable: the anger which certain parts of the fandom felt towards the Prequels is pretty hard to ignore. The Force Awakens was a useful reset button which should have given Lucasfilm the creative space to go in new directions with the franchise. That certainly seemed to be the plan with The Last Jedi – of course for a lot of fans that was a step too far. And that’s a hard schism to bridge: ultimately for a lot of people, all they wanted was more of the same and a film that took took the same material and ultimately asked different questions was just not on their checklist at all. It’s understandable why Lucasfilm got frit over the outrage over it and decided to make something that was comfortable, but given how many TLJ haters who seem as disappointed with it as the TLJ fans, I think that was the wrong call.

In retrospect, we’d have probably had better films if the anger over the Prequels had been a little more restrained. By the time Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced a new film series in 2012, it had just become a “known” fact that the Prequels were an unmitigated disaster and that the Sequel trilogy should be nothing like them. People like Simon Pegg had popularised the notion that they were unspeakable.

I especially remember this video, by a copywriter called Prescott Harvey, which came out in advance of The Force Awakens. It is an open letter to JJ Abrams and, at the time, was accompanied by a petition which thousands of people signed:

Post-gamergate and The Last Jedi nerdrage, I find this film a little uncomfortable to watch. The entitlement feels eerily famliar. That bit when his voice rises to almost a shouting pitch about how Star Wars must never be cute (which, even ignoring Return of the Jedi, dismisses much of the appeal of R2-D2, the jawas, Yoda and the ugnaughts in the first two films and seems to ignore the fact that there is significantly more graphic violence in the Prequels than the original trilogy), sounds like the archetype of every angry white nerd throwing his toys out of his pram we’ve heard ad nauseum in the years since.

And yes, superficially, there’s nothing too much to disagree with in this video: it does a fairly good job at encapsulating what the Original Trilogy was in essence. The problem is the suggestion that Star Wars shouldn’t strive to be anything more than that, that it should be kept in a safe little box. The logic is that Lucas tried to mix things up in the Prequels, they weren’t good, so that shows you shouldn’t mess with a winning formula. But the bad things about the Prequels wasn’t their ambition, it was their execution. And pushing so hard for future filmmakers to impose limitations like that was always going to be a monkey’s paw.

Prescott Harvey got the filmmaker he could only have dreamed of in the form of JJ Abrams. His previous film Super 8 seems to exist purely to make you think that Steven Spielberg made a horror film at around the same time he was making Close Encounters and Poltergeist (it was an entirely forgettable affair and I can pretty much guarantee you that everything memorable you think happened in it was actually a bit you remember from Stranger Things). His Star Trek films are basically an exercise in mashing up all the cool bits Abrams remembered from the Star Trek films he grew up with, mashed together (he just about pulled it off in his first film but, echoing Star Wars, came horribly unstuck in his messy second effort).

What is remarkable about both Abrams films is quite how pathologically they copy the Original Trilogy. It isn’t enough to have space ships that look like the TIE Fighters and X-Wings of old, they had to have actual TIE Fighters and X-Wings. The Empire and Rebellion were replicated as close as possible as they could be. And of course we had to have yet another Death Star.

And much of this was at the expense of world building and even the impact of the Original Trilogy. The sacrifice of the Rebellion over the course of those films has now been revealed to have achieve almost nothing; not even the Emperor actually died. In the years since The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm has authorised several novels, comics and even a TV show (The Resistance) to flesh out the Star Wars galaxy as it existed at the start of Episode VII, but even having read much of this it still feels pretty hollow.

Much of this replication can be excused away by the argument that, as George Lucas himself put it “Star Wars rhymes“. But rhyming isn’t the same thing as repetition, and that doesn’t mean that things that have dramatic justification in the originals have to happen in the Sequels simply because. So many of the beats in The Rise of Skywalker feel like characters going through the motions and beats of another film rather than getting there by themselves. Perhaps the most egregious is the notion that Rey is somehow conflicted about possibly, maybe, turning to the Dark Side when she is only ever presented as being repelled by the idea. We have the throne room sequence in Return of the Jedi replicated but she’s never actually tempted in the agonising way that Luke is; at worst she appears to briefly flirt with the idea of sacrificing herself to save her friends. Contrast that with the throne room scene in The Last Jedi which clearly echoes similar scenes in past films including Return of the Jedi, but doesn’t simply regurtitate past dramatic beats and comes at the climax of a film that has spent much of its time getting you to that point.

And in order to disguise how slavish this all is, they mask it by making everything bigger. It was bad in The Force Awakens when Starkiller Base could not only blow up planets, but multiple ones at once from across the galaxy. Where do you go from there? Well, you simply give every single Star Destroyer (which look identical to the original Star Destroyers but are now canonically bigger) a planet destroying ray gun. But all the bigger stuff does is serve to make everything feel more hollow, especially when you’ve done so little work fleshing out the galaxy which is now apparently under threat.

Retcons and Cash-ins

Admittedly, it has taken me a while to warm up to the Prequels, and a large part of that was The Clone Wars, which has spent much of the past 12 years clarifying and expanding on the material that was in the Prequel trilogy. We’re already seeing that with Rise of Skywalker with the publication of its novelisation which seems to have been written specifically to smooth over many of the film’s cracks. So it is that we now know that Palpatine didn’t have a son so much as a renegade “failed” clone, and that Rey and Ben Solo’s kiss was strictly platonic.

But this is where we come to the worst aspect of Star Wars fandom and how it has intersected with Disney corporatism; the need to explain everything. Star Wars has always had this. Its pretty harmless when it boils down to anthologies about every single background character ever, such as Tales from Mos Eisley Cantina, but there’s always been a tendency to take this too far. So it is that we have Skippy the Jedi Droid, and the explanation that there is a reason why some of the garbage spotting in the scene in Empire Strikes Back looks vaguely like the robot IG-88 who popped up in the bounty hunter scene a few minutes earlier (Boba Felt killed him! Oh, and there’s four of him. Oh, and he ended up merging with the Death Star shortly before it blew up in Return of the Jedi).

We don’t need any of this stuff, and much of the time it cheapens the original stories, relegating them to trivia. And while I am a big fan of The Clone Wars, which is in some respects a massive retcon, it’s not a good thing that the show had to do as much heavy lifting as it did; the Prequels should have done that in the first place.

But while this has been a part of Star Wars for as long as Obi-Wan Kenobi started wittering on about “a certain point of view” in Return of the Jedi, it has become a mania in the modern Disney corporation, filling its live action adaptation of their classic animated films with retcons intended to “fix” the original (I recommend a couple of videos by Lindsey Ellis for more on this). It’s no surprise that the first two standalone Star Wars films which came out, Rogue One and Solo, both ostensibly exist to “fix” and “explain” bits of the original films.

And that’s only one half of it. I think I liked Rogue One a lot more than some people because I’d read Catalyst first, which is entirely about Galen Erso. So I understood him, Jyn and Saw Garerra’s characters a lot better going in than most people did. But you shouldn’t have to read a book to properly enjoy a film. Yet this is now a feature. Starkiller Base made no sense to you in the Force Awakens? If you buy the Force Awakens Visual Dictionary it will helpfully explain how that works. Indeed, if you buy the Rise of Skywalker Visual Dictionary, it will tell you that it was built out of the planet Ilum, which appears in the Clone Wars.

We’ve reached a point now where shoddy explanations and poor characterisation no longer feel like a bug in the new Star Wars films, but a feature. Most people just want the big explosions and if you want the films to make sense, why there is helpfully a whole range of books out there to make it all make sense in your head. And, presumably, eventually a spin off TV show which will do all the heavy lifting for you.

There comes a point where this stops feeling like spin off merchandise and starts to feel like a confidence trick. It seems to all but encourage lazy writing; the worse the film turns out to be the more books get to come out to “fix” it. This seems to be what “plot hole culture” seems to have been leading up to, and it feels deeply cynical and dispiriting.

I should emphasise that I’m not puritanical about all this. I don’t expect a company like Disney to be making films for the sake of the art, just as Lucas wasn’t. Indeed, it’s actually a little weird to me that Disney has eschewed Lucas’s tendency to fill his films with kewl new spaceships that the fans will want to rush out and buy. But that would mean producing something novel rather than focusing exclusively on nostalgia by making everything look and feel like the films they grew up watching.

Ultimately no amount of retroactive fixes can make a film devoid of substance a good film. And this is ultimately the difference between the Prequels being redeemed by later media and the Rise of Skywalker receiving similar treatment. No amount of retconning can avoid the fact that that film ultimately has nothing to say.

A New Hope?

So my dislike of Rise of Skywalker is not just rooted in the film itself, but in the corporate culture in which it developed and how its rooted in an obsession that sees Star Wars in terms of nostalgia and facts but is less interested in things like theme and meaning.

But it isn’t despair that kills you, it’s the hope. And there is a part of me that is still rooting for the franchise. I quite liked the Mandalorian, although it was pretty unchallenging. And while the recent “Final Season” of the Clone Wars was, for the most part, fairly solid but run of the mill, its final arc, which echoes the events in Revenge of the Sith, is emotionally shredding.

And while I definitely get the impression that The Rise of Skywalker is the film that the producers ultimately set out to make, as something of a Lucasfilm-watcher, I do get the impression that the studio was concerned that it was going to be a bit of critical flop.

For one thing, Disney decided not to market it in its own right but as part of a season of Star Wars alongside the new video game Jedi: Fallen Order and the Mandalorian. The Mandalorian was particularly interesting because it meant releasing a show which had a massive spoiler in it that had been kept secret before airing, but at a time when they couldn’t launch Disney Plus across Europe – meaning that a very large market didn’t legally have access to the show. That always felt like a weird decision to me, but it did mean that thousands of people were ecstatically tweeting about The Child/Baby Yoda instead of expressing their concerns about the upcoming film. I think it paid off for them, but I doubt they’d have done it if they truly believed that The Rise of Skywalker could have stood on its own feet.

The other thing that reassures me that that they are taking their time not to rush into any more films, having axed the Weiss and Benioff series – which had lots of alarm bells wringing – and not yet having axed the promised Rian Johnson series – which will be alarming to some but very reassuring to others (especially after his triumphant return to the big screen with Knives Out). Indeed, taking their time is something I wish they’d done with the Sequel Trilogy. I can’t help but feel we’d have ended up with a stronger Episode Nine, irrespective of curveballs such as Carrie Fisher’s tragic death, we’d had the traditional three year wait between films (meaning that Episode IX would be due for release in 2021) rather than two.

UPDATE: I’m similarly encouraged by today’s announcement that Taiki Waititi will be directing a new Star Wars film.

Hopefully the departure of Bob Iger from Disney means that the corporation as a whole becomes less obsessed with this idea of making sequels and remakes as a way to retcon existing properties. And, ultimately, finishing off the Skywalker Saga always was going to be a far harder task than making tangential Star Wars films in the future. It’s just such a shame they dropped the ball so badly with this one.

The Disney Star Wars films could at last bring a balance to the force

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NaBloPoMo November 2012My initial shock of discovering that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm to Disney has given way to contemplation about what a post-Lucas Star Wars universe might look like.

For many people this is bad news; it simply means more bad films cashing in on the goodwill of a dwindling generation of fans who are destined to be disappointed. Sometimes I think Star Wars fans have very selective memories, choosing to forget not only that Star Wars all but invented film related merchandising as we now understand it, but that they lapped it up as kids as well. Would either Empire or Jedi had been anything like as successful as the were if their prospective fan bases hadn’t spent the previous three years tirelessly playing with their action figures and dreaming about what might happen in the next sequel? I doubt it.

The prequels failed for several reasons: bad scripts, an over reliance on CGI, poor directing and poor continuity with episodes 4-6. Most of the problems can be laid at George Lucas’ own door. If he had recognised his limits and handed directorial duties to other people – precisely as he had done with both Empire and Jedi – we would almost certainly have ended up with better films. Both iterations of the Clone Wars animated series have been both superior to the prequels and felt more Star Wars-y and it cannot be a coincidence that Lucas has been for the most part at arm’s length from them.

But there’s a more fundamental problem, and that is that they were prequels. Prequels are inherently problematic because you always know how they’re going to end – and what might make for satisfying backstory will often fail to work as drama itself. So, for instance, Padme always was a doomed character and making her more interesting would have been problematic in terms of tying into the later episodes (which isn’t to say that pretty much anyone could have done a better job with her than Lucas managed). To make things worse, the episodic format meant that they were stuck with telling a linear story that couldn’t really reference anything which we knew was to come later (see the Godfather Part 2 for an example of how a less restricted prequel could work – I understand there’s a TV edit somewhere with the story of both Godfather films put in chronological order; it sounds like an utterly awful idea).

And finally, you have the problem that, more than 30 years ago, Lucas chose rather arbitrarily to make A New Hope episode 4. The series could have sustained one prequel – two at a push – but it is pretty hard to deny that there simply wasn’t enough story to sustain three films (this is one of the reasons why I personally feel that Attack of the Clones is a worse film than Phantom Menace, but I won’t get into that right now).

In short, the two biggest handicaps of episodes 1-3 – the fact they were prequels and George Lucas himself – will not apply to episodes 7-9. It is hard to imagine how they could in any way be worse. And we should also be a little fair here: I would regard Attack of the Clones at its worst to be light years (never mind parsecs) ahead of a film like the latest Total Recall or any of the Twilight films. The Harry Potter films at their best fall far short of episodes 4-6. So the idea that making new Star Wars films will lead to a new dark age of commercial cinema is simple nonsense.

So, with that out of the way, what are my hopes for episodes 7-9? Well, for starters, I’m hoping they’ll be a continuation of episodes 1-6, not just a sequel. For me that means two things: it has to be about this whole “balance of the force” thing, and it has to feature Anakin/Vader as a significant character. However tempting it might be to simply ignore episodes 1-3, ultimately the final three films have to reflect on the prequels’ ideas – especially if they are to be in keeping with Lucas’s idea about repeating motifs and themes throughout the films as if they form an overall symphony (I might not like Lucas’s execution, but I’ve always thought he had some great ideas behind his films).

I’m not terribly familiar with the Star Wars New Republic expanded universe beyond the Dark Empire comics – and since there’s so much of it (and since no one will buy me the encyclopaedias – I probably never will). Generally though, I think they should avoid adapting anything which might have been written before. I also think they ought to resist the temptation of featuring the cast of episodes 4-6 too heavily, leaving them instead as mentor figures. The focus should instead be on a new generation of Skywalkers/Solos.

I said it should reflect on the balance of the force. This prophecy was discussed a lot in episode 1 but was barely touched on in the later films, except (and my memory may be flakey here), when it is announced that the prophecy is clearly wrong because Anakin has turned to the dark side. But it has long been speculated that, in fact, the prophecy was true. Anakin brings balance in two ways: firstly in bringing down the Old Republic, which has become infantilised by its over reliance on the Jedi (and here, Ryan Britt’s recent article about illiteracy is particularly instructive) and secondly by being instrumental in bringing down the Emperor. So we’ve seen him redress the balance, but what we haven’t yet seen is him restore some modicum of equilibrium.

The agenda of episodes 7-9 therefore must surely be to recount how that equilibrium was eventually achieved. Possibly this means getting to the roots of the Sith-Jedi conflict (and even how the Mandalorians fit into that).

As for Anakin himself, both 3 film cycles thus far have focused on his life as a Jedi Knight and as a Sith Lord. Both cycles end on him transforming into something new. The Revenge of the Sith states at the end that the blue glowing “life after death” form that we see both Obi Wan, Yoda and Anakin eventually become is a relatively new innovation discovered by Qui Gon Jinn, but this is thrown in as an almost throwaway line. For me, the films have to ultimately be about how Anakin in this new incarnation somehow plays a decisive role in restoring this final equilibrium.

Episode 9 therefore needs to be a real resolution in the way that episode 6 never was. That isn’t to say there can’t be any Star Wars films after that – indeed, by all accounts it is Disney’s plan to keep churning out Star Wars films after that for as long as they keep making money. But these films can be set in other times or focus on other characters.

Anyway, that’s how I see the films developing. I may well find myself disappointed, but I’ve never really understood why Star Wars has been treated as a a sacrosanct film series which should have a finite number of films, while it seems fine for other franchises to continue to churn out sequels endlessly. If this move to Disney means slightly less reverence, the franchise can only benefit.

UPDATE: I also wrote this for Unlock Democracy today, about the parlous state of democracy in the Old Republic: Unlock the Galaxy.