If you are alive, you probably are aware that multibillion-dollar company and conqueror of worlds, Disney, has bought the rights to Star Wars and has been producing new movies to the once dormant franchise. The new films have released to incredible box office success (with the obvious redheaded stepchild being “Solo: A Star Wars Story”) and generally positive critical reviews. And yet, there is a nerd civil war brewing within the fanbase the likes of which civilized society is woefully unprepared to endure. The problem? Well, critics seem to like the films, mostly, but the fans do not hold the same positive opinions of them.
Unfortunately, a real issue we have is that discussions of the film aren’t given the freedom to be explored. We have labeled each side with a quick generalization and refused to give either side any credence. The fans have been designated whiney fanboys who hate women and don’t like change, whereas Disney is this money hungry corporation hellbent on forcing a political agenda down people’s throat.
So, let’s be real here. Both sides have merits to their opinions, and both are totally out of control and uncivilized when it comes to discussing this. No film is without flaws, and to act like any criticism of a film is strictly because fans hate women is both irresponsible to make and simply untrue. On the flip side, acting as if Disney is creating these films as political propaganda is a lazy argument just because the main protagonist is a woman. Can we be reasonable and discuss the films for what they are?
Star Wars makes up roughly 82% of my blood. I am what people in the field of psychology would describe as “obsessed” and “a nerd”. Since I was in preschool, I have been a fan of Star Wars. There is a picture of me in my Pre-K class with my friend Jake, and I am wearing a green shirt with a B1 Battle Droid from the newly minted “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”, a movie that despite Jar Jar Binks, I actually love and appreciate for what it is and what it adds to Star Wars. I own several custom-made lightsabers, my most precious being Revan’s purple lightsaber from Knights of the Old Republic era, along with tons of books video games, and more LEGOs than a functioning adult should have. Do you get the picture yet? I love Star Wars.
I would like to offer my opinions of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. However, my feelings on “aesthetic” elements, such as visuals, choreography, humor, and music, I’d like to put to the side for now. Those factors can be subjective and just because I feel that they are unappealing does not mean someone else couldn’t feel the exact opposite. Just because I don’t enjoy something does not make it bad, necessarily. Instead, I am going to focus solely on storytelling, specifically if the story follows its own rules, if characters’ motivations are clear, and if elements flow together.
I guess now would be the ideal time to say I am remarkably disappointed in these new films from a structural standpoint. I am hopeful that my introduction has softened that blow enough that you are willing to listen to what I have to say.
SET UP FOR FAILURE
Disney was not shy in revealing that when they had purchased the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas in 2012, they wanted to separate themselves from his experimental prequel trilogy that had been so divisive with fans. Their goal was to recreate the magic of the original trilogy of the 1970s and 1980s that had such universal appeal to all audiences. Enter “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.
There is no secret, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (I am going to call the films TFA and TLJ from here on out) is essentially the original “Star Wars” with a fresh coat of paint. It’s not 100% the same but it is too similar to ignore. Now, that is not to say that the film is bad, it is just very unoriginal and safe. Disney knew how popular the first film was and looked to make sure their soft reboot would be financially successful by keeping the story as close to a sure thing as possible. (But, if you cheated off a person who got an A on a test, did you really get an A too or did you just duplicate someone else’s A? Food for thought.)
Most of the new characters introduced were interesting and compelling though. While a few had many similarities to older characters, much of their pasts were mysterious and fans were eager to learn more. There was a solid base in place after TFA to build upward from to create something new and compelling.
And then “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” happened…
TLJ is the oil to TFA’s vinegar. They simply do not mix. This trilogy that Disney is producing has a few fatal flaws that are most perfectly exposed by the juxtaposition of these two films, one of them being there is no substantial passage of time over the course of the duration of these two movies. Why is that a problem? If you are trying to tell two interconnected stories, without realistic time for character growth, it almost feels like events are being forced together without any explanation. How can you expect a character to undergo two separate arcs in what equates to essentially a week of in universe time?
For perspective, the original trilogy takes place over 4 years and the prequel trilogy takes place over 13 years. Meaning, once one film ends, there is a logical passage of time before the next film starts. In other words, the status quo has logical time to progress off screen in movies. You saw Anakin age 10 years in between films. He was primed for a new story to tell and was given enough time to process the experiences in his past and evolve from previous movies.
In the Disney trilogy, TFA ends and TLJ picks up immediately after that, which essentially makes it one continuous story, and not two interconnected stories. TLJ should really be TFA: Part 2. But that isn’t what TLJ is at all.
Here is the second fatal flaw. Disney did not have a full plan for the trilogy before they went into production. Better yet, they did not have a singular plan. TFA was written and directed by JJ Abrams but TLJ was written and directed by Rian Johnson. Other than notes about how TFA ended, Rian Johnson was given a blank canvas to create TLJ, and at this point I hope you see the point I am setting up. Rian Johnson is writing the second part to a story that JJ Abrams began.
Imagine having an idea for a story that you are so proud of. You have so many ideas and you are really excited about them. Now imagine you aren’t allowed to write the second part of it and instead someone you do not know gets to continue it, with the only knowledge they receive being where the characters are at the end of your part. Do you believe that narrative would be cohesive?
TFA and TLJ have very different tones from each other, and that’s a problem because the main conflict of TFA was still going on 10 minutes prior to TLJ starting. The characters haven’t been given a chance to grow and process the events that occurred yet, and are essentially still continuing the same battle.
Furthermore, questions and mysteries that JJ Abrams set up in TFA are now left to Rian Johnson to answer for him, in any way he sees fit. And unfortunately, Johnson was not very interested in the questions that Abrams posed. The story that his movie is physically touching follows rules and logic that differ from any that have come before it. It is because of this that TLJ does not fit.
All of that is an issue but I suppose it could be overcome with proper execution, meaning none of that guarantees failure on its own. But when it came down to it, TLJ’s execution was a fatal blow.
Let’s begin by addressing faults in the storytelling. The biggest one that circles the internet is Rey, her origins, and her abilities. TFA presents Rey as an abandoned loner waiting for her family on a forgotten desert world, until she meets Finn, a First Order Stormtrooper who deserted his post and crashed on her planet. They end up going on a reluctant adventure to save the Galaxy from the First Order’s plans, and along the way Rey discovers that she has Force powers.
Star Wars has always been a story about family. Rey was waiting for her family and we are not told who they are. This made Rey’s family an essential mystery to who her character is. If Rian Johnson wanted to make a character who was a “nobody” but became a hero, I would have no problems with it. In fact, I would applaud him for taking a path less traveled in the franchise. The problem is TFA just spent an entire +2-hour runtime introducing the mystery and its importance. When Rey’s parentage is ultimately revealed to be nobody of any significance, it is meant to be shocking, but ends up being lazy and cheap.
Rey’s incredible strength in the Force was also supposed to be explained by her parentage. Since she was essentially living as a recluse on a backwater scavenger planet with virtually no human interaction outside of thieves and fat aliens who sell instant-bread, her advanced powers in the Force are out-of-place. In the past, we have seen Anakin and Luke undergo Force training. They are a great reference point because they are explained to us as the two most naturally gifted Force-users in the Star Wars universe, and it took Anakin about 10 years to master the force, and Luke roughly 4 years. And both of them were under the tutelage of prominent Jedi Masters who gave them guidance and examples to follow. Rey had none of that and was already able to best the primary antagonist in TFA, and shown to be an equal in strength and combat ability again in TLJ. Mind you, there has been essentially only a week of in-universe time to lapse over the course of the two films. To many, including myself, Rey’s abilities needed an explanation or they represented a major inconsistency in the logic of the Franchise.
When Rian Johnson told us, the viewers, that Rey was from “nobody”, he essentially told us Rey is the way she is because she is Rey, and that will be all the explanation we need. The struggle that comes along with this is it is difficult to create a compelling and relatable protagonist that has no skill weaknesses. At no point in any of the films do you truly believe she is bound to lose. The closest we get is when she goes to try and turn Kylo Ren back to the light and is forced to confront Snoke, but I will get to this later.
In the previous two trilogies, the main protagonist, Anakin and Luke, suffer a chopped off right hand at the hands of the primary antagonist. This was used as a way of saying that the protagonist still had a way to go before they could matchup against their foes, and that their arcs are not yet completed. Rey escapes her encounter with Kylo and Snoke and does not sustain an injury. In fact, she leaves proving she is Kylo Ren’s equal already (Again, this is maybe one week after we are introduced to her and maybe 4 days since she learned what the force is).
Unfortunately, this point is always marred by claims of sexism directed towards the character of Rey. I hope this discussion isn’t bogged down by that and we can observe her as a character from an objective viewpoint.
Is there a possibility this explanation gets overridden in the next upcoming film, directed by JJ Abrams? Quite possibly. But for the moment the main character is just willfully unexplained anomaly.
Next, I’d like to discuss what is my personal biggest gripe with the films, and that is character motivations. This surprises me how little traction this issue has gotten when, to me, it is just so glaring.
The main characters of the trilogy are Rey, Kylo, and Finn. Finn is actually well written and I find him to be believable and compelling. I don’t think he is flawless, but you understand why he does what he does and feels the way he feels. In fact, if he had been allowed to complete his heroic sacrifice at the end of TLJ instead of forcing in an unnecessary kiss between two characters with no chemistry, he would have had an incredibly satisfying character arc. He would have learned courage and sacrificed himself for something greater. To his credit, he was in the process of doing just that until he was interrupted, so I am going to count it as a win for him.
As for Rey and Kylo, they are not blessed by being well written (I will say that they are well acted and the actors should be praised for that). Let’s start with Rey since we were just talking about her and there isn’t as much of a rant for her as there is for Kylo.
I’ve already discussed Rey’s family as an ignored focal point of her character, and how the lack of time lapse has made her growth seem illogical by the rules of the franchise. But now I would like to discuss her motivations as a flaw.
As I mentioned, Rey is an abandoned scavenger waiting for her family. She lives on Jakku, which is a desert wasteland. The society there is not very technologically advanced, and almost everything that they have is scavenged from crashed starships. No one is really in communication with the rest of the Galaxy and no one really seems to talk to each other unless it is about scavenging or food. It is pretty clear that Rey is not watching Galactic CNN and getting her news about the ongoing wars of the First Order and the Resistance either. She has likely zero exposure to the main conflict of the films prior to our introduction to her as a character. And that is a problem.
In the original trilogy, Luke was on a desert planet too, but it was occupied by the Galactic Empire. He lived through the struggle before we meet him. He knows about the rebellion because many of his friends have gone off to join them. He wasn’t a galactic recluse. He had a stake in the battle, even if he didn’t feel that strongly until the Empire killed his Aunt and Uncle. Rey not knowing about the conflict is signified by the fact that when she hears the name Han Solo, she only knows him as a smuggler and not a war hero.
So, the question I pose is how does she know what is morally the right side of the fight so quickly? Yes, Han and Finn tell her, but she grew up not trusting anybody on a world of thieves. Why does she trust these two random people that essentially fell out of the sky, whom almost got her killed within the first 10 minutes of knowing them and she met not two hours ago? The obvious answer is plot progression and do not think about it, and I can actually stomach that part. But then we get into TLJ again.
Her role in TLJ focuses mainly on interacting with Luke and Kylo. Kylo previously tried to torture and kill her, and did kill Han right in front of her, so it is understandable that she wasn’t too keen on believing him when he said the Jedi are bad. But then she meets Luke. And Luke spends the entire time with her trying to convince her that Kylo was right.
And she doesn’t believe him…
What makes her so sure that both of the people, who are clearly on opposite ends of the conflict she knew nothing about a week ago, are lying to her? How does she know better than them? Luke confirms that he tried to kill Kylo in his sleep. He confirmed that the Jedi were responsible for the rise of the Sith. And he confirmed what Kylo said in that the Jedi need to end for the sake of the Galaxy. Rey did not know anything about this a week ago, if I haven’t mentioned that before.
But fine, Rey picked her side and is sticking to it. Maybe I can live with it seeing as though I don’t see many other people having an issue with it. She is the main protagonist and the audience already knows she is supposed to be “the good guy”, so it just confirms expectations and that is enough for most people.
Kylo’s motivations are different than Rey’s. Kylo is presented as a character that was involved in the central conflict of the trilogy before we are introduced. He is well versed in what each side stands for and doesn’t rely on another character to provide information in order to adjust his allegiance. The first scene of the trilogy shows Kylo leading a First Order hit squad to massacre a village on Jakku in order to find a map that the Resistance has. He’s the bad guy just like that.
My issue is not that he is bad, it is that the filmmakers attempt to explain his motivations for doing so with exceptionally faulty reasoning, and I am baffled at the praise that is directed towards that faulty reasoning.
We are told on multiple occasions that Kylo was attacked by Luke in his sleep because Luke felt “the darkness” in him, whatever that means. Seriously, we don’t know what it is he felt. Considering the age of Kylo at the time, it honestly could have been nothing more than teenaged angst or the desire to burn aunts with a magnifying glass. But basically, Luke tried to assassinate his teenaged nephew in his sleep because of a gut feeling. That is ridiculous, but its honestly not even the point I am trying to make.
I’ll phrase my point in a reflective question: Can anybody tell me why Kylo is evil to begin with? I have not yet received an explanation that is satisfying. Most of them explain that he felt so betrayed by Luke and his family that he went to the First Order. But Kylo was only attacked by one man. He has every right to hate Luke. But he reacts to Luke trying to kill him by slaughtering children and destroying star systems. There seems to be a bit of a jump to me.
Another explanation I am given is that Snoke corrupted him, and to that I say “duh”. Of course, Snoke corrupted him, but with what? With fear? With promises of power? We aren’t given a real explanation for that. He is angry and therefore he is evil.
A major reason why this problem exists is because we know less than nothing about the First Order. They are essentially a carbon copy of the Galactic Empire from the original trilogy, with one key difference: The Empire was a government and the First Order isn’t. When the Empire is presented to us, our need for an explanation is not as great because their presence was established as a status quo from the moment the first film began. They needed to be overcome because they are an oppressive government and they want to preserve their power. It is simple and doesn’t require too much thought. Unfortunately for the writers, the Empire was defeated after “Return of The Jedi” and was no longer the established status quo. Instead, the “good guys” are the established power by the time TFA begins and the reason for this supposedly new threat, the First Order, is just treated as if they are the same thing as the Empire, when they aren’t. We are left to assume that the First Order has the same goals as the Empire. Afterall, their fleet consists of Tie Fighters and walkers just the same as the Empire. But if they are a lazy copycat, does that really result in an objectively good idea? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
When Luke defeats the Emperor and Darth Vader at the end of “Return of the Jedi”, the two heads and guiding forces of the Empire are gone, essentially signifying the end of the Empire as a whole. When TFA shows us the First Order, it is headed by Grand Master Snoke, a character we have never met before. We do not know how Snoke took control of the First Order. Did he create the organization? What are his goals for the organization? What does he want from Kylo? We are given this character and are expected to treat him like he is new but also the exact same as what came before him. And when Snoke was abruptly killed off in TLJ by Kylo (Spoiler Alert), his story ends without any of that information being answered, which is a monumental let down because Snoke was presented as a brand-new threat from a mysterious Unknown Region of space.
What is even worse is that Star Wars has created different villains than we have been given in other popular mediums. When Disney purchased Star Wars in 2012, they declared the old Expanded Universe of stories would retroactively become noncanonical so Disney could fill in their own Expanded Universe. As a fan of the old EU, this hurts but I understand it. Disney had a vision and they wanted the freedom to create their universe. But just because they no longer consider those old stories cannon does not mean they do not exist. And what is better, Disney still owns the rights to those stories (and sells them at book stores) so they have access to the information to use as influence to create their new universe.
In the old EU, there were a plethora of Sith and other antagonists that were compelled by more than just a quest for power. Some of these characters are so fondly remembered by fans for how unique and special they were in the Star Wars mythos.
One character in particular is Darth Bane, of whom a trilogy of novels was written about. His story was told as one where he, a Dark Lord of the Sith, is the protagonist, which is already a new approach. Darth Bane’s goals were first to reform the Sith by killing them all off. By doing so, he was able to put an end to the infighting and backstabbing that took place within the ranks of the Sith. He saw the value in only having two Sith at a time to keep order and infiltrate the Galaxy from the shadows. One Sith, the master, embodies power, and the other, the apprentice, craves power. This symbiosis keeps the flow of Sith knowledge constant from one generation to the next. His plans then go awry when his chosen apprentice does not seem up to the challenge of overthrowing him for the mantle of master, and so he then quests on for the knowledge to preserve his own life until he can find a proper successor. His motivations for his actions are not simply to gain more power. In fact, he openly accepts that he will not live to see the fruition of the execution of his own grand plan. His goals are knowledge and his motivations are preservation of beliefs.
Another character is Kreia, also known as Darth Traya. She was a complex character from the video game “Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords” who acted as both a mentor for the main character and the ultimate antagonist for the story. What makes Kreia so great is her wisdom. She preaches changes in perspective of the world, to understand how your actions echo onto those around you, and how to use this understanding to manipulate the Galaxy. While it is not revealed immediately that Kreia is also the mysterious Darth Traya, there is no real fundamental difference between the two aliases. Neither is power obsessed, standing in stark contrast to other Sith Lords. In fact, she claims she has no love for the Sith nor the Jedi. Her goal is to teach the main character to be able to think. She admits that there is no victory in winning without your opponent understanding. Her objective is actually to destroy the Force because she finds the fact that the Force has a will of its own that dominates the wills of individuals to be abhorrent. But when she is defeated in the end, she feels as though it is a victory because the protagonist finally learns the lessons she has trying to teach, and that she loved her for that. In my humble opinion, Kreia is the strongest character ever written in the entirety of the Star Wars mythos, both cannon and legends.
And in contrast with dark side characters like these, the simplicity of the end result of Snoke seems grossly negligent. Disney had the resources available to know that more complex villains could be written in Star Wars and chose to dumb it down and retread the same ground films from 30 years prior had already done. But we got what we were given and now, Kylo inherits the rank of main antagonist and the First Order follows him. But still to that moment, it is still just an evil organization that is evil because good is weak. We deserve better than that.
On the positive, there is actually a ton of potential for Kylo based on what is already established. Assume the explanation is nothing more than just “Kylo was lost and corrupted by his anger and that is why he joined Snoke”. Ok, Snoke is still a total waste but now, where Kylo stands at the end of TLJ is ripe for an actual philosophical agenda. Kylo hates the Jedi but he also hates Snoke and apparently the First Order too (even though he seized control). He tells Rey he wants to burn it all down and start over without all of this and that is what he should be doing. His whole life, he was treated as a tool by sides that betrayed him. Kylo has legitimate reasoning for becoming a radical anarchist (a friend of mine gave me this idea). It would be a fresh take on the Star Wars antagonist and presents a compelling motivation for his character. Unfortunately, by the end of TLJ, Kylo is the new Grand Master of the First Order, essentially invalidating his anarchic calls just moments before. It is very frustrating to see the potential there, and watch it be ignored for a more typical and simpler antagonist.
Aspects of the Story Without Meaning
Have you ever driven down a road for about 10 minutes only to find that it ends in a dead end? Probably not considering we all have navigation in our phones nowadays, but I hope you can imagine the frustration of doing so. You would ask yourself “Why does this road even exist?” and “Did the builders know what they were doing when they started paving it?”. All of those would be very reasonable thoughts. Well, aside from the few instances I already mentioned, this incomplete trilogy is littered with points that are essentially meaningless.
The character of Rose Tico, and her actress Kelly Marie Tran, is unfairly crucified by fans. I need to make my voice heard on this. It is appalling how people could treat another human being. She seems like an amazing person and I will say I believe she did a good job playing the character that was written for her. People look for a scapegoat to blame for all of their problems and regrettably, Kelly took the fall for something that was not her fault.
The character of Rose is oozing with potential. She offers the perspective of a Resistance fighter who lost her sister fighting the First Order in a heroic sacrifice. Her character can be used to provide humanity and a realistic lens to view this fantastic space opera of lasers and space wizards. The failings of her character are the fault of the writers and director. They never give her anything to do, at least anything of meaning.
Her main role in TLJ is to go on a side quest with Finn to a casino world and look for a master code breaker to hack into the enemy ship and disable their tracking long enough for the Resistance to get away. Unfortunately, the writers made that entire subplot irrelevant because of another action that I will discuss later. But essentially, Finn and Rose fail to use the codebreaker to disable the tracking, but the ship becomes disabled anyway, and they still manage to get away with the fleeing Resistance anyway. If they never left to go on their quest, they would be in the exact same position they ended up in anyways. And this quest took up roughly a third of the total runtime of TLJ. You can see why I consider this a story without meaning.
The writers did try to sneak in a message with zero subtlety during this portion of the film about how war is bad and how you shouldn’t be cruel to animals. There is absolutely no nuance with the execution and the message comes seemingly out of nowhere as it was never even the hint of an in-universe issue prior to it becoming the biggest issue ever, apparently.
I should mention, too, the moment in TLJ that made fans give up on Rose, purely out of the sake of being objective with my criticism. Again, this is the fault of writing and not the actor. In one of the closing scenes, Finn is about to make a heroic sacrifice to save the Resistance, and Rose makes a maneuver that stops him, putting everyone in danger, just to sneak a kiss and a message of “This is how we’ll win. Not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love” or something like that. The line is so cheesy and makes little sense when she put everyone’s lives in jeopardy to tease a romance that they never built up, while simultaneously denying Finn a solid conclusion to his character arc in the process. This is an example of objectively poor writing diluting meaning from the film.
A second example of promised story elements that were rendered meaningless is the character of Captain Phasma. Let me just say that not only was this character a waste of the talented Gwendoline Christie, but her importance was a straight up lie. There was no subtle misdirects in hopes of giving us a twist. Nope. We were lied to.
Both Abrams and Johnson are to blame for this though. In interviews and press tours, they kept claiming Captain Phasma was going to be a badass character and a focal point of each film. Well, she was relegated to roughly 1:45 of screen time in TFA, where she turned on her post at the first sign of danger and was pushed into a trash compactor. Then, Rian Johnson told us she would be getting more screen time in TLJ and this time would be out looking for revenge. Any guesses as to how much screen time she actually received? She got a cool 1:45 again and, on top of that, she did nothing in the name of revenge. Her only interaction with Finn is because he came to her on his mission (which we already know was a pointless mission too). She did not go out seeking revenge at all. But even when she was about to execute Finn, she is defeated by a Deus Ex Machina of all things. That’s right, Finn only wins because of an outside force that had nothing to do with their interaction. There is nothing satisfying about it. Then she dies and her story is over.
But Disney still has the audacity, the testicular fortitude, to sell a Captain Phasma novel after TLJ’s release! I am trying to not get emotional in my criticism but this makes me upset. We were already sold two lies of her character, and only after you tell us how meaningless her character really is to the main story, you try to sell us a book explaining why she was cool at one irrelevant point. As a fan and a consumer, this is insulting.
However, the most egregious meaningless aspect of the trilogy is The Knights of Ren. They were teased in both the films and marketing as the new order of antagonists led by the flashy Kylo Ren. TFA has Snoke address Kylo directly as the leader of The Knights of Ren as if it is a title of significance. They appear in Rey’s force vision attempting to kill her. Naturally, they must be important. But nope. They have yet to be mentioned again and Kylo has taken control of the First Order, with seemingly no need for the Knights anymore.
So, what are they? The answer is don’t worry about it and try to forget about it. Rian Johnson, again, had zero interest in something that JJ Abrams setup and the story suffers because of it. How could something posed as such an important aspect of a trilogy simply be forgotten about and buried?
My final point regarding the lack of meaning in these films is by the end of TLJ, the Resistance is rebranded into the Rebellion (I wonder where they got that name?), and the First Order is on the offensive. But did you notice how small everything felt? In a conflict of galaxy-wide proportions, the new rebels total maybe 50 people. The First Order, whose leader was just killed along with his capital ship and Starkiller Base (which I can only assume housed most of their resources and troops), is down to maybe a few thousand people. Leia says no one answered their pleas for rescue, and I can only conclude because nobody in the galaxy cared enough. There are barely enough participants in this war to inhabit a small rural town. The galaxy no longer seems affected by the actions of anybody involved. Rose and Finn already showed us that some planets are thriving just selling weapons to both sides, while not participating in the war themselves (Maybe there was a point to that after all). How many other planets and societies are just going about their days with no mention of this war? We were never given a real glimpse of any society except for ones that operate outside either group, so no one really knows what is at stake for the galaxy, if anything. This is just another example of how Rian Johnson wrote meaning and stakes out of the story.
Retroactively Taking Away Meaning
Earlier, I said I would not criticize the film for anything “aesthetic” and I fully intend to stick to that. That means although I do not agree with the changes they made to Luke philosophically, someone might agree with those. That is a simple artistic choice and there is not structural issue with it. But Rian Johnson’s TLJ spends the majority of its runtime attempting to remove meaning from previous entries in the franchise, probably in an effort to allow the new trilogy to grow without being held to the expectations of what came before it. It is understandable for him as a creative filmmaker, but it is also lazy and damaging to the franchise as a whole.
Something that Rian Johnson really seemed to have trouble grasping is that his film does not stand alone, no matter how much he wanted it to. His work seems to point to the idea that he enjoyed the properties of Star Wars but he wanted it to be different. Certain decisions he made fail to align with rules and logic established by previous films that were not his creations. Again, I understand how that can be frustrating to a filmmaker, but his lack of acceptance that he was creating an entry into a larger story has created plot holes and inconsistencies in the entirety of the franchise. His desire to subvert expectations so he could stand alone rendered major moments that came before him as moot.
Beginning with the opening scene of TLJ, where Poe takes a single X-Wing fighter and singlehandedly disables a previously unknown ship called a “Dreadnaught”. The intimidating name and commentary by the characters suggest that this ship is dangerous, and while Poe runs into some minor inconveniences, he manages to beat the behemoth by himself in maybe a minute. This is cool, but it really invalidated all the buildup that we were given regarding the threat-level of the Dreadnaught. Furthermore, assuming the Dreadnaught is simply the new Star Destroyer and not a more advanced and dangerous model, as we are led to believe, it then makes us call into question every encounter throughout the cinematic history of Star Wars we have ever had with a Star Destroyer and wonder if they were really to be taken seriously as a threat if one pilot can disable the biggest and best one in less than a minute. Was every trained fighter pilot in both other eras that much of a step down from Poe? This is minor, however, and can simply be credited to Poe’s inhuman skill-level as a pilot. It is lazy, but okay, I’ll move on.
The second example worth discussing is Leia’s newfound ability to take proton torpedoes to the head, float out in the vacuum of space for a few minutes, then use the Force to propel herself back into the wreckage of the ship she was ejected from due to the torpedoes. There is a note on how bad this scene looks, but maybe someone else could enjoy it. But the significance of this scene is that it rescales what is considered realistic danger for characters. Yes, Leia is the daughter of Anakin and the twin sister of Luke, meaning they should have the same natural aptitude for the Force. But no character in all of Star Wars has ever come close to surviving an event of that much damage. And Leia, to our knowledge, has never trained to learn how to use her Force powers, so if Leia can do that, she should be unkillable, and therefore Luke and Anakin should be the same. These torpedoes killed everyone else on the command bridge with Leia and she essentially survives, fatigued, but without a scratch. Now, I look back on every scene with Luke, Leia, and Anakin in the films and TV shows before TLJ as if they are characters in a video game with invincibility cheat codes.
But if you thought that was bad, this next example renders the plots of entire movies irrelevant and unnecessary. Vice Admiral Holdo was introduced as a foil to Poe. Her no-nonsense attitude and leadership were meant to present a sharp contrast to the trigger-happy Poe, who would often act before thinking. Her presence as a character could have had a lot to offer, if written better. Her leadership skills are questionable, as she refused to reveal her plan to anyone in her own crew as she watched her own ships get destroyed. But that is not the main issue with her.
During the Resistance’s evacuation from their doomed flagship, Holdo stays behind to pilot the ship in what is objectively a noble sacrifice. But when the escape plan is revealed, she turns her dying ship around and jumps to hyperspace and Kamikazes the entire First Order fleet by crashing into a Dreadnaught.
This is an absurdly massive problem for Star Wars. What Rian Johnson did because he thought it would look cool, accidentally blew Death Star-sized plot holes in multiple of TLJ’s predecessors. You see, if sending a ship in hyperspace can interact with objects, like it did in this instance, it reasons that you could weaponize this ability, as Holdo did. So, the Death Star that was a threat in “A New Hope” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”, the Death Star II from “Return of the Jedi”, The Droid Control Ship from “The Phantom Menace”, and Starkiller Base from TFA, could all have been taken down by an object jumping to hyperspace and crashing into them. Shouldn’t militaries just make ships, piloted by lifeless droids or autopilots and have them Kamikaze themselves regularly if there is a big enough target? In fact, what would even be the purpose of building planet-destroying superweapons if the physics of crashing objects in hyperspace could destroy planets too? It would seem the Empire waisted decades of time and resources to create a redundant ability. Why does Luke need to skim along that trench and use the Force to aim his torpedoes in the original film when the Rebels could have just launched a few ships with droids piloting them into the Death Star and not risk the human lives? Luke and the Rebels are no longer brave and heroic, but foolish. Call me crazy, but making the plots of 5 of the 10 Star Wars films irrelevant is not a good move for a franchise.
It is important to note that this is also the Deus Ex Machina that saved Rose and Finn from the First Order, capping off their negligible adventure. See, I told you I would mention it later.
BUT THE ORIGINALS DID THIS…
The defense that frustrates me more than any other about these films is the claim that the original trilogy did something similar, or followed similar beats with characters. There may be merit to that point and I do understand that George Lucas wanted each episode to resemble a line of poetry and rhyme. The problem I have with using this as a defense is that if you rhymed a word with itself, everyone would tell you that you can do better.
With regards to Snoke, I am always told “Well, we didn’t know anything about the Emperor in the Original Trilogy. He wasn’t given any motivations either and everyone loves him”. Good point hypothetical person. But we already have the Emperor in Star Wars so why do I need him again? Also, writing tropes from the 1980s are generally simpler than they are today. Just because more one-dimensional villains were acceptable at one point does not mean we should accept that standard today. Sufficient complexity should be a given when creating a compelling character and just because audiences in the 80s were okay without it, doesn’t mean we don’t deserve better now.
TFA and TLJ both attempts to emulate what came before them, even if TLJ wanted to burn it all down at the same time. As it stands now, we still have Jedi, despite Luke’s best efforts to reform, a Rebellion, and an evil empire. I find it ironic that Rian Johnson so desperately wanted to do his own thing, yet at the last minute, he returned every character to their starting point that conveniently mirrors the stories that came before him. He essentially poked holes in a boat and then got onboard.
If these films were just going to do what they’ve done, why even bother creating them? I know the answer is money, but I am asking purely from the creative aspect. Why bother telling these stories at all? They are devoid of meaning and purpose and if you only sought to recreate what came before them, I might as well just watch the originals.
The reason fans are so protective of the films is because we know they are not like other films. There is no do-overs or retcons. We want it to be the best version of itself possible because we know we really only have one chance to make things right with it, and once a decision is made to put something in one of the movies, there it shall remain forever. We must learn to live with that and we have a long history of stomping our feet in useless protest over decisions we don’t agree with. But guess what. Jar Jar Binks, Jedi Council circle time, and sessions of the Senate are still part of Star Wars.
There is an old saying amongst us nerds that “no one hates Star Wars quite as much as Star Wars fans” and sadly it’s true. We are the overbearing parent demanding our child practice the piano and get straight As. We want what is best for our child, even if our child grows up resenting us for it. It’s not a healthy relationship, but you can never doubt that we care.
Although we do take our obsession to extremes, there are still logical, rational criticisms to be made of the films that are not just fans overreacting to something playing out differently in their collective heads. There are some serious flaws to these new films that are more than just annoying choices. These movies masquerade behind shallow meaning and purpose and pretend to be far more than they are. The writing has drained any significance and understanding because a total lack of direction, and dare I say competence, with regards to what they were partaking in.
As a fan, it is disappointing more than anything. We want these stories to be great and full of meaning. Hell, this should not be such a ridiculous standard to hold anything to. A question I always ask myself after I see a film is “did this film need to be told?”. So far, the answer to that is no. None of the new trilogy adds any meaning to the saga that came before it, and the only thing that it has yet to truly accomplish is draining those films of meaning.
A problem I see as a common theme is that Disney develops characters before they develop stories. Now, I am not a professional writer and maybe that is what is considered appropriate for making stories, but the negative consequences of this course are felt in these films. Disney made characters, then gave them something to do to validate their existence, and you can tell that they don’t quite know what they are doing. They did the same thing for “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and the whole thing felt pointless. The only film that seems to have gone against this trend is “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. In that film, the main attraction was the plot. The characters were simply a medium in which the plot could be viewed. Everyone in the film had a natural reason for their story to be told. Everyone was doing something of significance. It is not a perfect film, but notice how there is no fan outrage over anything that the movie did because there was meaning behind it all.
A lesson Disney could learn is to simplify their creation process. If you break down the plot of TLJ, it pretty much boils down to a slow speed chase until someone runs out of gas, all while everyone else just wastes time until they can all regroup for one last showdown. If Disney knows what story they are trying to tell, instead of forcing different parts together and trying to link them with mildly relevant activities, perhaps they can stick the landing in the trilogy finale. I desperately hope they do because I endure physical pain from being critical of Star Wars. I want to love and appreciate them for all they are. If episode 9 reverses this trend, I will happily accept it for what it is. I will give it a chance and I plan on following this post up when I do.
I hope that we can all have a discussion about this, knowing that each side could learn something if we just listened to each other instead of blindly prejudicing the other based on which side of the debate we take. Star Wars is a community and the fracture I have witnessed over these new films saddens me. I hope we do not lose what we once had.