Sixty Thoughts on Star Wars

I had a bunch of thoughts after watching The Rise of Skywalker. Here are sixty of them.

SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you haven’t seen all nine of the Star Wars films, plus Rogue One. If you missed Solo, that’s okay, because I’m pretending it didn’t exist.

1: I’ve been thinking a lot about what we want from Star Wars, and in the course of this thinking, it’s occurred to me that the best way to approach the question is to think of the original film as a movie for children.

2: Most of us were introduced to the first film (A New Hope) as kids—in my case, this was in 1977, when I was nine—and I think we defend its importance in those terms, i.e., as a seminal event in our childhoods.

3: More than that, I grew up with those first three films. The maturity in storytelling between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back coincided with my personal maturation, and that gold bikini showed up at around the same time as puberty did.

4: This is an excellent way to build a phenomenon, incidentally: catch a generation with a story, and then grow up with that generation. J.K. Rowling did this phenomenally well with the Harry Potter books. An entire generation of children aged at the same pace as her characters, and (say what you will about Jo Rowling, but on this point she was brilliant) her books got age-appropriately darker and more complex with each book.

5: I don’t want to go too much deeper in comparing the boy wizard with the sci-fi space story, but the Force is magic. It’s not a scientific concept at all. Lucas hated this particular fact so much that he invented midichlorians in an effort to ground his space magic in science. It was dumb, and everyone hated it.

6: But at least he tried. One of the things about midichlorians is the implication that anyone can have it. This is something Rian Johnson went back to in The Last Jedi.

7: Oh, and here’s another good reason to think of Star Wars as movies for children: the utter lack of sex. I don’t mean that in a prurient way, I mean just the concept of it.

8: Luke’s motivation in A New Hope was to save the beautiful princess, and he did, and they kissed and yay. By the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, he and Leia are in a romantic relationship, and yay again.

9: Real relationships between consenting adults generally involve more than kissing, so when it’s later revealed that they’re siblings, there should have been, at minimum, a brief hey, what the fuck from everyone. Did that happen? Not really. It felt like a platonic relationship, because there’s no sex in Star Wars and we were children, and that was okay.

10: Incidentally, they could have had it both ways here: a platonic relationship between Luke and Leia, in a world where actual adult relationships existed. They just had to allow Luke to be gay.

11: Yes, I do think Luke was coded as gay.

12: Here’s another possibly controversial statement: none of this would have happened if not for Harrison Ford.

13: Sure, okay, and also Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, but mostly Harrison Ford. The chemistry between these three actors was what turned a film that absolutely should not have worked into something that did work, but I think Luke could have been played by someone else and it still would have worked out. I think maybe Leia could have been played by someone else and it still would have worked out. But there’s no replacing Han Solo.

14: Basically, George Lucas lucked out hugely with these three. He made a low budget sci-fi film with a derivative plot lifted from a Kurosawa film (I’m about 90% convinced the Joseph Campbell stuff is post-facto justification) in a largely empty universe, because alien planets were too expensive. And it worked. It wasn’t the story that did it; it was his leads.

15: When I say ‘largely empty’, I mean it. One of my biggest problems with the Star Wars universe writ large is that it doesn’t seem like anybody lives in it. Lucas had almost no choice when making A New Hope, but because the film did really well, that became the house style for the entire franchise: empty deserts, arctic wastelands, dense, barely populated rainforests.

16: Not at all incidentally, this very fact makes it a little easier to destroy entire planets as a plot point. Sure, Obi-Wan can go on about millions of voices crying out when Alderaan is destroyed, but we didn’t know any of them. Likewise, with the three planets destroyed in The Force Awakens or the one in The Rise of Skywalker. The only time the concept of destroying a planet with an actual complex civilization on it, including people we, the viewers, care about, was driven home? Rogue One.

17: The Rise of Skywalker could have done this too, because our intrepid Luke/Leia/Han stand-ins were on that planet earlier in the film. Abrams could have shown the planet’s destruction from the surface, through the eyes of someone we’d already been introduced to. It was right there for the taking.

18: Just in general, Rogue One was the first time I got any sense that there was a world going on beyond the camera lens. The second time was in The Last Jedi.

19: This is one of the first things I learned when writing for the theater: you have to establish the existence of the world beyond what the audience is seeing on the stage. The same rules apply in novels and films, but the application differs depending on the type of story you’re telling. If it’s taking place in our world in our present, hardly any work needs to be done, because everyone watching or reading lives in (a version of) that same world. If it’s on our world but set in the past, a great deal of additional work has to be done so that the reader or viewer understands what everything off the stage looks like in the same way the writer/filmmaker does. If the story takes place in another world—or, let’s say, in a galaxy far, far away—everything has to be established.

20: But, again, this kind of thing is expensive to make in a film, so: barely populated desert planet it is.

21: Lucas at least recognized the problem. His Empire vs. Rebels scaffolding is a Britain vs. Colonists story familiar to everyone more or less worldwide, so we all understood the off-screen dynamics of this universe already.

22: Is it a coincidence that all the Empire generals are white dudes with British accents? Of course not.

23: Lucas also made an effort to build out the universe in the much-derided episodes 1-3. I have just as much derision to hand out as anyone about those films, but my biggest problem is I don’t think he should have tried to make them in the first place. Again, his first three films succeeded because he struck gold with Ford, Fisher, and Hamill. He needed to strike gold again, and he didn’t. However, he did recognize that for there to be an evil empire of some sort, there also needed to be planets with people—or at least some tall buildings—and political systems. He didn’t tell a great story (maybe Kurosawa didn’t have a political drama to crib) but his world-building instinct was good.

24: So, about The Rise of Skywalker and, to a lesser extent, The Force Awakens, starting with the director.

25: J.J. Abrams is a remarkable mimic, but don’t ask him to create something artistically original, and don’t ask him to do it for more than one film. He will give you exactly what you already had, only larger and louder, and that’s all he knows. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. The Force Awakenswas a decent enough film, but at no point did I feel the way I felt when I watched A New Hope. There are probably a bunch of reasons for this, such as:

26: …you can’t force (haha) chemistry, so a bunch of actors trying to pull off the same bonhomie as Ford, Fisher, and Hamill are going to come off as shadow puppet versions;

27: …a film that matches, beat-for-beat, the same plot of a movie about which I am already intimately familiar is not going to take me anywhere; it’s going to remind me that I saw this film before, and I liked it better the last time;

28: …I am no longer a child.

29: I’m sure many disagree with me about The Force Awakens, and that’s fine. I went expecting to be surprised, awed, thrilled, and all the other things I felt when I watch A New Hope for the first time. What I got was nostalgia for a time when I watched a film kind of like The Force Awakens, and felt those things. But if that was exactly what other viewers were hoping to get, then great.

30: Okay, that came off as a little condescending. Let me try again.

31: I wrote a horror film script once, and showed it to a fellow writer who happened to know more about horror than I do. She had only one note: all of your scares are coming on the beat. If you want to scare someone, the first step is to give them something they don’t expect when they don’t expect it.

32: This holds for all kinds of storytelling. Readers and viewers may not know what to expect, but they usually know when to expect it. Some films (and books) know this and contravene the pattern deliberately. Personally, I’m pleased when this happens in a movie, but it may make other viewers uncomfortable.

33: All of which is to say that the people who liked The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker may have liked it because it gave them exactly what they wanted, when they wanted it. Whereas for me, the only positive thing about it was that I knew exactly when it was safe to leave the movie to go pee.

34: Side note: this translates well to music as well. Some bands—Radiohead, for example—play off the beat all the time. Other bands—most country musicians—are nearly always on the beat. One’s choice in music can often be measured by how tolerant one is of off-the-beat sounds.

35: The above difference in tastes is one reason why I liked Rogue One so much, and why I absolutely loved The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson (director of the latter) deliberately confounded the plot point and beats we’d all come to expect, and he did it constantly, and it was breathtaking.

36: For the exact same reason, it’s why other people absolutely hated both films.

37: I’ll even defend the Canto Bight sequence in The Last Jedi. It was bad, sure, but literally every other plan that every hero in these movies concocts, no matter how long-shot it’s supposed to be, works out every time. (After forty years, characters in the Star Wars universe are still making that torpedo shot down the exhaust port.) But in the Canto Bight sequence, the heroes don’t find the one-of-a-kind code-breaker, at the last minute, right when they need to. They find a guy who trades their heads for money. More, they find a world of people who don’t care about Empire vs. Rebellion; they’re just living their lives. And also, war profiteering.

38: It was exactly what wasn’t supposed to happen, hadn’t happened in any of the other films, and immediately knocked the audience off-kilter, which was great. It raised the stakes for everything that came after.

39: Johnson put the characters into a larger universe, and contextualized their struggle, which is something Lucas tried to do too. Johnson also universalized the Force—anyone can be Force-sensitive—which is something Lucas tried to do as well.

40: Then there’s Abrams. As I said above, Abrams is who you want to hire if you’re looking for an excellent imitation of what came before, and you only want one movie. For this reason alone, he shouldn’t have directed The Rise of Skywalker. But he did, and so we got even less world-building, even bigger (but somehow emptier) stakes, even eviler evils, and even shallower characterizations.

41: But by God, he hit every beat, exactly as we wanted it, even if it was thoroughly and completely illogical. What do I mean? Here are some examples.

42: There is somehow a massive fleet of star destroyers on a planet nobody believed existed. Each of those destroyers is fully manned and fully operational. Who built them? How were they financed and where did the materials come from? Presumably, they’re manned by thousands of people apiece. Where did those people come from? That a massive, universe-ruling army can just exist in secret is obviously ridiculous, cartoon-logic, but because the film required the biggest of bads, so that was what he gave us.

43: Side note: what does Palpatine even want? All I got was “to be super-evil.” I mean, all the planets are empty anyway. What point is all the power in the universe if you destroyed the universe?

44: “Leia appointed you interim General.” This was said to Poe Dameron, who for some reason didn’t respond with, “wait, these are military ranks, not elected positions. How is that even possible?” But he needed to be giving orders in the final battle and not taking them, so Abrams just skipped the part where this is silly and did it.

45: Rey can sense when Chewbacca is on board a massive star destroyer, but not when he’s not on the shuttle she’s about to destroy? Not only did I not think, at any point, that Chewbacca had been killed (I turned to my wife and said, “if there’s no body, he isn’t dead” when this happened,) the fake-out was borrowed from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Because, again, you hire Abrams to mimic, not to do something original.

46: Look, it’s already stupid that none of our Force-employing heroes ever entirely die, and can turn up as ghosts to talk to us about whatever. This was an original sin on Lucas’s part, so fine. But what is the ghost of Han Solo supposed to be, other than a quick way to flip Kylo Ren? One might argue this was Abrams fan-servicing everyone who argues that Han Solo is Force-sensitive himself, but I think it was just lazy. Plus, Han’s ghost didn’t glow like a Force-ghost.

47: I can go on for a while here, but my point is, Abrams hit the storytelling beats everyone was hoping for, but he didn’t even try to earn them first.

48: I want to reemphasize that. It isn’t the plot points themselves—although some of them are really dumb—it’s that they weren’t earned.

49: Here’s a really simple example. Early on in The Rise of Skywalker we learn that there’s a mole within the First Order. The plot up to that point didn’t require a mole, and the only reason this plot thread existed was so later, when it looked like Our Heroes were about to die, General Hux could save them, at the same time revealing he’s the mole.

50: General Hux is one of many, many two-dimensional characters whose entire defining characteristic is: be evil and stuff. Making him the mole, after—and I know we don’t really care about random planets being destroyed, but come on—he went and did a Death Star hat-trick in The Force Awakens, was actually pretty daring. It was ridiculous, and Abrams didn’t pull it off, but he could have if he tried.

51: To do it, though, he needed to give Hux proper motivation, and provide us with evidence of that motivation somewhere. It didn’t even have to be much; just a look of sadness or remorse at a certain point when Hux thought he was alone.

52: Instead, here’s what we got: General Hux fucking hates Kylo Ren. That’s it, that’s his motivation.

53: Sure, I laughed when he said it, but I wasn’t laughing for the right reasons.

54: Anyway.

55: I didn’t hate The Rise of Skywalker, even if it sounds like I did.  I left the movie feeling entertained. Sure, only half of that entertainment came from anything Abrams intended for me to be entertained by, but I was entertained nonetheless. (The other half was me throwing my hands in the air and going, “oh come on,” which happened at least six times.)

56: It was an entertaining movie.

57: For kids.

58: So, what do we want from Star Wars? I think we want to be transported back to that feeling we got when we first watched A New Hope. The problem is, we can’t all agree on what that even means. Does it mean, tell me my favorite story again? Or does it mean, give me the same feeling I had the first time I heard my favorite story, back when it was surprising and new?

59: You can’t do both at once. Either it’s the same story retold, or it’s a new story that evokes the same feelings as before.

60: One way or another, we’re probably expecting too much. Especially since we’re all adults now.

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