Final Reflections on Star Wars — Entertainment.

I wrote one post about Star Wars, and then another. This is the last one. This is not my typical content. This is certainly catharsis.

In the previous post I glanced at the mythic elements that Star Wars aspired to at the outset (even if schlocky) before its slide into comic book-ism. I here basically concede that the mythic elements that were married, in the original Star Wars, to the Flash Gordon serialized storytelling format grew weak, and that the entertainment features are what are really central and enduring. Character drama may be the real heart of Star Wars. Unfortunately, the setting for these character dramas seems not to be an endless fountain of creativity, but an endless cage of self-reference and visual repetition. The Mandalorian shows that the franchise can hope to achieve escape velocity from this problem, but I am not holding my breath.

As I mentioned in the first post, were I to be responsible, I’d buy and read the recent biography of George Lucas before writing this (more likely, I’d listen to it on Audible). I’d look at the concept art books or the Ralph McQuarrie art boxed set or the storyboards for the original trilogy. I’d read the books that dealt with how the movies were made — volumes on A New Hope, or The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi. I’d find and finally read my copy of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, or any number of other texts that would give me access to the history of George Lucas, Lucasfilm, and the production dramas and decisions that resulted in so many of these films. (Buy those books! It will cost you the ordinary Amazon price, and I’ll get a few pennies to spend on the coffee needed to keep writing blog posts.)

Disney Star Wars

When I heard that Disney had bought Star Wars, this was the first meme that I came across, and it seemed to express my fears perfectly.

I was very skeptical; my fear was that Disney would simply use Star Wars as a receptacle for the kind of content that was the hallmark of their brand, rather than doing justice to the franchise on its own terms. As teaser and then trailer came out for the first movie in the sequel trilogy, though, my fears fell silent and my excitement kicked in again. I shared it with friends.

The problem is that, as my friend Adam stated, “Star Wars is too aware of itself.” His comments turned out to be, in hindsight, very prescient. Star Wars is now merely re-arranging a jumble of the empirical elements of the films together with efforts at achieving a jumble of impressions in the audience.

Film Crit Hulk has a very good short-essay response to The Force Awakens, in which he argues that J.J. Abrams’s films have the personalities of “liars”, because, as Hulk argues (I’ve cleaned up the all-caps effect he uses, and some grammar &c.), J.J. Abrams’s films are “cripple[d]” by:

the deeply inconsistent character behavior […]. [What cripples these films is] how people’s behavior [in any] scene doesn’t jive with a scene five minutes prior. J.J. has been one of the most serial offenders in this regard. In Star Trek: Into Darkness Carol [Marcus] can scream in agony over the death of her father and then [throughout the rest of] the entire movie [she] never [refers to] it again, [nor does] it hav[e] any kind of impact on her (which means no impact on us). Characters wants, needs, and goals are seemingly switched from scene to scene willy nilly[,] and that’s because J.J. is always working backwards from affectation[:] he knows how he wants the audience to feel and he’ll sideline any character consistency to get there. This means we may like what they’re doing, but we can’t […] track [their] motivations.

[…] Thus, everything feels “fine”, but nothing feels earned.

(The Cosmonaut Variety Hour has similar criticisms of the personalities of many of the heroes in The Return of the Jedi, except he does not note that the changed personalities are merely collateral to convoluted writing.) There is nothing satisfying with the sequel trilogy heroes simply overcoming challenge after challenge without their own agency or ability complicating things. Especially in the first movie of the sequel trilogy, beyond Finn and Han, no one grows. Part of this is because there isn’t a story; the plot is not moved forward by character choices or the longings they are shown to have; in fact, these appear, but drive the characters nowhere — every time the characters’ stories seem to move in the direction of their desires, this self-motion is interrupted and the characters are shepherded along through the plot, carried away on the current of disaster after disaster. The characters are objects of the story events, and not subjects out of whom stories grow.

While Red Letter Media and Mr. Plinkett would eventually offer what is likely the best forensic analysis of the first Disney Star Wars movie, there are other things one could say. Cosmonaut Variety Hour, for instance, offers a helpful consideration of the new trilogy and anthology films now that they’ve been completed.

My biggest problem after the first viewing of The Rise of Skywalker is the fact that the movie tells me, but doesn’t show me. Some actors are well-suited to exposition for the audience while looking at another character (and have characters that are well-suited for it, like Smallville’s Chloe Sullivan); The Rise of Skywalker just exposits. As Just Write notes, the movie has plot, but no scenes. This means that the characters are “stripped of agency”, as it is not their decisions driving the story, it is not their character being revealed in any choices; they are just along for the ride. Part of this is the fact that the sequel trilogy had no plan, and this is exacerbated by the insanely fast schedule these movies were on for release. As the Wall Street Journal’s Erich Schwartzel & R. T. Watson write in “Disney Disturbs the Force“,

The rush [to release new Star Wars films and content] has impaired the long-term planning for where the Skywalker saga and other Star Wars stories go from here. Rather than take the Marvel approach and begin filming the first movie with the end of the series in mind, Lucasfilm has largely determined the overarching plot from movie to movie, former employees say. That creates a clash since the multiple moving parts of the Disney franchise machine depend on schedules, forward planning and shared information.

When a video game division at Disney approached the Lucasfilm story group
about a game that would take place in the time between “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” videogame developers were told the story group had no idea what was going to happen in “Last Jedi,” even though “[The] Force Awakens” was close to wrapping production, according to one of the former employees.

Since different directors were handling different films, “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson was forced to wait to see how “Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams would finish his movie before he could finalize his own script. While Mr. Johnson was shooting “Last Jedi,” an installment that took the series in unexpected directions, Lucasfilm executives had little idea how they would wrap up the trilogy in the film that followed, the one premiering this month, according to an executive who worked there at the time.

Adam’s comment, however, gets to the heart of the problem: Star Wars is too aware of itself, and, is aiming at producing a feeling in the audience through a familiar inventory of textures and stimuli, rather than simply telling a story. As a result of this “too aware of itself” condition, no one seems to know what Star Wars is. They only know how it has made them feel, or else what they want people to feel. Even Rian Johnson, the man responsible for The Last Jedi, stated that he wanted to discover what the essence of Star Wars is for him before he makes his Star Wars trilogy that is to follow the sequel trilogy…even though he’d already made The Last Jedi. One would think he would already know this essence, but there is no one in charge who seems to know — or else, they have other plans.

No Plans for the Sequel Trilogy

Although Daisy Ridley has said that JJ Abrams originally wrote story treatments for episodes 7, 8, and 9, Rian Johnson has said that there was no set plan for the sequel trilogy. That there was no clear plan for the story, which is a simply a game of telephone between episodes 7 and 8, is of a piece with the characters not being characters: Star Wars is too aware of itself. There is a lack of planning: the original scriptwriter for The Force Awakens was Michael Arndt, and his story was going to be quite different from what JJ Abrams put out later on (and, to make things worse, the familiar iconography from the original trilogy was getting in the way of his ability to tell a story with new characters, as he worried that the audience would lose interest in the new ones as soon as the familiar Luke Skywalker entered the story). From what I hear, Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy wanted the release date of episode 7 to be pushed back, so that Arndt could finish work on his script, but Disney head Bob Iger wanted to release it on schedule. Myth cannot be rushed, or held to a schedule like this, but entertainment can, especially when it is a property whose ultimate goal is to generate revenue for shareholders. There is, however, a lack of planning for this property, one not even informed by anything like an awareness of Star Wars as a myth — the new trilogy, as I noted in the previous posts that Iger is to have said, is that the new movies look and feel like Star Wars ’77. Some have said that the diminishing box-office returns that Star Wars movies are having are the result of this lack of planning.

Star Wars Is Too Aware of Itself

This confidence is likely because “Star Wars is too aware of itself”, as my friend Adam said, so that execs like Bob Iger thought that the brand name, clever marketing and production that aims at generating the right feels, and just throwing talented directors and writers at these projects, would together be enough. Myth be damned; this is entertainment.

Star Wars is too aware of itself: this is the real reason why technology seems not to have changed in the Star Wars universe from Return of the Jedi to The Force Awakens; it is the real reason why there are AT-AT Walkers on the ocean island planet of Scarif in Rogue One: either because the franchise reduces to a jumble of positive images for the target demographic, or because producers falsely think that this is the case, and cater to that to peddle the product. “I Hate Everything” has stated that it’s the “bankable iconography” that Disney is after.

This is because, more than anything, the sequel trilogy, and Star Wars under Disney in general, is selling a Star Warsy mood; this is self-referential, rather than being about anything. As Film Crit Hulk notes, “What is The Force Awakens about?” and the answer is sobering: “It’s about Star Wars.” This is reflected in plot devices requiring self-reference at the expense of coherence, as Hulk further asks: What would people who don’t know Star Wars think about the scene in The Force Awakens when Leia shows up with the Resistance? “Who is this woman?” they would think, &c. “The entire film is a reference”, he writes. The cantankerous fake personality of Mr. Plinkett mentions this with regard to The Force Awakens (his substantial criticism of The Force Awakens is here). The marvelous art blog Biblioklept ran a first post about Star Wars in 2013, then a thirty-point riff on The Force Awakens in 2015 (updated in 2017); that author wrote another post on The Last Jedi in January of 2018 (influenced, in part, by an LARB article by Dan Hassler-Forest), suggesting that The Last Jedi moves beyond the problems of The Force Awakens, that it set up something genuinely new and unexpected. The Last Jedi was interesting in ways that The Force Awakens was not, but it’s not clear how much it actually moves into a new direction. Every major character ends up where he or she started, with the exception of Luke. As we mentioned in this and previous posts, the new characters themselves are not terribly coherent. (Others have argued that the prequels were also self-referential.)

The Last Jedi, for its failures, did try to uproot this repetition. It failed to do this on a number of levels where it was repetitive (the inclusion of X-Wings, what are effectively AT-ATs with a paint job, “Death Star tech”, &c.). Some of its changes stalled out (Kylo Ren’s turned on his master and seemed to be willing to go in an entirely new direction from the First Order, together with Rey, but this was aborted, and he ended up in exactly the same position as before), while some were entirely unearned (Rey besting Luke in a fight by grabbing a lightsaber, Rey being stronger with the Force than Luke or any other Jedi ever was, without discipline or wisdom being acquired), though it revisited some themes with originality (e.g., the dark side cave, where Rey is terrifyingly shown to be her own origin, &c.). Compare this with Rogue One, which insanely had AT-AT walkers on an island ocean planet, because in the minds of so many, Star Wars reduces to a very narrow inventory of objects, images, dialogue lines, and events.

I suppose, in the end, Star Wars is too aware of itself, as my friend Adam noted. I will still watch it, but this repetition, this self-referentiality, is not the hallmark of a myth, but of an entertainment franchise that seeks to sell a mood and an iconography.


Header image: from Entertainment Weekly, but found here

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