This might come as a shock but I have a bit of a soft spot for Star Wars. I know—me, the author of Star Frontier. What’s the world coming to?
Sure, Star Wars and I have had our differences. The prequels and some horrendous novels during a time when publishers thought they could just slap Star Wars on the cover of anything and stick it in a bookstore. But just as a 007 fan is always willing to forgive the wrongs of their beloved franchise and give it another chance, I’ve never turned my back on Star Wars entirely, even though I’ve felt like it.
We’re now several years into a new period in the Star Wars franchise. We’ve now had a lot of new movies. Two of them, and one that’s coming soon, are set after the original movies. And two are set a little before the first film kicks off. So, going by the numbers, I’ll take a look at each one in turn and throw in my five cents on them.
The Force Awakens
I detested this film when I saw it in the cinema and while I’ve warmed to it a little since that time, it might be my least favorite movie in the Disney run alongside Rogue One.
My overriding impression of this film is that it’s a not quite a sequel and not quite a reboot. Yet it attempts—poorly—to do both. As a sequel, it’s appalling and that was the reason I disliked it so much on my first viewing. It doesn’t progress the story from Return of the Jedi and take it in new and interesting directions. Instead, it brings everything—and everyone—back to their starting positions and does so without any plausible explanation.
And in this way, it is a reboot replete with all the same story beats from the original Star Wars. Someone on a desert planet, destined to someday be a jedi, finding a droid… and so on and so forth. Except it’s a reboot that isn’t allowed to stand on its own because legacy characters derail it.
I’m talking mostly here about Han Solo, who barges uninvited into a story that until that point had been about our new protagonist Rey and then makes her take a back seat in her own movie… while also acting as a stand-in for Ben Kenobi.
Basically, at this point, Rey’s story is put on hold so we can watch a story about Han trying to save his son who’s gone to the dark side… which may have had more emotional impact if the entirety of their back-story hadn’t been set up in expositionary dialogue. And somewhere along the line, the story is interrupted again to have yet another Death Star (a much overused concept in Star Wars).
Remember, not quite a reboot. Not quite a sequel.
Now take that and throw in some eye-rolling moments of stupidity—such as jumping to lightspeed in a hangar—and you have a real mess.
However, it wasn’t entirely without merit. And as I walked out of the cinema thinking what a waste of time (and money) it had been, I couldn’t help thinking of the missed potential there as well. The new characters were really likeable and I wanted to see them in more adventures. Just not in this one.
Wow. And I thought the previous one was a mess. This was all over the place. Characters were introduced in a sloppy manner. There were weird time jumps in the narrative that made me wonder just how much back-story needed to be depicted on screen and why it consisted of random snippets. Plot threads appeared to be set up only to be abandoned. And when all was said and done, I had little recollection of what I’d just watched.
Basically, this movie tells the story of how the rebellion acquired the Death Star plans that were so integral to the first Star Wars movie. And that portion of the film works well enough, I suppose, even if the scale is more in line with the battle in Return of the Jedi than something more appropriate to the period of time depicted in the first Star Wars. But everything leading up to it? Total filler as far as I was concerned. An hour and forty minutes that could have been left on the cutting room floor.
Although it looked good at least.
The Last Jedi
Yes. The Star Wars movie that so many people online like to hate. Admittedly, a lot of the hate comes from racist, homophobic, misogynistic bigots—and I’m not interested in addressing their petty grievances—but there seem to be a number of other viewers who didn’t like The Last Jedi much. Now, I don’t know if it’s a large number of people or just a small number of people who happen to be very loud online. But I don’t understand why this film has drawn such ire.
Speaking for myself, I loved it. After The Force Awakens, I didn’t have high hopes for this but I gave it a chance and I’m so glad I did. Originally, I wrote that this could be my favorite Star Wars film - although it's hard to pick favorites because I love the upbeat optimism and innocence of the original and the beautiful shots, thrilling set pieces and incredible music of The Empire Strikes Back. What I will say instead is that I'd place The Last Jedi alongside those films. And while it has flaws, I admire the scope of its ambition. This might well be the richest and most nuanced Star Wars film. There's a lot going on in it and, of all the Star Wars movies, I find it the most interesting.
First of all though, I think the movie deserves a lot of praise for how well it played the lousy cards it had been dealt by its predecessor, The Force Awakens. It sorted out that reboot/sequel confusion by just clearing the tables and rolling with the idea that it’s the Rebellion versus the Empire again (played by the Resistance and the First Order respectively). No confusing allusions to a Republic that’s somehow separate from the Resistance (consisting of only five planets?) The Last Jedi sweeps all that away.
It also—SPOILER—rectifies a huge misstep The Force Awakens committed in bringing in a new Emperor type called Snoke, something these films did not need. Snoke’s appearance in that movie was one of the things I objected to most as it seemed we’d have suffer through a rehash of Return of the Jedi before the new trilogy was done. But in doing away with him, The Last Jedi does some welcome course correction and, in theory, should force the next movie to come up with something a little more original… though more on that later. Also, the scene that follows—those who’ve seen it will know what I’m talking about—stands out as one of the highlights of the entire series.
I’d also like to briefly address the Luke issue that a number of people have. Yes, the Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi is very different from the one we last saw at the end of Return of the Jedi. I get that. But time can change people and thirty years is a lot of time. Furthermore, The Last Jedi didn’t put Luke on that island. The Force Awakens did that. All The Last Jedi did was come up with a plausible reason for it. And, finally, it utilized the premise well. Luke’s never been more interesting than he was in this movie. Gruff on the surface, haunted beneath, though with a wry sense of humor as well, it was all fantastic. And obviously, since Mark Hamill is now a seasoned veteran, this is his best performance in the Star Wars films as well.
Now, as to the side mission that Finn and Rose go on—the one people love to complain about because it ultimately ends in failure… The whole movie is about failure and how we deal with it. Everyone fails. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s kind of a running theme throughout. Yoda even stops by to share some profound thoughts on the subject (another wonderful scene). I also liked that element of the movie because I’d explored failure myself in Star Frontier: Descent, seeing what happens when my protagonists don’t have heroic luck on their side. So I liked seeing the concept explored in a big budget movie for that reason. But that’s just me.
Now, I could keep going on about people’s various grievances with this movie but since I’d be here all day then, I’ll switch gears and talk about the movie’s strengths and why I hold it in such high esteem.
This movie could have been a lazy rehash of The Empire Strikes Back but while it utilizes elements of that movie, it does so in ways that subvert expectations and forges its own path. It was fresh. It was different. And as the end credits rolled, I felt that it had opened up a myriad of exciting possibilities for the future of the series. It also simultaneously worked as a sequel to The Force Awakens while fixing most of its problems.
The Last Jedi also had to juggle a lot of character arcs.
· Rey finds her place, accepts who she is, and comes to understand the force. And in a refreshing break from tradition, this realization doesn’t occur in a lightsaber duel.
· Luke comes to terms with his past failures and his act of self-sacrifice at the movie’s end is one of the finest moments of the saga.
· Leia passes on the mantle of leadership to the next generation of the Resistance—and Carrie Fisher’s performance is a moving and, in light of her untimely death, bittersweet thing to behold. Also, Leia finally uses her force potential and it was brilliant.
· Poe learns that he can’t solve every problem from the cockpit of his X-Wing and that some situations call for heroism of a different kind.
· Finn finds his courage.
· Rose finds some solace after the loss of her sister and teaches Finn some valuable lessons along the way. And for the record, I find Rose a most welcome addition to the series.
· Vice Admiral Holdo’s pride, and her overzealous desire to put Poe in his place, leads to tragic consequences. The scene in which she makes her amends is, like so many of the movie’s key moments, something to behold.
· Finally, Kylo Ren frees himself from Snoke’s control and psychological abuse, though he stumbles from the proper path at the end of the movie. But remember that theme of failure. His journey fits the theme perfectly but unlike the protagonists, he doesn’t learn from his failure.
Now that’s a lot for one movie to juggle but The Last Jedi manages it wonderfully, giving every character—even secondary ones—time to shine.
I’m also very much on board with the egalitarian message at work throughout the movie. No longer is the force a source of power for a select few, mostly from the Skywalker family. The faces of the Resistance are more than just those of pilots and generals. And so on. This is a welcome change in direction for a series that was in danger of becoming an elitist story of members of a chosen bloodline.
As I write this though, I’m also aware that many of these points I’ve raised are things that drew the ire of other fans. I think the differences in feeling between those like me who enjoyed this movie and those who hated it—putting aside the ones who are just bigots—is this: one camp welcomes change and the other doesn’t.
My main concern with the movie now is that so much of what it achieves might be erased by the next movie. It’s not out yet and it would have already been in the process of being made when The Last Jedi was released… yet the trailers look as though some retconning is coming our way. But more on that soon.
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Where it seemed The Last Jedi was criticized for being too new and out there, this movie appeared to be criticized for being too safe and just filling in bits of back-story we already knew. And given that kind of reaction, I really feel for the people making these movies. They must be wondering what is it that Star Wars fans actually want as they appear to be a fickle group—quick to gripe and prone to tantrums. Stray too far away from the original movies, they get up in arms. Don’t stray far enough and they give you the cold shoulder.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Now, did we need a story about the young Han Solo? Not really. And if Disney’s intent on making back-stories about characters we already know, Leia would be a more interesting choice as we know far less about her. So the movie was unnecessary.
But, when you think about it, so are most movies. Therefore, the question shouldn’t be whether or not a movie is necessary but whether or not it is good. And for my money, Solo is.
It’s a fun heist movie. The cast are great and they have a blast. It’s got some terrific set-pieces and its low-stake storyline, that some consider a weakness, is a virtue in my opinion. Sometimes it’s good to see a movie that deals with weighty issues. Other times, it’s nice to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Solo is definitely the latter kind of movie and it find it strange that Star Wars fans would object to that. I’d invite such fans to re-watch the original film sometime. Out of all the films in the series, Solo might just be the one that comes closest to the joyous spirit of the one that started it all.
It’s not without its flaws, of course. It stumbles a little bit at the beginning before it finds its feet. A last minute cameo from a prequel character is an unwelcome distraction. And the color grading is downright awful, though it can be corrected somewhat by cranking up the contrast and saturation settings on your TV.
But these things, while they’re distracting, ultimately can’t take away from what is a really fun ride.
The Rise of Skywalker (upcoming)
And now we take a glimpse at where things are heading next and, to be honest, I’m a little worried. Given that J.J. Abrams, who I’m sure is a nice enough guy, was the man behind The Force Awakens, I was nervous about the idea of him taking the helm again for this next movie. My fear is that he’ll just rehash Return of the Jedi, undoing all the progress made by The Last Jedi.
And having seen the trailer, I don’t believe this fear’s unfounded. It contains Death Star ruins, despite the fact that both Death Stars in the original movies were blown into tiny pieces. It strongly hints that the Emperor will return, despite the fact that the Emperor is very much dead—and it seems as though it was made to spite the decision to kill off Snoke in The Last Jedi. The trailer even shows what looks like a skiff hovering over a desert. And, yes, there’s another desert world.
Worse yet, I worry that Disney may be pandering to the bigots who made the backlash against The Last Jedi as big as it was. Notice Rose in the trailer, for instance? Neither did I at first. She gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. Is Disney therefore attempting to appeal to the trolls who bullied actress Kelly Marie Tran and drove her off Instagram? I hope not but even so, Disney may be inadvertently pandering to them.
My final concern stems from a number of shots in the trailer that seem to exist solely to appeal to those with limited imaginations who need everything to be ‘bad-ass’. Star Destroyers rising from the ocean. A fleet with several hundred of the things when eight or nine would suffice. Rey with some double-bladed lightsaber. A lightsaber duel on some moving platform—possibly the bridge of a Star Destroyer—surrounded by raging ocean. Things that look like their sole purpose isn’t to serve a story but simply to look cool. Now J.J. Abrams is a master of making things look cool, no argument there. But I also want a story.
That said, I will go along and see this when it comes out. It’ll be nice to see Billy Dee Williams reprising his role as Lando, for one. And, as I’ve said before, I like the new generation of Star Wars heroes and villains so it’ll be good to catch up with them one more time. I just hope the movie offers us something new.