Thoughts on the Star Wars Franchise (2/2) The Decline

The Prequel Trilogy

I liked these movies as they came out but by the time the next installment was released, I’d already come to resent the previous entry. I remember the day I saw Episode 1 in theaters with my mom, sister and cousin. That experience was a good childhood memory, but it’s telling that my parents never bought the film on video nor was I anxious to have it. By the time Episode 2 was being hyped up, I’d come to see Episode 1 as a disappointment but was psyched for the future of the story. Now, finally, Anakin was older, the Stormtroopers were back and it seemed like we were moving in the right direction. I saw that one at a friend’s birthday party. With Episode 3 it was the same thing; I’d come to see Episode 2 as a disappointment but was hopeful this one would be good considering it’d be dark and show the fall. I saw it with my dad and loved it–it’s the only prequel I bought on DVD. Nowadays I consider it an extremely flawed movie but not unwatchable like the others. It has its merits, however buried they may be by the detractions.

The flaws of the Prequel Trilogy are extensively covered online by now. I particularly recommend the Plinkett reviews, which at this point are more revered than the films themselves and practically a part of Star Wars lore in their own right. Essentially it’s bad acting, bad directing and writing from Lucas, uninspired camera work and too much cgi. From a storytelling POV, my biggest gripe is that Episode 1 takes place too far ahead and nothing really happens in it, so it hampered the pacing for the rest of the trilogy. Episode 2 has Anakin already turn evil as he murders women and children, it’s just that Padme didn’t care for some reason. Some of the plotlines set up, like Sifo Dyas tampering with the Jedi archives, are never resolved. It’s ridiculous to think that an entire galaxy has no standing army whatsoever except the Jedi until the clones came along–especially considering that clones exist in this universe. To piggyback off of that, it’s terrible fanservice to make the clones be based on Jango/Boba Fett’s DNA. There’s more to discuss regarding this trilogy’s shortcomings than I can say here, and it’s all been done to death by this point anyway, so let’s move on.

After watching some theory videos and reading the original reddit post, I’m as convinced as ever that Jar Jar was originally going to be a Sith lord. It’s just that Lucas overplayed the character’s “bumbling idiot” cover too well in Episode 1 so that audience backlash was massive. Due to this unforeseen development, Lucas chickened out and relegated Jar Jar to a background character. In stark contrast to Empire Strikes Back‘s carbon freeze, Lucas let real life get in the way of a good story as opposed to spinning a bad situation in his favor. It would have been fascinating to see this play out at the time; I certainly wouldn’t have seen it coming. Unfortunately, as is the prequels left no room for surprises or interesting left turns. I consider this to be yet another mark against Lucas in regards to making this trilogy; you’ve got to stand by your story, or at least come up with a decent replacement. (No, Count Dookie doesn’t count–pun not intended.) That said, it’s important to note that there were good ideas in these movies, they were just abandoned or done poorly.

As an earnest example of a good idea done poorly, I love how in Episode 2 we get to see a Jedi (Obi-Wan) in the role of detective. It’s fun to see a Star Wars film with a character asking questions, following leads and probing hostile territory in secrecy. We’ve never seen that before or since, but it was a great idea. (Unfortunately, since the Sifo Dyas lead is never explored later, nor does anyone follow up on the clones, it was all for naught.) I also love Palpatine’s rise to power in the shadows. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either considering he gets elected on a dime while his own planet is in chaos. It was so easy to vote his predecessor Valorum out, yet nobody can do the same to him. The clones have orders programmed into their minds, yet nobody else had the initiative to see what they were, and trusted a lone man to exercise total control over an army of automatons. The Jedi frequently says things like “I sense a plot to destroy the Jedi” and “the dark side of the force surrounds the Chancellor [Palpatine]” yet they never follow up in several years. In short, it’s entertaining to watch Palpatine’s rise but it’s still badly written and relies on everyone else acting stupid.

Besides their shortcomings as films, the prequels’ biggest sin is introducing plot holes where none had existed before. It makes no sense to leave baby-Luke with Anakin’s family if Vader knew he had a kid on the way. Wouldn’t that be one of the first places he might look–if for no other reason than to satiate his curiosity? It also makes no sense for Anakin not to follow up properly investigating Padme’s supposed death. Why would you just take the word of some random guy–especially when he’s lied about everything else? Obi-Wan and Yoda just giving up after one fight each is weak and cowardly. A tactical retreat is one thing, abandoning the galaxy to totalitarian dystopia for 20 years is another. The whole thing needed a real writer.

My suggestions for how to fix it are simple.

  1. Padme should have seduced Anakin and/or they had an ill-advised hookup one night. Anakin and Padme getting married and him knowing she’s expecting a child means a lot of the OT doesn’t make sense.

  2. Qui-gon should not have existed, and Episode 1 should have had Obi-Wan discover an adult Anakin on Tattooine. Maybe through his martial prowess or podracing skills, Anakin impresses Obi-Wan as someone strong in the force and offers to hone his skills. Anakin abandons his brother Owen to tend the farm alone, creating resentment between them.

  3. Anakin should have turned to the dark side after seeing these “ungrateful” Separatists destroying the Republic. That, and becoming frustrated by the Jedi’s dogmatic rules, hypocrisy (like most organized religion in our world) and slow-moving bureaucracy.

  4. Palpatine should have encouraged and/or hired Anakin to become something of an “off the books” enforcer who’s sent out to hunt down “enemies of the state” outside the purview of the law or Jedi supervision. This creates an appreciation of Palpatine’s “quick and easy path” and the effectiveness of an authoritarian system in Anakin. Maybe being taught powerful moves like Force Choke and Force Lightning convinces Anakin the Jedi are holding him back personally and prolonging the war due to (what he perceives as) pointless religious dogma. Perhaps he’s even convinced the Jedi are nefariously prolonging the war in order to accrue a position of power.

  5. The Jedi react to all this by writing off Anakin as a lost cause and trying to kill him. Anakin hunts them down in retaliation, forcing a reluctant Obi-Wan to face his surrogate son. They fight, Anakin gets injured and put in the suit. Palpatine becomes de-facto autocrat after a slow erosion of rights and procedures. Unhampered by bureaucracy or inter-planetary law, Palpatine crushes all resistance and unifies the galaxy. The Jedi are made to be a shadowy boogeyman out to destroy the galaxy, whose constant threat is used to justify the forfeiture of rights and extra-judiciary powers of Palpatine’s new government.

  6. Boom, there’s your prequel story outline without all the confusing and contradictory characterizations of Anakin, or distractions like Darth Maul and Jango Fett. Also, the lightsabers never should have been color-coded to where red equals “bad guy” and green or blue are for Jedi. In the originals, Vader happened to have red, and because nobody considered the real world ramifications, that became the standard for antagonists in the prequels. The fact that this creates a world where all you need to do is demand someone activate their saber in order to determine their allegiance is one of many reasons why I consider Star Wars lore to be sophomoric and ridiculous. Lightsabers should have been revealed in the prequels to come in a variety of colors, whether one practices the light or dark side.
But at least we got this review and dank memes out of it.

The Sequel Trilogy

The sequel trilogy is an exploitative, uninspired cash grab, nothing more and nothing less. I was as excited as anyone when it was announced that someone new would get to take a crack at this property. However, I lost absolutely all interest in the new movies when it was announced that JJ Abrams would direct. I have no respect for Abrams as a creative talent whatsoever. I think he’s a hack who relies on copying better screenplays when he’s not setting up stupid mystery boxes that have no pre-determined payoff. Luckily people seem to have finally caught on to his shtick after The Force Awakens, though why Lost and Star Trek: Into Darkness weren’t warning enough I have no idea. The one and only excuse anyone could give me for why Abrams was a good choice was “Oh but he’s a fan of the originals!!” as if that distinction somehow doesn’t apply to everyone in America. Hell, if that’s all it takes, give me a sequel to direct.

Anyway, I had absolutely no interest in seeing The Force Awakens, but I happened to be visiting my hometown, having lunch with an old friend (the same guy whom I saw Episode 2 with in fact). He wanted to go see it with me and I didn’t want to spoil his day, so I went. My very first words when it was over were “it was okay” and he didn’t contest that summation. However, as time went by and I thought about what I’d seen more and more, the less I liked it. Besides how uncreative it was, by big disappointment was not seeing Luke, Leia and Han onscreen together one last time. But more than anything, I found it insulting that Disney shelled out over $4 Billion to make this “just okay” movie in the cynical assumption that people would see it in droves because of the brand alone. They were right of course, so I guess the joke’s on me, but when you think of all the stellar unfilmed scripts and passionate newcomers who don’t get a chance, I found it to be a huge waste of resources. It’s as cynical as Late Capitalism-Consumerism gets in the world of creativity, and as an aspiring writer myself I just couldn’t stomach it.

TFA is just a nostalgia-pandering, overhyped, overrated evolutionary dead-end of a franchise installment. I hated it when it came out and everyone treated me like a pariah and a spoil sport for it. But you know what? A year…two years later, most people I knew largely came around to my way of thinking. (Only after giving Disney their money and ensuring that more half-assed films would get made, of course.) Suddenly people stopped saying it was a great movie and calling me a negative nancy and began to make excuses. “Well yeah, this one was weak, but the next one will make up for it!” was a frequent refrain that Christmas. “Well, they’re reeling people in with nostalgia first–all the questions will be answered next time!” was another. Call me crazy, but I think a movie should stand on its own to be considered good–especially if it’s the first installment. (Even Empire sort of works as a standalone if you look at it as Han Solo’s tragedy.)

Personally I think this phenomenon is a case where people want to believe the hype, they want to be part of this big event. When others praise it they want to be in on the cool new thing, they want to be seen as “in on the joke” so to speak. In this stage, the few who admit the Emperor has no clothes are usually ignored or ridiculed for ruining everyone else’s good time. But after the hype dies down, after thinking about it at home or rewatching it, the flaws soon become undeniable. In this case, since it’s literally a beat for beat remake of the first movie, once the “wow” factor of a new Star Wars wears off, the movie has nothing to offer anymore. It has no legs (read: original ideas) to stand on. It’s a film designed for opening-night at a theater full of fanboys, with fanservice peppered in every few minutes for applause. (“Look, it’s the Millennium Falcon! I clapped when I saw Vader’s helmet!” And then C3PO steps in front of the camera to announce his existence, etc.) The biggest insult is recycling the Death Star yet again as if we haven’t seen that plot done in 1/3 of all the films already. An entire galaxy full of possibilities and this is really the best they could come up with? (“Oh but it wasn’t really a Death Star!” Yeah I get it, but it was in all but name.)

Does ANYONE actually enjoy watching these ridiculously exaggerated trailer reactions?

The villain, Kylo Ren, is discount Vader (because they literally couldn’t come up with anything original), the hero is a Mary Sue* (I don’t care what anyone says) who already knows how to do everything. The sidekick, Finn, doesn’t have any real skills to offer by comparison; he’s not a great pilot/mechanic or marksman. It seems to me, some of Rey’s many implausible skills (expert mechanic, pilot, linguist, force user) should have been transferred to Finn, who himself brings nothing to the table. Imagine how boring the originals would have been if Luke absorbed all Han’s contributions and started off as a pilot who could talk to Chewie better than Han himself? The whole point of a team is that everyone can contribute something. The whole point of immersion is that I have to believe that a character’s background has prepared them to do the tasks we see onscreen. I can buy that Rey is a great fighter since she’s had to take care of herself, and a great mechanic since she digs around in ships for scrap metal to sell. What I can’t believe is that she’s a great pilot with nothing to fly, a great Force user with no one to teach her, or a multi-linguist with no one to talk to.

*(ASIDE:Considering how common the accusation is whenever anyone offers a negative opinion about Rey, I have to add an obligatory disclaimer that I’m not sexist. Disliking one badly written female character doesn’t make anyone sexist. I tend to love the women characters in the media I consume, from the complex Marjaery Tyrell and Sally Draper to the more straightforward Lauren Zelmer and Leni Loud. But what I like about all characters, male and female, are their flaws and their growth. Scarlett O’Hara and Asuka Langley Soryu are very flawed people, and I probably couldn’t stand them in real life, but they’re fantastic characters because of it. Blue, at times, fails and needs to be rescued, yet she’s also strong and interesting. Her vulnerabilities make her journey more compelling instead of a tensionless straight shot to victory every time. Clarissa Darling is my all-time favorite fictional character because she feels like a real person I can relate to, not an impossibly perfect super-human whose entire character is upstaging everyone else. I don’t mind strong badass women either: I love Samus Aran, Wonder Woman, Thelma and Louise as well as Ripley from the Alien movies. In short, I don’t like Rey, but it’s not due to her womanhood, it’s because she’s boring and has no arc whatsoever since she’s already perfect from the start. Not only that, but it’s bullshit that nobody is allowed to criticize anything these days without being called some kind of “ism.” I wish media wasn’t so overly-politicized these days.)

Speaking of Luke, why on Earth does our new hero yet again come from a desert planet? Why are we redoing the same “big bad empire vs little rebels” dynamic again? Couldn’t they think of anything original, like maybe a city girl who steals droids off the streets to sell for scrap? Maybe the new republic is struggling with the underground forces of the old Empire conducting terrorist attacks, leading to debates on whether to preserve some of the old regime’s surveillance and brutality. There were millions of post-ROTJ books which could have been loosely adapted rather than rehash the same formula. Do we really need the millionth Nazi-analogue to be our antagonists here? Couldn’t we do something new–maybe something more relevant to our modern world for a new generation? Say what you will about George Lucas, but at least the Prequels mostly tried new things, presented a new overarching political dynamic, and took us to new planets.

There have been literal books worth of video essays on YouTube detailing all the flaws of The Last Jedi. I personally didn’t see it because I have no interest in the series anymore at this point in time. I don’t like the direction it’s going and I want to watch things I like, not what makes me upset. (Note that the vast majority of what I’ve talked about on my blog thus far have been things I enjoy.) That said, I have heard the plot summaries and honestly I don’t think I missed much. I won’t review a film I haven’t seen for myself, but that said it seems to me that the story was building up to Rey joining Kylo Ren as free agents outside the false light-dark binary. Sadly, the story apparently chickens out of its own climax, leaving a confusing and unsatisfying experience. At least, that’s the impression I got from my friends and critics whom I trust that have seen it for themselves. In any case, all the insulting of fans online from Lucasfilm execs and director Rian Johnson doesn’t exactly make me want to give it a chance or invest in the franchise in the future. 

I hated Snoke and considered him a transparent (as well as unimaginative) Palpatine stand-in. But this is just blatant and unnecessary disrespect to your own fans.

I haven’t seen the spin off films, Rogue One and Solo. Again, I just had no interest after the insulting lack of imagination that was TFA, and at this point I’m just plain not that into Star Wars anymore. I was on the fence about Disney Star Wars anyway, and even without that disappointment I wouldn’t have wanted to shell out for another film every year. I hate the idea that every character now has to have their own prequel trilogy or whatever to flesh out their flimsy and unnecessary backstory. This is going to be an unpopular opinion, and remember the character as he exists in ESB is one of my favorites ever. But I’m just gonna say it: Han Solo wasn’t that interesting of a guy before he met Luke and Leia. He was a petty lowlife smuggler who worked for a fat giant slug. He was not this great wild west outlaw robbing space-trains and having standoffs at high noon. Han truly loving another woman ruins his meeting Leia. The clear impression given in the first film is that, while he may pick up a chick here or there at the bars and brothels, he was never in love before. What makes his character interesting is that meeting these passionate two freedom-fighters inspired him to be a better man. A guy who didn’t care about anything was suddenly flying into danger and trekking into a blizzard to save these people whom he’d learned to love. That’s his arc, and throwing in unnecessary backstory just obscures what’s really important about him.

Also, I hate how the stupid Kessel Run is now played seriously as a part of Star Wars cannon. A parsec measures distance, not time, so saying you made some relay in 12 parsecs is meaningless. As it was scripted and portrayed in the first film, Han was just bullshitting Luke and Obi-wan. And if you look closely, Obi-wan raises an eyebrow as Han throws out this baseless brag, because he (Obi-Wan) knows that Han is full of shit. But they’re in a rush and don’t have time to be choosy, so they go with him anyway. 

Conclusion

And there you have it, my thoughts on the Star Wars franchise. I think the first movie was a happy accident, lightning in a bottle and holds up today as a fun romp. The first sequel is high art with a tragic arc in Han (among my favorites in all fiction) and an excellent case of world-building. The “threequel” is a bad movie thats reputation has been propped up by the love fans have for its two predecessors as well as disappointment in all that came after. Beyond that, the franchise got too big for its own good and should have been left alone in my opinion.

What’s interesting is that the next two trilogies are flawed in diametrically opposed ways. The prequels tried new things but were accused of losing the spirit of the franchise. They’re a fascinating case of an artist’s unrestrained freedom being its own downfall, of biting off more than you can chew. The sequels gave the fans exactly what they want and learned the hard way that sometimes people honestly don’t know what they want until you give it to them. They are indicative of all that’s wrong in the industry today: milking franchises to death, throwing crazy amounts of money at brands while new ideas die on the shelves, and rushing into production without a plan. Personally, I think Star Wars had its time and we should let something new come along and capture the fundamentally different zeitgeist of today. The best way to honor what George Lucas created isn’t to keep his story on indefinite life support, but to take a chance on another up-and-comer with a bold new idea.

If nothing else, there’s the Robot Chicken specials.
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