Star Wars and I

Note: although I have note see The Rise of Skywalker, this post includes a spoiler for that film.

Even before the tepid reviews of The Rise of Skywalker started coming in I had basically decided to sit this one out. Maybe I will see it when it lands on a streaming platform––probably while grading papers––but certainly not in theaters because most of the negative reviews have confirmed my fear that the movie has basically steered into everything that frustrated me about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. However, after listening to The Watch podcast analyzing the movie and “spoiling” the big reveal, I wanted to revisit the topic.

One of the most appealing things about the original Star Wars trilogy is its simplicity, a perfect tri-colon of the hero’s journey to help the good guys triumph over the bad. Even the primary villains get progressively more powerful and villainous as the series goes along. Grand Moff Tarkin SW has a battle station that he blows up planets with, but he demonstrates his power by having control over Vader, who ascends to the top spot in ESB while teasing Emperor Palpatine for ROTJ. With all deference to Chewbacca, Ben Kenobi, and Lando, the movies only have five core characters (Luke, Leia, Han, R2, 3PO), with the others generally connected to this core group by one or more links. Similarly, each film has only three locations that aren’t starships (The Force Awakens has five, Rogue One had *seven*) and the only times I can think of where one of the original movies follows more than two simultaneous actions are the Death Star escape in SW and the climactic battle in ROTJ where Luke surrenders, Han and Leia are on the forest moon, and Lando has the Millenium Falcon, meaning that there are three arenas, but all circling one limited space.

For all of the issues in the original trilogy, including a rather shocking lack of diversity, this simplicity is one of the keys to its success. Deleted scenes from the movies reveal that Lucas had in mind a chattier story about the imperial academy and imperial politics more in line with the prequel trilogy. The final product drops most of those ambitions into the opening scrawl and a few lines of dialogue, allowing the audience to get swept away by the combination of knightly romance and space western. In turn, falling back on these tropes allows the series to develop somewhat more complex themes involving e.g. moral relativity and redemption by the end of the trilogy and leaves the door open to an expanded universe of cartoons and novels that can resolve many of the oversights in the original material.

This is an arc that can only work once. The prequel trilogy tried to literally reverse engineer the story, explaining the fall of the Anakin and the creation of the empire. As someone acutely pointed out to me in college, this turned the Star Wars saga from the Romance of a plucky young hero joining the rebellion against totalitarianism to the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

For all that they do well, the new Star Wars films are the mother of all third-act problems.

In the Watch podcast linked to above, one of the points Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald talk about is the garbled mess that is the story in The Rise of Skywalker. The original series had a final confrontation with the Emperor and the next set had the creation of Darth Vader and the Empire, where these three movies raced about the galaxy convincing people that Star Wars was back, but introduce stories that go nowhere (some of which are evidently excised altogether because of racist backlash to The Last Jedi) or that deserve a series-worth of exploration. While these issues contribute to the movie bloat, my bigger problem is that they give the sense that this is a trilogy determined to raise the stakes by trying to convince you that each movie is more epic than the last rather than by actually raising the stakes or by having each movie substantially build on the one before it.

All of this culminates in the big twist in The Rise of Skywalker that reintroduces Palpatine and reestablishes the inherited Force-aristocracy. To be clear: Palpatine and even the idea of heritable force powers are not the problem per se. These abound in the in the non-canon EU material and this is a setting where all sorts of technology can exist. In fact, as Kylo Ren’s obsession with the crushed face mask of Darth Vader hints at, Palpatine’s memory and resurgent Palpatinistas is fertile ground for storytelling (whatever Ian McDiamird thinks), except that we had just spent two films not talking about Palpatine in relation to the fascist junta that obviously regarded itself as his political heir.

Despite the idiosyncratic fact that the original three movies were the middle trilogy of nine movies, the third trilogy was never really never developed in any substantial way, which gave room for novelists, cartoonists, and other creators to build out the story. Some of these are not great, but they also gave rise to iconic villains (e.g. Admiral Thrawn), characters (e.g. Wedge Antilles) and room to explore inter-species relationships and xenophobia.

After each of the previous two films, I expressed my hope that people enjoyed New Star Wars, but that I did not fit into whatever the niche that they were filling––fully recognizing the irony of saying this about films directed at “everyone.” I stand by the first part of the sentiment, I hope people enjoy New Star Wars, up to and including The Rise of Skywalker. However, upon further consideration, and for all that the new films do right on the micro-scale in terms of filming, dialogue, casting, making Finn a Stormtrooper who bucks his conditioning, &c, that made the films have a markedly “Star Wars, but fresh” feel, they miss a macro-vision of what made the the original trilogy iconic.

Han Solo’s Pants

I have a theory that, somewhere in the planning of The Force Awakens, when the decision to jettison the bulk of Expanded Universe canon and not follow an established story arc (a decision I largely like, I might add) had been made, there was also a conscious decision to go through EU looking for reference points, objects, and names that have their own mythological status. Anything with too much cachet was excised from the movie. It is clear watching the film, which had to be resonant with the original trilogy, that they frequently gave a response the conversation around Star Wars as much as trying to forge their own path ahead. Sometimes, though, the choices seemed to zig in odd directions because a more reasonable solution had already been claimed by EU. Other times they just made choices and moved on without comment. This is something I noticed at several points in the film, including their choice for Kylo Ren’s given name, the designation “black squadron” and, particularly, Han’s pants.

In the original trilogy Han’s gear includes a blue pair of pants with a gold braided stripe down the side of each leg. This may be chalked up to nothing more than a sort of goofy ’70s costume design choice, but those stripes came to possess their own mythology that is bound up with Han’s past, his relationship with Chewbacca, and how, despite his nonchalance, interest in money, and eye toward self-preservation, he is actually a nice man at heart. Those stripes came to represent that Han did not miraculously develop a conscience across the three movies because he became friends with Luke and had the hots for Leia, but rather was a hero already–one who was only fighting who he was in running from the rebellion. Likewise, the stripes indicate that it was not mere nepotism or happenstance that Han became a general in the Rebellion for doing basically nothing. In this mythology, the stripes on Han’s pants explain who he is as a person and inform his character in the trilogy.

In the Expanded Universe, Han’s pants display Corelleian Blood Stripes, a military honor awarded for conspicuous bravery, and were the only military decoration he was allowed to retain after being drummed out of the Imperial navy for saving Chewbacca from a press labor-gang. In The Force Awakens, Han just has black pants, but when Leia comments about his wardrobe she only does so on his jacket. There are, of course, character reasons why Han would have discarded military decorations after going back to smuggling, but, even though the the movies err on the side of giving away nothing about the characters beyond what is shown on screen, the casual discard seems to be a conscious decision to say that the originals were no more important than a quirk of the original costume design.

I liked the decision to largely avoid direct portrayal of EU storylines, but the insistence in avoiding overlap is a shame. Some of the EU material is quite lackluster, but there is also a lot of it and there were some good ideas tossed about.