Crushing The Rebellion: my Star Wars review

A long time ago, in an age of craftsmanship that seems far, far away, a trilogy of movies blazed into existence like a hypergiant star, burning briefly bright and then hinting all too soon at its own eventual demise. The first was revolutionary not in any of its content but in its form: its gritty, realistic sets and models, and its elevation of Velocity into an aesthetic all its own. The second was perhaps the most well constructed movie in the eventual series, with strong character arcs and clean, compelling storylines and a perfect flow and balance between slow scenes and fast. None of the three made for great cinema, but all were competently made entertainments, the products not of a lone genius pursuing a personal artistic vision, but of a collaboration between creator, writers, producers, and director: not, as it were, a dictatorship, but a mature democratic republic, a system that blended strengths and limited harm by distributing power, all in the service of the common good.

It was in the third installment of this initial trilogy that the first hint of the Republic’s eventual fall appeared: the first rumors of corruption within and barbarism — by which I mean commercialism — at the gates. The franchise, like any movie franchise, had always been a commercial venture, but this was the first time (it seemed to many of its fans) that artistic decisions were made for purely commercial considerations. But the whiff of decay — a cute cadre of seemingly innocuous, undoubtedly market-tested furries — was brief, and the franchise ended this first phase of its life with vigor that promised a fruitful middle age and crowning elder days to come.

Alas.

In the second phase of the franchise’s life, its beloved First Citizen decided that he preferred the role of Emperor. Its creator took too seriously the view of many of his fans that he was a god. This was not necessarily a bad idea in principle. A lone genius can reach greater heights of artistic accomplishment than any committee — democracy, we might recall, is the worst form of government — but it turned out that this Emperor had no clues. 

The resulting movies contained some interesting scenes and ideas, but they were thrown together with little craftsmanship, and there were many outright bad ideas that went unchecked by any Imperial Senate. The franchise’s new god had plenty of thoughts both heavenly and hellish, but turned out not to be very good at actual creation ex nihilo.

The third phase of the franchise began with Revolution, not just internally but in the real world around it. Cultural change can take time to filter into our entertainments, and can take even longer when an authoritarian ruler closes the national borders, and so, after the Emperor was persuaded to swap the stressful job of rule for a luxurious retirement, his people discovered that many of their customs and fashions that once seemed quaint at worst suddenly felt crude at best.

We are living through a period of greater focus on the profound demands — and, to some, the frightening threat — of true egalitarianism. Our discourse is uneven, unfruitful, and polarized. Under such conditions, it’s inevitable that the franchise’s final reintroduction should be tentative, having to play catch up with a culture that had changed at near-light speed. Unfortunately, as things turned out, every movie in this final trilogy had to play a kind of catch up, for reasons I will describe.

This final phase of the franchise did see a return of sorts to the democracy of the former Republic, but in a chaotic, populist form in which barbarian blood (again: commercialism) mingled freely with the noble blood of the citizens. For the Emperor had given way, not to anything like the former collaborators of the Republic, whose primary goal was a normal and happy life for itself and its citizens, but to an Empire that claimed to be the happiest place on Earth, but was only interested in happiness as a tool of conquest.

The resulting movies were uneven, unfruitful, and polarizing.

The first movie in this final trilogy juggled two tasks: the aforementioned cultural catch up and the need of its corporate master to re-secure the brand loyalty of consumers who might have been alienated by the antics of the former Emperor. So we were given a pair of main characters that didn’t look like any Star Wars heroes of the past, and watched them overturn conventional genre tropes like the man pulling the woman along behind him as they fled some danger, but as the movie went on, it began to feel like we were being pulled along what felt less and less like a movie and more like one of those immersive amusement park “experiences” that lets you be a Jedi hero or an Imperial Storm Trooper. (In 3D with tactile feedback!) We shouted from our seats as the sights flew past us, “Look, there’s that guy! Look, there’s that thing!” as the Surround Sound and nostalgia washed over us.

Uninterrupted by any rebellion, the concluding trilogy might have continued in this vein, with the movies getting smoother and better as the tasks of cultural catch up and audience re-assimilation progressed and required less of a given movie’s resources, leaving more free for the movie’s own needs. Those who initially panicked at the new diversity and gender equality of this world would have calmed down, and we would all have continued to enjoy the spectacle of our favorite icons from the past being paraded before us once more. And I’m sure there would have been a suitably grand conclusion. 

Instead, we got Episode 8.

Episode 8 is my favorite movie of the series, for the following reasons:

First, it’s the only installment since that blazing first movie to break legitimate cinematic ground. A lightspeed collision between a fleeing spacecraft and its pursuer is one of the most poetic effects sequences of all time. A series of scenes involving a mental connection between the two main characters imparts a remarkable texture to the film. (Just compare them with how flat they come out in Episode 9. Clearly, there’s some kind of directorial magic at work in the Episode 8 scenes that the Episode 9 director had no ability or desire to recreate.) Finally, a scene in which a character confronts herself in an underground cave reverberates with visual and narrative complexity.

Then, there are the performances. The aforementioned scenes of mental connection are not just standard genre movie exposition. They are genuinely engaging encounters, brimming with feeling and subtext, that might be found in a much more serious non-genre film or stage play. And my favorite movie critic, while giving the movie itself just a middling rating, called the acting job of the returning elder star the first tour-de-force performance of the entire movie series. 

When the movie decides to indulge in nostalgia, it does it better than any of the others. Its portrayal of a beloved former master is a wonderful evocation of everything that was truly endearing and enduring about that character, far more powerful that any scene of him engaged in action hero battle or infantilized into a thoroughly marketable (and, in this new age, meme-able) cutesy.

The director of Episode 8 could have taken these strong elements and woven them into a conventional Star Wars narrative that I firmly believe would have delighted all the franchise’s fans and all but guaranteed a successful conclusion to the series. Instead, he decided it was time (perhaps in conjunction with the culture change catch up that had already begun in the previous episode) to incinerate the sacred texts. 

He begins subtly, by adding a third vector to a couple of traditional Star Wars dualities. Behind — or is it beyond? or beneath? or beside? — the usual opposing armies of Good and Evil, he injects an amoral (or is it: thoroughly immoral) stakeholder only interested in profiting from the struggle between the two sides. And the evil antagonist is granted a third option beyond the simple two that the virtuous protagonist (thinking only, it may be, of past Star Wars paradigms) had assumed were the only possibilities. 

The Episode 8 director then went further, subverting a central pillar of the franchise’s mythology.

Episode 7 had raised a question about parentage that had fans of the franchise wildly speculating about divine bloodlines, like medieval nobles during a crisis of succession. Episode 8’s answer shocked the well-heeled court. (For all its bluster about battling empires and emperors, the Star Wars franchise is really quite royalist in spirit.) 

Finally, this penultimate installment of a great sci-fi/fantasy franchise then proceeded to question the very foundation of  movies in which the forces of good battle the forces of evil. The bold plan hatched by the hero trusting his own instincts in defiance of his stodgy superiors does not, in fact, save the day. The plucky band of infiltrators fails to implausibly penetrate all of the enemy’s security to destroy or disable the technological juggernaut from within. The brave martyr is prevented from sacrificing his life for…for…realistically what? And finally: even the very idea of defeating the enemy is questioned.

What possible final episode could live up to this impossible setup? I had no idea, but I knew I wanted to see it tried. Even if it ended in laughable failure, I would still have commended those involved for seeking what I believe only a few sci-fi/fantasy franchises have attempted and none have achieved: an unimaginably grand finale in which the franchise ended by transcending itself, by putting everything it had done in the past into a new and expanded frame of reference, even at the cost of diminishing those past heroics. 

I longed to finally see a geek franchise grow up.

Instead, we got Episode 9.

Episode 9 was not a very good movie, as it had to bear the burden of putting down the rebellion before it could resume the government’s former agenda. There were dramatic moments, emotional utterances, and attempted jokes in Episode 9, but they all fell flat, as if the director were too busy with these other concerns to properly shape the flow of the scenes around those peaks. And, following the best practices of most authoritarian regimes, he also engaged in historical gaslighting, revising the truth concerning past events to suit his present needs. Suddenly, the hero did have a significant parent. Suddenly, the most quietly powerful scene in all the movies, the final scene of Episode 8, was jettisoned like so much garbage.

The conclusion of this final installment, involving a “crossing of the streams,” could have been an entirely satisfying (if not revolutionary) grand conclusion to the series, if only all three movies in the final trilogy had been shaped from the start to support that arc. But Episode 8 had its own ideas about what the concluding arc should be, and because the director of Episode 9 had to spend precious resources dealing with that rebellion, he left himself with insufficient resources to properly execute the idea in the one movie that remained.

I will therefore always think of the series as incomplete. Episode 8 will always be the last movie in the series for me, raising its tantalizing possibilities of true democratization that will never be fulfilled by a proper final installment.

You might ask me how I can even imagine the franchise’s imaginary universe continuing once such a radical change has been made, how there can be any specifically Star Wars heroes or any kind of an action movie plot at all after that, and I’ll answer honestly that I have no idea. That’s what I was looking forward to learning. And there would be no need for further stories, in any case, because that would have been the final episode of the franchise. 

Except, of course, that it would not have been the final episode, after all. The franchise is now much more than just the originally conceived trilogy of trilogies. There are now other Star Wars movies and TV series, all owned by a vast media conglomerate that intends to live forever and continue collecting rents from all its properties throughout that dismal eternity. That’s why Star Wars couldn’t be allowed to change so radically, though I’ll be eternally grateful that one man tried.

For the briefest moment, the time it takes to retract a lightsaber or remove a life-preserving mask, to touch hands across a gulf or reach for a broom, my true Star Wars hero, Rian Johnson, managed to turn the franchise away from the Dark Side. 

And then the Empire struck back.

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