All New 'Star Wars' Movies Are Meaningless
I saw 'Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace' in the theatre in 1999.
Like everyone else on the planet, I was swept up in all the nostalgia and excitement. I loved Star Wars as a child, watching all the movies over and over again, collecting all the action figures and play sets and perfecting Chewbacca's growl by putting my face in a fan (try it -- it works).
The Lucasfilm Ltd logo sparkled on the screen... then came the words: "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...." and then the trumpets blared as STAR WARS moved through empty space... and I felt that rush. The rush that has now been exploited for the last twenty years and commodified to within an inch of its life. At the time, though, it felt like they were recreating my childhood and I could barely contain myself.
But it was all down hill from there.
We quickly discovered that The Phantom Menace and the other two prequels were terrible movies. Jar Jar Binks, trade disputes, midichlorians... it was all really painful. And even after we suffered through all the bad writing and acting and weird racial stereotypes that came together to explain how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, we were more or less back where we started. We still loved the original trilogy, but now this new, less good trilogy was part of the legend and we just had to live with that.
And just to make sure we could never forget those prequels, Lucas added a bunch of detail that had the same cringe-worthy tone. Now, if you want to watch the originals without all that crazy crap you have to dig up a DVD from 1995.
Granted, we wouldn’t be talking about any of this if George Lucas hadn’t created this stuff in the first place, so, fine, he can do whatever he wants.
But, still, the question is why?
The question becomes even more urgent with the latest trilogy: The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and now, the saga-ending Episode IX -- The Rise of Skywalker.
These movies have been made by competent entertainers with a good idea of what Star Wars fans want and how to give it to them. All except The Last Jedi’s Rian Johnson, who dared -- DARED! -- to mess around with the legacy. It’s still unclear to me why fans were so mad. What they should have been upset about is that Star Wars, a beloved franchise that started with three good/great movies, has been rendered meaningless.
As fun as the new movies can be in moments, they are empty echoes of another set of films. They’re purely in service of franchise fans who want their hit of nostalgia. Even when the filmmakers try to move things forward, as Johnson did, their reason for being has nothing to do with the kind of artistic impulses that compelled Lucas to make his movies originally.
I suppose they’re also bringing in a new generation of fans to the Star Wars universe. Maybe that’s valuable. I suspect kids will always enjoy lightsaber fighting and characters that can move stuff with their minds. But if we all agree that the new movies aren’t as good as the old ones, what value is there really in introducing a new generation to these reiterations?
Unless they watch it at the right time and under perfect circumstances, they can’t experience what it was like to see something totally new and exciting, like the people in 1977 did with Star Wars. They can’t experience what it was like to find out that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. They can’t know what it’s like to do that Ewok dance for the first time or delight in Jabba the Hutt’s giggle or whatever people love Return of the Jedi for.
No matter what, these new movies take whatever substance and depth the originals had and stretch it all out until it's paper thin but stuffed with updated effects and fight choreography (which, as far as spectacle goes, can be fun).
The fans don’t need this. They have the originals.
The new fans don’t need this. They should be shown the originals. And they should be given the opportunity to become fans of new franchises with new ideas. (I will make a slight exception for something like Rogue One, which takes a tiny nugget of Star Wars lore and creates something almost completely new.)
Of course, none of this would matter if reboots and remakes and movies based on some other property weren’t at risk of becoming the only show in town. Hollywood doesn’t make big original movies anymore. They’ve taken a look at the landscape and seen that the easiest way to make money is to keep pumping out movies that are based on pre-existing work.
Disney, which owns Lucasfilm Ltd, Marvel, Pixar and 20th Century Fox, has become the worst offender in this. With the exception of a Pixar movie here and there, they are only remaking all of their old stuff. And it's working.
At the time of writing, of the 10 highest earning movies of 2019, six of them were made by Disney. And virtually all of them were sequels or remakes or adaptations of some kind.
What's most frustrating about all of this is that it's a creativity killer. There is no need to try new things and take artistic risks if all you need to do is remake The Lion King with real lions or a 23rd superhero movie or more Star Wars side stories (quick elevator pitch for Disney+: a Jabba the Hutt’s Family Matters style laugh track sitcom featuring a mouthy teenage Jabba Junior).
This is what Martin Scorsese was complaining about. As these kinds of movies dominate more and more of the marketplace, other kinds of movies can't and won't be made. Original storytelling will happen less and less and the audience will suffer, even if it's too high on nostalgia and spectacle to realise it.
As for The Rise of Skywalker, it’s certainly not bad. It has some fun moments. Daisy Ridley (Rey) is pretty good. She and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) work really hard to make the lightsaber fight scenes work and they pull off some really great sequences, like Rey jumping and slicing open Kylo Ren’s spaceship. The fights in space are also very impressive. C-3PO is funny and there's a new tiny character that says funny stuff like Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.
But I felt nothing at the end of this movie, to the extent that I even understood it. I didn’t care who Rey’s parents were and to find out that they are who they are was pretty uninspiring.
With every progressive Star Wars movie, that nostalgic rush that I felt watching the opening of The Phantom Menace has been choked and trampled upon to the point that all the “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” moments and Chewbacca growls and Millennium Falcon maneuvering do absolutely nothing for me.
They'll make it a hit, but I think other people might be feeling the same way. At the screening I attended, a very eager audience cheered for the appearance of a classic character or for a moment that referenced something from the original trilogy. But over the course of the almost two and a half hour movie, that cheering became less and less enthusiastic and eventually deflated into a polite, depressing golf clap.
In 1999, The Phantom Menace was the number one movie of the year. And there were certainly sequels and remakes among the highest earners. But the top 10 also included The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, Notting Hill and American Beauty.
I like big, fun movies. I don't want to stop watching them. But I’ve had the nostalgia squeezed out of me. And I have nothing left to give.