Star Wars Without Nostalgia: The Sequels

Since these movies are relatively new, spoilers will be covered up with white text inside square brackets: [spoiler] (highlight to reveal). If this method does not work for you – and it should on my blog – proceed with caution, as the post gets increasingly full of tags around the middle.

Index

There was one thing I knew about the sequels going in: they are wildly divisive. While the originals are mostly revered and the prequels mostly reviled, the reactions to the sequels run to both extremes and everything in between even among the reasonable fans. That made me doubly curious. I have “done my duty” in watching the rest of the movies, but my history with Star Wars doesn’t go back even a month. I had no expectations except a strong suspicion that the dialogue will be better and the CGI finally unnoticeable. All I had was hope.

Strap yourself in because this is going to be long. Really long.

The Force Awakens (2015)

I fucking loved this one. From start to finish, it was one hell of an enjoyable ride and exactly the kind of excellent space cheese I’m in for.

Yes, I know it’s pure fanservice. Old characters and props feature heavily and in general, it builds on what came before rather than trying to do something radically new. Even the plot follows largely the same lines as A New Hope. This is as much a strength as it is a weakness. It plays things far too safe, recycles too much, and the more I think about it, the blander it is. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t squee with excitement every time I recognised something. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

(Then there was a twist in the second half that I absolutely did not see coming and resulted in much yelling. Is that how it feels to watch a movie unspoiled?)

But the real reason why I loved it so much is that it improves on the originals in many aspects (yeah yeah heresy I know). The dialogue, my biggest complaint with literally every one of them so far, was finally passable. No longer did I cringe every damn time certain characters opened their mouth. The battles were great even in the originals, but seeing everything done with proper, modern CGI was fantastic. And most of all, it’s no longer so awfully white and male (could it do even better? Sure. But when there’s an improvement, I’ll take it). For all the outcry, it’s nice seeing that everyone can have space adventures. And my headcanon that when you have a helmeted character, there could be anything under the bucket is pretty much confirmed and I love it.

Plus, it helps that I really liked Finn and Rey. Rey is pretty much the new era equivalent of Luke or Anakin, so I was curious where will the story take her. And Finn is an ex-Stormtrooper! How damn cool is that? [I only wish they thought the whole ex-Stormtrooper aspect through and actually considered the implications. Had more Stormtroopers change sides. Maybe not have everyone (Finn included) kill Stormtroopers by the score – given that he showed so much compassion for his dead friend at the start, it makes no sense to humanise the faceless bad guys and then dehumanise them again.]

As I said in my intro post, I watch Star Wars because it makes me feel less like shit. This one more than did the job.

The Last Jedi (2017)

Hope is like the sun. If you only believe it when you see it, you’ll never make it through the night.

Let’s get the bombshell out of the way first: Yes, The Last Jedi is, no shit, my favourite Star Wars movie of them all.

If The Force Awakens played it a little too safe, The Last Jedi has balls. It takes risks. It attempts to be a breath of fresh air and defy expectations. And for me, it worked out wonderfully. Of all the movies, this is the one that never once broke my immersion. It was a joy to watch all around.

The plot is more complex, with characters splitting up and several interweaving storylines, and for me it largely worked. Rather like a multi-POV book where you like each POV so much you’re not mad in the least when it switches. It’s far from perfect, there was some dodginess in the spaceship arc [everything hanging on the fleet running out of fuel is questionable given that Star Wars mostly avoids considering banalities, and I really didn’t like the second half of the casino subplot – part because the thief annoyed the shit out of me and part because the codebreaking part was all for nothing in the end] but Rey’s arc in this one [or shall I say, Luke’s] was beyond fantastic. I fucking loved what they did with [Luke. His grumpiness, bitterness, basically being a disillusioned old man makes for a far more interesting character than if he remained the hero he was. I never liked him much in the original trilogy and considered him alternately either irritatingly stupid because the plot demanded it or boring, but here he was my favourite by far. The deconstruction at the start and eventual reconstruction over the course of the movie as he found hope again, astonishingly good.] After all, it’s flaws and failures that make a character interesting.

Characters and character development in general is what The Last Jedi excels at and another reason why I love it as much as I do. I’m a sucker for it, and here it was done beautifully.

  • First, everything under the massive spoiler tag above. This is perhaps the best one, and my favourite.
  • Poe: Slapped and demoted for recklessness that caused a loss of life the Resistance could not afford at the start of the movie, we see him eventually get over his hero complex. I was a huge fan of his interactions with [Holdo and Leia. Is Holdo an ass? Yes. But she has no reason to trust him and and Leia is not wrong about him needing to get his head out of the cockpit.] Do his flaws make him any less of a hero? Not in the least. If anything, they make him a better, more interesting character than if he was the standard action movie hero played straight and never challenged.
  • Finn: I also like the juxtaposition with Poe at the start: while Poe is a little too cocky, Finn lacks confidence and doesn’t really believe himself to be a hero despite people telling him otherwise, to the point of defeatism [and, almost, desertion]. Impostor syndrome. I saw someone mentioning that Finn learns why it’s worth fighting for things instead of just against and I think it’s a very good point. The casino subplot [may have ultimately ended in failure and been rendered pointless but] is hugely important for his character development.
  • Rose: A new character! Not quite as developed as the rest, mostly due to being new and all, but still gets her own arc going from a timid mechanic to a confident Resistance hero. From a side character to a main character. [It sort of combines the elements of Rey’s (broken pedestal, seeing the flaws in the people she looked up to), and Finn’s (gaining confidence), with the consequences of her backstory and having lost her sister in the initial bombing attack thrown into the mix]. Plus, she’s dorky and adorable and I love her.
  • Rey: Her hang-ups about being a nobody and searching for a place where she could belong are a far more traditional heroic arc, and not as interesting as most of the others, but still very satisfying. No real complaint from me.
  • Kylo Ren: Even the villain gets development, in a way! It’s been established in the previous movie that he is, in essence, an immature Vader fanboy prone to temper tantrums. Which is fun enough on its own. His central theme in this movie is [letting the past die. In many ways, this is similar to a standard heroic arc, and a mirror to Rey (which makes thematic sense, given their connection). He realises the old ways are flawed. And then comes to exactly the opposite conclusions than a hero would. Namely that everything must go down in flames. He comes to the precipice…and instead of turning back, consciously decides to jump off the cliff, turn to the dark side completely, deny the offer of redemption, and seize the power for himself. He wants belonging, like Rey, but doesn’t realise it cannot come from anger. That power will not help him.] This makes him one of my favourite villains ever. Far more interesting than the more standard “evil for the sake of evil.”
  • The only real character related complaint I have, aside from the thief being extremely annoying, is that Snoke is a very boring and ineffective villain, especially in comparison to Kylo Ren. Basically discount Voldemort.

In addition, it really hammers home the point that Star Wars and space adventures are for everyone. Not just visually this time, not just in terms of characters, but as an actual strong theme throughout the story. Take, for example [Rey being a nobody from nowhere but getting to be a hero regardless, Finn with his background, Rose with hers, the little children in the end telling stories about Luke Skywalker and using the Force…all of that while those you’d think were born to be heroes – like Luke or Kylo – have failed in one way or another]. It’s not just about inherent destiny anymore, and flaws and fuckups are an inherent part of it all (“Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery, hmm…but weakness, folly, failure also. Yes: failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.“). And that’s powerful. Thematically, this is by far the strongest movie so far.

And it all comes together into a coherent whole. The action scenes and the visuals are spectacular, it’s entertaining, it has humour (I loved [the evil ironing machine] in particular), but it’s also backed by some iron-solid character work and themes that made the occasional slips of the plot easy to forgive. I’d put it in the “god tier” category right beside The Mandalorian. Nothing is perfect, but then, it doesn’t have to be.

Also, it features the best explosion in all of Star Wars. I envy those who could see that in theatres. So there’s that too, I guess!

The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

I went to the cinema with no small amount of trepidation. Getting into Star Wars right around the time when a new movie came out and I could see it on the big screen has been very lucky indeed, but at the same time, the opinions have been…mixed. Sure, it was unlikely to come close to The Last Jedi, but it could have at least been as enjoyable as The Force Awakens, right?

When I saw the opening crawl, I made a face. My expectations fell significantly. What? They’re bringing back what? Why? How? Why now? How does this relate to any of it? What the fuck, what an ass pull! How could it break my suspension of disbelief with the opening crawl? The sequels aren’t supposed to be trainwrecks, that’s the prequels’ job! But okay. Maybe it will be okay. Two and a half hours to go, the premise is atrocious, but they might salvage it.

It did not get any better from there.

The most obvious issue with The Rise of Skywalker is that the plot is ridiculous. It’s an incoherent sequence of ass pulls loosely connected by a fetch quest and smoothed over by references and flashy action. It’s not that it isn’t what I expected, it’s that it makes no fucking sense whatsoever. Everything about it, every little aspect, every subplot, falls apart completely if you think about it for more than one second. It’s standing on foundations so shaky a breath could knock the whole thing over. “Hey,” it says often, “did you know that X is Y now?” Why? How? Fuck knows. “Oh, look, quick! Bad guys with blasters! Move along!”

And it’s like this with everything, all the time. There is such a barrage of it that absolutely nothing is ever explained, not even with a throwaway line, even though there are not one but several things that seem so highly improbable even for a movie series about space wizards that treats physics as optional that they would, you know, really need a decent fucking explanation. I’ve complained about this when it comes to books before. The bigger the anomaly or inconsistence that’s completely at odds with what the audience knows is, the more effort do you need to put in to maintain the suspension of disbelief.  The lack of foreshadowing [with one exception: Luke’s X-Wing] and internal retcons don’t help. So much of what happens on screen didn’t ultimately seem to matter. Blink, next scene. Move along, move along!

But okay. I didn’t have much of a problem with inconsistencies or ass pulls other Star Wars movies. After all, it wouldn’t be a Star Wars movie without at least one ass pull. Space wizards, whatever. So why the sudden urge to nitpick now? Why was I able to disregard the plot issues in all the other movies except the prequels, but not here? What’s so off that I’m suddenly focusing on plot points and believability? What’s bringing all my attention on it? I’m still not entirely sure. I think part of the answer could be the sheer quantity. I could take a few smaller, plot-convenient coincidences or ass pulls for the sake of dramatic tension, but in such large quantities…it’s not something you can base a movie on. It seems like there was no planning involved whatsoever.

Or it could be in the execution. By which I mean, it probably is. For all I complained about the flaws of the prequels, at least they mostly had a strong, coherent plot thread. I could not argue with that. When you put it in bulletpoints, it’s a solid fucking story even if the execution sucks. And The Last Jedi made up for the occasional dodgy plot point with strong themes and characters.

And this is an even bigger problem with The Rise of Skywalker: the character development, quiet scenes, emotion, or anything that’d provide a connection to the characters is utterly lacking for the sake of…faster, flashier pacing? The complex, careful character work the previous movie established? Yep, gone. Wasted. The characters are all flattened significantly. Dialogue is mostly exposition, conversations usually interrupted by action because fuck forbid we have a quiet moment, with the occasional scene with two characters (most often Ren and Rey) exchanging lines Very Dramatically. The dialogue, while not prequel-level bad, is noticably worse.

This is such an issue because quiet scenes are the connective tissue that bind the story together. It’s what gives meaning to the action, the foundations, the essential contrast. Making a movie not boring is all about balance, you need both. Paradoxically, constant action and an abundance of…stuff do not equal good pacing or make a movie go by fast, sometimes you need a damn break too. Scenes that don’t directly advance the plot serve character development, and this is basic stuff.

So much for bringing balance to the Force.

Besides, it doesn’t commit. At at least three or four points, [something bad seemingly happens to a major character – except nope, a couple minutes later they’re shown to be totally fine]. Which utterly wrecks any sense of tension. I could take it once, but all the time? It’s pure narrative cowardice, an attempt to pull off emotional moments without really sacrificing anything. It doesn’t help that the characters aren’t given the time and space to emotionally react to those moments because plot must happen! Go, go, go! And if characters can’t, what chance does the viewer have?

(Speaking of narrative cowardice, there was absolutely no reason for [Rose to play such a minor role].)

It then attempts to iron over the messy plot and lack of substance with action scenes and nostalgia. Now, I’m not at all immune to call-backs. I left my review of The Force Awakens as it was after I finished the movie. But cheap tricks don’t work when the core of the movie is as shoddy as this, they only highlight the larger flaws. Action without emotional connection is meaningless and boring as shit, no matter how much they attempt to speed up the pacing. Pretty visuals alone do not an interesting movie make. And throwing reference upon reference at the viewer when most of the references make no in-story sense is a little insulting.

And is it even worth pointing out that it fucks up thematically as well? Is it any surprise after what I wrote above?

It’s not even that it’s shallow, or that The Last Jedi raised my expectations too high. I wouldn’t have minded shallow. It’s space cheese. I went in expecting something in the vein of The Force Awakens or slightly worse – a bit of a rehash, mildly disappointing in comparison to The Last Jedi, but ultimately a fun ride regardless. But shoddy plot in combination with shoddy pacing and shoddy character work is killer. Not even [a red guard cameo] was able to save this mess. “Sit back and enjoy the explosions! It’s just a movie about space wizards for kids! Don’t overthink it!” Well, I can’t when its flaws are practically screaming in my face. It being action, it being a franchise made to sell toys – that doesn’t mean the movies cannot be good at the same time. And it just…how could they have screwed it up so bad? How did they manage to make it boring? Why did I spent the entire time either facepalming, sighing, or wondering when it will be over so I can go take a piss? Argh. (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Hopefully the next movies and series will go back to being good again.

Verdict

In the end, “wildly divisive” proved to be about right. My reactions were about even for all the movies in the original (fun, if flawed) and the prequel trilogies (varying degrees of shitty), but here they reached both the highest of highs with The Last Jedi and the lowest of lows with The Rise of Skywalker.

If there’s one problem the sequel trilogy at large has, it’s a lack of coherent vision. I have said in my post on the prequels that the common issue with Star Wars is that while the big picture is solid, the details often aren’t. When it comes to the sequels, this is no longer true. The Last Jedi builds off The Force Awakens, no complaints about the first two movies, but it becomes obvious with The Rise of Skywalker that they didn’t plan the ending. At all. Many of the plot points from the previous movies are either ignored entirely or retconned, and it instead centers on an element [the sudden return of Palpatine] (which, hey, that’s a good movie title right there) that was not foreshadowed in any way whatsoever. It highlights a structural issue that goes deeper than just one movie, even disregarding all the other issues I ranted about. I bet a lot of fanfic endings are more canon-compliant and more of a logical conclusion based on what came before than this.

(By the way, if anyone knows of any fanfic that starts where The Last Jedi left off and constructs a better, canon-compliant ending, please float a link my way. Seriously. I beg you. Especially if [Finn and Poe] get to be a couple.)

Besides, being massively disappointed in at least one movie seems like an essential part of being a Star Wars fan, and I feel like I had my trial by fire now. My initial, knee-jerk reaction might have been “oh my god the last movie RUINED it” but after a private, indignant ranting session, I calmed down. One bad movie does not invalidate my love for the worldbuilding, or for everything that came before, or how much these movies helped me. And I refuse to let the disappointment turn into hate. I refuse to let it consume me. Prequels make it clear that you don’t have to like all the movies to consider yourself a fan, so why would this be any different?

I will not turn to the dark side.

This may be the last trilogy for now, but there are still Rogue One and Solo left for me to watch. At least one more post to come!

One thought on “Star Wars Without Nostalgia: The Sequels”

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