Here’s what’s wrong with the modern Star Wars movies…
Scrreeech! Okay, wait. Maybe that needs to be clarified since Star Wars (and a lot of modern pop culture) has become caught up in toxic fandom and politicized agendas. I didn’t have any particular objection to The Last Jedi’s themes and intent. I know there’s been some “fan” backlash from alt-righters who have leeched onto the franchise as a platform to the point where Last Jedi co-star, Kelly Marie Tran (“Rose”), was especially targeted. And aside from the fact that it is terrible (and unacceptable) that an actor would he harassed just because people didn’t like a movie, I would go one step further and say that in a lot of ways I regard Rose (and Tran) as one of the best things about the new trilogy — both in terms of the character and Tran’s performance. And this will be kind of germane to my point.
I’ll also freely acknowledge that there’s an old man factor at work in my criticism — something I may not be fully cognizant of. That as a middle aged guy I’m not going to respond to the new movies the way I did as a younger viewer to the original film. (Also I’ve seen most of the movies at least twice, but I’m going by memory with some of these references, and maybe I’ve forgotten relevant bits of dialogue).
With all that said: here’s a problem I think I’ve noticed with the new movies and which I haven’t seen much remarked upon (at least in pieces I’ve come across).
A lack of realism.
That might seem like a silly complaint about a movie franchise where human-looking characters exist in a distant galaxy with laser swords and access a mysterious universal force. But bear with me.
I first sort of felt this was an issue with The Force Awakens and the fact that I didn’t really understand how the galaxy was supposed to be set up. Maybe this was partly because I had gone into it thinking the rebels had essentially won at the end of The Return of the Jedi, and I was aware there had been decades of post-movies novels and comics chronicling the rise of the New Republic. I had assumed the movie would begin with the Republic in place and the remnants of the Empire re-arising. Instead — it’s not really clear what’s going on. The First Order already seems to have fleets and ships and uniformed troops — hardly a covert insurgency — and the heroes were already being identified as “the Resistance.” So did that mean the rebels hadn’t really achieved anything by the end of Return of the Jedi and have just been fighting the Empire for the last thirty years or so? Jeez — that’s depressing. Except the bad guys are called the First Order, implying some sort of demarcation between the villains of the original trilogy and the new movies. And the planetary home of the Resistance didn’t exactly seem to be a secret in the movie. And the First Order didn’t really seem to operate as a government — more just doing a lot of strafing and raiding.
Then in The Last Jedi the Resistance even talks about trying to summon their “allies” — which again means what exactly?
To be honest it kind of feels like the makers of the new movies are just throwing together a lot of terms, trying to recapture the old movies (swapping “Resistance” for “Rebels”), without any real regard for, or interest in, the nitty gritty of world building.
I also remember feeling in The Force Awakens I was having trouble picturing the geography of this galaxy. Like how could the Resistance get word the bad guys are going to blow them up with their super-laser, mount a counter-plan, and fly all the way out to where the laser was — all while the bad guys were still apparently just priming their laser (I’m old enough to remember when it took a few seconds for the TV to warm up but this is ridiculous!) Not to mention how did the Resistance get word of the bad guys plan? Did they have spies on the bad guys’ planet? If so — did those spies get blowed up real good when the Resistance blewed up the planet? (That’s not even getting into the fact that the heroes blew up an entire planet with an ecosystem — something which, y’know, I thought only evil people were supposed to do!)
Again, I can’t help thinking the response from the filmmakers would be: who cares?
(Now to be fair, this may be an example of old me vs young me, because the original movies certainly played around with our perception of time. Notably in The Empire Strikes Back in which Luke somehow squeezes weeks of Jedi training into the time it takes for Han & Leia to flee Hoth and get captured by Darth Vader!)
But arguably part of the appeal of the earlier Star Wars films was precisely this attention to world building. Heck — George Lucas kind of went overboard on that in the prequel movies where there just seemed a lot of endless talk about trade embargoes and midichlorians and all sorts of gobbledygook that probably had many of us banging our fists into our heads saying “Is this going to be on the exam, Mr. Lucas Sir?”
But even in the original movies, when Lucas demonstrated more restraint, he was clearly trying to craft a sense of an actual galaxy. Heck, Lucas even takes time out from all the swashbuckling and daring-do to have a scene where the Imperial bad guys discuss, essentially, infrastructure. When told the Emperor has disbanded the senate, one Imperial asks how’s that going to work, administration-wise? And he’s told the local governors can assume governing responsibility. That’s completely irrelevant to the rest of the film, and as a kid watching it for the first time, I’m sure I didn’t consciously care — but a moment like that helps ground the fantasy, making it feel like there’s a real galaxy, with real, mundane matters to be dealt with. The Imperials may be ruthless, tyrannical, genocidal baddies…but at least they were making sure the weekly garbage pick-ups weren’t being disrupted.
I’m not sure you get the impression the First Order is doing much more than flash-raids and playing at being galactic dictators.
(Which, admittedly, might have been the point: the First Order essentially the equivalent of Tiki-torch wielding cosplaying alt-right fascists).
A example of this idea of world building in the original Star Wars — subtly and by implication — is the scene where Luke and Ben first meet Han Solo. First: we are told Han is a Corellian. That means nothing to us, the viewer, but establishes that he didn’t just spring to life in a Mos Eisley cantina. Han then acts shocked they haven’t heard of the Millennium Falcon, explaining that it made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs and can outrun Imperial cruisers. And not just the local jobbies, we are assured, but Corellian cruisers. All of which…means nothing to the viewer. But we understand the intent (establishing it’s a fast ship) and letting us glimpse a galaxy much bigger than what’s in the camera frame, a universe we can partly fill in with our own imagination. As a kid I wasn’t sure if Corellian cruisers meant Corellia was famous for its shipyards, or whether it meant Corellia was an unruly system and needed the fastest Imperial ships to police it. (No doubt this has been thoroughly explained in various novels and such, but my point is what was said on the screen).
The original movie has other oblique references (such as to the Clone Wars) that hint at a bigger galaxy and history than is contained in the scenes themselves.
And I’m just not sure — at least as processed by my middle-aged brain — that there’s any equivalent “world building” (through casual asides and cryptic reference) in the new movies.
Which then brings us to the characters in the old movies versus the new movies.
In the original Star Wars the characters were very much defined by who they were before the movie even began: farmboy, princess, freighter captain/smuggler. Luke, for instance, we know has friends in town, is a farmer, dreams about getting away and becoming a pilot, etc. One could easily imagine an alternate universe where they never joined the rebellion and lived different lives, because they were already living those lives. The rebellion wasn’t their lives — the rebellion was the thing that tore them away from their lives. Likewise, in the prequel movies, Anakin is very much shaped and influenced by who he was before.
Yet the new movies seem almost conspicuous in crafting characters who barely exist outside of the central narrative. Rey’s introduction mirrors Luke’s (desert dweller who finds a droid and gets whisked away to adventure). But it’s hard to imagine what her life would’ve been like if she hadn’t found the droid, because her life barely seems defined to begin with. She’s a character waiting in the wings for her cue to come on stage (she’s literally waiting for her parents to return — despite being in her twenties). Meanwhile Finn has a more dramatic backstory — raised as a Stormtrooper! But it seems to exist as a way of not having to deal with his backstory; there’s nothing in his affable character that seems like he’s supposed to be a traumatized ex-child soldier raised in a fascist state. Instead, Finn is essentially “born” when he pulls off his helmet at the beginning of TFA. And then there’s Poe who’s simply a Resistance soldier with no sense of what he was before he joined the Resistance (or, to use my earlier thought experiment, what he might be doing with his life if he hadn’t joined the Resistance).
(And I realize that there have probably been Star Wars novels and comics that have filled in the characters more — but I’m going by what I recall from the movies).
Part of the reason I said Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose was one of the best things about the new movies is because she provides us a glimpse of a world that exists outside of the movies, the character having (had) a sister, and talking about her life before she joined. You can kind of believe in Rose as a person in the way you could Luke and Leia and Han. (And Tran’s performance nicely combines the needs of creating a believable character with the larger-than-life swashbuckling, “gee whiz” tone of Star Wars, in a way some of the actors don’t pull off quite as well).
This lack of believable backstory is perhaps especially conspicuous in the new movies’ villain, Kylo Ren. I mean, given he is the chief villain, and his actions and motives have dramatic impact upon other characters (Rey, Luke, Leia, Han, etc.) I’m not really sure what his motive is. Indeed, Kylo Ren breaks one of the first rules of writing-the-villain in that writers often tell you the villain never thinks of himself as the villain. But in Kylo’s case — he absolutely does. He wants to be the bad guy. But — why? Why did he fixate on his dead grandfather and decide he wanted to go all dark side? I mean, say what you will about problems with the prequel trilogy, but give Lucas credit that he tried to craft them as a character study, chronicling how a basically decent little boy grows up to become the ultimate baddie in the galaxy.
But Kylo Ren? Apparently all we need to know is he was just born bad. Which seems a rejection of the earlier movies’ themes which, however awkwardly and perhaps shallowly articulated, seemed interested in the ideas of corruption and redemption and how people are shaped by the choices they make and why they make them.
Indeed, the lack of convincing backstories in the modern movies is so conspicuous, I’d almost wonder if it was deliberate. As if maybe they’re going to build to a startling twist in the third movie where in the final scene Rey, Finn, Kylo, and Po wake up to discover they are actually just Star Wars fans attending a Comi-Con convention who were testing a prototype Star Wars V/R game.
I suppose you could say a difference between the modern movies and the earlier ones is that the original movies were creators trying to create a fantasy world, whereas the modern movies are, by necessity, a kind of fan-fiction, made by filmmakers who want to play with their childhood toys. (Perhaps reflected in how the movies recycle the earlier films: The Force Awakens follows a similar plot to Star Wars (A New Hope) and The Last Jedi can be mapped onto the plot of The Empire Strikes Back).
You could argue this fanboy-ishness is demonstrated in how the movies deal with history and legacy — a kind of iconoclasm versus idolatry.
Remember my earlier focusing on that scene where Luke & Ben first meet Han & Chewie? Another interesting quirk about it is that Luke & Ben don’t really seem to know what Han is talking about. Han is peeved that they haven’t heard of his ship or know the significance of a fast Kessel Run — which ironically adds to a sense of realism. Han is a pilot who presumably hangs out with other pilots so all his friends know this stuff — but Luke & Ben are a farmer who knows tech related to his life (droids, land speeders) and an old hermit who has probably been out of the cosmic loop for years. Han is the equivalent of a videogamer all excited about the latest Final Fantasy release and is flummoxed by non-gamers who respond saying: “Oh, you mean like Space Invaders?” What’s important in Han’s circle is barely trivia in Luke & Ben’s circles.
This separation between areas of knowledge is especially highlighted when it comes to history. The Jedi Knights were wiped out barely a generation ago — and already their legacy is fading into obscurity. Luke doesn’t even know what a lightsabre is, nor has he heard of “The Force,” while Han repeatedly mocks Ben and his beliefs (calling him a “fossil” at one point). Likewise even Darth Vader is mocked by his fellow Imperials for his belief in the Force. Is twenty odd years really enough time for those things to fade from the public memory so much? I think you’d be surprised the responses you got if you asked people twenty years your junior about people, events, and technology from your youth (or equally, talk to someone older than you and see how many references they make you don’t get).
Star Wars was perhaps influenced both by George Lucas’ love of nostalgia (Lucas freely admitting Star Wars was an homage to old movie serials) but also, presumably, the post hippy-era when a generation deliberately turned their backs on the older generation — and their culture. Star Wars is both a paean to a Golden Age and a recognition that the past becomes…past.
(Now all this becomes muddled a bit by the subsequent films, when Darth Vader goes from being a sad relic to the Emperor’s right hand and belief in The Force seems far more prevalent than it did in the first movie).
But with the newer movies, this recognition of how quickly times change and how easily the past gets forgotten is pushed aside. Even though it’s (arguably) been a longer time-span between the current movies and the original films than it was between the original movies and the prequels, little seems to have changed (even if, as I mentioned earlier, it’s unclear how the Resistance/Rebels and the New Order/Empire relate to each other). Leia is even still leader! When Rey and Finn meet Han it is with awestruck recognition, and he assures them “the stories” are all true. You half expect Rey to pull out her “Rebel Alliance” trading cards and ask Han to sign the one with all his stats on the back.
If this had been the first movie, you’d probably expect the younger characters to not even know who the older characters are. But in the new movies — they are enduring legends recognizable by people 30 years their junior. And this gets back to my point about the new movies made by fans, eager to play with old toys. The audience knows who these older characters are, therefore so do the younger characters.
Of course this may all be nonsense. As I mentioned near the beginning, I’m considerably older now than when I saw Star Wars as a wee kiddie during a heat wave in 1977. Kids need less to fuel their imagination — adults need considerably more. I don’t lose myself in movies they way I did decades ago, and so it’s fair to say there’s nothing the current movies could do that would make them comparable for me to seeing the original Star Wars back in the day.
Still, I think my points have some validity, analyzing the different ways the original trilogy and the current movies approach world building, characterization, and continuity. And, indeed, highlight ways you can build a fantasy/SF world not with massive info-dumps and explanations, but with coy hints and glimpses that let the audience imagine a world just out of sight.