by davey jones
Forty years ago, George Lucas blazed a space opera trail through popular culture. As an intellectual property, Star Wars spawned a fan base that currently spans three generations, a growing number of films, endless franchising opportunities, and billions of dollars in revenue. Lucas faced increasing criticism since the turn of the millenium with the expansion of the Star Wars empire; some fans believed the new stories didn’t live up to his groundbreaking legacy.
Further criticism arose five years ago, when Lucas sold his franchise to The Walt Disney Company. In a cinematic era stocked with nostalgic comic book characters, one might ask if modern filmmakers are capable of creating new franchises without proven intellectual property. Then again, Star Wars itself draws from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, John Ford’s westerns, Flash Gordon serials, and The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. As creators and audiences continue to grapple with artistic notions of ownership and synthesis, a more pointed question lingers: will Star Wars fail or flourish without the guidance of George Lucas?
I’ve been a Star Wars fan as long as I can remember. In 2016, As a long-term fan of the franchise, Rogue One was the first new Star Wars film I’ve loved since the Eighties. Rogue One was taut and thrilling with droll droid humor; it felt classic and new at the same time, like The Guns of Navarone infused with Sunshine. Unlike The Force Awakens released a year prior, the latest installment didn’t leaned too much on the success, and plot, of its spiritual predecessor. Fans were introduced to the tenuous ties between Rebel factions, the acquisition of the Death Star plans, and a fulfillment of Darth Vader’s nightmarish potential. I went home and watched A New Hope with renewed vigor and high hopes for the future of Star Wars under Disney purview.
I call my parents to figure out when exactly I first saw Star Wars. My parents saw the originals in the late 70s and early 80s. They adored it so much, Dad brought the franchise home in the hip new format — VHS. Dad can’t remember if I saw Return of the Jedi in the theater with them or not; he says I was a quiet kid, so maybe?
Either way, I was asking family members to scoop up second-hand Star Wars toys for my birthday by 1987. I received a Kenner Millenium Falcon as large as my torso, an AT-AT walker bigger than some dogs, a Snowspeeder still capable of laser lights and sounds (missing the tow cable), and an AT-ST in a scruffy-looking box. Thirty years later, I sold those nostalgic toys, telling the shop owner I was excited my collection would be a conversation starter in the weeks preceding The Last Jedi.
Thus, I was privately anxious about the latest episode. I’d already endured the Special Edition debacle in the Nineties, feeling betrayed and disappointed by three pathetic attempts to modernize the saga. Hindsight proved they were harbingers of the prequels. I saw Episode I with a friend the month before we graduated from high school; we both hated it. I saw Episode II during college, hopeful with news that Jar Jar’s buffoonery had significantly less screen time,
Natalie Portman resembled Princess Leia’s mother, and Hayden Christensen appeared brooding enough to portray the corruption of Anakin Skywalker.
I sat uncomfortably through a film most quotable at its worst: “I don’t like sand… it’s coarse and rough and irritating… and it gets everywhere.” By 2005, I did not have high expectations for wars, sequels, or guys named George. I should have heeded the warning in my heart but, as Ol’ Ben Kenobi said, “Who’s the more foolish, the fool, or the fool who follows him?”
Episode III was the chosen one, however, the film that would create Darth Vader! The mournful “NOooo!” near the end of the film felt more like what the audience was thinking. YouTube, launched earlier that year, was saving a seat for Revenge of the Sith’s unintentional comedy to usher in a pantheon of memes.
After the dust of the prequels settled, I would be unwittingly introduced to the next generation of Star Wars directors. Winter was coming as I huddled next to a space heater and eye-guzzled the first season of J.J. Abrams’ show, Lost. 2006 saw the release of writer/director Rian Johnson’s debut feature, Brick, a hard-boiled high school noir. Both would go on to further prove their sci-fi chops.
Abrams went on to reboot Star Trek in 2009, confessing his Star Wars fandom in interviews about the farm-boy-bound-for-space opening. 2012 brought both Looper, Rian Johnson’s popular time-travel flick full of misdirection, and the sale of LucasFilm to Disney for $4 billion. By Christmas that year, J.J. Abrams met with Disney, but publicly claimed Star Trek obligations would prevent his involvement. A month later, Disney had their way, confirming Abrams at the helm of Episode VII.
If Star Trek Into Darkness plundering the past had been taken as any indication, sci-fi fans might have been more prepared for the creative cannibalism Abrams would bring to The Force Awakens. At least half of the new Star Wars film felt like a legitimate attempt to overlap fresh characters and old favorites, but the plot seemed suspiciously reliant on blowing up a base capable of destroying planets.
I wanted to know more, but I had a bad feeling about this. Where did Snoke come from? Who might Rey’s parents be? Why did these open-ended mysteries remind me of Lost?
The first teaser trailer for The Last Jedi launched last April, accumulating millions of views and spinning analytics-driven media into ceaseless speculation about the aging Luke Skywalker’s fateful words, “It’s time for the Jedi… to end.” The second trailer, in October, furthered the frenzy with First Order forces reminiscent of the Battle of Hoth, a shot of Kylo Ren considering matricide, and yet another quote from Luke: “This is not going to go… the way you think.” Good! Right?
I was convinced Rian Johnson could pull the tail from the mouth of the Star Wars ouroboros. Nobody could’ve predicted Luke’s parentage in 1980, but escalating expectations have accompanied every Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back via emerging narrative patterns, box office projections, or flames of fan desire. I was expecting an epic return to form in the Skywalker saga, some greater reward for years of faithfulness during the largely consistent disappointment of the past two decades. More than anything, I wanted to be surprised by Star Wars.
I’d spend the better part of December dodging potential spoilers, resolved to sacredly screen The Last Jedi with my parents during the holiday. When the night finally came, I sat in the center of the last row in the front section awaiting the familiar sounds of John Williams and the slow crawl of giant yellow words. Somehow, I was a kid anticipating Christmas again; that was a way I’ve not felt for a long time. The feeling became complicated over the next two and a half hours. Luke’s quotes from the trailers both misled and chided the audience.
Mark Hamill delivered a performance that rivals anything he’s ever done, while the connection between Rey and Kylo showcased the complicated heart of this new trilogy, collectively yielding some of the best scenes. Almost every moment with Carrie Fisher felt worth cherishing while we
wonder how Disney will handle her physical absence in Episode IX. As for the rest of the cast, with so many entrances and exits to handle, many arcs did not feel duly developed… even in the longest Star Wars film to date.
Star Wars fans may slowly realize that the latest film’s title is part of the ruse Rian Johnson used to pull a heist. In regards to Johnson, I’ll paraphrase a quote from the second installment of another iconic trilogy: “he’s the hero Star Wars deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” Disney has contracted Johnson for a Star Wars trilogy reportedly set in a different part of the universe, perhaps indicative of his indifference to negative reviews of The Last Jedi.
The conceptual dissemination of the Force away from the Skywalker family, and perhaps even the struggle between fundamentalist Jedi and Sith, may prove fertile ground for creativity more akin to the original spirit of Star Wars. Maybe, with a trilogy’s worth of creative control, Rian Johnson can rival George Lucas. We can only hope.
Meanwhile… Solo better be good, Disney, for your sake. The internet is not as forgiving as I am.