Star Wars Sequel Trilogy Retrospective
In their quest to own all of media in 2012, Disney spent $4 billion to purchase Lucasfilm. They were not about to just sit around and merely continue what the studio had been doing; making action figures, T-shirts, video games etc. No, they had spent billions on this new toy and they were going to make a new Star Wars trilogy. Kathleen Kennedy was placed in charge of overseeing this next saga of three movies. Given that he brought the style of Star Wars to the Star Trek franchise, JJ Abrams was chosen to direct Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Given there had not been a good Star Wars flick since 1983 how would audiences respond to the idea of a new trilogy set in a galaxy far, far away? As of last year the saga wrapped up after inspiring a whole variety of emotions and controversy along the way.
As mentioned previously JJ Abrams kicked things off with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it served as a solid introduction to the next generation of Star Wars characters. There is new protagonist on the quest to Jedi-hood in Rey, reformed Stormtrooper Finn, cocky pilot Poe Dameron, and a Vader-wannabe in Kylo Ren. These new characters seemed to quickly endear themselves to audiences. Rey in particular became an instant fan favorite, and frankly going from a trilogy where the female representation consisted of Princess Leia and a few minutes of Mon Mothma, this new direction was most welcome. As the villain, Kylo Ren was something we had never seen in a Star Wars film before. We had seen before the likes of Luke Skywalker who tried to adhere to the path of the light side, but felt the temptation of the dark side. His nephew Kylo on the other hand revered Grandpa Vader and tried his best to stick to the dark path despite a lingering temptation to join the side of good.
Naturally JJ Abrams did his thing and brought; spectacle, fun, and lingering plot mysteries to be solved. What many saw as the weakest point of the Force Awakens however was the story. All the beats were pretty much derived from the plot of a New Hope. A lonely young person with a great destiny on a desert planet meets a cool new friend and a droid. Together they cross paths with an aged warrior who puts them on their path. They go to a hole-in-the-wall bar filled with aliens and eventually destroy the bad guy’s powerful space station. Granted with the movie ultimately being a soft reboot of the franchise, bringing some familiarity into the mix is not that bad of an idea. Another issue I had with the story was the lack of explanation behind the conflict. With the originals we learn in the very opening crawl, that the Empire rules the galaxy and the Rebel Alliance are fighting them in a civil war. Simple and easy to grasp. All we know about the First Order is that they arose from the “ashes of the Galactic Empire” but are they themselves an empire? Are they a terrorist group? Whenever they go to a new planet everyone immediately cowers to their troops despite that fact they do not seem to actually be in charge. Do these planets not have militaries to fight off these troublemakers who are throwing their weight around? Do not give me any “well in the expanded universe….” because important plot points need to be in the actual movie.
Ultimately, the Force Awakens was a super fun and entertaining movie which accomplished what it set put to do. It reignited the passion for the franchise which the dull and plodding prequels extinguished and set up moviegoers for the next installment of the Skywalker Saga. This movie was followed up by the not at all controversial Last Jedi. This is where the cracks started to form that maybe there was not an overall planned story for this sequel trilogy as we all thought. As anyone with an internet connection knows, director Rian Johnson split fandom down the middle with his installment in the Star Wars franchise. My personal feelings towards it are complicated. I thought the stuff with Luke, Rey and Kylo was perfectly done. I also felt the theme of killing your heroes and the past to forge a new path was incredibly refreshing in the Star Wars universe. On a sheer spectacle level, the action in this film was top notch. The battle of Rey and Kylo against Snoke’s guards was easily one of the best battle sequences ever in a Star Wars flick. Because he has been doing most of his acting behind a microphone these past several years, many have forgotten just how good of an actor Mark Hamill was, but in the Last Jedi he reminded them. He had a far more complex role than many expected, he did not accept Rey with open arms eager to train her. Instead, he was a beaten and cynical man, which makes perfect sense considering he went from being the proverbial chosen one in the galaxy only to watch it all fall apart. But over time, Rey inspires new hope in the old Jedi as he rejoins the fight against evil.
Not everything was roses, the reveal that Leia all of a sudden had mastered the Force could not have been any more ridiculous. There not yet been a hint that in between trilogies she had done any Jedi training, no scene where she is sitting at a desk then Force grabbing a pen to make audiences go “ooooh”. Nope, she immediately survives the vacuum of space and can fly like Superman to safety with no build-up or explanation. Then there was the character of Finn, who was a breakout favorite from the Force Awakens, one would assume that this movie would continue to see him evolve past his Stormtrooper brainwashing and further himself as a hero. Instead he awakens from a coma and wants to chicken-out of the Resistance. What follows is he and the new character Rose Tico going on a side quest, which ultimately leads nowhere. It seemed like Rian Johnson was trying to make a statement on war profiteering along the way but it does not really work. As I said the end result was a film which sent people to the internet to fight over whether or not it was a good movie. A divided fan response and the box office failure of Solo loomed large over Kathleen Kennedy’s leadership of Lucasfilm as the third part of the trilogy approached.
Remember how I mentioned the Last Jedi clued everyone into the fact there was no organized and thought out story? The Rise of Skywalker pretty much confirmed it. Granted the third part of a trilogy is traditionally where the steam runs out to some degree, but there is still a narrative flow. Point A leads to Point B leads to Point C. With this film, the sequel trilogy officially went from Point A to Point B to a Point on a whole different storyline. All the character growth and plot points of the previous two films are chucked out the window. To the point that the Skywalker lightsaber which was destroyed in the previous movie was magically back thus undoing the symbolism of the moment which should have propelled Rey on her own path to the Force. Given that the previous director was let go and JJ Abrams was quickly brought back this undoubtedly did not allow much prep time. Even still Kathleen Kennedy, JJ Abrams, and screenwriter Chris Terrio could have come up with something more coherent. Then again when you put your trust in the guy who wrote Batman v. Superman what can you expect? Rather they decide that it is alright if the story does not make much sense so long as they kept the pace fast enough nobody would notice.
Rather than continuing the war between the Resistance and the First Order; we get the bombshell that despite being vaporized in Return of the Jedi Emperor Palpatine was back….somehow? Thus undermining the climax of the Star Wars trilogy. Nobody questions this either, Poe tells everyone and they just kind of believe him. Imagine if someone showed up today and said “this recent resurgence in white nationalism….it’s because Hitler is back” we would probably have that person committed. With Snoke being sacrificed for Kylo Ren’s character growth, it made sense to make him the lead antagonist of the film, but they just pulled this stunt instead. Palpatine reveals he has been the one controlling all of the bad guys during these movies, even though this has never been remotely alluded to. Somehow, on an isolated planet with some followers he has assembled an armada completely functional and fully staffed star destroyers with weapons to destroy entire worlds. Not having learned his Death Star lesson, this plan does have a single exploitable weakness which will destroy them all.
In order to keep up with the set quick pace, the heroes of this movie are always on the move with little time for silly character moments or emotional beats. That is except for Rose Tyco, who had a personality change from a tenacious go-getter to someone who just wanted to chillax at the base while everyone else had adventures. The opening sequence pretty much sums it up as Finn and Poe use lightspeed to jump from planet to planet with little care and not allowing the audience to catch-up with why it is important. Plot points hit rapidly and ultimately lead nowhere. Chewbacca is dead, then he is not. The enigmatic Knights of Ren are hyped-up, but end up doing nothing. In the Last Jedi, Rey learned that she was not a Skywalker or Kenobi or anything like that, leaving the young Force-wielder to decide her own fate. Rise of Skywalker said “Psyche! She’s Palpatine’s granddaughter” and he wishes to possess her or kill her depending on the scene. Ultimately, the film ends up being more concerned with how much fan service it can fit in rather constructing a complete movie.
It is the failed landing that has marred the way Disney’s sequel trilogy will be remembered. Storylines were there to be built on for two movies, but Kathleen Kennedy and JJ Abrams instead went “f**k it!” and slapped together a bunch of elements they thought would sell tickets. This solidified that at their core, this series of movies was simply a cash-grab for Disney. The fact that these movies drew in billions at the box office means that on that front they were very successful. However, the price was it lacks the cultural resonance of the original trilogy. Sure, we like the characters, but they have nowhere near the endearment to the masses as; Han Solo, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, and the others. Recently Diamond Select Toys pretty much confirmed the merchandise of the sequel trilogy does not sell well. Instead of the lofty heights of previous Star Wars movies, the sequel trilogy are seen as just standard run-of-the-mill blockbusters. There is nothing wrong with this though, because and the end of the day these movies are damn entertaining. The last time Star Wars was on the big screen it was a sluggish chore, with bored-looking actors reciting stilted dialogue against bad green screen backdrops. With the sequel trilogy JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson brought adventure and excitement back to the franchise reminding moviegoers how much fun these movies can be. The trilogy brought with it a renewed interest in Star Wars as a brand of entertainment as whole. Two Disney theme parks, Disneyland and Hollywood Studios, received Star Wars lands, which elevated the game in theme park theming. I know on my last trip I geeked out, standing in a movie-accurate spaceport as Stomtroopers accused me of being a spy. The Disney+ series the Mandalorian has been a huge hit on the small screen. Now with the main Skywalker Saga out of the way, this leaves the entire galaxy far, far away as one big playground for storytellers to delve into. Who knows where things could go from here, and that is pretty exciting.