“A Jedi, like my father before me”: The Star Wars films have an Identity Crisis

This post contains spoilers for The Last Jedi.


Attack of the Clones is the most ironic Star Wars title of all.

Episode II ranks regularly as one of the worst films of the franchise. It’s stodgily acted, goes hell for leather on the CGI, has an at-times nonsensical story and is not an intellectually or viscerally satisfying movie. Even as popcorn entertainment – which is, by and large, the franchise’s stock in trade – the film doesn’t do well, at least until that last twenty minutes of Clone War ‘splosions and far too many lightsabers.

But at least, compared to both what came before and after, it’s doing something different. Not necessarily well, and most of its storytelling decisions are drawn from a well of dumb, but different nonetheless. The political intrigue on Coruscant and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s secret mission to Kamino and beyond don’t really have antecedents within the films that came before, and there’s certainly no other Star Wars film that puts as much of a focus on the romance (which is, provably, for the better). For a movie that’s part of a franchise dedicated to reliving and copying what’s already been done, I’d argue that Attack of the Clones is the least similar of its brethren.

We know that Star Wars lives and dies on the power of its nostalgia. The sequel trilogy was bankrolled by Disney as a deliberate throwback to what made the series great back in the 70s and 80s; no more of this Clone War crap or any trade tarriffs and dry political bullshit. The Force Awakens, for all its innovations and social progression – for starters, having a central trio with no white guys as the heroes – is more or less treading a lot of the same ground that A New Hope spent its time on. There’s even a lot of that at work in the new expanded universe, with classic writers like Timothy Zahn being enlisted to give us the origin story of the character he made his name from back in the 90s, in an attempt to draw old-hand readers into the new continuity.

It might seem like I’m taking Disney’s work to task, but the truth is I love the majority of their output since they acquired Lucasfilm. I enjoyed The Force Awakens and loved The Last Jedi (not as in love with Rogue One, which gets progressively worse every time I watch it). The novels and comics are (mostly) quite good, and do a great job filling the space left by the absence of the original expanded universe. There’s every reason to love the nostalgibaiting Disney use as their primary approach to the galaxy far, far away.

But at the end of the day, what does that make Star Wars about?

That’s a dumb question; of course we know what it’s about. A decades-spanning space opera about the eternal struggle between good and evil, mostly centred on a prophetically-powerful bloodline created by immaculate conception. We’ve known since 1977 what Star Wars is about.

What we don’t know, and what Disney are going to have to decide, is what the franchise is about.

Say what you will about Attack of the Clones and its wooden acting, bad romance and overuse of CGI. Speak ill of the prequels as a whole if you like, since Lord knows I do at every opportunity. But at least they, and the original trilogy they were connected to, had a purpose: the prequels told the story of Darth Vader, which informed the original trilogy’s story about Luke Skywalker, all taking place within that eternal good and evil struggle. The identity of the franchise, at least as far as its films were concerned, was clear and readily understood.

So when The Force Awakens dropped in 2015 as an almost point-for-point retread of A New Hope, the immediate thought was that we were in for more of the same. Not only did director JJ Abrams smash the nostalgia button with a mallet, we also knew this was the start of a Disneyfied franchise. We’d already had seven years’ experience with the Marvel Cinematic Universe at that point, and those films are more or less copies of each other in terms of structure, tone and plot developments (though if early buzz is any indicator, it seems Black Panther might buck that trend a little). The following year saw the release of Rogue One, a standalone story that drew much of its audience power from being a literal prologue to A New Hope by featuring almost every element of that film, up to and including Darth Vader’s original voice actor. As I said before, I like a lot of what Disney’s put out since 2015, but it was all comfort food. Familiar, safe, warming.

The two films were coupled with the announcements of not only Episodes VIII and IX, but also of a Han Solo standalone film, another about Boba Fett, and rumours of a third involving Obi-Wan Kenobi, the latter even potentially starring Ewan McGregor back in his Jedi robes. It served at the time to make one thing clear: the Star Wars film franchise identity was now firmly rooted in sanctifying those original six films and the story they’d created. If Marvel can make cookie-cutter capefilms with little substantial variety between them, then why can’t George Lucas’ magnum opus? Those copies, explicit and derivative, sell like hot cakes, so there’s no reason to break from that mold.

That made the surprises of 2017s The Last Jedi all the more potent. Yes, it copped a lot of the same accusations as Awakens did in being a derivative film; a friend of mine likened it to a hybrid of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and to a point he’s not exactly wrong. But the film seemed to consciously buck that nostalgic security blanket that Awakens and Rogue One hid beneath, dismissing almost every callback or hint at a replica of the original mythology that JJ Abrams introduced in the previous film. Given the mystery surrounding her parents, the prior movies had trained us to expect Rey to be a Skywalker and to follow a similar path to Luke; turns out she’s a nobody whose late parents were drunkards. Kylo Ren seemed primed to turn back to the Light Side, in a confrontation with Supreme Leader Snoke that near-completely copied the climax of Return of the Jedi; nope, Kylo’s full evil, yo. A confrontation with the First Order on a white planet seems like a distracting tactic so the Rebellion can flee, a la The Battle of Hoth; nah, the Rebels are making their last stand on Crait and, until Luke shows up, are pretty sure they’re going to lose (also, Hoth had snow and Crait had salt – differences, people). Part of why I loved the film so much was because it had a foot in both camps, giving me the nostalgic pandering that I expected along with the newer twists on the formula that I didn’t.

The similarities between The Last Jedi and its forebears are inescapable, but I’d argue that the film does enough that it hints at new directions for next time. Director Rian Johnson is a creative storyteller and a huge Star Wars fan, so those little hints of transgression from the replication of the past convinced me that he’s more concerned with newness, rather than nostalgibaiting, even if the former comes disguised within the latter. One could almost call Johnson as the leader of a rebellion in and of itself. Retroactively, that made the announcement of his own Star Wars trilogy a welcome one.

But that potentially fresh approach directly refutes both the model that Disney have fashioned with Star Wars and Marvel, and the road map they’ve laid out for Star Wars‘ future. Abrams is back for Episode IX, and while I have no doubt it’ll be great, chances are good that it’ll go back to the well for its story rather than forge one of its one. If the recently-released Solo film teaser shows us anything, it’s that the film looks content to soak in the same nostalgia bath that Rogue One wallowed in. This morning’s announcement of DB Weiss and Dan Benioff also getting their own run of Star Wars films – earned off the back of their work as Game of Thrones showrunners – hasn’t really told us anything, but if they’ve been hired to put their Thrones-style sensibilities into the Star Wars universe, we could potentially be looking at a franchise content to not only copy itself, but also to copy other franchises. I apprehensively await the gore-spurting lightsaber fights and Wookiee sexposition.

To call Star Wars derivative is nothing new; most good stories are ones that borrow from others. At length in his fantastic book, Chris Taylor documents the filmic, artistic and structural influences that went into George Lucas creating the original films, some of them blatantly ripped off from the source material. We also expect a franchise to keep creating new texts for both its fandom and its stakeholders; the MCU will probably be making films and TV shows long after the heat death of the universe. But Star Wars right now is in a period of awkward transition, where one of its tentpole installments hints at a desire for change while the others contently remain in the familiar. A franchise spawns a lot of replicas, but there’s nothing to say that it can’t make something aberrant, either.

Going forward, Disney needs to decide what kind of identity the Star Wars film franchise is going to have. Will it be content to make copies of copies of copies of itself for as long as we’re keen to throw money at them, or is there a genuine impulse to explore strange new worlds and to seek out new civilisations? (shit, wrong franchise) All of this might be conjecture, since we have no idea yet what kind of narrative thrusts that Johnson and Benioff & Weiss’ respective films are going to have. But they’ll undoubtedly be a good indicator of the kind of film franchise Star Wars is going to end up being, for better or worse.

 

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