On Star Wars

Bloom Briefing 49: Two Successive Trilogies Have Failed to Capture What Made the Original so Good

Normally, this newsletter is about politics.  This week it is about Star Wars… and the politics of the Star Wars universe. Having just rewatched all nine movies from the three trilogies (and Rogue One and Solo, which aren’t discussed here), I noted some features I thought worthy of discussion.  If you haven’t watched the movies, this won’t make a lot of sense (and there are spoilers), so feel free to skip to the Additional Reading section.  If you have, I hope you’ll give it a read and enjoy.  Maybe pass it along to your Star Wars super-fan friend to point out all the flaws in my reasoning.


The Original Trilogy

There are a handful of key features that make the original Star Wars trilogy so successful.  First, it’s a work of science of fiction that imagines new worlds, new technology, and new political and social arrangements that reflects something about our world.  Second, it layers on top of this futuristic universe a compelling hero’s journey with the character of Luke.  Third, it features a conflict between a heterogeneous rag-tag motley crew of rebels against a totalitarian regime.  Fourth, it begins in media res.  We don’t really have to understand the motivations of the two competing sides.  It is simply a given that this conflict is ongoing.  Fifth, it uses and subverts character archetypes to good effect.  Han Solo is an iconic and believable outlaw figure.  Leia appears at first to be a damsel in distress but turns out to have significantly more agency than the archetypal damsel in distress.

The original trilogy is by no means perfect.  There are odd plot holes (it seems like someone decided after Episode IV, for example, that Luke and Leia were siblings; and why does Luke mostly—but not always—call Obi-Wan “Ben”).  Some of the monsters appear seriously dated (the abominable snowman at the beginning of Empire and Jabba’s monster that Luke kills in Jedi stand up particularly poorly.  And by Jedi, some of the elements that undermine episodes VII-IX are present (e.g., recycling the Death Star). 

The prequel trilogy and the sequel trilogy fall short of the benchmark set in the original trilogy in different ways.  The prequel trilogy is a failure of execution: it tries to do something interesting, but does it very badly.  The sequel trilogy is a failure of ambition: it doesn’t actually try to produce something great in its own right.  Let’s look at each and see where things went awry.

The Prequel Trilogy: A Failure of Execution

The prequel trilogy has two major plot objectives.  First, it must explain the transition from Republic to Empire.  Second, it must explain the back-story of Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  These are certainly among the most interesting questions an admirer of the original trilogy would have wanted answered in a prequel trilogy.

Toward those objectives, The Phantom Menace (Episode I) begins this journey promisingly enough.  We are dropped in media res into a new conflict with the Trade Federation blockading the peaceful and original world of Naboo.  We have different technology (a droid army; and different fighter spacecraft on Naboo).  Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are well cast as Qui-Gon Jinn and young Obi-Wan Kenobi respectively.  9-year-old Jake Lloyd as young Anakin Skywalker is also compelling and delightful.  There is ample time to explore two different civilizations on Naboo, and, eventually, the city-planet world of Coruscant. 

But despite this adherence to certain aspects of what made the original trilogy successful, the second half of Menace begins the prequel trilogy’s failure to deliver on either of its objectives.  On the first objective (whence the Empire), the narrative contains no more than “the democratic process is too slow to handle the crisis.”  In Menace, the future Emperor Palpatine manages to convince Queen Amidala of Naboo to move to install a different “supreme chancellor” to move the process of securing military support against the Trade Federation along. 

One can almost forgive Menace not wading too far into the politics.  After all, there are two more movies in the trilogy, and this is but one episode in the descent from democracy to totalitarianism.  But replacing the Supreme Chancellor seems like kind of a big statement about the health of democracy!  That doing so coincides with the empowerment of the future Emperor Palpatine makes it seem like we really ought to spend more time investigating how such an event can come to pass. 

When it comes to the second objective of the trilogy (whence Darth Vader), Menace is slightly more compelling.  The Jesus analogy is overdone (he doesn’t have a father).  But all Menace reveals about Anakin’s future is the conflict of the Jedi about whether or not he should be trained, prefiguring the conflict within him that subsequently turns him to the dark side and eventually turns him back.

Despite some of its other flaws (the character of Jar-Jar Binks is too close to a minstrelsy figure for comfort; the pod race through which Anakin wins his freedom is interminable), Menace itself isn’t that bad. Watching the prequel trilogy mostly leaves the viewer feeling as if Menace is let down by the subsequent movies in the trilogy.

On the question of the transition from Republic to Empire, Episodes II and III are nothing short of a total disaster.  We get basically no additional information about why the Republic isn’t working.  It’s the same, “give the Supreme Chancellor (who is now Palpatine) additional powers because things aren’t happening fast enough.”  In a Republic that spans a galaxy, there is not a single moment of time devoted to understanding the motivations of the thousands (?) of other planets represented.  There is not a single moment devoted to understanding the process by which the Senate decides or operationalizes anything!  We know nothing about how this process works, but Obi-Wan assures us that politicians are mostly bad and looking out for themselves. 

In Revenge of the Sith (Episode III), as Anakin and Obi-Wan are dueling, Obi-Wan shouts that Anakin’s conversion to the dark side means forsaking democracy.  But throughout three movies, we are never given even a single reason why we or Anakin or Obi-Wan should particularly care about democracy!  It sure seems like it wasn’t working – wasn’t that why they had to replace the first chancellor and then give Chancellor Palpatine extra powers?  And if those were mistakes, then the trilogy should have at least nodded at the counterfactual (what was the alternate means of freeing Naboo in Episode I?). 

The trilogy thus observes an inherent tension in democracy—that a deliberative process can be slow to respond to a crisis—without actually describing how it could have been otherwise.  Is the moral we are to take from this that democracy is destined to dissolve into tyranny?  The explanation that Palpatine was controlling both sides of the apparent conflict between the Trade Federation and the clone army doesn’t seems to offer an entirely different thesis: that one bad man destroyed a centuries-old democracy.  For a trilogy with a primary purpose of explaining whence the Empire, it thus does a remarkably lackluster job answering that question.

Similarly, the explanation for Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader is, well, just bad.  In Episode I, we are told that Anakin is too old to be trained and that his missing of his mother means the potential of the dark side in him is strong.  Qui-Gon Jinn decides to train him over the Jedi Council’s objections, and upon Qui-Gon’s death, Obi-Wan takes charge of Anakin’s training. 

In Episode II, Anakin forms a romantic attachment to Padme (AKA, Queen Amidala), whom apparently he has had romantic feelings for since he was nine years old.  Despite being at least a decade older than Anakin, being generally competent and even-tempered (traits he lacks), and having virtually no shared interests whatsoever, Padme apparently also falls for Anakin!  Hayden Christianson (Anakin) and Natalie Portman (Padme) can do nothing to compensate for a truly dreadful screenplay, but to describe their acting as wooden is an insult to teak, balsa, and mahogany. 

Anakin also randomly murders an entire tribe of raiders who had taken his mom hostage, “including the women and children,” he reports to Padme, who, instead of recognizing the obvious monster he already is, comforts him.  It nevertheless takes several more hours of movie (across episodes II and III) for Anakin to complete his conversion to the dark side, intervening to save Palpatine from Jedi Master Mace Windu.  Anakin then slaughters all the Jedi at the Jedi temple. 

Anakin’s decision to save Palpatine from Windu is explained by a promise Palpatine has made Anakin that the teachings of the Sith will be able to save loved ones from death.  Anakin has had premonitions of Padme’s death in childbirth, and, it is explained, saves Palpatine to try to get this knowledge.  Given that the only example of love/family we have in the prelude trilogy is Anakin and Padme, the inevitable conclusion is that love (either romantic of familial) is a weakness.  Without his attachment to his mother and his love of Padme, Anakin would never have become evil. 

But however badly the prequel trilogy fails to deliver on its dual mission of explaining the rise of the Empire and the history of Darth Vader, at least it tries to do something different.  It has to cover certain ground, and it tries to do so.  It simply doesn’t do a good job.

The Sequel Trilogy: A Failure of Ambition

The sequel trilogy is encumbered by plot requirements.  Since it sets out from after the end of the original trilogy, it can do whatever it wants.  Unfortunately, taken as a whole, it fails to reflect anything meaningfully different to us about our world than the original trilogy did.  This is, principally, the fault of Episode IX, the trilogy’s unforgivable conclusion.  Episode VII’s deficiencies could have been forgiven with a better end to the series.  But given that JJ Abrams directed both Episode VII and IX, it’s hard not to lay the blame squarely at his feet. 

The critique of Episode VII is largely that it is a straight remake of the original film.  Ross Douthat neatly summarized the overlap between Episodes VII and IV here:

You’ve got an orphaned Force adept unaware of her powers living on a desert planet near an old man played by a famous British actor who probably holds secrets to her past; she then meets up with a droid carrying secret plans that its Rebel Alliance — sorry, Resistance — owner hid inside it just before she — sorry, he — was captured and tortured by the Empire — sorry, the First Order. You’ve got teams of stormtroopers scouring said planet in search of those plans, killing innocents along the way. You’ve got a Grand Moff Tarkin figure who wants to rely on a planet-destroying superweapon instead of the Force and who’s in a rivalry with a masked Darth Vader figure for the trust of a strange deformed Emperor — sorry, Supreme Leader. You’ve got the stop at a Mos Eisley cantina-style watering hole filled with smugglers and crooks. You’ve got the destruction of a planet(s) crucial to the Resistance effort midway through the movie, and then you’ve got the threatened destruction of a rebel base on a verdant planet by the same superweapon, which can only be averted by an X-Wing attack on a single weak point. You’ve got a confrontation between the Darth Vader figure and an older, wiser force for good who knew him intimately before he fell, which ends with the older wiser figure being killed by the Vader figure while our young hero — sorry, heroine — looks on in horror. And then you’ve got the X-Wing attack itself, which succeeds in blowing up the entire enemy super-base literally seconds before the superweapon is scheduled to fire on the base where Princess — sorry, General — Leia and a group of Resistance leaders are watching the attack unfold.

When I watched Episode VII for the first time, I enjoyed it.  I recognized the massive overlap, but I was willing to cut Abrams some slack, since part of the goal of the sequel trilogy seemed to be to overcome the deficiencies of the prequel trilogy by returning to what worked so well about the original.  The problem is, it was too similar.  (For a fuller encapsulation of the overlap, you can read Emily van der Werff’s analysis.)

Episode VIII (directed by Rian Johnson) actually has a number of bright spots, principally when it peels back some piece of how the galaxy works that we had yet to see before.  The character of Rose is our gateway to much of what is good.  She herself is a low-ranking member of the Resistance (that’s a novelty in and of itself).  And she is an astute observer of the workings of power during her ill-fated escapade with Finn to Canto Bright, the Monegasque planet for the hoi polloi. 

Rose not only notices how the common people of Canto Bright are oppressed and how the Resistance can spark hope for the downtrodden, she also explains why the Resistance is fighting: not selfishly—for their own freedom—but out of love and a desire for the freedom of others.  This opens a great door for Episode IX to walk through.  How, after literally the entire Resistance escapes on one ship, do they regroup and recruit a new generation of resistance fighters? 

Rather than pick up where Episode VIII left off, however, Abrams begins Episode IX with a new, fully-formed Resistance base.  Instead of figuring out how to build an army of the downtrodden people fed up with the hegemony of the First Order, most of the movie is then consumed with Rey and Finn and Poe and Chewy trying to figure out a way to get to the new base of a renascent Emperor Palpatine on the Sith home planet of Exegol.

Why does Palpatine have to have been the villain all along?  Who knows!  Why does Rey need to be his granddaughter rather than simply her own individual who happens to be powerful with the force?  Who knows!  Why is the most ominous thing Abrams could come up with a whole fleet of star destroyers each with the power of the Death Star?  Who knows!  Who are all the Sith people in Palpatine’s lair?  Who knows! 

Most egregiously, Abrams relegates the single most interesting question (how to rally people to the cause) to an off-screen voyage of Lando and Chewy that lasts maybe a couple of hours of Star Wars time.  It just happened.  This isn’t a question of persuading people to resist the oppression of the First Order, it’s “send out a signal around the galaxy” and people show up.  Why?  Who the fuck knows!

Abrams decided that remaking Episode IV wasn’t enough.  Recreating Luke in the character of Rey wasn’t enough.  He had to literally reanimate the main villain from the original trilogy, with the same motives, the same purpose, and basically the same army (except storm troopers can fly now – eye-roll).  It’s a failure of imagination that not only destroys Episode IX, but also negates any benefit of the doubt we might otherwise give to Episode VII. 

Science fiction is a genre in which we look to imaginary futures that tell us something about ourselves.  But the sequel trilogy is so busy looking back at the originals and trying to mimic them that it tells us virtually nothing new.  The irony of science fiction looking backwards is apparently lost on Abrams.  Only in the parts of the Episode VIII that Episode IX made obsolete do we have anything approaching the baseline of the genre.  The rest feels precisely engineered to cause the least offense possible and thus rake in the cash for Disney. 

As Peter Suderman humorously wrote: “[Episode IX] is a frantic, disjointed mess—not a movie with good ideas poorly executed, not even a movie with bad ideas, but a movie with no ideas at all, save for saccharine paeans to fandom and nostalgia.”  To that end, maybe it does show us something about ourselves.  Of the 50 highest-grossing movies of the last decade, there wasn’t a single one that wasn’t A) animated, B) a remake, C) an adaptation, or D) part of a franchise.  Nostalgia turns out to be a way to make a lot of money.    

No one shot captures the solipsism of the entire endeavor of the sequel trilogies.  For that, we need two shots.  The first shot here is taken from Episode VII.  It’s the first pure nostalgia shot from Abrams.  Look, a wrecked Imperial destroyer!  The first time I saw it, I thought, “hey, kinda cool to show us that the history of the original trilogy lives on.”

But Episodes VII and IX contained hundreds of shots like that.  And by the end of three movies, exhausted from the endless battles that don’t cover any new ground, we’re confronted with Abrams nostalgizing himself.  “Look, it’s a First Order destroyer crashing behind that Imperial destroyer that you probably remember so fondly from Episode VII I made just four years ago.” 

It shouldn’t need to be said, but you can’t be nostalgic for something that’s ongoing.  So after being fed two full movies of nostalgia, capping it with nostalgia for nostalgia just doesn’t work.  I didn’t catch this roughly two-second shot on the first time of viewing, but I nearly threw the remote across the room this time.  This shot should be the enduring symbol of the sequel trilogies: the director congratulating himself on wasting a golden opportunity to tell a new story.

Not all entertainment needs to be art.  There can be a place in culture for the highbrow, the lowbrow, and everything in between.  No one expects Star Wars to be avant-garde.  No one expects the third trilogy in a series to be totally original or to avoid the themes of previous movies in the franchise.  But surely, filmed in a new time, in a world wrestling with different problems than those of the late 90s and early 00s, it could have had something—anything—to say about our shared reality.

Hopefully the money-making machine Disney is ramping up will churn out more interesting content from the Star Wars universe in coming releases.  A full list of future Star Wars content is here, and promisingly, Rian Johnson has signed on to direct his own trilogy at some point.  Rogue One is an excellent model for some of this future content.  By biting off a small piece of the history, the tight story line gives time to develop characters and show us something about shared commitment, teamwork, and sacrifice.  I suppose Star Wars fans can at least feel optimistic that with so much future content coming out, at least some of it will be good. 

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Additional Reading:

If you read one thing this week, make it this.  On his blog, Nevada politics reporter Jon Ralston wrote about his relationship with his transgender son.  (The post is old, but he brought it up again this week after Rand Paul’s hateful questioning of Rachel Levine, who would be the first trans person confirmed by the Senate.)

In the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie writes about how the organizing effort at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama represents an oft-forgotten history of Black organizing in the south.

In The Nation, Jeet Heer writes about how collective isolation is catalyzing activism on both the left and the right.