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December 28, 20191036Views

The State of Star Wars on the Eve of Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Jonathan Headington details the current state of Disney Star Wars, looks at what The Rise of Skywalker has to achieve financially and creatively to be a success and explains the conflict of visions between J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson that has characterised the sequel trilogy

This article was originally posted on December 17th 2019

 

With just a couple of days left until the release of The Rise of Skywalker, I'd like to analyse the state of Star Wars as a whole and see what the film has to do to be a success. I'm of course much more concerned with how it leaves the Star Wars universe from a creative standpoint, but we'll look at the financials just briefly. In a series where sequels are pretty much guaranteed, it can be challenging to figure out just how much performance is based on the reputation of the new film versus the reception of the previous one. The Phantom Menace (1999) was the second-highest grossing film of all time when it was released, and though by any normal standard for films Attack of the Clones (2002) was a big success, making back five and a half times its own budget, this was a steep decline in comparison and quite possibly owing to the hugely over-hyped Phantom Menace under-delivering in popular estimation.

Revenge of the Sith (2005) though made more money than Attack of the Clones and was also much more acclaimed, and then 2008's Clone Wars theatrical release was universally panned yet made back its budget eight times over, so judging this isn't an exact science. The new Disney Star Wars era though has provided an even more condensed example for the same question, giving us five films in five years. The Force Awakens (2015) was a box office juggernaut in the manner of The Phantom Menace (with the difference that people seemed to like it) and grossed over $2 billion. Its sequel The Last Jedi (2017) grossed $1.3 billion and Rogue One (2016) also did over a billion; big climb-downs from the ludicrous highs of The Force Awakens perhaps, but still hugely successful on the surface.

It all sounds rosy up to this point, but remember of course that purchasing Lucasfilm cost Disney just over $4 billion in the first place. What's more, there always exists a funny relationship between budgets and box office takings, and it's never as simple as subtracting the budget from the gross (even leaving aside the legendary Hollywood accounting methods that mean Return of the Jedi (1983) didn't officially make a profit). A standard rule of thumb is to double the budget to figure out a rough break even rate (advertising and promotion costs aren't included in a film's stated budget), but standard rules don't really apply to something like Star Wars. The Force Awakens' profit was just over $780 million dollars; a colossal sum of course, but when you consider that's on a gross of over $2 billion and how much less The Last Jedi made than its predecessor, and then remember the $4 billion that needs to be recouped by Disney for purchasing Lucasfilm, it seems that investment might still be some way off paying for itself.

Even without considering the vagaries of film finances though, there's no doubt that 2018's Solo: A Star Wars Story was a bomb. There are multiple possible reasons for this. Unlike all the other Disney Star Wars films, it was released mid-year and so only 6 months after The Last Jedi, so even if it wasn't a reflection on that previous entry, perhaps not long enough had passed for people to want to go to see another Star Wars film. Trouble on the film's set had long been reported in the media, with the original directors replaced and an acting coach being provided for its lead Alden Ehrenreich, who was having trouble emulating Harrison Ford's iconic character (the truth on this is more nuanced though, according to Ehrenreich himself). My personal guess is that people just weren't interested in seeing someone else play Han Solo – I certainly wasn't – and so it was an idea that just didn't have enough appeal, even without the other issues it faced.

This leaves The Rise of Skywalker in a strange place; the year and a half since Solo makes it the longest gap in 4 years between Star Wars theatrical releases, and so should be long enough for people to want to see another. Current ongoing TV show The Mandalorian has been a hit, with Baby Yoda becoming instantly iconic (indeed, it may be daunting putting out a Star Wars film now, knowing that it's going to be tough to have anything to match his cultural penetration), so the public appetite for Star Wars we can safely say has been re-whetted. And yet, even as the film is explicitly promoted as the final chapter in what has now become known as the Skywalker Saga (which is to say, the nine numbered episodes of Star Wars), the hype doesn't seem all that high. What's more, it was hit with issues reminiscent of Solo's trouble early on when original writer and director Colin Trevorrow, who had helmed 2015's hugely successful Jurassic World (itself only outdone that year by The Force Awakens), parted ways with Lucasfilm due to creative differences and was replaced on the project by Force Awakens director J. J. Abrams.

This is a disquieting development; whatever Abrams' strengths as a filmmaker, delivering conclusions is not one of them. He, indeed, has actively promoted what he calls 'mystery box' storytelling, which is a lot like the old storytelling device of the mystery, but with his own added innovation that he doesn't seem as interested in actually delivering answers, just in hooking people in with the mystery in the first place, distracting them with more mysteries and making up the answers if he has to later on in some great big fudge. See, for example, his TV show Lost, which comedian Norm Macdonald once noted did not seem like they had six years' worth planned out at the start.

And so, where The Force Awakens wasn't just a straightforward Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) skiffle tribute act strung together with the most breathtakingly audacious plot conveniences I'd seen since, well, J. J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek soft reboot, it provided an awful lot of so-called mystery boxes which Abrams likely didn't expect he'd have to be the one to explain the contents of. Rey's identity and parentage, Supreme Leader Snoke's identity, Luke Skywalker vanishing and yet the existence of a map leading to him, how Maz Kanata has Anakin's lightsaber (literally described in the film as 'a good question for another time'); all these dangling threads and more were left unresolved for the subsequent filmmakers in the trilogy.

It's here that Rian Johnson, writer and director of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, enters the scene. Watching The Last Jedi gives the impression that Johnson was writing a sequel to an abandoned earlier version of Episode VII; in almost no time at all since the last one, despite the loss of the galaxy's largest and most nonsensical superweapon Starkiller Base, we discover that the First Order, far from suffering any kind of setback because of this, has actually managed to conquer the whole galaxy. Despite this incredible achievement, surely unrivalled in galactic history, its architect General Hux has now been relegated to comedy dupe recipient of a prank call and Force-punching bag for Supreme Leader Snoke's hologram; a cross between The Simpsons' Moe Szyslak and Tom from Tom & Jerry.

That's just within the first five minutes or so of The Last Jedi. Onward it goes, discarding anything we may have expected in favour of whatever Rian Johnson wants to happen, feeling no duty to the greater story of Star Wars. This lack of courtesy extends in both directions; at the film's end, Luke Skywalker is dead, the galaxy is still under the military control of the First Order and all the main characters plus all of the Resistance in its entirety are on one ship with no other resources. It's hardly surprising that there were creative differences when Trevorrow was handed this poisoned chalice of a set-up and told to write and direct a conclusion to all of Star Wars.

One thing Abrams and Johnson do have in common then is that previous boundaries of how the Star Wars universe or even logic itself operate don't encroach on the stories they want to tell, but besides these shared shortcomings, their perspectives on Star Wars are very different. The Force Awakens was full of mirroring of the original trilogy, in its settings and its plot, and much outright fanservice revelling in its parallels and revisits. The Last Jedi, by contrast, was determined to do the unexpected (whether it was entertaining or merely infuriating) and actively not deliver answers to mysteries posed by the previous film. In The Last Jedi's central scene, Kylo Ren echoes his earlier message Rey to let the past die and to kill it if she has to. This has been his struggle, both at the end of the previous film in killing his father Han Solo, and also in The Last Jedi as he hesitated in attacking the part of the ship where his mother Leia was (a genuinely shocking moment, which was then completely ruined by being followed by the single worst scene in all of Star Wars history). One wonders if Kylo Ren's struggle here is an intentional mirror for Johnson's own attitude toward and treatment of Star Wars.

Democratisation of the Force is another aspect of this revolutionary rethink of Star Wars. George Lucas has previously explicitly called Star Wars a family story, and both the importance of the Skywalkers in particular and the seeming heritability of Force ability in them meant that, upon Rey being introduced as someone with strong awakening Force power and unknown parents, one of the biggest subjects of fan speculation was who her parents actually are; her Force power led to the assumption that her parents must be special people, be they Skywalkers or Kenobis or even Palpatines. Johnson, though, completely rejected this by having Kylo Ren tell Rey that her parents were nobodies, and also emphasised his new take on how you don't need to be special to have the Force by showing a young stableboy using it to pick up his broom in the film's final scene. With Kylo Ren as the current embodiment of the dynastic element of Star Wars (the son of Han and Leia and one of the most powerful Force users around in the sequels), in being the one conflictedly striving to kill the past that itself gave rise to him, the parallel to Rian Johnson, a Star Wars fan steeped in its milieu and yet determined to utterly reform the way it operates, seems clear to me. Perhaps he sees a little too much of himself in those people on the internet who engage in fannish speculation and theorising, and whose parade he was determined to rain on by providing no answers and insulting them for having been naïve enough to have tried to find some; our Snoke theory may indeed suck, but it doesn't look like Johnson had a better one.

However meta we want to be about it though, it doesn't keep a bad story from being a bad story. One wonders who made the call to give the three separate parts of a new trilogy to three different directors, each given free reign to do as they please. It's a risky thing to do with something that cost $4 billion, and yet were it not for the deeply unsatisfactory results so far, it would seem praiseworthy in its boldness. Perhaps a cue was taken from the two previous trilogies; the original Star Wars was made without much expectation of a sequel, and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was made to keep the possibilites for the next entry open-ended. Conversely, the oft-criticised prequel trilogy was planned out entirely by George Lucas alone.

J. J. Abrams did supposedly have his own plan for how the trilogy should play out, but Rian Johnson was under no obligation to follow it and so did discard it. As such, speculation and trying to piece together clues, as fans are wont to do, might be an entirely useless pursuit as they pre-suppose intelligible answers that can be figured out from existing evidence. Dissatisfaction with the state of things narratively has led to a schism in Star Wars fandom, between the old fans who feel betrayed (and for whom a concomitant cottage industry of YouTube videos critiquing The Last Jedi to pieces has sprung up) and social justice warrior types who aren't as concerned with the narrative flaws of hyperspace ramming or surviving the vacuum of space with the Force somehow, so long as there's plenty of strong women and diversity. As such one side gets to bypass actual analysis of the film's faults through the bulverism of a wokeness test; it's even genuinely suggested that the film's low Rotten Tomatoes score is due to those pesky Russian bots.

With the heightened atmosphere among fans since The Last Jedi, the sequels-critical section has made much hay out of alleged Rise of Skywalker plot leaks and unverifiable reports of chaos behind the scenes amid poor audience testing and multiple cuts and reshoots. I've become numb to it all, but some reputations in this curious ecosystem that's sprung up over the past two years look set to be made or broken depending on what actually happens in the film.

There's a good reason why The Empire Strikes Back is generally regarded even now as the best Star Wars film: it didn't have to be conclusive, and so it was free to develop its characters and situations and the Star Wars universe without the awkward need to satisfyingly tie up a galaxy-wide war. J. J. Abrams probably has it in him to make reasonable quality Empire Strikes Backs; indeed, had he been given the middle film of the sequel trilogy and someone else's plans for developments from the first one, he might have made something pretty good. Instead though, the man whose previous output has been characterised by being all set-up and no pay-off is charged with providing the pay-off to the greatest film franchise in history.

And I do mean to the whole film franchise. Abrams has explicitly said he wants this film to act as a conclusion not just to the sequel trilogy, but to the nine film Skywalker Saga. Rather than play down the necessity of a narrative triumph, he's boosted the expectation as high as it will go. Of course, this could just as well be because it's all he can do. Whether you view The Force Awakens as a love letter to Star Wars or shameless fanservice in lieu of anything actually new, it's not a charge that can be levelled at The Last Jedi, outside of the return of a Yoda puppet that seemed to be past its best. With this complete discordance between the first and second parts, any possibility for the sequel trilogy by itself to stand as a satisfying whole seems blown. As such, Abrams is doing the only thing he can do: doubling down on the Force Awakens approach and raiding Star Wars' past for material while claiming to be the finale of not a three part series but a nine part series. The cost of this is leaving The Last Jedi as an outlier to be awkwardly worked around rather than a crucial part of the story.

The first trailer for The Rise of Skywalker echoed the trailer for The Phantom Menace by repeating the words 'Every Generation Has a Legend'; in the age before widespread internet video, people would pay to see another film just to watch that trailer and then walk out of the film they had actually bought the ticket for. Abrams may be glad that the hype for his latest outing is relatively subdued; for all the many things that can be and have been said about The Phantom Menace, it hasn't gone down in history as synonymous with fulfilled expectations. On the other hand, the second Rise of Skywalker trailer opened with clips from all of the previous eight episodes. Perhaps it's hubristic, or perhaps Abrams really does have something special up his sleeve this time.

Or perhaps he just thinks bringing back Palpatine is enough. We'll soon find out.

 

Jonathan has since made a 40 minute video review of The Rise of Skywalker for Headhunters Media.

Jonathan Headington

Co-founder & Editor of Excvbitor and YouTuber at Headhunters Media

 

Twitter: @IonathanRex

 

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