The Rise of Sky-high Expecations

January 5, 2020

After seeing The Rise of Skywalker, I tweeted: “Actually saw TROS. First Star Wars I’ve seen in a cinema since TFA. It was good! Not sure what movie the naysayers saw or what they were smoking beforehand.”

TROS press pic

Which I’ll admit does imply I was unaware of all it’s flaws, which I was not unaware of. I don’t believe anyone could be, they’re glaring. The question is, do you care? And I didn’t.

I knew going in—based not only on the two previous films in this newest trilogy but the six preceding films of the other two trilogies—that it was going to be a shit-show of plot-driven illogical nonsense and ham-fisted retconning. What I cared about was will I enjoy it? And, for the most part, with low expectations and no stakes riding on it, I did. I even shed a single tear at Ben’s redemption and the star-crossed lovers’ solitary kiss.

What I found confusing was that all of the film’s armchair critics hadn’t gone in with the same blissfully forgiving mindset. After all, these are the people who LOVE Star Wars, right? These are people who seem to have a lot riding on enjoying it and they seem to have stacked their own decks against being able to.

Now that I’ve watched a few critical reviews of The Rise of Skywalker, I think I understand things a bit better. Of course, I agree with the criticisms objectively. As I said, the flaws are glaring. But it seems what I want and expect from a Star Wars movie is different from what other people do which is also different from what Star Wars has actually ever been in the past or even has the potential to be.

What do I want from a Star Wars movie? Friends running around going pew! pew! pew! That’s it and that’s what I got. I was happy. What people seem to have wanted instead: a deeply significant and nuanced multi-generational epic.

From a franchise that treats morality, ethics, and politics as a literal good/evil binary.

There’s lots of logical holes to pick in The Rise of Skywalker from pacing issues and illogical character motivations to seemingly arbitrary retconning. But I’ve always felt that The Empire Strikes Back was full of that stuff too. And Return of The Jedi even more so with things like the pointless sibling revelation that had no actual impact on the plot.

So what did people really want and expect from The Rise of Skywalker? Are they even aware of what this thing is they love? It’s like the shared hallucinatory head cannon of what Star Wars is, and people have internally retconned it to always have been, no longer has any relation to what actually is on the screen.

Does Star Wars have potential to be “more”? Sure. It’s got space wizards and bloodlines and characters who find the fate of the galaxy is in their hands. That is certainly a recipe (arguably concocted by Frank Herbert in his Dune series of books) for a vast epic filled to the brim with deep lore where valiant but flawed heroes navigate the “feints within feints” of clandestine amoral political forces.

But to do so Star Wars would have to abandon what the core of Star Wars is. It would have to lose being a light buddy adventure-comedy which it could be argued all three films in the Original Trilogy were to varying degrees. Of course, the Prequel Trilogy did mostly abandon this aspect for the more dour tone of a serious military and political drama where no one seems to be buddies at all. You might be aware there were a few fans who didn’t care for this direction. But there were others who did and lauded the attempt to imbue the Star Wars universe with an historic and political depth that was only hinted at in the OT. If the Sequel Trilogy has any one fundamental fault it’s been trying to play both sides of the field. The dramatic scope of a meticulously detailed nine-book fantasy epic while still being a frivolous matinee adventure in the style of Flash Gordon.

So what we have are two Star Wars existing simultaneously: Flash Gordon Star Wars and Dune Star Wars. Sometimes they are apart (A New Hope vs. Revenge of the Sith) and sometimes they coexist (The Empire Strikes Back and The Rise of Skywalker).

That isn’t to say there can’t be darkness or emotional content in our matinee serial, but despite the literal world-ending stakes the heroes face Flash Gordon Star Wars wasn’t built for deep psychological studies or complex political maneuvering. It doesn’t have the frame for that stuff and it buckles under the weight.

Similarly when Dune Star Wars tries to plumb the psychological depths and motivations of characters in this galactic struggle, it runs up against the wall of morality being a laughably reductive good/evil binary. It’s the philosophical equivalent of a cartoon Disney villain and also buckles under the weight of trying to hang a broader and deeper story upon. To me, it’s like watching the Scooby-Doo gang attempt to perform Hamlet.

Of course, at this point I expect a million voices to cry out “Whoa whoa whoa! But what about Empire? It is a perfect film. Check. Mate.”

Was it perfect though? In 2011 I wrote about all the flaws I see in Empire in a zine essay subtly titled The Empire Sucks Back. I’ll admit, it’s exactly the sort of essay I scoff at now when people lay-out all the joy-killing imperfections in TROS. But people seem to forget, or were too young to have experienced that—critical reviews aside—Empire wasn’t universally enjoyed. People didn’t, in fact, think that Star Wars needed to be anything other than a fun romp through the galaxy trading sarcastic quips and pew! pew! pew!-ing bad guys. There’s been a bit of a cultural retcon that Empire was always seen as the best Star Wars film and that Return of the Jedi, despite teddy-bear-shaped flaws, wasn’t actually greeted by many with a sense of “Finally, we’re back to what a Star Wars movie was supposed to be! A fun space adventure!”

I only bring this up to illustrate what I believe is a cognitive dissonance shared by many Star Wars fans today. I suspect a combination of childhood nostalgia, merchandise-driven Lucasfilm propaganda, and the sweet seduction of herd mentality has resulted in a fanatical belief that Star Wars movies have always been “good” movies, when I believe an objective analysis of them demonstrates they have always been flawed and messy. This cognitive dissonance, in my opinion, has coloured fans’ perceptions of the latest trilogy in an unfair way.

It’s not unfair to say that about half of each of the Disney era movies are a steaming dung-heap, but I do think it’s unfair to hold them up against movies which contain many of the same flaws and thus find them lacking.

It makes me question if many fans really love Star Wars films or if they’re fanatically devoted to an ideal based more on head canon and off-camera lore than the actual films.

 


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