The great wasted opportunities of the Revenge of the Sith with some spoilers and musings about the life we live in and the nature of stories

In preparation for the finale of Clone Wars, I did a binge watch through the highlights of the first seven seasons. The show starts a bit slow and takes some time to get its footing, but once it gets rolling, it’s absolutely great – easily one of the most fully realized elements of the Star Wars universe beyond the original trilogy. It does a great job with fleshing out its corner of the story and breathing life into all of the characters it touches. But there’s one glaring place it falls down – it does not give us any sort of adequate explanation for how Anakin becomes Darth Vader and turns to the Dark Side, or why. This was left to remain with Episode III, which also did a dismal job of showing this transition. It’s simply not believable that the character of Anakin, as he’s portrayed even to the very end of Clone Wars, becomes the greatest villain the universe has ever seen. There are a few glimmers of rule breaking – sometimes he kills someone to fix a problem and Obi-Wan shrugs disapprovingly. But even to the end, he’s still Anakin Skywalker, hero of the Clone Wars, and you’re rooting for him. There’s really no Darth Vader there.

As you might expect, I have a way to fix it.

Let’s back up a bit more and start with something else that’s completely unbelievable – Anakin’s relationship to Padme. As portrayed in Episode II, Padme goes from not really wanting to be around Anakin to being in love with him very quickly. There’s no real explanation offered for this change of heart, though it’s hinted at a bit. Anakin is probably the most powerful Force user… ever. It’s never explicitly stated that this is possible, but we know that the Force can have effects on people who aren’t Force-sensitive. What if the Force could be used to manipulate someone’s emotions and make them fall in love? If that’s not a Dark Side power, I don’t know what is. But what if a sufficiently powerful Force user could do this subconsciously, without even realizing they were doing it? Let’s say that’s what happened. Padme isn’t really in love with Anakin, but she thinks she is due to the effects of the Force, and he doesn’t even realize what’s going on. Things go on like that for a while, their relationship progresses. And then, eventually, she gets pregnant, with at least one extremely powerful Force sensitive fetus (Leia’s Force-sensitivity is up in the air, we’ll discuss that another day). As this child grows within her, a protective aura follows, and she starts to resist and realize what has transpired. Padme goes to the only person she can trust with this information, General Kenobi. Anakin doesn’t understand, he’s confused. Maybe this is the point at which Palpatine throws the switch and convinces Anakin that Padme and Obi-Wan are conspiring against him. In a jealous rage, he confronts them.

Anakin has always been the better warrior, more cunning, more daring, more bold. Obi-Wan is losing, but maintaining his ground. Anakin starts to get frustrated with the fight, and Padme tries to break it up. Anakin loses control and inadvertently unleashes a Force lightning blast, which stands to mortally wound Padme. At the last minute, Obi-Wan inserts his lightsaber into the blast, turning it back on Anakin. The feedback leaves his body badly scarred and damages his limbs. Obi-Wan speaks some reason into him, but it’s too late. Anakin is devastated by what he’s done. His body is wrecked, and his mind is crushed under the weight of years of guilt, brought to a head by the murder of the woman he does truly love. Padme is rushed to a medical droid where the twins are saved, but she doesn’t survive. Palpatine arranges for Anakin to be transferred to his private hospital for special care, but no one ever checks up on him because they’re distracted with the fall of the galactic Senate and the massacre of the Jedi which somehow takes 20 more years to result in the destruction of the Republic.

Anyway: Arise, Lord Vader.

It didn’t have to go specifically this way, there are a lot of other ways to tweak it. Maybe Obi-Wan and Padme have a secret attraction and there’s a love triangle, more motivation for Palpatine to spark. Maybe there’s some other event that doesn’t involve fridging Padme (like even the canon version does). Maybe you don’t like the whole Force lightning thing and that’s too close to how Palpatine got the way he was (but I’d get rid of that too). The point here is that like so much other recent Star Wars, they were so close to having this be epically great, and missed the mark with sloppy storytelling and weak character motivations. Anakin being such a powerful Force user that he can tap into Dark Side powers without even realizing it, and then becoming addicted to it after a mental collapse from accidentally hurting people he loved – that would have been a pretty interesting arc to me. We’re never given a compelling reason why Anakin turned to the Dark Side, and the masterful filling in that the rest of Clone Wars did brings this into even harsher focus.

The great wasted opportunities of the Rise of Skywalker with some spoilers and musings about the life we live in and the nature of stories

I was going to let this go, but I had some followup discussion about my comment about how Finn and the other characters in Rise of Skywalker were wasted, and I needed to get some more thoughts out.

Star Wars story structure has a long history of parallel forks – more than one plotline whose tines interlock. This, I hope you’ll agree, heightens the sense of tension and creates the illusion of a more coherent world. These storylines are independent and sometimes stray, but they connect at key points to bring the characters together emotionally and create meaningful bonds. In the Star Wars mainline trilogies, these storylines have traditionally been: 1) Jedi mysticism, a sense of wonder about and inclusion in the unknown forces and powers that guide the universe. This is the lure of power. 2) the galactic government / Empire / Republic, the background of the structure of how the people in the galaxy fight for what they think is power over other (mostly) humans in the absence of the direct line to power that The Force represents, and 3) the regular people just trying to make a living by trying to ignore the power struggles of the various elites. In the original Trilogy, these storylines are clearly represented by Luke, Leia, and Han, and the interesting parts are where they overlap (Han joins the rebellion after all, Luke and Leia are opposite sides of the same hereditary thirst for power, etc…).

This structure is largely blown apart in the recent Trilogy, but mostly unintentionally, through sloppy storytelling. Let’s look at how this could have gone.

Finn is introduced in a very strong way. He’s a First Order trooper raised in a life of faithful service to the government with a moment of clarity that he’s actually the bad guy. So he defects, and this story… really goes nowhere at all. Finn would have had a much more interesting arc if his realizing he could break away from the First Order could be the seed of an actual rebellion in the First Order. We don’t get any insight into the rank and file of the stormtroopers in the movies, and this could have been a great entry point into that. Are they evil? Are they brainwashed? Are they religious zealots? Are they acting out of fear? Do they think they’re doing the right thing? On the face of it, they’re the legit government, but this story also crosses over to the lines of the regular people. They’re pawns, but they can have some power. Here’s your allegory about the influence of individual actions on collective waves of accomplishment. All it takes is the right spark to trigger a movement.

Poe… I’m not really sure what to do about Poe. The character as written in the trilogy is fairly bland and uninteresting, but I actually liked what they started to do with him in Rise of Skywalker the best out of the three. Exploring his checkered past with the criminal underbelly could have had some crossover with his escape from that world and a similar liberating element to bring others out into legitimate enterprises. I need to think about this one some more.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about Rose except that she’s criminally underutilized in this movie. She could very easily have been worked into all of these plot threads as an actual character with agency. She probably deserves her own movie.

And then there’s Rey. Quite frankly, bringing Palpatine back as the big bad pulling the strings behind the curtain is some bullshit right there. But they could have turned into the wind and pulled an interesting story out of this. I’ve already talked about how it was totally in line with the rest of Star Wars that her parents were nobody and that was fine. It didn’t need to be Palpatine per se, and it didn’t need to be about her lineage – it could have been about the overall influence of the formerly living Sith. Given that light Jedi have a sufficient connection to the Force that they can attain some life after death, it’s not entirely unreasonable for the Sith to be able to do this too. In the Star Wars movies, this has never been straight up resurrection. I would have even been okay with the spirit of Palpatine as part of the Sith collective if it hadn’t been “literally Palpatine’s body and legacy”. Imagine if you will that the crux of this conflict was not “we have to find a thing to find a thing to find the Sith who are trying to conquer the galaxy again and kill Palpatine fucking again” but instead – we need to understand this ability for the dead to keep interfering in the affairs of the living, and in order to stop the Sith from doing it, we also have to cut off the Jedi. We wipe the slate clean. No more Sith coming back from the dead, but also no more Force ghosts of dead Jedi. They could have used this to make a point about the way we hold onto the things we have great memories of in history, and have trouble letting go. We could have made a formal goodbye, and had a proper sacrifice that felt real, with deep emotional consequences. Our heroes get to save the day again, but they also get to pass the baton.

Star Wars is a big part of our modern mythology. The end of this story could have been a powerful fable about enjoying what we’ve done before, honoring it, and letting it go to let something take its place and bloom with a renewed sense of energy. Star Wars has always been about hope, but it’s also been about wanting to know what happens next. I want to want to know what happens next.

Things about The Rise of Skywalker with some spoilers and musings about the life we live in and the nature of stories

I still haven’t fully processed all of my opinions about Rise of Skywalker yet. I disliked a bunch of things about it. I think they made a lot of bad, predictable, and safe choices and were feeling really burned by The Last Jedi but took away entirely the wrong lessons. Despite that, I still had fun in the theater, and I was able to sit back and enjoy the absurdity without deeply caring about it, but the longer I’ve thought with it and looked back on it, the less I’ve liked it. These thoughts aren’t entirely gelled yet, but I guess that’s not any worse than the movie.

This comparison was made to Endgame. Rise of Skywalker’s last minute save is particularly even more egregious, because not only is it forced, but Leia has been asking for the rest of the galaxy to join this fight for two whole movies, and it takes Lando to convince people to show up.

I think it’s interesting that almost all of my issues with The Last Jedi were in the execution, not the core premises, and the things that Rise of Skywalker “fixed” were almost entirely core premises.

Remarkably, I still think Rian Johnson is a great filmmaker and I respect his conviction, despite the train wreck that The Last Jedi was, and even though he’s doubled down on some of his bad choices. I don’t disagree with the intent behind them, I just think he doesn’t have a vision for how to portray those particular choices that meshes with my opinion of what makes a good movie. The Holdo maneuver scene was breathtaking. And yet also hamfisted, telegraphed a mile away, and completely out of place with everything we know about how space travel works in this universe. Not one of Holdo’s character choices makes sense in a Star Wars movie.

I think it was a mistake to make this a trilogy. They could have easily made Rise of Skywalker be two films and taken some extra time to clean up the structure. A lot of elements of it are forced into place and are only there to “wrap things up” at the expense of the story. But even thinking that, at the end of it all, I’m still relieved that the trilogy is over, because the entire thing is a mess and has been a gigantic waste of all of our time. Now that it’s finished, we can all stop talking about it as the elephant in the room, and I hope pick up the space for more interesting stories instead of the mainline. I think that strong mainline is an illusion, covered up by the fact that deviations from it have sucked, not that they were bad because they were deviations. I think deviating from “classic Star Wars” is a narrative choice that they make because people get upset when they deviate badly from it. But that’s because when they have done so, it’s largely been in bad ways. That’s different from all deviations being bad, and I think they’re confusing the two.

This deleted scene could have been used as the root of an actual fifth column within the First Order, and been an actual plot line that helped them win the war instead of just the stupid single Hux spy gag. Or they could have faked it out with that, killed Hux and thought they’d eliminated the spy, only to find that there was a whole organization of them. Maybe this would even have tied into the troopers that had escaped. But it’s never even hinted at.

And that’s the crux of it. I could go on with details about mistakes I think they made, but it amounts to the same thing: Finn’s entire character is wasted, the same way every character in this entire trilogy is wasted. No one has any connection to the larger story in any meaningful way, it’s just some things that happen. We shouldn’t be having this discussion – Star Wars movies should be the best of the entertainment we have. Their stories should be coherent. Their plots should matter, even if that import is only to the characters in the universe itself. We should care about what happens because the characters care. The characters should have meaningful and self-consistent motivations. We shouldn’t walk out of the theater muttering to ourselves about things that made no sense. Great entertainment still exists. Star Wars deserves better than this, and we deserve better than this.

Things about The Last Jedi with some spoilers and musings about the life we live in and the nature of stories

I saw The Last Jedi once, and I don’t know if one viewing is really enough to form an opinion about whether I liked it or not. There definitely were some things I liked about it, but overall I think I found it substantially lacking. This review is pretty much all spoilers.

My feelings of apprehension started right at the opening crawl. Not because of anything it said, and I’m taken to understand that Rian Johnson put a lot of effort into getting the text right, but I couldn’t even tell you what it said, because I was completely distracted by the fact that it was noticeably half a step too fast. It’s a tiny thing, but a historically important detail. Did they do it on purpose to signal a break from the past? Nah, too subtle a change. But it really threw me, right from the beginning, and made me dread what was coming next right off the bat.

Importantly: I love and embrace the diversity of Star Wars. I applaud attempts to include more diverse characters, and to broaden into telling different kinds of stories. I overwhelmingly do not agree with the viewpoint that seems prevalent among critics of this movie that “the SJWs are ruining Star Wars”. Most of those aspects of the film were the things I liked and wanted more of. I think it’s sad that the rest of the movie was so poorly constructed that it allowed space for these arguments.

Having said that, let’s get some technical nitpicks out of the way, and there are more than I’d like.

  • The opening battle makes zero sense. Even an overconfident captain would have TIE fighters flanking. They always have TIE fighters flanking. The Rebels always have X-Wings. Making a big deal out of this being a mistake doesn’t make it any less weird. But the biggest problem here is that one bomber has enough firepower to take out an entire Dreadnought. If they can do this, why not make bombing runs on Star Destroyers all the time?
  • Let’s not talk about hyperspace ramming, because that’s a whole other can of worms that definitely does not require human pilots.
  • In the attempt to make Poe not Han Solo, he’s really just kind of an asshole. But on the other hand, everyone’s kind of an asshole.
  • Apropos of nothing, I expected that the connection between the dead pilot and the engineering tech was going to be that they were lovers, but sisters is fine too.
  • I only watched it once and some things kind of went by in a blur, but I have independent verification that there really was a scene where BB-8 pelts a casino guard with, like, a whole sack-worth of gold coins drunkenly inserted in some convenient slot by an alien Rich Uncle Pennybags. I am angry about this.
  • At the same time as the entire resistance fleet is wiped out, there’s really no sense of urgency to any of this for most of the chase. Go watch ’33′ again, and you’ll see how this kind of sequence is done properly.
  • Where is the rest of the resistance? So… Leia puts out the call, and no one responds. What’s going on there? Yay, another mystery we have to wait two more years to solve that’ll be irrelevant by the time we get there. This ties into how I just don’t understand how we got here. 30 years ago the Empire fell. Did the Rebellion ever succeed in making a real government? Who bankrolled this thing? Maybe this is explained in one of the books.
  • The entire explanation of the hyperspace tracking system makes no sense. They only have this on one ship but if you disable it and they know about it, they’ll move it to another ship? What? Why don’t they just run it from every ship at once? But they’re only tracking the lead capital ship? What? How do you know this? This is all based on guesses. I have zero problems with our heroes trying something that doesn’t work in the end, but this is a huge stretch of believability.
  • Despite the fact that Laura Dern can act rings around most of these other people, her character was poorly written. Sure, it’s her prerogative to have secrets. But… why? Why keep the plan secret? Who are you even keeping the plan secret _from_? Surely the X-Wings are still going to be… going somewhere? Do you suspect that the First Order can track you through hyperspace because someone on the ship is a spy? Wow, that would be a cool and probably obvious thing that’s brought up exactly never.
  • Finn naked leaking was kind of funny, but… really. No one else noticed him walking down that corridor, and disconnecting whatever he was connected to didn’t set off any alarms? This was just stupid in the service of slapstick.
  • Rey’s parentage I think was supposed to be some sort of a shocker, but I guess I’m really not that tied to the idea that being a Jedi is hereditary. Mostly because that idea makes no sense given what we know about how the Jedi don’t have kids and take in young children who show Force sensitivity from parents who are not Jedi. Oh, I guess when you look at it that way, Rey’s parents being nobody is exactly the same as how this works every other time.
  • Please stop wasting Gwendoline Christie. You’re trying to recreate the mystique of Boba Fett, and it just doesn’t work. Oh, look, now you’re wasting Benicio del Toro too.
  • Speaking of which, seeing the master codebreaker your wise all-seeing ally told you specifically is the guy for you and then getting arrested and then not going back to find him again and going with the guy in your cell who can pick locks and why is he even still in there that’s not suspicious is the worst plan ever.
  • Crystal critters are cute. They’d make a fun action figure.
  • Porgs are delicious and don’t seem to be sentient. I am mad at Chewbacca for wasting a perfectly browned one.

Now we have to talk about Luke’s character development, and by extension the entirety of the original Trilogy. The subsequent movies (Rogue One excluded) have done nothing but erode the legacy of Star Wars. First unintentionally, in the case of the prequels, and now intentionally, in dismantling everything they worked for. This started with The Force Awakens, and continues here. Han has failed, first as a father, then as a husband, then as a hero, then again as a father. Leia failed to build a functioning government out of her rebellion. Luke failed to rebuild the Jedi order. The message here is not just that your old heroes are unnecessary but that they’re actually detrimental and you should burn your devotion to them to the ground. Is that a useful message in today’s political climate? I like the heroes of the original trilogy, and I don’t need to see them ruined in this way. I felt the same distaste for how Logan approached that character. I don’t feel that we have to destroy the legacy of our heroes in order to distance ourselves from them and do something else great, and I honestly don’t think you’ve earned the right to treat these characters that way.

It’s hard to say because the plotting is all very muddled, but it seems like the point here is that Luke has reverted to his old whiny farm boy self in the face of failure, but his “redemption” at the end feels forced, unearned, and out of place. Luke and Rey’s interactions before that point are all very weird, as he does a number of rapid shifts between “I’m a Jedi master, here are a few tricks”, “The Jedi are all stupid”, “Feel my Force inside you (creepy as hell)”, and “watch me fetishly milk this slimy cow thing (so creepy)”.

(Side note: I haven’t seen anyone else point out that the original series had blue milk, and this series has green milk, paralleling the color shift in Luke’s lightsaber in a weird random coincidence. Also Luke’s green lightsaber is totally hanging out in his X-Wing and Rey is probably going to go get it first thing in Episode IX.)

But back to the matter at hand, this is a terribly ignominious end for the greatest hero the galaxy has ever known, who single handedly destroyed The Death Star and brought down the Empire with a little help from his friends. The explanation of his fall makes no sense. Like with Han and Leia, this is manufactured weakness for the sake of bringing down an idol. Why did Yoda wait 30 years to show up and tell him he was being an ignoramus? Where’s Ben? Where’s even Anakin?!? The whole thing about the end of Return of the Jedi is that Luke has these Force Ghost advisors to help him ostensibly rebuild… something at least.

I like the overall approach that The Jedi Order needs to go and everyone can harness The Force, but it’s approached without the explanatory context of the threats it evolved to counter. Are the Sith gone? Apparently Snoke is not a Sith, but he’s still a really powerful user of the dark side of the Force. What does that even mean? 

This piece makes a big deal out of how this movie subverts your expectations. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I didn’t have any expectations beyond getting a good story that’s internally consistent where the motivations of the characters make sense. The opposite of a trope is usually another trope, and this movie is full of opposite tropes without really cohering a reason to exist beyond breaking those tropes. It’s too blatant and glaring – “I did Y just because you expected me to do X”. The myth here is that breaking those tropes is something that explicitly needed to be done. I heard this all the time in The Force Awakens reviews – “It brings Star Wars into the modern age” as if it’s a car that’s run down or an obsolete computer. No, you don’t have to make it accessible to a new audience by breaking it. Just tell some great stories.