Star Wars: A Brand Experience

The movie has moments of great potential. A pivotal lightsaber fight between Rey and Kylo Ren is reminiscent of the fight between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Even some of the moves used mirror those of Skywalker and Kenobi—this battle should have echoed theirs while also including a surprising twist of some kind. Star Wars has always featured this kind of intertextual referencing, of course. At their best, the movies make references but with slight alterations to surprise the viewers and shift the meaning. What made the throne room scene work in The Last Jedi, for example, is that it echoed a similar scene in Return of the Jedi but went in a wildly different direction.

Abrams never takes these kinds of risks. He makes no attempt to play with past scenes in these ways; in the two Disney trilogy films he directed—The Force Awakens and Rise of Skywalker—he simply repeats past scenes or rhymes them in unimaginative ways. Thus the Death Star becomes Starkiller Base which becomes an armada of star destroyers armed with Death Star-style weapons. Thus the first trilogy concludes with a simultaneous space battle featuring the Millennium Falcon and Wedge Antilles and a separate lightsaber battle—and the Disney trilogy ends with a simultaneous space battle featuring the Millennium Falcon and Wedge Antilles and a separate lightsaber battle. This is storytelling with recycled parts, devoid of imagination or risk-taking.

– Jake Meador writing at First Things, “Why the Rise of Skywalker Fails

Meador’s review basically says, “Disney has abandoned storytelling in favor of making money.” Sadly, Star Wars has become a brand experience, with each new film designed to evoke feelings of nostalgia and the brief satisfaction that comes with seeing familiar characters and our favorite fantastical machines on screen. Nevermind dialogue, nevermind story, nevermind compelling themes, nevermind myth or cosmic struggle. Fan service and the almighty dollar reign supreme.

Yet, I continue to be a fan. I love Empire, A New Hope and Jedi (in that order). I enjoyed Rogue One and Solo, despite disagreements I have with how they massaged Han’s character arc. When I left The Phantom Menance I begged friends to tell me it was good and then hated every successive prequel. I can accept the soft reboot of The Force Awakens but The Last Jedi gave us numerous confounding and stupifying plot decisions.

Finally, as I walked to my car following The Rise of Skywalker, I said, “Thank the Maker the Skywalker saga is over.”

Perhaps there will be other Star Wars flims that tell us stand-alone stories in an expanding universe. Maybe there is a compelling character remaining buried deep within the canon, waiting for their on-screen debut. Maybe the murkiness of Episodes VII-IX will drive writers back towards a story about good and evil, and give us sympathetic heroes, interesting rogues, and disgusting villains.

I doubt it. I anticipate films that pander to a certain segment of the Twitter commentariat.

But whatever they make I’ll be there to watch, and that is part of the problem.

2 thoughts on “Star Wars: A Brand Experience

  1. Yesssss. Was interested in your opinion after watching these last few films. After being a fan for so long, it feels odd being left with a bad taste in your mouth.

    1. Glad I’m not alone. I’m thinking it must be really hard to direct a film where there are a ton of constraints and a few major directives. It was clear the studio wanted movies that would appeal to core fans, diversify the primary characters, include a few weird space creatures fit for merchandising, and offer up a few powerful on-screen visuals (like light saber battles–I liked the Kylo/Rey main fight). It is also very clear that while no one said it, story was secondary. Also, is the Force mystical, or genetic? Episode I suggested Force power was somehow inherited. Episode IX suggests it can be extracted with a Sith Force vacuum.

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