This era of COVID-19 and social distancing has at times given me way too much time. As such, I have engaged in behavior I am not necessarily proud of.
One, this last week I broke my rule of arguing with people on social media. I have managed to stick to my guns on not posting things that are argumentative and political in nature, but I did get into it pretty heavy with an elderly grandmother type who self-described as an”old white woman” (definitely her words, not mine) in the comments of Mitt Romney’s social media page. By the way, that is a place to avoid at all costs. It is also a place filled with individuals who do not understand the definition of the words “traitor” or “decency”, but that is a whole different discussion.
Two, I keep looking at the Total Deaths number both worldwide and in the US on Worldmeter.com. Don’t do that either. It’s not uplifting nor is it productive.
On the other hand, I have continued to enjoy uplifting news where I can find it, and I’ve enjoyed spending time with my kids on a more regular basis. I’ve documented the latter over my last two posts pretty extensively, but those efforts do continue in earnest, mainly because…those poor kids have no other choice.
However, it’s this time I’ve been spending with my kids that has forced me to confront a real controversy that exists in the world. Before COVID-19, I had managed to avoid it. But last Friday, that all ended as I finally sat down and watched Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. And so today, I weigh in on that ongoing controversy of: J.J. Abrams vs. Rian Johnson, Last Jedi vs. Rise of Skywalker, casual fan vs. zealot.
Now for a majority of human beings, the conventional thought might be, “What controversy?” To that I would reply, “Oh dear, you’d better sit down!” (BE WARNED, SPOILERS TO ALL STAR WARS MOVIES ARE FOUND BELOW)
Let me start by providing context and a heavy dose of personal opinion. First of all, I am not a fan of the original Star Wars movie, now entitled Star Wars: A New Rise of Final Hope or something like that. It was in that movie that Luke Skywalker earned the title of whiniest protagonist ever in a motion picture, a title he would hold for well over a decade until Paul Reubens came along in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
There are so many problems with that movie that I could spend a day enumerating them, but I won’t. In contrast, I very much enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back, which was the first movie in the series I actually saw, and I thought Return of the Jedi wasn’t too bad. It helped that I managed to collect all four collectible glasses at Burger King when it came out, which might have influenced my enjoyment of that movie since I was, you know, 10 , but there were Ewoks so…
Furthermore, I firmly believe the three Star Wars prequels that George Lucas directed and produced some twenty years later are among the most wasteful uses of celluloid ever documented and did a lot to show us what a mediocre writer and director he actually is.
It seems to me that a great deal of the allure surrounding the original Star Wars trilogy was that people were seeing special effects on screen that had never been seen before. I’m pretty sure it was those special effects that clouded the senses with regard to the weaknesses of the movies themselves. The three prequel movies did not benefit from such an edge. They came out around the same time as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy and suffered greatly in comparison. Both had stunning visual effects, but Peter Jackson actually used his in benefit of a strong story whereas Lucas tried to make up for a lack of story by filling the screen with so much eye candy that it actually rotted out movie screens across the world. (Okay, I made up that last bit, but…just barely.)
I realize that by writing those words, many Star Wars fans will consider me guilty of gross acts of blasphemy, but I submit the following as an endorsement of my opinion. Disney agreed with me. Don’t believe me? Then ask yourself, why was the first order of business for the Mouse, after purchasing LucasFilm in 2013, to fire George Lucas and scrap all of his ideas for the final trilogy that would make up the original canon? I’ll tell you why. Bob Iger sat through Attack of the Clones at some point in his life and swore that he would never helm a company that would put out that kind of atrocity. The fact that Disney then released The Long Ranger years later proves that he made that promise rashly, but still…
Which brings us to the latest and last trilogy in the original canon Star Wars saga. Disney brought on J.J. Abrams to direct The Force Awakens because he had the touch for salvaging franchises that were languishing or near dead (See: Star Trek and Mission: Impossible). Unfortunately, in the era of social media, Abrams faced a fresh challenge that has eviscerated many a director: the die-hard fan base.
The Star Wars fan base has evolved over time to the point that Charles Manson would be kicked out of their ranks for being a little too lax in his commitment. These individuals (many of whom weren’t even alive when the original Star Wars came out) believe in their hearts that they are the true owners and protectors of the mythology that makes up the Star Wars universe. They destroyed Lucas himself for years (and I agree, rightly so) when the famed director decided he couldn’t leave his movies alone and kept going back to re-edit them over and over despite the fact that, you know, we’d already seen them. This annoying habit of his culminated in the most controversial move of the entire series when he changed the scene introducing Han Solo so that it appeared that the bounty hunter fired first at Han instead of the other way around. As if we would all forget the real sequence of events we had watched a dozen times before. It was like he was providing a tutorial for how to run a country to his young padawan and eventual emperor, Obi Don Trumponi, or something. (Sorry, sorry. That was bad on so many levels. No more politics or bad puns based on Star Wars type names, I promise.)
Anyway, J.J. set about trying to make a movie that would be both fresh and appeal to the faithful who, as a rule, want nothing changed from the original formula. The result was The Force Awakens and the response was immediate. Half the faithful loved and half hated it, which was about the best he could have hoped for. The biggest criticism was that he basically remade the original movie. And to be fair, that’s pretty much what he did. The difference was, he made it a million times better. So bottom line, success. The faithful were not storming the gates and the rest of us had an original Star Wars movie to watch minus the whiny refrain, “Unnncle Ooowennnn.”
But J.J. has a history of being a one and done director when it comes to his reclamation projects. He remains a producer, but he likes to hand the reins over to someone else, and so for the second movie in the latest trilogy he turned things over to a man named Rian Johnson.
Now in my opinion, Johnson’s entry into the Star Wars ethos is the best movie of the nine. BY FAR!!! And the reasons I love it are the very reasons the faithful seem to absolutely loathe it. I mean they HATE it! From the first early preview showings the grumblings began about how Luke Skywalker would never act in the way Johnson portrays him in The Last Jedi. And what did he do? He showed true emotion. He was fallible. He was bitter. He was real!
The fact that he wasn’t a carbon copy of the wise, older Jedi played by Sir Alec Guiness, Liam Neeson, and the world’s most recognizable rubber mask was awesome. It provided layers of texture and realism to a stable of movies decidedly devoid of such things. I also loved that his villain had moments of doubt and instability. It was the first Star Wars movie I had ever seen where I actually wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I reveled in the final showdown between Luke and Kylo Ren which turned out to be a complete facade. I loved the cockiness Luke displayed which provided a complete contrast to the whiny kid we had met in the original movie. I loved the maniacal rage of Kylo Ren when he realizes he’s been had. Vader would have never got played like that. We all know it and in that moment, we knew he knew it. There was more human drama on display in that one sequence than we saw in the entirety of Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of Anakin Skywalker. (That poor sucker watched his entire career go down the drain thanks to Lucas. Or maybe he really can’t act. I guess we’ll never know.)
Bottom line, I believe Rian Johnson produced the best movie of the series by far. And…Star Wars nation killed him for it. They didn’t want all those things I mentioned above. They wanted the fan fiction they had created in their minds and in their dreams many years earlier when they would go to sleep clutching their Luke Skywalker action figure.
Which is what J.J. Abrams was facing when he came back aboard to direct the final movie in the original canon series. I’m sure that wasn’t daunting at all (sarcasm definitely intended). And so, J.J. did what he had done before. He made a decent movie for the die-hards instead of a great movie for the masses.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a good movie. However, I would rank it third in relation to the other two in this particular trilogy. As a point of reference, I would also rank it third in the list of nine, but under no circumstances will it ever pass the first two. The suspensions of belief required so that fanatics can get another look at the Emperor were just a little to much for me. I prefer the emperor’s ending in Return of the Jedi. His return, to me, felt…forced. Also, as much as I like Disney, I didn’t care for the Tangled, Beauty and the Beast, Frozen treatment for Rey at the end of the climactic scene. C’mon, really? And finally, we saw that Leia nearly died when she was ejected into space one movie earlier. Yet in this movie, we have characters riding around on horses on the outside of a spaceship that is currently in space. (Picture me shaking my head ruefully as I’m typing this because that is what I’m doing.)
So bottom line, Rise of Skywalker wasn’t made for me. I accept that. The fact that I actually didn’t see it until this last weekend drives that point home. I am not a member of the faithful. And for those who are, I hope (and have heard) that the final chapter gave them the closure they were looking for.
But for those of us who don’t own a full-on Storm Trooper outfit or a golden metal bikini, I now hope the faithful will ease up. Because I believe the story telling possibilities that exist within the Star Wars universe are endless and wonderful. I absolutely ate up The Mandalorian, not because it was Star Wars, but because it was the best Western movie/series I had seen in a decade. I want more of that. And I certainly don’t want future film makers to be held to an unrealistic standard of “What Would George Do?” because that kind of expectation is completely unattainable. I mean, let’s be honest, we’ve actually seen what George would do. It was called Jar Jar Binks, and the sooner we’re all able to collectively forget that the better.