In the latest exhibition of small-minded childishness, a collection of people online are sharing around a petition to have the Star Wars Sequel trilogy de-canonised by the holy authorities of…actually who is this petition aimed at? Can’t they just control the canon in their own heads and simply not watch the films they don’t like. Apparently they need their dislike to be officially recognised by some form of authority in a truly pitiful attempt to gain validation from anybody. But is interesting to consider, what actually shall be the legacy of the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy.
Film criticism is not just something that happens in an opening weekend and is then memorialised in a rotten tomatoes score that stands testament to the critical success or failure of said film. It’s a living, breathing, mutating and horrible process of opinions forming and shaping and disintegrating over time. Public opinion is something altogether harder to gauge. How should a film be deemed successful amongst cinemagoers? Box office? Avatar is one of the biggest films ever made and yet has failed to make a lasting impression on popular culture and is rarely anyone’s favourite film. Should one turn to social media? A horrifying notion as the loudest voices will always take prominence. This makes it all the harder to gauge how a film will actually be remembered after it’s release.
The Star Wars sequel trilogy has experienced a very odd reception. All three have been very successful at the box office, all three have enjoyed favourable critical reception (though the last film was considerably less well received), and all three have been, in their own unique way, controversial with ‘fans’. It was generally believed that the series got off to a solid start with The Force Awakens. Though leaning too heavily on the plot points of A New Hope, the film still featured exciting new characters, thrilling action sequences and a very welcome return to the grounded visuals and practical effects that made the original trilogy so charming and which was tragically absent from the prequel trilogy.
Personally I felt that the film mirrored only the overall structure of the original Star Wars but was already beginning the work of subtly undermining the story. Most clearly, every character was being forced by circumstance into their roles and found themselves unable to fulfil them. Han Solo was not a natural Ben Kenobi, he struggled with the expectations placed on him. Rey did not want to be Luke, spending the film longing to return to her desert home to continue the wait for her parents. Most dramatically, Finn did not want to be a stormtrooper or a hero. He simply wanted out. Kylo Ren, meanwhile, was trying to affect the cold and merciless stature of his grandfather (ignoring his eventual redemption) but was unable to avoid the pull towards the light. With this film, seeds were being sewn for this narrative to go off the rails and into darker territory.
Then of course there’s The Last Jedi. My experience of loving this film has been tumultuous. After a strong initial reaction to my first screening I did find on subsequent viewings that the film had some awkward pacing. Other complaints levied at the film were harder to appreciate. A side plot sees our characters undertake an ambitious plan that ultimately fails. I only ever saw this as a daring narrative choice and one that developes the overall theme of failure, which each of the characters are grappling with. I did not find the humour out of place, I welcomed the diversity of the cast, and for me this is the most interesting Luke has ever been. The failure of the Jedi and Luke’s disillusionment with the order is entirely in keeping with Lucas’ overall story.
Fans tend to see The Last Jedi as a deliberate act of cultural vandalism. There’s an odd assertion that Rian Johnson set out to spite star wars fans. I believe he did intend to challenge them, but perhaps we all underestimated just how fragile some of these star wars fans really are. Poe Dameron’s plot is a deconstruction of the typical head-strong macho hero who usually stars in films like these. It’s an entertaining and thoughtful argument for a collective effort and cooler heads. Unlike Solo which side-lined and betrayed it’s female characters, Rey, Admiral Holdo and Princess Leia drag the men of this film kicking and screaming through the narrative and it’s great.
Then there’s the accusation that Johnson ignored or subverted storylines Abrams and co had intended to follow. I never needed to know who Snoke was. He wasn’t important. He was the aging Nazi who still remembers the good old days of the Reich and has sold the idea to a new generation he neither respects nor understands. Killing him off only raised the stakes and forced the ongoing story to be solely about the conflict between the two main characters. That is unless the subsequent film just replaces Snoke with some other old evil guy.
The reveal of Rey’s parents is treated as a missed opportunity for a big twist, ignoring the fact that Rey’s parents being no one IS a big twist. It frustrates her quest for identity and meaning, forcing her to take responsibility for her own destiny. It also serves the same function as the final Broom Boy sequence, opening the universe up to a whole galaxy of force users who needn’t be related to the same few family that have stagnated this trilogy since Darth Vader said “I am your father”. How anyone could see this as a dead end for the story is beyond me.
Then there’s Rise of Skywalker. With battle lines drawn after The Last Jedi, JJ Abrams and screenwriter Chris Terrio perhaps faced an impossible task. They had to deliver something that would please the fans of The Last Jedi who longed to see something as surprising and subversive as Johnson’s film but also the furious factions that felt The Last Jedi had been an attack on the franchise. Unfortunately what they delivered pleased no one. Though visually striking and still brilliantly acted throughout the cast, the film backtracks on some of the more significant and meaningful actions taken by The Last Jedi, refuses to follow Johnson’s lead into new territory and fails to satisfactorily conclude the stories of the trilogy or the saga.
Even worse, Rise of Skywalker forces you to re-evaluate The Force Awakens, exposing a great many of it’s faults. The frantic pace that races past moments of emotional resonance, the mystery box storytelling technique that treats the plot like a ball to kicked down the street a little at the time, and it’s terrible debt to the story beats of the original films. It’s like returning to Lord of the Rings after The Hobbit trilogy and seeing Legolas single handedly kill the big CGI elephant. It’s just not the same after you’ve seen six hours of that.
And so what is to be the legacy of The Sequel Trilogy? Online they are lumped in with Rogue One and Solo and referred to as “Disney Star Wars”. The general consensus amongst angry internet commentators is that Disney Star Wars is a mistake. Poorly planned out and not deferent enough to the many, many sacred grounds of the franchise. Those of us who wish to defend The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi as two of the best blockbusters of the last ten years, must awkwardly cut around Rise of Skywalker and Solo in praising Disney Star Wars.
But even in praising episodes 7 and 8, it’s undeniably frustrating that the trilogy did not build towards a satisfactory climax. The bitter pill that was Rise of Skywalker was all that Star Wars fanboys needed to disown the Disney Star Wars entirely. Some have even started embracing the bizarre fantasy that the franchise should have never left George Lucas’ hands. That his sequel trilogy would have been better, handily overlooking the fact that he hasn’t been involved in a good film for nearly forty years now. Those claiming that the prequels are superior simply because they tell a cohesive narrative whilst the sequels are so patchy, should consider the difference between a shoddily constructed Ice Cream Sundae and a very well assembled bucket of sick.
If the internet trolls succeed in their ridiculous quest to make the sequel trilogy non-canon then what a sad victory that will be. Think of what they will have proven. That the Star Wars franchise is so fragile that any film that attempts to question the status quo or tell any kind of new story will be shot down by those that claim to love the series. What’s really tragic about the difficulty in making Star Wars films that meet the intense expectations placed on them, is that this universe has so much promise and has been touched by so few. It’s the ultimate toy box with fantasy and sci fi tropes easily intermingling. Where else can you cut from an epic space battle to a spiritual conflict made manifest with glowing swords?
It’s interesting to love something so controversial. For a great many of us, The Force Awakens was the first Star Wars film we genuinely loved. The original trilogy is so ubiquitous it can be hard to objectively appreciate its qualities. The Prequel trilogy’s faults have to some extent become nostalgic but the trilogy is still not a fun or enjoyable watch. Then there’s the sequel trilogy. Will it still be watched and discovered by fans and cineastes in the decades and generations to come? I’d like to think of it as the hidden secret of the franchise. Once episodes X-XII have inevitably been made, VII and VIII will be left alone and will forever hold a special place in the hearts of true fans everywhere. A secret club the knows that you don’t win by defeating what you hate, but by defending what you love.