Star Wars and the Failure of the Imagination
My hot take on Episode VIII: the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy. Rogue One is the only contender that gives me pause before making that claim. That being said… I came away vaguely dissatisfied. I am trying to discern how much of this is because of the movie itself and how much is because, unlike in 1977, I am not fourteen. The sensawunda of my youth is simply not in the cards. (Not that I would want to be fourteen again. It is a horrid age. Offer me late twenties and we will talk.)
I begin with the movie’s opening sequence. It is utterly ridiculous with B-17s In Space! complete with bomb bay doors that have to be opened and a bombardier to push a button. Even more mysteriously, the bombs then drop, despite the absence of gravity. That Imperial dreadnought was big, but not that big.
In the ordinary course of things we shouldn’t make too big a deal out of this. Star Wars space combat has always been ridiculous, and if this were a Bond film the entire sequence would have come before the opening credits. It looks cool, and sets up some character motivation, so lighten up, dude!
X-wing versus tie-fighter combat has always followed a World War II fighter combat aesthetic. It never made a lick of sense, but at least in 1977 the trope was not yet hackneyed. With Ep. VIII we see the concept extended to bombers. This is a failure of imagination. It is a common enough one, but it is common to Bad SF. There is a whole sub-genre of Hornblower in Space! Napoleonic naval combat is cool, and the reader already knows how it works, saving the author no end of trouble with exposition. There is a tradition of Hornblower pastiches, some better than others, to say nothing of treatments of Napoleonic naval warfare that rise above Hornblower pastiche, so this seems a safe path. Putting it in space has the added benefit of avoiding the unfortunate necessity of having some idea how a sailing ship works if you don’t want to come across as an idiot. Put it in space and nobody expects anything beyond an insouciant wave of the hand in the general direction of explaining the tech.
This is lazy storytelling. It is lazy to produce, and assumes that the audience is just as lazy. This is a minor complaint with respect to the bomber sequence, but it is representative of broader laziness that has infected the expectations of both the creators and the audiences of the Star Wars series
In any extended series the creators reach a decision point. They have said what there is to say given the series’ starting point. They have to choose: Do Something Different, or More of the Same. Doing something different is guaranteed to piss off some fans. Do more of the same and some fans (presumably a different set, but maybe not) will get bored and drift off.
More of the Same: Consider Friends. It ran for ten seasons. Turn on the TV to a random rerun and it doesn’t matter which season it is. You might want to track whether Ross and Rachel are together or not, but that doesn’t correlate with which season it is. Another example is M*A*S*H, coming in at eleven seasons. It was so committed to More of the Same that the later seasons recycled plots from the early seasons.
Do something different: Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Say what you will about Season 6 (full disclosure: I think it is terrific!), you won’t confuse it with any of the first five seasons. The change was (and remains) controversial. The earlier seasons had their dark moments, but they were generally pretty carefree (apart from impending apocalypse), and the Mayor is one of the great Big Bads of all time and space. A lot of fans were perfectly happy with that, and wanted more. This group howled in outrage against Season 6, but they weren’t bored by it. Or considered the various iterations of Star Trek. They run the gamut from terrific through ridiculous to soporific. But they aren’t More of the Same, varying only in skill of execution. Yes, this opens the door for terrible shows, but it also opens the door for terrific ones.
Now consider the Star Wars prequels. They were awful. Make nearly any critique of them you like and I will nod in agreement and order another beer. But the one thing they were not was More of the Same. Unfortunately, the lesson The Powers That Be (a/k/a “Disney” or, in the alternative, the “Dark Lords of the Sith”) took from the prequels was not “Don’t make awful films” but “Don’t do something different.” Hence The Force Awakens. Everyone loves the original trilogy, so J.J. Abrams was brought in to remake it with new actors and a newer, even cuter droid. Watch the money roll in! The people have spoken, and they want More of the Same (except for its somehow making even less sense than ever).
But The Last Jedi is this great refutation of what came before, right? They brought in Rian Johnson and he mixed things up. This is one of the talking points in discussions of the film. This piece from Deadspin breaks it down to bullet points. It’s a good list and I commend it to you. Here are a couple of representative examples:
When the movie’s Han Solo-ish Enigmatic Rogue character, DJ, revealed himself not to have a secret heart of gold, but a not-secret-at-all heart of callous self-interest, and he sold the good guys out to the bad guys because the bad guys could pay him more.
When the long-shot suicide mission to retrieve a MacGuffin not only failed, but failed in such a way that it made things incalculably worse for the good guys and led directly to unknown numbers of faceless Resistance fighters dying meaningless deaths in the cold void of space.
These points are all well taken. It was refreshing to watch the various set pieces play out without being confident of how they would turn out. But the range of possibilities was still constrained by the previous movies. It is like there were toggle switches. We expect the switch to be set to “A” where the long-shot suicide mission succeeds in the nick of time. Refreshing though it is to find the switch instead set to “B” where the mission fails miserably, it is still the same switch. Does the charming rogue come through in the end or betray the heroes? Are Ross and Rachel together or not? A or B?
In a better world, this would be setting us up for Episode IX, weaning us away from our More of the Same expectations so that IX can really let its freak flag fly. This is not that world. J. J. Abrams has been brought back for IX. Upon reflection, the mystery is how Rian Johnson was allowed anywhere near this. (Seriously: If anyone knows the answer, let me know.) I haven’t learned much over the past decade or so, but I have learned that J. J. Abrams bores me. Everything he touches bores me. The thought of bringing him back for Episode IX overwhelms me with ennui. It tells me that The Powers That Be have again succumbed to the failure of imagination and embraced More of the Same.
POSTSCRIPT: Digging around since writing the first draft of this piece, I twigged onto the old news that Disney has green lit Johnson for a new Star Wars trilogy set outside the make series. There is already precedent for projects outside the main sequence, and for their being good. It is not clear how tightly or loosely the new trilogy will be tied to the main sequence. This looks to me, at least potentially, where we will have the main sequence boringly playing it safe, while spinning off more interesting material. I can live with that.