This isn’t the sort of thing I usually write about, and it’s hardly important to my life at the moment. But as a Star Wars fan, there’s something I want to get off my chest.
As a kid, I loved Star Wars. (Spoiler warning for the entire franchise.) Even before I saw the original film, I rewatched my family’s TV recording of Return of the Jedi on VHS over and over. It’s always held a special place in my heart, especially after the prequels allowed for a comparison of the two stories.
I got to experience the prequels as they were released, and while they weren’t always well received, I loved them and still do. They made me appreciate Return of the Jedi even more as the culmination of the series. Luke Skywalker became my favorite character in that film, largely due to his character’s growth when contrasted with his father.
For years, I had to put up with critics and older fans complaining about how terrible the prequels were and how badly George Lucas ruined the franchise. I think the prequels are underrated, but I never thought they were perfect. (Neither are the originals.) There are legitimate complaints against them – like excessive CGI – but many were exaggerated. (Hayden Christensen is one of the best parts, and nobody understands why.)
In any case, that’s not my point. And it no longer matters. The prequels have become more popular as their youngest viewers grew up and took control of the public conversation. (On behalf of prequel fans everywhere: neener neener.)
But enough about that. This is about the third trilogy, and The Last Jedi in particular. (I know, this has been done to death. Bear with me.) After all those years of insults and overdramatic whining against the prequels, I now find myself on the other side. And while you might think that makes me a hypocrite, I’m going to tell you why I disagree.
The prequels have been accused of bad acting, cheesy dialogue, slow pacing, and the aforementioned abundance of CGI; but the more relevant criticisms are of the story itself. To name a few: Anakin Skywalker was too happy as a child and too whiney as a teenager. His romance was weird, his turn to the Dark Side too fast, and the latter too dependent upon the former. Padmé didn’t live long enough. The Jedi weren’t very good at their jobs. Boba Fett shouldn’t have been a clone. Nobody wants to hear about trade blockades. And Jar Jar Binks should die.
These are mostly reasonable opinions – some of which I might agree with – but they’re all a matter of taste. Some fans would’ve preferred a different personality for Anakin, a different outcome for Padmé, or a more exciting backdrop. Some might reasonably wish that the rise of Darth Vader were more gradual in the third film, and that’s okay. I think the suddenness adds to its tragedy and therefore its emotional impact. We’re free to disagree, but the movie still accomplishes its purpose, even if one of us doesn’t like it.
My problem with the Sequel Trilogy – and especially The Last Jedi – is that it accomplishes nothing but to undermine the previous films. And if you’re a sequel fan, please hear me out before going on the defensive.
Let me start by saying that as a single film, The Last Jedi is… fine. It’s not great or even all that good, but it’s fine. I was entertained when I watched it, and it’s well-produced. (It also has one of the funniest moments in any Star Wars movie, involving a leafy twig and the Force.) But even as a standalone film, it does very little. At the beginning, the Resistance is struggling against the First Order; Kylo Ren is an evil character with no redeeming qualities; and Luke Skywalker is of no help. By the end of the movie, all of these factors remain in place. No great battles have been waged. Nobody’s character has really changed. Nobody is frozen in carbonite or loses his hand in a death match with his father. Two or three characters of alleged importance die, but only after doing nothing and with no real impact on the story.
And the fact is, it’s not a standalone film. It’s part of a trilogy, which in turn belongs to a nine-part film series. When taken as such, the trilogy accomplishes as little as the movie. To prove this, let me summarize the Sequel Trilogy as a whole.
It begins with a young nobody from a distant corner of the universe who joins the fight against an evil regime that threatens the galaxy. After watching a beloved mentor die at the hands of a black-shrouded villain, this character goes off to be trained by an old Jedi Master, who reluctantly agrees to pass the torch and dies shortly after. Our surviving hero discovers a familial link to the enemy (and subsequently leads him back to the side of good); participates in the final victory over the evil emperor; and embraces a future as the new hope of the galaxy – and the first of a new Jedi Order.
That’s because it’s a precise summary of both the Original and Sequel Trilogies. I chose my words carefully, as there are plenty of differences; but those differences aren’t substantive, so we have to start here. It’s true, there was repetition between the first two trilogies, but it was used to create symmetry. We can split hairs over how much was too much, but the parallels in the prequels served different ends – namely, the fall of Anakin Skywalker, versus the triumph of his son Luke. The parallels in the Sequel Trilogy are just do-overs for the sake of it.
The Original Trilogy was the story of Luke Skywalker, who helped defeat the Empire while confronting and redeeming his father. The Prequel Trilogy was billed as the story of how Luke’s father became Darth Vader; and love it or hate it, that’s what it was. By the end, these stories made up two halves of a whole – of a fallen Jedi whose son became the hero he wasn’t and brought him back to the light.
And then came the sequels.
I spent most of my life imagining what these films might be like, so I was obviously excited when Disney announced them. More than anything, I wanted to see Luke Skywalker as a Jedi Master (something we never got in the Original Trilogy), with decades of experience behind him – and the benefit of modern visual effects. Now, it was finally coming!
Until it didn’t.
To be generous: the Sequel Trilogy is about Rey, a girl with no family and no background, who learned to use the Force and followed in Luke Skywalker’s footsteps. It may not sound like much, but it’s the best I can do without repeating the similarities. This kind of summary points to another problem: the sequels are meant as a continuation of an ongoing storyline (hence the subtitles of Episodes VII, VIII, and IX). But what exactly is that storyline?
When there were three films, it told of Luke Skywalker. When there were six, it told of Anakin (and his son). Now that there are nine films, it tells of… Emperor Palpatine??? His bizarre and far-fetched reappearance is unfortunately the only real cohesion to this trilogy of trilogies. Otherwise, it’s a story of how the Skywalker family – who are all dead by the end – inspired a random character to adopt their name. What began as a compelling story of father and son ended as a generic story about a bunch of people who happen to cross paths and do a lot of the same things over and over.
Imagine Oliver Twist had continued past the current ending – not to tell more of Oliver’s story, but that of another child, for the last third of a much longer book. Imagine that this new character – let’s call him Ray, for argument’s sake – is only tenuously connected to Oliver, and that his story is thematically the same – though not as engaging or believable. And let’s imagine Ray’s happy ending comes only after he receives word that Oliver was killed in a carriage accident. Even if you enjoyed Ray’s story, it would have to be admitted that the last third of the book is a drain on the much better story that comes before.
It’s easy to argue that Rey is irrelevant to the Skywalker Saga – and she is – but her story might still have been compelling if it was a natural outgrowth. Instead, the Sequel Trilogy tries to recapture the magic of the Original by simply doing the same things – and not by allowing history to repeat itself in a new way (as the prequels allowed), but by undoing what the originals did so the sequels could do it again.
Return of the Jedi brought the Original Trilogy to a close by promising the return of peace and order to the galaxy. Darth Vader was defeated, but found redemption in his final moments. Luke Skywalker became a Jedi Knight and assumed responsibility for teaching others – including his sister, who incidentally found romance along the way. It ended with a glorious celebration of the Rebellion’s victory over the evil Empire, which had finally been toppled for good. It even resolved the story of Anakin Skywalker and promised the restoration of the Jedi and the Republic from the prequels.
But instead of building on the Original Trilogy’s (happy) ending, the sequels swept it all away like it didn’t matter. The victory of the Rebellion was short-lived; a new Empire has arisen. Luke is the only living Jedi. And Emperor Palpatine will have to be defeated once and for all.
Do you see the problem? We’re right back where we started, as if someone hit a big reset button on the franchise. After the Original Trilogy resolved the tragedy of the prequels, we find out in the sequels that it was all a failure: the New Republic, the New Jedi Order, Luke Skywalker, even Princess Leia’s marriage to Han Solo (as well as their parenting). The Sequel Trilogy erased what the original films had done and thereby undermined its own purpose; why should we believe in or care about anything our heroes are fighting for when we’ve seen it all before – and to no avail?
It gets even worse.
As the director of the first sequel, The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams made a bold but brilliant decision to delay Luke’s return util the final seconds of the movie. It made for a powerful ending, but it left the fate of the character in the hands of another director, Rian Johnson, who decided to shock audiences with The Last Jedi by “subverting expectations” and doing the opposite of what people expected. Thus, Luke’s first action in the film was to throw away his old lightsaber; and he spent most of the film refusing to help anyone.
In short, Luke Skywalker had become a loser.
After a quarter of a century, the fastest-trained Jedi in history still had nothing but students. And despite his father’s history, he let his star pupil fall to the Dark Side and in fact contributed to it. The man who once saw good in a homicidal terrorist like Darth Vader – who once resisted temptation when the fate of the galaxy hung in the balance – apparently gave up on his own nephew, whom he had known from birth and who had yet to commit any crimes when Luke considered killing the boy in his sleep. This uncharacteristic act served as the catalyst for Kylo Ren’s turn and led to a subsequent attack – which the Jedi Master was unable to predict or prevent – that killed all of Luke’s students in a single night. And to top it all off, the hero of the Rebel Alliance ran off to become a hermit, abandoning his duty to protect the galaxy and leaving it to fend for itself.
Believe it or not, it reminds me of an old Waltons episode (*spoiler warning for anyone looking to binge-watch a 45-year-old TV show*) where Mary Ellen’s husband – who had previously died honorably at Pearl Harbor – is found alive and in hiding, played by a different actor. As it turns out, he allowed his family to believe he was dead, abandoning his wife and son out of shame for his emasculating injuries. As a result, Mary Ellen moves on with another man.
Why did this happen? What was the point? It served no purpose at all. There was no closure necessary. The character had been killed off long before, and in a blaze of glory. Mary Ellen could’ve simply remarried and started a new chapter in her life. Instead, the show went to the trouble of recasting the role, just to bring back a great character and destroy his legacy. It’s one of the most useless and dishonorable plot twists I ever saw.
This is exactly how the Sequel Trilogy treated Luke Skywalker. After more than three decades, his story came to nothing. Director Rian Johnson intentionally and vocally dismissed what people wanted to see for the sake of telling a “good” story – and gave us neither as a result. Instead of adding to the Star Wars Saga, he depleted it so that he could congratulate himself for his bravery.
And that’s where the Sequel Trilogy becomes more than just a matter of opinion or even a terrible series; like the story of Mary Ellen’s husband, it becomes a moral disgrace. The hero who defined the franchise is dragged through the mud and killed for no reason (literally – he imagines himself to death). As critics pointed out – and applauded, to their own infamous discredit – the theme of the film seems to have been summed up in a single line from the villain, of all people: “let the past die; kill it if you have to.” The Last Jedi goes out of its way to do just that.
At the end of the day, the sequels serve no other purpose but to capitalize on the Star Wars brand. That’s obviously not rare for franchise films – or any film, for that matter – but Star Wars was always very intentional in its storytelling (whether you liked it or not). The sequels, however, were made up on the spot – by admission of the filmmakers – and destroyed what was arguably the most successful film series of all time. (It took a lot of Marvel movies to outperform three – or six – Star Wars films.) Even if you hated the way Darth Vader’s past was depicted, the prequels didn’t really change the original films; they only changed the way we looked at them. The same cannot be said for the sequels.
The prequels established a backstory for the original films, which in turn handed Disney some of the most exciting possibilities for any Star Wars film – a new Jedi Order under Master Luke (and maybe Leia), the family of Han Solo, the reunion of the original cast, even the chance to weave their legacy together with the prequels. But the geniuses at Disney and Lucasfilm decided to throw it all away. Instead of paying off the Original Trilogy (as the prequels had), they unraveled the whole thing and rehashed it for no reason; they dumped the ingredients and started from scratch. The sequels put us right back at square one, without any set-up or creative connection to the previous films. There’s no explanation for the First Order, no motivation behind Kylo Ren’s backstory. Even if you enjoy the sequels – even if you favor them over the originals somehow – that’s terrible storytelling.
There’s a dreadful moment at the end of The Last Jedi, which sums up the mentality of the Sequel Trilogy. Just before he dies, Luke Skywalker tells his nephew, “The Rebellion is reborn today. The war is just beginning. And I will not be the last Jedi.” It’s meant to be an inspiring moment, but it only proves how hollow and meaningless the whole thing is. The Rebellion already won the war. And Luke was already confirmed not to be the last Jedi. We did this already – more effectively – and the sequels have shown us it didn’t work. So why should we be inspired when we do it all over again? There’s no reason to believe our heroes can win this time either.
So what if Yoda talks sense into old Luke now? It didn’t work last time, even when he’d had thirty years to think about it. So what if Palpatine is destroyed? It didn’t work last time, even when he’d been dead for thirty years. So what if Rey is here to teach a new generation of Jedi? It didn’t work last time, and… I think you get the point. Instead of showing us what the originals accomplished, the sequels decided to accomplish it all over again – and thereby stripped it of any value at all.
This probably sounds like nothing more than a fanboy’s rant (and it mostly is). But I hope I’ve shown that the sequels suffer from more than just a difference of opinion. They might be entertaining, but as films meant to tell a story, they are what I’ve insisted the prequels were not: objectively bad.
I know I’m a little late to this argument, but I’m personally annoyed to see the franchise carry on as if nothing went wrong. I still love the films I grew up on – as well as couple of their more recent projects (Rogue One was fantastic) – but I can’t be bothered to care about the future of the franchise. My interest has been thoroughly killed.
Before his death, old man Luke had said it was time for the Jedi to end. As far as I’m concerned, the Sequel Trilogy made sure that they did.