Warning: This article contains The Rise Of Skywalker spoilers. But you've already seen it, so no worries, right?
Right off the top, let's admit that millions of filmgoers are pretty much fine with the new Star Wars movies. It's among hardcore fans, cinephiles, and professional movie-watchers that the battle rages, with the most common positions being "It was pretty OK!" and "Prison would be too good for these bastards!" One way or the other, it seems clear that this new trilogy won't be remembered like the original, if it's remembered much at all. Maybe that was always too much to ask. Still, I think there's one basic, easily avoided story problem that kind of doomed the whole thing from the start.
You Can See It In The Opening
From literally the very first two sentences of A New Hope's title crawl, we know the political situation in this massive new universe we're stepping into:
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
Bad guys rule the Galaxy, and they're opposed by a comparatively weak faction of rebels. It's simple, but that setup informs the entire plot of the original trilogy. Through heroism, the Force, and the ability to actually hit what they shoot at, the Rebels grow from a tiny band of desperate guerrilla fighters into a galaxy-spanning coalition sporting an entire armada commanded by fish-people.
Even the often-mocked opening crawl for The Phantom Menace, while infinitely less interesting, at least paints a clear picture of a declining civilization falling into conflict. (It literally opens with "Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic.") Now compare those to the situation presented in The Force Awakens' opening crawl:
Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed. With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.
Wait, doesn't that render everything that happened in the previous trilogy totally pointless?
They Inexplicably Reset The Status Quo
If you're brand-new to the series, this has to read like nonsense. If you have the support of the REPUBLIC, then how are you a RESISTANCE? Aren't you supporting the existing government? Right away, the situation is muddled.
If already you're a fan, it's even worse. So the Empire isn't dead, just ... rebranded? Oh, and the Rebellion is also still a thing, but it's not the Republic? As far as I can tell, the First Order and the Republic are at peace, but the Republic funds a terrorist organization to assault the First Order by proxy. So does the Republic publicly denounce the actions of the Resistance, or pretend it's not happening? In fact, how strong is the Resistance? How long have they been around? Whatever the First Order is doing, it's apparently not "sinister" enough for Republic to directly challenge it.
Also, does the First Order directly control any systems, or does it simply float through space and issue stern commands in British accents? If they're an actual sovereign government, isn't the Republic committing war crimes? And if the First Order somehow isn't a functioning government, are they the space equivalent of ISIS? If so, how are they funded? Do they collect taxes? Steal? Run an MLM scheme?
Yes, This Stuff Matters
This isn't about just nitpicking the fictional universe. It's about how this confusing setup struggles to create clear character motivations. For instance, the First Order later proves their evilness by obliterating the Republic's capital system. But why in the hell would they even do that? The two factions aren't at war, and the Republic presumably spans the entire Galaxy, right? And yet they blow up one system in a Galaxy with 3.2 million of them, and it effectively ends the Republic. That's like if in World War II, a Nazi chucked a hand grenade into the White House vegetable garden and America was like, "Well, I guess we should give up and start trying to like sauerkraut."
Does the Republic not have any armies or politicians or freaking anything stationed anywhere else in the entire Galaxy? It's not like they'd still be worried about Starkiller Base firing again, since the Resistance immediately destroys it. We never get any real sense of the size or scope or threat of any faction. And that's crucial for a movie like this, which depends on us knowing the dramatic stakes for all of these big action setpieces.
How big of a deal is it that the First Order lost a dreadnought at the beginning of The Last Jedi? Did they have a bunch of them? Does it matter that the Resistance lost a bunch of bombers taking it out? Poe thinks it's worth it, but Leia doesn't, and honestly, they're probably both wrong. In The Rise Of Skywalker, it turns out the Emperor has like a million tricked-out Star Destroyers hidden away for no apparent reason, and the Resistance has access to a million ships of their own parked around the Galaxy just waiting to be "inspired." So now what do I care about a couple dozen bombers here or a dreadnought there? It'd be like if The Empire Strikes Back began with Darth Vader onboard one of his 36 other Death Stars.
Fantasy Is Only As Good As Its World-Building
The rebuttal to all of this could be that none of the nerdy backstory stuff really matters. After all, this is about the characters and their journey, the powerful moments of heroism. But stories like this have to have both. It's different if your tale takes place in our world, where everyone already knows what it means to defeat the Nazis or win the World Series or quit your job and build a meth lab. In a fantasy universe, everything has to be established from scratch. The world you create doesn't have to be simple, but it does have to be clear. See The Expanse for an example of a complex sci-fi world conveyed with dramatic clarity.
The way modern blockbusters are made, it's easy to skip this part altogether. It feels like they start with a series of huge sequences they know they want in the trailer ("The sky just full of Star Destroyers!!!") and fill in the rest later, often with reshoots. ("How did they get there? Who built them? Eh, just throw it in a line of dialogue somewhere.") But all of that rich backstory and world-building is what helps these stories take root in your mind. It's the reason fans have remained obsessed with Star Wars after four decades, and why every random milk-ordering bat thing in the background has its own Wookieepedia page.
Without some kind of clear vision of what's happening around these characters and why, you get two directors in a tug-of-war, each trying to undo the creative decisions of the previous one and falling back on nostalgia when something doesn't work. "Wait, with Snoke dead, who is the villain now? Not Kylo, we've already got a redemption thing going with him ... Shit, guess we'll bring back Palpatine!"
We could talk about what lesson Hollywood will take from this. (Maybe spend a couple of months nailing down this stuff before production starts?) But let's be honest here: When you see how much these movies still make, it's pretty clear that there's no reason for them to learn any lesson at all.
For more, check out The Horrifying Hidden Subplot You Missed In STAR WARS - After Hours:
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