As Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is unleashed, Bruce McAdam takes an in-depth look at the franchise under Disney.
In 2012, Disney purchased the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas for a staggering $4 billion, and for good reason.
Star Wars stands as the second-highest grossing media franchise in history, after Pokémon, having generated a revenue of approximately $42 billion by the end of 2015. This makes it worth more than the Harry Potter and James Bond franchises combined.
Despite ongoing financial success though, Star Wars received something of a drubbing throughout the noughties with the release of Lucas‘ prequel trilogy, which could generously be said to have been divisive amongst fans and critics.
And so it was that, with the launch of The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars film produced under the Disney banner, the stakes were incredibly high. Would Star Wars be revived and brought to the forefront of popular culture once more, or was it to prove a dead horse to be mercilessly flogged until nothing remained of its former glory at all?
Well, here we are, two years on from the release of that film and the results are in… kind of.
The Force Awakens was financially a smash success, grossing over $2 billion at the worldwide box office, breaking a number of records along the way. It was the first movie to gross over $100 million in a single day and earned the highest grossing opening weekend over (almost $248 million), obliterating Jurassic World ($208 million) and Marvel‘s Avengers Assemble ($207 million). With its box office performance alone, the film recouped half of Disney‘s initial outlay in purchasing the Star Wars IP. When you factor in merchandising sales alongside those figures (toy sales alone for 2015 came to approximately $700 million), it is quite clear that Disney‘s investment in Star Wars was certainly a successful one from a business standpoint. The Star Wars brand is alive and well and is a cash cow which it appears Disney will be able to milk for a long time to come.
The film also performed well critically, currently sitting at a 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an 8.1 average score on IMDB (for what any of that is worth), and found its way into many major critics’ top ten lists for the year. It was nominated for multiple awards, including a controversial best picture nom at the 21st Critics’ Choice Awards.
But, as time has gone on, popular opinion of the movie seems to have diminished somewhat. The movie’s detractors have largely cited a lack of originality as their main complaint and that is understandable. Whilst it did an excellent job of capturing the spirit of Star Wars, successfully modernising the formula in a way that Lucas’ prequels largely failed to do, its major plot beats closely shadow those of the original Star Wars (retroactively subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope).
Even much of the visual iconography of J.J. Abrams’ 2015 iteration takes its cues a little too liberally from Lucas’ originals. One particular shot, close to the beginning of the movie, in which the heroic Finn (played by the outstanding John Boyega) stands atop a desert clifftop and looks out over a small, sand blasted settlement in the distance, almost perfectly recalls A New Hope‘s introductory shot of the iconic Mos Eisley.
Add to this the numerous and often unsubtle call backs to the original – such as Finn tossing aside the same Jedi training remote used by Luke Skywalker as he sifts through junk aboard the Millennium Falcon – and it is not hard to see why some people were left frustrated by The Force Awakens.
In defence of the movie, it would seem as though it was designed with the exact intention of hewing as closely as possible to its iconic forebear. It is what some people have termed a ‘soft reboot’ – it is essentially a reboot of a franchise which still looks to retain the continuity from previous entries.
We are introduced to an almost entirely new cast of characters, whilst major players from prior entries are largely background figures who contextualise where the movie’s universe is at in the current time frame. They are not necessarily the stars of this new story, but everything that they have done up to this point in time is what has led to the events of the movie and their purpose is now to pass on the torch to a new generation.
Given how reviled Lucas’ prequel trilogy was, the filmmakers intended to send out a strong letter of intent – this is good Star Wars. The right kind of Star Wars. Ultimately, TFA‘s purpose was to set up a new story with new characters and reassure audiences that Disney understood what made Star Wars tick and could deliver on those things. It delivered on all those things and made people excited about Star Wars again. Now Disney could go ahead and do something daring with Star Wars and tell us a story that we hadn’t heard yet, couldn’t it? Right?
Well, the jury is kind of out on that one. We knew that, other than the main series “Episodes” of Star Wars, we would be getting a number of spin-off movies focusing on different stories within the same universe. Since Episode VII, we have so far seen only one of those movies and that was 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Billed as a gritty take on the Star Wars universe focusing on the theft of the Death Star plans which acted as the MacGuffin in A New Hope, the movie had the chance to do something interesting and offer a unique perspective on Star Wars. It would be removed from the story of the Jedi and the Skywalkers and would focus on average people living under the tyranny of the Empire.
Yet there appeared to be trouble brewing, as reports of significant reshoots surfaced as the film neared completion. Director Gareth Edwards’ original vision of the movie was apparently a little darker in tone (SPOILER: the movie already ends with the entire team dying in their final mission) and there was either more or less of legendary villain Darth Vader, though reports are conflicting.
Ultimately, despite hyperbolic comments coming from the usual suspects (Kevin Smith, I’m looking at you) that Rogue One would be as good or better than Empire Strikes Back, the series’ high point, I was frankly disappointed by the movie. It is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It is well shot and put together, the special effects are fantastic and the acting is competent from a talented cast (Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal Lecter himself, is criminally underutilised).
But it adds little of value to the Star Wars mythology. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it detracts from the pre-established lore, if anything. The characters are largely one-dimensional and the plot, itself constructed to fill a so-called plot hole, ends up creating at least one or two of its own. Worst of all though is the level of ‘fan-service’ on display, with both Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin shoe horned into the movie where they are over utilised and ultimately eclipse Ben Mendelsohn‘s Krennic, the most interesting bad guy of the piece.
There are two particularly egregious instances of overly-pandering fan service which left a particularly bad taste in my mouth. The first, and the least offensive, is the inclusion of two bit-part characters from A New Hope in Rogue One.
On the planet Jedha, protagonist Jynn Erso has a fleeting encounter with Ponda Baba and Doctor Cornelius Evazan. Rogue One is set extremely shortly before A New Hope, and whilst not impossible, it seems unlikely in the context of A New Hope that these two characters would be on Jedha at this time. It is also ridiculously unlikely that Jyn would happen to run into these two characters out of all the millions, if not billions of people on Jedha. While this moment in itself doesn’t necessarily damage Star Wars and for the less invested might not even register, it is a symptom of a larger issue with the series.
The same few characters pop up over and over again, diminishing the sense of scale of the galactic conflict. Even as a self-confessed Star Wars nerd, the appearance of those two characters in that place took me out of the movie. That moment exists purely so that a certain subset of moof-milker fanboys can get a kick out of seeing a thing that they’ve seen before in another (better) movie and is utterly superfluous in relation to the rest of the movie. This is a bad habit lifted from Disney‘s Marvel movies, which often feature pointless, supposedly fan-pleasing cameos and links to other movies, and the film would be better served without it.
The second and far worse incident comes at the very end of the movie and is a scene which perfectly encapsulates the problem with modern Star Wars in general. As the Empire chase down the plans and the Rebels attempt to escape, Darth Vader boards their ship. Several Rebels are trapped in a narrow corridor with the Sith Lord and he proceeds to butcher them effortlessly.
Whilst that may sound cool on paper (and indeed the scene is pretty badass when removed of context), it actually plays out as over the top and pandering. The Darth Vader portrayed here is not the Darth Vader of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, but the Darth Vader of pop culture. He is the Darth Vader of a dozen videogames and fan films, capable of anything and beyond limitation. This is not the same Vader who chose not to cross Boba Fett (“The Empire will compensate you if he dies”) and who would rather send a platoon of storm troopers to their deaths than face off with enemies who he considered to be a waste of his time. This Vader would feel more at home facing off with Iron Man or Thor than Han Solo or Lando Calrissian.
And so to the future.
Next year, we have a Han Solo spin-off movie that will explain the origins of the enigmatic, charismatic smuggler whose portrayal made Harrison Ford a household name. The mystery was part of the appeal of the character and undoubtedly this movie will remove all of that mystery through over-explanation. To have all of the details canonised is something that will appeal to a percentage of fans, but to those who are less compulsive, it will detract value from the originals by undermining their rich world-building through ambiguity and suggestion.
Additionally, that movie, more so than Rogue One, has been through troubled development. Lucasfilm were allegedly so concerned by lead Alden Ehrenreich‘s performance that they called in an acting coach to work with him and Disney canned directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller late in production, bringing in Ron Howard to finish the film off. If I wasn’t worried about the movie doing dirty by Han Solo beforehand, I sure as hell am now. Howard is a fine director, but it feels like damage limitation at this point, rather than crafting a story that adds to the Star Wars mythology.
Similarly, we have also had a Star Wars Battlefront game this year that has drawn the headlines for all the wrong reasons for the anti-consumer practices employed by EA, the Galactic Empire of videogames.
More disappointing to me though, as a Star Wars fan, is the way the game’s campaign was handled. At the heart of it, there is an interesting story about Imperial troops and the moral quandary they face with the fall of the Empire. All too soon it too capitulates into a string of fan service moments in which heightened versions of the same old faces from the movies pop up one after another for non-sensical, disparate missions. These missions don’t add to the game’s real story in any meaningful way and generally only serve to decrease the mystery surrounding what happened to characters like Luke Skywalker between Episodes VI and VII.
And that is what has become Star Wars’ real problem in the Disney era. Disney and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy seek to appeal first and foremost to the fans who seek the same tired characters and conventions over anything new or different, adding more and more detail and eradicating any sense of mystery or ambiguity. Everything seems to be tyrannically moderated to the point that artistic expression is being suffocated, like an Imperial officer in Darth Vader‘s Force grip.
But much like with Vader, there’s still good in Star Wars. The magic still lives. Disney just have to be brave enough to let it breathe and trust that Star Wars is about more than Darth Vader and lightsabers.
The great hope now rests with the man behind the latest “Episode” entry in the saga, The Last Jedi. Released this week, it is helmed by Rian Johnson (director of time travel thriller Looper and cult classic Brick), who also wrote the screenplay. He is a creative and interesting film maker with a unique voice who could do excellent things with Star Wars.
On top of that, it has also recently been confirmed that Disney are so happy with The Last Jedi that they have greenlit a new trilogy of movies to be helmed by Johnson. These movies will be set far away from the story of the Skywalkers, freeing Johnson to do something truly unique within the Star Wars universe.
Perhaps Disney have heard what people really want, amidst rumours that the third, as yet unannounced Star Wars spin-off movie has been cancelled. Only time will tell if the beloved mega franchise will succumb to the Dark Side.
Like it or not, the choice is Disney‘s alone.