Okay, strap in and prepare for a rant.
Are you ready? Good.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking over the problems that modern Star Wars movies have.
Yes, both of them.
Don’t get me wrong; they’re absolutely, perfectly fine. They’re just not anything more than that. Passable at best, derivative at worst, completely, totally average.
Of course, after three prequels from George Lucas, an average movie exceeds most audience’s wildest dreams. A spectacular return to form is anything that doesn’t feature the line “I hate sand” or has flat slapstick humor delivered by a CGI fish-man-thing.
I’m overly harsh on The Force Awakens and Rogue One, and I admit that. But this is largely because, as an enormous Star Wars fan, I’m well aware of just how incredibly powerful a good story set in this universe can be.
BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic is an epic story which borrows from earlier movies without beating the player over the head with similarities. Similarly, books by Karen Traviss or Timothy Zahn expand the existing universe, transforming one-dimensional characters like Boba Fett or the Imperial Guards into complex, nuanced individuals that the audience can truly learn to care about.
But after the Star Wars brand suffered such a savage beating at the hands of its own creator, Disney isn’t interested in innovative storytelling. Instead, the company wants safe, formulaic movies that tick the Star Wars checkbox.
X-Wings. Death Stars. Stormtroopers. Darth Vader. Droids that can’t fly.
Jam enough of these familiar elements into a Star Wars movie, and you can disguise an average movie as an incredible film, purely through the power of nostalgia.
The problem that’s at the heart of The Force Awakens in particular is its source material. Episode VII is based on Star Wars, using pre-existing shorthand that was established in the original trilogy in place of actual storytelling.
We know that Starkiller base is a big evil thing, not because we care when it blows up a bunch of CGI planets, but because it’s literally compared to the Death Star in front of our eyes.
Similarly, BB-8 literally stands next to R2-D2 in a shot that’s purely designed to prove that the new, rotund droid is cuter than its inspiration.
Kylo Ren is a shadow of Darth Vader. The comparison is heavy-handed and has all the nuance of a sledgehammer, as can be seen when Ben Solo literally talks to the former Dark Lord’s helmet.
Of course, we couldn’t really expect anything else from JJ Abrams. The man has built a career around plagiarism and mystery boxes, so the Episode VII that we ultimately got is the best we could have hoped for.
But Star Wars is about taking things that are ancient, and reinventing them for a modern audience. It’s a Western and a Samurai movie and a fairy tale all rolled into one, with George Lucas using familiar iconography and story points from classic stories to dip into something primal and earnest, which resonates with audiences regardless of culture or social viewpoint.
This is why Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi has the most potential of any Star Wars movie we’ve seen this decade, of getting things right.
Johnson didn’t base his chapter of the space opera on bingewatching George Lucas movies. He built his work around war flicks and Samurai movies.
In a recent interview, Johnson was asked to name three non-Star Wars movies that influenced his work on Episode VIII. His answers speak volumes about what we’re going to be getting:
“Twelve O’Clock High was a big touchstone, for the feel and look of the aerial combat as well as the dynamic between the pilots. Three Outlaw Samurai for the feel of the sword-fighting, and the general sense of pulpy fun. And To Catch A Thief was a great film to rewatch, for the romantic scale and grandeur.”
These sources of inspiration fit with the movies that George Lucas himself relied on to create the original Star Wars (later titled A New Hope). Scenes from World War II movies were recreated almost frame for frame with TIE Fighter models, and Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics drove much of A New Hope’s structure and narrative.
Now, obviously Rian Johnson no doubt watched lots of Empire Strikes Back too, considering that his movie will be the second, no doubt darker entry in this new trilogy.
But it’s good to know that he’s been attempting to add outside elements to the movie’s plot, tone, and aesthetic. This is what will keep Star Wars fresh, and help The Last Jedi to feel like more than just a remake of an earlier episode from the franchise.
Of course, I reserve the right to be disappointed yet again. I intend to hold all new Star Wars movies to a high bar of expectation, simply because I know just how fantastic a movie that is set in this universe can be.
The trick is not to feed Star Wars into more Star Wars, like some kind of perverse cinematic human centipede. Instead, injecting new ideas (or, more rather, very old ideas) from classic cinema, mythology, and history, is the key to creating a truly universal Star Wars story that taps into that familiar Everyman Journey with a Thousand Faces that audiences deserve to see.
I’m watching you, Rian Johnson.
Don’t you dare freeze anybody in carbonite.