Deconstructing the Star Wars Sequels: The Rise of Skywalker

The first two movies in the Star Wars sequel trilogy had their problems: The Force Awakens was driven too much by nostalgia for A New Hope, and The Last Jedi was too dependent on an intellectual conceit. The Rise of Skywalker has a different and rather unusual problem: it is two movies crammed into one.

Rey and Kylo Ren smash stuff as they duel, screenshot from Star Wars 9: The Rise of Skywalker

By all public accounts, the new Star Wars trilogy was not planned with an overarching plot. The intent was that each director would put their own stamp on each movie. The effects of that choice are visible all over The Last Jedi, which moves about as far away from The Force Awakens as it can without technically breaking continuity. The reaction from fans was strong, as most of us probably remember. Some of that reaction was beyond the pale, up to and including online harassment of some stars (notably those who were not white men). For a good year and a half, it was just about impossible to have a conversation about the movie online without things devolving into a scorched-earth flame war. Disney seems to have been shaken enough by the reaction to turn back to J. J. Abrams for an encore of The Force Awakens to close out the trilogy. The Rise of Skywalker slams the door hard on everything The Last Jedi was trying to do and doesn’t look back.

This about-face is visible all over The Rise of Skywalker. New characters like Rose and D’Acy are demoted to background extras; Rey’s parents are retroactively promoted from mere junk traders to scions of Palpatine; Poe and Finn get to be heroic and do things that actually matter to the plot. The Rise of Skywalker rejects The Last Jedi so thoroughly that it attempts to fit an alternative second movie into its first half. Although we’ve been told that there was no overarching plan for the sequel trilogy, it sure seems like Abrams and company at least had ideas sketched out for two more installments after The Force Awakens. When called on to helm the third movie, Abrams tried to fit all of those ideas into one.

The first half of The Rise of Skywalker has traces of what could have been the second movie of the trilogy. While there isn’t a simple breaking point where a theoretical Episode 8 ends and Episode 9 begins, the action on Kijimi makes a suitable climax at around the halfway point. We reconnect with Lando Calrissian in the first half and with Endor in the second. Ending the movie somewhere around Kijimi would leave Chewbacca in the First Order’s hands, C-3PO out of commission, and Rey confronting the reality of her parentage, a cliffhanger ending for the middle movie of the trilogy and an echo of the ending of The Empire Strikes Back.

Seeing the movie as two films packed into one helps make sense of some of its odder features. For one thing, The Rise of Skywalker is overstuffed with plot. Compared with either of the movies that came before it there are more new locations, more new characters, and a less direct narrative line. The plot even overspills the edges of the movie, with crucial set-up squished into a rushed beginning and the suggestion of further adventures packed into the ending. There is also a curious amount of doubling in the movie that makes sense if it was originally conceived as two. Our heroes set out in search of two different devices that lead to destinations: first a Sith dagger, then a Sith wayfinder. There are two planets with women who connect to our heroes’ past and offer potential love interests for their future: Zorii on Kijimi who has a history with Poe, and Jannah on the Endor moon who is a rebel stormtrooper like Finn.

As it stands now, the movie undermines its own script. Rey and the audience alike hardly have a chance to react to Kylo Ren’s revelations about her ancestry because the movie has to rush on with the rest of the story. The discovery that Plapatine’s brand new fleet has planet-destroying capabilities is similarly underwhelming with so much else for the movie to do. C-3PO’s self-sacrifice to translate the Sith blade is played as an emotional farewell, but then almost immediately undercut when R2-D2 reloads his memories; if we had waited two years between movies to get our old droid friend back, the moment would have had the emotional weight it seemed written for.

The middle entry in the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi, for all its flaws, introduced the most interesting and challenging new ideas Star Wars has seen in decades. Even if all The Rise of Skywalker did was reject those ideas, it would still be a disappointment of a movie. In trying to not only turn away from The Last Jedi but retroactively create its own Episode 8, the movie ends up being not only lifeless but messy and overstuffed.

It is a shame that none of the new trilogy lived up to the hopes of fans. Every film has its good points and enjoyable moments, and I am at least mildly fond of them all, despite their problems. It is interesting to observe, though, that each of the new trilogy’s movies has an entirely different problem with its structure.

Image: Rey and Kylo smashing stuff via IMDb

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Deconstructing the Star Wars Sequels: The Last Jedi

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the storytelling structure in The Force Awakens and how it mimics the narrative shape of A New Hope without the character growth to support it. Today we look at The Last Jedi, the second and most challenging of the new trilogy movies. Where The Force Awakens was too committed to reenacting a familiar story to offer any new ideas, The Last Jedi is too much in love with its ideas to build a story around them.

Rey on the Jedi island, from Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi does not run on nostalgia like The Force Awakens. It toys with some echoes of The Empire Strikes Back—the rebels are on the run chased by Imperial forces while the novice Jedi goes off to train with an old master, learning something about their parents along the way—but these echoes do not drive the plot the same way A New Hope did for The Force Awakens. The story of The Last Jedi is instead driven by Rian Johnson’s desire to challenge every trope and convention of the space opera that he can.

The movie does a good job posing the questions. What if the hot-shot pilot who doesn’t play by the rules is actually making things worse with his antics? What if the old master is broken by guilt and remorse and doesn’t want to train the chosen one? What if the chosen one isn’t actually all that chosen? What if the previous movie’s shadowy overhanging villain is actually a chump who gets himself bisected mid-monologue? What if the rebels and the Empire both buy their weapons from the same scummy arms dealers? What if the heroes send out a desperate last call for help in their hour of need and no one comes? The what-ifs go on and on, each of them a worthy hook to hang plot on, but none ever taking up any weight. The movie asks plenty of questions, but never gets around to the answers.

Instead of actual development for the plot and characters, we get empty gestures at development. We are clearly meant to think that Poe has Learned a Lesson by the end of the movie when Leia tells the others to follow him, but just what that lesson was and how he learned it are a mystery. Similarly, Finn’s retort to Phasma, calling himself “Rebel scum,” is framed as if it ought to mark a turning point for the character, but the rest of the movie doesn’t do the work of showing us that his relationship to the Rebellion/Resistance matters. Rey comes the nearest to having a character arc. After spending most of the movie looking to others to guide her on what being a Jedi means, she strikes out on her own and uses the Force to move rocks and save her friends. It’s the closest the movie comes to a payoff, but it barely adds anything to her development in The Force Awakens, and it’s not much to show for having Rey stuck between grumpy uncle Luke and creepy stalker Kylo for most of the movie. The structure of a narrative arc is built into the film, but the story isn’t there to fill it.

The time and narrative energy that could have been put into building the story and challenging the characters is instead spent on gambit after gambit that doesn’t pay off. Luke’s lessons teach Rey nothing. Finn and Rose’s side quest to the casino planet is pointless and deflates much of the tension built by the First Order’s pursuit of the fleeing rebels. Poe’s mutiny gets undone with a kicked-over steam vent and a blaster. The movie invests more energy into critiquing the socio-economics of a galaxy far far away than in giving our heroes anything meaningful to do.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this movie is how it dangles the possibility of meaningful development in front of us only to do nothing with it. Characters like Vice Admiral Holdo and Commander D’Acy are vast untapped wells of awesomeness reduced to Teaching a Man a Lesson. The number of times that important moments in the movie correspond to women with outstretched hands—from Rey lifting rocks and Leia pulling herself back out of space to Rose patting a giant horse-puppy and Holdo jumping into hyperdrive—makes it seems as though the gesture ought to mean something, it just doesn’t. Johnson’s other movies, notably his following creation, Knives Out, show that he is quite capable of handling complex story structures (something I’m not confident I can say about J. J. Abrams). In this case, though, it feels as though the director got so focused on making his movie about failure that he ended up failing to make a movie.

None of this is to say that there aren’t good things in The Last Jedi. It has some of the sequel trilogy’s sharpest dialogue and most striking visuals, from Poe’s jabs at Hux at the beginning to the red scars of battle streaming across the stark white ground of the salt planet at the end. It introduces what may in fact be the most daring idea in the new Star Wars universe: that a Jedi can come from anywhere (at least until the next movie took a big step back.) But these things arrive within a movie that is so committed to the task of deconstructing Star Wars that it deconstructs it right down to the ground and leaves nothing behind.

Image: Rey from The Last Jedi via IMDb

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Deconstructing the Star Wars Sequels: The Force Awakens

We’ve all had a few years to mull over the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and opinions are mixed. Some people love them and some hate them, but most of us seem to be in the middle, enjoying some things about the movies while feeling an overall dissatisfaction. It is, of course, true that any franchise so deeply loved as Star Wars was going to have a hard time living up to fans’ hopes with its long-awaited return. Not to mention Star Wars fans can be a particularly unpleasable lot. Still, I think a significant part of what made Episodes 7-9 feel lackluster comes from how they handle the structure of their storytelling. In this and a couple future posts, I want to dig into what that means.

Finn and Rey on the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The most obvious thing about the narrative structure of The Force Awakens is that it hews very close to the story of A New Hope. We start with a lost droid carrying vital information running into a potential Jedi on a backwater desert planet and end with x-wing fighters blow a giant planet-killing ship out of the sky. In between we get everything from a cantina with its own funky jazz band to rebels sneaking around the corridors of an imperial supership to rescue a captured young woman. Your cruisers can’t repel nostalgia of that magnitude.

There’s a good reason why this story doesn’t work as well as A New Hope. When he first sat down to plan out the Star Wars story, George Lucas played to his strengths, and storytelling is not one of them. For all that we think of Lucas now as the creator of one of the great stories of our time, he has always been a filmmaker first. The story of A New Hope is not particularly original, nor is it trying to be. It knowingly walks the steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. The hero’s journey concept is a controversial one, its substance disputed by folklorists and its application embraced by some writers but rejected by others. But rather than delve into Campbell, I want to look at something related but simpler: the three act structure.

The three act structure is a fundamental storytelling tool that can be found in everything from fairy tales to Hollywood blockbusters. There are lots of different ways of explaining it and, just like the hero’s journey, different people have different interpretations of it, from the very basic to the immensely complex, but here’s a simple version of how it goes.

Act 1: We meet the main character and learn enough about the world they live in to care about them. The main character is faced with a problem that they must solve or there will be consequences.

Act 2: The character attempts to solve the problem but fails. Their attempt fails because they did it in a way that did not require them to change. There may be consequences for their failure, or the potential consequences of failing to solve the larger problem may grow greater.

Act 3: The character accepts that they must change, and with that change they are now able to solve the problem.

Not every story follows this pattern, to be sure, but it underlies a lot of familiar narratives. To take a well-known example, Homer’s Odyssey works along these lines. Act 1: We meet Odysseus and learn about his struggle to get home. We learn about the greedy suitors feasting all day on his meat and wine and see them scheme to kill Telemachus, force Penelope to marry one of them, and finally get their hands on Odysseus’ wealth if he does not get home. Act 2: Odysseus tries to get home, but he runs into obstacles. The worst of his problems comes from the fact that he cannot bear to slip away from the cyclops by calling himself “No one.” Instead, his pride drives him to turn around and shout out his real name, which allows the cyclops to call down Poseidon’s curse on him. It costs Odysseus his crew and ten years of wandering. Act 3: Odysseus finally gets home to Ithaca and accepts that he must disguise himself as a beggar and not give away his identity until he is ready to kill all the suitors and reclaim his home and family.

A New Hope is a textbook example of the three act structure. In Act 1 we meet Luke Skywalker and learn of the importance of bringing R2-D2 and the Death Star technical readouts to the rebels before the Empire can destroy more planets with their new weapon. In At 2, Luke attempts to solve the problem by rescuing Leia and getting the droid back to her, but without letting go of the idea that he’s just a farm boy from the sticks. It costs him his mentor and his last connection to Tatooine as Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself to let the Millennium Falcon escape the Death Star. In Act 3, the Death Star threatens the rebel base on Yavin, and Luke finally accepts that he must become more than he was and trust the Force in order to defeat the Empire.

The three act structure works best with a single character at its center so we can watch how they grow and change when faced with a challenge. (It can work with an ensemble, too, though. Take Avengers: In Act 1, we see the problem—Loki steals the cube—and meet the heroes: Iron Man, Captain America, etc. In Act 2, the heroes try to deal with Loki by each doing what they do best; it doesn’t work, Loki gets away, and Coulson dies. In Act 3, the heroes get past their differences, come together as a team, and stop Loki’s fiendish plan.) A New Hope is centered on Luke. Other characters have important moments and experience some growth—especially Han, who chooses to come back and help fight the Death Star rather than fly away with his money—but Luke’s growth into a Jedi is the core of the story.

For all that The Force Awakens does its best to follow along with A New Hope‘s story, it doesn’t have the same focus. Knowing that the Luke-Han-Leia trio was such an important part of the original trilogy, The Force Awakens spends a lot of time setting up Rey, Finn, and Poe as their new counterparts. To the extent that any character’s story provides the narrative line running through The Force Awakens, it is Finn, the mutinous stormtrooper. Finn works well as an audience surrogate character to introduce new and old fans alike to the world of the new trilogy—everything is as new to us as it is to him—but his story does not follow the three act structure. He makes his big choice at the beginning of the film, putting down his blaster and breaking Poe out of the First Order’s lock-up. In the end he chooses to go back to the world he escaped from to rescue Rey, but that is by far the least momentous change his character undergoes. Poe, for his part, is a hot-shot pilot at the start of the movie and still a hot-shot pilot at the end; he has plenty of good moments as a character, but this movie is not about what happens to him.

Rey’s story is the one that tracks most closely with Luke’s (orphan kid from a desert planet meets runaway rebel droid and discovers their Jedi powers), but the movie is not structured around Rey’s journey the same way A New Hope was structured around Luke’s. Rey starts out by running away and looking to others to solve her problem with BB-8, and in the end she comes into her own as a budding Jedi. She has a beautiful moment overcoming her fear and trusting the Force to let her mind-trick her way out of First Order holding, but the story of the movie is not her story. Rey’s growth and her confrontation with Kylo Ren are things that happen in parallel with the larger plot; they are not key to it the way Luke’s story was.

There are plenty of weaknesses in The Force Awakens, from an over-reliance on nostalgia to underbaked worldbuilding, but one of its fundamental problems is that it is so focused on rewriting A New Hope it loses sight of what A New Hope was itself rewriting. What we get in The Force Awakens is a copy of a copy, with all the flaws that come with it.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

The Final Teaser Trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The final teaser trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings dropped only ten days or so before the release day. Desperation during disease-ridden times? Who knows, but I’m glad it’s here; this trailer give us more insight into Shang-Chi the person, not just his past. Here it is:

“Run It” | Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Still handsome with flashy fight scenes. Unfortunately, my original complaint—that the trailers fail to situate Shang-Chi into the Marvel Cinematic Universe—still stands. WHY is this a Marvel movie? Having read any specific comics should be an aid to enjoying the MCU, not a requirement, if you ask me.

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Second and Final Trailer for Eternals

The second trailer for Eternals came out last week. Check it out:

Marvel Studios’ Eternals | Final Trailer by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

This is more like it: at least I found out who the Eternals are and a teeny bit of why they are on Earth. The connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we already know are still weak, though. I do love how varied the characters are compared to the previous MCU movies. And, of course, it does look even more gorgeous than the first trailer, if you ask me. 🙂

Looks like the Eternals is still set to release on November 05, 2021. Ultimately, I suspect, whether we’ll go see it in the theater will depend on the local covid-19 situation, since late summer and early fall have been worse than I’d like.

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The Second Villeneuve Dune Trailer Published

The second trailer for director Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is out now, and looks as breathtakingly gorgeous as the first:

Dune | Official Trailer | HBO Max by HBO Max on YouTube

Wow, right? This adaptation certainly gets many of the visualities closer to my impression of the novel than the earlier ones do. The visually minded might also be interested in posters of the various characters; they’ve been published on Twitter as a thread. If not, you might be interested in the soundtrack, of which some details are out as well (e.g. Tor.com has a short piece on two tracks by Hans Zimmer).

There’s still one question that neither of these trailers answer, however: is Duke Leto aware that Arrakis is a trap? Surely he does? My memory, at least, says he and his top aides all did, but the first trailer has only the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam impart that information to young Paul. I’ll have to re-read as soon as I get my books back from the person I lent them to.

I’m really, really hoping the story of this adaptation is as good as its visuals!

Dune will be released in theaters on October 22, 2021, and simultaneously streamed on HBO Max.

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Second Trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The first of Marvel Cinematic Universe’s full-on Asian movies, The Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is coming in three months, and the studio has released a second long trailer.

Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings | Official Trailer by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

As I wrote in my reaction to the first trailer, if there aren’t enough pre-launch links (no pun intended) to familiar characters or events, I’ll probably skip this movie.

It didn’t look like there were any additional links in this trailer, either. However, Andrew Tejada’s writeup at Tor.com did speculate whether two characters have “huge potential connections” to the MCU. One is the Abomination played by Tim Roth in The Incredible Hulk from 2008 (written by Zak Penn and directed by Louis Leterrier with Edward Norton and Liv Tyler leading the cast). I wouldn’t have been able to recognize the character, and even if I had, completely opposite to Mr. Tejada, his return certainly is far, far, far down the list of things that might entice me to the theater.

The action looks gorgeous, yes, not to mention beautifully shot. However, if I wanted to see skilled Asian people perform feats of martial arts on screen, with occasional flares of the fantastic and/or superheroic, I would’ve been watching Hong Kong flicks all along.

What I’m looking for in the MCU is individual stories that connect and interweave in arcs multiple movies wide, impossible to tell in one or two or three movies. So far the Shang-Chi trailers aren’t giving me that. (While I’ll always enjoy origin stories like the first Iron Man, it’s in connecting his story to the rest of the Avengers’ that makes the MCU so special.) And that is a real shame, since I dearly want more of the world outside the Anglo-American one on the MCU screen.

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More Trailers and Clips for Black Widow

The original release date for the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie Black Widow was, unfortunately, eaten up by the pandemic. Out for round two, we have a new long trailer.

Marvel Studios’ Black Widow | New Trailer by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Mostly recycled footage, but a few entirely new clips. Unlike the earlier ones, this trailer seems to underline Natasha’s connection to the Avengers: glimpses gleaned from the rest of the MCU stories are pasted in, and the Avengers’ theme swells in both in the beginning and at the end. I wonder how much the pandemic might have affected the decision to include them?

I also wonder whether the shorter clips linked to below, ranging from half a minute to three quarters, released in June 2021, might have to do with the careful re-opening of our movie theaters and wanting to drum up more interest, yet not going overboard in case theaters need to be closed again? (I certainly do not envy health care officials who have to make those hard calls.)

Let’s Go | Marvel Studios’ Black Widow by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Got This | Marvel Studios’ Black Widow by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Spy | Marvel Studios’ Black Widow by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Control | Marvel Studios’ Black Widow by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Finally, Marvel has uploaded a short film clip titled “In Pursuit”:

“In Pursuit” Film Clip | Marvel Studios’ Black Widow by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Okay, apart from the falling bit, it feels good to see an all-female team chased by an all-female team. The gender of the action heroes shouldn’t matter, if you ask me, but since we still live in a world where it does, I’m going to be rooting for Black Widow

…as long as it’s actually good—2005 Elektra, I’m looking at you!

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First Trailer for Eternals

The Western world is vaccinating their citizens furiously against covid-19, and societies are clamoring to retun to normal. It’s therefore no surprise that we’re seeing more movie-related news.

The first trailer for Eternals has been out over a month now:

Marvel Studios’ Eternals | Official Teaser by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, it apparently follows a group of immortal, human-shaped beings who’ve lived on Earth for centuries in secret, until something (or someone?) forces them to come out of hiding.

As opposed to the first Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings trailer, there is at least one reference to the rest of the MCU, as bare and uninformative as it is, but I still don’t have a good idea of how these people connect to the rest of the characters we know.

Whether I’ll want to watch this is still up in the air; maybe the second trailer will give us more to go on. A talented, big-name cast should be interesting to see and Ramin Djawadi’s music awesome, if nothing else. Oddly (since I’m not especially keen on the early history of the Near East), one of the things I would enjoy seeing more of is Babylon and the Ishtar Gate, of which we see a short glimpse in the trailer.

At this writing, Eternals is set to release on November 05, 2021.

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First Trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The newest trailer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings:

Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings | Official Teaser by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Um, okay?

If I knew little of the Avengers upon first being untroduced to the MCU, I know absolutely nothing about this Shang-Chi and his (their?) connection to the rest of the Marvel characters. Disappointingly, the trailer itself didn’t answer a single question of how they’re connected either. Oh, we got a lot of fisticuffs and action—speedy fight scenes handsomely filmed, sure—but no answers.

If the rest of the trailers aren’t going to link Shang-Chi to the characters or events we already know, I doubt I’ll want to see the movie in the theaters. I might not even rustle up the enthusiasm to see it on disc via the library.

At the time of this writing, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is set to open September 03, 2021, in the U.S.

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