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

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

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

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

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.

Representation Chart: Star Wars, Sequel Trilogy

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Star Wars sequel trilogy movies (Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker).

Characters included

(Characters are listed in the first movie in which they qualify for inclusion under the rules given below.)

  • Episode VII: The Force Awakens: Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren, Han Solo, General Hux, Snap Wexley, Rey, Captain Phasma, General Leia Organa, Finn
  • Episode VIII: The Last Jedi: Luke Skywalker, Vice Admiral Holdo, Rose Tico
  • Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker: Emperor Palpatine, Zorii, Lando Calrissian

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count). Phasma and Zorii are edge cases on this rule, but since we do at least once see enough of their faces to identify the actors as white women, I have included them.
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, titles, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate. “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

Chart by Erik Jensen

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

Video Mashup Tribute: Danger Zone with X-Wings

Anybody else who grew up in the 1980s and remembers the song “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins? Here’s a treat: Jackson McKay mashed it up with X-wing clips from Star Wars movies for a really thrilling video.

Danger Zone: X-Wing Tribute (Ep IV-IX & Rogue One) by Jackson McKay on YouTube

What a blast! 😀

Found via Tor.com.

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Representation Chart: Star Wars, Original Trilogy

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Star Wars original trilogy movies (Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi).

Characters included

(Characters are listed in the first movie in which they qualify for inclusion under the rules given below.)

  • Episode IV: A New Hope: Luke Skywalker, Owen, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Tarkin, Princess Leia, Beru
  • Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back: General Rieekan, Admiral Piett, Emperor Palpatine, Lando Calrissian
  • Episode VI: Return of the Jedi:

If the absence of major characters like Darth Vader, Chewbacca, and Yoda seems strange, see below.

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate. “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

Chart by Erik Jensen

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

Death Star Lamp Tutorials for Star Wars Day

Happy Star Wars Day!

Have you heard of Ikea hackers? It’s a site for sharing projects modifying the DIY furniture store’s products. The hack below is both clever and timely: exploding Death Star ceiling lamp.

(Note: The Ikea hackers post I’m linking to has a few different options; I like Maria Krüger’s best, so the pictures are from her project.)

The hack starts with the PS 2014 lamp with copper insides. First it is spray-painted grey before details are applied. Maria Krüger masked in some stripes and used darker grey to paint most of the outer pattern.

Here’s a closeup of her Death Star:

Ikea Hackers Maria Kruger Death Star Lamp Closeup

And the finished lamp:

Ikea Hackers Maria Kruger Death Star Lamp

She’s also posted a short video of the lamp Death Star “exploding”:

Star Wars Death Star Lamp – IKEA PS 2014 Modification – Todesstern Lampe by Maria Krüger on YouTube

Isn’t it handsome? I’m not sure I’d have the patience. Or maybe I should say that I don’t care for the Death Star enough to go through the trouble and mess with paint. Now, if you have a fabric project, we might talk…! 🙂

Images by Maria Krüger via Ikea hackers

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Representation Chart: Star Wars, Prequels

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Star Wars prequel movies (Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith).

Characters included

(Characters are listed in the first movie in which they qualify for inclusion under the rules given below.)

  • Episode I: The Phantom Menace: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jin, Anakin Skywalker, Palpatine, Chancelor Valorum, Padme Amidala, Shmi Skywalker, Captain Panaka, Mace Windu, Kitster
  • Episode II: Attack of the Clones: Captain Typho, Jango Fett, Boba Fett, Count Dooku, Cleigg Lars, Owen Lars, Bail Organa, Beru, Captain Typho, Dorme
  • Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Commander Cody

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate. “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

Chart by Erik Jensen

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

Pimp Your Living Room with an Enormous Battle of Hoth Wallpaper

Aaaaa! It’s a battle of Hoth wallpaper!

Bauhaus Finland Star Wars Battle of Hoth

Handsome, isn’t it?

One of my pet peeves is when people—mostly merchants and, I assume following their lead, parents—assume only kids could be into superheroes or heroic scifi stories or what have you. I have exceedingly firm plans of becoming a geeky granny! This would fit right in. 🙂

Found / image via Bauhaus Finland

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Second Trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is now a month away. Here’s the second (and apparently final) trailer:

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker | Final Trailer by Star Wars on YouTube

My my, it looks more epic than before, and you really cannot fault episodes VII and VIII for being bland. Furthermore, the movie seems epic in all senses, with beautiful work in both the visuals (environments, propping, fights—did you notice the outstanding cutting of the trailer?) and the story (resistance, courage, friendships, sacrifices).

Now I have one wish: that J.J. Abrams won’t ruin it. (His work has been a hit or miss for me in the past.)

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.