A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, I was a kid who loved Star Wars. I loved the whole universe of it: the planets, the creatures, the ships, the swords that came in different colors. Never mind that the creatures were tacky-looking, or that the ships were miniatures on matte backgrounds, dude, the swords are in different colors. I loved imagining myself as a Jedi apprentice, or a decoy for the queen, or a rebel pilot. The best sci-fi and fantasy creates a world for us, and we imagine ourselves into it.
But the Star Wars of today looks very different than it did, and I’m not just talking about Baby Yoda. The series has become unbelievably lucrative; Disney bought the property in 2012 (for $4.05 billion) and began an ambitious revival, with a trilogy extension of the original “Skywalker Saga” as well as some stand-alone films and TV shows. The revival began with 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” bringing fresh new characters to a nostalgic storyline. Each subsequent Star Wars film — with the exception of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” — has made over a billion dollars.
But with each new film, the Star Wars universe has slowly lost any semblance of creativity. With Disney’s release of “The Rise of Skywalker,” its latest (and supposedly final) installment of the Skywalker Saga, the Star Wars universe had completed its zombification into a reanimated clip show of the good old days. It was not only a narrative disappointment, but a new sparkling example of the Marvelification of the film industry, and the corporatization of geek culture.
“The dead speak!” reads the opening crawl, and indeed they do; Foremost is Emperor Sheev Palpatine, Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid), who was killed in “Return of the Jedi” in no uncertain terms. But he is back to business in “Rise of Skywalker,” revealing himself to be not only the mastermind behind it all, but also the secret grandfather of our new Jedi hero, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Many fans have expressed disappointment and disbelief at this “plot twist” — leaving aside the narrative cheapness of revealing this in the final act of your trilogy, it is also an uncreative remix of “Luke, I am your father.”
Speaking of Luke Skywalker — who is also back from the dead — Mark Hamill reprises the role of the famous Jedi, to give Rey a generic pep talk before the final showdown. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) gets his own spectral speech from a ghost (or dream?) of his dead dad, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), whom he killed, though the ghost doesn’t seem terribly fussed about that. Carrie Fisher, who died before the filming was completed, “reprises” her role as Princess Leia in stitched-in archival footage, feeling more like an actual ghost than the rest. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), a fan favorite from the original trilogy, also makes a pointless reappearance.
Even in the climactic scene of the film, when Rey must summon all the power of the Force to defeat Sheev the Evil, she is made to summon her strength from a chorus of the dead Jedi heroes of blockbusters past. In “Rise of Skywalker,” the dead crowd in so close that they drown out the voices of the living.
The film reminds the audience what we used to love about the series by inundating us with a long stream of canned callbacks — “I have a bad feeling about this,” etc. — as if to ask us, “Remember the good old days? Don’t you love it still? Don’t you?”
Fans have, by and large, been disappointed with the film, and with director JJ Abrams, Hollywood’s favorite geek and the internet’s least favorite. For my part, I can’t blame JJ for this the way I may have blamed him for the messy “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” I know that this Star Wars film was grown in a lab, focus-grouped beyond recognition in order to make the maximum profit. And profit they did: It was Disney’s seventh billion-dollar film of 2019.
It’s exactly this profitability that drives the creative — a term I apply loosely here — choices behind these movies. Disney, working with their hugely successful Marvel model, has reduced Star Wars to callback- and one-liner-based plots, to a nostalgia machine. Through focus groups and endless screen tests, the guiding question “What is a good story?” is replaced by, “What will appeal to the largest number of people?” There is no space for anything that isn’t totally familiar.
It is also a manifestation of modern geek culture that, as a lifelong science fiction fan, I find disappointing. Self-reference was once the nerd’s standard proof of cred, a tradition which fostered both community-building and, unfortunately, gatekeeping. But that self-referential framework was ripe for monetization, and it has been completely co-opted by corporate interests. Look no further than the wall of Funko Pops in your local Newbury Comics.
The best geek content is esoteric. What made the original Star Wars films so good — and so appealing to everyone, not just to “nerds” — was what was unique about them. The story was simple, the characters were accessible, and the sets were low-budget. It was consumable in a way that was decidedly un-glossy. “The Rise of Skywalker,” on the other hand, is a convoluted plot with an estimated $275 million price tag, making it one of the most expensive films produced (so far).
For years in online communities I watched die-hard Marvel fans live on scraps of character development, only for that development to be cast aside by the next ensemble blockbuster. I watched those Marvel fans thinking, “That will never be me.” I have successfully ignored all post-2011 Harry Potter content. And as the Star Wars revival progressed, I eyed the eject button, thinking perhaps it might be safer to pull the chute, get out while the going was good. I didn’t hit eject soon enough.