Rogue One is out and, as a fitting follow-up to last year’s The Force Awakens, it turns out to be dreadful. We now have a track record being set. Under Disney’s management, the trends of the new Star Wars productions are emerging and I feel these need teasing out.
I don’t understand why the opinion that these new films are bad is controversial. By what standard are they good? To compare to a film that takes clear inspiration from Star Wars, look at Guardians of the Galaxy. The characters in Guardians are unfamiliar to the audience so they take the time to establish them and their interrelation. Character motivation is clear so we know why and how they seek to defeat the baddie. Events happen according to causation, not coincidence. I cannot make any of these claims for the Star Wars films.
But why can Disney not meet these most basic standards of consistent characters, with defined relationships, acting in a manner that makes sense? They pour masses of money into the budget but they cannot ostensibly afford a good script. The phenomenon of blockbusters being less than well-written is nothing new but in the case of the new Star Wars films, this is all tied to its legacy and the nostalgia for the franchise.
The new films are pale imitations of the originals
For the general audiences, the original Star Wars films presented something new. To people with some familiarity with space opera serials, samurai films and Jack Kirby comics, they were treading familiar territory but Star Wars has always managed to ship the geeky to the masses. The inverse is true of the latest iteration. The entire viewing experience is not predicated on giving you interesting characters, worlds, or concepts. In fact, if the film does not have several cameos from Star Wars mainstays, directly tie into the established events, or recreate famous sequences, the producers seem to think it has lost its raison d’être.
The ethos is backward-looking and, as a result, the films are built backwards. The basics of good story-telling are sacrificed for this heinous method. It is more important to slavishly recreate the events of A New Hope than to provide adequate narrative or logical context to any of the scenes in The Force Awakens. It is more important to have Jyn Erso from Rogue One mirror Luke with her humble farmer upbringing and traumatic paternal separation than to have definable or consistent traits. All Rogue One had to do to based on its premise was make sure the Death Star plans reached the blockade runner for the start of the first film, but it is hamstrung by its urge to recreate the past glories of the franchise than forge its own identity.
That these films only aspire to be imitations means they can never be anything more
This begs the questions of how extreme the ‘nostalgic’ backward-looking ethos is taken. Do the producers look at the drab turd of the script they have commissioned and figure ‘Woah, the audience is gonna lynch us for this. Let’s throw in Darth Vader and a quirky droid sidekick like C-3PO, and then they won’t care’? Or do they start with a collection of cameos, familiar vignettes and sound effects and then figure ‘Right, let’s slap together something around these. They’ll be happy if we get the lightsabre noises right’?
It is the contempt for the audience that bugs me the most. The original Star Wars films had to win you over based on their own merits. The new ones expect you to clap like a trained seal because ‘Ooo, look! TIE Fighters’ and ‘Oh gosh, it’s Darth Vader!’ There is a vacuum where plot and character should be. Creating original stories and characters does not mean abandoning the heritage of the franchise but this is nowhere near the producers’ priorities. As far as Disney is concerned, this is not an endeavour to bring great adventure stories to audiences, it is a massive revenue stream to be drained. You want a decent Star Wars film? Too bad! You’re going to get knock-off nonsense year upon year, churned out from the Disney production line.
Even the positive representation in the new films reeks of commercial incentives
As pessimistic as the quality standards in these gibbering messes make me, Disney can at least be lauded for an explicitly inclusive casting ethos. Both the new films have featured women as the leads, and have given prominent parts to actors of colour or from no Anglophone nations. Of course, Star Wars has a decent track record of prominent female characters but the problem has tended to be that they are isolated in a sea of men. I still think this can be built up more but the addition of female X-Wing pilots in Rogue One is a good sign. Even my cynicism of Disney’s reasoning for the casting of Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang – pandering to the lucrative Chinese market rather than a genuine belief in the representation of Asian characters – is curtailed somewhat by the presence of Mexican, Guatemalan and Black actors across the films.
But much as I said with the Ghostbusters reboot: pandering to my progressive sensibilities does not make these films better. The approach is surely tokenistic on some level if the demographic background of the actors is used to inoculate criticism of the fact that Rey is a blander version of Luke, or Finn has no personality, or Jyn Erso makes no sense as a character and has little role in her own film.
At this point, the biggest surprise the new franchise could offer me is an instalment that doesn’t utterly suck. Here’s hoping…