The first Star Wars trilogy enraptured by blending classic drama with science fiction. There was Luke Skywalker the fresh-faced hero, emerging from obscurity to save the day. There was Vader the villain, who had once been good but had embraced the dark side. There was the Emperor, the twisted puppeteer. There was the daredevil pilot Han Solo. There was Leia, the princess who had to be saved. There was even that essential companion on any voyage: a bumbling upper-class Englishman.
All of it was familiar from classic cinema and adventure stories, but all of it had the strangeness of science fiction. The villain lurked behind a fearsome mask and choked people by mind control. The daredevil’s craft was a ramshackle spaceship. The bumbling Englishman was trapped inside a golden robot. But familiarity breeds contempt too. By 2017’s The Last Jedi — the 363rd film in the Star Wars franchise, though I may have missed some — the series was slipping into the contrived, condescending and dull.
The characters were no longer archetypes, never mind fully-realized men and women. They were glassy-eyed lunatics like Poe, a fighter pilot who got half the Rebel fleet wiped out in the first minutes of the film, and bores like Laura Dern’s shamefully wasted Amilyn Holdo, who was reminiscent of everyone’s least favorite colleague in human resources. Kylo Ren, Darth Vader’s petulant grandson, showed some promise by planting his feet on both sides of the Force and offering Rey, the heroine, the chance to rule the galaxy with him. But she, dismayingly, was pious enough to turn him down.
The seeds of compelling plotlines were crowbarred into the film. Two characters were dispatched to a casino on a distant planet for obscure reasons and returned having accomplished absolutely nothing except, it seemed, telling us that slavery is bad. The futuristic elements, meanwhile, were out of the recent past.
Granted, I am an increasingly decrepit adult and not a child, so it is natural that films about spaceships aren’t as enthralling as they were when I was six years old. But everything had the air of, ‘Will this do?’ Look, kids! A Star Destroyer! A lightsaber! A TIE fighter! At least the Empire had finally got the message and stopped trying to build death stars.
The latest Star Wars saga, The Rise of Skywalker, hits the cinemas this week. I say hits, but it will stumble in. Lucasfilm has struggled to replace Emperor Palpatine at the dark heart of the franchise. Supreme Leader Snoke was memorable only because he looked like Gollum on human growth hormones. So the main attraction here is Palpatine’s return. Palpatine was hurled into an abyss by Vader in Return of the Jedi. It now seems that, like Moriarty with Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, Vader failed to finish the job. Palpaltine’s laugh echoes in the trailers for the ‘new’ movie, but without emotional impact. We have already watched him failing before, in the originals and prequels. His return does not give him the air of frightening invincibility, but the sad, comical appearance of a drunk lurching toward a nightclub from which he has twice been violently evicted.
If you are undecided about seeing the latest Star Wars, don’t. The Star Wars universe was exciting because it was so rich and yet so new. There were hordes of characters, with galaxies of fresh, exciting abilities, tools and homelands, and it was exciting to get to know them and their strange adventures. The franchise is now parasitic on the early films and the warm memories they evoke.
The novelty of the ‘new’ films is opportunistic. The Rise of Skywalker will necessarily contain new revelations about the meaning of the Force, which has ranged from being a kind of genetic code with eerie social Darwinist implications (the prequels) to a mystical, Rupert Sheldrake-like morphic resonance (The Last Jedi). Who ended the original trilogy feeling resentful about its insufficient explication of the Force? Who needs further explanation? No one.
Lucasfilm keeps slogging back to the drawing board to twist old characters and concepts into slightly different shapes for, at best, the mild amusement of an aging audience. Nostalgia has rewarded the film-makers thus far, but one hopes that the audience’s patience is, like its memory bank, finite. Otherwise, we might begin to wish that Vader had lopped off Luke’s head rather than his hand.
This article is in The Spectator’s December 2019 US edition.