As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one’s impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment’s narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There’s no answer to this question — only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.
J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens (2015), co-written with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, is a stabilising film following Lucas’ regrettable and ill-advised prequel trilogy. While Lucas forgot the audience’s imagination is sacrosanct, so too have a new generation of filmmakers. Think back to Obi-Wan in A New Hope (1977) telling Luke of the fate of his father at the hands of Darth Vader. Those words reverberating within the emporium of the audience’s mind are more potent than anything Lucas would eventually conjure up on screen. There’s a moment in which the audience become authors of the story, something both understood and expressed by Billy Wilder when he spoke with Charlotte Chandler for Nobody’s Perfect (2002). He was speaking of the post-film fate of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine’s relationship in The Apartment (1960). From the original trilogy to the prequel, and now the sequel films, Star Wars was first blighted by the expositional travails of its origin story, and now the cyclic restrictions of archetypal narrative.
The blue prints of episodes IV and VI beneath the surface of Abrams and Rian Johnson’s films cast their efforts as inferior and unnecessary remakes, in part as a consequence of naturally forming cyclic narrative through lines. Although The Last Jedi does deviate from the Empire template, there are narrative similarities, from Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeking out Luke (Mark Hamill) in exile to learn the ways of the Jedi, to the ice battle. In fact, Johnson does not solely use the original sequel as a template, but A New Hope, as Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) enact a cunning plan that makes the acquaintance of a character in Benicio Del Toro, with shades of former renegade Han Solo.
These films of oppression and resistance, good and evil are restrictive in their scope, their multi episode continuation an echo chamber that would best left to the silence of imagination over big screen realisation. Star Wars has become a broken record, with a faulty premise of philosophical balance, that can only be handled appropriately by breaking its defined structure. What is required is for it to move outward toward a psychologically inclined hero’s journey, in which a sole individual confronts their duality of good and evil in order to break the poppycock philosophy at the heart of the Star Wars mythology. But doing so would fracture the form, the narrative, and the aesthetic language of its escapist and fantastical universe.
Adam Driver in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) (© 2017 – Industrial Light & Magic / IMDB)
The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are reluctant to stray too far from the familiar compromises the natural growth of the series. David Cronenberg’s cinema has witnessed the evolution of his voice, the types of films changing dramatically in spite of the author as a constant. Bob Dylan transitioned from acoustic to electric guitar, and similarly to Cronenberg encountered a backlash of rejection and admonishment from fans discontent with creative and expressive evolution. The responsible artist, however, looks to protect and nurture the integrity of the art or work. This bold act is required by the new generation of filmmakers advancing the saga’s story. Even within the scope of the familial relationship, The Last Jedi is shown up by its elder relation The Empire Strikes Back (1983), which remains the watermark of the series.
A statement film following from A New Hope, in all phases it was refined, from the absence of stilted dialogue with a more tightly-knit narrative, to a maturing visual confidence exhibited by the filmmakers. With its first sequel, Star Wars asserted itself as a serious piece of art, yet did not compromise its childlike nature and commercial viability. While The Force Awakens exploited nostalgia to get over with the audience, one expected The Last Jedi to be a statement film, following in the tradition of history. Failing to deliver that traditional darker middle chapter, of the heroes cornered and digging themselves out of a hole, it makes no statement other than to continue the lethargic trajectory of imitation. Johnson’s miscue has posed a disquieting question: Are these filmmakers authors or fans?
The need for Johnson to have made this statement is the necessity for the sequel trilogy to find its footing, to find its identity in the universe it calls home. So far Abrams and Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience — the familiar and unique warmth of a Star Wars film with a sense of progression. As with adaptation, this new generation of filmmakers are struggling with capturing the spiritual essence while expanding and interpreting the world in new and interesting, even transformative ways. The words Johnson writes in which Luke describes the Jedi story as one of failure comes full circle — a self-reflective comment that contextualises not only these two sequel installments, but also the prequel films as exercises in failure.
A worrying omen remains in John Williams’s score, which fractionally registers in The Last Jedi. From the industrial, raw and romantic music of the original trilogy, to the polished scores of the prequel films, struggling to prop up the weak narratives and moments Lucas regrettably envisioned, to the now fading presence in this latest installment, Williams’s scores are intertwined with the life force of the films themselves. They chronicle the rise and fall of the saga from an emerging and prominent film series, to a shadow of its former self.
This decline can be witnessed through the childlike innocence of the original trilogy with its black and white morality, beneath which were thoughtful ideas underpinning such simplicity. From ideas of psychology and the confrontation of the Jungian shadow complex, to Lando Calrissian’s (Billy Dee Williams) failed attempts of appeasement, the films are permeated with a psychological, cultural and historical resonance. While the prequel films still have a semblance of this, no matter how weak, Abrams and Johnson have struggled to reassert this weight of soul or spirit. As staples of the mainstream cinema, more significant is the question whether Star Wars symbolises the mainstreams vanishing intellectual inclination and its propensity for subversive thoughtfulness in the least likely and unexpected of places?