I like to think of myself as a reasonably well-adjusted adult, but every once in a while I get a flare up that reminds me I’m still an Extremely Online Nerd in my soul. Tonight’s episode: getting irrationally angry about Rogue One out of nowhere.
Okay technically not out of nowhere. I was trying to think of how to handle the issue of plugging cables into the Star Wars-inspired computer I want to build, which seemed like a distinctly un-Star Wars thing to be worried about. Everything in Star Wars just works — or more often, doesn’t work for dramatic purposes — without spending even a nano-second thinking about stuff as mundane as cabling or fuel sources.
Then I remembered that the climax of Rogue One has the team both trying to find a particular file in a file system, while simultaneously trying to get a cable to reach a socket. And I mean come on.
Over the years, I’ve settled into a more mature attitude towards Rogue One after my initial nerd-rage: accepting that it has both the best production design of the entire franchise, and the absolute worst plot and characterization of the entire franchise. (Except for K2SO, which I attribute mainly to Alan Tudyk). I’ve already complained about how the entire movie undermines its own protagonist, but if I’m being honest, the thing that bugs me more is that it doesn’t “feel like Star Wars” to me.
Which is also my main issue with The Last Jedi. That movie’s grown on me a lot, although I’ve still got some issues with how it handles the characters. But the biggest problem I have with it is that so much of it just doesn’t feel like Star Wars. The stuff with Rey and Kylo Ren is mostly fantastic, but the bulk of the plot is a pointless and futile digression onto a space casino, and the Resistance fleet running out of fuel.
The plot of a Star Wars story should never revolve around something as mundane as fuel. A broken hyperdrive? Sure! A lack of fuel? Garbage. Again, that’s Battlestar Galactica, not Star Wars.
A broken hyperdrive doesn’t make sense; the Millennium Falcon shouldn’t have been able to travel between planets without it. The reason it works in The Empire Strikes Back is because to the characters, it’s as mundane an obstacle as any other broken piece of equipment, roughly the equivalent of a flat tire or a broken air conditioner. But to the audience, it’s still fantastic.
JJ Abrams gets this, I think, but takes it too far. The Force Awakens built its climax around a “thermal oscillator,” which is nonsense, but is just enough of a McGuffin to drive the action. If anything, he spent too much time with a bunch of adults standing around a table, talking about nonsense as if it made sense. That’s Star Trek, not Star Wars.
And The Rise of Skywalker, along with all its other issues, takes it way too far in the other direction. It’s not that Emperor clones and thousands of planet-killing Star Destroyers, or even the “Force Dyad” or whatever they called it, need to be explained; they do need to be justified, though. There’s no sense of building up to it. It’s just thrown at you as an immediate threat, trying to raise the stakes without “earning” it.
Comparing all the good and bad Star Wars stories I’ve seen and read over the years, I think that the main thing driving the whole Star Wars aesthetic is that it’s impossibly ancient. Technology that’s thousands of years ahead of our own is already thousands of years old by the time our stories start.
It’s so ubiquitous that characters should rarely even comment on it. That’s my “in-universe” explanation for why none of the computer panels or spaceship controls have labels anywhere; it would be as absurd as putting instructions on door knobs or cabinet handles.1I admit I do like the theory that everyone in the Star Wars universe is so dependent on droids that they’ve become illiterate, though. It’s also why I think the Imperial aesthetic “reads” as evil and unsettling even when you don’t have Darth Vader walking around in it: it’s all so clean and shiny that it literally feels unnatural.
The reason I think it’s important, instead of just a source of Strong Opinions for Nerds, is that it forces (no pun intended) Star Wars stories to be about characters, along with ideas about spirituality and magic. They are, deliberately, silly fairy stories, but dressed in trappings that make them resonate. The sci-fi elements are there to make the fantasy stories feel contemporary.
Looking back on my reaction to The Rise of Skywalker, I’m surprised that my opinion hasn’t changed all that much. I did go back to the theater to see it a second time, and watching it as “Star Wars I can watch on a big screen” instead of “conclusion of a decades-long series that’s been hugely important to me for as long as I can remember” made it a lot more fun. It’s entertaining in the moment, but falls apart at any attempt to put it into a larger context. And whether it’s good or bad, it doesn’t change the enormous potential of Star Wars as a setting for stories.
Both officially sanctioned by Disney-owned Lucasfilm, and even better, the infinite number of stories not set in the Star Wars universe, but inspired by it. Star Wars is a specific aesthetic, and I’m no closer to being able to define it than “I know it when I see it.” But more valuable than that is the idea of freely picking and choosing from elements of pop culture — sci-fi, westerns, samurai movies, swords and sorcerers, WWII movies — to make stories that are about more than just their setting or their aesthetic.
- 1I admit I do like the theory that everyone in the Star Wars universe is so dependent on droids that they’ve become illiterate, though.