“I’m not disappointed by this, because there’s always another one. So if this one’s not good, maybe the next one…” The excellent Mr. Sunday Movies Youtube channel wrapped up their spoiler-free review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker with this, reminding me of a question I’ve been pondering since the first negative reviews of Episode IX began to surface this week: What if a story could just… end?
This isn’t a specifically a review of TROS. If it was, I’d probably pan it, just so you could go in with low expectations like I did and still find it enjoyable. It spends way too much time scrubbing an eraser across the white-board of what-ifs scribbled by Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi. As a result, it packs two movies into one: the story it needed as a foundation and the story it builds atop it.
Concurrently, it falls victim to that tired and lazy sequel syndrome trope of “I’m back from the dead, MUAHAHAAA!” This is never satisfying, firstly because it’s unoriginal, and secondly because it somewhat diminishes the accomplishments of the characters in earlier stories.
All that said, TROS offers some genuine and believable character development, plenty of romping adventure, and some of the most striking visuals of the entire franchise.
I’m not here to review. I’d rather reflect on how we got here. How did one of the most beloved film franchises of all time dissolve into this swirling miasma of money and vitriolic anti-fandom? Could it be our innate inability to accept an ending?
A Story that Once Had an Ending
I have no idea how old I was when I first saw Star Wars. Return of the Jedi debuted about a year before I was born, so I imagine the buzz had died down by the time I was old enough to be playing with a “light saver,” probably a cardboard tube, with my friend Evan down the street. I was a “jet-eye” trying to save a princess, and that’s all I knew.
But within a few years of that, I’m sure, I’d binged the trilogy in a chopped, 4:3 VHS format countless times. It was just so unlike anything else I’d ever seen. Knights and swords, spaceships and robots, aliens and cowboys, all so beautifully strange. I mean, how does a 7-year-old even quantify the asymmetrical, utilitarian design of the Millenium Falcon?
The years marched on and I began to get more of the jokes and nuanced conflicts. I remember where I was sitting when I noticed the symbolic lighting on Luke’s face during his final saber battle in Return of the Jedi.
But what happened after Endor? There was a funeral pyre, and some ghosts, and an Ewok party (Yub Nub for life, kids), but then what?
Well, then it was up to me, with my Super Soaker blaster rifle and my wrapping paper tube lightsaber. Of course the adventures of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewy went on— in my imagination. The story on film had ended, but the story in my mind could go anywhere.
But what if… and just hear me out here, what if there were more Star Wars movies? I could read. I knew A New Hope was “Episode IV,” (though both titles were added to Star Wars after its original release), and that George Lucas wanted to tell more stories. Awesome! What could possibly go wrong?
Anyone who has sat through Attack of the Clones or The Last Jedi knows what could have gone wrong. Everything. And everything did. From the prequel trilogy’s laughable dialogue, to the sequel trilogy’s mess of a plot, to Solo’s predictable, low-stakes storyline, to the Vader subplot awkwardly shoehorned into Rogue One (an otherwise brilliant movie), our need for More Star Wars has never really produced anything we loved. Not like we loved the originals.
Imagine that we had simply let Star Wars end. What if we had all just agreed that Return of the Jedi was a brilliant and emotional conclusion to our beloved trilogy?
The Force Awakens wouldn’t have had to make an entire movie out of crystallized nostalgia just to win fans back after the disastrous prequels. The Last Jedi wouldn’t have outraged fans whose carefully cultivated theories had just been pulped under the treads of didacticism and bad pacing. And The Rise of Skywalker wouldn’t have needed to weigh down a recycled plot line with wet, heavy, expository dialogue just to cover over the sins of TLJ.
All of this could’ve been avoided if we could just let things end.
We do this to ourselves.
Our aversion to putting a story back on the shelf and moving on presents some real problems for writers.
First, sequels get repetitive. Oh, you guys defeated the Empire? I hope you’re not around in 30 years, because then you’ll have to deal with the First Order. They’re the real baddies! They have a giant, spherical weapon that can blow up whole planets and a crazy Dark Side Force user at their head. Plus a somewhat unstable guy in a black mask and cloak and… Wait, where are you going?
Second, it forces writers to raise the stakes, usually in the wrong ways. I call this the DBZ Problem. The classic anime Dragon Ball Z is basically this: Someone threatens the planet. Our hero Goku fights them. Goku usually dies. He spends time in the afterlife training to defeat the villain (or the next villain). Someone wishes him back to life. He defeats the enemy. Repeat. As the seasons progress, the explosions get bigger, the power levels get higher, and the fights get more spectacular. And that’s fine, if that’s what you want. When I was in junior high, that was what I wanted. Just huge, blasting explosions and flying fists.
But this doesn’t actually raise the stakes. True stakes are raised emotionally. If our hero is diffusing a bomb, there could be a ten people or a million people in the blast radius, but if the hero’s child is one of them, well, that’s a completely different story, isn’t it? Unnecessary sequels usually carry the DBZ Problem. See the Starkiller Base from TFA. It’s a bigger Death Star, but instead of blowing up one planet filled with people you don’t know, it blows up five planets full of people you don’t know.
Finally, there’s an issue with the fans. I’m not here to whine about “toxic fandom,” whatever that may be. But we all have an imagination. Anyone who has ever cared about Star Wars once wondered what happened after Endor. We’ve all been the kid with the Super Soaker and the cardboard tube.
And we each have our own version. You, me, Rian Johnson, J.J. Abrams, George Lucas, everyone. When someone else’s version doesn’t quite line up with the high-budget production in your own imagination, you feel emotionally cheated.
Exploring New Galaxies
We tend to put too much stock in the emotions of memory. We remember how we felt the first time we saw _____, so naturally, we want to feel the same way during the sequel, tribute, or remake. This isn’t just an unreasonable and impossible demand that hampers (and corporatizes) good storytelling, it’s also a limiting way to live.
Let’s walk one aisle over to fantasy. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is legendary— a beautiful, moving, multilayered work of art and technology that smashed box office records and reinvigorated the Tolkien fan club the world over.
By contrast, his keel-dragging Hobbit trilogy is exhausting and ponderous, a dense loaf of plot lines and endless, impenetrable action sequences, slathered over with enough blatant overuse of CG to rival Lucas’s prequel trilogy. Jackson tried to recapture the magic of LOTR with a completely different type of story and ended up with a monstrosity that collapsed under its own weight.
But fans want to feel that epic, 12-hour journey across Middle Earth, right? Fans need to see Gandalf holding council with Galadriel and Saruman. They want that LOTR feeling! Countless other franchises are guilty of this. Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts. Another Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Indiana Jones and the Effort to Appear Younger.
Pivot to books for a moment. LOTR remains the root of all modern fantasy, from Brandon Sanderson to Terry Brooks. You can find its leaves and acorns strewn across every D&D table in the world. Yet when Christopher Paolini released Eragon, it was criticized for being too derivative of Grandpa Tolkien’s work. Elves, dwarves, humans, and something very like orcs ran through the pages. A small, inconsequential protagonist was pulled out of his little town by a wise, mysterious old man, and sent on a harrowing adventure.
Yet anyone who has read the whole series knows that it’s so much more than a carbon copy of Tolkien. It’s a gorgeous story with rich characters and intricate worldbuilding.
More importantly, it made us feel differently than LOTR did. It sprouted a new emotion in us, a brand new pin in the map. Somewhere we’d never been before. I still remember those exact feelings— and I don’t want to replicate them.
Why try to conjure an old emotion when there are so many new emotions to discover?
If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t need to replicate those emotions with another story. The replica will never be perfect, anyway. That feeling when you first experienced any given story is a secret recipe known only to you, specifically the version of yourself you were back then. The best storytellers in the world can’t even begin to get it right.
How to Let Things End
Instead we should do two things:
As fans, we should remember. I don’t mean we should value nostalgia, which has a sort of incomplete longing to it. We should let it mature in our memory. C.S. Lewis’s groundbreaking sci-fi novel, Out of the Silent Planet puts it like this when Hnoi, a local Maritan, lectures Ransom, an Earthling:
A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing… What you call remembering is the last part of pleasure… When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then— that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.
Instead of demanding that a story go on, that we follow our favorite characters all the long years of their lives, why not just accept that a story is over and let it “begin,” as Hnoi would say, in our memory? Let it mature and grow. We miss out on this when we always demand More. Like a dog who doesn’t even taste his food before he chomps it all down, then looks up at his master from his empty bowl, expectation in his eyes.
As storytellers, we should refuel. Instead of carrying on with an established, beloved story, we should treasure up those emotions that story brought about in us, fill our creative fuel cells with them, and drive somewhere new.
Your new idea will probably look like something like the ideas that fueled you. If you love dragons, your work might resemble Paolini’s (or McCaffrey’s, or Hobb’s), but it will be your own story. Your intent won’t be to conjure an audience’s remembered emotions, but to create some new ones. Your own brand.
Perhaps what this 42-year Skywalker Saga of Star Wars has taught us is that we just need to let things end.
It will make room for new beginnings.
Love all these thoughts, Andy. Insightful, and it’s giving me a lot to ponder about stories, yes, but also about my life and the nature of memory.