I saw the latest Star Wars movie, Solo, with some friends a couple of weeks ago. I found it very surprising that the movie is struggling so much at the box office. Solo was the safest of all Star Wars films and actually worked really well for what it was trying to achieve. I don’t completely agree with the casting choice for Han Solo, but the film definitely worked and was fun to watch. Why is Solo struggling so much?
Of course, there are many theories as to why Solo is having box office woes. The more popular theories are that a crowded market along with releasing another Star Wars film right after the Last Jedi led to poor numbers. Some state that no one really wanted a Solo movie anyways while there are others who think that this is a result of the Last Jedi being a poor movie.
That got me thinking about the overall direction of the Star Wars franchise under Disney. The debate in the fan community hit a fever pitch with the Last Jedi, when a strong backlash from fans attacked the movie as the worst Star Wars movie of all time. Now I myself enjoyed the Last Jedi. And in general, I’ve enjoyed the new movies. But the direction they’ve taken is an interesting one.
I’m going to start with the current trilogy. The set up is very similar to that of the original trilogy. We have the remnants of the Empire and the Resistance, a group of ragtag fighters opposed to the remnants of the Empire (the First Order). Of course, this does seem ‘almost’ like the Original Trilogy, and to many it seems too similar. I would point out that the Empire was not ‘destroyed’ at the Battle of Endor. The Emperor had died and the second Death Star destroyed. Much of the Imperial capability was probably still in place.
For a moment, let’s leave the actual canonical timeline aside, since, let’s be fair, many would not be familiar with it (though I did look it up, and if you are interested in seeing the timeline of events after the Battle of Endor, you can find it here). So commenting on just what we are seeing in Episode 7: it’s interesting that the movie went with a familiar setup as that of Episode 4 and the Original Trilogy. But this isn’t the most unrealistic set-up for a post Battle of Endor world. The Empire was the dominant political force in the galaxy, and many would fight tooth and nail to maintain the order if solely because of how it benefitted their position. Moreover, defeating that force would take time. The Empire is still a very well equipped fighting force. The Rebel Alliance was, by the nature of being a rebellion, probably not the best fighting force/political force. There would be quite a bit of conflict before the Empire is either defeated or forced to surrender. And there would still be many of the former political structure who would probably remain very loyal to that structure simply because of how much they lost upon collapse and/or had during the reign of the Empire. So it is entirely conceivable that the Empire would devolve into something very similar to the Empire and attempt to rebuild.
The New Republic would probably not be a strong state either. The Empire ruled for about 25 or so years, according to the timeline, and even by only what we see in the movies, the Empire was implied to be ruling for quite some time by the time of the first film. The New Republic would only just have reorganized into a new state and had about 20 or so years, given the ages of the protagonists involved. Probably not enough time for a new government to really consolidate into something more powerful.
The point? It’s not entirely unconceivable that the Empire would collapse and reform into something like the First Order. It’s also not at all inconceivable that the New Republic would have a difficult time realizing that a new threat has risen. There is some very strong historical precedence for this: World War 1. After Germany was defeated, about 20 years went by. In that time, the German Empire became the Weimar Republic, which then became Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany was ignored for quite some time by the other nations of Europe until fairly late in the series of events that occurred.
This isn’t to say that Episode 7’s similarities are entirely justified, but that the setup of the new movies makes a fair amount of sense. There are things I didn’t like with Episode 7. I didn’t like the use of a Death Star-esque super weapon at the end of the film. This is my single largest criticism of the movie in that there could’ve been any number of better ways to go about this that are more inventive, more novel, and cooler, but instead the filmmakers played it safe with a very familiar type of super-weapon. The ending of the movie could have been fantastic. Instead we had to settle with a ‘good’ ending. Rey has beginnings that are extremely similar to Luke Skywalker, which while isn’t terrible in itself, given how her character progresses, it’s not the best either. I can see though why they did this: they wanted to make a familiar setting. It’s sort of nitpicking on my part, but it was one of the things I didn’t like.
I did also examine the movies aesthetically. Aesthetically, the vehicles and various ships of the new movies look very similar to the original trilogy as well. One of the more interesting things about the prequel trilogy is how different the Old Republic ships and military looked from the Empire. A lot seems to have changed in what is a relatively short timespan. By contrast, little seems to have changed between the time of the Battle of Endor and the New Republic. Some see this as a weak point of the new movies and lack of imagination. Certainly that ‘could’ be a reason. There does also seem to be the desire to keep a similar aesthetic. But let’s examine the US military in the last 20 years (from 1998 to 2018): the US Air Force still makes use of aircraft from the ’60s (such as the B-52) and other aircraft such as F-16s, F/A-18s, and other aircraft. The US Navy has seen less changes, whereas the US Army has seen some changes. In that sense, it makes a lot of sense that there would be little change in the military systems used by the New Republic.
Episode 7’s characters were compelling. Rey was mysterious, more so than Luke Skywalker was in Episode 4. Finn had an interesting background of being a defector Stormtrooper. It was even more interesting to see where the characters from the Original Trilogy ended up. This is, in my opinion, a central contention point about the new movies. The Expanded Universe tended to depict these characters as being successful and central to everything that ever occurred afterwards along with their family lines. The new trilogy, by contrast, depicts a much bleaker picture. Certainly we have Kylo Ren, who is indeed from the Solo/Skywalker family line, but Han Solo is a washed up smuggler once more, and Luke himself a broken man, as we see later on in Episode 8. Only Leia seems to be somewhat more successful in the sense that she is leading the Resistance against the First Order. It’s an interesting way to start off the new trilogy where our triumphant heroes from the Original Trilogy are heavily affected by their perceived failures. It also opens up the door to a new generation of heroes for a new time. I understand why Disney went this route as opposed to giving a larger and bigger role to the original heroes. Disney did want to tell a new story of new people rather than a story of the same old characters. It’s also why we see the old characters being ‘killed off’ to an extent. But it does lead to some very interesting moments as well. The scene where Kylo Ren kills Han Solo is a very intense and moving scene, probably the high point of Episode 7. It really builds the villain character in a way that the original trilogy did not. We see this continue in Episode 8 that way.
This starts to get us a bit into Episode 8. Episode 7 may have been very similar to the original trilogy movies, but it was still very recognizably a Star Wars movie because of that. Episode 8, on the other hand, completely turned the recognizable Star Wars tropes on their head. As far as I can tell, this was Rian Johnson’s goal. This movie was the single most polarizing Star Wars film in recent memory. Episode 8 shows a lot of failure on the part of our new heroes. In fact, that was the most common theme in the movie. Episode 8 took a lot of risks in that sense: it was not very familiar to other Star Wars movies. It had some nods to Episode V of course, but only minimally. The only real similarity is that the good guys are running away from the bad guys and attempting to regroup (and of course there was a scene where the First Order sends in AT-AT walkers, but it bares little resemblance beyond the aesthetic to the Battle of Hoth). Episode 8 did not go the way anyone expected, and that in itself is polarizing (such as Rey being essentially a nobody, which is pretty cool I think). I thought Episode 8 was better than 7 in that sense alone: it took risks and most of those risks paid off. Episode 7 was far too safe by comparison, but still a solid movie. Episode 8 firmly established that the next movie will take the franchise in a very different direction than the original trilogy.
There were a lot of risks taken in this movie. For one, all of the heroes fail initially. This can seem a bit that the movie is entirely pointless, but the idea is that failure, and major failure, is a part of the struggles of any character. Overcoming those failures is what makes them heroic, which they do so at the end. Another risk taken was Kylo Ren and him killing Snoke. There was quite a bit of debate around this point. It does establish that Kylo Ren may indeed be a very irredeemable villain, unlike Anakin Skywalker. It’s also a great way to build his character as a villain: we see a ruthless side of Ren and his rise to a new status as leader of the First Order. Of course, many were quick to point out that Snoke is killed off without us ever learning who he is and what his motivations are. This is an interesting point. We don’t know much about Snoke, other than vague details on his central role building the Empire and vague details on him corrupting Ben Solo. Snoke’s importance is up for debate, given that we don’t have the last movie yet. About all that’s known is that the First Order wants to reestablish a Galactic Empire again, similar to the first one. And perhaps that’s all we need to know about Snoke. Maybe it’s all that matters. Again, this was a risky approach, and one that pays off in my opinion since it gives Kylo’s character that much more weight.
Of course, we can’t talk about Episode 8 without talking about Luke Skywalker. Luke, as mentioned earlier, is a broken man. His failure with Kylo Ren, the moment of weakness that nearly lead to him killing Kylo Ren, breaks him. Kylo Ren’s background gets more weight once more as a result. The original trilogy never dives much into the details of why Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader (that task is left to the prequel trilogy, unfortunately). And of course, it doesn’t mythify the old heroes: they aren’t larger than life legends. They can fail, which is a large theme of this movie, much as Yoda does state to Luke in the movie itself. This is a major break from what Luke Skywalker was in the old movies and what he became in the Expanded Universe. It is a major break from the old trilogy itself. Again, it’s a risk, and it does create a great dynamic for all the characters, and provides some great background and character building for the events in the movie.
There are some aspects of the movie that are perhaps not quite as well done. There’s the much criticized sequence on Canto Blight: it doesn’t seem to add any value to the overall film and slows down pacing. There is some truth to this criticism. The issue isn’t necessarily that the subplot exists at all but rather what it tries to accomplish. In the end we see that the characters fail, which is fine: it keeps with the theme of the movie. But the payoff isn’t quite there with this subplot. With Rey’s subplot, we learn more about Luke and about Kylo Ren. There’s the whole aspect of Rey and Ren communicating with one another. There’s the interesting scene with Rey asking about her parents. With Canto Blight, we have none of that. It falls flat compared to other aspects of the movie. It can be shortened or should have some more compelling content. A lot could’ve been learned about the First Order, and its supporters, or its origins, as examples. Finn is left fairly underdeveloped as a result of this sequence as well, since it does not add anything to his character.
For some, the humor didn’t work either. I liked the humor, but it’s easy for me to see why many would not like it. The humor is very jarring, and for those who simply don’t like it, it can detract from the movie somewhat.
Episode 8 also shifts from a triumphant Resistance to a Resistance on the run, which for many did not make much sense. Had the Resistance not just won a major victory by destroying Starkiller Base? How is the First Order winning suddenly? It is worth noting that the new Death Star variant was destroyed after destroying an entire major system of the New Republic (the capital, as we later fight out). It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that the New Republic would be in chaos after a surprise attack of that magnitude. The First Order must clearly have had plenty of assets available to build a weapon like Starkiller Base, so for them to go on the offensive would not be difficult in a moment like this.
It’s also fairly important to note that many fan questions centered around unexplained background or points. Who was Snoke? What is the First Order? Why is their a First Order? What happened to the New Republic? Why isn’t there more armed resistance? Why is Rey so powerful with the Force? There are far too many questions for a single (or even two) movie of about 2 hours length to answer, and this movie was two and a half hours long. The issue here is that Disney is attempting to make sequels to the original trilogy. With that, naturally, comes a lot of questions, especially given how long people’s imaginations have worked at creating more of the universe of Star Wars since then. The original trilogy itself had very little background for many of the things that the new Star Wars movies had been questioned on, but it worked then since those were the first movies of its kind and made in a very different era. Now expectations are different, since we’ve gotten not only the Expanded Universe but also entire prequel movies. If the new movies tried to examine every nuance of the universe after Return of the Jedi, we’d probably end up with a 5 hour documentary instead of watchable movies. It’s a very difficult task to accomplish, one that cannot be done without leaving some things unexplained. It’s also worth pointing out that many of these questions on ‘plot holes’ or unexplained aspects of the movie were very much present in the original trilogy as well. That and to those of us who liked Episode 8, it seemed a bit like nitpicking. There is definitely a point beyond which I cannot quite say why some of these questions and criticisms matter so much.
Episode 8 does set up Episode 9 for some very interesting potential directions. Kylo Ren may very well be irredeemable. There are plenty of possibilities with Rey, and with the rest of the New Republic and other systems that were simply watching and waiting. There’s a lot that can be explored.
This post has been quite long, but I can’t finish talking about the new franchise without talking about the spin off movies. Rogue One was arguably the best movie of the new films and perhaps of all Star Wars in my opinion. Rogue One did something that Star Wars has not done before in film: it examined the darker aspects of the universe. The Rebel Alliance and the Empire are not as black and white in this movie as they are in other Star Wars films. Jyn Erso is far from the heroic characters of the original movies. Cassian is more than willing to assassinate anyone who gets in the way of his mission, and also to carry out questionable missions in the name of the Rebellion. The tone is not one of adventure but one of desperation in the face of an oppressive and brutal force. The Empire is depicted as a brutal dictatorship but not everyone in the Empire is an evil person. Galin Erso is a scientist forced into his role. The acts of resistance are often unnoticed but consequential. There isn’t a happy ending in this movie: every major character dies to achieve the goal. There’s a lot of deaths and warfare in general. It ends on a hopeful note since the mission is successful but the costs are quite high. This movie, above all others, showcases the potential that the new Star Wars films have.
And finally, onto the Solo movie. The Solo movie continues the trend of looking at the harsher side of the Empire in more ways but is more lighthearted than Rogue One was. I think the major shortcoming of this movie perhaps was that Han Solo was not a character that many of us really cared to know more about. The movie itself was more on the safer side, not necessarily bad, but a bit less risk taking than previous films have been. It isn’t as much a misstep of a movie itself so much as the decision to make a movie on Han Solo made less sense than, say, making a movie on Boba Fett, or on Obi Wan.
This leads me into the future of the franchise. We know there’s of course, Episode 9 around the corner, but there will also be two new trilogies, a TV show, and continued spin off movies. One of the things we have not yet seen explored at all is the Clone Wars. We don’t like talking much about the prequel movies, considering how terrible the first two were at least, but the Clone Wars is a period that’s barely explored in the films. It would be interesting to see some adventures there. There is, also, an entire Old Republic era to explore. And, there’s also the intervening time period between the fall of the Empire and the rise of the First Order to look into. There’s a lot that the movies can explore and I’m all for more films actually. Episode 9 itself looks like it’ll have quite an interesting set up to go forward from.
I’m fairly excited to see what the next Star Wars movies have in store for us.