The Walt Disney Co. does not need my advice on how to improve the Star Wars franchise. Based on the most up-to-date box-office tracking data, The Last Jedi is going to gross 90 gajillion dollars. Nevertheless, Star Wars is not just a big moneymaker; it’s an American pop-culture touchstone. As such it is bleeding value, heading the way of another Disney series: The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which gross more in Asia than they do in the U.S. and are now principally being targeted at the spectacle-driven overseas audience. When was the last time you heard anyone get excited about a Pirates movie?
If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’ve already seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, so: spoilers. A movie’s flaws can’t fully be discussed in a review targeted at readers before it’s released, so in my critique last week I was vague about plot details. Now it’s time to talk about how shamelessly TLJ ransacks the Star Wars pantry.
Kylo Ren’s change of heart to rescue Rey from Supreme Leader Snoke? It’s exactly like the scene where Darth Vader turns on the Emperor to rescue Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi. I got a sinking feeling as it played out. Surely the writer-director Rian Johnson is aware we’ve seen the earlier movie? And that you can’t just repeat stuff people saw before? Especially in a franchise that has a certain rep for auto-plagiarism now that it has blown up Death Stars three times? If you were watching Ren’s face as Snoke ordered him to kill Rey and not thinking, here’s where he turns on the old geezer and kills him instead, your fandom is causing you to lower your standards to an absurd degree. By the end of TLJ, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren has now switched from good to evil to good to evil. Presumably he’ll switch back a couple more times in the future. It was fantastic when Darth Vader switched sides in ROTJ, but Ren’s Krusty the Clown–like good-evil switch is getting worn out from overuse.
Similarly, when Rey visits Luke and he’s a cantankerous old hermit who refuses to train her he’s practically reading Yoda’s lines from early in The Empire Strikes Back. You know he’s going to change his mind and train Rey. Then she visits a cave to discover she has a latent dark side, only instead of seeing herself in the beheaded Darth Vader she sees herself in a mirror? It’s a flat-out rerun. Bringing in the actual Yoda late in the movie is yet another meretricious, fan-service, merchandising-tie-in gimmick, a shameless, pandering applause moment. Peter Suderman has drawn a link between the underperforming new Jedi films and Jeb Bush, and he’s got a point: This is a movie that says, “Please clap.” Remember when Jeb sought to inject some much-needed excitement into his campaign by adding an exclamation point to his name? Star Wars is heading that way. Combine that instinct with the new and woeful self-mocking tone Johnson has brought to the franchise, and we’re not too far from the moment when Disney greenlights Sith Happens!
Star Wars is turning into a cover band of itself. It’s a Cadillac in Havana that runs on nostalgia gas. It’s your kindergartner’s school musical, which you have to will yourself into pretending is good.
If Disney wants Star Wars movies to be lasting cultural treasures rather than disposable Pirates-style money-makers, they’ll listen to the many franchise-adoring critics who are nevertheless calling attention to the flaws in TLJ and The Force Awakens. A major problem seems to be conceptual: If you were asked to describe a Batman movie, you’d say, “There’s this strange rich dude who puts on a cape and uses these gadgets to go after bad guys in the night.” A Superman movie? “He’s an orphan from another planet who is unbelievably strong and can fly and is essentially immortal.” But what’s a Star Wars movie? There’s rebels and there’s bad guys and there’s light-saber fights between someone using the Force and someone using the Dark Side of the Force and someone jumps to light speed at just the right moment and a planet or Death Star usually gets blown up. Star Wars movies are mainly about stuff that happens, not their characters. Which is why they are growing so repetitive.
The franchise should do what good movies do: fully realize their characters. To that end it should hire real, established writers who are good at this, the way George Lucas brought in Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett to write Empire. (Kasdan hasn’t written a good movie since the 1980s, though, so hiring him for The Force Awakens and the upcoming Solo wasn’t smart. That Kasdan brought in one of his sons to work on the movie isn’t a great sign either. Jon Kasdan is 38 and has never written anything of note.)
Star Wars needs the touch of writers such as Simon Beaufoy or Taylor Sheridan or Christopher McQuarrie or Scott Frank or indeed Michael Arndt, whose script for what became The Force Awakens Disney apparently loved until it hired J. J. Abrams, who seems to have trashed most of it and replaced it with banal J. J. Abrams stuff. Once you’ve rebuilt your characters, send them off in new directions, with new conflicts, instead of rehashing all the old ones. Make more movies like Rogue One, which is by far the best Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi.
If Disney execs really want to freshen up the saga, they’ll recall that the greatest originator of Star Wars ideas in the known universe is still with us. Don’t get me wrong: Under no circumstances should George Lucas ever be allowed to write or direct a Star Wars movie again, and all constitutional niceties should be temporarily placed on hiatus to stop him if he tries. But one complaint no one ever made about the prequels is that they lacked imagination. If Lucas had had the wisdom to hire real writers and directors to shape his story ideas into films, the prequels might be as beloved as Empire and ROTJ. Bring him in for a meeting, Disney. I’ll bet he’s got lots of visions left.