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Star Wars and the Failure of the Imagination

My hot take on Episode VIII: the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy. Rogue One is the only contender that gives me pause before making that claim. That being said… I came away vaguely dissatisfied. I am trying to discern how much of this is because of the movie itself and how much is because, unlike in 1977, I am not fourteen. The sensawunda of my youth is simply not in the cards. (Not that I would want to be fourteen again. It is a horrid age. Offer me late twenties and we will talk.)

I begin with the movie’s opening sequence. It is utterly ridiculous with B-17s In Space! complete with bomb bay doors that have to be opened and a bombardier to push a button. Even more mysteriously, the bombs then drop, despite the absence of gravity. That Imperial dreadnought was big, but not that big.

In the ordinary course of things we shouldn’t make too big a deal out of this. Star Wars space combat has always been ridiculous, and if this were a Bond film the entire sequence would have come before the opening credits. It looks cool, and sets up some character motivation, so lighten up, dude!

X-wing versus tie-fighter combat has always followed a World War II fighter combat aesthetic. It never made a lick of sense, but at least in 1977 the trope was not yet hackneyed. With Ep. VIII we see the concept extended to bombers.  This is a failure of imagination. It is a common enough one, but it is common to Bad SF. There is a whole sub-genre of Hornblower in Space!  Napoleonic naval combat is cool, and the reader already knows how it works, saving the author no end of trouble with exposition. There is a tradition of Hornblower pastiches, some better than others, to say nothing of treatments of Napoleonic naval warfare that rise above Hornblower pastiche, so this seems a safe path. Putting it in space has the added benefit of avoiding the unfortunate necessity of having some idea how a sailing ship works if you don’t want to come across as an idiot. Put it in space and nobody expects anything beyond an insouciant wave of the hand in the general direction of explaining the tech.

This is lazy storytelling. It is lazy to produce, and assumes that the audience is just as lazy. This is a minor complaint with respect to the bomber sequence, but it is representative of broader laziness that has infected the expectations of both the creators and the audiences of the Star Wars series

In any extended series the creators reach a decision point. They have said what there is to say given the series’ starting point. They have to choose: Do Something Different, or More of the Same. Doing something different is guaranteed to piss off some fans. Do more of the same and some fans (presumably a different set, but maybe not) will get bored and drift off.

More of the Same: Consider Friends. It ran for ten seasons. Turn on the TV to a random rerun and it doesn’t matter which season it is. You might want to track whether Ross and Rachel are together or not, but that doesn’t correlate with which season it is. Another example is M*A*S*H, coming in at eleven seasons. It was so committed to More of the Same that the later seasons recycled plots from the early seasons.

Do something different: Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Say what you will about Season 6 (full disclosure: I think it is terrific!), you won’t confuse it with any of the first five seasons. The change was (and remains) controversial. The earlier seasons had their dark moments, but they were generally pretty carefree (apart from impending apocalypse), and the Mayor is one of the great Big Bads of all time and space. A lot of fans were perfectly happy with that, and wanted more. This group howled in outrage against Season 6, but they weren’t bored by it.  Or considered the various iterations of Star Trek. They run the gamut from terrific through ridiculous to soporific. But they aren’t More of the Same, varying only in skill of execution.  Yes, this opens the door for terrible shows, but it also opens the door for terrific ones.

Now consider the Star Wars prequels. They were awful. Make nearly any critique of them you like and I will nod in agreement and order another beer. But the one thing they were not was More of the Same. Unfortunately, the lesson The Powers That Be (a/k/a “Disney” or, in the alternative, the “Dark Lords of the Sith”) took from the prequels was not “Don’t make awful films” but “Don’t do something different.” Hence The Force Awakens. Everyone loves the original trilogy, so J.J. Abrams was brought in to remake it with new actors and a newer, even cuter droid. Watch the money roll in! The people have spoken, and they want More of the Same (except for its somehow making even less sense than ever).

But The Last Jedi is this great refutation of what came before, right? They brought in Rian Johnson and he mixed things up. This is one of the talking points in discussions of the film. This piece from Deadspin breaks it down to bullet points. It’s a good list and I commend it to you. Here are a couple of representative examples:

When the movie’s Han Solo-ish Enigmatic Rogue character, DJ, revealed himself not to have a secret heart of gold, but a not-secret-at-all heart of callous self-interest, and he sold the good guys out to the bad guys because the bad guys could pay him more.

When the long-shot suicide mission to retrieve a MacGuffin not only failed, but failed in such a way that it made things incalculably worse for the good guys and led directly to unknown numbers of faceless Resistance fighters dying meaningless deaths in the cold void of space.

These points are all well taken. It was refreshing to watch the various set pieces play out without being confident of how they would turn out. But the range of possibilities was still constrained by the previous movies. It is like there were toggle switches. We expect the switch to be set to “A” where the long-shot suicide mission succeeds in the nick of time. Refreshing though it is to find the switch instead set to “B” where the mission fails miserably, it is still the same switch. Does the charming rogue come through in the end or betray the heroes? Are Ross and Rachel together or not? A or B?

In a better world, this would be setting us up for Episode IX, weaning us away from our More of the Same expectations so that IX can really let its freak flag fly. This is not that world. J. J. Abrams has been brought back for IX. Upon reflection, the mystery is how Rian Johnson was allowed anywhere near this. (Seriously: If anyone knows the answer, let me know.) I haven’t learned much over the past decade or so, but I have learned that J. J. Abrams bores me. Everything he touches bores me. The thought of bringing him back for Episode IX overwhelms me with ennui. It tells me that The Powers That Be have again succumbed to the failure of imagination and embraced More of the Same.

POSTSCRIPT: Digging around since writing the first draft of this piece, I twigged onto the old news that Disney has green lit Johnson for a new Star Wars trilogy set outside the make series. There is already precedent for projects outside the main sequence, and for their being good. It is not clear how tightly or loosely the new trilogy will be tied to the main sequence. This looks to me, at least potentially, where we will have the main sequence boringly playing it safe, while spinning off more interesting material. I can live with that.

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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11 thoughts on “Star Wars and the Failure of the Imagination

  1. I’m more optimistic on the future of Star Wars than you are, but that’s because I think The Last Jedi represents a turning point and not a blip. Also, the impression I got is that Johnson is being given the next trilogy to do, but that it will have a different focus than Star Wars has had to date.

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  2. Ok, this complaint about the bombers I keep seeing is driving me crazy, because they are literally the only space physics thing that makes any goddamn sense in the whole of Star Wars space combat. We know from every single ship in the setting that they have artificial gravity, and that is literally a plot point within that bomber scene (the survivor on that last bomber trying to get the remote to fall down to her from above. Once the bombs are released, they fall due to the internal gravity of the bomb bay, just like the remote, and upon leaving the ship they will continue with that same momentum. In a setting where every other aspect of space combat makes zero sense (ships are way too close together and move in ways that make no sense for zero-g combat, sound in space, curving laser artillery despite a lack of gravity, ships designed in ways that would be awful for space combat [like the TIE fighter, with those huge panels that block a massive portion of the pilot’s line of sight]), it’s maddening to me that the bombers are the thing that people honed in on as being dumb and nonfunctional.

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  3. So I was going to write a Star Wars post myself, and it got a bit too long and I never really finished it before I took off to go visit my father for the holidays. This was the core of my idea:

    The original Star Wars (Episode IV, A New Hope) patterned itself after The Hero’s Journey (read your Campbell) with slavish detail. Then the sequel (Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back) did a remarkable job of recapitulating the Hero’s Journey while striking a darker tone and leaving a more ambiguous resolution. If anything, it was better because we got two Hero’s Journeys — Luke took another one and Han took a Journey of his own.

    And after that, something got lost for three movies.

    To make it work, we need to have a few elements: a) the Call to Adventure, b) the Hero’s refusal of the call, c) the Antagonist’s imposition forcing the journey, d) forging a new friendship, e) the tutelage of a mentor, f) a Journey into a Dark World, g) theft of a MacGuffin from the Dark World, h) the revelation of the Antagonist as the mirror of the Hero, i) a Great Sacrifice for the Greater Good, and j) a final confrontation between Protagonist and Antagonist that is won by way of k) a superior moral choice and l) the aid of the new friend. We need these elements to adhere to the mythic structure — and generally we need them in about that order.

    So in that vein, I rated most of the rest of the reasons we find the various movies satisfactory or dissatisfactory as their ability to convey these narrative elements. Episode IV presents us with all of these elements in order with a triumphant end and Episode V gave us all of these elements in a wholly new way, with an ambiguous resolution.

    Episode I, The Phantom Menace, doesn’t even give us a clear understanding that Obi-Wan Kenobi is the Protagonist until the end, when all of these elements are thrown in towards the end of the third act.

    Episode II, Attack of the Clones, is probably the most disappointing because it could have shown us the cognate to the Hero’s Journey, offered us an explanation for what makes an Antagonist evil, but instead it tries to make Anakin’s morally questionable choices too ambiguous and even empathetic.

    Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, does a better job of fulfilling the promise of offering a sympathetic Villain’s Journey, but also succeeds because it keeps the moral focus on Obi-Wan Kenobi and his having to make a moral choice to see his student for what he really is and confront him despite his personal feelings.

    Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, seems like it should succeed but doesn’t because it doesn’t contain the element of the Great Sacrifice, while too slavishly adhering to the pattern of Episode IV and containing those damnably annoying Ewoks.

    Episode VII, The Force Awakens, comes a generation after the original trilogy and has little choice but to put its protagonists through the paces of their respective Hero’s Journeys, and also gives us another Villain on a Journey of his own, and we get to see each one make a morally consequential choice. It worked for me.

    And the Great Sacrifice and consequential moral choice is what Rogue One was all about. That movie worked for me magnificently.

    And that, ultimately, is why I think Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, works. I think we get all of the elements of the Hero’s Journey but very interestingly, the Theft of the MacGuffin fails, the Escape from the Dark World goes very badly, the Great Sacrifice is made as a result of that, and the most consequential moral choice was made by the Antagonist.

    We want — indeed, we need all of these elements. But we don’t need them in a story that sees the hero triumph unambiguously, and we don’t need them in that order. The real test for Episode VIII is if we can have them spread out over an ensemble of two (three?) heroes and a villain. I think so — we get lots of mentors leaving the scene, sacrifices, and last-minute heroics from new friends to save the day, and we get it in the unusual circumstance of saving the day meaning “keeping hope alive” rather than decisively triumphing.

    We can quibble about Space Bombers, Annoyingly Cute Porgs, Suicide Hyperspace Jumps, Casino Planets, and Hornblower Chases all day. If the narrative hits all of these elements, we have a hero’s journey and it’s the kind of story that Star Wars wants to tell. For me, the question is whether Episode VIII gives us the mythic journey we crave, and I think it does.

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    • (read your Campbell)

      Am I the only one that bounced hard off Campbell every time I tried to read that damned book. The problem I run into early on is his typically mid-20th century intellectual’s obeisance to Freud. Either this is important to his argument or it is irrelevant fluff. Either way my eyes are rolling so hard it is impossible to continue reading the book.

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    • My more substantive response is that you are essentially rating each film on how closely it follows the formula, perhaps with a few tweaks within that formula. This is largely my critique of the films.

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        • But the formula is just more god-king rah rah where everyone without a noble bloodline is just an expendable spear carrier. It’s the opposite of American tradition of can-do and the able everyman. Episode IV starts out with the ordinary farm boy who, through adversity, hard work, and belief, can somehow rise to the occasion. Then we find out that his abilities came from his royal and Jedi bloodline and that ordinary mortals need not apply. Then we find out that his father’s abilities were from a blood infection. Now we find out the blood infection is probably a side effect of fetal alcohol syndrome and chronic toxic waste exposure from working in spaceship salvage yards.

          I’m not sure where the narrative can go at this point.

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    • Burt Likko: Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, seems like it should succeed but doesn’t because it doesn’t contain the element of the Great Sacrifice, while too slavishly adhering to the pattern of Episode IV and containing those damnably annoying Ewoks.

      First of all, Ewoks are awesome, but my main reply is that isn’t Anakin/Vader the Great Sacrifice?

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      • If so, then he is ALSO the Elixir. Or maybe Luke is, himself, the Elixir. Or Luke is, himself, the Great Sacrifice, offering himself up to the Emperor so that Vader can finally be moved to pity and love and paternal instinct.

        No, it doesn’t work for me — what does Luke have to give up in order to get into that room with Vader and the Emperor in the first place? What does he give up while he’s in that room? IMO this muddles with the basic structure of the monomyth too much.

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