Almost the first thing we know about Star Wars is that we are watching one part of a larger saga.
Granted, when we first saw Star Wars it was just Star Wars and not Star Wars: Chapter IV - A New Hope. But the opening crawl was undoubtedly telling us The Story So Far, and the story was already well underway when we started watching. We kept hearing about things like the Spice Mines of Kessel and the Clone Wars as if we ought to know what they were but didn’t.
As more and more episodes (and comics and cartoons and games) have come out, we have learned more and more about the Star Wars universe, but we have never really felt we are in possession of the whole saga from beginning to end. Watching the hidden parts being unveiled has always been one of the pleasures of a new Star Wars movie.
Some of us went to see Empire Strikes Back honestly not knowing who Luke Skywalker’s daddy would turn out to be. Some of us can still percieve that Vader’s identity was a choice; that until the moment of revelation the story could have gone off in a quite different direction. Some of us still wish that it had. What would a sequence of sequels in which Darth Vader had literally murdered Anakin have been like? More like Star Wars, I sometimes think.
"Gradually showing us more and more of the setting” is one of the ways in which the Star Wars saga unfolds. The more questions the saga answers, the fewer possibilities there are. If the Clone Wars are revealed to be this, they can’t also be that. The alternative is not to tell any stories at all.
So: in A New Hope, an Emperor is mentioned. In Empire Strikes Back, we see this Emperor as a hologram. And in Return of the Jedi, we finally meet him face to face and discover that he is an evil Jedi. In the prequels, the concept of “evil Jedi” is further explicated: The Emperor is identified as a Sith master and Darth Vader as his apprentice. Some of this is problematic (I am suddenly troubled by Tarkin telling Vader that he is all that is left of the Jedi religion) but this gradual decoding is clearly a big part of the trajectory of Episodes IV-VI and I-III.
We reasonably expect The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to develop in a similar way: introducing new mysteries about the Star Wars universe and gradually untangling them. When The Force Awakens withholds key information about certain characters while clearly coding them as “mysterious” that expectation is reinforced.
The Force Awakens is constructed in such a way as to make us wonder about the identity of Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren’s identity isn’t a mystery or a secret inside the the Star Wars universe: Luke, Han, Leia, Dameron and some of the First Order officers all know perfectly well who he is. But it is a piece of information which has been withheld from the viewer: a puzzle, a source of tension. About half way through the film, the set-up pays off: it turns out that (SPOILERS) Kylo Ren is Ben Solo. This is a good dramatic moment in the film; it makes sense of what we already know of Kylo; it fills in a wodge of background about Han and Leia and it increases the emotional jeopardy. We now know that Han Solo has a personal stake in the action.
The Force Awakens was also constructed in such a way as to raise the question about who or what Snoke is. Again, Leia and Han and Poe and Kylo Ren and the various First Order functionaries know who he is, but we don’t. He’s presented very much as the Emperor was in Empire Strikes Back, only more so: a gigantic hologram that we don’t get a good look at; who appears to have some kind of facial disfigurement, bespeaking some previous fight. So, we expect there to be a similar revelatory moment about Snoke, one that explains and deepens him and makes the plot more complicated. Not necessarily “I am Yoda’s sister” — the family ties thing is specifically about the Skywalker clan — but some hint about who he is and how he got there.
The original trilogy tells us that however strongly the Force may be with you, you still have to go off to Hogwarts to learn how to use it. Luke is the most powerful Jedi in the universe and he still doesn't have any Force magic until he meets Ben. Nor does Anakin, who was literally conceived by the Force. (Yes: the prequels are canon. Episodes VII and VIII reference Clone Troopers, Darth Sidious, the Jedi Temple and the idea of bringing balance to the Force.)
So, the rules we have been taught encourage us to ask, “Why is Snoke so Forceful?” Is he another alumnus of Luke's Jedi school? Did Darth Sidious have a backup apprentice? Is there a mysterious Sith Temple churning out little Darth Mauls? "Actually, there are lots of natural Force users running around the Galaxy who don’t need to be trained" would be a permissible, if rather boring, answer, but if that's the case why does Snoke talk as if he is part of some wider conspiracy? If people can just spontaneously start levitating rocks and telling Stormtroopers which droids they are meant to be looking for, why does Luke Skywalker's Jedi school even matter? But the film doesn’t give, or imply that answer. The question doesn’t seem to have occurred to it.
Episodes I - III reconfigured Star Wars as being about the battle between the Jedi and the Sith. They hinted at some interesting stuff in which the "Dark Side" wasn't wholly dark and the "Light Side" wasn't wholly light, and suggested that there were secret teachings within the Jedi tradition that Yoda and Qui-Gon were privy to. So we reasonably want to know what happens next. Did the death of Vader bring the Sith’s thousand-year history to an end; or are they going to spring up again in some other form? Is Snoke a new Sith Lord, or is he part of some other Dark Side tradition? But if there are Dark Side traditions apart from the Sith, what was defeated when Darth Vader was defeated? If Snoke is a Sith, is Kylo Ren his apprentice? Or has Ren independently decided to revive Granddad's cult? If Ren doesn't see himself as the continuation of the Sith, in what sense does he think he's the new Darth Vader? (But why hasn't he taken on the title Darth?)
I agree that one can be too obsessed with this kind of thing. I agree that many fan theories — however ingenious they might be — are palpably not the kind of thing that would ever happen in a piece of mainstream popular culture. There were a couple of fans who were convinced that the final episode of Doctor Who Season I was going to reveal that Christopher Eccleston was not, in fact, the Doctor but a new incarnation of the Master and the real Doctor was imprisoned on an asteroid somewhere. Brilliant, but just not the kind of thing the BBC would ever do. There certainly are people who spot that the new movie contradicts something mentioned in a footnote to a backup strip in issue #6 of the new Darth Vader comic and claim that this ruins the movie for them; just as there are fans whose whole interest in the Last Jedi rests on a rumour they heard that it will award canonical status to Jaxxon the rabbit. I agree that this kind of thing is tiresome.
On the other hand: if Disney are going to make a big song and dance about anathematizing the whole of the Extended Universe and creating a new, singular canon in which everything is “true” I think we are entitled to expect very broad consistency between the comics, the movies and the cartoons. If Clone Wars tells us that Younglings were taken off to a special cave and taught how to make Lightsabers that suited their particular abilities, I think I am entitled to be surprised if a movie says that Obi-Wan bought his in Ye Olde Lightsaber Shoppe on Diagon Alley.
And yes: if Star War IX mentions Ye Olde Lightsaber Shoppe then twelve hours later three fan sites will upload five excellent stories about how the Empire conquered Ilum and three Jedi preserved the craft of lightsaber forging under cover of a shop. No canon is so contradictory that it is impossible for exegetes to harmonize.
There is a theory that the normal, indeed correct, way of watching a movie or a TV show is with your ears turned off, one eye on your smartphone, one eye on your popcorn, letting the big funny lights wash over you. Those of us who give multiplex movies our full attention are therefore bound to misunderstand them: we're trying to do something with them that they were never intended for. ("But Andrew" says an elderly TV viewer of my acquaintance "Normal people don't analyze Doctor Who in the way you do. They just watch it.”)
There is something to this. But the line between "Star Wars fan" and "casual cinema goer" is much wobblier than it used to be. The prequels were incredibly "fannish" and people still went to see them. The Clone Wars cartoon series is (among other things) a fannish exercise in redeeming the prequels, and it went out on the Disney Channel. There is a fine moment in Star Wars: Rebels where the scooby gang is sent to meet an old-wise-mysterious Rebel contact, and she turns out to be Anakin Skywalker’s estranged padawan from Clone Wars. (Who doesn't know what happened to her old master, but is aware that the Empire have an incredibly nasty Sith Lord working for them. It doesn't end well.) That seems to be supremely fannish, if by fannish you mean “asking questions about what happened to subsidiary characters after they left the stage” and “expecting characters from one series to turn up in another” and “being interested in the shape of the saga, not just the fight scenes”. But Star Wars: Rebels is quite clearly a kids’ cartoon.
Some fans are more obsessive than others. Some people would regard me as quite a lightweight: I am still inclined to think of spaceships as “pointy ones”, “big pointy ones” and “really huge pointy ones”; and couldn’t confidently tell you the difference between an A-Wing and a B-Wing. But "a person who saw the prequels" and "a person who pays attention to the dialogue" is quite a puritanical definition of "fan".
I don't think The Last Jedi is a failure. I do not think that Johnson is ten thousand parsecs from embracing Russel T Davies' theory that coherent story telling is for wimps. On one viewing, I would say that Last Jedi is better than any of the prequels, but not as good as the Force Awakens or Rogue One. I only say that some of the narrative decisions were disappointing and may turn out to be damaging to the Saga as a whole.
Here is a question. Please do not try to answer it.
1: In the Force Awakens, the identity of Rey’s parents is presented as a mystery. Which of the following is true of the eventual solution?
A: J.J Abrams knew when he wrote the Force Awakens that Rey’s parents were blah blah mumble mumble mutter mutter.
B: J.J Abrams did not know who Rey’s parents were when he wrote the Force Awakens: he presented it as an unanswered question but left it open for his successor to answer.
C: When he wrote the Force Awakens, J.J Abrams intended Rey’s parents to be, for example, yadda yadda yadda, but at some point during development, Johnson changed this to mumble mumble mutter mutter blah blah.
2: As a way of developing a film script which is part of a forty-year saga is this
A: About how you would expect things to work.
B: A bit of an odd process, frankly.
C: Completely fucking deranged.
|How Andrew rates the Star Wars movies.
For amusement only.
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