Look, if you want to pretend Star Wars hasn’t devolved into the final bastion of corporatized mass media monoculture then be my guest. I’d rather pretend right along with you. But news that Lucasfilm has signed JJ Abrams to co-write and direct Star Wars Episode IX pretty much confirms the hypothesis the studio wants the blandest, most marketable product possible.
You already know the past creative drama behind the scenes. Tony Gilroy was brought in to rewrite and clean up Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, because he made a bleak war movie that made Lucasfilm uncomfortable. And after unceremoniously firing Phil Lord and Chris Miller from the Han Solo movie and replacing them with Mr. French Vanilla himself, Ron Howard, we should’ve suspected Lucasfilm would want someone “stabilizing.”
So sure, Abrams makes sense from a corporate perspective. He’ll do the job necessary to get your ass in the theater through over-hyped promotion and nostalgic intrigue. But he has never made a great movie. Have you re-watched Force Awakens recently? My god, it’ such a rote mechanization of plotting with swift pacing that never stops long enough for you a) to dwell in any sort of emotional state or b) question why any of the characters are motivated to do what they’re doing.
What we love about Star Wars is the rich textures of the world with archetypal character that at once feel like longtime buddies and loved ones we hope better to understand. The mystery of Luke’s parents from the original trilogy isn’t played like a cryptic twist dangling over the proceedings to maintain our intrigue—as, say, Daisy Ridley’s Rey parentage and John Boyega’s Finn has been—but an emotional scar that he carries and makes him feel lost. When Darth Vader reveals himself as Luke’s father we’re hit with an emotional gut punch not because the mystery is solved, but because we empathize so profoundly with Luke’s pain at such a devastating revelation. The man he’s secretly wished to meet all his life and say, “I love you, son,” is the most evil, vile man in the damn galaxy. Woof.
Meanwhile, take the saga of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren in Force Awakens. Though introduced as the dark prince of the First Order, we learn his parents are none other than Leia and Han Solo. Formerly known as Ben, he trained under Luke Skywalker as a Padawan. Yet for some reason, he idolizes his grandpa Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, who we know died sacrificing his life for his son’s and thereby toppling the Empire. Why would Kylo, surrounded by so many characters we know to be Good Heroes, turn to evil?
“An incredible power, an incredible force, and incredible potential that was, like many young people, sort of misguided and unclear,” Abrams told IGN around the release of Force Awakens. “And the story for him is one of conflict, not just internal conflict but external conflict. And it’s what makes him a rather interesting villain.”
Let’s say you buy that. I don’t, but for the sake of this argument I’ll follow down the rabbit hole. So if that seduction was so powerful and so great that it would rip young Ben away from his family and turn him to the dark side, wouldn’t that ravage his parents? All we’re offered is this scene where Han says, “There’s too much Vader in him.” Leia then castigates herself for sending him away to train with Luke, as if Jedi Summer Camp With Uncle Luke would cause a son to never love his parents again and drive him into homicidal rage to join the Star Wars Nazis. Lmao what!
Possibly we could reason Han and Leia colossally failed Ben as parents, and know it, and that’s what drove him to this dark seduction? But that is never made clear when Kylo Ren and Han Solo meet. Something happened, but we don’t know what. Kylo Ren speaks of a great pain that ails him, but he seems more of an emo wannabe than anything else. Before we grasp the nature of this relationship, Kylo murders his father Han. We aren’t sure if Kylo was justified or misguided in this action or if this was the ultimate sacrifice Han made to maybe show the love he had for his son, as Vader did with Han.
We end up feeling…something as a result, but we don’t comprehend it. We’re upset as an audience, but we don’t understand why. Abrams killed Han Solo, an icon so important to so many, and it felt cheap. No one cried. A son murdered his father and we don’t know if it was right or wrong. But it moved the story forward enough so fuck it.
(This kind of murky characterization and narrative chess-boarding, by the way, is exactly what plagued Game of Thrones last season.)
Anyways, I’ve already made clear my frustrations with Abrams anti-storytelling moviemaking. (“His movies are good-enough one-night stands.”) We know what an Abrams Star Wars movie looks like and the appearance of another one neither excites nor surprises me. He’ll ensure Disney shareholders that he’ll produce a billion-dollar box office smash worldwide. People will be kind of satisfied enough until the next Marvel movie comes out. Then you’ll probably pay to see that one, too.