Where The Sequel Trilogy Went Wrong
Posted on April 14, 2020
It’s all over. The Skywalker journey is complete. Well, sort of…
Way back in December of 2015, droves of people showed up to watch Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Now, it’s been a few months since the December, 2019 release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Fans have had lots of time to watch these films if they haven’t yet, what with the plague upon us *cough*COVID-19*cough* so with all that time to watch the films and digest the message the films conveyed as a whole, I wanted to personally take a look back at the Sequel Trilogy (ST) as compared to the Original Trilogy (OT) and the Prequel Trilogy (PT). We know that some dislike various films in the franchise, but we also know that the ST has had a very rough reception and has been a lasting point of contention among Star Wars fans since its completion. Let’s look at what made each trilogy work and/or fail.
THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY (OT): 1977-1983
Obviously the movies that started it all. We’ve all seen them. We all have our favorites (Mine is The Empire Strikes Back). We acknowledge the mistakes in some of them (Luke’s infamous Force Kick from Return of the Jedi, for example) yet this trilogy has remained as the golden standard, despite its flaws. The reasons for this are twofold; One being that when the OT began – it was never assured to become a full trilogy until after the success of the first film. Two, despite being a hodgepodge of direction and varying budgets – the characters all went through meaningful arcs and followed the Hero’s Journey.
With individual films, the public’s reception often differed from critics of the time but seemingly not as much as today. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope no doubt set the bar for all the others to follow and opened up to acclaim from critics and the general public alike. Roger Ebert at the time said the film gave him an “out of body experience” and that its success “all came down to the story.” There are varying accounts of the critical reception of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, but it too received lots of praise from various esteemed reviewers – and wasn’t at all as controversial as some people would have you believe now, and has gone on to become one of the most highly-regarded Star Wars films to date. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi brought a lot of commercial success because it was the end of the OT (and fans knew by that time it was part of one trilogy and there would possibly yet be one or two more eventually) – but the reviews for Jedi seem the most damnable out of the three movies, with accusations of the film series coming to a “dead stop” with Jedi or that Lucas was pandering to children, or that he was trying too hard to cash in on things like the Ewoks or video game tie-ins.
There is no denying that the OT was a financial success and that it also revolutionized filmmaking and changed it forever. George Lucas turned what he described as a “live action comic book” into a pop culture powerhouse.
The notable difference between the OT and the PT and ST trilogies respectively is that each film in the OT was directed by a different director in the OT. George Lucas directed A New Hope, while Irvin Kershner directed The Empire Strikes Back, and Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi. It was always planned that way by Lucas – as he and producer Gary Kurtz had always wanted a director for each film to add unique spins to every character’s development. Yet, Lucas was going by his own personal overarching story which gave the OT a very solid structure to begin with despite the different directors for each film. This formula deviated in the PT and then also the ST – for the worse, which we’ll get into.
What made the OT – and mostly A New Hope – successful was that it was groundbreaking at the time. In today’s world, Star Wars is no longer groundbreaking. As it has moved forward as a franchise, it has expanded upon itself (some would say that’s a negative thing) and since then the market has been flooded by sequels and remakes and other films in which the original novelty of the Star Wars mythos has endured but has become sort of old hat. The main enduring aspect of the OT, therefore, is not its earlier innovations – but the Hero’s Journey and the story which rests at its core. The arcs of the characters, rather than the special effects and the spaceships. As Lucas himself said – it was always intended to be a space opera, not a science fiction film. Story is central and as we move forward, keep that in mind.
THE PREQUEL TRILOGY (PT): 1999 – 2005
When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in theaters in 1999 – the hype was incredible – so incredible that even just a trailer being released on Quicktime brought millions of downloads, breaking the internet at the time – and when released in theaters the trailer also brought ticket sales of the movies the trailer was screened with to soaring heights. After seeing the film, many of the reviews were akin to the ones seen around the release of Return of the Jedi 16 years previously. They weren’t terrible reviews (although some were, like Peter Travers’ from Rolling Stone) but were tepid, and were focused on the lack of acting and plodding pace of the story and how it was made for children. Kevin Smith famously wrote on his website at the time that he enjoyed the film but knew it would become “fashionable” to bash in a week or so after its release. George Lucas said after the first film in his new trilogy failed to garnish lots of extremely positive reviews that it was simply “overhyped” and thus failed to live up to the expectations of the general public. When Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones was released, it was accepted by critics a bit better than Episode I was, but was still tepid on most counts overall – and it was noted that Lucas went digital with the release of Attack of the Clones, which he believed looked better but which took a lot of people out of the immersion, such as Roger Ebert – who had praised even Episode I but said of Episode II;
“But I felt like I had to lean with my eyes toward the screen in order to see what I was being shown. The images didn’t pop out and smack me with delight, the way they did in earlier films. There was a certain fuzziness, an indistinctness that seemed to undermine their potential power.”
Then, finally, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was not only a cinematic blockbuster success when it was released, with $50,013,859 as it’s opening day haul (and at that point the biggest in movie history) but it also had the best critical praise out of any of the PT had thus far.
The PT was really just mired in its use of CGI, in its slow story revolving around politics, and the fact that Lucas himself directed all three of the films and deviated away from his formula used in the OT. This seemed to have been a mistake, as the characters were wooden much of the time and there were only flashes of frenetic space opera flavor amid the green screens and bad dialogue. However, one thing we must take away from the PT is that it was purely Lucas’ vision and thus feels like Star Wars – no matter what you may feel about Midi-Chlorians. He brought in new worlds, new spaceships, and new characters and alien races and robots and it all felt natural to his vision and what we all know Star Wars to be. There was still a sense of excitement and whimsy and there was no major division aside from the Midi-Chlorians themselves, which people still argue about to this day (but didn’t seem to have a negative impact on the rest of the PT’s performance numbers).
THE SEQUEL TRILOGY (ST): 2015 – 2019
Not since The Phantom Menace had there been such hype surrounding the release of a new Star Wars film. Yet, when Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was released in theaters, it released to generally good critical acclaim and very good fan reception. Though some thought it was just a reskinned version of A New Hope, and though its racially diverse casting caused some backlash from racists online – the first film in the ST set up lots of story hooks for the remainder of the trilogy to follow through with and successfully kicked off the ST. When Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi was released, it opened to great reviews from critics but poor reviews from the audience – a first for the Star Wars franchise in the history of its films. It was often called the “most divisive film in history” by bloggers and news outlets alike, and even years later the film is derided by many fans for spiraling the franchise out of control and for its missed opportunities. It also split the Star Wars fan base into two groups – those who saw The Last Jedi as a welcome new take on the Star Wars mythos and those who saw it as disruptive to the ST as a whole and damaging to existing Star Wars lore. Finally, with the release of Star Wars Episode XI: The Rise of Skywalker came a middling release in the box office and tepid reviews by critics but a much higher score from audiences than The Last Jedi. As it sits with the three films, The Force Awakens was a massive success financially – sitting at almost $1 Billion for domestic rankings followed by The Last Jedi at $620 Million and finally The Rise of Skywalker at $495 Million. Obviously each movie made Disney some money but you can see in the numbers the divisive nature of The Last Jedi at work. Some people didn’t turn up for the third entry in the saga, and even with The Last Jedi – the repeat viewings just weren’t there like they were for The Force Awakens – which ended up making over $2 Billion dollars worldwide while the other two barely made over $1 Billion worldwide. The divisive nature of The Last Jedi also proved to be unfortunate at the time for Solo: A Star Wars Story – which had a budget of about $250 Million but only raked in about $375 Million worldwide due to the controversy surrounding The Last Jedi as well as its own reshoots and replacement of the director midway through shooting.
So, just like most of the other Star Wars films over time – they all made some money, because – let’s face it: It’s Star Wars at the end of the day. But what caused so much strife within the Star Wars community and what made the ST so chaotic in comparison to the OT and PT? The answer is simple if you look at the root cause. In the OT – directing duties were handed out to different directors, yet the base story was intact and under the supervision of George Lucas. In the PT, the direction was done solely by Lucas himself but also, it was his story and direction that at least made it cohesive and feel like Star Wars. Lucas had complete control over all things and everything was coherent and fit (almost tediously so) together the way it was supposed to. Where it comes unraveled is in the ST.
Obviously, with Lucas selling Star Wars to Disney – this was expected. With the loss of George Lucas, the Star Wars saga was no longer his to tell – and thus we lost the one successful connecting thread of all the previous films – they all felt like Star Wars. Say what you will about the acting or his dialogue or direction or even the direction he may have wanted to take things, the films felt at least cohesive and connective. They felt like the vision of a world we all knew existed in a galaxy far, far away. The studios certainly had an opportunity to take from George aspects of his vision and utilize it had they wished to, but – much to Lucas’ irritation – they chose to go off in another direction.
In fact, along with tossing out all the previously written books detailing the exploits of the Skywalkers and their friends and enemies – a vast treasure trove of novels and video games and films – the studio also thought it would be a great idea to not have a singular, cohesive, binding storyline for a major blockbuster film franchise with a massive and dedicated following. You’d think they’d have been more mindful of it, having sunk $4 Billion Dollars into the initial investment.
Initially – just as in the OT – there were supposed to be three directors for the ST; JJ Abrams on The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson on The Last Jedi, and Colin Trevorrow on The Rise of Skywalker (then titled Duel of the Fates). Looking at the three movies, you can see where the disengagement happened – Abrams had both the easiest and the most daunting of the film series with setting up an entire trilogy worth of story threads. Johnson also had a difficult task of answering some of Abrams’ story threads and then threading those through to the end of the trilogy while at the same time answering some of the questions and then setting up some of his own threads. Trevorrow would have had to just wrap everything up and put a nice bow on it to cap the trilogy. We see by the success of The Force Awakens that Abrams did his part. It was an enjoyable film with very little controversy and set up lots of opportunity for follow up in the sequels with the Knights of Ren, Snoke, and the question of Rey’s lineage – not to mention getting to finally see Luke Skywalker and what he’d become. However, Rian Johnson not only did not follow most of the story threads Abrams set up – but completely threw out the script and wrote his own script, and set about “subverting” the fans expectations of what should have happened next. Along with that, Colin Trevorrow was fired soon before The Last Jedi was released, forcing JJ Abrams to sign on for the final film in the trilogy to cap things off – though through a fan’s animated mock-up, you can sort of see that Trevorrow’s Duel of the Fates was a much different movie than The Rise of Skywalker turned out to be. All of the threads in The Last Jedi were then cut off and retconned, much the same as Johnson cut off the threads from The Force Awakens, by The Rise of Skywalker.
Fans like myself were devastated by all of the missed opportunities with the original cast. Cast members such as Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, and others have all come out in their own ways to throw a little shade at both The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker for their missed opportunities, failed expectations, and nonsensical story points.
So what’s all of that info above tell us?
- The OT may have had its inconsistencies, but those were due mostly to the fact that a young George Lucas was not sure he’d ever get to create his entire vision after the first Star Wars. The OT had a linear storyline, even if each director added their own flavor – and the reception from fans and critics alike reflect the quality of the finished product and showcase why the OT has endured the test of time. The first Star Wars was essentially an indie film and the other two movies in the OT were built off its success.
- The PT also had some inconsistencies with the OT, but again – it was due to the absence of a clear knowledge whether or not there would be opportunity in the future to make more films, so there was no concrete way to know if the PT would even have been made. And despite the lackluster reception of the first two films in the trilogy, the final film seemed to redeem itself and save the PT from complete mediocrity in the eyes of the critics and fans alike. Star Wars at this point was safe from failing no matter how tepid the first two films in the trilogy were received.
- The ST has a lack of consistency with the OT (gaps in Luke’s character development which were then rectified at the end is just one example), which came before – and thus should have been easy to tie into a new storyline (where the PT came BEFORE the OT and was harder to do that with) – but also due to the squabbling directors, firing of directors, behind the scenes drama, and lack of vision – there are even inconsistencies WITHIN the ST that never even attempted an explanation. Not only that, but the squabbling extended into the fandom itself and it was as divided as its ever been (at least until we all started watching and loving The Mandalorian on Disney + – that show has a high 90’s percentage of love from both critics and audiences alike). With a franchise like Star Wars, care should have been taken to craft a complete product – like Marvel did for ten years with its Infinity Saga.
- No matter what, even the worst performing and most divisive Star Wars film makes some money.
I sincerely hope that Disney learned something from this endeavor, although I think moving forward, there will not be the same challenges present as they had working with characters from a storyline not their own and from established movies much removed from the themes of today’s world. The one thing missing from the ST was the complete lack of vision and direction the trilogies helmed by George Lucas had. With the OT and the PT, there was a single story thread which was followed. With a show like The Mandalorian, they’ve managed to create a brand new character with no ties to the original cast (although they are bringing in Ahsoka Tano from another popular animated show The Clone Wars, which is really interesting) and with room to wiggle in. Not to mention, with future films or shows they will be free to explore what they wish without alienating half the fan base with controversial changes to the franchise’s established mythology and characters. As a Star Wars fan, I’m extremely sad about the missed opportunities and I struggle with frustration at the lack of foresight by the company – but I’m also excited to move on, and to see what new directions the Star Wars story expands on the original idea by Lucas. It may not be everyone’s Star Wars, anymore, but we still have the OT to fall back on at the very least and that will never go away. It’s why we’re all here talking about the films today. Still, it’s hard not to imagine what could have been – and what we lost collectively as Star Wars fans because of some studio ineptitude and infighting.