It is probably an understatement to say that the Star Wars franchise is the most divisive IP out there right now. While this has been, in some way or another, associated with every movie released since Empire Strikes Back in 1980, it’s been especially notable these past few years, mainly due to the overwhelming presence of social media. Star Wars fans are now as polarized as they have ever been, and oddly enough, the question that has separated everyone is a similar one to the question that separates political views — should the franchise evolve, or should it stick to its past? One of my main points here is that this is not the right question to ask.
Notice this is not a question about whether or not Lucasfilm should keep making movies or TV shows about characters we already know. Here’s an example — The Mandalorian (especially Season 1) is a television series focused on a brand-new character and his adventures, but the story themes, the settings, and the feel of the show are the most reminiscent piece of Star Wars content to the original trilogy we’ve had since 1983. On the other hand, The Last Jedi used familiar characters, but many feel it is a radical departure from anything Star Wars has ever been.
It is probably the right time to say that I hold The Last Jedi as the third best Star Wars movie to date, only behind Empire Strikes Back and the original Star Wars. I think it is as much Star Wars as any of the original six movies from the pre-Disney era. In this editorial, I will not try to convince you to see it the way I do, nor will I argue the case for this movie in particular. But I guess we can all agree it is the perfect movie to see where everyone stands, and where the disagreements come from. If you are incapable of reading the words from someone who may like a movie you don’t, it’s probably time to jump ship. Also, hold your comment — I’m already aware that you are way more clever than me, and I won’t even pretend otherwise.
Continuing where I left it, the question each of us, as fans of the franchise, should be asking is this one: what is Star Wars to us? What do we think of when we think of a Star Wars movie? Is it a science-fiction movie? Is it fantasy? Is it an epic tale of good versus evil? Is it a political allegory? Is it a religious allegory? Is it World War II told in space? Is it a satire of the U.S. during the Vietnam War? Is it a Flash Gordon fan film? Is it George Lucas’ attempt at making an Akira Kurosawa movie while adapting Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces? Is it a story made for 13-year-olds to guide them as they venture into adulthood? Is it a fairy tale made to teach kids how to choose between what’s right and what’s wrong? Is it all of these things combined?
It most certainly is. The Star Wars franchise, even before Disney bought Lucasfilm, was already so complex you couldn’t fit its history into a book (except they did — it’s called How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, and Chris Taylor published it in 2014). And the history of Star Wars is as complex as the franchise itself. But that’s also the beauty of it. Every person that sees Star Wars, both the original movie and the franchise as a whole, gets something new and different out of it. In fact, in every movie Lucas put out, the franchise reinvented itself a little.
To a lot of us, Empire is the best movie of the bunch. That was not the opinion held back in 1980, when people left the movie theater so confused they couldn’t believe that was the sequel to that other movie in the desert planet and about the kid with the power converters. Empire was already a reinvention of the franchise — it is obviously a very different movie than its predecessor. But it still feels like Star Wars. The same goes for Return of the Jedi (although that one is almost a mix of the first one, in the first hour, and the second one, in the second hour).
Then along came the prequels, and the franchise was reinvented again. The adventure and excitement felt through every second of the original trilogy took a backseat, and George took the stage to warn the world about politicians and what happens when people seek to have more and more power, and he did it all through very arid dialogue. The franchise was so reimagined that it even changed genres for a moment. Though this would require a lot more words, let me explain briefly.
The single thing (again, to me) that distinguishes Star Wars from any other fantasy, science-fiction, or space franchise out there is the concept of the Force. According to the original trilogy, the Force is “an energy field created by all living things that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” It is pure fantasy. However, according to The Phantom Menace, it’s also a thing measurable by the universe’s science. The prequels briefly turned the franchise into science-fiction. Of course, like with anything in Star Wars, there are ways to work around that. But let’s be honest, it was a radical change.
Many of us do consider it a fantasy franchise, but if you were to say right now that it is a science-fiction story, would you be wrong? Probably not. If we were to get technical here, we could go to the very definition of either genre and see where Star Wars fits better. Fantasy and sci-fi are very different in the answers they seek and the approach they take to reach them, yet I’m pretty sure that if we were to analyze the tropes of both genres, we’d still find traces reminiscent of Star Wars in both of them.
So what is, really, Star Wars? The answer to this question probably holds the key to knowing what type of fan you are, and as such, there are as many possible answers as there are fans. And each of those answers, despite what may have been suggested by my reasoning above, is as complex and deep as each fan that tries to answer it. For that reason, if you were to tell me that, to you, the only true and valid Star Wars movies are the original trilogy, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. You just have a different view of what the concept means. The same goes if you tell me that all nine movies are excellent entries of the franchise, you wouldn’t be wrong either. And I would celebrate that you have that view.
At the same time, notice that this opens up so many doors. For instance, if we are to say that the only correct interpretation of the franchise is that it has endless interpretations, we are also suggesting that that very interpretation might be wrong. And I totally agree. This is just the way I choose to see it, and the best explanation I’ve found to the vast amount of opinions there are out there.
If I were to put it mildly, I would say that the franchise is a fantasy story made to teach kids about hope. From all accounts, if we were to boil down everything George Lucas wanted to transmit the world to one word, it would be hope. And from all accounts, we know that he especially wanted kids to watch his movies and get this message. In the words of our own Kyle Larson, in his recent review of Cavan Scott’s Life Day Treasury:
[…] every day can be filled with the hope we make, and to accept the hope others give us. Hope is the spark, the light, and the fire which keeps us all warm. Especially in Star Wars.
Luke Skywalker has always been a beacon of hope, and the symbol of the franchise as a whole. For that reason, I think it’s understandable that some people were betrayed by the fact that in The Last Jedi he began as the polar opposite of that. To me, the reason I like the movie so much is that it builds on that, and says “even when you are the lowest you can possibly be, there is always a way out.” Luke Skywalker found that way out, and by doing so, he became the most powerful Jedi ever. You disagree with me? That’s cool, because by trying to explain to me why you do, you will probably learn something new about the way you see the franchise.
Another interesting door that opens up is this one: a good Star Wars movie doesn’t necessarily have to be a good movie or vice versa. By definition, a good Star Wars movie will be one that fits within the definition each one has for the franchise, and it will be bounded by it. For that reason, The Phantom Menace is essentially a good Star Wars movie, though its merits as a movie may be discussed somewhere else. At the same time, if Lucasfilm now acquired the rights to, say, Blade Runner 2049 and renamed it Star Wars: Blade Runner 2049 (mind the obvious incoherences), I’d still say that’s an awesome movie, just not a good Star Wars movie.
The definition probably needs to be refined, and to me, it must include what I like to call “the Star Wars moment.” This is something that every Star Wars movie must have for me to be able to give it the thumbs up as a worthy entry in the franchise.
The Star Wars moment, while hard to define, is a moment in the story where the momentum is suddenly behind our hero as he/she prepares to face any opposition he/she may find. The music swells and takes over your body as an audience member, and you are now ready to embark on any mission with this character. This is Luke looking into the binary sunset, Han Solo and Leia escaping through the asteroid field, Yoda lifting the X-Wing out of the water, the entire Battle of Endor, the Trench Run, young Anakin blowing up the reactor by himself, the battle over Coruscant, Rey screaming “the garbage will do” as the camera pans towards the Millennium Falcon, young Han Solo getting out of the Maelstrom and escaping through the narrowest gap, Finn screaming “that’s one hell of a pilot” as Poe takes out half of the First Order’s forces by himself, Rey grabbing the lightsaber on Starkiller Base, Rey grabbing the lightsaber after Kylo kills Snoke, the revelation of Luke force-projecting himself from Ahch-To, Kylo grabbing the lightsaber Rey just force-passed him, or Lando showing up with an entire fleet made up of Rebel cells. If you’ve felt a sudden rush of adrenaline while reading at least some of these moments, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It must be mentioned, too, that this is not my only list of Star Wars moments, or the fact that a movie was less brought up than others means nothing.
I’m not the world’s biggest fan of The Rise of Skywalker, though I do acknowledge it has some strong points — it’s definitely the weakest of the sequel trilogy for me, but it may also be because I hold the two previous entries way higher than the average fan does. However, I absolutely believe that the scene in which Poe looks up and sees thousands of Rebel cells getting ready to fight for their freedom in Exegol is one of the purest Star Wars moments there are in any of the trilogies. At least, it is one of the moments that best line up with how I view the franchise. It is about hope, and about people, individuals coming together to be stronger than the sum of their parts. It is about family, but not necessarily about family related by blood, but rather those related by one common goal. A rebellion against tyranny, against oppression, against evil. But also against selfishness and separation of individuals.
All in all, Star Wars is a collection of themes, and while there are a few that most of us will agree with, there are certainly other themes that many people read from the movies that others don’t. Hope is one of the major themes for me, but it’s not the only one — the idea of the found family is a very powerful one, and one the Resistance Broadcast crew discussed at length during one of their episodes in May. Family heritage and legacy can be found there too, not only from the new movies but all across the franchise, since Ben Kenobi started describing Anakin’s doings during the Clone Wars to Luke. And like those, there are plenty more, from political to historical matters, that populate the franchise.
Star Wars is one of the richest franchises out there because of the many faces it has. There are plenty of ways of approaching it, and plenty to love about it. Furthermore, not all opinions are contradictory, and many fans, including myself, love many things from it. The fact that one enjoys the sequel trilogy doesn’t mean he/she can’t like The Mandalorian, and vice versa. The fact that Luke showed up like a badass in The Mandalorian‘s Season 2 finale doesn’t have to be a poke at the sequel trilogy. And even if it was, it doesn’t mean that the sequel trilogy fans are automatically wrong or invalidated. They just have a different, yet valid, view.
The bottom line is: any person who has ever enjoyed a product with the title Star Wars on it, is a Star Wars fan. This franchise has always been made to bring joy to many people, both to the fans and to the creators. Let’s keep it that way, and always remember, that if you don’t enjoy one episode of a television series, or one of the movies, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there who do, or that their opinions are lesser than yours. Regardless of your own interpretation, this is a franchise that has put countless smiles on people’s faces, many times. And above all, it has brought us hope.