Episode 9: Here we go again

                I’ve got plans to see Episode Nine. Of course, I do. There is a ticket in my name, and I’m going. I know people who have turned away, but I’m not there yet. I mean, I’m the guy who copied the opening crawl from Empire Strikes Back into big yellow block lettering and slid it onto the front cover of a prominently displayed three ring binder. In tenth grade. In 1992. When no one was talking about Star Wars.

                I know that makes me sound like some hipster who says he liked the first album better when a band blows up. (Does anyone really prefer Bleached to Nevermind?) But it’s the truth. I read the Timothy Zahn books as they came out, bought the original D6 roleplaying game and made people play it with me. None of this was cool or nerd chic (like Joe Manganiello or Vin Diesel talking about Dungeons and Dragons). It was sincere and lonely dorkery at a time when the prequels were dead letter.

It’s easy to forget now that there was a dark age of Star Wars. The last toys from Return of the Jedi were in overstock bins. (I loaded up on blasters at a nickel each at a creepy toy liquidation store at Potomac Mills). The last few episodes of Droids and Ewoks winked out unsung and unheralded. From about 1984 to 1999 there was nothing but a guttering flame, kept alive with a pilot light of pulpy novels.

My disappointment in the first few minutes of The Phantom Menace is both a story for another time and ground that has been well tread in the last twenty years. I heard the first awful accent say, “They’ve gone into the ventilator shaft,” and read the crawl announcing that the movie would be about a dispute as to the taxation of outlying systems and said, “check please.”

Three times I got my hopes up then had them dashed as each of the prequels came out. Alternately silly, or worse boring, they dampened my interest in all things Star Wars. I mean, how can you make a world full of lightsabers, spaceships and Wookies, with an entire galaxy full of story possibilities boring? Well, it helps if you spend a large portion of the films exploring parliamentary dynamics. It was like watching galactic politics on C-SPAN.

To compare it to sports, I was shocked at my infinite capacity to have my hopes revived like a pre-2016 Cubs fan. The third prequel, which at least told a story that seemed interesting and necessary to the overall saga, left a little ember of faith glowing. The jedi purge was almost as I had imagined it. I had pictured that montage sequence ever since I’d dreamed of movies covering this time period. It was like the 2011 Orioles season (stay with me here). Yeah, the final record was 69-93, but they brought in Buck Showalter, looked competitive in the last two months, and had that great comeback win that knocked the Red Sox out of the playoffs. It wasn’t much. In fact, it was the fourteenth consecutive losing season, but there was a glimmer there.

The glimmer turned into 2012: a winning season (finally), a wild card game win, and a loss in five to the Yankees in the ALDS. That’s about what Episode Seven turned out to be. It wasn’t The Empire Strikes Back. It wasn’t like a World Series win but considering how much I love the thing in question, and how bad the past had been, it was amazing. I can hear this metaphor chugging and sputtering as it tries to get over this paragraph, but The Force Awakens was an exciting loss early in the playoffs. Not what you really want, but deeply satisfying given the context. I’m considering a reference here to what Donald Glover said about Kix, but I’ll let you look that up. He’s a national treasure, and no I’m not talking about his forgettable turn as Lando.

I’ll get to Solo in a minute.

Episode Seven and Rogue One restored, if not my faith, then at least my belief in the possibility that these movies could be good. If Seven was a loss in the ALDS, Rogue One was… I don’t know, losing game seven of the league championship? (Okay, I’m done with the baseball thing. I promise.) I was excited enough about the prospects for Last Jedi that I bought tickets a month in advance and drove all the way to LA to watch it at the Chinese Theater. It was an event again in a way that Star Wars hadn’t been for me since Episode 2. I met up with a friend who drove down from Sacramento (shout out to my boy Bill Hodges!), took photos in front of a full-scale Gorilla AT-AT, and went out for drinks at a mock-up of the Mos Eisley cantina afterwards.

The event was a blast. Unfortunately, the movie stunk. I distinctly remember looking to my left and seeing ten people between me and the aisle and thinking that if there weren’t quite so many, I would get up and leave. This was about halfway through the movie. My entertainment factor was restored a few minutes later when Rey and Kylo Ren fight the Praetorian Guard. That part was cool. I also liked the resolution with Luke in the final sequence. So, I got through the movie, and my initial impression was mildly positive.

But, as I thought about things, my feelings began to turn. And we’re supposed to trust our feelings, aren’t we? Our insight serves us well. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take Obi-Wan’s advice and bury it deep down. The more I thought about the movie, the more I talked about it, the more I realized my first impression was the most powerful.

I think the main problem, if I had to distill it, was a tendency to include too many characters. It was as if someone from above had handed down an edict that this and that character needed to be in the script and the writer was just saddled with that decision. Seven didn’t do much with its characters because there were already too many. Try to imagine that plot without Poe Dameron. Does it change in any way? Maybe a bit, but I believe in Occam’s Razor when it comes to movie characters. You’ve only got two hours, so cut out anybody who isn’t carrying a lot of weight.

Eight took this to an extreme. Why was Rose in this movie? She existed solely to set up a side quest for Finn that led to absolutely nothing. Why was Laura Dern’s character in this movie? She did nothing that couldn’t have been more satisfactorily accomplished by Leia. Why was Benicio Del Toro necessary? I think it was just because he’s a good actor and they wanted to find a place for him. That’s okay, but only if I can’t see the seams from where you sewed him into the script.

The humor of the film was another problem. Now, you don’t want to pull a DC and make things too serious. Marvel nailed that. They realized these were movies about people in tights who can fly and time travel. That is inherently ridiculous, and they hit the sweet spot between getting humor out of the fact and taking something seriously that means a great deal to many people.

Star Wars stumbled over the line and pitched headlong onto its face. The sequence where Poe attacks a Star Destroyer single-handedly while making quips at the expense of General Hux was a perfect example. Why completely defang your villain in the first few minutes of the movie? I like quips as much as the next guy, but these characters need to be in danger or the whole thing becomes a farce pretty quickly.

Again, a negative review of Episode 8 is a story for another day, but I needed to get it out of my system. I wasn’t writing a blog back then and didn’t get my chance. The point is that it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. So bad that Solo was the first Star Wars film I didn’t see on opening night. That is, since the first one, and I wasn’t born yet, so that doesn’t count. When I finally saw Solo, on a matinee, with ten other people in the theater, I was underwhelmed.

But that was an anthology movie. Rise of Skywalker is a main saga film, so I’ll be there. My first impression of the first trailer was positive. JJ Abrams is back at the helm, and the first trailer, centered on Rey and Kylo Ren, with practical effects seemed like a return to glory. We’ve got an appropriate focus on the only story that counts. We’ve got the whine of a TIE Fighter; everything is as it should be.

Then over the next months, a steady trickle of previews began to come out. Shots of literally dozens of people standing around like furniture, Rose back in the middle of the screen like a human Jar Jar Binks, and more than one image with so many starships crammed together it looked like you could get from Tatooine to Dagobah by jumping between them. We’ve got the same bloated mass of characters. Apparently even more have been introduced according to the posters. In addition to R2-D2 and C-3PO, who have been relegated to about four lines of dialogue so far in the sequel trilogy, it seems  BB-8 wasn’t enough. Apparently, yet another droid was necessary. To paraphrase Arthur Schopenhauer, most of this film looks like senseless, meaningless webs of CGI.

I’m going. Don’t get me wrong. But I’m not expecting to be happy. It’s like when I had tickets to World Series game 5 and I found out Joe Ross was pitching.

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

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