Star Wars: The breaking of storytelling rules and what happens next

  • CONTAINS SPOILERS

Why is No Script For Life adding its two pennies’ worth to the masses and masses of discussion about the latest instalment in the Star Wars cannon, Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker? Is there anything new to be said?

The previous installment, The Last Jedi has been discussed, virtually to death. By now every Star Wars-loving soul has read how the movie broke basic screen-writing ‘rules’ (the characters ask the same questions as the audience, everything ends where it began etc.) but a lot of the things fans have so vociferously disliked are merely cosmetic problems. The real issues cut a little deeper,  ultimately setting the table for the critics of the latest movie.

This website is often looks at life through the prism of fiction so it is interesting to perhaps view the latest trilogy of movies in the Star Wars canon as an object lesson in how the art of storytelling can go badly wrong when each instllment relies so heavily on the previous one.. This is not meant as a critique (other websites do that) but a look at the consequencies of breaking those ‘rules’ because when they are ignored, there is no convincing way to recover.

Any writer worth their salt will tell you, when the story telling mechanics start to break down, there is often no way to salvage it. You have to strip the thing back to it’s component parts and start again. Obviously, there was no way Star Wars, or any movie / episode in an ongoing series can do that, especially when a quarter of the western world has witnessed the breakdown and paid £10 (or thereabouts) for the pleasure.

Now this latest trilogy of movies is complete, a fresh light can be shone on each installment. I think most fans would agree Empire and Jedi stand shoulder to shoulder in terms of storytelling.  One fails to make sense without the other, a lot of elements gel together to conjoin these movies. Plot, themes and chatacter are consistent but so too are other less susceptible elements such as the colour pallete, the tone and tropes. I did not hate the Last Jedi but how many fanboys begin their tirade with that very sentiment? In this case at least, it is true.  I don’t idetify as a fan of the Star Wars movies. I have seen each movie more than once (apart from the latest three) over the years but I am yet to see The Mandalorian, Rogue One and Solo. In fact, apart from a brief flirtation with the Clone Wars, I’ve never immersed myself in the “expanded universe” of the franchise. I have an emotional investment in the characters of the movies but it is tiny compared to how a proper fan would relate. I enjoy the films very much, and I am sufficiently intetested in the story to not wait more than twenty four hours after the theatrical release before going to see each entry of the modern trilogy.  I consider myself a mildly enthusiastic consumer with a moderate, even temeperate view toward each new instalment.

But, even with an uncritical eye it is impossible not to notice a marked decline in quality between the The Force Awakens and Last Jedi. The former seemed to blend past and present elements into a nicely rounded whole, in turns nostalgic and shocking and was set on pushing the story onwards for the first time since Return of the Jedi by employing new protagonists without leaving the wonderful old characters lost in the dark. The Last Jedi had many of the same elements but seemed to blend them together less successfully.  In their criticisms of the Last Jedi, fans have cited many reasons for the film’s failure in dramatic and artistic terms, ranging from the treatment of beloved characters like Luke Skywalker, to Leia floating in space without protection and pointless chase sequences set between exceptionally bad dialogue. But let’s be honest here, Star Wars is and never was high art. The characters have always been there mainly to drive the plot, as opposed to stories and  situations springing from the  characters. It’s science fiction / science fantasy so any bit of bafflegab can explain inconsistencies and scientific implausibilities.  Star Wars has seen it’s fair share of pointless chase sequences in the past, striving as it often has,  for spectacle over substance. The dialogue has also been famously ropey in previous instalments too. It seems unfair to berate a film for being the same as its predecessors. The issues with the Last Jedi unfortunately run much, much deeper than those surface irritations anyway, and together they combine to affect the last episode in a profoundly existential manner.

I enjoyed Rise of Skywalker, I think it’s basically a good movie. It’s not Star Wars’ finest hour but it’s far from being it’s worst. As an entrant into the ongoing story it makes a pretty decent go at closing down all the plot threads and makes a fairly convincing attempt at providing meaningful closure for characters new and old. It’s a pretty inoffensive way to spend two and a half hours of your life by anyone’s standards. That said, as good as the movie is, it does make the viewer come away feeling significantly underwhelmed and hungry for more. For the final part of a nine episode series told over 45 years, that’s not great. It means the movie has singularly failed in its mission: to bring an end to the saga. The reason why Rise of Skywalker, for all it’s shiny brilliance, is so insubstantial is because the problems crept in during the previous instalment, and being a trilogy rather than a story in four parts there was insufficient time to convincingly turn the ship around.

The middle instalment of a trilogy should be unpopular when it first hits the cinemas. Empire Strikes Back came in for significant flaming on original release for changing the characters (Luke and Leia were seemingly being set up as an item in the first film) and left the plot dangling in mid air for several years, until Return of the Jedi came along to wrap it all up. That’s healthy dislike, especially as now many cite Empire as the high water mark of the series. That’s because, we can now view it knowing there’s another pretty damn awesome movie to follow it. In other words, the brilliance of the final instalment cancelled out most people’s misgivings about the former. I was hoping Rise of Skywalker would do the same to the Last Jedi. Hoping against hope really, because that film’s inherent problems means that was never likely to happen. So where did it go wrong? What story telling rules were broken that affected not just that film but what came after?

For two years, I’ve been saying this to anyone who displays the courtesy of listening to me; the people behind Last Jedi did not understand how the middle part of a trilogy should work. This is most evident in the very final scene where all of the good guys regroup and fly off. Where is the cliffhanger? Where is the incentive to come back and see what happens next? We

There is an ending to this movie. A proper full stop. George Lucas, having enjoyed the Saturday cinema serials of his youth understood the importance of a damn good cliffhanger. The drama shoukd peak at this point. Compare Last Jedi to the end of Empire; Leia has been captured, Luke is in training and Han has been frozen in carbonite. It concludes with the Empire striking back, in other words, the bad guys win. In Last Jedi, Kylo Ren slopes off defeated (again) and Snoke, the new trilogy’s big bad is dead. Properly dead. If you weren’t a fan in the know, there’s no indication that there’s another movie in the series. Even Luke Skywalker is killed off. The good guys win the battle and the war, leaving absolutely no plot threads dangling. Rian (My-Middle-Name-Isn’t-”Pretentious”-But-My-First-Name-Sure-Is) Johnson leaves JJ Abrams nothing to pick up. Instead, the director is forced to create, from the ground up, a new enemy for our heroes to face off against, a reason for Kylo Ren to throw his lot in with this latest Sith-side emergence, and set up the saga-ending showdown.

Abrams does a sterling job with the bum lot handed to him by his predecessor but this is why Rise of Skywalker falls a little flat and why you come away feeling entertained but unsatisfied.

As soon as he came back on board to wrap up the trilogy he started, he faced an upward struggle. If it had performed its storytelling function correctly Last Jedi would have contained a few hints that Emperor Palpatine was behind Snoke, suspicions planted that Rey’s mysterious origins are rooted in the power of the Sith, more temptations from the dark side and the circumstances surrounding Leia’s death foretold.  There was an opportunity to parrallel aspects of Anakin’s transformatio  into Darth Vader, a feeling that history was on course to repeat itself. There should have been the building up of forces for the final showdown between the First Order and the Rebels, and the film should have probably ended with the First Order ready to conquer the galaxy in a single stroke. There was none of this. The rules of storytelling were ignored – that is the Last Jedi’s single biggest failing, and because it holds such an important position in the trilogy, it torpedoes any chance of the movies standing shoulder to shoulder with the originals. What should be the action-packed peak is filled with pointless chases and bonding between characters who will come to have no bearing on the resolution of the conflict or actually have any meaningful interactions with the core trio of Rey, Po and Finn. The fans think of these as unforgivable errors, and when you look at the resources available to this movie, not least the talent, technology and budget but also the mainstream interest and goodwill genetated by Force Awakens, you begin to understand why they’re so miffed. If that film had simply nullified itself and changed over time to be seen as nothing more than an enjoyae romp, a bit of fluff in the middle of the trilogy, then I think the universal condemnation of that movie would have abated.  But the rub, as we said above, is this film holds an important place in this latest trilogy.

Rise of Skywalker struggles to build up it’s own premise and establish a new story in the first fifteen minutes. It’s frenetic cinema by anyone’s standards, and had this not stood as the culmination of forty-five years of storytelling it would probably be more or less okay. The build-up is concise and looks good. It’s atmospheric and sets up a pretty good story, but, it should never have been required. Part of the build-up should have been done in Last Jedi. Abrams really ought to have been handed an oven ready plot that wrote itself. Instead he has to build up a beginning middle and end of a forty-five year saga in under two and a half hours. That’s a pretty tall order for anyone. That he almost succeeds is a testament to his resilience, but after nine instalments in this epic “three act play” it makes for an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s not wholly unsatisfying, I must stress that, it is a niggling kind of unsatisfying. It’s like filling your stomach with some quality food but never actually feeling full.

All rules are meant to be broken, but if you’re going to break the rules of storytelling you need to have more than directorial flair (which Johnson has in spades), you also need to have a plan. It’s simply not possible to fly by the seat of your points when plotting a trilogy.

Rise of Skywalker goes to great lengths to present Rey, Finn and Po as this trilogy’s core trio, a group of close friends to rival Leia, Luke and Solo for popularity and love-ability. Again, the director is forced to build up this close bond in two and a half hours because Po is largely absent from the first film and the characters spend the bulk of the second separated. Any bonding and such is all off camera, leaving the viewer having to simply accept they love each other, without ever bearing witness to the reasons why.  It’s a real shame because the three actors do an absolute sterling job of trying to sell the characters’reliance on eachother to the audience but again, a friendship that should have sold itself, is left struggling to assert in a short period of time. The tragedy is this would never have been a tough sell, had the mechanics of storytelling run a little closer to the line in Last Jedi. All three characters are likeable and bring a distinct element in their own right. Rey especially breaks the mould of modern heroes, and Finn and Po relate well to each other, supporting their troubled but skilled friend. It’s a very credible friendship, forged in adversary against an indomitable opponent, but it simply isn’t given time to establish itself and flourish as with the trio of Luke, Leia and Han.

Two out of three films sold short by not adhering to basic storytelling rules and a sheer inability to plan ahead. It’s a poor fare that feels more harsh because all of the other components are so, so right. It has to be said, and it really pains me to say it, Last Jedi is not only the weakest entry in the trilogy, it almost completely, irretrievabley creates unsolvable problems. This is not the view I wanted. I’ve been hoping for two years (since it’s theatrical release)  the third film would build on the good bits (because contrary to popular belief there were some good bits in Last Jedi), explain the rubbish bits (of which there are more than a few) and cancel out the rest but, now the trilogy has concluded we see how much of that film was superfluous to the whole. I’ve reserved judgment of that movie until now but I’m afraid No Script For Life must add another voice to the growing chorus and say, that basically Last Jedi breaks the rules and breaks the delicate threads that bind the trilogy together. It’s a thumping shame but it does demonstrate the delicate workings of story mechanics and that retro-fitting ideas works in theory but seldom in practice.

With all that said, I  thoroughly recommend seeing Rise of the Skywalker. It has a ttemendous burden to carry but it ain’t bad by any means. Just don’t bother re-watching Last Jedi before. In fact, Skywalker may turn out to be the franchise’s best stand-alone movie, enjoyed with little to know prior knoeledge of events in the Force Awakens. Have Johnson and Abrams conspired to create the most accessible Star Wars movie since Empire?

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Copyright Martin Gregory. 2019

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