The Trilogy Formula for Survival
Evolution is the survival technique of franchises, adaptation and character development, moral progress or providing insight into the changing cultural environment are the basis of continued engagement. Take Back to the Future as an example. Each installment explored different themes and moral conundrums. The first installment touched on core American values, family and Freud, and preserving the treasured aspects of our society and daily lives. The second installment flipped that wholesome narrative on its head. Biff Tannon was an expression of Trumpian arrogance and American gluttony and Marty McFly destroyed his life through abuse of power and hunger for riches. The final installment investigates America’s relationship with the Old West. The conquering, wilderness taming male, Mad Dog Tannon, is tamed and Marty’s foolish pride is wrestled under control. The formula can be witnessed in other trilogies. In Alien, Ripley is a forceful female lead whose will to survive surpasses that of perfectly engineered killing machine – she alone triumphs over a perfect parasitic nightmare. In Aliens Ripley faced superior numbers. Self-reliance was insufficient in these circumstances. Trust, inter-dependence and forgiveness are important building blocks in walling off the Xenomorph hoards. Terminator followed similar lines. The first movie looks outwards and poses the question: Where could the digital revolution terminate? The second movie looks inwards and asks: How do we suppress the human capacity for hate and destruction?
Star Wars: The Force Awakens failed to diverge significantly from previous franchise installments. Episode VII received positive reviews from critics. The Guardian, the Telegraph, the Sunday Times and the BBC’s Kermode all lauded the installment as a brilliant cinematic experience. The danger is that the critic is swept away and carried in the euphoric wave, an event that distorts reviews. To an extent this happened with the Force Awakens. On the crest of nostalgic anticipation, the Disney production received incredible reviews. As the excitement rolled back and the hysteria simmered to a point where honest reflection was possible, the Force Awakens was scrutinized with a beady eye. JJ Abrams work appeared safer, slightly over-produced, and too closely resembled a New Hope. There was after all a moon-sized planet destroyer owned by the Empire and the familiar Shakespearean family dynamics, the Skywalker dynasty splintered in a galactic power struggle for the soul of galaxy. Trading in nostalgia is emotional dynamite; each movie fan adored the Force Awakens because it twanged the thread of longing. Therein lies the problem, the Force Awakens was forged under the immense pressure of a post-Lucas production. The formula was consistent with the previous trilogies and brought nothing new to the party, the emergence of a female aside. The stakes were too high.
The Force Truly Awakens
Rogue One offers an alteration in the Star Wars Franchise in a way that the Force Awakens did not. The Force Awakens was a straight up Manichean dual, no blurred grey area existed; Rogue One deals in moral ambiguity in spade fulls. In one scene, Cassian Andur, the main rebel spy, and one of his informants are cornered by Stormtroopers. Knowing the informant cannot escape, due to a broken arm, and will undoubtedly bend to an Imperial inquisition, Cassian unflinchingly shoots the informant in the back. This is murky territory. Later Jyn Erso accuses Cassian of blindingly following immoral orders in the face of reason. In both cases, the brutalising nature of war is brought forward for us to ponder: War coarsens our morals and good men can swiftly transition into tyrants in pursuit of what they perceive as just. Moral dubiety is present in other characters. The Imperial scientist Galen Erso balances the nuances of survival, redemption and exquisite revenge. Caught between the immorality of collaboration and the morality of justice he embodies the complexity of war beyond the good vs evil paradigm. Our modern tastes are accustomed to moral tension. The Dark Night, Breaking Bad, and Iron-Man: Civil War demonstrates the evolution in audience taste, they demand nuance and complexity. Rogue One has definitely taken note.
The simple pattern has rarely shifted significantly and Star Wars rarely fleshed-out in any substantial way the weighty ideals that surround war. As any historian will testify, sacrifice is the cost of liberty and freedom is built on the dead bodies of the fallen. That human but exceptionally salient point is often missed. The Star Wars franchise is often prioritized pure fantasy over gritty realism. Cost is a pillar of the movie without the movie being overpowered by emotional indulgence. There is a war going on against the most powerful force in the universe, Lord Vader. The battle cannot be won without sacrifice and struggle. In the final scenes, individuals fall in the name of higher ideals. The incredible march of Darth Vader through a platoon of helpless rebel soldiers only serves to highlight the personal cost endured in war in the face of impeccable terror. Rogue One is more visceral than the Force Awakens and better for it.
Flaws Don’t Diminish the Force
Technical issues should be addressed. The Force Awakens edges out Rogue One on acting. In almost every department the acting is superior; Daisey Ridley blooms brighter than Felicity Jones; Oscar Isaac is superior to Diego Luna; Adam Driver is slightly sharper than Ben Mendahlson; and Riz Ahmed is awful. The script flirts excessively with cliché, almost falling into the orbit of farce. But these are scratches on the canvass rather than crippling flaws in the brush-stroke: the qualities far out-strip the shortcomings. Mads Mikkelson is the best Star Wars performance since Sir Alec Guinness. The philosophy that less is more is clearly effective. The Force Awakens is compelled to be visually spectacular and Kylo Ren’s malevolence is required to be the centre-piece of the movie. Darth Vader, on the other hand, is used sparingly and greater potency; Vader punctuates the movie with his terror creating a powerful impact when on screen. Horrible beasts are infrequently
observed. The exception being rebel leader Saw Gerrera’s terrifying pet octopus that reads minds by coiling its victims in its gelatinous tentacles, a striking symbol of untrustworthy paranoid rule. Chirrut Inwe is the correct portion of Jedi mysticism to satisfy the palate. The movie is also a better story. For the first time in a long time, Rogue One is a blockbuster with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s stands alone and is not open-ended. Reverting to an original plot sequence was deeply satisfying; there is a pleasure in finality. There was definitely a pleasure in finally seeing a Star Wars movie worthy of the name again. It only took 30 years but once again I am one with the force and the force is with me.