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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REY: Star Wars' Exceptionalism Problem

Caution: here be spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, so I suggest only reading once you have seen the film.

Upon leaving a screening of The Force Awakens in 2015, you would be forgiven for having one question on your mind: who exactly *is* Rey?

Our new heroine for the revived, sequel era of Star Wars launched by JJ Abrams through the Disney-purchased LucasFilm, Rey was deemed by that film to be ‘special’. Abandoned mysteriously on the desert planet Jakku by parents she always expected to return for her, Rey is then cosmically bound to the Skywalker saga she ends up stumbling, with escaped Imperial Stormtrooper Finn, into the middle of. She feels connected to the lightsaber of the missing Luke Skywalker, which even gives her a vision of all kinds of backstory arcanum. By the end, she is tentatively wielding the weapon of a Jedi, without truly understanding the context. The Force Awakens fully establishes Rey as *important* with a capital I.

Then comes along The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, who almost immediately rips all of that away. Luke doesn’t think all that much of the lightsaber Rey reverently holds out to him on Ahch-To island. Arch villain Kylo Ren, the only one of our main new characters to actually *be* a Skywalker by blood, tells her what he believes she already knows – her parents were nobody, that she is no one special. Ren uses that as his basis, in The Last Jedi, to encourage her to join the Dark Side as his queen. If she is nobody special, like all of the fascist goons who joylessly work for the First Order and the Empire before it, Rey will become compliant. Exceptionalism corrupts. Belief that you have cosmic significance can breed dangerous traits. Yet Johnson doesn’t truly believe that. He believes precisely the opposite. You don’t have to be exceptional, to be special, to be significant.

The Rise of Skywalker, the concluding part of the Star Wars sequel saga, challenges that. It definitely proves that Star Wars, and perhaps popular culture, has an exceptionalism problem as we enter a new decade.

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STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga

CAUTION: contains some major spoilers so only read on if you’ve seen the film.

If you were looking for the perfect film to put a capstone on the 2010’s, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker arguably would be it.

Even with the blockbuster heavyweight of Avengers: Endgame concluding the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, TROS—as we’ll call it for ease—was the most anticipated cinematic event of the year, given it doesn’t just serve as the third part of a trilogy but also the concluding chapter of a nine-part, four decade spanning saga within easily the biggest film franchise in movie history. This is about as epic as franchise filmmaking gets. Though Star Wars, the jewel in Disney’s all-dominating media crown, will of course continue into the 2020’s, this marks the end of the Skywalker Saga with which George Lucas changed the landscape of movie-making more than perhaps any director in the 20th century. The final conclusion to a story we thought had definitively ended twice before.

Going into The Rise of Skywalker, you may experience cautious optimism. Rian Johnson delivered a defiantly auteur-driven, insular examination of the core mystical and philosophical themes within Star Wars with 2017’s trilogy middle-part The Last Jedi, going in brave new directions from 2015’s vibrant trilogy opener The Force Awakens, in which JJ Abrams revived the franchise with a verve that spoke to Lucas’ original, Saturday adventure serial vision. With Abrams back at the helm, following the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow, there was every reason to believe TROS would recapture TFA’s spirit and top off Star Wars with a fulsome flourish. You may leave The Rise of Skywalker somewhat perplexed that that didn’t happen. That, in fact, Abrams has delivered the weakest Star Wars film since, quite possibly, fetid prequel Attack of the Clones.

For a myriad amount of reasons, The Rise of Skywalker feels like an argument, on screen, for why going into the next decade we need to rethink how we approach franchise filmmaking. It doesn’t just feel like a culmination of indulgent cinematic excess but a cautionary bulwark against it.

From the Vault #15: STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 28th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

It was back in 1973 that the beginnings of what would become Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith came to life, as George Lucas roughly mapped out the entire Star Wars saga without specifics four years before Episode IV would take the world by storm and create a cinematic legacy unlike perhaps any other before or since.

Much as the previous two prequels underwhelmed significantly from a creative standpoint, leaving many fans with a sense of caution going forward, few would deny Revenge of the Sith remained much anticipated. This was the story we had all been waiting for – forget the preamble and effectively set up of The Phantom Menace & Attack of the Clones, this would be where it all came together, Lucas ready to show us just how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader & the Galactic Empire rose from the ashes of the Jedi. How could such an epic tale three decades in the making fail? The good news is, well… on the whole it doesn’t.

Revenge of the Sith is by some distance the finest Star Wars prequel and though it can’t quite sit on a par with the original trilogy, it skirts close with a combination of epic visuals, narrative power and finer characterisation than the previous two movies combined.

From the Vault #14: STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 26th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Unlike the incredibly hyped, feverish release of The Phantom Menace three years earlier, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones loomed large with more a muted sense of expectation, a ‘new hope’ as it were that George Lucas might have learned a few lessons from the severe disappointment his first prequel in the planned trilogy turned out to be, due to cardboard dialogue, stiff acting, leaden plotting and a remarkable lack of fun.

Perhaps aware of his own shortcomings behind the typewriter, Lucas hired a young writer, Jonathan Hales, to help him pen this second instalment but in no uncertain terms, two heads were not better than one. Attack of the Clones desperately wants to be this trilogy’s The Empire Strikes Back – it’s immediately darker, it seeks to be edgier, it balances plot shenanigans with a central romance, and it builds to an ominous, open-ended conclusion. The only difference is that it’s a soul crushing experience to sit through until that end point – perhaps even more joyless than the previous movie, with only the barest hints of the chutzpah the original trilogy exhibited, and yet again a raft of immensely wooden performances by talented actors struggling with a script that is banal in the extreme.

Considering the promise of what could have been, it’s yet again another enormous clusterf*ck.

From the Vault #13: STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 25th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

In 1987, after a costly divorce settlement that undoubtedly dampened his enthusiasm for playing in a fictional universe, George Lucas unofficially cancelled his long-held plans to produce a prequel trilogy to Star Wars, his magnum opus & arguably the most iconic Hollywood movie franchise in cinematic history. It didn’t last long.

The technology Lucas felt wasn’t around to realise his grand vision for the series was becoming a reality thanks to leaps forward visible in such movies as Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Jurassic Park and by 1994, imagination forever burning to tell the story of how Anakin Skywalker became cinema’s most infamous villain, Darth Vader, he was writing what would ultimately become The Phantom Menace. To say ‘Episode I’ was anticipated would be an understatement – millions spent on marketing, thousands queuing for weeks outside cinemas for tickets, the press in a frenzy. Star Wars had struck such a chord from 1977 onwards that by 1999, as the internet was exploding into the household, fandom was at its expectant peak.

Think back… how old were you? What were you doing? And when you finally saw The Phantom Menace, did you wonder why you’d spent so long excited?

The Last Jedi: from Space Fantasy to Space Equality

Only a week old and Star Wars: The Last Jedi already feels like it’s been dripped dry of critique and analysis. The much-anticipated follow up to The Force Awakens, 2015’s bombastic revival of the Star Wars saga, has been polarising to say the least. For every fan who loved it, you’ll find another two who feel it has destroyed, in one picture, the entire legacy of the tale long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

As well as my initial analysis of the film, I wrote about the toxicity of this level of fandom who seek to target The Last Jedi for daring to experiment with the established tropes and concepts that have existed for forty years, and have made Star Wars what it is. Whether you liked or disliked The Last Jedi no longer seems to be the point – it’s the consequences of Rian Johnson’s film that have stoked the most controversy. Star Wars, surely, will never be quite the same after this movie? That’s the ultimate question cascading across Star Wars fandom as The Last Jedi settles in their mind. Too much has changed. Yet few seem to be talking about what this change directly is, or ultimately what it means.