the great missed opportunity of the Star Wars sequel trilogy

I guess with the distance of a little time, taking all things into account, I’d rate the Star Wars sequel trilogy at a B-. Maybe that’s a little on the high side, but we’re grading on a curve when we’re talking about movies that are about laser swords and Ewoks.

I think, for me, the great regret is that the sequels continually waved at a plot and thematic complication but ultimately did nothing with it: undermining the binary perspective on the light side and the dark, the Jedi and the Sith, the clumsily Manichean attitude that defined the original trilogy. I get that these are movies for children and that they are intended as crowd-pleasing adventure stories. But still. Moral binarism is boring. It lacks the kind of knotty ethical issues that are mined so well in the best dramas. And it defeats any type of surprise that you might want to find in a story.

What we could have had instead would be an evolution in the basic thematic skeleton of the Star Wars universe. Is it really the case that the dark side is always and only to be forbidden? How can a philosophy insist that its adherents never experience anger, hatred, or fear when those are primal emotions that everyone feels sometimes? The Jedi prophecy of Anakin Skywalker calls for balance, and while I’m aware that George Lucas has suggested that this just means no Sith, actual balance between good and evil would be something new and exciting with many interesting roads to go down. But after hinting at this dynamic, the filmmakers ultimately leave us where we left off, in moral binarism.

I note that the prequels, which I’ve recently rewatched, provide plenty of grist for this mill, as they show the Jedi as vain and incompetent. Time and again Yoda and his cronies come out looking like a real asshole. To pick one example, when Anakin is first brought before the Jedi council he is roundly browbeaten for feeling fear. He’s nine fucking years old! Of course he’s scared! It tells you something about the thematic incoherence of the prequel trilogy that I’m not sure if this critique are intended or not.

Anyway, as for the sequels: Rey, in particular, is shown at times to have a dark side within her – her attraction and visit to the cave in TLJ, her vision of the dark side version of herself in TROS, her shooting force lightning at the transport ship, and various moments where she is dramatized as being motivated by anger or fear. It’s one of the things that makes her a compelling character, especially thanks to Daisy Ridley’s excellent portrayal. But it never goes anywhere; she never succumbs to the dark side, never seriously considers embracing a more complicated and ambiguous worldview, never demonstrates how the dark side as well as the light can be useful and potentially applied in the pursuit of good. She mostly remains a moral paragon in the manner of Luke Skywalker, a character I have immense affection for who is also deeply boring for precisely that reason.

In the broader sense, The Last Jedi begs us to consider this and then disposes of it. Luke says (correctly) that the Jedi were failures and that the Jedi order has to die, to go beyond the idea that one group of weirdo monks with a bad track record owns the fundamental stuff of life and the magical powers that come with it. Kylo Ren/Ben Solo begs Rey to see beyond the old conflicts, to let go of the categories of Sith and Jedi, Empire and Rebellion, to “let the past die,” to kill it if she has to, to let go. Even Benicio del Toro’s character points out that from a distance the Good Guys and Bad Guys don’t look so different from one another, their endless fight producing constant violence and a weapons industry that happily sells to both sides. That movie in particular asks us to look beyond light side vs dark.

That’s the movie that I want to see. And yet as much affection as I have for (the terribly flawed) Last Jedi, it just walks all that stuff back and drops it. I can only chalk this up to a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental) problem with the sequel trilogy: no one was really driving the thing, there was little to no continuity between the movies and there are no real consistent themes underpinning the whole thing. It says something about the power of the visuals and the performances that this alone doesn’t sink the whole trilogy.

You’ll have to forgive me for engaging in a little fanfic. But in the trilogy of my dreams, Rey becomes the catalyst for a new evolution in the ways of the Force, demonstrating that it is dangerous to try and compel people never to feel fear or anger, and being a symbol of a new Star Wars theology, and in so doing introducing a new moral ambiguity and thematic complexity to the franchise. I’m not 100% sure of the specifics, but it has to involve Kylo Ren and Rey’s coming together and realizing that they both represent something missing from the other. They’re a dyad, after all, two who are one. (That does not have to be romantic, though it could be. It does have to involve Ben Solo being redeemed, because otherwise the whole three films are “good guys beat bad guys.” Like George Lucas said, “you can’t have a monster becoming a monster. That’s not a story.” Exactly right – no redemption, no story.) Together the two of them could chart a new path in the Force, letting go of outdated religions and grasping at the fundamental power that was never owned by anyone. They start a school – not a temple – and take in those who want to learn how to balance the light with the dark, how to live as full, emotionally complex beings who can never be all good or all bad. That’s the trilogy I want, or the ending of it anyway.

For me, personally, the perfect final shot is this. We’ve learned that Finn is Force-sensitive as we do in TROS. Rey has invited Finn to train with her and Ben. She leads him to a humble meditation room where Ben is waiting, sitting on the floor with his legs cross. Finn is reluctant; though Rey has repeatedly vouched for Ben, Finn still doesn’t trust him. Rey sits down next to Ben and takes his hand. She beckons to Finn to sit down and complete the circle. Grudgingly he does so. Rey extends her hand to Finn and he takes it readily. Ben extends his hand. Looking down at it, Finn hesitates, then swallows hard and takes Ben’s hands. “Close your eyes,” says Rey, and they do. “Now concentrate. Reach out and feel what’s around you….”

And boom, Star Wars theme, the end.