For the last four years, we have been living a collective nightmare. Our shared values have been undermined. Our cherished culture has come under attack. At its least harmful, this nightmare has taken the form of empty nostalgia, in which the leaders who have been entrusted with ushering us into the next era have instead looked into the past, distracting us with symbolic gestures that serve no purpose except to cover up a lack of vision. At its worst, a combination of incompetence, erraticness, and sometimes sheer malice has squandered decades of progress. The ensuing conversation has been fruitless and ugly, and the experience has left many of us polarized, angry, and exhausted.
This week, it finally started to look as if that nightmare might end—but only in the weakest and most slapdash manner. This resolution, which is not really a resolution, is not only a disaster: It's a disappointment, a pointless, abysmal letdown that is virtually certain to fully satisfy almost no one. The result is a rushed and poorly executed product of bad management, empty thinking, and shallow wish-fulfillment that will only further the public's loss of faith in the entire enterprise.
I speak, of course, of the Star Wars franchise, which in late 2015 returned to movie theaters under the managerial oversight of Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy, with a strong creative influence from Hollywood's reigning prince of blockbuster mediocrity, J.J. Abrams.
Although other writers and directors have worked on the films, to varying effect, these two have been the chief visionaries. Kennedy managed the brand, and Abrams co-wrote and directed the first and third chapters in a new trilogy meant to expand on the sci-fi soap opera that franchise creator George Lucas started back in 1977.
And now, with The Rise of Skywalker, the third chapter in the trilogy that Kennedy and Abrams began four years ago, the full impact of their creative leadership has become clear.
Skywalker is a frantic, disjointed mess—not a movie with good ideas poorly executed, not even a movie with bad ideas, but a movie with no ideas at all, save for saccharine paeans to fandom and nostalgia. As a story, it is empty and unengaging to the point of boredom. As a cinematic product, it is surprisingly lackluster, with shoddy effects and muddy visuals. And as an entry in the Star Wars franchise, an ostensibly major part of the pop-culture canon, it is a wasted opportunity: a total failure of both creative imagination and corporate brand management.
After Lucasfilm sold Star Wars to Disney, Kennedy cycled through writers and directors, firing several who were deep into the development process—and, in the case of last year's Solo, weeks into filming. Something similar happened with Skywalker, where writer-director Colin Trevorrow was taken off the project and Abrams brought back to close out the trilogy he started with 2015's The Force Awakens.
All that hiring and firing reflects an understandable anxiety over controlling one of Hollywood's biggest properties. But the frequency with which Kennedy's creative collaborations collapsed, and the timid, half-baked films that resulted, suggest something worse: a directionlessness and uncertainty about what the brand's value proposition was. Why do people love Star Wars? Why does it endure? Kennedy just didn't know what Star Wars was supposed to be.
Abrams, who had previously rebooted the Star Trek franchise and directed Super 8, a relentlessly nostalgic tribute to Steven Spielberg, stepped in with an answer. What people loved about Star Wars was…loving Star Wars. So he made a movie about a trio of young heroes who revered and worshiped the series' old heroes, who over the course of the trilogy were cast as mentors for the younger generation.
That trend continues in Skywalker, which positions resistance leader General Leia Organa as the trainer to Rey, the trilogy's protagonist, who once again must swashbuckle her way through an onslaught of CGI gobbledygook in her quest to…ah, who cares? Certainly not any of the characters, who duly intone about the importance of the mission but seem about as engaged as if they are standing in line at the dry cleaner. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) have been relegated to the sidelines in previous films; here they are onscreen more often, yet no less irrelevant. Only Adam Driver, as the Darth Vader–esque Kylo Ren, seems to hold the screen. (And even Driver is undermined by Abrams' hectic pacing, which never seems to trust viewers to linger on a thought for more than a moment.)
Even the relationship between Rey and Leia plays out awkwardly. In part that's because it relies on digital trickery and repurposed footage to resurrect Carrie Fisher, who died in 2016. And in part that's because there's so little dramatic inertia, since the movie all but wipes out The Last Jedi, the polarizing middle chapter of the trilogy.
Instead of following through on that flawed, frustrating film's universe-expanding narrative, Abrams has brought the trilogy back to his original idea: What people love about Star Wars is being reminded that they love Star Wars. So Skywalker is structured as a series of callbacks, a slideshow of favorite moments and characters, no matter whether they (or the actors who play them) are dead, and no matter whether they belong in this particular story, whatever it is. Skywalker is not so much a movie as a $200 million fan-made YouTube highlight reel. It might as well have been titled Why We'll Always Heart Star Wars.
In that way, it bears more than a small resemblance to today's political moment, with its endlessly outraged partisans and pointless displays of symbolism and substantive void. It is probably not an accident that the discourse over The Last Jedi descended into an ugly, intractably polarized debate over the movie's nods to wokeness and diversity. Much of that debate was a stand-in for arguments about President Donald Trump—arguments that managed to distract both fans and critics alike from more sober and interesting assessments of the movie's real stylistic strengths and serious narrative flaws. The parallels to our poisoned political discourse are plain to see.
Star Wars has always refracted and reflected the politics and culture of its day. In the 1970s, when Lucas kicked things off, that meant gay robots, peasant shirts, a soulless evil empire, and new-agey spiritual self-helpisms. It didn't offer wholly new ideas, but it did offer a new synthesis, one that blended a pop-mythical storytelling sensibility with film-school formalism and more than a little bit of tie-die weirdness. Lucas spun this into an empire of toys and lunchboxes and spinoff stories. Star Wars was a great movie, but it was also a triumph of creative cultural management.
Kennedy has no such managerial deftness, and Abrams lacks Lucas' trippy brilliance. Under their watch, Star Wars has retreated entirely into itself, content to recycle and repeat its old mantras in increasingly crude fashion in increasingly desperate hopes of making Star Wars great again. If Skywalker reveals anything about the world around it, it's that we are living through an era of mismanagement and lack of vision, of dead-end rehashing, on-screen and off. (Even I have made a version of this argument before.) It's time for those who brought us to this historically low point to finally face some consequences.