I have a dirty and shameful secret to share with you: I have no opinion about Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.
Now – when I first saw Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, I had a metric shit-ton of opinions, which I gleefully shared in the form of lengthy arguments with my friends on social media. For many in my generation, having opinions about Star Wars is kind of like having oxygen, and the more extreme and passionately argued those opinions the better.
Then I went to see Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi a second time. It has been my tradition to see these movies at least twice in a theater since I was seven years old. Having sated my thirst to have a strongly stated opinion about Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi in the week following its release, I found myself walking out of the theater from my second viewing with no opinion at all.
Is it a good movie? A bad movie?
I honestly don’t know.
And it is in the not knowing that I have found how I truly feel about this film – and all the many Star Warses that have come before and will undoubtedly come after.
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One of the hardest moments I have had in a writers room came a few years back on a deeply serialized series which I had struggled to master. After pitching an episodic story I had spent the better part of a week developing with the rest of the staff to one of my colleagues – hoping for a blessing to take the story up the flagpole to the showrunner – my colleague shook his head and, with much sympathy told me “It’s not that it’s not a story, it’s that I only see The Churn.”
If you can imagine me walking out of that room with my head downcast and the “sad Charlie Brown” music from the old animated specials playing, you have an idea of the aftermath…
And as I walked out of my second viewing of Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, my colleague’s turn of phrase hung over my head like a hangman’s noose.
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The Churn – I’ve come to believe – is what happens to all “tentpole” movie franchises. The Churn is what happens to all television shows that overstay their operational life before exhausting their fanbase’s appetite for the characters. The Churn is what must happen for comic books, soap operas – and the works of countless fantasy novelists – to exist.
The Churn is the river into which those who want to make a fortune from narrative storytelling must wade… and the rapids which they must survive.
The Churn, is – for both good and bad – the constant invention, reinvention, escalation, re-escalation, doubling down, and re-doubling down of concept and incident that must take place in order for long-term narratives to endure. The Churn is what you get when the property makes money and there is no end in sight.
The Churn is the latest chase, abduction, or standoff; the new villain, and the new love interest. The Churn is the reboot, the preboot, the prequel, the sequel and the equal.
The Churn is what audiences get when stories go from being “a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end” to being like life: an endless series of obstacles, setbacks, repetitions of behaviors good and bad, relapses into behaviors both good and bad, deaths, births, and comings and goings, with little hope of a real resolution. The Churn when the myth of Odysseus – something with a defined beginning, middle, and end – morphs into the myth of Sisyphus: an endless challenge that can never be completed.
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With Star Wars, The Churn has been with us a long time, even if the mainstream audience does not realize it. The Churn kept Star Wars alive in the dark days between Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
During these years, over 400 Star Wars novels, e-books, and comic books were released. In absence of filmed Star Wars product, the faithful filled their story-craving bellies with a stream of titles beginning with Timothy Zahn’s (justly) venerated “Thrawn Trilogy” and culminating with the 19 novel epic serial “Star Wars: The New Jedi Order”.
In the course of these narratives, the character known as Luke Skywalker was married (to a subaltern of his arch-nemesis Emperor Palpatine, no less), imprisoned (in almost every story – usually with a fiendishly clever trap that somehow nullified his Jedi abilities), promoted, demoted, turned into a gladiator, tempted to join the Dark Side, eventually made to join the Dark Side and apprenticed to a clone of Emperor Palpatine, forced into a lightsaber battle against his own clone (the somewhat comically named “Luuke”), made deathly ill multiple times, cut off from the force multiple times, had a child, forced to reckon with his faulty knowledge of the totality of the force (also several times), built and destroyed several Jedi temples, had his wife become deathly ill several times, forced into exile, forced to ally with his deadly foes – The Sith – to defeat a common enemy, almost had to abandon his son when his mind was overtaken by the telepathic ability of a colony of insectoid aliens, and blown up imperial planet-killing weapons by the metric ton. It would be fair to say that Luke Skywalker has been subject to more dramatic incident in the form of life-or-death situations than any human being could possibly face while remaining sane.
And that was all before Disney purchased Lucasfilm and all of its assets and declared the entire kit and kaboodle null and void. All the old publications (known as the “Expanded Universe”) were rebranded as “Star Wars Legends” and a whole new set of novels detailing an entire alternate life for our hero has been in motion for years now. Of course, the “Star Wars Legends” have remained in print for anyone who wants to read newly non-canonical Star Wars fiction. There’s still gold in them thar hills.
I bring all of this up to illustrate two points.
One, where there is money to be made with characters for which an audience has a bottomless craving, the gods of commerce will have no problem commissioning hundreds of artists to create as many adventures for those characters as humanly possible: and those adventures will all have a slew of tropes in common, eventually becoming a repetitive cycle of Philip Glassian proportions.
There will always be another rogue Jedi who has been in hiding, another bounty hunter with strange powers that boggle those who rely on The Force, another brilliant officer of the Galactic Empire with a plan so dangerous (usually involving a heretofore unknown planet killing weapon hidden by Emperor Palpatine before his death) that it could mean the fate of the galaxy (in at least one occasion, it was a double of a brilliant officer who was propped up by other brilliant officers in order to use his PR value as a brilliant officer to revive the Galactic Empire).
In short… The Churn.
My second point is that, as I went whole hog into the game of having opinions about Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, I kept hearing otherwise sane people railing vitriolic about how awful it was “what they did to Luke Skywalker! Which is kinda hilarious, considering all that has already been done to Luke Skywalker in the name of “keeping the franchise alive”.
In the name of The Churn.
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It has been at least three decades since Star Wars entered The Churn – and it has never looked back. The relative quality of each new installment, regardless of media or venue, is pretty much insignificant at this point because everyone who loves Star Wars (which nowadays seems to be not just the entire civilized world, but also all the jocks who used to beat me up for liking Star Wars) has a constant lifeline to Star Wars that will continue to churn new material as quickly as possible.
And in the thick of The Churn, there’s another churn: The Churn of public narratives about the behind the scenes of Star Wars… and make no mistake, the stories of the making of Star Wars – and what it “means” that Star Wars is being made, and by whom – is as important to keeping the franchise alive as the movies themselves.
That Churn demands that we occasionally be sold the idea that the latest piece of Star Wars product is “a revitalization” of the source material: as is the case with the latest and greatest. Much of the press around Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi centers around the promotional narrative that this is a “bold reimagination” of a franchise; that a new auteur writer/director has been given the reins and infused the entire enterprise with new life, new ideas, and such newfound wisdom that this will not only register to the faithful as a pleasant return to a beloved universe, but also blow the collective mind with its sheer newness.
Meaning no disrespect – and making no judgment about the quality of Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – I just don’t buy it.
Why? Because of The Churn.
For forty years of my life Star Wars has been a self-contained ecosystem with its own predatory megafauna. Both within the story and without, those of us who care enough to stand under the bombs have been continually shelled with promises that each forthcoming novel/book/comic/e-book/TV movie/animated series/animated series pilot turned theatrical release/series of animates shorts/movie is a “bold reimagination” of our beloved space opera; that each new creator has brought to it Something Remarkable, and we will be blown away.
Of course that’s never really the case.
Here’s what invariably happens in all Star Wars stories, “bold reimagination” or not…
The Jedi Knights/Rebellion/New Republic/New Jedi Order get in a bind created by a former Imperial officer trying to restore Palpatine’s glory/a rogue Jedi who escaped the purges and went into hiding only to be twisted by the Dark Side/the First Order/The Yuuzhan Vong/a clone of Palpatine/a Grand Moff who sat out the Galactic Civil war. The galaxy is threatened. Someone is abducted. There’s a light saber duel/starship battle. There’s a few twists and turns in which some character you could have sworn was evil or good turns on the heroes. The balance of the Force comes into question (perhaps with some “daring” and “new” ideas about how The Force works and that there really is no Dark or Light side)…
And the status quo is eventually restored after, perhaps, some significant loss – but not of a member of the core ensemble.
(Up until it became necessary for Disney to kill an increasingly crotchety septuagenarian Han Solo in order to convince an increasingly crotchety septuagenarian Harrison Ford to return for one last go in the racing stripes, the only time Star Wars even remotely made good on killing one of our beloved heroes was in “Vector Prime” the first novel of the “New Jedi Order” series… in which they dropped an entire FUCKING MOON on poor Chewbacca to prove that the bad guys meant business.)
(No really. They meant it. Business.)
* * * * *
(And if you think what they did to Admiral Ackbar in Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, it seemed, at least to me, far less ignominious than his arrest and imprisonment for embezzlement (?!?) at the beginning of “Heir to the Empire”.)
* * * * *
So the business of Star Wars churns on… having done so for four decades without any real signs of stopping.
Entire literary canons consisting of hundreds of works have been excised from the mainstream narrative, films have been remastered, re-edited, and re-visual-effected, entire technologies have been invented to allow us to experience the original – and new works – in ways we never could before, new canons are being invented, and the characters from the originals – and the increasingly superannuated actors who play them – are being gracefully allowed to bow out in favor of exciting new characters…
Who happen to be a young, force-sensitive person whose raw power means a rebirth of the Jedi Order, a rogue pilot whose ability with the stick far outpaces his judgment and wisdom, a couple droids, a couple of cute aliens, a masked and mysterious character who doesn’t amount to much, a dark lord who is conflicted about his commitment to evil, and a loyal friend who will remain true through thick and thin.
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You may, at this point, be thinking that my rehashing the old chestnut that “there is nothing new under the sun” is a gateway toward a declaration that I am somehow above enjoying Star Wars and that I have achieved a higher plane of consciousness and need to let you know it. Let me reassure you. Having read the majority of the 400 publications mentioned earlier, and having seen Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi on opening night, and knowing that I will see it multiple more times – nothing could be further from the truth. Look, Star Wars is so crucial to my being that one time, I had to go cold turkey from it for a year to prove to myself that there was more to me than Star Wars.
While I have made my peace with Star Wars and still enjoy it, I could not do so without acknowledging that the pleasure centers of my brain that received it so eagerly for decades are no longer firing as brightly as they once did.
Also, it would be disingenuous to dismiss a franchise because of The Churn… because, as with all things having to do with the magic of creation, The Churn is neither all bad nor all good. Not everyone has had Star Wars in their life as long as others. One person’s feeling that they are merely in The Churn of a story that has to be kept in life support in the name of profit is another person’s first step into a much larger world.
Let’s face it: there are people out there for whom Kathryn Janeway was their first Star Trek captain – and the best in their mind. There are those who swear that Pierce Brosnan is the greatest Bond ever. There are those for whom Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk is THE Kirk (and that Shatner guy is just some old weirdo who trolls people on Twitter).
There are even people out there for whom Colin Baker is the ONE TRUE DOCTOR.
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As the sales pitch on Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi gives way to countless reports of its success in comparison to other Star Wars product – and to countless analyses of how it was received by the public – the narrative has come to echo one the film’s core thematic concerns. Apparently, a lot of O.G. Star Wars fans who are excessively attached to the old ways are unhappy with the movie’s bold and reinventing ways and have been vocal about it.
Concomitantly, newer fans wish that we O.G. Star Wars geezers would stop having opinions about our beloved characters and stop grousing about the boldness of reinvention on display. The film, after all, is about how the old must give way to the new, and the geezers who once sought to save the galaxy must acknowledge the truth that the Galaxy still needs saving, and the people to do this must be given lease to build on the old legacy.
I for one, am willing to do that.
Seriously. I have no beef with anything that has been done to the old characters, or how the uniforms and costumes have been changed, or the spaceships redesigned, or any such thing. The Churn needs fodder, just like the spice must flow.
But what I do ask you give this old geezer in trade is an acknowledgement: that you can understand how it might be a little hard to believe that Star Wars will ever be bold, new, reimagined, or turbocharged by a new creative auteur/team of auteurs with ideas so radical that they will make me see the universe in a new way.
Star Wars has always been rife with new beginnings, new directions, and new ideas… but it really has never been all that good with endings. The laws of business pretty much dictate that Star Wars must never have a conclusive ending.
As long as we pay good money for those tickets, and the novels, and the comic books, and the spinoff animated series, and the streaming service that carries the spinoff animated series, The Churn will churn will churn will churn.
You’re probably thinking that I’m being melodramatic. I mean, hey, the end of Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi felt pretty conclusive and emotionally gratifying. And it was. Hell, it even featured a curtain call…
Until a few years later, when Uncle George stuck us with the prequels. And then a few years after that, when Disney bought the franchise and the First Order arose from the Dark Side with a great deal of the Empire’s livery and haberdashery intact.
* * * * *
That livery and haberdashery – Jedi robes, Stormtrooper armor, Darth Vader’s samurai-inspired helmet – are part of a set of icons so powerful that it has sustained the touch of many, many artists – simultaneously delivering a message of hope while constantly mustering challenge after challenge to that hope, all in the name of The Churn. Whatever else anyone has to say about Star Wars, I don’t know a single artist who doesn’t wish – usually with a great and envious fury – to invent something as simple yet universally evocative – and provocative of heroic dreams – as a light saber.
We go to Star Wars because its symbols trigger powerful, primal, and archetypal emotions that often transcend the need for such things as good dialogue, cohesive plotting, and characters who are consistent in their raisons d’être.
It all comes down to this: Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi may boldly – but mostly loudly – declaim its intent to “let the past die”… but the past ain’t going anywhere.
In this case, the legend of Odysseus has been the myth of Sisyphus for a very long time, and what so many of us now realize is that the Dark Side will never fall. The Empire – and all of its ilk – will never be conclusively defeated. There will always be a planet-killing super weapon lurking behind some heretofore uncharted nebula.
Star Wars is no longer heroic aspirational fiction. Star Wars is now pretty much exactly like life. A thing that just keeps happening to people.
And because The Churn is an endless river, some will step into it for the first time and absolutely feel that they are seeing something bold and new. I envy them, as I envy those for whom that endless river is an infinite source of satisfaction.
There’s nothing wrong with continuing to love something that just keeps going. Icons are important, symbols are important, the idea of hope is important. The great thing about Star Wars is that for most viewers will be done with it long before it is done with them – and for those who choose to leave, it will just keep going in their absence, lying in wait for the moment when the heart grows fonder.
For some of us who live Star Wars – and have loved it since the beginning – the consumption of these narratives is much like going to a once surprising, and now frequently remodeled, restaurant where we can always get a table and have tasted everything in the menu. It would take a very serious screwing of the pooch on behalf of the constantly-changing management for the meal to be truly awful, and on those occasions when the food isn’t up to par, the discussion of the whys and hows of that failure with our fellow regulars are every bit as entertaining as the product itself.
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So I have no opinion about Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.
Is it good? Sure. Is it bad? Sure. Is it Star Wars? Sure. It says so on the package, and a lot of far less deserving material has carried the same label and been accepted as such, so why not this one too?
Was there ever any doubt that I was going to show up on opening night and be ready to engage my fellow geeks in heated discussion of its particulars?
And so it will be until the day comes when some young artist pulls off a feat worthy of the son of a stationery store owner from Modesto, California and creates (with the help of great collaborators, nascent technology, and a popular culture ready for a sea change in the types of subject matter it considers worthy of mass appeal) a story so chock full of transcendent iconography that it eclipses everything else in the media imagination with the bright and shining appearance of that most hallowed of commodities – newness.
Then perhaps Star Wars will do that thing it keeps promising to do. That thing it cannot do while fortunes are being made and people are willing to accept the notion that each subsequent iteration is something previously unseen.
That thing that will truly – and conclusively – earn it a place in the ranks of the greatest stories ever told…
It will end.
Though best known as one of the Emmy Award-winning producers of Lost, Javier Grillo-Marxuach is a prolific creator of TV, movies, comic books, and transmedia content who most recently co-executive produced the upcoming Netflix revival of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. He can be found on twitter at @OKBJGM and the web at www.OKBJGM.com.
Javier fully acknowledges that he makes a living off The Churn and makes no excuses for himself.
This essay is ©2017 Javier Grillo-Marxuach and is reprinted with permission of the author.