For over 40 years, Star Wars has ruled the box office. What started off as an insane dream by George Lucas, a young filmmaker from Modesto, California turned into anything but “modest”. Spanning at first through three movies, the first trilogy which begun from the fourth episode, followed by an extensive toy industry with animated series, a bunch of TV movies in the ’80s, finally petered out somewhere in turn of the ’90s. By that time, everyone knew Luke, Leia, Han, and Darth Vader, we knew what a lightsaber would be, how it sounded like and knew exactly what color saber they all had.
The story was kept alive through the ’90s by a bunch of very successful games – both tabletop roleplaying ones and a good selection of PC game titles, such as X-Wing and TIE Fighter, Rebel Assault and Jedi Knight – while, unbeknownst to anyone, Lucas was writing his prequels.
When Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) hit the cinemas in the late ’90s., it was a major cinematic event. Followed by two more Episodes, the much-beloved franchise got its’ first serious fan backlash, too. While the cinema tickets sold like hotcakes, fans were not that in love with new elements, such as the Midi-chlorians, an attempt to explain the force through weird physics, and while some of the new characters were welcomed, like Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), some were loathed: Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) soon became the most hated character of the series, and once Lucas let go of the franchise after Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith (2005), Jar-Jar (along with the Midi-chlorians) disappeared like fart in Sahara.
After Episode III, it took quite a while for Star Wars to come back – ten years, to be exact. Again, during that time the story was kept alive by the toys and gaming industry, but the savior came from a surprising new place: Lego started to produce Star Wars toys, introducing the franchise to a third new generation. The Lego sets were followed by Lego Star Wars -games, which became hugely popular and the first stepping stone to the generation who had missed the first two trilogies. Simultaneously, animated Star Wars series, first Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003-2005) and later Star Wars: Rebels (2014-2018) kept filling in the gaps between the trilogies.
When Lucas finally sold his Star Wars empire to Disney, the third series was inevitable. J.J. Abrams, who had successfully rejuvenated Star Trek back in 2009, was hired to produce the first of the upcoming trilogy. When Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) hit the theatres, it crushed all the previous records and brought the story back to life with full power. Introducing a set of new characters, of which all managed to strike the right chords among the fanbase and the new viewers, Star Wars was again the biggest and the best in the cinema.
Fans did notice, though, that Abrams’ Star Wars was doing a disservice to itself by over-serving the fans: to some, it felt like a best-of of the original trilogy, bringing very little new to the scenario. The same elements were still there – The Empire, only now known as The First Order versus the Rebels, planet-size weapons capable of destroying other planets and the new Emperor/Darth Vader -characters – Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) with his apprentice, the troubled young Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) – ruling over the galaxy. Still, it was clear that the Star Wars universe was welcomed warmly, and yet another generation was able to jump onboard the fun.
The Force Awakens was followed by a spinoff, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, directed by Gareth Edwards), which served as a film to tie one of the open ends of the original trilogy, telling where did the Rebels learn about the weakness in the Death Star. The film was grittier than Star Wars had been before, and after its’ success, a whole universe of Star Wars Stories was planned.
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2018, directed by Rian Johnson), the second part in the latest trilogy, was received with even more fan backlash. While the critics revered it, the fans were less enamored. The film was more ponderous than its’ predecessors, but the problems were more script-related: some of the timelines the film presented didn’t seem to make sense and it didn’t take seriously enough some of the rampant fan theories and some of the setups The Force Awakens had put in place. Still, the film was a big hit in box offices around the world, and people were attuned to wait for the final part of the trilogy.
Before that, though, Star Wars experienced probably the biggest slap in the face of the franchise in decades, when they ventured in the history of the most beloved character of the series, Han Solo. Solo: A Star Wars Story (directed by Ron Howard), which came out in 2018, wasn’t loved by the critics, the fans or the box office. It technically killed the Star Wars Stories -spinoff-series, trashing the plans of a Boba Fett -movie that was rumored to follow. It showed that the fans are willing to watch Star Wars movies, as long as the films take themselves serious enough, don’t tamper with old characters, and give us the adventure we are looking for, the good versus evil -battle in its’ true, pure form. Solo went against the grain, being maybe a bit too self-aware, too cocky and – unfortunately – too general to find a proper place in Star Wars universe.
Meanwhile, the games and toys industry grew bigger and bigger. EA brought Star Wars: Battlefront -franchise back to life and served two greatly loved Star Wars games to the gamers, while selling Lego sets, plushies, helmets… you name it, they had it. They did, though, find out the unfortunate fact of the Star Wars series – the most beloved characters, events, and elements were still the ones from the original trilogy. Nothing the follow-ups had brought up – save maybe Darth Maul (played by Ray Park) – could ever rival Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) or Boba Fett (first played by Jeremy Bulloch) or Jabba The Hutt (voiced by Larry Ward) or Han Solo (Harrison Ford), not to mention Darth Vader (David Prowse and James Earl Jones).
Finally, as the second decade of the 2000s was about to wrap up and the world was about to step in the Cyberpunk era of the 2020s, the last and final episode of the Skywalker saga hit the theatres. Not before The Mandalorian (2019-, created by Jon Favreau), a TV-series set in the Star Wars universe, another spinoff patching up some of the blank holes in the backstory, would premiere at the newly-established Disney+ streaming service.
The Mandalorian brought in rave reviews. Suddenly, the whole Internet was going crazy over a character named Baby Yoda (who, of course, can’t be Yoda since, well, Yoda is dead Jedi ghost these days). One would think that such a great response would pave the way for the grand finale of the film series, but again, the fan backlash was waiting just around the corner.
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019, directed by J.J. Abrams) was received with an extremely divided audience and critical response – the worst one in the series since the days of Lucas. To some, the fast pace J.J. Abrams, who returned to the helm after Rian Johnson’s previous “disaster” (as so many fans put it), was too much. To some, important characters were played in and out quickly, and the plot felt rushed and incoherent. Probably many just didn’t want the Skywalker saga to end, and had already chosen their side: this can not, should not, and will not be the end of it.
Simultaneously, The Mandalorian was continuing the story. It was beloved by the fans, and it had the first new, greatly beloved character in it – the mysterious Yoda-like child, whom we know very little of as of now. In some way, The Mandalorian‘s success could’ve even turned against The Rise of Skywalker. It was the Star Wars the fans wanted, not the film that tried to end it all.
The biggest problem with Star Wars, from the very beginning on, has been the fact that it’s not really built to follow an arc. Each of the trilogies is written independently and even each film within the trilogy is written independently, often directed by different directors, each with a strong need to bring a new angle to the ages-old Star Wars franchise. All this while Disney, the new owner of the franchise, is trying to keep the fans happy and buying the toys, paying the tickets to the films and the theme park rides. But still, for over 40 years, the series has leaned on characters and events devised by George Lucas in the ’70s, and nothing any of the new installments have brought on has stuck as hard as the stories and characters of the original trilogy.
And boy, they have tried. There was Darth Maul and the Pod Race in the second trilogy, loaded with huge galactic plotting schemes and backstabbings, but all of that was too confusing to really fall in love with. Then, there was Kylo Ren and Snoke, both of whom were just too much like Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader to really kick in hard. There was BB-8, the new robot – practically, a new R2-D2, and even bigger battles, none of which were able to outdo what Battle of Hoth did in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980, directed by Irvin Kershner). Now, we have Baby Yoda, while most of the characters of the original series are either dead or ghosts floating around in Jediversum.
The whole Skywalker saga said what it had to say in its’ first three outings, and nothing that was added to it, later on, was really needed to make the already epic story any stronger. Still, I’m really happy Star Wars has always been there, all through my life, in different forms, shapes, and formats. And now, as I watch the excellent The Rise of Skywalker ending the whole saga, I do feel sad and nostalgic. It’s not necessarily an end of an era – Star Wars, if you ask from Disney, is just gettings started – but it’s an end of a set of beloved characters whom I’ve known nearly better than any other characters from any other franchises, save The Lord of the Rings.
Looking back, I think the biggest mistake the series did was that it kept Lucas on for as long as it did in the director’s seat. I think he should’ve been kept as a guardian of the storyline, one through whom all the scripts would pass, one who would give guidance and direction to where the story would go – more like a showrunner – while leaving directing to others. This way, Episodes I-III could have stood the test of time better, and the whole series would feel more together. Also, I don’t think the Star Wars Stories were necessary additions since while I did like Rogue One, Solo did show the fact that Star Wars just isn’t for every director, and not every character needs to have a carefully laid backstory that’s force-fed to the audience; we like to make up the untold histories ourselves.
But all in all, Star Wars – The Skywalker Saga is an important franchise that deserves the acknowledgment in the annals of great sagas of modern times. It’s may not be the Lord of the Rings, but it’s the about the second best thing from that.
There’s a lot of directions the series can go from here, but I do hope they first focus on creating a big story arc and finding a franchise runner who can carry it through a series of upcoming trilogies/TV-shows/whatever it is they have in mind. Maybe it’s worthwhile to consult George Lucas once more since it’s from him where the most valuable assets the series has have sprung from. I’m excitedly waiting for the future, and will definitely be coming back to the 12+ movies and TV-series Skywalker Saga has to offer.
Thank you, George Lucas, J.J. Abrams, and others. You’ve given a lot to us.
Stars? Should I give a star rating to these 40+ years of Star Wars? How could I, even? It’s such a mixed bag… But it is a review, and I like giving stars, so here we go:
In short: A convoluted and mixed franchise, which relies heavily on the original trilogy, but manages to keep us entertained and grow and involve new viewers, generation after generation.
And here’s the film-by-film order:
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977, George Lucas)
The beginning of the most epic adventure we’ll see, possibly ever, Episode V is a stunning work of art and adventure. To think, one film brought us characters like Darth Vader, C3-PO, R2-D2, Luke Skywalker, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca… Again, all in just one film. This was a momentous movie, like The Beatles coming together for the first time, which changed the whole film industry forever.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)
Darker in the tone, and grander in the scale, The Empire Strikes Back nailed Star Wars into history, making it more than a one-hit-wonder, but a franchise to look out for. Introducing special effect techniques never seen before, even more unforgettable characters like Yoda, and continuing the adventures of the original heroes in such ease, the film is what every sequel should be.
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983, Richard Marquand)
Maybe just a bit too childish with the lovely, furry Ewoks, Return of the Jedi manages to bring in even more intriguing characters and making this grand adventure feel not just a story, but mythology, to which one just simply can’t stop falling in love with. The new set pieces – this time, jungle – give it a fresh breath of air, and the ending of the first trilogy is pure magic.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas)
George Lucas couldn’t keep his hands off the Star Wars and returned 15 years later to his creation, only this time, unfortunately, the magic was lost. The film has some amazing set pieces like the Pod Race, and a wealth of new characters, but the script stumbles trying to get us interested in the birth of the Empire and the internal struggles of the Senate. Not only that, but it also ages terribly – the VFX are nowadays sub-par, but they must’ve been that already back then – Terminator 2 had come out in 1992, that’s seven years earlier, and first Lord of the Rings was already in the making.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002, George Lucas)
Casting Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker was a mistake. While probably not a terrible actor, when he jumped onboard Star Wars franchise, he was way overshadowed by everyone else. He could not muster enough interest in the character, which, in its’ inner struggle would’ve needed a much stronger actor (luckily they did choose Adam Driver to play Kylo Ren to patch this up). The story itself introduces interesting concepts, like the Clones, but the film, while managing to rekindle some of the original Star Wars flame, was still too crappy to really have a character of its’ own.
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith (2005, George Lucas)
While definitely the best of the second trilogy, not even the big space battles and the huge set pieces in the arena, or terrific Count Dooku (played by Christopher Lee) can save us from the mopy glances of Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker, or such plot twists like “I have the high ground”. The visuals are better than in two earlier ones, but there’s way too much of everything for the film to look like anything but a mess.
Star Wars: Clone Wars (2008, Dave Filoni)
The Clone Wars is the first animated feature film of the Star Wars series, based on the popular and liked TV series, which maps the time between episodes I and II. The film has a strong, unique visual style and has some very likable characters, but ultimately, it doesn’t feel like it really belongs in the saga instrumentally.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015, J.J. Abrams)
Just like he did with Star Trek, J.J. Abrams managed to walk into Star Wars franchise and blow some fresh air into it, without ruining it. The Force Awakens is a really strong, new start which brings back old legends and introduces new, interesting characters. It looks amazing, sounds amazing and rolls on with a fast but never rushed pace – just like the original trilogy did. The film does succumb to a lot of fan service and finds itself playing the best-of of the original trilogy, but hey, that’s what we came in here for, right?
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards)
Darker than its’ predecessors, and the first of the Story -spinoffs, Rogue One manages to feel like a grittier version of the Star Wars saga, bleaker and more grown-up story which, firstly, doesn’t have a happy ending, and secondly, tells a story that’s not really part of the trilogies. The film goes to tell the backstory of the Death Star and introduces several quite dark set pieces, and while it does feel like it doesn’t belong really anywhere, it’s a great watch and a strong movie all in all.
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson)
The Last Jedi is more ponderous and talky than its predecessors, with beautiful concept artwork sequences, but it’s a script that’s lacking: the story is incoherent, the timeline seems to be off and the film feels too serious in a wrong sense, too. We stay way too long with Luke in a forlorn island, while the Rebels are running away – quite boringly – from the New Order fleet. The story feels like a mashup of the new Battlestar Galactica and some weird Samurai movie of the 80’s. In addition to this, for some reason the visual effects seem more glowy and smooth compared to Abrams’ takes, and while the vistas are beautiful, they do feel like someone drew a beautiful concept art of a sequence which was then attempted to bring to life.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018, Ron Howard)
Solo was doomed to fail from the beginning: nobody can replace Harrison Ford, just like you can’t replace Arnold Schwarzenegger. He created possibly one of the most iconic characters of film history with Han Solo, and while Alden Ehrenreich does his best, he’s nowhere near the same ballpark as Ford is. In addition to this, the story feels like it’s not taking itself seriously enough; the film stumbles on as a gangster movie and a space opera, without being able to decide which one it actually is. Also, the backstory it gives to Solo is a pretty lame one.
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (201, J.J. Abrams)
What a way to end the saga! The film, which was plagued by production problems with directors and writers going in an out of it, delivered a perfect ending for the Skywalkers! J. J. Abrams managed to run the story with such precision, pacing and scale that it felt constantly fresh and new, while never forgetting its’ roots. Daisy Ridley’s Rey grows from a pretty bland character into a proper hero, and Adam Driver’s sheer charisma makes the connection between the two characters feel natural and organic. It’s a huge film and knows its’ duty: to end the 40+ years of film history with dignity.