Star Wars: A Sequel Trilogy Retrospective – Was it worth the hype?

Posted on 8 April 2020
By Andrew Siddall
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With The Mandalorian now available worldwide on Disney+, the next era of Star Wars storytelling has begun. In this article we take a look back at the movies that began this latest era, and try to decide whether they really were worth the hype.

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4 billion, they announced that a brand new trilogy was on the way. This new set of movies would focus on the characters from the original trilogy, but catch up with them 30 years on.

On top of this, the new trilogy would introduce the world to a set of brand new characters that would drive the story. This was marked by a very public campaign to gets fans involved and let them audition for two undisclosed roles. These roles were ultimately filled by then-unknowns Daisy Ridley and John Boyega.

Disney decided to keep everything else under wraps, which seemed to be an impossible task, but somehow the secrets were kept silent.

This even carried over into the marketing of the film, with teaser trailers and full length theatrical trailers for Episode VII skimming over plot details and focusing more on mystery.

This worked to the movie’s advantage, with fans across the globe getting more and more excited about the upcoming film. Many of whom posted their reactions on social media and YouTube, including the film’s stars.

But with this excitement, the hype started rising to a point where it seemed likely that this film would never reach that level of satisfaction. This is something that has hindered many projects in the past by building up and praising something extremely high, making it almost impossible for newcomers to understand why something was so great, instead of just finding out for themselves.

Finally, in December 2015, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens was released worldwide.

Directed by Star Wars fanatic, and Star Trek alumni, J.J. Abrams, The Force Awakens followed scavenger Rey as she joins forces with a droid called BB-8 and a defected Stormtrooper called Finn. Together, they attempt to escape and defeat a new terrorist group called the First Order, led by the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

Along their journey they travel to new places within the Star Wars universe and meet legendary characters, including Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). All of whom have grown and continued their lives after the fall of the Empire.

The movie garnered praise from both critics and fans, with some stating this was a return to form, with a fast paced plot that brought the spirit of Star Wars back to the big screen, with compelling characters and spectacular action. However, not everyone felt the same way.

Just like any other film, The Force Awakens attracted criticism of all shapes and sizes. The majority of this criticism focused on its similarities to A New Hope, as well as the shear amount of nostalgic moments which sometimes felt out of place or forced.

And while this is genuinely fair criticism to have, there is something that many fans missed: franchise formula. YouTube critic Chris Stuckmann summed it up perfectly in his video on the Star Wars formula, which showed the parallels between, not only the sequel, but the prequels too.

Star Wars creator, George Lucas himself, stated that the prequels were like poetry. They rhyme. “You see the echo of where it’s all going to go.” – George Lucas.

In his video, Stuckmann discussed the formulas of many movie franchises, including James Bond and Indiana Jones. He even discusses what happens when writers stray too far away from an established formula, such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the damage of fan speculation.

Despite all of this, The Force Awakens was a huge hit among cinemagoers and made over $2 billion at the box office. The story was left wide open for the sequel, two years later.

December 2017 saw the release of the next chapter in the saga, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

Directed by Rian Johnson (Looper, Knives Out), The Last Jedi followed Rey as she begins to train with an isolated and grizzled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), while across the galaxy, the remainder of the Resistance, led by Leia, attempt to flee the pursuing First Order.

The movie did its job well, by subverting expectations, expanding on Star Wars lore in new and unexpected ways, as well as taking the story in a new direction. The movie received heaps of praise from fans and critics alike, but, again, not everyone agreed.

To say The Last Jedi was controversial is an understatement, with the fan base being torn into different fragments. Some loved the movie and praised the bold story direction, whereas others hated the subversion, character development and political narratives. Even the editors of Episode XI have recently voiced their concerns, stating the movie “undid the storytelling of the first film”.

But one thing that fans could all agree on was the jaw-dropping visuals. The movie was stunning and debatably the most beautiful looking Star Wars film to date.

Upon further viewing, it does seem apparent the film was more focused on subverting almost all expectations, rather than attempting to meet them. This was done by either dropping plot threads all together or casually skimming over them, such as the mystery of Rey’s parents.

The film also makes some strange decisions with its characters. The direction of both Luke and Rey are at the forefront of this, with Luke acting very out of character multiple times, and Rey becoming incredibly powerful and highly skilled with no proper training, nor having to face her lowest point.

The low point for the main characters in both the original and prequel trilogy, Luke and Anakin Skywalker, were a result of them not being ready or being overconfident, and in doing so lose a limb to the villain.

Having this low point of failure helps the audience connect with characters and makes us yearn for them to develop, grow, and eventually defeat their enemy. Rey, despite getting a pretty decent setup in The Force Awakens, doesn’t have a moment like this, making it harder for us to root for her and takes some tension away from the final confrontation in Episode IX.

Again, despite the mixed response, The Last Jedi did spectacularly at the box office with a total of $1.3 billion. But the mixed response didn’t go unnoticed. This led to producer Kathleen Kennedy bringing J.J. Abrams back to the director’s chair, after Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) left.

In December 2019, the trilogy came to a close in Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.

The end of the ‘Skywalker Saga’ saw the surprise return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the return of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), and the conclusion to the Rey/Kylo story. Plus a genuinely touching send-off for Carrie Fisher.

This movie had to do a lot. And while this was a return to the look and tone of classic Star Wars, it felt strange. The Rise of Skywalker seemed more like a sequel to The Force Awakens than The Last Jedi.

This was all felt through a number of changes that undid a lot of what Episode VIII did, including the off-screen fixing of Luke’s lightsabre, Kylo repairing his mask, and Rey finding her parents to be very important players in the Star Wars universe, and not just “nobodies”.

The return of the Emperor also felt forced in an attempt to replace Snoke. Whether this was always the plan is very unclear with no setup or hints until this point. And this was where fans started to realise something.

There was no official plan.

The idea was to let each filmmaker have creative freedom to make any story they wanted, and then pass the baton over to the next filmmaker who would then do the same. This was visually symbolised in the final shot of The Force Awakens with Rey handing the lightsabre over to Luke.

This isn’t a bad idea, as it allows a number of voices to have their say and add something new to the story. But going into a new trilogy of stories with no clue of where things are heading is very unwise. This is something the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe perfected with their mapped out three-phase structure.

The Sequel Trilogy also seemed very reactive to the fan base, which can be both good and bad. It meant they were more in touch with fans than many franchises are, but this did hinder a lot of developments and forced a lot of changes along the way, similar to the DC Extended Universe.

Initially when Disney acquired Lucasfilm, they also purchased outlines for three new movies, written by none other than George Lucas himself.

In his memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime, former CEO of Disney, Bob Iger, explains what happened. Originally, they decided they needed the outlines, but made it clear that they would not be under contractual obligation to adhere to the plot laid out by Lucas.

He goes on to say that Lucas became upset and felt betrayed when it dawned on him that the stories he submitted weren’t being used. This was during a meeting with head of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, as well as J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt.

During a private screening of The Force Awakens, George Lucas reportedly didn’t hide his disappointment by saying there was “nothing new”, which echoes what some viewers felt at the time too.

Very few reports have come out to say what Lucas had planned, but none can say whether the story would have been better or worse that what we actually got.

Looking back on the new trilogy there are many good and bad aspects to take away. On the one hand, we got a fantastic character and villain with Kylo Ren, plus the welcome return of the original heroes. But on the other, we got a jumbled story that seemed unsure of itself, and relied a little too heavily on novels and comics to fill in the blanks and answer simple questions.

So was this new trilogy genuinely worth the hype?

To an extent, yes, but at the same time, no.

These are films like any other and have their ups and downs. The biggest difference is the level of expectation that these movies carried, and when events diverged from what fans wanted, they were either left disappointed or thrilled at the prospect.

It was amazing getting to see Star Wars exploding back into cinemas again and captivate the movie going audience once more with a new story. They may not have lived up to those high expectations, but getting to experience the excitement of new movies and the return of the original characters was unlike anything in recent memory.

The sequel era has proved divisive, but there is still a lot to look forward to, with The Mandalorian seemingly uniting the fan base once more, and the final season of The Clone Wars. Both have helped in getting people invested in the future of the franchise, which includes more spin-offs for characters like Obi Wan and many more.

Star Wars is a huge part of cinematic history. It’s back, and will carry on long into the foreseeable future.