We are all now firmly living in the futuristic world of 2020. As we wave goodbye to the second decade of the 21st century, it’s worth marking 2019 in the history books. Because it may just go down as the year in which television pounded the final nail in the coffin of cinema.
For decades television was viewed as the cheap and tawdry little sister to the golden goddess that was Hollywood film. But the tide began to turn around the time HBO premiered “The Sopranos” (1999) and “The Wire” (2002). Since those universally acclaimed series, television has lured countless A-list writers, directors, producers and actors away from the movie industry with expensive, epic, “event” television (“Mad Men,” “Deadwood,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “The Walking Dead,” “Big Little Lies,” “The Crown” to name but a few). Mainstream movie theaters, meanwhile, have struggled to retain audiences lured away by appointment TV and fancier home entertainment systems. In the last 10 years, movie studios have become increasingly desperate, throwing budgets into overdrive and banking on an endless string of overhyped sequels, prequels and reboots. To put it simply, they’re trying too hard. Nowhere is this conflict more vividly illustrated than in the ongoing Star Wars saga.
When the Disney corporation purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, it was assumed that the ever-expanding movie giant would exploit the hell out of George Lucas’ sci-fi legacy. New movies, toys, video games, theme parks and perhaps even TV shows were all on the table. But the franchise’s cinematic legacy has waned somewhat since Disney started pumping out sequels and prequels. Some lay the blame on Disney’s overly ambitious calendar of releases. By the time Solo: A Star Wars Story hit theaters in 2018, audiences seemed to be experiencing a certain amount of fatigue with the media franchise. But with the late 2019 release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (the IXth film in the series) to theaters and “The Mandalorian” (the first-ever live-action Star Wars TV series) to Disney+, fans are experiencing something closer to divided loyalty. Could the future of Star Wars actually lie in the small screen?
Weirdly—given the amount of corporate oversight in today’s world—the most recent Star Wars theatrical trilogy (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker) appears to have been written “exquisite corpse”-style with new teams on each film and barely a thought to the overarching storyline. (Though, to be perfectly honest, that was the case with the original trilogy as well.) Writer-director J.J. Abrams’ conventional take on 2015’s The Force Awakens offered a decent amount of promise, putting the series back in familiar, high-flying space opera territory—even if the story underneath it all ended up feeling like a beat-for-beat rehash of A New Hope. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s controversial 2017 outing, The Last Jedi ,offered some intriguing twists on the now familiar formula—including a villain who came up with the novel idea of rejecting weary good/evil, rebel/empire tropes and a heroine who seemed to dispute the silly concept that the “energy field created by all living things” that surrounds us, penetrates us and binds us together can only be wielded by a couple of magical bloodlines.
With The Rise of Skywalker, J.J. Abrams returns to more or less undo all the narrative innovation Johnson’s outing contributes. This is not an outright condemnation of the film. As a Star Wars film, it’s perfectly watchable and occasionally fairly exciting. Its greatest sin is that it feels incredibly rushed, moving from breathless action sequence to breathless action sequence to breathless action sequence to … Well, you get the idea. Every shot feels at least a few seconds too short. Every joke is a few beats too quick on the punchline. There’s scarcely any breathing room to stop and absorb it all. To be fair, writer-director J.J. Abrams has a lot of ground to cover here—wrapping up at least 20 storylines while adding some 20 new ones. As a result, a lot of people end up getting the short end of the light saber. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico is all but sidelined, uttering fewer lines than Dominic Monaghan (Abrams’ old pal from “Lost”), who pops his head in every few scenes for some damn fool reason. Even more painful is watching Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa. Hampered by the actresses’ untimely death, her “performance” consists of a digital simulacrum standing around and glaring silently at various people trying to converse with her. Occasionally, she utters a non sequitur culled from previous dialogue recording sessions.
Ultimately—with all the battles fought, the villains dispatched and the heroes triumphant—Rise of Skywalker somehow managed to wrap up 40-plus years’ worth of storytelling in a package just tidy enough to bring some small level of satisfaction to even a crusty, old-school Star Wars fan such as myself. It’s not the best Star Wars film, and it damn sure ain’t the worst.
Over the years I’ve walked into Star Wars films with everything from naive anticipation (A New Hope) to fanatical devotion (The Empire Strikes Back) to nostalgic (soon-to-be-crushed) expectation (The Phantom Menace) to outright animosity (Revenge of the Sith). The Rise of Skywalker represents the first time I’ve gone to a theater with no sense of emotion whatsoever. And that lack of enthusiasm tells me that maybe it is time to put this media franchise back in the closet for a few decades.
… But then I’m faced with “The Mandalorian” over on Disney’s newly minted subscription streaming service Disney+. It’s a simple, episodic, family-oriented series, seemingly unhampered by the expectation of carrying the entire Star Wars franchise on its Beskar-armored shoulders. As a result, it’s just pure, blissful fun—the closest in spirit to the Saturday afternoon matinee entertainment George Lucas had in mind when he conceived of the original Star Wars. Perhaps, then, it’s not time to retire Star Wars as a storytelling property. Maybe it’s just time for Disney (and a whole lot of Hollywood) to abandon the entire concept of big-budget, make-or-break movie theater blockbusters and concentrate on sharper, more individualistic and far better paced TV series.