Stories Still Need to Make Sense: Does Star Wars?
Updated: Jan 16, 2020
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Stories Still Matter: Does Star Wars?
With the recent release of the film The Rise of Skywalker, which concludes the entire nine-episode Star Wars Skywalker Saga and the three-episode sequel trilogy, I am reminded once again just how divisive movies have become. Back when movies first came out, they were simply a novelty; you were lucky to even see one. Then, when theaters became more wide-spread and slightly more affordable, movies became a form of entertainment. Now, with the ubiquitousness of smartphones, the internet, and streaming, movies have become a form of escapism, an alternate reality for some people. Perhaps it is this that makes people so protective of their favorite film or television series or sagas, defending them against any and all who might seek to "belittle" or "slander" their source of obsession.
Of course, throughout the rest of this blog article, I use the work "film" to refer to the entire art form, no matter the format (digital, actual film) or the place (television, cinema, home release).
When I discuss films, then, I do not seek to harm anyone's enjoyment of a particular work of film; I simply try to make sense of it so I can enjoy it myself. A common mantra repeated by those who seek to defend Star Wars is this: "Star Wars doesn't have to make sense; it just has to make money." And I would not argue against the fact that the Star Wars franchise continues to earn sizable returns at the box office and through merchandising. Neither would I argue against the fact that Star Wars (and Disney and Lucasfilm) care about telling compelling, engaging stories. However, there is a small subset of the greater film-watching community that is asking for something more.
I simply ask for mainstream films to have a cohesive storyline, in order to enhance my enjoyment and appreciation of the film.
"Haters" will say that I want Star Wars to fail. On the contrary! I desperately desire for Star Wars to succeed beyond my wildest dreams! That's why I work in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge: I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. I want the films to make sense, so they please audiences at both a superficial, emotional level and a deeper, mental level.
This brings up an important point, though; just because a film has a lack of cohesion or some major plot-holes does not mean that I cannot enjoy it. I believe there are two ways to enjoy a film: the surface-level visual-and-subconscious enjoyment of art, and the deeper mental-and-compelling appreciation of story. Just because a film lacks cohesiveness does not necessarily mean that it cannot be enjoyed. In fact, many of the most compelling stories stories dispose of hard farts entirely and appeal entirely to emotion. In addition, the staying power of a film--its ability to become "a classic"-- seems to have little connection to the film's cohesion, either. However, there are certain people, such as myself, whose brains derive a deeper pleasure from a film by analyzing and understanding the underlying forces at work within the story: the glue that holds the many elements of the film together. This does not make me smarter or dumber than others, nor does it necessarily permit me to obtain more or less enjoyment from any particular film. It is simply a feature of my internal wiring that sets me apart, subtly affecting and influencing my ability to enjoy watching films.
Sometimes, though, this unconscious desire to continue to think through and reason through films long after I have seen them inflicts great mental pain upon me as I struggle to reconcile my desire for order with the nonsense that it often presented on-screen. Does this mean I am OCD or Autistic? Probably not. However, this constant mental activity sometimes prevents me from relaxing at night, forcing me to create alternative realities where the film I just watched ended differently. This "condition" often prevents me from seeing a film more than once, as I shudder at the mere thought of facing the film's inconsistencies again. And here's the thing: individual films, and often entire franchises, are completely capable of avoiding this problem!
Take, for instance, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What was originally just a movie called Iron Man quickly became a global phenomena that encompassed dozens of movies featuring vastly different film styles, directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, and actors. And yet, despite the fragmented nature of this sprawling empire, the stories managed to work together fairly well. Now, of course, the comic books upon which many of the films were based didn't agree entirely with one another, but "Canon" was declared to be the movies, and these, for the most part, managed to fit together rather nicely. In fact, the MCU came up with a clever work-around for plot-holes: they introduced the concept of alternate dimensions, where different choices result in different realities, all playing out simultaneously. Thus, a nearly infinite number of possibilities, all slightly different from each other, are possible within the MCU. This means that anything in one film that seems to be inconsistent with the rest of the franchise could simply be described as being in a different alternate reality. Problem solved! And this is not a "cheesy" and lazy excuse for a plot-hole, either, as some may argue. The alternate dimensions become a major plot point driving forward several films and soon a few Disney+ streaming series, as well. In short, world-building mechanics can defy explanation without bothering me, as long as those mechanics remain consistent.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Star Wars franchise is a complete and utter disaster. Despite being composed of far fewer films, featuring fewer actors, and being directed by only three men, the films do not even agree with one another, let alone the massive amount of extended universe material that was de-canonized, supposedly to help the new filmography make more sense. Some of the films are action-packed and interesting enough on their own to warrant a re-watch and be enjoyed on their own terms, with plot-holes overlooked. But other installments so egregiously ignore the precedent set by the story before that they break continuity, even within themselves!
Permit me to use a non-Star Wars example to demonstrate the principle I am explaining.
In the 2013 3D computer-animated action-adventure feature film Epic, a story is told of a girl whose world collides with the world of nature, a world previously hidden to her. The details of this hidden world are slowly revealed to the viewer, permitting readers to begin making some assumptions about how the world works. For example, the "Leafmen" are shown flying on the backs of hummingbirds, riding them like horses. Similarly, the "Boggins" are shown riding on the backs of crows. Although nothing about this relationship is said at first, a reasonable assumption is that birds are non-sentient in the world of the movie, since they are treated like beasts of burden. This assumption is proved correct, as phrases such as "get your own bird" are used, and birds are never shown to speak. They only seem to understand simple commands, much like a horse. This is a beautiful example of continuity; the world is shown to operate in a certain way, and this "rule" is never broken.
Elsewhere in the film, rules are less clear. Insects, for, example, are shown to have different levels of sentience. A fruitfly is capable of normal conversation, while a mosquito is shown to be of below-average intelligence, and moths seem to be only able to understand commands, but not able to speak for themselves. However, none of this directly contradicts itself, since the insects are all of different species. Within species, there is no contradiction.
Also, the premise that "the smaller you are, the faster time moves for you" is uniformly demonstrated throughout the film, as the mouse and mole seem to move only slightly slower than the woodland creatures (presumably since they are only slightly larger), while the deer (stag?) moves much slower than a Leafman, but still somewhat faster than a human. The dog demonstrates this perfectly, as well. However, MK's father seems to have been able to develop technology that permits the Leafmen to speak with MK in real-time. This should be physically impossible in the film's world, as real-time Skype calls cannot happen at different speeds. The Leafmen would first have to be recorded, then the recording greatly slowed down, much like MK's father slows down the bat recording. Going the other way, MK would have to be recorded, then sped up for the leafmen. So an otherwise consistent plot point becomes a plothole at the last minute. That didn't have to be that way, though. MK's parting would have been so much more meaningful and sad if they knew they would never be able to talk to each other again, or at least not easily. And, speeding up and slowing down recordings (after they have been recorded!) is a perfectly plausible way of communicating.
Now comes the big one: Queen Tara and The Pod. The story takes place on the night of a full moon and a summer solstice, when the Queen must choose an heir by selecting a special "pod," which will bloom at midnight. Although a lot is said about how the pod must be carefully chosen, nothing is said about what would happen if the wrong pod is selected. Although a lot is said about "choosing an heir," nothing is said regarding whether the heir IS the pod, or the pod simply is a tool to help CHOOSE the heir. Some would say the film's ending makes it clear that the pod CHOOSES the heir, but by that time, the queen has died, which means that new circumstances seem to apply. If the queen is dead, it is clear that a new heir must be chosen, because we know that without the queen, nothing new can be grown. By why does the pod bring the queen back as a spirit-ghost-vision? If the queen was still alive, what would be the purpose of the pod? Since the pod did not give birth to the one who is chosen heir to the throne, then the pod seems to be profoundly useless. Of course, the queen seems to have transferred her "essence" to the pod before death, in which case the pod is only useful because she died. Which again begs the question: if the queen had not died, what purpose would the pod have served? We are told that the Queen's gives her power to a pod, and that "it's all very mysterious." This would be a fine explanation, except that the pod is quite literally the point (the "McGuffin") of the entire film. Would the queen have died anyway, in the process of giving her power to the pod? Was the queen destined to die in order for the pod to bloom? And if the pod had bloomed in darkness, would a corrupted version of the queen have chosen one of the Boggins to succeed the Boggins king an heir?
If you are confused by that previous paragraph, I am glad that you agree just how confusing film inconsistencies can be. Now I will admit this is more of a plot hole than a contradiction, as nothing specifically happens to disagree with something that was said earlier. However, omissions can often be just as damaging to the storyline as contradictions, because both reduce the amount by which the viewer is emotionally and mentally invested in the story. The real contradiction here is that the young girl in Epic asks if she can be queen one day, and her mother tells her "that's not how it works." However, that's exactly how it worked! The girl became queen!
Another major plot point in Epic has perhaps the biggest loophole of all. Quite early on, we are told that the forest shows "signs of a hidden struggle raging between the forces of life and decay." This conflict between death/destruction and life/creation, then, sets up the introduction of Queen Tara and King Boggin as opposing forces in the classic battle between good and evil. It appears that there is need for at least some death/destruction to balance the life/creation, and we are told that Queen Tara "has always held in back"/"kept it at bay." This implies that it is impossible to completely get rid of it, as it should be. If there was no death or destruction at all, then the entire forest would be so densely packed with old growth that nothing new would grow at all! However, it seems unlikely that the humans would never have noticed such a large expanse of dead forest as the Boggins call home. Although MK seems to fix this by mentioning that she will return "with bug spray," this only raises more questions, as the destruction of the Boggins would ultimately upset the balance of the delicate ecosystem. In many ways, this mirrors the confusion that Star Wars fans have with the new film, as The Force is the driving force (pardon the pun) of the entire film franchise (besides the Skywalkers, of course). If we can't figure out the boundaries of The Force, then the Force might as well not even exist!
Many individuals write or record movie reviews which are quite vague, or perhaps have a harmful or humorous agenda. However, one YouTube personality, in particular, is well-known for his exhaustive and entertaining break-downs of movies in order to both determine their appeal and dissect their story. In an enlightening video entitled "Soft Magic vs. Hard Magic in Fantasy," Shad explains exactly what I feel regarding films. Movies, and fantasy films in particular, are not required to follow the laws of our world. Giant lasers, flying horses, and a lack of gravity are all fine, with one caveat: once the film sets a precedent for something (essentially creating a rule), that precedent should not be broken without good reason.
In films with "soft magic" systems (and the film doesn't even have to involve sorcery, this is just a term of differentiation), the rules by which the film's characters and world operate are not well understood by the viewer. However, once any rules or patterns are shown, the viewer is entitled to expect the film to continue to use that rule consistently, unless there is a very good reason for those rules to be broken. However, in a "hard magic" system, the rules by which the film's characters and world operates are much better understood, and far easier to extrapolate from. Viewers are better able to draw conclusions, and thus are often far more disappointed, confused, or even angry when these rules are inexplicably changed or outright ignored.
Notice that there is nothing wrong with absurd or fantastical elements in a film; for example, it's totally fine that MK was shrunk down to the size of a Leafman in Epic and then re-enlarged back to the size of a human. After all, it was done the same way both times: by a magic queen. If, however, MK had begun to grow again, without any magic intervention from a queen, a plot-hole would have been created.
Also, I have absolutely no problem with the concept of Hyperspace travel in Star Wars. It's just that The Rise of Skywalker (and to a lesser extent, The Last Jedi) completely upends all previous explanations of how Hyperspace works, and thus ruins the enjoyment of those sequences. After all, if anything is possible with Hyperspace, then there is no tension in scenes involving it, because any problems can be solved with a hand-wave and "the right pilot."
Now at this point, you may have noticed that I have been discussing the importance of story continuity both within and across movies. So far, most of my examples have been negative, with the exception of the MCU (which still has problems, believe me!). Therefore, I believe it is important to give some examples of films and film franchises that actually have GOOD stories and GOOD continuity. One such example is Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. Yes, Star Wars has some of the worst and best examples of continuity! The original Star Wars film managed to get just about everything right: a strong adherence to good storytelling, well-designed world-building, and an interesting premise. Most films these days are missing one of these three things.
Some, like the The Force Awakens, lack an interesting premise to begin with. The films have no reason to exist other than because there is already an existing fan base demanding more films and a company eager to supply them. Others, like Solo: A Star Wars Story, get bogged down in the world-building and explaining, forgetting that the viewer needs (nay, wants) to use their imagination. Finally, some films (like The Rise of Skywalker) don't actually have a solid story. They feel too busy, trying to rush past the fact that they are missing the beginning, middle, or end of their narrative. They feel incomplete.
That's why I believe that the first film in most franchises is the "best", or at least the most re-watchable.
Usually, the first film of a franchise has an interesting premise that hasn't been overused, it adheres to a good story structure, and it manages to stay cohesive, because it doesn't have to explain everything. By concluding the basic storyline while raising more questions than giving answers and only hinting at what lies beyond the film's narrow scope, these films check all the boxes. The film Arthur Christmas, for example, is one of my favorite films. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that it has an intriguing premise, a strong story without too much distraction, and doesn't explain too much. Questions linger after the film, but those simply invite a sequel (or a prequel), rather than leading to actual gaps in movie-logic. Although I doubt Arthur Christmas will ever receive a sequel, I strongly believe that when James Cameron's Avatar sequels are released, they are going to be the best example of continuity and storytelling we have seen in a very, very, long time.
To begin with, James Cameron has proven himself to be an excellent storyteller. Even though only one Avatar film has been released so far (all the way back in 2009!), movie-goers are familiar with his work on Titanic, Alita: Battle Angel, etc. Therefore, I have every reason to believe that the upcoming films (Avatar 2, 3, 4, and 5) will have good stories within themselves, as well as a longer story-arc that bridges across the entire series. James Cameron himself has stated that the entire franchise will have a cohesive story (likely revolving around Jake and Neytiri, the central characters of the first film, as well as the returning villain, Colonel Miles Quaritch). But James Cameron's genius has also ensured that additional story arcs will encompass the first pair of sequels (Avatar 2 & 3) and the second pair of sequels (Avatar 4 & 5). The brilliance of this plan is clear, as James Cameron has said that Avatar 3 will have a satisfying conclusion (without a cliffhanger), permitting movie audiences to feel fulfilled. This will give him time to judge whether there is enough demand for the fourth and fifth films. If the demand is there, filming can begin immediately, as all of the writing has already been completed, and the principal actors have read all four scripts to familiarize themselves with the story-arcs of their characters.
Contrast this with the Star Wars saga, which started with an excellent storyteller at its helm (George Lucas, of course), but then quickly exploded into a veritable galaxy of other writers, directors, and producers, all with very different visions for the franchise and vastly different storytelling abilities. No wonder Star Wars doesn't make any sense! Even more interesting is the fact that James Cameron will be directing all of the Avatar sequels, thus retaining creative control of the entire project and ensuring continuity. In fact, he only began filming Avatar 2 after completing the scripts for all four sequels. That means James was able to eliminate errors of continuity and plot-holes for the entire series, by planning it all out ahead of time.
This is something that the latest Star Wars films have gotten completely wrong. The latest films are mostly reactionary, written piece-meal after the previous installment comes out. That means that the directors have to either embrace the poor story choices of their successors, or ignore them altogether, neither of which is a good option. For example, the films keep adding things that Force-wielders can do, resulting in Rey, who can apparently do anything with very little training. And therefore, Rey's powers are practically useless as a plot device, since there is no consequence for her using the Force in a new way. No long years of training, and no hints that she might be able to do something like that. No limits means no payoff, because viewers can always ask "why didn't it do that before?" To quote Syndrome from The Incredibles, "when everybody's super, no one will be."
Disney's Tangled got it right, though (which is probably why I actually like the movie). We know that Rapunzel's magic hair can heal, because we see it de-aging Mother Gender. Therefore, it is both exciting and reasonable to use it to heal Flynn Rider's hand. We also see that her hair glows each time she does this. This seems to be a mere side effect of her hair's magic, but it becomes useful when they need to see underwater. Now, it would NOT make sense if Rapunzel used a different spell (say, to make her feet glow), because we did not receive any information whatsoever regarding that ability. But if the setting of Tangled was converted to Star Wars, and Rapunzel was replaced by Rey, then she would be able to magically heal Flynn Rider without any use of her hair at all, be able to ride a horse (even with no training), sail a ship (even with no training), telepathically communicate with Flynn (because it was convenient), and teleport objects (but only once), without any previous explanation for those powers or skills whatsoever. So Tangled's story makes sense and focuses on the core characters and their skills. Star Wars throws in new characters all the time, often discarding perfectly good characters, and introduces new abilities and skills to old characters because they seem incapable of writing a story that plays to the strengths of the characters. Instead, Star Wars forces the characters to play to the weaknesses of the story.
I expect the Avatar series to be phenomenal not just in comparison to the recently-announced new trilogy of Star Wars films, but because James Cameron is very detail-oriented. I mean, just look at the research that went into rebuilding a replica of the Titanic for his film, or the fact that he created an entirely new (and usable) language for the Na'vi in Avatar, when he could have just used simplified phrasing or American English. Just look at the incredible website he created for Pandora: World of Avatar at Walt Disney World. Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge doesn't have anything like that! Therefore, I am also confident that James Cameron will make sure all of the background information (the stuff that isn't explicitly told to the viewer, but underpins the entire world-building of the films) will make sense. Things like history, technology, and relationships will be realistic (at least, within the fictional world of Pandora), instead of contradicting, like in the latest Star Wars films. Now, some complained that Avatar spent too much time explaining the details, but I think it's interesting to point out that those details held up under scrutiny. In Star Wars, however, many things are left unexplained. Which is actually just fine, except that the things that are explained are often contradictory. For example, we are shown how hyperspace jumps work, even though we do not completely understand how they work. But then, we see a Hyperspace jump do something we have never seen a hyperspace jump do before. Than requires some explanation. And none is given. *Sigh*
Finally, the Avatar franchise is likely to become a massive hit because its sequels, just like the original, are likely to have an interesting premise. Many sci-fi films deal with the relationship between humans and aliens, and even with the themes of space exploration and corporate excess (Wall-E, for example). However, Avatar was the only one to deal head-on with the idea of wastefulness and conservation by turning the human into an alien. This turned the "us-versus-them" mentality upside down, creating an interesting dilemma that I'm excited for the upcoming films to explore. Plus, James Cameron was not afraid to address difficult or taboo subjects such as drunkenness, drugs, sex, suicide, death, and war. He's not afraid to sacrifice his characters for the sake of telling a captivating and compelling story. Although I don't personally watch films with PG-13 ratings, I respect filmmakers like James Cameron for addressing those issues without glorifying them. That makes for an interesting premise, one which modern audiences want to see, and one that Star Wars lacks: gravity (not literally, of course; I'm talking about the emotion, not the property of mass). The new Star Wars films never make you feel like much is at stake. They're over-dramatic, sure, but you can't take them seriously, because they don't take themselves seriously. How can you, when they violate basics of storytelling? That's something a comedy soap opera does, not an epic space adventure.
In short, I don't ask for movies to be perfect. I simply ask for them to be enjoyable. And in order to maximize the "enjoyability" of a film, all I ask is that it have a well-structured story, a cohesive set of rules about the world in which it exists, and an interesting premise. Ultimately, that's what makes a film entertaining. Is that too much to ask? Apparently not, since I have shown that many films and franchises handle it quite adeptly. But for Star Wars, it can't seem to do any of these things.
I think it's ironic that both Avatar and Star Wars are now owned by Disney (Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, and acquired 20th Century Fox in 2019), and both films have their own highly-immersive lands in Disney theme parks. But that's where the similarity ends. Pandora: World of Avatar is set decades after the events of the first film, featuring exactly none of the characters from the movie. The land focuses on the theme of conservation and its attractions lack any serious kind of storytelling, instead focusing on visuals, appreciation of nature and instilling wonder, which is perfect for Disney's Animal Kingdom and the Florida tropics. Being a rather small land, Pandora has lots of possibilities for expansion, and stands to benefit greatly from the upcoming films.
On the other hand, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge has locked itself into a nasty place (this excellent editorial details exactly the problem I'm describing). It's set during the time period between Episodes VIII and IX, both which are highly controversial films which people "love to hate." Galaxy's Edge features characters that were created only recently (Kylo Ren and Rey are nowhere near as popular as Darth Vader and Princess Leia would be), and recreates a planet that was never featured in the movies, so nobody feels familiar with it. Plus, Pandora accepts that visitors come from planet Earth, while Galaxy's Edge has to pretend Earth doesn't exist. To be honest, I would much rather have seen Disneyland construct an expanded version of the Pandora: World of Avatar, rather than Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. And if wait times are anything to go by, people clearly like Pandora better, too. When wait times get long in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, cast members take guest backstage to use the restroom, which completely breaks good show! However, the same problem in Pandora was recently solved with the thoughtful construction of themed restrooms in the queue for the queue for the popular Flight of Passage attraction.