These should be halcyon days for Star Wars fans, but fandom in the modern world can be poisonous and self-destructive. There has been a Star Wars cinema release every year since 2015, with The Mandalorian and the animated series adding to that, alongside the comics and novels.
Ten years ago I’d have loved picking apart the sequel trilogy, for all its flaws, mistakes and missed opportunities. I have the ammunition in my head – I know the old expanded universe – but I just don’t have the need to fire it off. At the time I enjoyed Episodes 7-9 for what they were. I embraced the wackiness of ROTS and walked away having had a happy enough cinema experience.
But the long lingering sense of it not being quite right, one I’d pushed down so as to not associate myself with the histrionics of the internet, did finally re-emerge over the last few months, as I worked my way through Star Wars: Fallen Order.
I enjoyed the game a lot but I’m not going to dwell on the gameplay here. One of the largest revelations was how it revealed to me what the sequel trilogy really was missing.
Mild spoilers for Fallen Order follow
In Fallen Order, you play as Cal Kestis. A young Padawan when Order 66 was implemented, he has lived a life in hiding, largely disconnected from the force. Until stuff happens, and off you go on a journey of personal and galactic discovery.
The opening takes place on a world where old starships are decommissioned. Skilled engineers have been devalued to the role of slave labour scrappers. Old Republic hulks lay in the distance, Clone War era fighters embedded into them, pilots and stories long lost to time.
It’s a strong opening that sets a distinct mood. Later I visit Kashyyyk and find the Wookie homeworld is in the process of being stripped of its valuable natural resources. Freedom Fighters try to push back the empire. But this isn’t the Rebel Alliance; they aren’t led by morals and justice, but self-sufficiency and anarchism.
This is a world that shows us a rising fascist empire flexing its absolute power – and that feels new, in a way that the gritty WWII style ground battles we briefly saw in Solo did. Although necessary from a gameplay point of view, this is a world where Imperial troops are trained in lightsaber combat; elite forces trained to take down the last of the Jedi. It’s an intriguing but logical in-universe progression.
There’s a great, tiny moment where a monument to Stormtroopers created by a more primitive race is found. In this world, the myth of the Jedi being ‘traitors’ is the one that has survived. The winning history is that the Empire is a liberator from their tyranny. You realise it’s the mainstream view and it feels uncomfortably prescient in 2020. It adds a great sense of depth to the world I am hacking my way through. It feels lived in and thought out.
Contrary to the sequel trilogy, it isn’t overly reliant on nostalgia. The planets of Kashyyyk and Dathomir are not the most direct ways to a passive fandom’s heart. Instead, they serve a purpose as part of a bigger exploration of the Star Wars universe. It makes the endless sabering and exploration (both of which are great) have a meaning.
The question of the prequel trilogy was; how did the Empire form, and how did Anakin become Darth Vader? And what was the world like back then? In that sense, it was successful. Places such as Coruscant, Kamino and Geonosis ring out in my memory. The Jedi council, and Galactic Senate; the story could have been told better, for sure, but I understood what the larger story was. The decline and decimation of democracy, the collapse into an empire and darkness.
In comparison, I struggle to conceive what the point of the Sequel Trilogy was, from the perspective of the narrative. What story was it telling? The late rebranding of the nine films as The Skywalker Saga tried to tackle this, but it doesn’t fully hold.
Surely the big question was; what happened after the Empire fell? What was the universe like? And what happened to the Jedi?
It’s almost arrogance that these themes were skipped. Apparently there is a New Republic but we only see it destroyed, which of course has zero emotional impact. What was it doing, what was its purpose?
Luke attempted to train new Jedi. Cool! This is what we want to see. But we only get a few seconds. What does this add to anything? And what is the wider universe’s feelings on the Jedi 53 years after they were branded traitors?
And the big bad. The First Order exists on the fringes of the galaxy but has amassed a huge army and an insanely powerful weapon. Only to then be surpassed by the Final Order which has amassed an even bigger army and even more insanely powerful weapons. Where’s the balance? And what’s the story here?
I’d have loved to see a different approach, where the New Republic is the large power, trying to rebuild itself and bring worlds on board. But The First Order – more along the lines of a series of extremist terrorist cells – deviously and callously causes frictions in the big plans with it’s brutality and political manoeuvring. That would have been a more effective mirror to both the prequel trilogy and our own world but I guess suicide bomber stormtroopers wouldn’t make good merchandise.
These are all choices and it’s artistically okay to skip the things I believe would be narratively interesting if we get to something better, but I don’t feel we did. It intentionally leaves questions and promises of answers, but they never arrive unless you commit to years of tie-in media. This is the sad and cynical way of the modern entertainment business.
What Fallen Order did was create a curiosity that led me to explore its locations beyond the media – I found out these places and some characters have basis in the more recent animated series and novels. The reverse is true of Eps 7-9. To understand it with any level of depth I have to read other media, but nothing about the source encourages me to, because it feels so flat.
Fallen Order did what the films couldn’t – or didn’t want to – and that was to create an engaging and cohesive story with a set of situations that sat within a larger narrative and universe. It’s not the greatest story of all time, but it stands alone and cares about the universe it lives in. The Order 66 sections are strong and a cameo towards the end is handled well. It’s a strange place to be where I’m more interested – from a narrative point of view – in future videogames and TV series than any future films but if Fallen Order is the template for future endeavours, I’ll take it.