A Saga Out of Balance

It’s a wrap! After 42 years and nine movies, the generation-spanning Skywalker Saga has come to an end. Is The Rise of Skywalker a fitting finale? To quote Obi-Wan one last time, it all depends on a certain point of view.

In a nutshell, fans of The Last Jedi will loathe it, while haters of Rian Johnson’s fandom splitting Episode 8 will love it.

And therein lies the problem – we were given three different films written and directed by two vastly different filmmakers.

Sadly both The Rise of Skywalker and the sequel trilogy suffer because of it.

Rebel Briefing will probably receive a one-way ticket to the Spice Mines of Kessel for saying this, but the trilogy missed the influence of George Lucas or someone of his stature.

With no creative deity overseeing production, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker are a mishmash of story ideas. It’s clear Disney did not have a game plan for the trilogy.

Blasters to Stun

Before you set your blasters to stun (or worse), the original trilogy (OT) gets a pass.

Yes, you can argue Lucas did not have the OT mapped out from the beginning, but he did have a vision. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were based on stories by him – Luke Skywalker learning to become a Jedi to defeat the Empire and redeem his father.

It doesn’t matter that Empire and Jedi were made by different directors, Lucas, The Maker, was in charge. He was the constant. Because of this, the trilogy felt cohesive.

It’s the same with the prequels.

Like the Emperor, Lucas exercised total control over his universe. In true auteur style, he handled every creative aspect of production.

Again he knew the story he wanted to tell: how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, and how the Empire rose to power.

Love or loathe them, there’s no denying the prequel trilogy had a coherent and cohesive story arc.

The films gave fans new stories that expanded the Star Wars galaxy.

In contrast, the sequel trilogy feels thrown together and not uniquely original.

The Force Awakens borrows heavily from A New Hope, and The Last Jedi is The Empire Strikes Back.

The Rise of Skywalker takes us on a lightspeed journey of story and plot corrections that bring us back to the same place in Return of the Jedi, with our heroes killing Palpatine at the end.

No Jedi Master

With no visionary Jedi Master overseeing production on the sequels, JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson had the freedom to write what they wanted.

As a result, the trilogy never seems to know where it’s going.

Abrams may have had a plan for what came after The Force Awakens, but he surrendered it when he handed the baton to Johnson on The Last Jedi.

Johnson even admits there was no story map given to him beyond the first instalment and that he was allowed to take the story in a new direction. As a consequence, his brave efforts to write and direct a different kind of Star Wars film subverted what Abrams established in The Force Awakens.

For many, he changed the story too dramatically…

Perhaps Abrams (or someone else) should have mapped the trilogy from beginning to end before handing it to other filmmakers.

We know George Lucas had an outline for the new trilogy before he sold it to Disney. It’s intriguing to wonder where he would have taken the story.

Return of the Sith

In The Force Awakens, Abrams treated us to his mystery box of puzzles – who are Rey’s parents, and who is Snoke?

These mysteries were answered by Johnson in The Last Jedi, leaving Abrams nowhere to go in the final film. He was painted into a corner.

As a consequence, and to possibly appease to fan anger, he walked back much of Johnson’s work.

The best example is the question of Rey’s parentage, which was laid to rest in The Last Jedi.

Instead of being a nobody from nowhere, we are told Rey is the granddaughter of the Emperor. This is despite there being no allusion to the presence of Palpatine in the previous films.

Admitting he was hamstrung by the killing of Snoke, Abrams says he had no better choice but to bring Palpatine back.

Why not make Kylo Ren the supreme villain of the trilogy? So much for a coherent plan from the beginning.

This is a shame because, at the end of The Last Jedi, we are told bloodline didn’t matter. It implied that the Force isn’t just the domain of a few notable and noble families, but a power able to manifest itself within anyone, from the lowest stable boy to a lonely desert scavenger.

What’s more, Palpatine’s return reduces the sacrifice Anakin Skywalker made at the end of Return of the Jedi.

After all, the previous two trilogies were about the rise and fall of Anakin.

Most annoying of all, his contribution was reduced to a single (off-screen) ethereal line.

The Safe Zone

For many, The Rise of Skywalker was a welcome relief after the shocks and revelations of Episode 8.

But by returning to the safe zone established in The Force Awakens (coupled with the return of Palpatine), the trilogy takes a step backwards rather than a giant leap forward. It goes back to a place of thematic and emotional safety. There’s a frustrating lack of imagination – The Rise of Skywalker feels like an attempt to correct what went before.

What we are left with is a trilogy that does not connect with the previous two. Because of this, the Skywalker Saga feels out of balance.

Bad Guys Doing Good pt.2

Stormtroopers are a taciturn bunch, but nothing could be further from the truth when talking to Gary Hailes. The Commanding Officer of the 501st UK Garrison takes another break from his day to day duties with the Empire to share a little more of what life is like in a galaxy a little closer to home. Here is part 2 of Rebel Briefing’s official report…

With more than 500 volunteers in the ranks, UKG members are expected to appear at least once a year in their costume to be granted “active member” status. Like other large organisations, it is made up of people from all walks of life. Each has their own reason and motive for pulling on their ‘bucket’ (helmet) and trooping across the UK.

Male, female, scientist to binman, there’s not a profession, gender, class, colour or creed that is not represented in the Legion. For members it is a hobby not a job, and nobody gets paid. The costumes are paid for out of their own pockets and can run into thousands of pounds. A Darth Vader costume can cost up to £3,000, while Gary’s armour was more than £1,000.

A lot of work goes into building every outfit – more than 25 hours for a classic Stormtrooper uniform and much more for other costumes including Vader’s.

It is like a big golf club. Not only do members help each other – a TIE fighter pilot fitted Gary’s back door and is now helping to build another’s kitchen – they also socialise together. The ranks are filled with people living in the north of Scotland down to Land’s End.

They usually meet in their geographic regions, but once or twice a year they get together en masse. Last year they met at Birmingham Comic Con. Star Wars Celebration is also a popular place to meet.

Movie Stars

Star Wars has always had a special relationship with the United Kingdom. Not only was the original trilogy filmed at Elstree Studios, The Phantom Menace was shot at Leavesden and the new trilogy at Pinewood. Lucasfilm has always relied on the skills and talents of the British film industry’s actors, film crews, model makers and technicians to shape our favourite galaxy far, far away.

In 2015 the UK Garrison became part of this tradition when six of its members appeared in The Force Awakens.

Apparently, JJ Abrams is a big fan of the 501st, and because of its close links with Lucasfilm, an idea was floated to have a couple of Garrison people appear as Stormtroopers.

“Mary Franklin, who was senior events lead at Lucasfilm, came to England to spend a day with us at London Comic Con,” says Gary. “She visited our stand and met some people. We didn’t know it at the time, but she was selecting guys to be in the film. I was never intended to appear, so I asked if I could act as liaison. I also drove people to and from the studio. By a quirk of fate I managed to get in front of the cameras as a Stormtrooper. It’s hard to tell which shots I’m in, though.

“It was fantastic, but hard work. We arrived at Pinewood at 5.30am and spent the day working on set. We didn’t leave until gone 9pm. We had tons of stuff to do, mainly Stormtrooper shots. I was impressed with JJ Abrams. He’s a hands-on guy; very friendly and ordinary. I love passion, and I believe that most people in the Legion are very passionate about what we do. JJ is just like that, a very passionate guy.”

Gary describes being on set as incredible. The down side was having to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Disney. The contract was so tight that the budding movie stars were only released after the film came out on Blu-ray.

Doing the Job

Having led the UKG for eight years, the demand on Gary’s time is immense. As Commanding Officer, he is the chief administrator and policy maker for every event that occurs within the Garrison’s borders. There is never a moment when he’s not on his phone updating or sharing Legion information.

For the last two years he has served as Legion Executive Officer of the global 501st – basically the organisation’s second in command. This is in addition to his UKG duties.

“I am lucky that I work freelance, which gives me a lot of flexibility to do my duty. For the UKG, I spend a lot of time ensuring things are done, passing information along and making sure things are up to speed. Today, for example, I was out on a troop at a hospital in Oxford. Now I’m speaking, reluctantly, to you Rebels. Afterwards I will workout before getting back to business. Luckily I have great people who support me including our events team, PR team and Finance Officer, who I’m constantly in touch with. My emails are constant and come in from around the world.”

Because of his position in the 501st, the UKG carries a big voice on the international scene.

“The Garrison is a big club, which is part of a bigger organisation. But we are loud, and we have our reputation for accuracy. We’ve been part of the 501st for 18 years. The Legion is now in its 21st year, so we joined early on. We were one of the first non-American groups to join.”

As Legion executive officer, he is friends with founder Albin Johnson, who he first met at Dragon Con 10 years ago. “We hung out together in the US and have stayed friends ever since. I worked under him when he was running the 501st. Albin’s an interesting, friendly and humble guy. He’s been over to the UK to troop with us several times.”

Duty, Honour, Empire

Gary’s motivations are bound in his duty, honour and service to the Empire. A massive Star Wars fan, his love and passion for the UKG and 501st is huge. He takes his role seriously because, as he says, he has to.

“It doesn’t matter that I’m not paid – people have a right to expect you to do what you say you will do. That’s a commitment. Over the years it just snowballed and evolved to become a massive, massive part of my life. Most importantly, we are normal people doing a normal hobby. We have a lot of fun.

“Some people like to tease, but I reply ‘yeah, I helped raise £50,000 for charity last year, what did you do?’ They then immediately ask how they can get involved. It’s brilliant, because when they do, it proves to me that everybody has a Stormtrooper inside them.”

Then pointing to the door, Gary signals that our time is up. His Stormtroopers hustle our agent towards the exit with the words “Rebel scum” hanging in the air.

Happy to be alive, there is a quick rendezvous with the Tantive IV, which is waiting in a docking bay. Before making the jump to lightspeed the vital intel is beamed to our Bothan friends at Rebel Briefing.

Editor’s note: 

Rebel Briefing would like to thank Ginny Tait for helping to organise our ‘sit down’ with the UKG. Thanks also to Mark Brooks for his contributions. Most of all, thanks to Gary Hailes for agreeing to talk to us. See, it wasn’t a Rebel trap!

You can find more information about the UK Garrison by visiting www.ukgarrison.co.uk

The 501st Legion homepage can be found at www.501st.com

For details about the charities supported by the UKG, visit The Royal British Legion, MediCinema, The Henry Allen Trust, Mitchell’s Miracles, the Oxford Children’s Hospital, and Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Above image – courtesy of the 501st UK Garrison

Follow Rebel Briefing on Facebook @RebelBriefing or Twitter @RBriefing.

A Golden Age for Star Wars fans

Star Wars 1977

Image: starwars.com

Star Wars fans are enjoying a new golden age. During the 70s and 80s Star Wars, like the Force, was everywhere – it surrounded us, penetrated us and bound our galaxy together. Then, after Jedi finished its cinematic run in 1983, nothing… the galaxy fell silent and the franchise entered its first dark age.

Yes, in the early post-Jedi days there were the Ewok movies Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor to tide us over. And yes there were the animated shows Ewoks and Droids. But it wasn’t the same. Star Wars was chugging along on nothing but simple nostalgia.

Despite George Lucas’ insistence that he had no desire to return to the saga after finishing Jedi, Lucasfilm, sensing a disturbance in the Force, soon began brainstorming new ways of resurrecting the fading franchise.

The first major step was to release Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire novel in 1991 as part of the Thrawn Trilogy of books. Set five years after Return of the Jedi, it reached No1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Zahn’s trilogy went on to sell 15 million copies. This climaxed with the release of Shadows of the Empire in 1996. The multimedia event, dubbed ‘a film without a film’, treated fans to a new novel, comic books, soundtrack, trading cards, video game and action figures.

Both projects proved to Lucas that there was still a big appetite for his galaxy far, far away. It also proved there was a new generation of fans hungry for fresh stories and merchandise. These were dutifully delivered via Expanded Universe. The galaxy, though, was about to get much bigger.

Having retitled Star Wars as Episode IV: A New Hope – followed by Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – fan demand for episodes I, II and III became a deafening roar. Now happy to oblige, Lucas once again turned his attention to the universe he abandoned in 1983.

The Second Golden Age

Enter the Star Wars Special Editions, which ushered in, from a certain point of view, the franchise’s second golden age.

Hitting cinemas in 1997 to mark the 20th anniversary of A New Hope, Lucas’ aim was to build on the enduring popularity of Star Wars. He not only wanted to renew the films in the minds of older fans, but connect with a younger generation of followers. The filmmaker also had another motive.

Having begun writing Episode 1 in 1994, Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) required a canvas to test the special-effects needed to bring the prequels to life. The original films were just the ticket. Taking advantage of the breakthroughs in SFX technology, ILM went back to complete the trilogy the way Lucas always intended – he claimed A New Hope fell short of his ideal creative vision because of the compromises made due to time and money. What followed was a full-scale restoration project incorporating new visual effects and an enhanced digital sound mix across the entire original trilogy.

They were a huge success, going straight to number one on their opening weekends, earning $138, $68 and $45 million respectively. By the end of 1997, A New Hope was the eighth highest grossing film of the year. As for attracting new fans; the Special Editions were a triumph as newcomers enjoyed the remixed sound, crisp visuals and improved SFX for the first time.

Not all the changes in the Special Editions were well received. For diehard fans, the digital polish, additions and many controversial changes (‘Han shot first’) sullied the films, inciting considerable criticism of Lucas. What they did do, however, was revive the ailing franchise and serve as an essential springboard for the long-awaited prequels.

With production on the new trilogy in full flow, the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999 ushered in a new, lucrative expansion of the franchise not seen since the release of A New Hope. This latest epoch boasted brand new films, soundtracks, toys, books, comics and animated TV shows. Star Wars was again at the heart of popular culture, inspiring countless magazine articles, blogs, podcasts, fan websites, costuming groups (the 501st Legion), fan-made films (Troops) and films about fans (Fanboys). Whether you loved or hated the prequels, the second golden age was now in full swing.

All was not well in the kingdom of fandom, though. After the hysteria and hype, criticisms of the Lucas scripted and directed prequels quickly began to sour the relationship between the maker and fans. Despite finding a new generation of followers, Lucasfilm could not silence the anger of older, hard-core fans who hated the films, particularly the goofy, kid friendly tone and over reliance on CGI. The relationship between Lucas and fandom, already strained from the changes made in the Special Editions, was coming to an end. ‘Lucas Bashing’ across the internet quickly became the norm as a million voices cried out in pain. It was to signal a harsh finish to the second golden age.

As the end credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith in 2005, the saga was put into cold storage. Once again the Star Wars universe began to contract and Lucas, fed-up with the online abuse, announced that there were to be no more films… ever.

For the best part of a decade fans laboured under the fact that there would be no more silver screen adventures from that galaxy far, far away. Then, out of the blue on the day before Halloween in 2012, came the shock announcement that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4.05bn. The creator, embracing retirement, said it “was time to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of film-makers.”

Enter the House of Mouse

Since the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney a new, third, golden age has dawned. Despite early scepticism and uncertainty, loyal followers of the Force have been treated to two new films, with many more on the way. The first two movies of the Disney era – Episode VII: The Force Awakens and the spin off movie Rogue One – were, for the most part, critical and box office smashes. Both were praised for bringing the saga back to its roots, relying less on CGI and returning to practical and traditional effects. They also brought back a sense of fun and adventure.

The franchise also continues to thrive on TV with the animated show Rebels, while the Expanded Universe, now known as Star Wars Legends, has been retconned. Looking to the horizon, a Han Solo film is in the works (due May 2018) and Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is in cinemas now. J.J. Abrams will also return to round out the sequel trilogy with Episode IX in 2019. And if that’s not enough to keep you busy, there’s a Ben Kenobi movie in development as well as Rian Johnson’s recently announced new film trilogy. Oh, and there’s a live action TV show to come, too. In short, Star Wars has been given a new lease of life under House Mouse. All that is required is to sit back and enjoy this period as the franchise settles into a new golden age.