At the heart of Star Wars is a quest for peace: peace within the self as well as a quest for good. Its daring worldbuilding to tell human stories about spirituality and morality not only created a critically acclaimed film series but created characters in whom viewers could see themselves. Currently, however, there is a distinct sense that Star Wars is not fully at peace with itself. This disharmony of the new movies is evident not only in the inner-workings of the franchise but also in the stories themselves which seem to struggle between reliance upon the secure past and extension into the unpromising future.
Since purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney has rapidly released four new Star Wars films: "The Force Awakens," "Rogue One," "The Last Jedi," and "Solo." As of now, these movies could be put in two categories: those planted in the past, crafting stories that exist within an already-laid groundwork, and those attempting to find viable futures outside the shadow of the forty-one-year legacy. Disney purchased the sprawling franchise for $4 billion only seven years after the release of "Revenge of the Sith," the last of three prequel movies filled with empty dialogue, rigid heroes, chafing rules, and mindless duels that glamorized weapons intended to be used only in emergencies. In inheriting something which had just been tampered with unsuccessfully, Disney executives seemed to have detected one thing above all—people are fiercely protective of that which initially won their hearts.
What we see in "The Force Awakens" and "Rogue One" are attempts to recreate the Star Wars that was under siege. Creators made the safe decision to plunge into the past of a veritable masterwork: fans were assured that practical effects and careful casting would paint a portrait of the original trilogy. "The Force Awakens" clearly mirrors "A New Hope," reloading the story so that it may repeat itself with a refreshed cast of characters. It introduces new characters and one or two new questions, but it largely falls back upon what has been proven, including John Williams' essential musical presence. "Rogue One" similarly serves as an ode to the classic films. Taking place right before "A New Hope," the attire, palette, speech, technology, and environments are evocative of the everything fans first fell in love with, and Michael Giacchino's musical choices mirror those of Williams; the plot even unexpectedly becomes an encomium to "A New Hope" by sacrificing its characters for the sake of the rebel alliance.
The parallels drawn by both movies are poignant and fascinating; The Force Awakens suggests a reassuring circularity within the Star Wars universe, while Rogue One portrays the galaxy as we first met it and clarifies how it exists because of the sacrifices of a few. But we also see amidst the striking beauty of the familiar what could be dismissed as safe choices; in the depths of the scripts lie the same stories cloaked in another skin. In making these movies it is possible that Disney has proven to be a master not of ingenuity but of mimicry and profitable continuity.
On the opposing end we have the two most recent films, "The Last Jedi" and "Solo," one of which has some storylines so foreign to the feel of the original trilogy that a campaign has been launched to completely remake the film, and the other of which has underperformed in the box office. Almost eight months after its release, "The Last Jedi" is still receiving criticism because it took the trusted parallels by which J.J. Abrams suspended the new trilogy and cut it free of the past, injecting the plot with shocking new themes such as struggling against a sense of worthlessness and questioning tradition.
"The Last Jedi" tries to find a new path for the trilogy by freeing it of the path that seemed to be laid out for it, but in doing so frustrated millions of fans and probably baffled creators and producers. "Solo" likewise aims for something different tonally; it is a simple romp with none of the spiritual and emotional heft of the other films. The palette is brighter and sharper and the score by "How to Train Your Dragon's" John Powell warmer and more irreverent. The end result is an adrenaline-fueled, irrepressible portrait of a quasi-Han Solo's borderline directionless misadventures.
These two do not follow in the footsteps of their cinematic siblings, but they have received the harshest criticism. Does this uneasy extension mean that Disney is unable to venture further into this universe? Are the creators they hire able only to recreate and not create?
As of now the trajectory of the Star Wars films is entirely uncertain. The question remains as to how Disney will respond to the critical and monetary chastisement which seems only to increase with each entry. Creators are clearly struggling to carve out a narrative future with the weight of the past upon their shoulders. But, as George Lucas has made so clear, he always strived to make in Star Wars something that wasn't there before. It is a radical, outrageous landscape for a father and son or a smug outlaw and fully armed princess to find each other… but executives should note that audacity and creation are in the very fibers of stories that need to be told.