Is “Star Wars” lost to the dark side?


Photo credit: Ren Rader

Illustration by Ren Rader, guest contributor

I can’t remember the first time I watched a “Star Wars” movie, but I can distinctly recall my favorite memory watching one. I was with my extended family: my grandparents, parents, sister, aunt, uncle and cousins. I had already seen “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” but was lobbying for everyone to go and watch it. I won them over, and we went to the theater to watch the start of the newest “Star Wars” trilogy.

After the film was over, its climactic ending still hanging over everyone, we all piled into two cars to head back to my grandparents’ house. I went with my grandfather, a stoic man with a wry sense of humor. I asked him what he thought of the movie, and he proceeded to tell me the story of when he first saw “Star Wars,” back in 1977, and how he had loved it so much that he made the whole family (my grandmother, aunt and mother) go so they could see this amazing movie. He went on to say how much he loved the first time he saw “Star Wars” because it made him think of how much he loved the idea of space. It was rather wonderful to see how happy he was talking about it.

My grandfather and I continued to discuss the nuances of “The Force Awakens,” from its choice to have a stormtrooper rebel against their programming and fight for hope instead of control, to having a scrap collector from a forgotten desert planet become the new champion of the light.

In particular, he loved how the film balanced its source material and made safe choices, while also laying the foundations for a sequel that could make bolder artistic and narrative decisions.

Why I love this memory of “Star Wars,” and why it’s my favorite is that I think it makes me compare what “Star Wars” once was and what it is now.

My grandfather and I, nearly 60 years apart in age with vastly different interests and views, find ourselves united in our common love of that 43-year-old franchise — one with space wizards, green lizard monks, alien jazz bands and galactic soldiers incapable of shooting in a straight line. But we both love it and can put aside our differences and dive into the lore and structure of each film.

“Star Wars” occupies a unique space in the history of science fiction, being one of its most profitable products. It took the small sub-genre that was space operas, first started by the “Flash Gordon” comics of the early 1960s, and turned it into one of the most popular and profitable genres ever.

The “Star Wars” franchise has made over $37 billion U.S. dollars over its 43 years of existence. That includes all of its films, toy sales, TV shows and licensing rights.

And there is no sign of this money juggernaut stopping. Disney is announcing new TV shows in the “Star Wars” universe in conjunction with the new Disney+ streaming service, and there are set plans to make another trilogy that will be begin with its first film on Dec. 16, 2022.

For me, the past four “Star Wars” films still have that trademark charm, magic and awe, yet it is undoubtedly waning, changing in the face of its new place in the global market.

The 2014 purchase of the franchise by Disney for $4 billion has had its positive results yet also yields to genuine worry from some members of its worldwide fanbase. The last film in the newest trilogy, “The Last Jedi,” was met with a broad mix of acclaim and absolute hatred.

I loved it, but I am in the minority when it comes to my friends and family. I have had more heated arguments over the character choice of Rey and Kylo Ren than I’ve had over the current Democratic nominees for president (although, that might be my fault for not engaging enough in a more important subject).

Nonetheless, the divide in the fandom comes at a very pivotal moment in the history of “Star Wars.” Its latest film, “Solo: A Star Wars story,” was not as big of a hit as its three cousins. It didn’t even break $400 million globally.

To put that in perspective, controversy swirled around “The Last Jedi,” and it still made over a billion worldwide, and “Hobbs and Shaw,” the latest release in the “Fast and Furious” franchise, has already nearly $800 million worldwide.

In my opinion, as a boy who has loved “Star Wars” all his life, it seems the franchise I adore is at a crossroads.

Disney and the money behemoth it is needs the next film to be a hit — and to be a hit with all the demographics that made its other blockbusters global hits. But will they do that at the expense of the series older fans or will they balance it all? Is the soul of what makes “Star Wars” “Star Wars” under siege by the grips of global film markets?

I don’t know if the situation is that dire, but there is undoubtedly a disturbance in the force. But there is hope. J.J. Abrams, director of “The Force Awakens,” is at the helm for “The Rise of Skywalker,” and the latest trailer was close to perfect. Let’s just hope the movie can be the same.