Amongst Dickens’s many perfectly named characters, Thomas Gradgrind may be one of the most horrifying. Gradgrind, a villain in the novel Hard Times, is the quintessential modern education reformer, a utilitarian teacher whose sole concern is facts and figures. And in his world, “facts” are purely material. For Gradgrind, the educated mind is the mind that cuts through emotion and subjective opinion to the “objective” heart of things.
C. S. Lewis’s Uncle Andrew, the antagonist in The Magician’s Nephew, has similarly Gradgrindian qualities. When he witnesses the creation of Narnia, his response is not wonder or reflection, but consideration of Narnia’s “immense” commercial possibilities. For both Gradgrind and Uncle Andrew, the “real” is a narrow, contrived section of reality that leaves out much of what makes life beautiful. Never mind poetry, beauty, and emotion. Never mind delight.
I thought of these characters and their minds of metal and gears as I watched J. J. Abrams’s final act in “the Skywalker saga,” The Rise of Skywalker. This is the latest Star Wars film produced by Disney. And if you want to understand why it fails, you need to understand how Gradgrindian Disney has become.
Today’s Disney, led by CEO Bob Iger, is in many ways the realization of the vision of Gradgrind or Uncle Andrew. Obviously there has always been a commercial aspect to Disney—it is a business, after all. But in past eras Disney’s money-making process arguably began with asking, “How can we tell a good story?” And from that came many animated triumphs, as well as charming live-action tales like Mary Poppins. Disney made an enormous amount of money, but there was still some creative integrity about the work. There were tragedies (think of Mufasa dying in The Lion King) and real character development (think about the change in Mr. Banks in the aforementioned Poppins). There were also real stakes in the characters’ choices.
The recent iteration of Disney has set these things aside, focusing only on the “real” work of film studios: Making money. And so their movies have come to be less a medium for telling a story and more a device for mechanically appeasing the desires of the audience. This is why the elements of good storytelling are marginal in a number of Disney’s recent movies—and why they are almost entirely absent from Rise of Skywalker. Disney looks at the immense possibility of the Star Wars universe and, like Uncle Andrew, seems to see only its immense commercial potential.
Every sacrifice in Skywalker is chimerical. The droid C3PO appears to make a great sacrifice early in the film (a moment teased in one of the trailers). But the sacrifice is reversed moments later. A pivotal character unexpectedly dies, only to be resurrected and experience an inexplicable change of heart. Every seeming cost for one of the characters is undone moments later—interesting storytelling is sacrificed in order to appease fans, warm hearts, and produce revenue.
Character development is also lacking. The Rey we meet in Rise of Skywalker is basically a powered-up version of the Rey we met in The Force Awakens: a kind heart and generous spirit possessing immense power who lives with an almost palpable fear of the darkness she senses within her. But we’re not supposed to care about the absence of character development in Rise of Skywalker. Disney thinks that what we’re paying for is the experience of the Star Wars brand—and that all that's necessary to create this brand experience is a few automated nostalgia triggers, a shot of the Millennium Falcon, the hum of a lightsaber, a lingering shot of a desert planet, and so on.
The movie has moments of great potential. A pivotal lightsaber fight between Rey and Kylo Ren is reminiscent of the fight between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Even some of the moves used mirror those of Skywalker and Kenobi—this battle should have echoed theirs while also including a surprising twist of some kind. Star Wars has always featured this kind of intertextual referencing, of course. At their best, the movies make references but with slight alterations to surprise the viewers and shift the meaning. What made the throne room scene work in The Last Jedi, for example, is that it echoed a similar scene in Return of the Jedi but went in a wildly different direction.
Abrams never takes these kinds of risks. He makes no attempt to play with past scenes in these ways; in the two Disney trilogy films he directed—The Force Awakens and Rise of Skywalker—he simply repeats past scenes or rhymes them in unimaginative ways. Thus the Death Star becomes Starkiller Base which becomes an armada of star destroyers armed with Death Star-style weapons. Thus the first trilogy concludes with a simultaneous space battle featuring the Millennium Falcon and Wedge Antilles and a separate lightsaber battle—and the Disney trilogy ends with a simultaneous space battle featuring the Millennium Falcon and Wedge Antilles and a separate lightsaber battle. This is storytelling with recycled parts, devoid of imagination or risk-taking.
One friend observed that this is a recurring problem for Abrams. Rather than doing the difficult work of telling a coherent, engaging story, Abrams chooses to cut corners: “He wants characters without dying, promotions without the time it takes to get there, planets destroyed without stakes or emotions, rapport and friendship between characters without putting in the work, connections with the audience and characters via remixing older and better movies.”
This is precisely what makes Abrams a perfect director for Bob Iger’s Disney—for that sort of corner-cutting is just what Disney does now. The company that has produced so many great films is now more like a private equity group than a film studio. And what are private equity groups but tools that extract a narrowly defined range of value out of something by destroying everything else about it? The chief problem isn’t that most of the Disney-era Star Wars projects fail as films, although most do. The problem is that Disney almost certainly knows it and doesn’t care—and given the company’s incentives, it’s hard to blame Disney. It’s Uncle Andrew’s world now. We just live in it.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World. He writes from his hometown of Lincoln, NE.