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Op-Ed: STAR WARS Has a Mystery Box Problem
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…  Is there anything in the world so hotly contested as the Star Wars sequel trilogy? Neither politics nor religion seems to bring out the same level of passion and debate as the galaxy far, far away’s most recent entries do. It’s a deeply imperfect saga, but its biggest problem is that it can’t keep its mouth shut.

This inability to stop offering immediate, unnecessary answers to questions that will be answered in due time is perhaps the biggest problem in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and more specifically within The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker.

Now I know this is likely opening a can of brain worms, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about since 2015, so now that some of the dust has settled, The Rise of Skywalker is finally available on digital platforms, and we’re all trapped indoors, it’s the perfect time to get into it. That said, let’s keep it civil in the comments. You’re welcome to disagree, just don’t be a total wiener about it.

The dead speak…of The Rise of Skywalker spoilers!

Much like the prequel trilogy, the sequel trilogy is a concept that sounds great on paper. It’s flawed in its execution though. There is plenty to like in both trilogies and plenty to make you raise a questioning eyebrow too. But there’s one important difference: mystery.

With the prequel trilogy, we know what comes afterward. We know what it is building up to and where it is ultimately going. With the Star Wars sequel trilogy, we had no earthly idea what The Force Awakens held in store and how it would continue to evolve in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. This is fitting considering that The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams is famously associated with a storytelling concept known as “the mystery box.”

First coined in Abrams’ 2007 TED Talk, the “mystery box” is basically the Schrödinger’s cat of storytelling. When the proverbial box is unopened, according to Abrams, “it represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential.” And Abrams uses that mystery as “the catalyst for imagination.”

“Now it’s not the most ground-breaking idea,” Abrams continued. “But when I started to think that maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge, I started getting interested in this.”

Look, it’s easy to crack jokes about shows like Lost, which was basically a Matryoshka doll of mystery boxes with fewer answers than some viewers may have wanted. However, the mystery box itself can be a compelling way to bring audiences further into your story.

Two droids have a bad day aboard the Tantive IV.

Lucasfilm

Abrams even references the original 1977 Star Wars as an example. He refers to R2-D2 and C-3PO meeting this “mysterious woman,” who we now know is Princess Leia, as a mystery box. He goes on to mention Luke’s discovery of Leia’s holographic message and the enigmatic name “Obi-Wan Kenobi” as another example of the mystery box in action. Abrams’ most visible instance of the mystery box in The Force Awakens is Supreme Leader Snoke, the shadowy, craggy-faced puppet master behind the scenes. There are multiple instances in his Star Wars films of blowing the mystery box wide open to reveal a major piece of information.

However, the way in which the movie reveals these key pieces of information undercuts the revelations themselves. If they had not spilled these particular beans, the films would be much stronger for it. The first instance is perhaps the most grievous example:

No, not that Grievous. He’s perfect. I’m talking about the revelation that Kylo Ren is actually…dun dun dun…Ben Solo.

We discover that Kylo Ren, our most visible villain and our new Darth Vader proxy, is actually the son of Han and Leia about halfway through the movie. Han and Leia have two conversations about their boy who was tempted over to the dark side followed immediately by ham-fisted cuts to Kylo Ren, thereby eliminating any shadow of a doubt he is the wayward son to which they were alluding.

When Kylo Ren and Han Solo meet face-to-face for the first time in years on the catwalks of Starkiller Base, they share an emotionally charged moment. Kylo’s rejection of his past identity followed by the cold-blooded murder of his father is absolutely brutal. But it could be so much better.

An unexpected father-son reunion.

Lucasfilm

In his TED Talk, Abrams said, “When people do sequels or rip off movies… they’re ripping off the wrong thing. You’re not supposed to rip off the shark or the monster. You know, if you rip something off — rip off the character. Rip off the stuff that matters.”

Despite its brand new diverse cast of characters and sleek new designs, The Force Awakens is, for better or for worse, a remake of A New Hope. A lonely hero from a desert planet yearns for adventure before embarking on The Hero’s Journey, Han Solo nearly dies because he owes gangsters money, a giant murder-orb superweapon—the list of similarities continues.

But imagine if they’d left this particular Star Wars mystery box closed until Kylo Ren and Han Solo have their fateful family reunion on Starkiller Base. Imagine if the first time you find out that Kylo Ren is actually Ben Solo is in this exchange:

“Take off this mask. You don’t need it.”

“What do you think you’ll see if I do?”

“The face of my son.”

Instantly, you have a revelation that feels shocking and satisfying instead of the knowledge that we’ve been sitting with for at least 30 minutes. It raises the emotional stakes of the moment. Plus it pays homage to one of the greatest reveals in cinema history—Darth Vader revealing that he is Luke’s father in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back-–while inverting the scene in a savvy way.

Instead, the fact that we’ve been thinking about the implications of the encounter for too long undercuts the potential pathos of the scene. It becomes blindingly clear that Han Solo is about to die the moment he steps onto that platform above yet another bottomless pit. Seriously, the First Order has an upsetting amount of OSHA violations.

Chewbacca and Rey are in danger.

Lucasfilm

Now you might be saying, “Sure, Dan, but anyone can play armchair quarterback after the fact.” And you’re right. I am nitpicking here, but the exact same thing happens with two more pivotal moments in The Rise of Skywalker so I’m not going to apologize. The first of these–and spoiler alert if you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker yet–is Chewbacca’s apparent death at Rey’s hands after she shoots out Force lightning and obliterates the transport ship on which Chewie was presumably held captive.

Before we have any additional context, this moment is honestly incredible. It shows Rey, giving in to her anger, out of control and tapping into the dark side of the Force. It also is our first major tease of the film’s other big reveal, which I’ll get to in a minute.

The problem with the Chewie reveal isn’t that he miraculously survived; it’s that we find out he survived almost immediately afterwards. Neither Rey nor the audience gets to sit with these emotions and consider the consequences of her actions. The mystery box is torn open far too early, which hamstrings its effectiveness.

Daisy Ridley as Dark Rey in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

Lucasfilm

If you delay the revelation that Chewbacca is alive and well, albeit in captivity, until they infiltrate Kylo’s ship above Kijimi, then Chewie’s rescue isn’t so obviously telegraphed. The audience gets a much needed sigh of relief and it feels like an unexpected victory in the face of insurmountable odds.

And look—I’m not an idiot; I understand they can’t kill Chewbacca because that would make it super weird to see him walking around Galaxy’s Edge in Disney theme parks like a big, furry revenant. Still, you don’t have to immediately let us—and your heroes—off of the emotional hook. Keep us waiting longer before you open the mystery box like a greedy child on Christmas morning.

Last but not least is the most controversial mystery box of all: Rey’s origins. Since The Force Awakens, we have been wondering if Rey was actually the scion of one of the galaxy far far away’s most powerful families. Because legally, it seems like you have to be in order to matter in this story.

Rey makes a difficult decision.

Lucasfilm

Rian Johnson tried to put his own twist on this mystery box in The Last Jedi. He had Kylo reveal that Rey was a “nobody.” This twist that effectively obliterated the idea that heroes in this world can only come from those Important Families™ we’ve met before.

Not everyone was on board with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but Rian Johnson made a bold choice to pay off the mystery box that had been gifted to him by J.J. Abrams and The Force Awakens. When The Rise of Skywalker rolled around, the filmmakers effectively took that box back, shook it up until its contents broke apart, then dumped it out on the floor to reshape it in a much different image.

While I wasn’t a fan of the big reveal that Rey is actually a Palpatine, I made my peace with it. What rankled me more is the fact that once again, they dropped this truly massive identificatory bombshell midway through the film. Once again, they should have saved this until Rey confronts Palpatine in his H.R. Giger-worthy final form on Exegol.

Rey visits her grandfather's house.

Lucasfilm

Kylo Ren can tell her, Palpatine can tell her, or even better, Rey can piece it together herself. She can acknowledge the strange kinship between herself and ol’ Sheev while still rejecting his legacy. There are so many more effective ways to do this without sacrificing mystery as a storytelling tool. Instead, we see the video game tooltip version of this revelation. It’s like Clippy, the Microsoft Word paperclip popped up to say, “You look like you’re trying to find your real parents. Would you like some help learning you’re a Palpatine?”

It strips the narrative of its power and makes the whole thing feel like an on-rails theme park ride. It should be a journey you’re taking along with the characters. If you really love the mystery box as much as you claim to, then for the love of god, let us sit with it unopened just a little bit longer.

If this sounds like I’m saltier than Crait over minute details, then you’re correct. But that’s because I genuinely love Star Wars and the galaxy far, far away. I want it to live up to those expectations. Your mileage may vary and you may not share any of these complaints. But what’s the point of fandom if not to get lost in the sauce of fictional worlds and get into it with your friends?

So tell me—do you agree with my assessment of Star Wars’ mystery box problem? Which Star Wars sequel trilogy movie is your favorite? What would you change about the sequels? Let me know in the comments below and give me a thumbs up while you’re there.

Featured Image: Lucasfilm

Dan Casey is the creative director of Nerdist and the author of books about Star Wars and the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter (@DanCasey).