But then, vwomp. Rey is forced into a telepathic discussion with her rival Kylo Ren, who grabs her necklace across large expanses of space, uses it to determine her location, and dispatches Storm Troopers to chase her team into the desert in a scene that plagiarizes Mad Max: Fury Road. The delectable sweets are never sampled.
Nothing stays put in The Rise of Skywalker. J. J. Abrams, the director and one of the co-writers, picks up and ditches intriguing concepts so capriciously that viewers are left feeling as if they’ve watched someone sneeze on all the items at a fabulous buffet. This approach—which is “for want of a better word, completely manic,” my colleague David Sims wrote—is a big part of the negative critical reaction to the movie. But the wasteful use of settings, doodads, characters, and space horses does not just exhaust the audience. It also undermines the most essential prerogative of Star Wars: world-building.
Lucas’s original trilogy didn’t fret all that much about having a clever plot. The arc from A New Hope to Return of the Jedi was a relatively clean and straightforward one about good guys struggling to overthrow bad ones, with limited detours to explore the consequential backstory of the main hero and main villain. Upon this sturdy spine, Lucas and his team draped exquisite set pieces set in interesting locations. The characters lingered in snow bases and treetop villages. The journey was absolutely as important as the destination.
World-building of that early Star Wars sort is different from how world-building is often talked about today in blockbuster art, which is too caught up with internet-baiting downloads of backstory and mythology. The original films implied a grand, intricate history but did not dwell on the details of how, say, Luke Skywalker stayed hidden from his father for so long. One of the disastrous things about the early-2000s prequels was that Lucas felt driven to puzzle out too many hows and whys of the universe. The stories became knotty and bizarre because they became history lessons.
What’s unsettling about Abrams’s approach is its hybrid nature. He seems to acknowledge that a huge part of the Star Wars magic is in envisioning dreamlike lands. But he also sees storytelling in the prequel-like terms of filling in blanks. He ends up with a movie that is information more than it is anything else. You can see this most clearly in the highly un–Star Wars emphasis on MacGuffins, the screenwriting term for doohickeys the heroes chase after.
The term MacGuffin was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, who described it as “the thing that the characters on the screen worry about but the audience [doesn’t] care.” Hitchcock thought the more boring the prize, the better; a 2008 Vanity Fair piece cited the ultimate example as “microfilm containing ‘government secrets’” in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. But Lucas somewhat disagreed with that version of MacGuffins and thought it was more effective to create treasures of real consequence, such as the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones, which opened a channel to God. The droid R2-D2, who contained the plans for how to defeat the Death Star, was kind of the MacGuffin of A New Hope. But he was also a central character—and the secrets he contained directly and specifically determined what happened in the movie.