On May 16, 2002, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones made its theatrical debut. Set ten years after the events of the first Star Wars prequel film The Phantom Menace, the latest project from the visionary mind of George Lucas was all anybody talked about that summer. One firm predicted that companies would lose more than $320 million in productivity because so many employees would call in sick in order to attend a screening. That year, Attack of the Clones generated $310.7 million in the U.S. (which currently ranks 81st on the all-time domestic box office list) and $653.8 million globally (which currently ranks 141st).
Whether you were a vocal opponent of the prequels or a staunch defender of the franchise’s new direction, you were part of the Star Wars mania that gripped the early 2000s.
But beyond the Stars Wars hysteria that had overtaken movie culture for the first time in almost 20 years, there was something truly significant, potently groundbreaking, undeniably revolutionary about the release of Attack of the Clones that most people didn’t realize: it was one of the first movies ever shot completely on digital filmmaking equipment.
Now that might not sound that crazy right up front—but this high-definition digital 24-frame system completely upended the art of making movies. The way movies were shot, the way movies were edited, the way movies looked on screen. After an entire century of shooting on celluloid, the film industry was suddenly presented with a digital version of it all.
There were plenty of staunch celluloid defenders like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, but George Lucas was one of the few who wanted to make the digital leap. And while there were a few other films that had already made the digital transition—such as Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark—Lucas’s Attack of the Clones marked new territory: the biggest movie franchise ever was officially endorsing the new age of filmmaking.
Just seven years later, Slumdog Millionaire would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Avatar would become the highest-grossing movie of all time—and both of those movies would be shot on digital. If there was any marker in time that the film industry had officially begun the transition away from celluloid, it was when Lucas decided to make the jump.
And seventeen-and-a-half years after Attack of the Clones—to be exact, December 20, 2019—that embracement of digital filmmaking gave way to the next phase of storytelling in movies. This time it stretched beyond the use of digital equipment, beyond the way movies were physically shot and edited; this time it marked a significant moment for the way cinematic stories were told, the way narratives unfolded in a visual format; this time it went from a storytelling trend to an unshakeable reality of modern film.
This was post-cinema—a term used by film scholars and theorists to describe the movie industry’s shift from the 20th to the 21st century.
What is post-cinema?
Before we even delve into what’s so significant about The Rise of Skywalker, we’re on shaky ground because there is no resolute consensus on how to exactly define “post-cinema.” But, especially as CGI has progressively become more and more present in movies, scholars have studied this increasingly present storytelling movement for a couple decades now. And from that research (here’s a collection of essays to sift through), we do have a close-to-concrete idea of what the term means.
To get a broad sense of this cinematic movement, let’s think of the word “post” as representing a transition as opposed to the end of something. Post-cinema doesn’t indicate a beginning or end, but instead a subtle transformation that reflects the state of pop culture; it is not something new, but instead something different. The fundamentals of 20th Century visual storytelling have of course influenced post-cinematic films—yet how new media exercises those fundamentals has shifted.
So, in the plainest sense, the term “post-cinema” marks a shift in how stories are told in a visual medium. And to be more direct: post-cinematic films focus on the present and force characters to react in the moment, as opposed to establishing exposition and building a plot in the traditional literary way. While this shift might not seem that significant, it actually marks a new style of storytelling that’s completely unfamiliar to our trained eyes. The basics of this style of storytelling aren’t necessarily different, but the way in which modern movies explore this aesthetic has been monumentally changed by increasing digital technology.
To lay out this storytelling shift as simply as possible, let’s compare two of the most popular creatives in cinema associated with each movement. For traditional storytelling, we’ll use Adam Sandler. And for the post-cinematic thinkers, we’ll focus on Michael Bay.
Sandler is the absolute king of a classic narrative outline that’s been used by writers for hundreds of years known as the Hero’s Journey. In just about every one of his movies, Sandler follows a very similar structure.
Take Billy Madison. The movie starts with a privileged young man who exists comfortably in his known environment. But then something threatens that existence he’s understood for so long: Eric will take over the company unless Billy goes back to school and completes each grade level. Then Billy embarks upon an adventure and overcomes a series of ordeals and trials. He fights, he falls in love, he almost fails—all before finding the strength to complete his journey and ultimately win his father’s company. By the end of the journey, Billy is no longer the snarky rich kid who takes his life for granted. Now he’s ready to build something new.
You see this exact structure in a movie like Happy Gilmore, in which Happy must enter a golf tournament to save his grandmother’s home; in a movie like Big Daddy, when Sonny is forced to stop being a lazy slob and care for a child; in a movie like Mr. Deeds, where Longfellow must break free from the comforts of his small town life and run one of the world’s biggest media companies. And along the way, there are obstacles, there are enemies, there are moments of doubt that threaten to thwart our hero—yet, he always persists, he always succeeds.
Where else can you see that structure play out? In some of Hollywood’s biggest movies: The Matrix, Fight Club, Training Day, Gladiator, Aladdin.
The key difference between traditional narratives and post-cinematic storytelling isn’t necessarily the journey itself, but instead how that journey is set up and the expository information we learn along the way. We love Adam Sandler movies for many reasons…but one of those reasons isn’t that the storytelling is progressive or evocative. It’s actually pretty straightforward, right? In fact, the root of all those reasons we love his movies is that they are very simple to understand. Sandler’s movies hold your hand along the way and make the plot as digestible as possible so that you can enjoy the comedy, the acting, the entertainment of it all.
This is not the case with Michael Bay.
If there’s any auteur in Hollywood that has more naysayers than Michael Bay, then I’d love to know about them (and write about them (and meet them)). The rapid camera movement, the intense editing, the plethora of explosions—yeah yeah yeah, we’ve all familiar with the Bay formula that movie critics seem to hate.
A formula which film theorist David Bordwell refers to as “intensified continuity.”
Film critic Matthias Stork has a more dramatic term for it though: “chaos cinema.” Which I think is a perfect, endearing way to describe what’s so exciting about post-cinema.
It’s so much harder for me to succinctly describe the plot of a Bay film than it is to describe a Sandler film—which, again, is a big reason many people are frustrated by Bay’s movies (and post-cinema in general). When you watch a Sandler story, you’re totally in step with the story because you’ve read a thousand books and seen a thousand movies where the Hero’s Journey plays out. But in a Bay movie…the plot doesn’t always feel so coherent. And that’s because what’s important to the plot in a Sandler film isn’t important to the plot in a Bay film.
Our culture is very used to movies connecting Plot Thread A to Plot Thread B to Plot Thread C: this event sets up that event; this exposition sets up that character; this action leads to that action. But Michael Bay himself can be quoted saying: “when you get hung up on continuity, you can’t keep the pace and price down. Most people simply consume a movie and they are not even aware of these errors.”
Bay openly and brazenly does not care about logic and plot continuity! And his reason is incredibly simple: he doesn’t think you notice half of the time. Because, at the end of the day, “plot” and “logic” are not the reasons people deeply connect with movies—those are standards critics have largely set for stories. When you truly connect with a movie, it’s because of the characters, the action, the philosophy of the film.
When Bay explores a character on screen, he is more concerned with visually capturing that character’s mental state and internal struggles as opposed to wasting precious footage on expository material. And if he does feel compelled to reveal some exposition, style takes precedence over dialogue and simplicity. For Bay, storytelling in a visual medium doesn’t look like the Hero’s Journey. Instead, the “story” is a series of images, of characters, of actions, of thoughts and philosophies and ideas that pass by the screen—and we’re just trying to keep up. (You can read more about this approach in another article I wrote about Bay.)
When movies were invented, filmmakers aped the narrative trends found in books because…well, they knew no other way. Books were the way stories had been told for thousands of years—so, movies naturally followed suit. But several 21st century films have shown they are less concerned with those narrative “rules” set up by books.
Take a famous early movie like Citizen Kane. Throughout the film, there are plenty of symbols and motifs that guide us on a typical movie journey. It’s why the “Rosebud” line is so famous. This tiny moment at the very beginning of the film lays the entire foundation of Charles Foster Kane’s ambitions and struggles. Kane is a man obsessed with wealth and influence and power…but by the end of the movie, all he cares about is his childhood sled. That “Rosebud” line encapsulates his entire filmic journey.
That’s beautiful…but that’s also a very literary technique, right? What you see in Citizen Kane could easily be laid out in a book. Now, of course, Orson Welles’ cinematography makes the narrative more cinematic—but, in truth, a good portion of the story’s power lies in the script. This sets up that, helps you understand this, makes this make more sense…blah blah blah.
Post-cinema, I would argue, is less concerned with script, with traditional character development, with classic filmic techniques. Post-cinema is much more concerned with the moment, with the present, with the now. You can see this style play out in 21st Century movies like Good Time, Paranormal Activity, Southland Tales, Crank, Quantum of Solace, the Transformers series, etc.
The key thing to note here is that none of those movies had as much influence or reached as many people as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker did in late 2019.
When describing Bay’s movies, Bordwell uses terms like “rapid editing” and “bipolar extremes of lens lengths” and “free-ranging camera.” In Bordwell’s eyes: it’s all aggressive, and it’s all nonsense. Bay doesn’t fully move away from how stories have traditionally been told in movies, but instead abuses and reduces those classic storytelling techniques. Instead of steeping in a powerful moment that lays out everything you need to understand about a character, Bay’s movies constantly subjects you to the lunacy of the moment. Bordwell doesn’t think you’re following any sort of intelligible story when you watch Transformers or The Rock or Armageddon. And if we confine “stories” to our traditional understanding of them in books, then he would be right.
But philosopher Steven Shaviro takes a different angle. As he writes in his essay on post-cinema: “The classical values of continuity simply don’t matter to certain contemporary filmmakers any more. In other words, it is not that continuity rules—whether in their classical or ‘intensified’ form—have been abandoned, nor even that they are concertedly violated. Rather, although these rules continue to function, more or less, they have lost their systematicity; and—even more—they have lost their centrality and importance.”
Basically, all filmmakers like Bay have done is change the importance of understanding plot logistics. It doesn’t matter how this character got from Point A to Point B—all you need to know is that it happeend. What’s much more important is the action, the emotional drive that manifested between those two points.
When you watch a movie, you don’t necessarily connect with “plot,” but with themes and characters and ideas. All post-cinematic movies do is alter the way plots have traditionally been laid out. But within that newly defined plot structure? We still find those same themes, those same characters, those same ideas we’ve always connected with in 20th century films.
Storytelling in the Digital Age
I’ve given the wrong impression if you believe that “post-cinema” means “experimental storytelling.” Because plenty of movies have experimented with narratives since the invention of film. Based on how theorists have defined post-cinema, it turns out that only a movie made in the 21st century can truly be post-cinematic—and that’s because modern films have the ability to manipulate the narrative by using digital tools.
Which brings us back to Attack of the Clones. Post-cinema really started to take off because of the digital culture George Lucas helped shape 18 years ago. While many classic directors like Jean Renoir and Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard have experimented with how stories are told visually, those filmmakers still shot movies and edited together stories in a very traditional way that’s free from special effects. Directors simply could not manipulate the image, the characters, the story in the same way Michael Bay does.
In digital filmmaking, as Lev Manovich notes, “shot footage is no longer the final point but just raw material to be manipulated in a computer where the real construction of a scene will take place. In short, the production becomes just the first stage of post-production.”
Basically, cinema as we know it has started to shift our perception of “reality” and how that reality is portrayed on film. The attitude has always been that movies have the ability to transport us to new worlds, to different realms—but special effects and digital techniques have now allowed filmmakers to do that like never before.
Which, at the end of the day, is reflective of the current state of pop culture. As Shane Denson and Julia Leyda write, the use of digital cameras and editing technologies incorporates “the aesthetics of gaming, webcams, surveillance video, social media, and smartphones…the aesthetics of contemporary film do not merely simulate the environments created by digital technologies and media, but break more radically with the power geometries and cultural logics of twentieth-century cinema.”
To put that simply: the way in which stories are told is changing because the way in which we perceive the world and absorb stories is changing. There used to be clear delineations between traditional movies and animation and live action cinema—but post-cinema attempts to blur those lines. Thanks to increasing digital technology, we can create entire scenes without live actors; we can erase visible wires that make impossible stunts possible; we can bring dead actors back to life (like the recent Star Wars movies have done).
Essentially, we can make the inconceivable seem normal—and that extends to how we tell our stories.
This is crucial to post-cinema. As 21st century movies shift away from literary storytelling, they will continually embrace the tools at their disposal. Just like the pen is the writer’s tool, the excess of digital equipment now available has become the modern filmmaker’s storytelling arsenal. Because of that, movies can truly shift away from the traditional rules of storytelling and create art that is completely unfamiliar and unique to the medium.
Re-evaluating ‘The Rise of Skywalker’
While everything I’ve laid out might sound simple and understandable…movies that are part of the post-cinema movement tend to receive a lot of pushback for being different. Southland Tales was considered Richard Kelly’s disappointing follow-up to Donnie Darko; Quantum of Solace was regarded as Daniel Craig’s worst 007 movie; and Michael Bay…well, Michael Bay has always been the unabashedly chaotic director that critics happily tear into.
Oh, and let’s not forget what many people consider to be the worst Star Wars movie of all time: The Rise of Skywalker.
A huge complaint about The Rise of Skywalker has been its utter lack of narrative coherency. Much like Bay, Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams seemed less concerned about plot continuity in the traditional sense and more concerned about character development with every passing moment.
Movies that are part of the post-cinematic movement tend to be much more reflective of reality and how we live our lives day to day (if post-cinema is truly influenced by webcams, social media, and smartphones as Denson and Leyda theorize, then this shouldn’t seem too surprising). Oftentimes, we aren’t concerned with where we are or how we got there, but instead with what we’re doing and where it will lead. We live from moment to moment, and only afterwards are we able to contextualize our journey and find meaning.
Films made in the 20th century almost always laid out that exact journey in a digestible, structured format: the exposition you learn about somebody in the beginning of the movie dictates the rest of that character’s journey. But movies in the 21st century aim to make us part of that story as it moves along. Just like the characters, we move from moment to moment trying to figure out the next step. And within that structure, we can find the same kind of thematic depth and character development as we do in a movie like Citizen Kane or Vertigo or Lawrence of Arabia.
That moment-to-moment momentum perfectly describes The Rise of Skywalker—and perfectly describes why so many critics hated on the film.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote: “The hermetic logic of the plot is as impeccable as it is ridiculous. It’s a drama crafted with robotic insularity for the consumption of viewers being rendered robotic at each moment of the soullessly uniform spectacle.”
David Sims of The Atlantic stated: “The Rise of Skywalker is, for want of a better word, completely manic: It leaps from plot point to plot point, from location to location, with little regard for logic or mood.”
Even in his positive review of the movie, Jordan Hoffman of The Guardian offered a slightly backhanded compliment with: “The movie snaps together like a jigsaw puzzle, a series of concluding beats that seem inevitable and perfect, and designed to please all parties, so long as you don’t dwell on the logic too much.”
To be honest, I totally understand that attitude. The movie pivots from scene to scene, minute to minute without any explanation of how the characters got to where they are. And if you believe that’s a fundamental component of storytelling? Then you probably think The Rise of Skywalker is an abysmal movie.
But what these critics miss is the reason for that kind of storytelling. Abrams disregards exposition and instead relishes in each fleeting moment, forcing the viewer to keep up with the “now” as opposed to whatever brought characters there from the past. Much like Michael Bay, Abrams didn’t rely on footage that satisfied our need for plot continuity. Instead, the Rise of Skywalker focused on the emotional journey of the main characters. You don’t truly understand that emotion through plot mechanics. You inherently understand the journey by…looking at it. By being in step with the characters. By experiencing what they’re experiencing in real time.
Which would explain why characters like Rose and Maz and Beaumont were largely absent from the film. The actor who played Beaumont, Dominic Monaghan, said that he hoped the “director’s cut” of The Rise of Skywalker will be released. Likewise, many fans who were upset with the film have been looking forward to the movie’s digital/physical release so they can enjoy all of the excess footage that got cut.
But who’s to say what we saw in theaters wasn’t the director’s cut? In fact, recent reports have suggested there’s no director’s cut at all. All of those extra characters that got cut from the film would have taken away from the central struggle, the main characters who were driving the story. Shifting away from Rey and Finn and Poe and Kylo Ren would have meant shifting away from the present, the moment, the now where all of the true character development exists.
With the post-cinema approach in mind, let’s observe one of the biggest “logic leaps” in The Rise of Skywalker: the moment Kylo Ren shows up at the Death Star and battles Rey. If we’re holding the film to traditional storytelling standards…that whole situation is kind of ridiculous, right? How the heck did Kylo Ren get there? Rey had to take a boat through treacherous waters to reach her destination…but Kylo Ren can just show up out of thin air? Can he go anywhere he wants whenever he wants? And how did he even find Rey in the first place? Do they share some sort of strange connection?
As we learn later in the movie, they actually do a share a connection. And if you care about the logic of why that connection exists, then you’re probably pretty frustrated with that fact.
But…what if the logic didn’t matter? What if we just concentrated on that connection Kylo Ren and Rey share and the reason it exists? The fact that they are bound together by their pasts? Aren’t we all able to empathize with that natural connection shared with another human being to whom we inherently relate?
That’s my argument for how to enjoy The Rise of Skywalker. You don’t need to know why Kylo Ren randomly showed up at the Death Star—you just need to know that he did show up. That he and Rey share a connection. That the Death Star was his grandfather’s magnum opus. That the very symbol of the Death Star marks the difference between Rey and Kylo Ren, between good and evil, between right and wrong. Kylo Ren’s meeting with Rey is not concerned about narrative coherency, but instead the world-altering reality of choice that you and I and every other person on this crazy planet experience every single day. The physical path Kylo Ren took to reach the Death Star makes no sense…yet that ethereal link he and Rey share at such an emotionally defining moment makes all the sense in the world. Forget about plot and logic—their connection simply is. It exists because it does, because it has to.
All of that tension, all of that emotion, all of those character dynamics that we praise in traditional films are there…they just aren’t laid out for us in a way that feels familiar. And that understandably upsets many people.
But soon that style of storytelling will start to feel familiar—as we saw recently with one of Hollywood’s other biggest movie franchises, Jurassic World: Dominion. Which is why The Rise of Skywalker is such a revolutionary film for the way movies tell their stories. The Rise of Skywalker was easily the biggest movie to ever adopt these post-cinematic techniques at the time. And for the world’s most viral movie franchise to take such a storytelling risk? To potentially alienate fans so it could try a new style of narrative? I think that’s pretty mind-blowing.
So someday when we look back on The Rise of Skywalker, the negative reaction from fans and critics will only be part of the narrative. The bigger story will be how Star Wars enabled more filmmakers to embrace an inevitability of cinematic storytelling.