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Death by a Thousand J.J. Cuts: Why the Studios Will Always Win

Unsatisfied ‘Star Wars’ diehards are demanding the release of a rumored original J.J. Abrams cut of ‘The Rise of Skywalker.' Unfortunately for those fans, their pleas echo futile movements behind other past cultural institutions.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Star Wars fans’ disappointment with Episode IX has reached the bargaining stage. Just as disappointed DC superhero diehards once beseeched Warner Bros. to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut of Justice League, a noisy corner of the internet is demanding the same of Disney in the aftermath of Rise of Skywalker.

My favorite entry in the genre—but by no means the first or only one—comes somewhat predictably from a Redditor who claims to have been in contact with an unnamed source who worked on the production of TROS. This glimmering jewel of r/saltierthancrait, which at more than 2,200 words is more than twice the length of the blog post you’re reading now, claims (but offers no proof) that J.J. Abrams’s original cut of The Rise of Skywalker was quite unlike the film a gobsmacked moviegoing public saw. According to an on-set source who was granted anonymity out of fear they’d be thrown into the Pits of Grik for exposing company secrets, Abrams’s original cut was three hours and two minutes long, which he reluctantly reduced to two hours and 37 minutes at Disney’s urging. It was only at the premiere that Abrams saw the theatrical version, which was trimmed to two hours and 22 minutes, and even then seemed like the radio edit of a pop song, with every pause removed and the tempo cranked to reduce the runtime.

Supposedly, TROS’s numerous frayed plot threads would’ve been tied up in a neat bow in Abrams’s cut. Finn’s unresolved secret to tell Rey would’ve been the revelation of his Force sensitivity, Rey would’ve had more time to come to terms with her origins, and ex-Stormtrooper and spacefaring equestrienne Jannah was intended to be Lando’s lost daughter. (This last point tracks, because while the consternation over the physical requirements of Emperor Palpatine creating descendants is fully warranted, Lando definitely fucks.)

The Reddit post goes on to explain that Disney executives not only chopped up the movie because of garden-variety creative differences and concerns over budget, but did so behind Abrams’s back to sabotage a potential move to Warner Bros., where he could revitalize the DC Comics universe as he had the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises. (If anything else in this post is true, the premise that Abrams “revitalized” Star Trek is quite shaky, given that those films were also a hyperkinetic kludge of misunderstood self-reference.)

Conveniently, everything the good folks at r/saltierthancrait hated was concocted solely by Disney to sell toys or, bizarrely, to accommodate the Chinese government’s dislike for a certain shade of blue. And everything they liked—specifically the charming, pocket-size droid mechanic Babu Frik—was something Abrams not only created but had to fight tooth and nail to save.

“Disney insisted on more fan service, less controversy,” the post reads, shortly before mentioning that one chase scene involving the Millennium Falcon was an homage to the 1995 PC game Rebel Assault II. (The author did not specify whether he, his source, or Abrams had ever played Rebel Assault II on MST3K mode, which replaced all the dialogue in the cutscenes with joke banter, including a running gag about a sale on boots and an absolutely dynamite shaggy dog story about a witch named Sybil.)

Various other disappointed customers—albeit less verbose ones—have scrawled a variation of #ReleaseTheJJCut across some virtual bench advertisement or other, dating back to several weeks before the release of the film. We don’t know how many sincerely believe there’s a different, “better” edition of TROS in the Disney Vault somewhere, or how many are just mocking the Justice League controversy, or how many are just venting indiscriminately because they’re mad the movie wasn’t closer to what they wanted. And because Poe’s Law has left Earth in a panic over the implications of its supergalactic strength, as Dr. Manhattan once did, we never will.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s take the sentiment at face value, because it’s becoming increasingly pervasive. In these waning days of the Anthropocene, it’s more important than ever to identify and interrogate the forces that cause some people to bind themselves so zealously to a cultural artifact that the lines between self and fandom blur, to cancerous effect. In other words, we are now what we like and dislike, and society is worse off for it.

The people sending strongly worded entreaties to Mickey Mouse in the hope of seeing The J.J. Cut or a version of The Last Jedi with Rose Tico edited out or a purple BB-8 or whatever might come off like (and in many cases are actually) self-deluded goons, but they are 100 percent correct in their underlying belief that the core fabric of titanic cinematic enterprises can be retconned and rewritten at a stroke. Such reinvention is the signature characteristic of 21st-century American studio filmmaking.

If popular art was ever produced by artists, completed, and left to stand for consumption and criticism, that is no longer the case. Almost every blockbuster movie is tied in to a franchise, and even successful entries are reimagined, rebooted, and serialized until every last penny shakes out of the film reel and onto the floor.

In the past 30 years, we’ve gone through six Batmans, four Spider-Mans, and three takes on whether Han Solo murdered Greedo or was merely returning fire. The hero of the Star Wars sequel trilogy has been around for three films and four years, and we’ve been ping-ponged back and forth on her origins and parentage twice, with each twist and head-fake sending huge symbolic ripples through the message of the most beloved American pop culture institution of the past 50 years. If there is no J.J. Cut to release, it’s not because one could not be made.

This baleful mode of online grievance is ineffectual, but it’s the only recourse available to people who have for good or ill invested in a cultural institution that was left in the hands of a mediocre custodian, who was himself constrained by the boundaries of a form whose potential as art is subordinate to its function as commerce. The result is a broth whose taste is a testament to the number of cooks with a ladle in the pot, and there’s nothing we—the people whose love for the cultural institution made it so profitable in the first place—can do about it.

That ought to sound familiar, to fans of Star Wars or baseball or even journalism. Whether J.J. Abrams really has a good movie on a hard drive somewhere is beside the point.