On Star Wars, Then and Now

The Star Wars trilogy has never held that special place in my heart that it holds in so many others. That’s not to say that it isn’t a work of genius, just that there are two types of nerds in the world and I happen to be the kind whose heart is ruled by Trek rather than Wars.

They are staggering works of creative genius though, and I can remember renting VHS copies of all three movies from the local video store in my hometown, and watching them whenever they were broadcast on one of the five television channels we received when I was growing up. I remember taking a trip to the big city to watch the Special Editions in theatres when they were re-released in 1997.

I also remember being over the moon when the trailer for The Phantom Menace dropped. I couldn’t tell you what movie we saw it with, but I remember going to a movie just to see that trailer. Of course, I also remember being pretty profoundly let down by the entire prequel trilogy, as were most people I knew at the time.

The prequels soured a lot of people on George Lucas, including me. Lacklustre direction, effects prioritized over story, and seemingly endless tinkering with all the films for every release was enough to leave a bad taste in any fan’s mouth, and for a long time it seemed like Star Wars might never be good again.

Then Disney bought Lucasfilm and once again there was hope. Fast forward to the present, we are in a new age where Star Wars is good again and there is much rejoicing. I haven’t rejoiced as much as most though, so while Rogue One was in theatres I watched all 8 movies in timeline order in an attempt to figure out why that is. So here are my thoughts.

Needless to say there will be spoilers.

The Original Trilogy

I know I am repeating myself but the original trilogy are a work of genius. The story goes that George Lucas made Star Wars because he couldn’t secure the rights to Flash Gordon so he started working on his own ideas. I can’t imagine a world where he managed to get those rights and we don’t have Star Wars, the idea today is just too outlandish, but I imagine that at the time the idea of no Flash Gordon was too, and you can see the influences everywhere, from the blasters to the floating city.

With a science fiction fantasy adventure as its backbone, Lucas filled out the characters from samurai films and westerns. Warriors with ceremonial swords made of pure light, cowboys with blasters in their gun-belt instead of six-shooters. You can even see his own earlier film, American Graffiti, but instead of a beloved hot rod, there’s a beloved spaceship.

All three of these films are masterpieces whether you consider them three films or as three-thirds of a whole story. Each has its great strengths; Star Wars is a perfect distillation of the Hero’s Journey and even now you can see it was something radical and new. The Empire Strikes Back brought a dump truck full of money to the budget meeting along with a more experienced director. The production value on Empire is off the charts, the pacing is perfect, and it features the first appearance of the most iconic villain theme ever and one of the greatest cinematic twists of all time. The Return of the Jedi offers a beautiful catharsis. Every character gets their moment to shine and have their story completed.

Or to put it another way, Star Wars introduced us to a whole new universe, Empire went on to define that universe and transition the wide-eyed hero, the feisty princess, and the plucky rogue from archetypes into fleshed-out characters, and Jedi brings the story home.

There are those who wish that the lightsaber duels in the original trilogy could stand to have been more complex but for my money, the duel at the end of Jedi is the best one in the entire franchise. This is where we see Luke taunted by the Emperor, knowing that his father turned to the dark side and, full of self-doubt, lose his temper and lash out at Darth Vader. He comes right up to the edge of the abyss, looks over the edge, and then in realizing all that they have in common (as the Emperor wanted), steps back and doesn’t fall in. This moment is a genuine pleasure to watch, and when Vader turns back to the light and kills the emperor, it is as much or more Luke’s mercy as it is his pleading that causes him to do so.

Then, moments later, that line. "Just for once… let me look on you with my own eyes."

No, you’re crying.

The original trilogy of Star Wars films is perfect. You can debate their worth and quality relative to each other but you cannot debate their worth and quality compared to anything else. A perfect confluence of George Lucas’ likes and influences formed a new cultural touchstone.

I could go on but I think you get the picture: the original trilogy is the best of Star Wars, it’s home, and you’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone otherwise.

The Prequels

verything I just wrote is made more perfectly clear by watching the films in timeline order. The saying goes that you cannot go home again, but that hasn’t stopped many from trying, including George Lucas. The prequel trilogy was something I remember being viscerally excited about and being… well let’s say I was disappointed by The Phantom Menace and leave it at that.

Three years later I was disappointed again when I saw Attack of the Clones. Three years after that I was disappointed less when I saw Revenge of the Sith, partly because it is the best of the three films but also because by that point I wasn’t expecting anything else.

I had definitely watched them again since but I couldn’t tell you when that was. Watching all three back-to-back really highlighted a few things for me. First, The Phantom Menace is much better than I remembered it was. It still isn’t great, and the abundance of CGI effects has aged terribly, and yes Jar-Jar is still awful, but this film’s primary problem isn’t that it’s not good, but that it isn’t bad enough. There are a lot of good ideas going on here but they are all just executed so poorly. Case in point with Darth Maul, who looks totally badass and is played by an expert martial artist, but whose lightsaber fights are so overly choreographed that there’s no emotion present. The pod racing sequence is still a thrill but it feels like it’s from a different movie.

Then there’s Attack of the Clones, the worst film in the franchise. There are a few good action beats but the plot details are all basically nonsense. Obi-wan spends a great deal of this story investigating a grand conspiracy revolving around an army that has been created for the Republic under suspicious circumstances, which he never really figures out, and then the republic just uses the army anyway.

Natalie Portman wears a different costume in almost literally every scene. She and Hayden Christensen have zero chemistry. Hayden Christensen has zero chemistry with Ewan MacGregor as well, which is a problem when they’re supposed to be best friends. In the early scenes, Obi-wan spends time telling Anakin to slow down and think and not be so hasty and then jumps out a window after an assassination droid hundreds of stories in the air.

The Revenge of the Sith is the best of these movies. Attack of the Clones feels like a reaction to fan feedback, and Revenge of the Sith feels like a course correction. The dialogue is still pretty painful and the direction is uninspired, but at least there are a few interesting things going on. I still don’t quite buy Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader, he goes from "this is wrong!" to "sure I’ll murder children!" a bit on the fast side if you ask me, and for the two epic duels that take up most of the movie’s third act Lucas seems confused between "better" and "more".

I find it hard to reconcile George Lucas that made these movies with the George Lucas that made the original trilogy. I’m sure that he had fewer people around to challenge him, and I’m sure that production of all three was a bit of a mess, but I wonder if maybe he was hamstrung by being beholden to the previous movies. Still, in hindsight, I’ll say that you can at least tell that Lucas had a story that he wanted to tell and a way he wanted to tell it. He didn’t just remake the original trilogy –something he very easily could have done– he tried something new by telling a story about political machinations, love, friendship, and betrayal. He didn’t really succeed, but he tried, and I respect that.

The New Era

Something changed in 2012. The Walt Disney Company, a cultural behemoth in itself, spent four billion dollars and acquired Lucasfilm and Star Wars along with it.

The acquisition wasn’t the only news, either: in 2015 we would get a new Star Wars movie. It didn’t take long for more announcements either. Not only would there be a new trilogy with new episodes coming out every other year, but we’d also get anthology movies in the off years; six years of new Star Wars at least! JJ Abrams was hired to direct Episode 7, later renamed The Force Awakens, and Gareth Edwards was hired to make the first of the anthology movies, which would become Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Maybe my personal favourite bit of news was the 2014 announcement that the Star Wars Extended Universe of novels and comics was all rendered non-canon, freeing the entire franchise from being tied to decades of convoluted stories but also freeing it to adapt the best parts of those stories. It’s true, Disney streamlined the entire Star Wars universe to make it easier to tell new stories.

After the disappointment that was the prequels, we fans had a new hope that maybe we could go home again.

I watched The Force Awakens twice in two days on its opening weekend. It felt wonderful. I cheered, I laughed, and I cried.

I also watched Rogue One twice on its opening weekend. Once again I cheered, I laughed, and I cried.

Both times there was this immediate rush. Star Wars is good again. What a time to be alive.

The interesting thing about watching a movie twice in two days is that everything stands out. The stuff that works and the stuff that doesn’t. There’s a lot of stuff that works about the new Star Wars movies. I love Rey, Finn, and Poe. I love the new locations in Rogue One and the Jedi-less story it tells. I love the tone of the movies, and the effects are some of the best I have ever seen.

I just wish that they didn’t feel exactly the same.

There are two George Lucas quotes I have been thinking about lately. The first is from the special features of The Phantom Menace. He’s describing the story of the prequels, how it will have familiar beats as the original trilogy, and he compares them to stanzas in a poem that rhyme. The second is from 2015, right after he’d seen The Force Awakens he was asked what he thought and he replied "I think the fans are going to love it, it’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for."

Clearly, he was right on that second point. The Force Awakens and Rogue One have made a combined $1,468,403,700 so far and that is just domestic earnings. They currently occupy the #1 and #7 spots on the all-time box office list, respectively. His first point remains true. To extend the metaphor: where the prequels sort of soft rhymed with the original trilogy, the new movies each feel like a refrain.

The Force Awakens is worse for this to the point where if you describe the film where an orphan child from a desert planet discovers an unknown-to-themselves heritage as a hero and wielder of a magical power who goes on a journey with new friends and ends up destroying a planet-killing space station you might be hard pressed to guess which movie was being talked about. Rogue One is better, but it still features a team of heroes infiltrating a ground installation on an imperial-controlled planet with the end goal of destroying a planet-killing space station, the success of which relies on taking down an energy shield.

Sure, that’s really just the last act, but there are plenty of other elements (the sassy droid, the hologram message, another desert planet, a character who is more machine than man) that evoke the previous movies.

And I think that might actually be the thing of it. Star Wars was the culmination of George Lucas’ influences but the films that influenced the people making Star Wars movies today are Star Wars. Whether this is the fault of the filmmakers themselves or the new corporate ownership whose primary business is merchandise, I don’t know. Judging by the reshoots and edits you can plainly see in Rogue One especially I’d say it’s some combination thereof, but ultimately where the original trilogy remixed samurai films and Flash Gordon, The Force Awakens and Rogue One remixed A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

It’s not the worst thing in the world and clearly, people love it. It doesn’t even make the movies bad. Hell, according to my Letterboxd stats Rogue One is currently tied for movie-I’ve-watched-most in the last two years. However I do think it’s holding the franchise back, that these two most recent movies are good –maybe even really good– but they aren’t great, they aren’t the staggering works of creative genius as the originals were, and what I want more than anything for Star Wars is for it to be that again.

Maybe that’s coming. Rian Johnson is writing Episode VIII and Episode IX, and directing the former of those two. He doesn’t have a huge list of credits but that list includes Looper which is one of the best science fiction movies of the last ten years. Phil Lord and Chris Miller are writing and directing a young Han Solo movie, which seems like a dumb idea to me but their entire filmography is a list of things that sound like dumb ideas that turned out to be great movies.

It’s my great hope that the new filmmakers bring their own influences and sensibilities to the franchise. There have been eight Star Wars movies to date. Six of them (probably seven) are about the Skywalker family and four of them are about a Death Star, including the most recent two. The Star Wars universe is supposed to be huge, but if it only ever references itself it’s only going to keep feeling smaller.

What I am saying is that there is hope. Star Wars is good again. They have the look down, and they have the feel down, but there’s still something missing. I’m really happy that some of you have made it home again with the new movies. For me though home is still a ways down the road.

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