A Disturbance in the Force: The Highs and Lows of the Star Wars Saga
The following contains discussion of plot points for all the Star Wars movies, including The Rise of Skywalker. The year is 1997. I’m almost six years old and I’ve seen a few movies on the big screen — I can recall showings of The Lion King and Apollo 13 with some degree of certainty — but these first few months of the year bring something more than that. Every movie lover has formative cinematic experiences, and I doubt that I’m alone in my ability to trace those threads back to the first time that I saw Star Wars (or A New Hope, as it was retitled). The details are hazy, but I remember sitting in the theatre watching the final attack on the Death Star, and being utterly mesmerized. It was exhilarating, transporting, and completely sold me on the magic of film in a way that I imagine I didn’t have the vocabulary to express at the time (and maybe still don’t, despite my best efforts). If for no other reason than that, the Star Wars saga will always hold a special place in my mind, and as the episodic nonology comes to an end (?) this month, now seemed as good a time as ever to reflect on a series that has spawned inordinate amounts of passion, disdain, and everything in between.
Those 1997 theatre-going experiences I so thoroughly enjoyed were, of course, the “Special Edition” versions of what we now think of as the original Star Wars trilogy. Needless to say, at my age I was blissfully unaware of the controversies surrounding creator George Lucas’ remasters — the extra digital effects must have just been part of the magic to me, and the nuances of “Han shot first” remained on the periphery of my experience until many years later. I watched the Special Editions and the original cuts interchangeably throughout my youth (we had the originals on VHS, while my grandparents had the specials), and it wasn’t until my most recent rewatch of the saga (and my first time with the Blu-ray set, which brought its own changes) that the tampering stood out. In many ways it’s hard to fault Lucas — whatever you may think of him, he’s no less an obsessive auteur than any of our more esteemed filmmakers, and it clearly weighed on him that he did not feel as though he was able to fully realize his vision with the technology available to him. Viewed from that perspective, it’s unsurprising that with the advancement of computer-generated imagery Lucas jumped at the opportunity to revise what he may have seen as an unfinished product. Unfortunately, Lucas doesn’t seem to realize that for the majority of audiences, whatever technical limitations were present are a feature, not a bug. The original trilogy remains a marvel of practical effects ingenuity, and shoehorning in distracting CGI only serves to highlight why the movies were so groundbreaking in the first place. But setting aside the superficial changes, both A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) hold up remarkably well on nearly every level. There’s still a magic to A New Hope and it’s easy to see why it became the biggest phenomenon in the world — the story is simple yet compelling, the world-building feels fully realized, and the young cast is so incredibly charming (particularly Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, though Mark Hamill is much better than he sometimes gets credit for) that we’d follow them pretty much anywhere. In terms of contemporaneous recognition, the original remains the high point of the series, amassing six Oscar wins in the technical categories and receiving nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (both Lucas), and Best Supporting Actor (Sir Alec Guiness), accolades not even close to matched by subsequent films in the series. This includes The Empire Strikes Back, which, despite its current place in film history, premiered to mixed reviews. Though it’s true that A New Hope is the film that works the best as a standalone experience, I was surprised on rewatch at just how much of a step up Empire is in just about every regard. From a filmmaking standpoint, much of this may be attributable to the fact that Lucas’ only credits here are for story and executive production (though he was almost certainly more heavily involved than those credits imply). Working from a script by Lawrence Kasdan (adapted from an initial draft by Leigh Brackett), director Irvin Kershner displays a masterful control of tone and pacing, drawing out top-notch performances from the central trio, all of whom are significantly improved even given how well they work in the last film. Empire also just looks better thanks to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, hitting a series high point with the way he shoots the film’s climactic lightsaber duel. That duel of course culminates in perhaps the most famous reveal in film history — endlessly parodied, but resonant because of the work done to earn it. Empire remains the most mature and impressive entry in the series, and even if you make a case for maturity not being a necessity, it’s hard to watch these films in order of release and not get the sense that there’s really nowhere to go but down. It starts with 1983’s Return of the Jedi, a movie that sacrifices the tight plotting and character development of Empire for admittedly engaging spectacle and an oddly paced narrative. Return is undoubtedly fun, but its flaws are all the more glaring when watched in close proximity to the first two films. It takes almost no time to breathe, moving from the first half’s desert setpiece to the second half’s multi-pronged attack on a new Death Star (the first instance of the recurring crutch this planet-killing plot device becomes). The merely workmanlike direction by Richard Marquand and the muddled script do Return no favors, and the cast doesn’t seem to have their hearts in it to the same degree, but the addition of Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine is a welcome one and there is an undeniable thrill in seeing the much-talked-about potential of the Jedi realized. During a certain point in my childhood, Return was actually my favorite, which seems telling. I like to think I’ve gained a modicum of sophistication in my tastes, but at the time I just wanted to see some lightsaber action and this delivered in spades.
Which leads me to the other Star Wars movies that seemed almost perfect through a child’s eyes. 1999 brought the saga’s first new cinematic entry in over fifteen years, carrying with it unmeetable expectations. Response was mixed and a sense of disappointment has curdled into contempt over the past two decades. As an 8-year-old, it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen, but 20 years later it feels like an ambitious failure more than anything else, and criticisms of wooden acting, odd narrative decisions, and far too many characters that feel racially insensitive (at best) are well deserved. This animosity extends to the prequel trilogy as a whole, despite progressively improved critical response for 2002’s Attack of the Clones and 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, but after revisiting the entire saga I maintain a soft spot for these much-maligned entries that can’t solely be chalked up to nostalgia. I’m not going to try to discount the prequels’ flaws. With few exceptions (notably Ian McDiarmid reprising his role as a pre-Empire Palpatine), the acting ranges from serviceable to poor, the dialogue is mostly tin-eared, and the films tend to embody the oversaturated busyness that defined the worst part of the special editions. These are all elements that keep the movies from greatness (or even good-ness, it could reasonably be argued). But this is a case where the wholes are better than the sum of their parts, and I find it easy to admire the sheer ambition and single-minded devotion to a creative vision that Lucas brings to this set of films — qualities even more endearing in retrospect, given the tendency towards reverent nostalgia that pervades so much of the sequel trilogy. Though Lucas also has a weakness for reflexiveness, mirroring characters, themes, and even dialogue, the intent behind the tropes feels different than when J.J. Abrams does the same thing. It doesn’t always work, but callbacks in the prequel trilogy almost always feel like they serve a narrative or thematic purpose, whereas in the sequel trilogy (with the exception of The Last Jedi’s subversion) it feels much more akin to a pandering “hey, remember this?” Perhaps the most fascinating element of the prequel trilogy is the fact that it’s ultimately a tragedy in a manner that most movies of this scale would not or could not attempt to be. From the start, we know the protagonist to be one of the most famous screen villains ever created, and we know that the redemptive portion of his arc was already depicted, over two decades before the prequel trilogy concludes. Unshackled by the recognition that he can rely on viewers’ memories of the previous films to deliver the happy ending they might crave, Lucas is free to deliver a radically different story than the one he told before, weaving his frustrations with American domestic and foreign politics into an epic of corruption, complacency, and ultimately, failure — rarely do films of this type so thoroughly allow their heroes to lose. What stands out most about the prequels today, despite all their failings, is Lucas’ complete disinterest in remaking the previous trilogy. Though he may not have mastery of all the tools of the trade, he belongs to a tradition of storytellers that use what came before as building blocks upon which to create something new — and even if he has difficulty making it within striking distance of his earlier successes, it’s a commendable attempt and one I find myself returning to more frequently than I would expect.
The same can’t be said for this decade’s sequel trilogy. After Lucas’ sale of the franchise to Disney and exit from the series, it’s not surprising that these three most recent films feel as though they lack a unifying presence. In a vacuum, Lucas’ absence doesn’t necessarily seem like a detriment, and the injection of new blood into the saga led to a highwater mark with Rian Johnson’s middle installment, 2017’s The Last Jedi. Jedi succeeds for many of the same reasons that the prequels do — Johnson, like Lucas, is interested in using the prior entries as stepping stones to more complex narratives, rather than settling for mere reworking — but easily surpasses them due to some of the saga’s most sophisticated writing and direction. In the series’ most interesting piece of plotting since Darth Vader’s admission of parentage, Johnson reveals that the mystery of (sequel trilogy protagonist) Rey’s heritage is not a mystery after all — she’s not a Skywalker, she’s not a Kenobi, she’s “nobody.” This choice manages to both harken back to that pivotal moment in Empire and expand the universe in a way that the movies had yet to do given their focus on a single bloodline. It’s a bold decision, untethering the audience from the expected structure just enough to make us realize that Star Wars can still surprise us. Were Johnson or other directors of his caliber responsible for more than just the one film, it’s entirely possible that these types of storytelling choices could have led to this trilogy being held in the same high esteem as the original three (Return of the Jedi tends to be elevated by association) when all was said and done. But film history is littered with almosts and hypotheticals, and the reality is disappointing just as often as it is fortuitous. After finding franchise success by revitalizing Mission: Impossible in 2006 and Star Trek in 2009, J.J. Abrams took on the challenge of bringing Star Wars back to the big screen for the first time in 10 years (the animated Clone Wars film notwithstanding). In many respects it was an unenviable task given the negative response to the prequels that had only intensified in the intervening years. Given that pressure, 2015’s The Force Awakens is an admirable effort, and an experience I thoroughly enjoyed when it premiered. At the time it felt simultaneously fresh and comforting, introducing an exciting new cohort of young actors while still relying on the presence of the old favorites. But on rewatch, especially with the added context of knowing how big a step forward The Last Jedi takes, the familiarity outweighs the novelty. The narrative structure tracks the original film almost beat for beat, so much so that when the heroes are formulating their plan to attack yet another superweapon an expository character uses a visual aid to show just how much bigger it is than the original Death Star. Removed from the excitement of seeing a new Star Wars movie after such a long hiatus (especially one whose plot doesn’t center around taxation of trade routes), the lack of ambition makes the whole endeavor ring a little hollow. That goes double for the concluding installment, this year’s The Rise of Skywalker. Once again directed by Abrams, Skywalker ends the saga with a whimper — it’s enjoyable in fits and starts, but mostly feels like an act of creative cowardice and utter capitulation to the small but vocal subset of internet “fans” who oppose anyone who dares to question, subvert, or advance the status quo of the franchises they have tried to claim a toxic ownership over. Now, it isn't entirely fair to lay all the blame at Abrams’ feet. He was originally slated to be done with the series after The Force Awakens but agreed to replace director Colin Trevorrow after an unceremonious departure, and it's true that the common thread of the Disney era is the tendency of franchise films to have a committee-based approach that too often feels like it ends in an artistic compromise that contains the very movies that should most be thinking outside the box. But between walking back so much of what made The Last Jedi great (or, at the very least, interesting) and attempting to appeal to some imagined consensus about what Star Wars should be, Skywalker winds up as the worst of the nine by a fairly large margin. Narratively incoherent and overly reliant on callbacks and cameos, in its subservience to the original trilogy it manages to lose precisely what made people fall in love with those movies (and, as in my case, with the movies) in the first place. There’s no real sense of wonder, no excitement, just a replaying of the hits in the hopes that will be enough to leave viewers sufficiently satisfied. In the end, the power of Star Wars lies in its ambition. The best installments — New Hope, Empire, and Last Jedi — are audacious, striving towards something new and exhilarating and somehow capturing it. The prequels are almost certainly going to be regarded as misfires — and that’s not an unfair assessment — but they’re daring in their own right and worth another look in the wake of Skywalker’s failure of conviction. This story is over for now, but this is almost certainly not the end of Star Wars. Cynically speaking, the franchise is far too profitable to be phased out. But from a creative standpoint, the universe that Lucas created is also far too exciting a sandbox (as evidenced by the myriad of impressive expanded universe additions, from video games to comics to animation) to let fall by the wayside. There is a common language which can provide innovative filmmakers the freedom to tell their own fantastical stories without feeling like they have to hold the audiences’ hands or pander to them — they can hit the ground running and try something new. Right now, we probably need a break from Star Wars, but with a little bit of luck, someone with an excess of ambition and creativity will come along and use this storied franchise to kick-start a new generation’s love of the movies. The potential is there — it just needs the right person to relight the spark.