“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally they became heroes.” — Prologue, Star Wars novelization by George Lucas
Star Trek is about to go dormant, a decade after descending into gross suckage. I can’t help but hope that it hibernates for decades. It likely won’t. The Star Wars franchise once descended into dormancy after a disappointing third film; when it revived fifteen years later, things had become even worse. (Admittedly, the new Battlestar Galactica kicks ass, but that’s only because it’s a re-imagining of the original concept; if it had picked up where the old show left off, it wouldn’t have worked.)
But why does Star Wars suck now? What happened? Where did it go wrong?
I wrote this three years ago during my rant on the last film:
As we left the theater, Pam wondered aloud if George Lucas had even watched the first three films before making the last two. He seems to have forgotten what Star Wars was about. Or perhaps changed his mind.
Now that I’ve read the script and the graphic novel for the upcoming Star Wars Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith, I’ve begun to think more on where the franchise failed.
The Role of Our Heroes
In the original Star Wars, Han and Luke and Leia were accidental heroes. They were small players on a big stage. The galaxy in which they lived was vast, and full of wonder.
Luke, for example, was a simple moisture farmer on a backwater planet. He had no future. His dreams of leaving to join “The Academy” were constantly dashed.
LUKE: It just isn’t fair. Oh, Biggs is right. I’m never gonna get out of here!
THREEPIO: Is there anything I might do to help?
LUKE: Well, not unless you can alter time, speed up the harvest, or teleport me off this rock!
THREEPIO: I don’t think so, sir. I’m only a droid and not very knowledgeable about such things. Not on this planet, anyways. As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure which planet I’m on.
LUKE: Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.
THREEPIO: I see, sir.
Now we’re asked to believe that all along Luke was some crown prince, destined for greatness. That Chewbacca and Yoda are pals. (Wait and see, wait and see.) Instead of being bit players in a galactic struggle — iconic everymen (and everywomen) — our heroes are actually larger-than-life bluebloods upon whom the fate of the galaxy has always rested.
Give me a break.
The first film (or fourth, depending on how you count) focused on the periphery of this galactic struggle. The second film shifted more to the center, though it still felt as if our heroes were only small players. The third film, however, crossed the line: our heroes were in the thick of it, key to the galaxy’s freedom. And with the prequel trilogy, we’re no longer able to see the periphery at all. Lucas has forgotten about it. (Or discarded it.)
And with it, he’s forgotten about fun.
Would it be fun to watch a movie about the United States Senate debating trade sanctions? Of course not. Would it be fun to watch a movie about a Kennedy or a Bush kid coming to power? I don’t think so. Would it be fun to watch a movie about a poor kid who becomes a karate champion? You know it would. (“Wax on, wax off, Daniel-san!”)
Over the past twenty years, Lucas has gone from a young, creative artist to a wealthy movie mogul. His realm of experience has changed, and I think that shows in his filmmaking. If you skim early drafts of The Star Wars, which once included material from all of the films in the series, it’s clear that Lucas has shifted from the realm of the common to the realm of elite. What was once important to him, no longer is. He’s writing from his experience, and his experience is one of wealth and comfort.
In the prequels, Lucas has changed the scale of the films. The galaxy seems small. Our heroes play central, pivotal roles in the titanic (but nonsensical) political struggles.
One of the wonderful things about the original Star Wars universe was the diversity of life and civilization, the awesome scale of the story. The galaxy seemed vast. No wonder our heroes were small players; there were simply too many other people for them to be anything else. There were always new and bizarre aliens to discover, strange new worlds to explore. (To be fair, Lucas has continued to entertain with unique worlds; I loved the water world Kamino in Attack of the Clones.)
In the early years, the Star Wars story was continued in novelizations and comic books. Authors like Alan Dean Foster and Brian Daley seemed to grasp the fundamental concept of a vast universe. The comics most certainly got it. These supplementary texts effectively conveyed the sense of scale present in the first film.
The prequels, however, make the galaxy seem like a small and petty place.
The original trilogy — or at least the first two-thirds of it — was dirty and gritty. That was part of its charm. The Millennium Falcon didn’t work. Luke’s garage was a mess (and whoa! so was the jawa’s sandcrawler). The base on the ice planet Hoth was in scattered disarray. Yoda was a slovenly housekeeper. The Death Star was mostly polish and chrome, but even it had a stinky trash compactor.
The space ships and the ground vehicles looked real. One got the feeling they might have been produced on a planet called Detroit, and that with time they’d gradually fallen apart. Many of the ships and vehicles we saw had outlived their warranties.
Compare that with the new trilogy. Everything is bright, shiny and new. Only Watto’s shop on Tattooine bares any sort of resemblance to the old messes we’re used to. (Oh — and the pods for the pod-race; they’re fairly junky.) All of the space ships we see are sparkly clean. Maybe that’s a cost of moving from models to computer animation.
The water world Kamino (to which Kenobi flies to learn about clone troopers) is fascinating, but I have to wonder: don’t things on this planet rust? Isn’t there seaweed of some sort? Or is everything just washed clean by the perpetual rain? And, on a larger scale, do all of the planets have oxygen-based atmospheres?
In the original trilogy — especially the first film — The Force was a mysterious mystical mental power. It was a rare gift, difficult to harness.
The prequel trilogy has made a mockery of The Force. Does anyone say “May the Force be with you?” Of course not. George Lucas has forgotten about it. All he remembers is the Jedi mind trick, that Jedi can jump really very high, and that the Force can let bad Jedi shoot lightning out of their fingertips.
Yes, the Force was a silly quasi-religious structure. So what? It was fun. It doesn’t even exist in the prequel trilogy. It’s been replaced by midichlorians and magic.
QUI-GON : With your permission, my Master. I have encountered a vergence in the Force.
YODA : A vergence, you say?
MACE WINDU : Located around a person?
QUI-GON : A boy… his cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life form. It is possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians.
MACE WINDU : You’re referring to the prophesy of the one who will bring balance to the Force…you believe it’s this boy??
QUI-GON : I don’t presume…
YODA : But you do! Revealed your opinion is.
QUI-GON : I request the boy be tested.
I guarantee you, that scene would never have found its way into the first trilogy. (In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if The Phantom Menace had been made first, there never would have been a sequel of any sort. The film would have bombed because of stuff like that.)
It may be that George Lucas has lost religion during the past twenty years. Maybe he’s an atheist now, and doesn’t want to encourage any sort of religious thought, and so has shifted the Force from “hocus-pocus religion” (as Han would call it) to a pseudo-scientific explanation. I’d rather have the hocus-pocus religion, and so would you.
Natalie Portman is not a bad actress, but George Lucas’ direction sure makes her seem like one.
Ewan McGregor is not a bad actor, but George Lucas’ direction sure makes him seem like one.
Even Hayden Christiansen isn’t that bad an actor, but it’s unbelievable that he was asked to carry this prequel trilogy on his shoulders. To make matters worse, George Lucas seems to have chosen to print the worst possible reading of his every line.
Do I really need to go into this? Have you ever seen a larger marketing juggernaut? It makes me wonder if the this prequel trilogy is simply a six-hour long advertisement meant to get consumers to buy toys, tacos, and dark chocolate M&Ms.
The appearance of the first Ewok marked the end of Star Wars as we know it.
Nonsensical Political Struggles
Here’s a quiz:
1) What is the plot of The Phantom Menace?
2) What is the plot of Attack of the Clones?
3) Who are the good guys in each of these films? Who are the bad guys? Why?
The first question is moderately easy. The bad guys are the (gasp) Trade Federation. They’ve blockaded Naboo for some reason (do we ever know why? does it matter?).
(And let me rant about this for a moment: how stupid is it that the “blockade” is simply an equatorial band of ships? A band of ships that may even be in stationary orbit above the queen’s palace? Pretty damn stupid, I say. Even stupider is the fact that when our heroes try to escape the planet, they blast off right into the blockade instead of, say, heading toward the polar regions in order to elude the known enemy. Dumb.)
The second question, however: I defy you to answer the second question. (Harry Knowles once mounted a spirited, and earnest, attempt to do so, but only confused me more. He seemed to miss the irony that the plot actually needed explaining, and that it took him several hundred words to do so. Inadequately.)
Here’s a second quiz:
1) What is the plot of A New Hope?
2) What is the plot of The Empire Strikes Back?
3) What is the plot of Return of the Jedi?
Hmmm. Suddenly it seems obvious that the prequels lack a…
Loss of Wonder
The fundamental problem with the prequel trilogy is that they no longer impart a sense of wonder.
The first Star Wars films were filled with wonder: the aliens in the cantina, the lumbering Star Destroyers, the awesome power of the Death Star, the Imperial Walkers storming the base on the ice planet Hoth, the cloud city of Bespin, and even the speeder race across the forest moon of Endor.
The first two films amazed because they imparted a sense of wonder. Our heroes were small, but they’re actions took place on a vast an awesome stage.
Compare this to the eye-sore that is the climax of Attack of the Clones. Can you follow what’s happening? Of course not. Nobody can. It’s an orgasm of gratuitous digital effects. There are hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of objects on screen at once. There’s nothing to latch onto.
My heart broke for every dead X-Wing pilot in the first film. When Porkins flamed out, I cared. I cared because the battle was kept on a small scale, an identifiable scale. There’s no wonder involved in an all-out fight between a gajillion clone troopers and whoever it is they’re fighting. (I can’t even remember, which is a bad, bad sign.)
Another example: I want to be awed by the vast Asimovian city-world of Coruscant, but I can’t. It’s an ocean of skyscrapers and painful-to-watch aerial highways. It’s nothing but a cornucopia of digital effects. It doesn’t give me a sense of awe; it makes me depressed.
What Might Have Been
For several years, I have maintained (and I continue to maintain) that the ideal Star Wars episode one was actually Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It would be child’s play to retcon that film so that it occurred in the Star Wars mythos. It would fit perfectly.
But there are scores of other possibilities that would have worked well. Any half-way literate Star Wars fan could have constructed a better prequel trilogy than what Lucas has produced. My heart aches to consider what might have been.
Is there hope for Star Wars? I think there may be. But if a final trilogy is going to be made, it oughtn’t be done for many yeas. A decade maybe. Yes, I know George Lucas is old, but so what? The less he’s involved the better, in my opinion. I think it’s important that the stories come from his mind, that he provide the basis for the screenplay, but the best thing that could be done for the franchise now is for Lucas to take a back seat. Let others take the helm.
Despite all of these complaints, despite the fact the current state of Star Wars sucks, the fact remains that I will go see Revenge of the Sith in the theaters. My geek friends and I have discussed boycotting the film on principle, but ultimately I’m going to lose this moral battle. And maybe that’s the only thing that matters. (The one saving grace is this: my expectations for this film could not possibly be any lower; it’s as if it cannot help but exceed them.)
The kids I know have begun to love love Star Wars. Harrison and Emma, for example, have now seen the entire original trilogy. They love it. They play Star Wars all the time, exactly like we used to do. I hope they don’t see the prequel trilogy for many years. Let them enjoy this sense of wonder while they can.
It’s still possible to produce Star Wars material that maintains the feeling of the original trilogy. It happens all the time. Books, comics, and video games all tap into this feeling now and again. For example, the game Jedi Outcast, which I obsessed over several years ago, did an outstanding job of putting the player in a galaxy that felt like the one from the original trilogy. It’s possible, but not from the mind of George Lucas.
My memories as part of the Star Wars generation
Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace script
78 Reasons to Hate Star Wars Episode One (as if you needed any more)
Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones script
64 Reasons to Hate Star Wars Episode Two (as if you needed any more)
My review of Attack of the Clones
Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith script (plot summary)