So Much Star Wars
I went to see Revenge of the Sith opening weekend in 2005. I felt like a little kid, I was so excited! This was a story I had waited my entire life to see—how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader—and I was about to see it!
I quite liked it. I had liked Attack of the Clones as well. The Phantom Menace I had found mind-boggingly uninvolving, but I had made peace with the prequels.
They told the stories that George Lucas wanted to tell, the way he wanted to tell them. They were his, and I admired the fact that they were the most expensive independent films ever made.
I also liked Lucas’ moral lessons about good and evil, and the fallibility of man (er, Jedi)—and “how democracy dies” (to thunderous applause). They were dazzling to look at, had wonderful John Williams scores—and they were Star Wars, which I loved.
As for the stilted acting, overload of CGI and dumb jokes…it was like, eh, whatever.
By 2005 I was, what, 31? After publishing Film Score Monthly for 15 years, I had been so inundated in fan arguments that I really didn’t care who liked what. I felt like a grown man who was able to access his little kid and just enjoy something, while also being a critical adult as far as placing it all into context.
I felt similarly about the sequels—although they were “backwards” from the prequels in many ways: they restored the analogue “look and feel” of the original Star Wars, but seemed like an overly familiar remix of themes and characters—which was, I’m sure, commercially the intention.
Remember when George joked about selling the franchise to the “white slavers”? Boy did he walk that one back pretty quick!
Are people aware of just how massive a business enterprise these movies are? It’s like—you don’t change the formula to Coca Cola. Or at least, not without a ton of research.
And yet whenever they make new Star Wars films (and shows) they have to tweak the formula to Coke so it’s just a little bit novel and fresh—and yet fundamentally the same.
As much as they would like this to be a scientific process, it’s really not. It comes down to surveying available creators (writer/director/producers) with a track record of success (to cover their asses in case it goes bad), asking, “What would you like to do?”—and picking the one they like the most.
The Star Wars films are all on Disney+ now, which our family has subscribed and unsubscribed to a number of times—not because we can’t afford it, but because it feels ridiculous to pay so much for all these services, on top of the satellite package.
Last weekend TNT was showing the Star Wars films (they add around 45 minutes per movie in ads, yuck), so I tuned in randomly (when there wasn’t football to watch)…and it’s always an astonishing experience for me:
All these movies, so handsomely made and beautiful to look at it, and I would have gone out of my little mind in 1985 to know that I could just watch—with perfect video quality—everything from Old Luke Skywalker to Young Anakin Skywalker. Wow!
And yet…there’s a sense of it all being, well, product. Which it ultimately is.
I have nothing but sympathy and admiration for people who make these movies. I would love to be one of them! The thought of spending a year or two as a director of one of these just blows my mind as far as how hard it must be.
The films are so demanding to create. You don’t just have the blockbuster need for action and spectacle—but you have to squeeze in so many storytelling “givens”: the lightsaber fights, the bad guys, the tone, the jokes, the spaceships, the hero’s journey…and on and on.
I think the fundamental storytelling problem (as in, problem to overcome) in Star Wars is that you’re dealing with the fate of the galaxy—but it has to come down to personal conflict (i.e. a lightsaber battle). Therefore you need some sort of breakdown of civilization to bring the good guy and the Big Bad into direct, physical conflict while spaceships shoot each other all around them.
This is probably the same problem that all blockbusters have: the need to make physical what is in real life a diffuse and slow process more given to luck than anyone wants to admit (the acquisition and wielding of power). The only real difference in these movies is: how do they fight?
Is it with blasters, lightsabers, and spaceship dogfights (Star Wars)?
WWII-style battleships (Star Trek)?
Superpower slugfests (comic book movies)?
Fast cars doing ridiculous things (Fast and the Furious)?
Giant robots (Transformers)?
Kung fu gunplay (The Matrix)?
Magic spells (Harry Potter)?
Oh, I forgot the best innovation—Bourne! Fast-paced martial arts and gunplay, no wonder this got copied by everybody else. But where do you go from here?
There are any number of variations and combinations—from the paranormal to the street-bound (fists and karate) to more realistic extrapolations of military hardware (James Cameron films).
But if you want to create a new franchise (incredibly difficult), it pretty much comes down to finding an original way for people to fight. (Are there any left?)
In real life, of course, people fight with none of these things. In real life, physical fighting is ridiculous and stupid and usually one-sided and quick (as anybody who has ever seen a real bar fight knows).
In real life, people “fight”…with words. They battle through politics, laws and information (or misinformation).
But you can’t make a $200M blockbuster where the conflict happens via John La Carré skullduggery. If it’s a huge film, the fighting has to be physical and externalized.
The Last Jedi had a lot of cool ideas: I loved that Rey came from nothing (before that was reconned away) and that Snoke was killed, leaving the conflicted Kylo Ren as the “big bad.”
On the other hand, I hated grumpy old Luke, but I understand why that choice was made—otherwise, it’s Luke Skywalker’s movie. (This is why Luke’s arrival in The Force Awakens was postponed until the final scene: otherwise, the second he appeared, the audience wouldn’t care about anybody else.)
The end of The Last Jedi promised something new that would have been unique for Star Wars. It seemed to set up that the real “big bad” was the companies that make the war machines for both sides—and because Kylo Ren had ascended to the role of Supreme Leader, the real conflict would happen internally, within him.
The Last Jedi destabilized the franchise—but, consequently, left a new sense of possibility.
Alas, they chickened out—and/or J.J. Abrams just didn’t like it.
So they went back to the Emperor as the big bad…and it was underwhelming.
But probably it was what they had to do. The audience wants to see the spaceship and lightsaber fights—they don’t want to see backroom politics with Kylo Ren negotiating with a bunch of bankers. Kylo can yell at walls and smash things, but he also has to go out and be a bad-ass—this isn’t a quiet art film about a person’s rage problems.
Following through with Rian Johnson’s vision would have been more truthful, but also, commercially, a loser.
Alas, if there’s a single flaw you could identify with the sequels, it’s that they went from J.J. Abrams to Rian Johnson and then, when they lost faith in Colin Trevorrow, back to Abrams.
Abrams and Johnson have diametrically opposite visions and philosophies: Abrams is fundamentally a kid who loved Star Wars and is an evangelist for the Spielbergian blockbuster—while Johnson is, I guess, an iconoclast (but pretty darn good at mass entertainment).
It seems insane to me that this happened: twice in a row, the new movie reverses the previous one. And yet it did. They certainly had bad luck in losing Carrie Fisher, who would have played a major role in the final film, necessitating a rewrite…but still.
I don’t really have a larger point to make today. It was just interesting to spend the weekend randomly tuning into TNT and see a glimpse of a Star Wars movie that would have blown my mind as a little kid (when it was not a goddamn ad).
And yet, 42 years later, they still haven’t topped The Empire Strikes Back—and they probably never will. That was a one-of-a-kind deepening of the Star Wars universe, when it was still fresh and new, the actors young and vibrant, the creators at the peak of their powers.
George Lucas, fed up with directing, accidentally outsourced supervision of the actors to somebody who took it way more seriously than he intended. It’s an amazing alchemy: the Lucas editing and world-building with Kershner’s staging and command of the performances.
Has everybody read the J.W. Rinzler (R.I.P.) book on the making of The Empire Strikes Back? It’s incredible. As good a job as young Lawrence Kasdan did, a lot of that script would have been pretty cringey if shot as written.
The day they were doing the freezing-Han scene, Kershner was wearing a microphone for posterity, and you can read the transcript of what happened. They got to the scene, looked at the script, and basically said, “This sucks, Jesus—okay, how can we fix it?” (I’m sure they treated each and every scene that way.)
So Kershner, thinking out loud the whole time, went back and forth with Ford, Fisher and other participants, and meticulously rebuilt the scene, line by line, moment by moment, so all the character motivations made sense.
And that’s how we got, “I love you”—“I know.” They turned a comic book movie into something much more deep, real and resonant.
Seriously, you have to read it and learn what happened there.
And then nothing Kershner made was ever half as good. Never Say Never Again and RoboCop 2 both suck (although they have a handful of good things about them).
Kershner’s meticulous pace—plus a host of technical problems—caused Lucas to run out of money, and he had to go crawling back to Fox and his bank to get the film finished, which he hated.
And then on Return of the Jedi, he said, “I’m never doing that again,” and got rid of Gary Kurtz (who never had a hit again), divorced his wife (long story, I’m sure), and just made a kids’ film with a pliable director (Richard Marquand) who would interface with the pesky actors but otherwise do what he asked.
These are like bedtime stories for Star Wars fans!
I still love Star Wars!