When Star Wars first came out in 1977, no one thought it was going to be successful, not even its creator George Lucas. Lucas, a rebel indie filmmaker shying away from the Hollywood machine, took a risk with his unusual space movie – blending elements of sci-fi, fantasy, various real world cultures and storytelling motifs. But at its core, Star Wars is really a simple tale about a kid who longs to become something more, to learn about his destiny and contribute something of value to the world in which he lives. It’s a human tale, set in the deep reaches of space; there are knights – good and bad, pirates and smugglers, walking, talking machines and alien creatures audiences had never seen before. Not to mention groundbreaking special effects to make Lucas’s world come to life.
The first cut of Star Wars was a notorious disaster. The space battles were poorly crafted, scenes dragged on too long, and Darth Vader sounded like he was talking inside of a plastic box. But thanks to a number of talented filmmakers and artists – namely Ben Burtt and John Williams – and a little input from Brian DePalma and Steven Spielberg – whatever weird shit George Lucas was trying to do became even better, and it shattered box office records. Everyone became really rich, especially George.
The thing I like most about Star Wars (1977) is how complete it is in itself. The script is designed in such a way that if the movie were to fail, there’d be no worry in terms of sequels because the characters’ arcs reach a satisfying enough peak. But the movie made money, and it was time to get to work on the next one.
According to Lucas, he had treatments for 9 films. That’s a lot, and seems to be reminiscent of the serial format found in old Flash Gordon films from the 1940s (when Lucas was born). Many ideas seemed to be swirling around in those treatments but the general outline is what we see in the films as they are today, except for certain plot details regarding Leia and the Emperor.
What’s most interesting is that the “Star Wars” saga might have had a different structure; it may not have been a trilogy at all, but rather a continuous series of films being made every three years without cessation – similar to James Bond. We could have had numerous new villains show up besides Darth Vader, and the story would just keep going like the MCU or some TV show. In fact, if the very first movie bombed, or made just a modest amount of money, “Star Wars” might have made a fantastic television series anyway!
But that’s not what happened.
For The Empire Strikes Back, a change in direction was needed. The script called for a dizzying twist (spoilers) – that the villainous Darth Vader was our hero Luke Skywalker’s father. When audiences were exposed to this revelation, it changed Star Wars – and cinema – forever.
Now, I like The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a good film. Nowhere near as entertaining as Star Wars for me, though. But everyone has different tastes. Some people like Attack of the Clones more (God forbid). Empire exudes deeper, more philosophical “Star Wars.” And it’s a fantastic sequel where characters fail and learn on much higher levels than in the previous film. The action could be tighter and some of the color scheme could be less murky and boring-looking. But again, preference.
Return of the Jedi is a fitting end to the classic trilogy that hearkens back to what worked in the first film. I love it, even more than Empire. I love that it’s about redemption, facing your destiny, and resolving your fears. I even like the cute and cuddly Ewoks. All the stuff with Jabba is fantastic, and the film has some of the most impressive space battle material in the entire series. And you know what? It’s not that farfetched for the Empire to have a second Death Star under construction after the other one blew up because, if I were the Emperor, I’d be ordering tons of Death Stars – just in case. It works, story-wise, more so than it does in The Force Awakens, which is just a soft reboot of the original film. We’ll get to that.
Then ROTJ ends and you realize, that’s the end of Luke’s story. There’s nothing left to say or see. The threat is gone. We can only go back and learn about what happened before.
So that’s what George did.
Maybe it was a good thing there was no Episode VII in 1986; because what would happen in it? Luke trains more Jedi. Okay. And then another emperor shows up and they do the same spiel for three movies? No. A prequel trilogy was the best option for George. Maybe not so much for us though, all things considered.
But the lore was clear; Anakin Skywalker was Luke’s father, and many people wanted to see how that happened. What was the relationship like between him and Obi-Wan? How did the Emperor come to power? Who was Mrs. Anakin Skywalker? Who were Anakin’s parents? There were so many questions to be answered; and they were! Unsatisfactorily.
Let me point out that when Episode I – The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, it solidified something we all recognize: the roman numerals. Remember, when the original trilogy was first released, there was no accompanying IV or V or VI in the titles or opening crawls. (We should also be reminded – in gratitude – that Empire wasn’t dubbed Star Wars II or worse, Star Wars 2). It wasn’t until future releases after the three prequels were announced that the numerals were added to later copies of the original films. This is important for what I’m going to argue later.
Episode I has some neat stuff in it. I liked it a lot as a kid, had all the toys, really dug Darth Maul. But in retrospect, it’s a boring script with flat characters and robotic acting. Three fundamental things that make a good movie. And it wastes characters like Anakin, who for some reason is a little kid far removed from any of the action until the very end. He should have been a teenager, and Obi-Wan should have been the main character who bonds with him. Lose Qui-Gon. He’s pointless. Oh, and Jar-Jar: that’s a no-brainer. They even wasted Samuel L. Motherfucking Jackson! Man. All the hype. So much disappointment.
I saw Attack of Clones when I was five and Revenge of the Sith aged eight, and I enjoyed them fine enough. As an adult though, they definitely drag. When episodes II and III came out in the 2000s no one really cared that much because it was all CGI special effects, lame performances, and pointless action. At the time, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter were huge, and Star Wars began to fade away as that amazing trilogy with a depressing legacy of bad sequels and sell-out consumerism.
But fans still wanted more. I wanted more.
And we got more.
One day, Hurricane Sandy turned out the lights in my house. My family had to use a flashlight in the shower. I couldn’t plug in my guitar amp or keyboard. We couldn’t watch TV or use the phone. It was kind of nice though because we all bonded; no internet, just us. And some candles. And watching Hocus Pocus on the computer. Going to bed at night was scary because I’d walk through the dark to get to my room. And it would be gloomy in the morning and all through the day. It seemed weird and eternal.
Then one evening, on October 30th, 2012, my older brother told me a little bird called Twitter was blabbering on about Disney buying LucasFilm and announcing a new trilogy of Star Wars movies. Not just Episode VII. A new trilogy.
When he told me this, I was in shock. It was so unexpected. Suddenly the darkness was lifted. Excitement took me over, and it was all I thought about for days and days and weeks and months. I wanted to learn every new detail about Episode VII as it came. The director. The cast. The title. Would John Williams come back? Surely he must. It’s “Star Wars”! I’d talk about it with my friends. Many doubted, saying, “Yeah, but it’s Disney. It’s gonna suck!” But I thought they were wrong.
A teaser came out near the end of 2014, and it looked great. I was geeking out. Couldn’t believe how good it looked. The first image of Finn panting was better acting than the entirety of performances in the prequels.
When I saw The Force Awakens, I liked it. But deep down I was disappointed, and I wasn’t sure why. Was it the hype? Was it the fact that it was the same structure as A New Hope? But at the end of the day I bit my tongue and thought, “Maybe it’s a soft reboot and that’s fine. Maybe the next one will be better!” Because that’s all The Force Awakens needed to do: get people to like the series again. And it worked. But if there’s one thing it did differently from Star Wars (1977), it’s this: it was not a complete story; it posed more questions than it answered. And that’s fine…if you have a clear plan for the sequels.
Disney’s LucasFilm did not have a plan for the sequels.
So they started taking too many risks too fast, making spin-off movies every year between Saga films, and then hiring…some guy…to direct Episode VIII – who also clearly had no idea what to do. Because what else can you do with “Star Wars”? The story was told. It’s finished. Luke took down the Empire, found his identity, and went on to train Jedi. That much we knew, and The Force Awakens does explore some of that. But The Last Jedi dismantles it because…well, that’s all that could be done at this point. And I guess I can forgive Rian Johnson for that, as an artist. But that’s still no excuse for that movie to exist. In fact, the revelation that The Last Jedi was poised to dismantle The Force Awakens and the original trilogy actually renders the entire sequel trilogy pointless.
And I no longer care about these new characters. Rey can do everything with no training; and I don’t care if they copped out and said it’s because she’s the Emperor’s grandkid now, because that’s stupid. Finn’s arc of him stepping away from the First Order and joining the Resistance is never explored in The Last Jedi, evidence that he probably should have died in that film. Poe is just…charming pilot guy with no backstory. The only interesting character is Kylo Ren. He’s a better version of prequel Anakin. But he’s not the main character, like he should have been, so I don’t care what happens to him. The sequel trilogy squandered its potential to tell an interesting story, because they couldn’t make up interesting new characters. It’s all a repeat of the much smarter original trilogy. And notice that, in the marketing, we don’t see the roman numerals in the sequel titles. Only in the opening crawls. To me this suggests these movies weren’t really meant to be sequels. They’re reboots that simply take advantage of what came before, because there was never anything else to say within the Skywalker Saga – at least, nothing that we wanted to hear.
We’ve come a long way since the exciting announcement that Disney bought the property for $4.5 billion. But we’ve come an even longer way since a little film, called Star Wars, captured the imagination of millions in 1977. And thank God, it’ll never be erased, and can never be replaced.
I’ve been watching the Mandalorian on Disney+. It’s pretty good. It’s sort of how I imagined a Star Wars TV series to look and feel like. It’s different. It’s fun. It’s something to look forward to once in a while. It has everything I like about the original movies in it, and sure, even the prequels, and some new things as well. And none of it’s in service of poor story. The story comes first, and the characters make it worthwhile. I highly recommend it if you’re tired of the pathetic sequels and prequels that can’t hold a candle to what the original trilogy was. And since I already have Disney+, I’ll skip a theatrical showing of The Rise of Skywalker and wait till it arrives on the platform I’m already paying for.
If you’re a fan of the sequels, or even the prequels, that’s fine. You should be allowed to like them, for any reason. They’re movies! But I’m too burdened by the knowledge of what went into that original idea George Lucas conceived and set out to execute (Order 66…) to really feel like a fan of the entire series at this point. There are parts I like in the prequels and sequels, but these films in their entirety can be unbearable sometimes. And if you ever watch them again, just remember that George Lucas wanted to escape the Hollywood machine – until he unwittingly contributed to it.