Let me just start right away by stating this: I love Star Wars. I sat in a dark theater in the summer of 1977 at the tender age of four and left a different person, forever changed. They say a person’s personality isn’t formed until the age of 7 or 8 so Star Wars is literally a part of who I am. It’s in my DNA. It was my gateway into film. If you study the original trilogy, they become a film school in themselves. That’s why when I say there is no reason for more Star Wars films; it’s not out of malice or some sort of hipster irreverence (I’m too old for that shit anyway). It’s out of a deep respect and love for what came before and an acceptance that all things have an end. If you love something then let it go, right?
This isn’t about delusions either. I have no doubt that The Force Awakens will break box office records left, right and center. The merchandise will fly off the shelves and it will most likely be responsible for creating a new generation of fans. Also, no matter the quality of the film, the reviews will herald it a triumph but that’s only because critics aren’t really critical anymore. They’ve just become absorbed into the Hollywood marketing machine itself. You won’t get the truly objective reviews until a few months after the films release when it’s already made it’s money. That’s when the more honest reviews will be allowed their voice. In short, I have no illusions that what I say here will make a dent in the coming onslaught of the movie’s release and I’m certainly not interested in trying to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for it. But after you’ve bought your ticket and are driving home after seeing the seventh Star Wars film made in 35 years, I humbly ask you to think about some of these points I’m going to bring up here then ask yourself if you really needed an Episode Seven.
Let’s start with the most obvious and perhaps the most critical element:
1. JJ Abrams
Yep. This guy. From the moment it was announced that the producer of Alias, Lost and the director of the Star Trek reboot was going to take over the reigns of the world’s most beloved franchise the most vocal objections to this project began and a real division was created between fans and moviegoers alike. But let’s really examine why he’s not a good fit. To do that, we have to look at who George Lucas was before the creation of Star Wars.
Lucas was a bright but directionless young man with a middle class background that grew up in the small town of Modesto, California. He defied his father by refusing to take over the family business after surviving a near fatal car crash (which put him in a coma for several days) and falling in love with film after taking a cinematography class in college. From the beginning, he was the outsider who saw film as an art form and hated the studio system with which he would constantly clash with throughout his career. It’s even been said that Star Wars itself is a subversive telling of his struggles with the studios. The Empire representing the studios and Luke (a play on his own name) a stand in for the young, idealistic rebel that defies them. Star Wars was a culmination of his past experiences and his upbringing. That’s why only this man could’ve created this story. It’s a reflection of Lucas himself.
JJ Abrams, on the other hand; is the son of two very successful CBS Television movie producers who immediately began working in the business at 16 and attended Pacific Palisades High School near Malibu. With his parents’ high profile connections he was reorganizing Steven Spielberg’s video collection for him in his pre-teens. This early relationship with Hollywood’s most successful filmmaker would pay off much later but until then he would follow in his parent’s footsteps and become a television producer, occasionally co-writing scripts for his own television shows and films like Armageddon.
No matter what you think of their backgrounds, it’s easy to see that these two come from very opposite backgrounds. They are almost the polar opposite of each other.
Joseph Campbell himself once stated that the act of creation is borne out of pain and struggle, which is why the ancient myths associate creation with the pain of birth. No matter how you feel about him now, Lucas was a man who struggled for what he has achieved and his creative abilities are a result of that. Growing up far away from Hollywood, the magic of movies was preserved for him through his formative years.
Not so with Abrams, who was practically born peering behind the curtain of the magic show, which probably explains his more cynical, marketing approach to filmmaking in general. But the main element he’s missing here is the struggle that truly original creative abilities are born out of. This is why everything he’s done is highly derivative and showcases almost no originality in idea or execution. E.T. was born out of Spielberg’s experience with his parents divorce. Star Wars was born out of Lucas’ struggle to escape his small town and stiflingly, ordinary life. These struggles gave birth to great ideas. But when you have no formative experiences to draw from, when you’ve been raised in an incredibly comfortable environment which leaves you with no real yearning or desire for change or discovery, what do you draw on to create? From what I’ve seen of Abrams’ films, you draw on other people’s works. People who have lived in a way you never have. This seems to be confirmed by production rumors about the story surrounding The Force Awakens and alleged complaints from individuals on the production who have said they’re not being asked to create anything new but just to rehash old ideas. This concept of course, came into sharp focus with Star Trek Into Darkness, a film that was almost universally panned for its lack of originality and derivativeness. The first trailer for The Force awakens certainly didn’t help dispel these concerns either.
Doesn’t it seem completely against the spirit that Star Wars was created in to have a 2nd generation studio executive, who’s grown up rich and privileged; continue a story that came out of the mind of a struggling, middle class, small town filmmaker who’s always regarded the studios as the enemy?
But enough about Abrams. In the end, he’s just a cog in the wheel and no matter who was chosen to take the helm; there are deeper, structural problems that make this endeavor unnecessary in my mind. Which takes us to…
In the end, it really doesn’t matter who’s directing this. Disney is out to make money and they control it. JJ, Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson are all just hired guns. If you don’t believe that this is all about the bottom line, then I would point you to the release date of December 2015 and the fact that the director of the movie asked for more time. He was, of course; told too bad even though the previous six films took 3 each from pre production to release. Now, time pressures on a film can be a good thing. A lot of the time, it focuses a production and it’s very possible it will help this one. But that’s not why Disney is doing it.
It was revealed a while ago that the main reason for the December release date was to appease the shareholders. Disney is a publicly owned company, which means the CEO only has so much power. The shareholders can override him. In this case, Disney paid 4 billion dollars for Star Wars and the shareholders want to see a profit on their investment by a certain quarter because that’s how corporations work. Long-term strategies are a thing of the past. It’s all about that next quarter so quality, be damned. Money went out and a profit better be close behind. This is also most likely the reason behind the idea one Star Wars film a year from here on out until the end of time. It’s not a story to be told anymore but a financial investment that people need to make money back on.
Add that to the fact that George Lucas’ original story treatments were discarded for an 11th hour rewrite and there’s reason to worry. Say what you want about Lucas’ mismanaging of the prequels (and I would agree with you) but I would argue that all of those problems were with the execution and not the story. On the surface, the STORY of the prequels was a good one. It just wasn’t shot, performed or scripted well.
The bigger problem with Disney is also its success. The Marvel films are an unequivocal hit, especially financially speaking. They can easily look at themselves and believe that every decision they make is right and who’s to argue at this point? A studio drunk on its own power has no problem turning a deaf ear to criticism. Sooner or later, this becomes a formula for disaster.
So, don’t kid yourselves. The main reason for continuing Star Wars after Return of the Jedi is financial which is in itself a mistake because…
3. This Story Already Has An Ending
Hey, remember the last five minutes of Return of the Jedi? Everyone’s celebrating, Luke burns his father’s corpse and gets his much needed closure, ewoks are playing drums on stormtrooper helmets, Leia finally gets Han to cuddle, fireworks are going off, no more Death Star, no more Empire. Great ending, huh? Not so fast. These movies no longer have endings. Just a continuous second act that stretches into infinity. And to be fair, this is far from just limited to Star Wars.
Think about all of the perfect endings to films that have been ruined by taking one more dip into the well. How about Indiana Jones? What a perfect ending. The image of Indy and friends riding off into the sunset was the perfect goodbye to that character. But they couldn’t leave it there could they? Instead, we got everyone’s favorite sequel 22 years later. Boy, I sure am glad they didn’t leave it off with Last Crusade and left me instead with the fond memory of CGI gophers and a muddled story handed down for two decades between a conference room full of writers. Or how about Rambo? Rambo 4 had a great ending with the character walking down the road back to his home. The prodigal son returns. Nope. Stallone wants to make more, so apparently, he was just stopping by to pick up some old GI Joe dolls he left in his room.
Movies, hell stories work best when they have a beginning, middle and end. That’s the best way to leave your audience on a good note. And structurally, it means the story has a much better chance of ending with a bang and not a whimper. And we all know about whimpers. Anyone who has become a fan of a television series that went one or two seasons too long knows exactly what I’m talking about.
The other danger is, by turning a great narrative into The Never Ending Story, eventually, you’re going to start repeating yourself and creatively bankrupt something that was once fresh and original. It’s one of the big rules of showbiz: “Always leave them wanting more.”
But there’s a bigger problem with continuing this story. Now, I know these are fictional characters but as a storyteller, when you create characters; you have a certain obligation to do right by them. To do justice to them in a way. Look at the characters of Luke, Han and Leia. They’ve been through a lot. For all intents and purposes, they’ve been traumatized by fighting a Galactic Civil War. Luke was orphaned and raised by his Aunt and Uncle. Then he saw them brutally murdered, had to face his abusive father, lost a hand and had to run around for years staying one step ahead of an evil Empire that was out to crush him and his friends. Han had a shitty life working for a gangster and always having to look over his shoulder wherever he went then ended up being frozen in a giant slab of carbonite which pretty much emasculated him and left him temporarily blind. Leia had to lead an under funded Rebellion and watch her home planet blown to hell and her boyfriend captured and almost killed. Don’t these characters deserve to have an easy, peaceful life at this point? Haven’t they more than earned it? Shouldn’t Luke be able to just teach a new generation of Jedi in a peaceful galaxy after his hard won battles? Doesn’t Han deserve to finally have an easy life with his wife and raise some kids after being a cynical loner for so long? Doesn’t Leia deserve to just remake the Republic after seeing so much destroyed around her? I think so. As Lucas and Joseph Campbell have told us, Star Wars is a fairy tale and fairy tales end with everyone living happily ever after. Imagine if the Prince woke Snow White with a kiss, then as they both prepare for their wedding, someone says, “Oh shit, remember that evil witch? She has a twin sister and she’s coming after you guys too. It ain’t over guys.” That kind of sucks. The ending of Return of the Jedi strongly implies victory for the good guys and an end to there tribulations. To think that all of their hard work hasn’t destroyed the Empire and that there’s some other asshole ready to take Vader and The Emperor’s place is something I find pretty depressing.
Of course, the fandom’s main rebuttal to all of this is “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about because George always said there was to be 9 films”, This brings me to my next point…
4. There Was Only Supposed To Be 6 Films (Maybe Even Just 3)
It’s true. Most people hold to the story of a nine film saga including Lucasfilm. That doesn’t make it true though. This is serious retconning. To see the truth of this, the history of the development of Star Wars has to be looked at again.
The number of Star Wars films Lucas intended to make has always been an ephemeral thing, changing with the release of each chapter. The rising success and the mounting toll it took on Lucas were also strong contributing factors to the constantly changing chapter numbers. That’s why the original plan was for 12 films which if you’re old enough; you’ll remember this number being bandied about shortly after the original film became a runaway hit.
It didn’t begin that way. Before release, Lucas figured Star Wars would be a failure like THX1138 was. At this point, the only sequel George was planning on making was the one that became Splinter In The Mind’s Eye. This was a low budget follow up taking place on a fog enshrouded jungle planet that would be cheap to build on a soundstage and could recycle the existing props from the first film in order to save on production costs. Lucas wasn’t even certain Harrison Ford would return so the story focuses on Luke, Leia and Vader. But then came the summer of ’77 and Star Wars blew the fuck up. Success definitely changed Lucas’ plans and like an 8 year old staring down his first Chinese buffet; his intentions became larger than reality would allow.
Suddenly, the modestly budgeted sequel ballooned into a 12-film plan. These were going to be very different from the 6-part Saga that would solidify by the End of Jedi. Originally, they were going to be separate, random adventures more like what Disney would envision decades later with their Anthology Series. One might be about Han Solo while another could be a Luke Skywalker Adventure. He even made specific mention of wanting to make a young Obi Wan film. This is where I believe the idea for the Prequels was born.
Pretty ambitious plans. However, the arduous task of bringing The Empire Strikes Back to the screen would make Lucas reconsider and scale back his 12 films to 9. We’re talking 1979 here. This is when Lucas wanted to make 9 films. This was to include The Original Trilogy, a Prequel Trilogy and a Sequel Trilogy.
He even starts to set up the Sequel Trilogy in Empire. Remember when Yoda says “There is another”? This didn’t originally refer to Leia. This was the setup for Episodes 7, 8 and 9. The original plan was for Luke to face the Emperor in Jedi only to discover that he’s too strong to be defeated. The Emperor escapes and Luke learns that the “other” Yoda spoke of is another Jedi hidden away just like Luke was but living on the other side of the galaxy. 7, 8 and 9 would then chronicle Luke searching out this other Jedi, teeming up with him then finally facing down The Emperor and defeating him in Episode 9.
This story seems to make a lot of sense since Lucas has always said these films were about the Skywalker family and this would extend there story for three more films by keeping the main opposition, The Emperor; alive to its’ conclusion. A protagonist really doesn’t have any more goals to meet once the antagonist is defeated.
Then Lucas sat down to write Return of the Jedi and these plans went out the window. With his personal life falling apart and the mounting effort it takes to make these films, he once again scaled his plans back. By 1981, as the script for Jedi began to take shape; Lucas scaled back his sequel plans for the last time. He had evidently come to the realization that he didn’t want to spend his entire life making Star Wars movies and was becoming more enamored with his new creation anyway: Indian Jones. The idea of a 7,8 and 9 were scraped and what was going to occur in Episode 9 to close out the Series was folded into Jedi. The Emperor and the Empire would be defeated in Episode 6 now and Darth Vader would meet his end after making peace with his son.
But what of the “other”? Well, this is when Leia became Luke’s twin sister. Just like Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader being combined into one character (which wasn’t hit upon until they broke the story for Empire) the idea of the Skywalker Twins was discovered in the writing process.
As far as the Sequel Trilogy goes, many believe Lucas had some sort of detailed outline sitting around somewhere. This is wishful thinking. The only evidence of Lucas wanting to make Episodes 7-9 seems to come from a Mark Hamill interview where he says Lucas once mentioned to him on set that it would be interesting to see Luke in the Obi Wan role later on. That’s it. No other evidence of a plan for these mysterious Sequels have ever been mentioned or found until Lucas decided to sell Star Wars to Disney. But I’ll get to that later.
In the end, the films were given a definite conclusion with Jedi and that’s how 12 films became 6. This is what bothers me the most about continuing this story after Jedi. The main antagonist is gone, Vader is dead and the Empire has been defeated although Abrams has decided the Empire hasn’t gone anywhere. Without these elements, there’s no more conflict in this galaxy, hence no more drama. The only way to create conflict again would be to drum up a villain that comes out of nowhere which seems cheap and contrived but that’s exactly what Kylo Ren looks to be. In order to bring back the Sequel Trilogy from the dead, the filmmakers seem to be bending over backwards to create conflict and it already feels forced (my apologies if that sounds like a really bad pun).
The truth of these films is that, in the beginning; there were only three movies and a back story created for the characters to flesh out a sense of realism. That understanding brings me to another important realization…
5. The Idea Of A Large, Diverse Star Wars Galaxy Is An Illusion
I remember the first time I saw The Empire Strikes Back and Han uttered that wonderful throw away line about “a bounty hunter he ran into on Ord Mantell”. I immediately wanted to know who this bounty hunter was, what Ord Mantell looked like and what exactly happened. Then later, I found a Star Wars story record at Toys R’ Us called “Rebel Mission to Ord Mantell” and eagerly scooped it up. I was so excited to learn of this side adventure that happened somewhere between the two films where I knew these characters had many other adventures that the films didn’t cover. I devoured the story and afterwards, was pretty disappointed. It seemed to lack the imagination of what went into the stories I saw onscreen and I realized that what my own imagination was subconsciously filling in about what happened on Ord Mantell was much more interesting than what the makers of this audio story came up with.
You see, that line was a throw away for a reason. It was there to make you feel as if this was a completely fleshed out universe with many events happening outside the frame you’re watching. And it worked beautifully.
But, in the end, this is an illusion. This is standard practice for storytellers both literary and visual. I once read a George RR Martin interview, which illustrates this point. He was talking about how people were writing to him about how much they enjoyed the Dothraki language he had invented for the story and wanted him to release the full language. Martin replied that there was no language beyond the ones in the story. He came up with the words as the story needed them and nothing more. He wasn’t hiding a full Dothraki dictionary anywhere. The only reason he came up with those words in the first place was to make the reader feel like this was a real culture that existed and the sprinkling of an exotic language added that “flavor” to the story he was creating (and yes, I realize the irony that there is now a full Dothraki language created for the show which seems to be standard practice now for fantasy and sci-fi films ever since Marc Okrand created the Klingon language for Star Trek 3). Things peripheral to the main story are always created as they’re needed and no more, the one exception being JRR Tolkien who spent most of his life creating the world of Middle Earth and even then there’s still almost nothing known about the lands to the East and South of where the Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion takes place even though people from that region (the Haradrim for instance) show up in the tale.
The point is, the illusion created in these tales of more happening outside of what you are experiencing is only a thin veneer to make the main story come alive and feel more immersive. They’re never meant for closer examination. Most of the time when someone tries to make these peripheral details stories in themselves, the results feel unsatisfying and derivative of the main story they were created for.
Star Wars is no different. There is nothing to the Ord Mantell line other than the line itself. On a larger scale, there is nothing else to the Star Wars story beyond the Skywalker Saga. Really, there was never more besides the Original Trilogy. The story of Anakin and a young Obi Wan was originally developed only as backstory to flesh out the characters. This is what every screenwriter does. In order to create a character, you must know what made him the person he/she is before the audience is introduced to them so you briefly create a past for them to flesh out there motivations and flaws. Lucas decided to take that backstory and make three more movies out of it, which is where I think the first mistake with Star Wars was made.
As rich as his imagination is, it has its limits. This is why, the more Star Wars that’s made, the smaller that galaxy far, far away starts to feel. It’s most evident in the small, aesthetic details. Remember when we first saw Jabba’s palace and most of the background aliens were all new with only a few you could recognize from the Cantina Sequence? That made this fictional galaxy feel big and diverse. Then came the prequels and all of a sudden, new creatures were the exception rather than the rule. Every alien in those films seems to be a pull over Greedo or Nikto mask from the original films. Where did all that diversity go? This has only continued with Disney. I groaned when I started watching Rebels and C-3P0 and R2-D2 show up in the second episode, followed by Lando a few episodes later. And even though we’re told Luke is the last of the Jedi, once again this show focuses on yet another Jedi and his apprentice because apparently, after 6 movies and a 5 ½ season animated show; we just haven’t seen enough of the Master/Padawan relationship. Now Luke’s urgent mission doesn’t seem so urgent anymore. After all, if he fails, Obi Wan can just go snatch up those two guys from Rebels. If you add up all of these cross references in the Prequels and TV shows, the Star Wars galaxy starts to feel more like it’s about as big as Buford, Georgia (they only have one traffic light there).
This fatal flaw looks like it will continue to exacerbate with The Force Awakens and Anthology films. With an entire galaxy to play with, the first two Anthology films can’t seem to stray beyond the Death Star and Boba Fett. For that matter, the still alive Empire (or whatever they end up calling it. It’s still the Empire though) seen in The Force Awakens trailer seems to have come up with nothing new in the last 30 years. Compare the fictional militaries of the Rebels and Empire to those of the real world. The US military is constantly rolling out new vehicles and weapons every few years. In contrast to F-14s, F-18s, Ospreys, Drones and the like, the Rebels and Empire are still flying X-Wings and TIE Fighters. There goes that “real world” feeling the original films carried in spades.
Even story wise, nothing new is really happening here. In The Force Awakens, apparently the three main characters and their offspring are still fighting against the Empire and surprise! There’s an evil bad guy with a mask and a lightsaber who’s out to stop them. There’s even rumors of there being another super weapon involved in the story. Something tells me even Lucas’ disregarded outline might have gone in a slightly more original direction but probably not by much. These problems aren’t ones of a lacking imagination but structural. Star Wars was designed to tell a specific story and when you try to expand beyond that, you only risk compromising the foundation. That’s the main reason why I felt the imagery seen in the new trailer felt pretty stale to me. Nothing new there.
There’s more I have to bring up but this article became way longer then I originally planned for so part 2 will be coming shortly. For now, please discuss, debate, agree or disagree in the comments section below.