Yes, folks, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out this week; with fan excitement and anticipation currently at an all time high. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens turns out to be any good or another Episode I-style dud (I’m cautiously optimistic on the matter); but in the mean time let’s look back at this series as a whole, noting its highs and lows and its overall impact on the way we perceive filmic storytelling. I’ll be dividing this up into two blocks: the first one for the original trilogy, and a second for the prequels. So without further ado, let’s get going.
1. An overview of a masterpiece.
I assume that, if you’re reading this, then you know the plot of George Lucas’s original trilogy inside and out, as most people in the Western Hemisphere seem to. We’re all familiar with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, Darth Vader, Yoda, C-3PO, R2-D2, X-Wing battles, Jedi Knights, light saber duels, and the mystical Force. Indeed, it speaks to the quality of the storytelling of these movies that these characters and events are so well known. The narrative of Star Wars really has struck a chord with audiences; and it’s interesting to examine why that’s the case.
Mainly, I think that’s due to three reasons.
I. The execution of this story is comparatively flawless.
Over the course of these three movies–A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi–the story of Luke learning the ways of the Force, Han and Leia falling in love, Darth Vader’s redemption, and The Rebel Alliance defeating the Evil Empire unfolds at a near perfect pace; with each character going through a meaningful arc, each defeat feeling dire, and each victory feeling cathartic. These three films are not retreads of each other. Each has a very unique plot from the others and goes in a different direction; which makes the progression of the overarching story feel that much more significant. This is a bold statement, I know, but few stories on screen have ever been presented this well, certainly when it comes to trilogies.
Of course, this story would have failed without actors who could really sell human emotion amidst all of this epic space fantasy. There’s something to be said for how well the likes of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and James Earl Jones deliver the comparatively crazy material they have to work with*. This is one of those movies where the casting is a big part of its success, and while it might annoy the actors themselves, the fact that some of them are still strongly associated with these characters speaks to how well they portrayed them and how real and credible they feel to viewers when they watch the movies.
*As a side note, a popular anecdote from Ford details him telling Lucas, “You can write this s***, but you can’t say it.” And that’s absolutely hilarious.
II. Pure entertainment.
Complimenting the story itself is that Star Wars boasts a considerable amount of entertainment value. Bolstered by revolutionary effects for their time, it was a real thrill to see interstellar dog fights and light saber battles back in the late 70s and early 80s. That opening shot of A New Hope, with an impossibly huge Star Destroyer, absolutely blew audiences away when it first premiered in 1977, and it remains impressive to this day. And it only gets more impressive from there as the movies progressed; be it snowspeeders fighting AT-AT’s on a frozen tundra; or the Millennium Falcon flying to the core of the second Death Star and blowing it up spectacularly; or the multiple light saber fights between Luke and Darth Vader (it’s a stroke of genius that light sabers come in different colors and so are very visually appealing as well as enthralling); or the amusing blaster fights with storm troopers who never seem to be able to hit anything. The action quotient is high and certainly varied in these movies.
On top of that, it’s fun to see the world building going on here: the distinct, exotic planets–the production design team did an excellent job of finding other worldly locations and inventing entire cultures — not to mention all the memorable non-humanoid creatures present in Star Wars, like Chewbacca, Yoda, and Jabba the Hutt. Even if the former is just a really tall guy in a furry costume and the latter two are just puppets, you never find yourself thinking that as you watch these movies. The performances are so genuine that you believe in these characters when you watch them on screen. These places and creatures feel real, tangible even; and that means a lot. It really pushed the envelope on the ability for films to take the viewer anywhere and bring anything to life.
Oh, and there’s also that excellent music by John Williams; which, in terms of how it accentuates the most important moments of story, may be the greatest film score ever written. It’s thrilling at times; contemplative at others; and by Lucas’s own admission, really makes these films work. Case in point: imagine this scene from A New Hope with any other music, or none at all, and tell me it would work as well as it does with Williams’s score.
III. The Force.
Probably most important to the staying power of this series is that the mythology of the Force — the backbone of this entire series– has really had an impact on audiences. People seem inherently attracted to the mystical idea of an energy field that binds all living things. Specifically, I think the key to this appeal is that the basic framework of the Force manages to apply to both religious people and non-religious folks alike. For people who are religious or spiritual, the Force, as explained by Obi-Wan and later Yoda, is broad enough in concept that it can complement and reinforce whatever their specific religious and spiritual views are. Conversely, for non-religious people, the Force is broad enough that it doesn’t have to apply to any one specific ideology and can instead be seen as a metaphor for good behavior and common ideals. In short, no matter who you are, the Force is appealing.
The Force gives Star Wars a distinct philosophical depth and richness for a blockbuster series. And since few other big budget commercial film series bother to invest in mythologies this way, it really makes Star Wars stand out amongst its peers as a unique and memorable cinematic experience. As I say that, I do want to acknowledge that, as is commonly discussed, George Lucas did essentially assembled Star Wars from half a dozen sources–Flash Gordon serials, Samurai films, Westerns, Joseph Campbell’s monomythic hero’s journey. That said, I’ve never really bought the argument from some that Star Wars is somehow unoriginal for that. Rather, the whole is clearly more than the sum of the parts: the way these disparate elements are seamlessly brought together into a single, effective, entertaining story and tied together with the Force really is something special, as is evidenced by the legions of people who love these movies.
2. A quick glance at each film.
I have so far mostly talked about this trilogy as a whole, rather than break it up the into its individual segments. Because it’s one complete story told over these three movies, I tend to view the trilogy as one big picture; as opposed to three separate installments. But, for the sake of being thorough, here are my brief takes on each individual film.
A New Hope-The pulpiest of the original trilogy, this one is pure excitement. It moves quickly, never dipping, with one entertaining scene after the other. Granted, the acting isn’t quite as good as in the two sequels, and some of the plot and characterizations are a little thin, but it’s hard not to love this film all the same. A special shout out goes to Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan) who, as an aging veteran of more serious cinema, deserves credit for putting up with all of this silliness and still giving a fine, Oscar-nominated performance.
The Empire Strikes Back-Probably the best of the original trilogy from a storytelling stand point, the Irvin Kershner-helmed Empire takes the time to slow down and really delve into the characters emotionally. Seeing Han and Leia slowly fall in love is great; as is Luke’s time with Yoda, where the Force is explained quite well. While not as utterly action filled as either A New Hope or The Return of the Jedi, the opening battle on Hoth is certainly the most unique battle in Star Wars, and the ending light saber duel between Darth Vader and Luke is the single greatest light saber battle in this entire series, and one of the best one-on-one cinematic fight scenes as well.
The Return of the Jedi-This one is a little goofier compared to the others; in particular, the Ewoks at the end (which at one point were going to be Wookies) are seen by many as a sign of silly things to come in the prequels. All the same, it’s a lot of fun. The entire sequence with Jabba the Hutt is very cool; the confrontation between Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor is quite moving and cathartic, particularly Vader’s final choice to save Luke; and the battle scenes are the most technically impressive up to this point. Some see it as the weakest of the original trilogy, but regardless, it’s undoubtedly a satisfying conclusion. No one should argue otherwise. Also, at one point, Steven Spielberg was on the table to direct this film; but couldn’t due to union issues. Spielberg’s Return of the Jedi would have been a fascinating picture to see.
3. Curse you, Lucas!
*****Warning: Movie Rant Appears Below*****
With as good as the movies are, and given the massive adoration they’ve garnered, it’s been interesting to observe Lucas’s own apparent dissatisfaction with them, at least in their original form. As part of one of the most well-documented struggles between an artist and his fans, Lucas has repeatedly gone back to these original movies– editing in new special effects, tweaking elements of the plot, and performing numerous other changes in order to supposedly make these films match his ultimate grand vision.
As someone who is old enough to have seen all these movies before Lucas really started changing them drastically (the versions I watch are from a 1995 VHS release; yes, I have a working VHS player), I can’t really say that I approve of the changes I’ve seen. For starters, putting CGI in films that originally didn’t have it is both very sloppy (it never feels like it fits aesthetically) and insulting to the original effects artists, whose ground breaking, Oscar winning, effects from that time period are now shamelessly pasted over.
As annoying as those CGI edits are, though; I at least kind of buy the argument that Lucas didn’t have the technology to do what he really wanted in the original series, and this is at least a way for him to put out the movies he initially intended to make. It’s still annoying, but it at least makes these edits understandable.
What’s worse, though, and what I don’t buy at all, are the story edits Lucas made. The most famous of these is the Han Shot First scandal in which a scene originally showing Han shooting the bounty hunter Guido who is about to kill him is modified to show the bounty hunter shooting first before Han fires back. Under Lucas’s reasoning, the original version showed Han as a cold blooded killer, and now this edit shows he was just acting in self defense. All I’ll say is that I have a vastly different definition of cold blooded killer than Lucas, and I don’t believe that this improves the story the way he thinks it does. Another bad edit is having Vader explicitly say “No!” when he chooses to turn on the Emperor and save Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi. I guess Lucas wanted us not to have any doubt about how Vader felt, but it’s quite unnecessary: it’s perfectly evident that Vader has gone through a change of heart. We don’t need it spelled out for us, and it undermines some of the poetry of the original scene.
In these instances, it’s clear that this isn’t Lucas trying to make the movies match his initial vision: if he had wanted Guido shooting first, he would have shot it that way originally; if he had wanted Vader saying, “No!”, he would have written it into the script. This is Lucas changing his vision years after the fact, and abusing copyright in order to impose his new vision for the story on people who were just fine with the original. I’m sorry Lucas, but after a film is released, you have to let it go.
Adding insult to injury is Lucas’s relative unwillingness to release original versions of these films that don’t show all his changes. The one bright spot is that there is a massive underground fan effort to get the unaltered trilogy out in high quality, and with some appreciable success. I won’t provide any links here; but a quick Google search will get you what you want.
4. Putting it all in perspective.
I don’t really think one can understate the importance of the original three Star Wars movies in relation to filmmaking as a whole. Their collective blockbuster success ushered in a new era** in Hollywood– one of big budget spectacle–in which we still find ourselves; it’s unique blend of timeless mythological themes and pulpy, serialized action set the tone for countless cinematic imitators; and it defined the movie trilogy as a template for blockbuster film series (though that is now going out of style as expanded universes take precedent). One of the fun things to do, as a cinephile, is to watch movies and note all of the the little plot points or effects that surely are present as a result of influence from Star Wars. There are shades of it in everything from Moonraker, to Conan the Barbarian, to The Matrix, to Harry Potter, to the various entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and everything in between. Over nearly 40 years, there are few Hollywood blockbusters that don’t owe something to these films.
Arguably more significant than the way it has influenced film, however, is the sheer impact it has had on its audience. You’d be hard pressed to find a fanbase more enthused than the one for Star Wars. Not only do they love these movies with a fiery passion; for some, it truly defines their lives. They spend countless hours digging through all its secrets, deliberating on the smallest plot points and how it influences the overall narrative; they collect numerous items of merchandise, even the items that are a little ridiculous; they protest when Lucas tries to make changes and are thrilled when J.J. Abrams makes promises that The Force Awakens will be like the original trilogy; they even use the mythology of the Force to define their own morality and world view. In short these movies really do form an important part of their existence.
In an essay on the rock band Kiss, Chuck Klosterman once noted that greatness in music could be measured by the number of people who were truly invested in an artist over a significant period of time. I extend that definition to cinematic eminence as well: the sheer devotion of Star Wars fans to Star Wars year after year is a testament to the caliber and significance of these movies. The greatness of Star Wars is self-validated, and, at this point, it needs no one, including me, to explicitly state as much.
But, since I’ve come this far: from the perspective of how it has changed and influenced its audience, there’s a case to be made that the Star Wars films are among the best and most important movies ever made.
**Technically this started with Jaws two years prior, but really it’s the second example in a trend that proves the first one wasn’t a fluke.
V. Post Script
After writing this essay on Star Wars, I must confess, I say what I say about this series as someone who very much appreciates this series but who is not, truth be told, a hard core Star Wars fan. I don’t watch these films all that frequently (in fact, I’ve gone through stretches of several years without seeing a single installment); apart from the movies themselves, I don’t own any kind of Star Wars merchandise or memorabilia; I don’t read through fan scripts; and while I am upset about Lucas’s changes enough to write about them here, I’m not fixated upon them to the point where I would do anything about it. I am quite comfortable having religious beliefs that are not especially related to the Force, and I look forward to viewing The Force Awakens soon after it premiers but haven’t been counting down the minutes or reserving tickets.
But all the same, seeing the Death Star blow up gets me every time.
For me, these are ultimately just movies***, but they are certainly great movies.
***Aren’t they all?