Star Wars. Star. Wars. Wars among the stars. Aside from the blaring yellow logo that announces the title at the beginning, the original movie sets up this premise very quickly. It opens suddenly with a small rebel ship flying through the stars, running from an overwhelming Imperial ship that soon overtakes the screen, laser blasts flying between the two.
It seems like a simple idea, but space battles don’t solely make a franchise, certainly not one as long-lasting as this one. So really, what makes “Star Wars” distinctly “Star Wars”? Why has it enthralled generations in a way no other sci-fi or fantasy series have been able to replicate? Is it the luminescent lightsabers, the witty droids, the rousing John Williams scores, the space magic and philosophy of the Force, or just the simple fight between good and evil?
With the nine-film main story of the series completed and new formats of “Star Wars” stories being experimented with in TV, perhaps it’s time to see where the series has succeeded and failed, and where the franchise can go in the future.
George Lucas’s original 1977 “Star Wars,” or “A New Hope,” as it came to be known post-1981, had a simple concept: do a prototypical fantasy storyline with the aesthetics of a war-torn and lived-in science fiction universe.
The film’s conflict between the evil Galactic Empire and the heroic Rebellion can be accurately summarized as World War II in space, with the Stormtroopers (foot soldiers) and the Imperial Officers all wearing garb similar to Nazi regalia, and some of the space battles taken shot for shot from older World War II films.
The sets all seemed lived-in, gritty and real, unlike many other space settings at the time, allowing audiences to immerse themselves in the world more fully. With these familiar cultural elements, the galaxy far, far away doesn’t seem so different from home, allowing the story to be easily told without overwhelming the audience with sci-fi jargon.
The only possibly confusing elements are Jedi, with their lightsabers and utilization of the Force, though even then the order of space wizards can be related back to gallant knights from an long-gone age, their swords replaced with energy blades, lightsabers. The Force itself is briefly expounded upon in the films, but its simple explanation makes “Star Wars” a more religious film than many give it credit for, with the Force being described as an omnipresent energy that holds everything together, and, at the end, faith in the Force ultimately is the only thing that wins the day.
The fact that the original movie was able to deliver this visual spectacle, along with introducing iconic characters: Luke Skywalker, a farmboy with a wish for adventure, Han Solo, a roguish smuggler, Princess Leia, a feisty leader, Ben Kenobi, a mystic from a forgotten age, Darth Vader, a force of pure menace and villainy, and the lovable droids, R2-D2 and C3PO. “Star Wars” is an achievement in cinema. It also features groundbreaking visual effects and a wonderful score. It is doubtful we’ll ever see such a film phenomenon like this again.
Yet, “The Empire Strikes Back” pulls it off, testing our heroes in new ways and heightening the emotions and themes of the original gracefully. All the characters grow, there are shocking revelations, fun chases, dastardly schemes, even more spiritualism and more iconic lines. It truly progressed in everything “Star Wars” introduced, instead of just being the derivative sequel that everyone expected.
That disappointing sequel came in “Return of the Jedi” in 1983, a finale to the original “Star Wars” trilogy that, while still entertaining, paled in comparison to the first two. It featured a plodding second act, annoying side characters in the form of the furry Ewoks and a retread of past setpieces. However, as a whole, the trilogy stands up incredibly well, telling a simple narrative of friendship, faith and family in the backdrop of war.
And there it stood, the only “Star Wars” media out there. Then, in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, the silver screen would again be visited by a new “Star Wars” trilogy: the prequels. Written and directed by Lucas, Episodes I, II and III, or “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith,” set out to establish how Darth Vader became evil and the galaxy came to be embroiled by civil war.
In its attempts to tell the story of how a man can fall to darkness and how a democracy can fall into facism, the films seem to have forgotten what made the original films so appealing. Instead of a clear cut narrative and premise, we have squabbles over taxation of trade routes, the signing of treaties and votes of no confidence. Instead of the lived-in world of the originals, we get sterile CGI worlds that haven’t aged well. Instead of using the camera to create engaging scenes and using dialogue to reveal character organically, we get almost zero movement of the camera during dialogue scenes and clunky lines. Instead of the mystical religious nature of the Force, we get microbes in the blood that grant power levels. Instead of iconic characters, we get an always sulking Anakin and Jar-Jar Binks.
The prequels hurt the eyes with their terrible cinematography and CGI, while hurting the ears and brain with the inane story beats and horrendous dialogue (“I don’t like sand”).
Yet, they are part of “Star Wars” and have influenced what people expect from the series, especially those who grew up watching the prequels. While the trilogy might have failed as cinema, they majorly expanded the lore, detailing many new worlds, ships, lightsabers, Jedi, armies and aliens.
Suddenly, there are different expectations for what a “Star Wars” movie is and what it should contain. Is the simplicity and characters of the originals enough, or should they also strive to expand the lore and the galaxy and the follow the views of the Force the prequels ascribed to?
This lack of consensus on what we expect from “Star Wars” is ultimately what has hamstrung the new sequel trilogy, which began after Lucas sold the property to Disney, which lead to three films, 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” 2017’s “The Last Jedi” and the recently released “The Rise of Skywalker.”
Set decades after “Return of the Jedi,” the new trilogy reveals the old galactic civil war never ended with clear lines between good and evil, as it brought back beloved characters from the original trilogy like Luke, Han and Leia, while introducing the next generation of heroes and villains, namely Rey and Kylo Ren.
Based on this premise alone, the sequels are already responding to the prequels, returning the a similar premise of the original trilogy, rather than the different setting and story the prequels provided. Aside from that, almost every single decision made in “The Force Awakens” seems to be a response to some element of the prequels.
From the clear-cut premise to the decision to use practical effects and real sets rather than green screens and the return of classic ship designs from the originals like X-Wings, the entire film seems to be a tribute to Star Wars fans alienated by the prequels.
This derivative nature, however, caused a backlash of a different kind. While Episode VII is a well-made film with good dialogue and interesting characters, it felt like a repudiation of familiar elements from earlier films, such as the political intrigue, mixed morals and world building. Altogether, a cry for more originality in Star Wars was heard.
“The Last Jedi” seemingly came as a response to complaints directed at “The Force Awakens.”
Episode VIII acts as an examination of the themes of the saga as a whole and seeks to discover what made Star Wars so special, and for this film it’s not the space battles or the lightsabers or the Jedi. The only space battle in the movie is shown to be an excess of machismo that led to too many casualties, there are no lightsaber duels in the entire film, familial lineage is unimportant and the Jedi are shown to be out of touch, dogmatic individuals who need to evolve to survive.
Rather, “The Last Jedi” seems to find the magic of “Star Wars” in its themes of family, hope, perseverance through failure, fighting for what’s right, non-violence, faith and growth. However, many fans did not agree with Episode VIII’s examination of the series’ strengths, and instead decried the disregard for series staples and lack of story progression for the saga. Those accustomed to the world building and lore of the prequels were disappointed, and those looking for the heroic return of Luke from the originals were disappointed as well.
So what did “Star Wars” fans want from “Star Wars”? That’s the question LucasFilm was left with when creating the conclusion to the entire saga, Episode IX “The Rise of Skywalker.”
In its attempts to please everyone, the film comes out as contradictory and safe, though still emotionally evocative, a serviceable film showing the legacy of the Skywalker family, and a solid wrap-up to the conflict between the dark side and the light that has driven the entire series.
The film seems to try to disregard most of the messages of Episode VIII, constantly reinforcing that lineage is important, the Jedi were alright and risky space battles that cost lives are cool again. Despite its messy resolution, it fulfills character arcs set up in “The Force Awakens” for Rey and Ren while giving a final send off to the original trilogy cast and giving a final statement on love and redemption in the series, refocusing the entire trilogy on those characters and their bonds rather than the story around them. Consequently, the trilogy comes off as disjointed, with each film more enjoyable individually than as a whole.
This all ultimately comes down to the fact that no one is quite sure how to please every single “Star Wars” fan. Each generation has had their own versions of “Star Wars,” and, thus, their own expectations. Fans who grew up on the sequel trilogy in the future will likely want more character-based Star Wars movies. Future Star Wars projects will have to cater to them as well.
Perhaps the move to TV that Disney has been making with “Star Wars” is a wise one, with “The Mandalorian” being a huge success and a future Obi-Wan Kenobi show being highly anticipated. Perhaps telling stories divorced from the main saga will possibly free Disney and fans from the expectations of what makes a “Star Wars” movie.
Maybe it’s best that “Star Wars” movies are giving it a rest so we can now decide what makes a “Star Wars” TV show and, then, have future generations argue about that when the inevitable future series come out. Well, at least everyone agrees Baby Yoda is cute.