In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen The Last Jedi divide Star Wars fans down bitterly conflicting lines. Slate called it “a film of genuine beauty” while The New Yorker accuses the movie of being “tamped down, boxed in, [and] neatly packaged, to a chilling extreme.” Twitter is awash with arguments, refutations, and aggressive subjectivity. Our own Goomba Stomp writers have mixed feelings about the movie; equal parts disappointed, entertained, and frustrated.
To understand the diverse reactions to The Last Jedi, it’s important to understand what role Star Wars has played as both a product of and for pop culture. What began as a passion project that no one believed in has since spawned a multi-billion dollar franchise. Although new movies have released and continue to draw widespread attention, they inevitably draw comparisons to the original trilogy.
The question that people always seem to ask about the newer films is “How do these stack up to the originals?” Rather, the question should be “What stories are they trying to tell?”
Myth and Magic for the Modern Age
The story behind Star Wars is the story of George Lucas. As a young, rebellious film student, Lucas put his vision above all else. His first two films, THX-1138 and American Graffiti, are unique products of his creative insight and personal background. Lucas, however, had quickly come to discover that creativity often came with a price: both of his films had been subjected to studio interference. He would not let the same happen for his next project.
In a bid to free himself of studio meddling, Lucas had unknowingly created a whole host of other problems for himself. Time and budgeting pressure, conflicting personalities, and technical issues plagued his fantasy space opera, Star Wars. It was a film that few people believed in. Harrison Ford would later describe his initial feelings towards the movie as “very, very weird.” He was not alone. Several cast and crew members struggled to take the movie seriously, viewing it as nothing more than a children’s fantasy picture.
“The dashing rogue, the wise old man, the hopeful youth, and the willful princess are all figures that have appeared in stories throughout history.”
But it was Lucas’ undying passion for his vision that kept the project going through trials and hardships. On May 25th, 1977, Star Wars released to widespread critical and popular acclaim. A story of swashbuckling adventure, larger-than-life personalities, and far-off fantastic worlds captured the hearts and minds of people everywhere. Star Wars may have been a movie made with kids in mind, but it wasn’t a child’s movie.
Star Wars is the product of classical storytelling and modern innovation. Lucas relied upon Joseph Campbell’s theories in lore and classic mythology to construct his story and characters. Campbell’s seminal work on common mythological themes, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, helped create Star Wars‘ easily recognizable and sympathetic characters. The dashing rogue, the wise old man, the hopeful youth, and the willful princess are all figures that have appeared in stories throughout history.
In many ways, Star Wars is not an original story. Yet, it is for that very reason audiences the world over have been able to connect with something so “weird”:
“Every culture has them, and they’re essentially the same story. We immediately recognize them in some way, and we feel the need to have them told. We’re living in such a complex world, with so much confusion each time we turn around, that we want to see something that makes the world more palatable. [Myths] just remind you of those basic pillars of wisdom that everybody should have.” (Liam Neeson, “Move over, Odysseus, here comes Luke Skywalker”)
Star Wars is a fantasy story set in space. Daring heroes, mystical forces, and evil empires emerge against a backdrop of bright laser battles and galactic warfare. Technical innovations and artistic visions gave life and depth to a story deeply embedded in human culture. “The themes that George is dealing with are so strong, so primordial,” Harrison Ford once said in an interview. “The conflicts between children and their parents. Luke Skywalker was George growing up, George facing that conflict and the need to prove himself. And he did, powerfully.” (‘Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy’)
With the second installment in the original Star Wars trilogy, Lucas and his teams would take the saga into deeper, darker territory. ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ placed a greater focus on internal character struggles and themes of desperation/despair. The audience followed the continuing development of a core cast of easily recognizable characters.
The movie become an unprecedented box office hit. By fall of 1977, Star Wars was playing in nearly 1,100 theaters across the United States. The movie would continue to generate massive amounts of revenue and allowed Lucas the opportunity to continue his saga for two more movies. While Lucas would not return to the same hands-on role he had in the first movie, his personal vision and passion would continue to fill the rest of the original Star Wars trilogy.
Beyond the Known Galaxy
Lucas had never intended to stop at the first movie. In writing the original draft, he found his ideas evolved into a saga that would easily span multiple films. Following the success of A New Hope, the story of galactic warfare further expanded into uncharted territory. Audiences visited the barren ice-planet Hoth, the teeming swamps of Dagobah, and the glimmering vistas of Cloud City. Although Lucas had stepped back into more of a producer/writer role, his creative influence on the original trilogy was undeniable. In 1983, Return of the Jedi concluded the saga of Luke Skywalker, but the Star Wars epic was far from done.
After nearly twenty years, Star Wars returned to the big screen in 1999. The prequel movies — Episode I, II, and III — covered the events leading into the original trilogy. This time, the story would focus on the origins of Darth Vader, the fall of the Jedi, and the galaxy’s descent into tyranny.
Despite rave anticipation, the prequels generated mixed feelings that skewed more towards the negative side. The infamous Mr. Plinkett review of The Phantom Menace gained a reputation for its scathing and well-researched critique of the prequels, giving voice to sentiments that Star Wars fans harbored towards the franchise’s return.
Chief among the criticisms towards the prequels were stilted dialogue, convoluted plotlines, and over-reliance on spectacle and CGI.
The unfortunate reality is that the prequels did not come from a similar environment as the original movies. While Lucas still harbored the same sense of creativity, he no longer worked with the same cast and crew. With a massive budget, vastly improved technology, and the reputation of the original trilogy under his belt, Lucas had trouble reigning in his vision:
“Writing the script was much more enjoyable this time around because I wasn’t constrained by anything. You can’t write one of these movies without knowing how you’re going to accomplish it. With CG at my disposal, I knew I could do whatever I wanted”. (George Lucas, The Making of Star Wars, Episode I – The Phantom Menace)
The common misconception among the cast and crew was that a Star Wars movie was bound to be a success. Gary Kurtz, producer of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, considers one of the problems with Lucas “is the fact that he doesn’t have more people around him who really challenge him.”
“Misplaced priorities and a lack of focus produced a trilogy that was all laser flash and no substance.”
Working on the original trilogy, Lucas ran into various checks and balances that refined his vision. Budgetary restrictions, technical problems, and conflicting opinions allowed the project to be more collaboratively structured while still operating with the scope of Lucas’ vision. When those limits disappeared, the movies suffered as a result.
The prequels are ambitious, almost to a fault. These movies got the fantasy part of Star Wars right; the diversity in worlds and inhabitants gave depth and life to the galaxy. Where it failed was giving its cast of characters that same nuance and attention. Misplaced priorities and a lack of focus produced a trilogy that was all laser flash and no substance.
Passing the Torch
In the ten years between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens, the franchise transferred hands from Lucas to Disney. After the public outcry against the prequels, a new set of movies had to remind the audience what made Star Wars so memorable in the first place. The first of the new sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, brought back a sense of adventure and fun that felt uniquely like Star Wars.
Having similar story beats to the originals certainly helped: a wistful youth destined for greater things beyond their desert world, a totalitarian monolithic entity looming over the galaxy, and thrilling action sequences filled with daring escapes and explosive dogfights. The Force Awakens effectively eased audiences into a new movie by propping up its new characters against old favorites. While its narrative may not have brought anything new to the table, the first installment in the sequel trilogy reminded people that Star Wars could be fun.
‘The Force Awakens’ brought back a sense of familiarity to the franchise in order to ease wider audiences back into Star Wars.
The sequels, unfortunately, have placed a bit too much reliance on established Star Wars elements. A host of callbacks to the original trilogy peppers both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. We get things like the Millennium Falcon’s holo-chess table, shots that echo scenes like the Mos Eisley reveal and the cave on Dagobah, and the fact that after 40 years, Han Solo still looks and acts like a scruffy nerf-herding smuggler. Granted, many of these aspects are still enjoyable, but as George Lucas puts it, Disney wanted to “make a movie for the fans”.
“The first three movies had all kinds of issues,” [Lucas] said of the original trilogy, which was released between 1977 and 1983. “They looked at the stories and said, ‘We want to make something for the fans.’ All I wanted to do was tell a story of what happened. It started here, and it went there.” “They wanted to do a retro movie,” he continued. “I don’t like that. Every movie, I worked very hard to make them different, make them completely different with different planets, different spaceships, to make it new.” (George Lucas, The New York Times)
Beneath the flashy battles, the witty banter, and glittering, gleaming Star Wars-iness of the sequels, Disney’s influence on the creative process is clear. The studio has created a production pipeline to carefully manufacture their movies to possess a wide swathe of popular appeal:
“Part of what makes Lucasfilm’s new system work is that Kennedy has set up a formidable support structure for her filmmakers. Upon her arrival, she put together a story department at Lucasfilm’s San Francisco headquarters, overseen by Kiri Hart, a development executive and former screenwriter she has long worked with. The story group, which numbers 11 people, maintains the narrative continuity and integrity of all the Star Wars properties that exist across various platforms: animation, video games, novels, comic books, and, most important, movies.” (‘Cover Story: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Definitive Preview’, Vanity Fair)
This doesn’t mean that the sequels aren’t fun or entertaining; far from it. Rather, when you have multiple people working on a single project and they each have equal say, you end up with a more homogenized product. Sure, the director will have some say on what makes the cut, but when the idea emerges from a confined scope you can’t really branch out of your comfort zone. This is clear from how the writing team approached putting together the story for The Force Awakens
“On the first day, I said, ‘look, delight, that’s the word. In every scene, that should be the criteria we’re using. Does it delight? Is it fun?’ I look at the movie now, and I’m feeling very good about that. What J.J. did with it is so great. You take all of J.J.’s gifts, the dynamism of his camera and his sense of humor and feeling of momentum, his ideas of story, and I feel like we were able to achieve that delight. It’s an unusual feeling even for me. When I look at the movie, I can’t resist it. It just tickles me.” (Lawrence Kasdan, Interview with Collider)
The sequel movies suffer from what can be called “Disneyfication.” As Goomba Stomp editor Patrick Murphy puts it, their focus is more on “[an] irreverent, quippy sense of humor, [embracing] meta, and … the colorful fireworks display of action than to character development (the former is much easier to quickly assemble than the latter, which often requires an undefined gestation period and a deeper level of thinking).” This problem extends to both The Force Awakens and the newest addition, The Last Jedi.
The lack of a singular visions prevents these wonderful bits of story and character from tying to each other into a larger narrative. They make the mistake of adhering to the preconceived notions of what a Star Wars story is, rather than what it could be. Critics of The Force Awakens readily point out that the movie’s plot is simply a rehashing of A New Hope‘s. More concerning, however, is just how disjointed the transition was from The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi.
“Johnson told me he was surprised at how much leeway he was given to cook up the action of Episode VIII from scratch. “The pre-set was Episode VII, and that was kind of it,” he said. If anything, Johnson wanted more give-and-take with the Lucasfilm team, so he moved up to San Francisco for about six weeks during his writing process, taking an office two doors down from Hart’s and meeting with the full group twice a week.” (‘Cover Story: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Definitive Preview’, Vanity Fair)
Even though Rian Johnson is credited as having written and directed TLJ, he’s still had to work with a team of roughly a dozen writers to flesh out the movie. The original trilogy and the prequels set their narratives against a backdrop of a living, breathing galaxy. The sequels so far have only used the galaxy as a setting, rather than a “character” in its own right.
George Lucas had penned a rough outline of the original trilogy and prequels when working on the first film. Long before Episode I had even begun production, these six movies belonged to a universe with shared narrative ties. Lucas had a story he wanted to tell that could not be confined to a single movie. The success of the franchise allowed him to explore that story and bring it to life. While each of the installments experienced varying degrees of success, they all spoke to a larger, overarching story. “[Star Wars] isn’t about spaceships,” Lucas once said in an interview,” It’s a soap opera, it’s all about family problems.”
“Star Wars is a passion project that became a franchise.”
The sequels certainly touch upon those themes, though perhaps not as deeply as Lucas or some fans may like. Much of this comes back to the sequels’ lack of focus on a larger narrative. Many aspects get glossed over or barely touched: the Knights of Ren, the establishment of the New Republic (which promptly gets destroyed with little narrative setup), and, most glaringly, characters like Captain Phasma. Because each movie is the result of multiple writers working together, there’s little guarantee that every narrative thread ties well into each other in a movie, let alone between them.
A New Galaxy
The original Star Wars movies gained immense popularity by appealing to its audience on a fundamental level. Its origins reach deeply into the collective human consciousness; tales of heroes, villains, and far-flung adventures have passed through history in countless forms. Lucas tugged on these unseen threads that have bound humanity across cultures and time.
The prequels expanded that universe but neglected the characters. Audiences glimpsed a wide, weird galaxy populated by forgettable characters, convoluted plots, and hamfisted dialogue. Nearly a decade later, the sequels revisited the Star Wars galaxy with a cast of memorable characters, new and old.
Among the cast and crew of the sequel movies, many of them are self-proclaimed ‘Star Wars’ fans. What was once an experimental independent movie has since transformed into a global pop-culture phenomenon. The expectations for what a ‘Star Wars’ movie is and should be continue to generate noticeable controversy.
As entertaining as these new movies might be, they are made in a wholly different environment than either the originals or the prequels. Disney has broken down film production to an exact science. Individual artists may bring their own personal spin and story to the movie, but they are ultimately working within the confines of the studio.
Star Wars is a passion project that became a franchise. Its scope has increased in the forty years since the first movie’s release; shifting and changing to fit different times and audiences. Whatever has been arguably lost or gained, there is no denying that audiences everywhere have continued to be captivated by a galaxy far, far away.