There seem to be four types of Star Wars movie-goers these days. 1.) Those who, by virtue of being too old or too young, have no emotional investment in the films. 2.) Those who saw the films as kids, desperately wanted the new trilogy to satisfy their thirty-year-dormant Star Wars jones, and found that it did. 3.) Those who saw the films as kids, desperately wanted the new trilogy to satisfy them, found it didn’t, then (like me) accepted that and, in turn, saw the silver lining in all that still was good in them. And 4.) Those who desperately wanted the same, found it didn’t, never forgave it for having failed to do so and will remain begrudged and resentful of any and all involved in production of the film into perpetuity, or at least for the rest of their miserable, old, cantankerous lives.
And these people will tell you, and anyone who’ll listen, all the ways the new Star Wars movies failed. Failed them, failed their childhoods. Failed your childhood. Or will, if you give it 30 years.
You can’t underestimate the power such a cultural juggernaut will not only have on an impressionable child, but how that former child—now grown into a cynical, middle-aged adult—will come to irrationally love and protect it against any and all threats.
And that’s what many of them have come to view Disney’s latest trilogy as. Not only a failure, but a threat. To their own, personal history. Or at least the way they remember it.
But as they say, hindsight never won 6 fair ladies in funny hats for the half dozen forested trees where the bears like to shit. Or something like that.
And, therefore, can we really say the original Star Wars trilogy, the benchmark against which all contemporary reviews of the current films—both professional and amateur—are no doubt measured, was such an exceptional and extraordinary bout of filmmaking?
Well, yes and no.
But mostly no.
The First Three Movies Weren’t As Infallible As Some (by Omission) Would Have You Believe
Fans and critics loved the original Star Wars trilogy (Episodes 4 – 6). But were the original 3 films so great? George Lucas was the same person during that original trilogy (give or take many, many, many millions of dollars) as he was when he made the prequels (Episodes 1 – 3), which fans and critics didn’t love, on the whole. What honestly changed? Did anything change? In George Lucas’s brain? Lucas is no doubt a cinematic visionary of sorts, but he’s also a mediocre-to-shitty film director and writer. So, how is it one might think Episodes 1 – 3 so subpar and 4, 5 and sometimes 6 so spectacular? Maybe because they were somehow biased in their thinking? Because they saw it when they were young and wanted to be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo when they grew up?
I know I did.
The dialogue and effects not only in Episodes 1 – 3 but Episode 4 have been not only ridiculed by fans and critics but by the actors themselves. Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill have famously spoken out about it in magazines and on late night television. And not only that, so much of A New Hope has been shown to have been borrowed from Japanese filmmaking. Not to mention the fact that articles abound on the internet telling of Lucas’s treatment of Episodes 7 – 9, and how much like Episodes 1 – 3 they were going to be. They were going all Fantasic Voyage and shit, and midi-chlorians were pretty much going to be the microscopic star of it all.
The First 3 Films Were a Definitive Cultural Phenomenon. The Last 3 Were Not
There’s no argument about that. But it means people generally don’t view or review the first 3 movies as movies per se—they view them in terms of how they affected them, and the time in their lives, culturally. Particularly if they were kids.
But now, those kids are adults. Cynical, time-worn, carbon-based forty- or fiftysomething adults, who, thirty-some years ago, had abandoned their dreams of ever seeing Hand Solo, Bubba Fett, Dark Vader and Luke Skywalker up on the big screen again.
But then it happened. And all of a sudden, we became little kids again.
Which: big problem. Because now, whatever you do as a filmmaker, you’re messing with someone’s childhood.
Wikipedia has a page devoted entirely to the cultural impact of Star Wars. It’s called ‘The Cultural Impact of Star Wars’. And if you look it over, the vast majority of the page is devoted to the Episodes 4 – 6. Is the cultural impact of the latest trilogy as of yet to be determined? Sure. But can those of us who grew up with Star Wars look around bitterly and say, ‘Hell, kids today just aren’t reacting to it (and the merchandise) the way we did’? Totally. Kids today are, and have been since not long after birth, saturated with so much more—toys, memes, GIFs, YouTube videos, DVDs, all by virtue of the power of media and the global marketplace—that to have all the miniature action figures, ships and playsets in 1982 is a thrill they will never, ever fully understand.
Culturally speaking, Star Wars was like a common thread that bound us all together, all over the country. And our parents, too. My mom actually had the balls to slip a tape recorder into the movie theater to bootleg the audio of The Empire Strikes Back for us as kids, just so we would have something back at home to continually relive the experience. It was shitty and it was unintelligible, but goddamn was it hot.
I was 4 years old then. My mom, 32.
And this cultural significance, ultimately, isn’t measured in film gross or merchandising or even silly Wikipedia pages, it’s measured in tape recorder bootlegs; it’s measured in each and every person who views it and how they report being affected by it. And so many were. But the problem is, again, that it creates all sorts of subjective, passionate variation in how the films (and, more importantly, any sequels) are going to be interpreted. And, on top of that, it personalizes the whole thing, creates all these crazy expectations based on fantasies you had in your head about it, playing with the figures and acting out scenes as Luke, Han, Chewie (everyone knew that one kid) and Leia out in the woods behind your house. You want certain stories for the films and characters without even realizing it, and, as such, because you’re not making them yourself, you’re bound to be disappointed.
George Lucas Was Out to Make a Buck, Too
While people might tell you that Disney being in charge of the project precluded the possibility for these latter films attaining any greatness by, well, simply being Disney and needing to at least recoup the around $4,000,000,000 they paid for Lucasfilm, Ltd. (and then rake in billions more), the fact is that all film-making is a for-profit business, including the merchandising. In 1976, George Lucas originally told the studio he wouldn’t ask for a raise in his salary after American Graffiti and wanted the rights to 100% of the merchandise for Star Wars and to any and all sequels subsequently produced.
Another example of money before story: the Ewoks were supposed to have been Wookies. Great idea. Bunch of Wookies running around. I’d watch that. Then why Ewoks? Because they were cuter, and would sell better to kids.
Or at least didn’t look like someone dumped a container of L.A. Looks all over a brown shag carpeting, smoothed it down with a pastry comb and then wrapped your French Bulldog in it and secured him in with a Mexican Army bandolero, circa 1897. Full of silver beepers you’d taken from all the physicians and drug dealers your ersatz wookie had hunted down and slain with his laser crossbow, for some reason.
And couldn’t place within the bandolero himself.
Plus, if Star Wars by 1981 had been an absolutely pure labor of love and not seen as a huge potential cash cow, your mom/weekend dad/rich grandpa never would’ve had to drop the $60 to buy you that AT-AT you kicked and screamed and cried about owning, which, by the way, would be the equivalent of around $170 today. And with the current federal minimum wage set at $7.25 an hour and Star Wars merchandising alone totaling over $12,000,000,000 since 1977?
I’m just sayin’.
For As Original As Star Wars Was in 1977, It Really Wasn’t That Original
It doesn’t take much online searching to discover nearly every source 1.) George Lucas referenced in his films, 2.) that he borrowed or outright stole for his films or 3.) that other people have noticed an uncanny similarity between some facet of Star Wars and it (that Lucas himself may never have even realized) and have made a huge point about it, after the fact. From Nazi Germany to the Nixon presidency to the Vietnam War to the Cold War to Ancient Rome to the Knights Templars to Arthurian legend to feudalism to J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert, the list is long and well-documented. Also, Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ is said to have heavily influenced Lucas’s story. Not to mention just about every single religion that’s ever existed.
Again, so much for originality.
And, in the end, let’s not forget what’s really being argued about here:
Star Wars Is an Operatic Space Western Chock-Full of Puppets and People in Alien / Monster Costumes and Makeup
Silly, by today’s standards. Or even by any categorical, grownup standards back then, despite the novelty. Just ask Alec Guinness.
But, really, for all that silliness, still badass. Unbelievably badass.
If you had a full-fledged badass meter back then and it could be set to detect all things past and presently badass, Star Wars would not only have redlined the needle, but the meter itself would likely have exploded.
Because around the same time, what else was there? Barbarella? Zardoz? Logan’s Run? 2001: A Space Odyssey? Okay, that last one was badass, but the themes weren’t there like they were in Star Wars. George Lucas took, somehow, enough of the best that had come before him and made something that resonated with people like nothing before it had. He succeeded in creating something virtually timeless, profoundly innovative, pervasively influential and hugely successful.
Just, you know, flawed, dated and made by a sellout who was in it to sell out from the start. As much as, if not more than, the latest 3 films.
I’m big enough to admit it. As long as everyone else is.