Star Wars: movie magic versus tempered expectations

Feature Andrew Blair 21 May 2014 - 06:12

The Good Vs Evil template has served storytelling well. But is it the right way forward for the new Star Wars movies?

Mainstream cinema is yet to embrace Nietzsche and move beyond good and evil as a basis for its stories. It's a standard struggle that sustains many a narrative, but not one we're likely to tire of. New tweaks are always being found. Significantly, in 1977 Star Wars set up a film serial, combining self-contained narratives with a bigger storyline. There had been trilogies and sagas before, of course, and George Lucas was influenced by film serials of yesteryear, but this demonstrated the potential for films' legacies beyond a mere franchise.

In 2015, however, it's going to be hard to replicate this.

Since 1977 we've had The Hunger Games, Lord Of The Rings, Back To The Future, and Harry Potter, to name but a few; film serials that unfolded over several years, causing or increasing devouring fandoms, entering into mainstream pop culture and being instantly recognisable the world over. A serial approach and a strong, simple Good versus Evil concept (in The Hunger Games I imagine there would be a certain amount of grudging respect if Donald Sutherland's character won) is key to this.

Good versus Evil is a story we return to time and time again, more often in a self-contained one-off film, but occasionally (and usually with some books behind them) the idea is enough to last three or more movies operating on a broader canvas. Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings have both had prequels made that – appreciating the third Hobbit movie is still to come – failed to replicate the appeal of the originals (by some distance in Star Wars' case) partly because some characters' fates are pre-determined, and partly because they have a less gripping quest. The fate of all Middle Earth is a bit more important than a lost homeland. Yet rather than be merely a popular franchise, Star Wars - with its new trilogy of films, crucially set after all the others - has the chance to do the whole Good versus Evil thing and become a phenomenon again.

Given that the new films have free reign to do what they want with the narrative, it's pretty exciting to think of the possibilities, the hope that lightning might be bottled twice. Plot-wise a combination of online speculation, the end of Return Of The Jedi and the rumoured Episode VII subtitle of The Ancient Fear suggest that some total sods will surprise everyone by not being long-dead after all, then do something evil so the good guys will have to bring them down. While it's revisiting an old franchise, this is at least cinema's franchise; it's never been based on a book. While the expanded universe exists to inspire, Star Wars exists because of old film serials, and was created to be a film. That's reason enough to be impressed by its legacy, even if you're not a fan.

That it took inspiration and turned it into something new is how cinema history was created. That it came back, and was poor, tainted it.

The prequels might have been like walking past the park you used to play in, only to find one kid on the seesaw by himself and cat shit on the slide but they made money, just as The Hobbit films have. Now, though, the idea of making more doesn't feel quite as special. There are preconceptions. There will be spin-offs. There will be abundance. There will be lens flare. There will be an accountant drinking a percentage of your milkshake.

So, given the status quo of damaged goods, massive potential, and beyond the obvious answer of 'a good one please', what kind of Star Wars do we want? Do we want another attempt at epic struggles, or to try something new for Star Wars? Something like Indiana Jones where the series of films don't have strong narrative links? I'm not saying it's the best idea, just throwing something into the mix as an alternative. Standalone films are low risk in some respects and high in others: individual narratives might pay off short term, a barnstorming reintroduction renewing vigour.

The problem then is pouring more energy into the second films, bringing more new ideas in, each movie standing on its own merits. However, this isn't a reboot, so we're not going to get obvious retreads of previous stories, which will at least force new ideas into the mix. The Indiana Jones movies, however, were films that makers took their time over, a luxury that JJ Abrams is unlikely to have. Furthermore, a trilogy has the ability to 'do a Return of the Jedi' and have a lesser instalment, but still be considered a classic due to it being part of the larger narrative.

Another option is the Marvel approach. It's only recently that we've seen tweaks to the standard 'epic struggle betwixt Good and Evil' template in cinema (though television, with its longer running times, has been able to bring cinematic images to more morally complex situations), Marvel's on-going arcs and phases are – for now - unique in cinematic world building based on their comic book origins. It's more involved than a trilogy, the nearby Amazing Spider-man series narratively simple by comparison.

Marvel has managed to combine both approaches, managing to make their films linked and distinct. Star Wars, though, intuitively feels like it should be attempting to aim for the qualities of an epic ballad, a long struggle between good and evil. Undisputedly when a trilogy or series pays off it creates a greater legacy than an individual film, or even a franchise of individual films. Furthermore, linking spin-offs of Boba Fett or Han meeting Chewie might be tricky when they're set at least thirty years ago.

Star Wars will, as a trilogy, presumably have an all-pervading big bad that superhero series generally lack. It gives these sagas a focus and, for the later films in the series, a shorthand in terms of how the characters relate to each other. Compare the reputation of Voldemort to Amazing Spider-man's the Lizard: over a single film, he's a flawed character responsible for a daft plan. Voldemort, over several films, needs to stay out of the picture and lets his henchpeople fail, so that the illusion of threat is maintained. Plus, of course, over several films the second-act tragedy can be acted out over the course of an entire movie, giving all us gloomy sods a chance to say 'it should always be darker'.

Undermining such optimism for a new Star Wars trilogy’s potential legacy, though, is the existence of the other Star Wars trilogies. It's not new anymore. It's not novel. For all that Harry Potter isn't exactly the most original story in the world, and was based on novels, it was new to cinema. Lord of the Rings had a long fallow period in cinematic terms before it returned. Star Wars' situation is such that it is constrained by its need to be a trilogy, to be something epic, but nobody ever looks at a photocopy and says they prefer it to the original. We're essentially asking the production team to reinvent the wheel.

Even making a film that passes the time enjoyably in the cinema for a few hours is an arduous task, but Star Wars' reputation is both a blessing and a curse in this respect. Having been so captivating before, a disposable four-star film (it may sound like an oxymoron, but that's what the majority of good films are: grand times that don't linger) will feel more disappointing than it should. Conversely, the love people have for the characters and universe will mean that it will be granted a lot of goodwill (possibly an extra star rating) compared to a new series, but that will wear off.

Star Wars was a bolt from the blue. The people making it weren't exactly confident it would be a hit. It's impossible to achieve that surprise element again, and so what might be worth considering, given the inevitable fixation we and other media outlets (apparently they're available) are going to have with these films, is to lower expectations.

Starting with the final line of this article.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Disqus - noscript

Not sure I look at Star Wars as anything but a self contained movie. What was its 'bigger storyline'? Empire Strikes Back opens up lots of story threads... but the first movie doesn't (or maybe I need to watch it again).

I went to see the first Star Wars film at the cinema (I was aged 6), I collected the original Star Wars figures and vehicles and played with them till I was about 12 or 13, those figures were much loved, hours of fun. I read the novels and comics during the '80s and '90s, went to see the re-edited / cleaned-up / augmented original trilogy at the cinema in the late '90s, but then was quite disappointed by the prequel trilogy which followed... Star Wars has always been there in my life, but I cannot get too excited over these new films - I let myself get excited about the prequel trilogy and I was disappointed... Changing franchises, I've always loved Star Trek too, and I let myself get very excited about the re-boot, only to have my hopes dashed again and come away pretty disgusted... so... I'll just wait and see.

You hit the nail on the head with "reinvent the wheel". Star Wars hit a spot at the right time for a lot of people. Doing it again will be damn near impossible. Hype and expectation will lead to many peoples crushing disappointment. This film might make millions upon millions, even billions! If it doesn't hit the sweet spot like the original did then it will disappoint regardless of whether or not it's any good. I like all the original Star Wars film, I also like Revenge of the Sith, largely because it was telling the story I wanted to see! How Anakin became Vader and the end of the Jedi. The other two felt like needless filler. I'm sure George didn't intend to make a couple of stinkers. Point is what I got and what I wanted were totally different beasts. I'm rambling now but that's how it felt and it's probably how I will feel with these new ones. One thing I'm sure of is that JJ isn't setting out to make a rubbish film it simply won't meet the expectation and that really isn't his fault.

As someone who grew up far from the experience of growing up with Star Wars, my feelings towards the original trilogy are more detached and I liked what the prequels did more. I saw the former at a young age not too long before 'The Phantom Menace', and I never felt it was the total disaster seasoned fans made it out to be at the time. By the end of Episode III, I felt the original trilogy was still the better part of the franchise, 'Revenge of the Sith' was the best of the prequels, and the best were just okay.

Then I tried 'The Clone Wars' with an open mind and found it added nuance and maturity to the prequels and worked as an effective bridge between Episodes II and III. I read James Luceno's Plagueis and found it made Episode I so much more interesting. I tried going into comics, and I greatly enjoyed 'Dark Times' and loved 'Legacy', which also borrows something from the prequels. I now wait with bated breath for the conclusion of Darth Maul's story in 'Son of Darthomir'.

Essentially what I'm saying is that I never had such high expectations to begin with, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found in comparing the prequels and the original trilogy. The first 'Star Wars' was revolutionary, but none of the films is a true masterpiece, the closest being the first two. They're fun and I enjoy them all.

Not that this all conflicts with anything said in the article above, and I understand and somewhat agree with the points raised. It's just that the experience and the expectations are different for new audiences. No matter how iconic the original 'Star Wars' has become, the magic surrounding it (the 'surprise element' mentioned above) has been somewhat locked in the context of the time it was released.

I would be happy with whatever the new trilogy and spin-offs come up with. They may never reach the highs of 'Star Wars' in its heyday, but as long as they are entertaining, I'm definitely willing to give them a shot.

The template for EPVII should be A New Hope. A story that is self contained but leaves enough threads for the sequels to follow.
From what we are hearing and reading, I would expect Harrison Ford to be the big khanua in EP VII and possibly dieing to save his Son/Daughter. I can't see Ford sticking around for EP VIII or IX but I hope to be wrong on that.
JJ is a massive Star Wars fan and I am sure he will learn the lessons from the Prequels.

The first one was kind of a standalone film. They simply didn't kill Vader. But the death star as the biggest threat was gone. Everybody got their happy end.
The trilogy really started with Empire. Just sayin'

If they are calling this a trilogy then they need to keep it like that. A large final chapter. Possibly the emporer still has a hand in this. Possibly a new threat takes the helm at the fallout of the empire (they can't be quite the same empire)

Continuing star wars feels a bit like continuing Stargate after the threat of the goauld was gone. I would love the see the imperial military repurposed into something like the luciant alliance. But controlled by something harsher than the emporer. Maybe he's manipulating it from beyond the grave? (If so, how do you stop him?)

Personally, I think the template that could help them the most is the clone wars TV show. There were lots of great story arcs, characters, and standalone moments.

Episode 4 has heaps of backstory for all 3 main characters. Luke's father being killed by Vadar, the whole rebellion / Alderaan / Leia story and even Greedo goes on about Han owing Jabba money. These 3 main backstories become the plot threads in episode 5. Watch it again. Lucas managed to create a galaxy with history, war and religion whilst also giving his 3 protagonists their own backstories. He always had episodes 5 and 6 in his head.

The real question is: does this have to be the final trilogy in a trilogy of trilogies?

The first two trilogies were completely related. The fall and the redemption of anakin Skywalker. So what's next for that story?

Who knows? I guess that's what's so exciting - the possibilities.

The first two are both ground-breaking, stunning masterpieces in my opinion.

I haven't seen The Clone Wars, but I've heard very good things about it. Saying that, though, no matter how good the extended universe stuff is, it isn't official canon. Lucas did not create any of the prequels with those books in mind so has no excuse for them sucking major ass.

I'm expecting that Han Solo will die as well.

And yep, I have far more faith in a Star Wars movie by Abrams and Kasdan than I do in one written and directed by Lucas.

True, but I'm very confident it will be a damn sight better than the prequels.

Episode IV is very clever in that regard. It mentions backstory and other characters so they can be introduced in future without it seeming forced, but they are not essential to the contained story of episode IV. That's when Lucas was good.

Good lord. It's so nice to be a fan of something that's in production.

The one thing I hope they don't do, is make it a CGI lovefest. After the Hobbit and Avatar, i'm sick of these films that look more like a videogame. A fine line betwween CGI and the Henson's animatronics is required. And no Jar Jar!

I still can't watch emotionless, padme's last words: "you broke my heart anakin" and I was born in the first trilogy, you merely adapted the first trilogy :) . Empire strikes back is my fav, but i enjoy the prequel trilogy, especially Revenge of the Sith.

Oh thats a given.

He definitely had it all in his head - with one exception: Luke and Leia being family rather than possible lovers. Even in Empire he hasn't got that plotline nailed down.

Good point. I read somewhere that there was supposed to be another Skywalker. (Yoda points this out with his "no.. there is another" line in ep5). Obviously somewhere between empire and jedi he decided to scrap this character and just use leia. Probably around the same time he burnt out lose episodes 7,8 and 9

I had to reassess the prequels recently when I watched them with my six year old daughter who was seeing them for the first time. Bits I found cheesy or slapstick she thought funny. By the end of ROTS she was sobbing. For her, still to see the original trilogy the prequels story.was a tragedy. She is now hooked and wants to watch them over and over. She watched them the way I watched the originals when I was 7 just devouring the stories and not caring about the context.

Bless George for making great kids films. Now, I hope that is the thing they don't lose with our smart post modern take on what nostalgia should be.

This is very true. At this point, if they can combine the enjoyment of the originals with an extra factor that allows them to be seen as good movies in general, just like the originals , that would make the new trilogy amazing. That's the problem with the prequels: they're only great if you're truly invested in the universe, which I am. The originals are more than just good Star Wars movies, though, they're great movies.

Liking TDKR quote snuck in their!

Simple quesiton: why would anyone want to appear in a "Star Wars" film?

Excluding those who already had top careers before appearing (Ford, Portman, Jackson, etc....), has appearing in one ever helped an actor's career? has it ever helped a young up-coming actor become a star?

Seems more a curse than a blessing.

I'm definitely not trying to excuse the flaws of the prequels, but the great extended universe stuff wouldn't have come out if it weren't for them. That still counts for something in my book.

And you should definitely watch 'The Clone Wars' (which has officially been made canon anyway now). It gets off to a rocky start, but really becomes something special a few episodes into its first season. Even fans of the original trilogy will find something for them in later episodes (in particular the increasingly Empire-like aesthetic of the Republic Army and the birth of the Vader-Tarkin relationship).

I think the prequels had a great premise, with the Emperor's rise to power and the way he eased himself into control being very clever. But they don't get the credit they deserve for that because they did a lot wrong still (jamming every original trilogy character in, terrible dialogue, generally a bit too meandering, Ja Ja etc.).

Ford didn't have a top career before Star Wars, did he?

Well, in fairness, Lucas WAS hoping to lower expectations for The Phantom Menace, resigned as he was to the apparent inevitability that he'd "never beat Titanic."

Interesting you described Episodes I and II as filler, that's exactly what Luca$ referred to them as! He said 80% of the backstory ended up in Episode III alone and the previous two were just filler... thank goodness he's no longer holding the reins of the 'Wars because he damn near ran it into the ground before he left!

The whole 'Star Wars' enterprise should have ended gracefully with 'Return of the Jedi' in 1983, but I'll give Jar Jar Abrams the benefit of the doubt, he seems genuinely commited to making something really special...

No he didn't, and has admitted as much that he made it all up as he went along... this whole myth that Luca$ had it all planned from the outset is just that, a myth!

The prequels had in principle a genuinely compelling story to tell (even if it was unnecessary as we already knew how it would end, who lived and who died, not to mention being boxed into already-established story beats from the outset) but were royally botched by Luca$' titanic hubris... an obsession with CGI and it's excessive use, story written on the fly instead of carefully and concisely planned out in advance, films shot as quickly as possible so Luca$ can start fiddling with them in post asap, not hiring great screenwriters to flesh out and fully develop ideas as well as to help craft strong scripts... I could go on, but you get the idea...

They say a film should reflect it's creator (be it writer or director), it's fair to say the fatally-flawed prequels accurately reflect Luca$; emotionally stunted and sterile, 'nuff said.

I didn't know that, that's a bit deflating if I'm honest. The 1st three you could tell were a labour of love, no wonder people lay so much scorn on them if he admits with the 1st two prequels he had no real story to tell. He should have made 2 good films instead of 2 rubbish and one okay film. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

I know they aren't making the EU canon, but if they take bits from it, I'd like to see Ysanne Isard used, or make a similar character. She's definitely evil enough (possibly moreso than Palpatine). Or they could go for a version of the Yuuzhan Vong war, but that might need too many films.
Actually, the main thing I want is for them to use various lightsaber colours (I think Clone Wars made that canon?) and possibly use other light weapons.

Lucas succeeded in dropping expectations to the floor for the next installment. If the new film is remotely entertaining it will be a smash compared to the dreadful prequels.

The originals weren't kids films, they were family films. They appealed to the inexperienced mind of a 7 year old as well as that kids parent. The prequels, I agree are kids films and can only be enjoyed by the young or the old that just visually ingest what they watch and never think about it.

though to be fair Ford's career was kickstarted by Indy.

Re: The Hunger Games, I can assure you that the third book most definitely does not have a simple 'good versus evil' approach.

Ford was in "American Graffiti" and "The Conversation" before Star Wars, and afterwards broke the trilogy line with appearances in "Force 10 from Navarone" and "Apocalypse Now" as well as the Indiana Jones films.

So not only did he have good work in solid movies before, but afterwards appeared in more movies inbetween, so that he could never be typecast as Han Solo.

So Ford certainly wasn't an unknown fresh-faced kid in "New Hope".

He had solid work, I just don't think you can say he had a 'top' career until Star Wars. He got Indy partly as a response to that- although I think I heard his Apocalypse Now work helped too. I agree with your basic point, but I reckon Ford was the exception- it's still amazing that 6 huge films only really helped 1 career take off..

This is true. It's quite a troubling story and deals with the brutalising affect of war in an interesting way. Star Wars actually has quite an infantile approach to good versus evil. The baddies are called the Evil Empire. Darth is bad. And then at the end he's redeemed and is good again. Nice and cosy. Even Harry Potter has more nuance than Star Wars. Is Snape a good person who does bad things? Is he a bad person who does good? Is he redeemed?

Sponsored Links