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.

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