You know what I most vividly remember about seeing the first Star Wars movie? That it didn’t seem like a regular movie, but rather like some kind of strange, special event. I was 7. I didn’t know anything about hype or watch the news about the blockbuster phenomena. Hell, I’m not even sure how long the movie had been out when I saw it at the New Martinsville, West Virginia drive-in theater on a summer night in 1977. But long before I knew that George Lucas got kicked out of the Director’s Guild for eschewing opening credits, I noticed that there weren’t credits. Up until that time, I think every movie I had ever seen– Herbie the Love Bug, For the Love of Benji, Darbie O’Gill and the Little People — had credits. I probably waited for them for fifteen minutes until forgetting about it. So there was this unsettling quality to the movie where we just jumped right in with that shot of the star destroyer that completely blew me away.
So of course, the effects were amazing, the story fun, more jokes than I’d ever seen in the painfully serious sci-fi I had seen up to that point, but the thing that took it over the top for me were the authorial touches like the lack of opening credits. For instance, you don’t meet the main character until 25 minutes into the main action and it wasn’t immediately evident to my immature theater going eyes that he was even going to be the main character. Uncle Owen could have just as easily walked away with the movie as Luke. Unsettling! And when you finally meet Han Solo, I liked him a lot better than Luke. I want to make clear that I wasn’t aware at the time that I liked the movie for its filmmaking qualities. I still like the story too!
And how about The Empire Strikes Back? There’s a movie that doesn’t live up to movie conventions. They don’t resolve anything! Han is frozen in carbonite! Luke loses a fight to Darth Vader. No one kills Lando! I don’t care if he made up for it, you can’t trust a guy who sells you out to Darth Vader! And Luke is Vader’s son? I had no idea what to do with that information. And I knew I would have to wait years– YEARS– to figure it all out.
There was something about a Star Wars movie where it took you into time long, long ago and leaves you stunned when the lights come back on and you’re just in dumb old now.
This magic of the first two movies was somewhat mitigated in the next movies, which although I enjoyed, were more like movies. Although people who haven’t seen Return of the Jedi in the theater don’t know how unbelievable that finale space battle was on a big screen, so I’m certainly not complaining about Jedi. But the movies were so much more conventional. If anything, Attack of the Clones was trying to be more fun, but somewhere along the line, Lucas became less of a playful filmmaker and more of an adult who wanted kids to smile (no issues with that from me). But after all the world building in the original trilogy, the new trilogy didn’t have a lot to say.
For instance, one mistake that Lucas made in the new trilogy was trying to expand on the mythology, which, for whatever reason, did not need expanded one. The worst sin of midi-chlorians is that they bring absolutely nothing to the story of the force. If there had been a moment in the early prequels where a bad guy killed all the midi-chlorians or something, then it would have been okay to mention them. But nothing came of that… except a weird explanation for an unnecessary virgin birth that also didn’t further the plot in any way.
I would argue that the reason the first two movies were so good was because Lucas somewhere along the line was a very experimental filmmaker who loved film and wanted in on that conversation, the conversation that started with sci-fi serials and, at that point, ended with a strong directorial voice linking up people around the block to see a shark eat people. For me, a guy like Quentin Tarantino is a direct descendant of Lucas, a guy who is much more interested in film than real life, history, or personal relationships with people. Pulp Fiction is such a surprising film because Tarantino knows where the stories should go in a movie and takes them somewhere else, talking to film rather than life.
I don’t think that anyone ever accused J.J. Abrams– the director of The Force Awakens — of being an experimental filmmaker. But he is an interesting story teller who could surprise us with the direction that a plot takes. I really like his first ‘Star Trek’ movie and didn’t really like the second one, but they were rebuilding a franchise and trying to find a way to completely re-imagine Star Trek. Both of those movies felt a little “committee.” For instance, you have a young Spock and an old Spock? Maybe kill the old one in some spectacular way or something. This could easily happen to the Star Wars movies as well.
I didn’t love Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, but I liked so, so much about it. I think the bottom line is, don’t throw a heavyweight actor like Bryan Cranston into the mix around people who can’t quite live up to him. So… just one of those things. Gareth is a very interesting filmmaker and his ‘Monsters’ is my favorite kind of independent style movie, one with big budget-style effects. So I can’t even imagine how cool his Rogue One is going to look.
I think that any time someone a movie is about to be rebooted or a franchise added to, there is one important question in front of filmmakers, should we give them what they want or what they need. A great example of giving them what they want would be Die Hard 2 or Speed 2, movies that are, essentially re-makes of the first movie. Arguably, Return of the Jedi falls into this trap a little (the Empire have another Death Star?!?!?), but I will give Lucas this much credit for the Phantom Menace trilogy, they have very little to with the original trilogy. I want them to give me what I need, a story that shows off the character’s strengths (for instance, Han not being in the Falcon in Return of the Jedi, it was an interesting gamble that didn’t pay off) and furthers the story of Luke, Han, Leia, and a bunch of other people that I don’t care about as much. Sorry, Chewie!
So what do I want from the new movies? I want them to do that, to be special somehow, not just another movie. I want them to surprise me. Jaded old me isn’t going to fall in love in anything ever again the way I fell for ‘Star Wars’ in 1977, but the path back to the path of the light side would be to take chances, realize that there is no way to destroy the Star Wars franchise, and find a way to make me think that they didn’t make this movie because the toy sales were dropping off, but rather because they were creative types who wanted to play in the sandbox that George Lucas filled.
With the benefit of hindsight, the Star Wars movies may seem like sure bets, but they weren’t. They were a wild risk that shouldn’t have worked. That magic can’t be re-created, but the spirit of experimentation that people responded to can.