You’ve Taken Your First Step Into A Larger World: The Rewarding Singularity of Star Wars

Not too long ago, I found myself in a local comic book store looking through the latest issues. While I scanned the spinner racks, I caught a conversation between the cashier and a patron regarding the Star Wars franchise. This is not what one would call an uncommon occurrence, as it should be no surprise that a sanctuary of nerdom was engaging in a dialogue regarding nerdom’s most precious holy text. It started casually with opinions about the latest Star Wars comics published under the Marvel banner[1] and detoured into predictions about the then upcoming Star Wars: Battlefront video game and the long awaited movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But inevitably, the question that draws definitive lines in the sand was posed: favorite Star Wars movie? Automatically, all three prequels are eliminated from consideration. A fan could be brave and go to bat for Return of the Jedi (still a quality conclusion to the original trilogy) but they would also have to defend slave Leia and Ewoks.[2] The choice then narrows to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Both are great (two of the greatest films of all time) but whatever you choose, you are making a profound statement about yourself. Either answer could be perceived as plain or contrarian, making your response to it a political quagmire.

Both of the men in question answered Star Wars and I can’t help but agree with them. Ever since its release in 1977, the space opera has generated a franchise (and a greater industry) that has sought to replicate the impossibly entertaining heights of its initial entry. Though Empire Strikes Back is a remarkable sequel that shades in the outlines established in its predecessor, Star Wars remains a quintessential example to the unambiguous pleasures that mainstream Hollywood can conjure. You all know the story: after the meager Rebel Alliance has stolen the plans to the Death Star (the Galactic Empire’s latest superweapon), farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is thrust into a world he could’ve scarcely imagined. George Lucas took the maligned artifacts of his childhood (movie serials, comic books, and even real world history) and transformed them into the building blocks for generations of kids to play with. The media empire that has spawned from Star Wars has by far supplanted the movie itself, as nearly everyone associates the moniker as a “brand” rather than anything that would resemble an individual work. Of course this obvious transformation of Star Wars the movie into Star Wars as a self-sustaining market results from countless action figures and t-shirts that has existed for nearly four decades now. But even Lucas’s own tampering of his original film(s) has made Star Wars an example of retroactive storytelling that threatens to unravel the seams that made the series so special. Again, all of this contributes to the separation of Lucas’s 1977 science fiction classic from the context that all movies are ultimately designed for: as individual pieces of entertainment. But even after all these years, special editions, fan edits, novelizations, and impending sequels, Star Wars holds up as a profound cinematic experience that uses all of the medium’s narrative and stylistic tricks to imbue in its audience a memorable journey of escapism.

Ben_3po_luke

A large part of this immersion is achieved not through flashy effects sequences or shiny costume/creature designs but by characters who we can immediately relate to. Sure, the journey of Luke is one that draws on a long history of “hero’s journey” mythology that Lucas has made no qualms about admitting drew heavy inspiration from the analysis of Joseph Campbell. But to dismiss Luke’s arc as overly simplistic is to miss a large part of power that his characterization carries. Over the span of Star Wars’s two hour running time, Luke (a humble farm boy who uses vague whispers of possibilities elsewhere to get through the tedious days on the un-colorful, desolate Tatooine) finds himself in the middle of a conflict whose battle lines and loyalties appear ever changing. He serves as an interesting counter point to Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the sexier, more polished captain of the Millennium Falcon. Where Han sees a chance for a handsome reward that could get him out of a tough spot with some seedy gangsters Luke sees as a worthwhile opportunity to damage an unholy institution that has wreaked havoc on the galaxy and his own family. We all love Han’s penchant for sarcasm but its only there because of Luke’s naked earnestness, a quality that is easy to mock but hard to exhibit. In another contemporaneous director’s hands[3], Han (the embittered, cynical voyager) would have been the lead who set Luke’s pie-in-the-sky view of the universe straight. Instead, Luke is the one who changes Han, showing the (slightly) elder pilot a future worth fighting for.

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) may intrigue Luke and Han but she’s much more interested in seeing to the destruction of the Death Star, motivated dually by idealism and eventually by the destruction of Alderaan (her home planet). Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) represents an older generation who brings forth tales and principles that predate the grip of the Galactic Empire.[4] Even the droids (C-3PO and R2-D2) that serve as a sort of narrative through line over the course of the movie have a rapport informed by long periods of time shuffled across the galaxy. It’s this sense of fictional archaeology that Lucas engages in that allows Star Wars to work most succinctly as an individual experience. The suggestions of history, shared or independent, make all of the characters work in tandem in such a spectacular fashion.  Between offhand mentions of unseen planets, prior wars, decaying governments, and forgotten religions, Star Wars drops us within a universe fully in motion, giving us just enough to feel acclimated but hinting at even more elements that we may or may not participate in.

Viewing the film in this light, Darth Vader’s place in it becomes all the more fascinating. While the evil Sith Lord would later be revealed as Luke and Leia’s wayward father, his initial appearance in Star Wars instantly establishes him as one of cinema’s all-time greatest villains. As soon as he silently paces into the Tantive IV, coldly looking over the fallen rebels, we can tell that this is a rogue set apart, even among his fellow Imperials. Obi-Wan later reveals to Luke that Vader was an apprentice of his who turned to the Dark Side, slaying Jedi Knights in the name of the Empire. However, the Imperial Lord hardly seems to delight in his work, going about his business without the slightest bit of joy or accomplishment. It’s important to remember that Vader is arguably not even the “big bad” of Star Wars, with Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) most directly representing leadership over the Death Star. Vader comes off like a formidable number two who operates with unlimited impunity, a sort of special liaison to the Emperor[5] who ultimately serves at the pleasure of Tarkin, albeit temporarily.

In one of the most quoted scenes of the series, Vader nearly chokes out an unnamed Grand Moff in a meeting for dismissing his “ancient religion” as a distraction that has no place in the Empire’s mission. The Sith Lord’s casual assertion of power ensures his villainy to be all the scarier, as even the Empire (who balks at Vader’s devotion to the Force) has someone on their side that can combat the potent source of faith that a figure like Obi-Wan can offer to the Alliance. Vader’s heavy, mechanical breathing alone make his presence obvious and foreboding. No exposition or even faint suggestions are given to the origins of Vader’s suit, leaving that piece of history up to the imaginations of audiences. [6]Moreover, this indication of conscious evil in a suit that looks more akin to one of the film’s numerous droids than a human character further removes him from the sympathetic, familiar nature of the characters that comprise the Rebel Alliance.

All of these nuggets of streamlined brilliance continue to make Star Wars a continually enriching experience in its own right. Lucas always intended for the story to continue in further installments but it’s his kitchen sink approach in his original magnum opus that set the saga in motion with such a strong entry. The Empire Strikes Back may have complicated the dynamics set up in its forerunner but Star Wars is the more complete film that is the only entry of the series that doesn’t rely on another installment to complement its arcs. The opening shot in of itself is without compare, effortlessly setting the tone for a world (or series of worlds) where the underdog must go toe-to-toe with a seemingly unconquerable behemoth. But it was Star Wars the film that made Star Wars the brand that monolithic force it argued so desperately against. The “next Star Wars” has no chance of coming from the franchise, a now rejuvenated beast that will roar for untold decades to come.[7] If any movie hopes to break through the status quo that a film like Star Wars created, its best hope is to build a world unto itself that is less interested in building a “cinematic universe” and more interested in putting ordinary characters into extraordinary situations. This solution may seem rudimentary but it’s an essential key to storytelling that busy, convoluted blockbusters all too frequently neglect to follow. For backroom debates among fans to remain fresh over the next thirty years, the “next Star Wars” will need to learn from the prototype of Lucas’s definitive work rather than blindly kowtowing to its own era’s demands for products that manage to be both bloated and overly expedient.

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[1] Which, from what I’ve read, have been uniformly excellent.

[2] That’s not to say people haven’t tried.

[3] William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, etc.

[4] For more on that guy, see here: https://blockbluster.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/i-have-the-high-ground-the-relentless-heroism-of-obi-wan-kenobi-in-revenge-of-the-sith/

[5] Unseen in this original film.

[6] Even though we all know Lucas enumerated those events in the prequels of course. But as the disgraced comedian Bill Cosby once said, we don’t talk about that.

[7] A beast that I will inevitably feed with my dollars and attention.

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