Thoughts on the Star Wars Franchise (1/2) The Golden Age

I’m going to “quickly” lay out my feelings on the Star Wars saga. I’ll preface this by confessing I’m really not the biggest fan and I’m not familiar with most non-film material except The Holiday Special. (Which is infamously terrible but kind of fun in a kitschy way.) That said, like most people in the US, the original trilogy was a big part of my life when I was young. So, I felt it was worth weighing in.

The Original Trilogy

The original trilogy (OT) is a mess. An enjoyable, iconic mess which I have fond nostalgic memories of, but it was all a happy accident. As I’ve said in my essay about George Lucas, I now consider the backstory of how the films were made to be more interesting than the films themselves.

The first movie would have been terrible without the interjections of other people to sort out Lucas’ worse ideas. At one point, Luke was going to be a dwarf and Han Solo a frog-like alien. Without Brian de Palma’s advice, the title crawl would have given a meticulous history of the galaxy that almost certainly would have bored the audience to tears. The heroes were called Jedi Windu of the Bouush or some such nonsense. Its thanks to Lucas’ director friends as well as his crew (Gary Kurtz, Ralph McQuarrie, etc) that the story got ironed out so well. McQuarrie in particular deserves a lot of respect for giving the films their distinct look and inspiring the character of Vader. The first cut of Star Wars was slower, plodding and has been described as a disaster by all accounts. George’s wife Marcia Lucas went back in at the eleventh hour and re-edited it to be more fast-paced and fun. That’s why she won an Oscar for the film–its only Oscar–because everyone in Hollywood knew she had saved the film.

Anyway, it’s a fun popcorn movie that struck a nerve with audiences who were sick of all the cynical arty films of the 70s. It’s a thrilling adventure that reinvents the “hero saves the princess from a dragon” archetype with a space age aesthetic. The performances are perfect for what they have to be (it’s not Shakespeare, it’s a Buck Rogers serial for a new generation.) The lore isn’t nearly as fleshed out as the worlds of Tolkien or GRRM but considering the constraints of film as a medium (2 hour runtime), it’s perfect for what it has to be. There’s enough details (Rebels good, Empire bad, scientific advancement hasn’t superseded spirituality) to stimulate the imagination without bogging the audience down with tedious exposition. It works perfectly as a standalone film but there are enough loose ends (Vader escaping, exploring more of the force, etc) to set up a greater story.

in my opinion, the worst part of the first movie are externalities which couldn’t possibly have been foreseen during its creation. Namely, it created the modern Blockbuster Era of Hollywood which I find to be a step down from the director-driven New Hollywood of the ’70s. Not only that, but I believe the franchise has since grown out of control and become its own worst enemy, but we’ll get to that soon enough.

Empire Strikes Back is one of my all-time favorite movies, and has come to be regarded as the perfect sequel. It takes every character as well as every piece of the mythos and expands on them. Darth Vader is no longer a one-dimensional bad guy, he’s Luke’s father who turned to the dark side. This makes Luke’s invincibility as the hero suddenly in question, and leaves him conflicted about how to proceed since he’d be killing the same father he wanted to avenge. The fact that Luke’s own mentors lied shakes his faith on whether the good side is as perfect as he might have thought. Leia goes from just being a spunky princess to a fearless leader who’s the last to leave the Hoth base. At the same time, she’s also vulnerable and nurturing with Luke and Han, which is an aspect of her character we never saw before. It was a bit of a stretch to consider the Leia from the previous movie as this big important leader of the cause. Empire‘s Leia, however, is believable as an invaluable commander to her coalition.

Han has matured so much he throws himself into a blizzard essentially on horseback in order to save Luke without hesitation. Through subtle looks, Harrison Ford is able to communicate sadness and brotherly affection towards Leia and Luke–it’s some of his best acting. I love Han’s character arc in particular because he’s able to outrun the whole imperial fleet, but not his past sins. (Represented by Boba Fett and Lando’s betrayal, the kind of shady people he was hanging out with before he met Leia.) It always makes me sad when I watch, because at this point in the story, Han’s a great guy who’s trying to redeem himself for years of criminality and apathy. Sometimes though, you just fail to keep the people you love safe despite your best efforts. It’s something that happens all the time in history (ancient warfare when a city was sacked) or in our daily lives (abductions and muggings.) For this reason, Empire‘s Han Solo is a great tragic character, and it’s this iteration who’s one of my favorite movie heroes. Sadly, I don’t see too many reviewers emphasize this part of the film; it’s mentioned but never given the weight it deserves. I love the bitter irony of Leia’s barb (“someday you’re gonna be wrong and I just hope I’m there to see it!”) thrown back in her face when Han promised everything would be okay in Cloud City.

What everybody does talk about in regards to this movie is Darth Vader, and for good reason. In the first film he’s a middling flunky whom none of the officers take seriously. In ROTJ he was nerfed and once again reduced to another man’s lapdog (“I told you to wait on the command ship!”) Here, for the only time in the entire saga, we see Vader as a badass who commands fear every time he enters a room. When he promotes someone, it’s not a praise, it’s a threat. The last time we see Vader in the film, he’s storming offstage with the Imperial officers nervously awaiting their punishment. However, one of the misconceptions of this film seems to be that it’s an example of the bad guys winning–even though that’s not the case. Vader’s fate at the end is just as tragic as the rebels who’ve now lost Han. After all, he just witnessed his own son attempt suicide rather than be associated with him in any way. This emotional high point of the movie seems to get ignored a lot too in my experience, but can you imagine how hurtful that must have been for him?

I could go on, but you get the point and countless others have picked this film apart already. I will just add that ESB is special to me for one other reason: the Carbon Freeze scene which gives this entire blog its name. It’s the best example of art through adversity in the creative process I know of. The scene was added to the script late in production because Harrison Ford was unsure if he’d want to return or not. Rather than let it ruin the movie though, the production team used this real life development to enhance the story. The result is a heartbreaking scene, some added weight to Luke’s arc (since he couldn’t save the guy who’d rescued him twice by this point) and the image of Han in Carbonite. It may sound silly but that’s an image I find to be extremely powerful. From what I understand, originally the hands were supposed to remain bound as they are when we see Han lowered into the pit. However, the crew found that this body language immortalized in the frozen imprint wasn’t dramatic enough. So, they changed it to Han holding his hands up in a defensive position as if to emphasize how painful the freezing process is. (I also see it as him reaching out for a comforting hand to squeeze, but tragically “dying” alone.) The in-universe justification for this artistic license is that Han, being a criminal, would have experience picking a lock.

The Carbon Freeze is like the perfect visual equivalent to O’Brien’s terrifying monologue in 1984 (“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever!”) That visual is a warning for the terror of despotic regimes, and a call to arms to fight back against them.

“And remember that it is forever. The face will always be there to be stamped upon. The heretic, the enemy of society, will always be there, so that he can be defeated and humiliated over again” –O’Brien, 1984

Return of the Jedi used to be my favorite film in the series when I was a kid, but mostly just because I had this naive idea that the last part of a story was innately the most epic. Now, I see it as something of an embarrassment which has only grown in stature because the prequel and sequel trilogy make it look better by comparison. After ESB was made by a team of experts, this time Lucas scaled back and took a heavier reign of the set due to ESB going overbudget. ESB was originally supposed to be opening the door for 3 or 4 more movies, hence the many dangling plot threads including the other Jedi Yoda alluded to. Sadly, by the time filming had wrapped, everyone (especially Harrison Ford) was so sick of this series that they agreed to wrap it up in the next installment. That’s why ROTJ feels like 3 different movies thrown together–because it is. Rather than be its own dedicated story as it probably should have been, rescuing Han from Jabba the Hutt is now a chore which saps 30 minutes from what should have been a tight endgame. That’s only the most egregious example.

The plot to save Han also makes zero sense because it involves getting everyone kidnapped. So what if Jabba agreed to trade Han for the droids–they would have just left C3PO and R2D2 there? What if Leia had succeeded in saving Han–they just leave the droids AND Chewie there? Why does Luke only demand Han and Chewie when he arrives–did he somehow not see Leia there? What if Luke was having a bad day and lost the Rancor fight or the sail barge fight went wrong–now not only do all the men die, but Leia is basically a sex slave to the worst people in the galaxy. What if Jabba didn’t want to see Leia half-naked and instead threw her to the Rancor as he did to Luke? What if, instead of the Sarlacc, Jabba just ordered everyone to be executed by firing range right then and there in the throne room? The plan is too complicated, relies on a million factors to go exactly right, and leaves everyone at the mercy of a bunch of space-gangsters if it goes wrong. There’s no guarantee Jabba wouldn’t have thrown Chewie to the Rancor, raped Leia and/or melted down the droids for scrap metal before Luke got there to save everyone. Why not just send Luke and when he gets sent to the Sarlacc pit, the others fly down in the Millennium Falcon to blow everyone up and save him? (Because then we wouldn’t have gotten to see a sword fight and Leia in a golden bikini, that’s why.)

Besides that, the ewoks suck as has been noted a million times. Han and Lando never properly reconcile, so the latter’s betrayal has no weight anymore. It ends with a teddy bear mosh pit. It’s unrealistic that sticks and stones could beat the heavily armored Imperial Army. Doing another Death Star was lazy and derivative. Everybody’s acting (except Mark Hamill’s) has noticeably gotten worse. Harrison’s heart’s not in it and you can tell by his lazy delivery. Carrie Fisher isn’t even acting anymore; her voice sounds completely different compared to Empire because she’s no longer trying to remain in-character. Can you really blame them though, for not being invested? Carrie Fisher asked to be able to show more vulnerability and got handed a bikini. Han’s story, which was by far the most fascinating part of ESB, is reduced to getting captured by a slug, then teddy bears, then standing next to a wall and shooting. The flaws are numerous and have been well-documented by now. I postulate that the reason some people defend this obviously inferior product is due to nostalgia and lazily grouping all three films together as one despite their stark differences in direction, production, cinematography, tone and (as a result,) quality.

Luke’s plotline still has its moments but doesn’t fully hold up to scrutiny. I liked the redemption of Vader and Ian McDiarmond steals the show as the Emperor. However, there really wasn’t much to tempt Luke to the dark side with, so the Emperor’s plan doesn’t really make much sense. The story seems to want us to believe that to smite down wicked people who’d otherwise cause harm, or feel angry even for a second, is to become evil. To me, that’s such a ridiculously simplified view of morality that Luke’s standoff scenes in the throne room always felt…off. But what’s more egregious is the idea that Luke never returned to Yoda immediately after ESB to train. This means he made the exact same mistake at Jabba’s that he did at the end of ESB, only this time he happened to get lucky. It’s also disappointing that Luke accepts Yoda and Obi-Wan’s terrible excuses for not being honest with him. This should have been a more gray, complex confrontation and Luke should have at least been somewhat upset at first. That’s not even mentioning the Leia-sister reveal, which is not only stupid from a story-telling perspective but also represents a second betrayal. The way Luke carries himself throughout the film implied that he’s learned a lot off-screen, grown emotionally through trauma and shock, and is a new man. However, the fact that he never trained with Yoda or even confirmed the truth makes this change in him hard to understand.

Overall, it has its moments but Jedi‘s a significantly flawed movie and a weaker follow-up than ESB implied the series was capable of. It bothers me that its flaws are usually boiled down to just the Ewoks when there is so much more which detracts from the experience. I believe Gary Kurtz’ idea for an ending would have been satisfying if bittersweet: Han dies (preferably making the Death Star run himself), Leia carries on to lead the new Republic with a heavy heart, Luke rides off into the sunset in search for his long lost sister. (And, of course, that sister is a completely new, mysterious character to fuel discussions, fan theories and novelizations into the future.)

At least we got the metal bikini out of it.

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