I first saw Star Wars a long time ago in a cinema far away. It was 1977. I was at high school. Disco music was king. And so was Star Wars – so much so that nobody could get into the movie. First time I tried, the theatre manager came out to tell the disappointed queue they’d sold out.
Finally I got to see it. And woah! It was totally awesome from the moment those credits started rolling into infinity. The power of the story came from its archetypes – it was the classic hero journey (just like Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit) with deep mythological elements that spoke to its audience on a visceral level.
Not too surprising – Lucas deliberately set out to do that, hauling in Joseph Campbell, the world expert on mythology, as a script advisor.
At the time it was a one-off, a solid tale echoing the heroic sci-fi of the 1940s – again by design. Probably nobody imagined just how it might take off, but apparently Lucas had already devised other ways the story could expand, and had options on further movies.
Usually the follow-up movie is weaker because the character arc has been told – but Star Wars Episode 2 (sorry, 5): The Empire Strikes Back (dir. Irvin Kershner) was another winner – this time with a twist that gave it punch, although this wasn’t apparently part of Lucas’s original concept. That didn’t matter. The movie was gritty, hard-edged, and raised the bar.
Then came Star Wars Episode 3 (sorry, 6): The Return of the Jedi, written by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas, where what appeared to be teddy-bears were able to defeat the crack troops of the bad-assiest empire in the universe, where the irredeemable bad guy turned good, and where after 134 execrable minutes the trilogy ended with a saccharine happy-families scene. Ouch.
Apparently the ending Lucas originally wrote – in which Luke put on the defeated Vader’s helmet and became him – was scrapped as not being kid-friendly. Damn.
The other things I remember about that movie are that I saw it in the same theatre as I’d seen the first, and one of the group I went to see it with is currently President of the New Zealand Law Society, but probably these details aren’t so relevant to my critique. Anyway, I didn’t bother wasting my time and money when Lucas re-booted the franchise with Star Wars 1: The Farting Menace (or some such title).
Recently I watched the Yet Another Directors’ Cut of the first (er – fourth) episode. Lucas had been twiddling – adding CGI effects to realise stuff that wasn’t possible with seventies SFX. But he also kiddified the story, particularly the Han Solo scene in the cantina, where he shallowed both Solo’s character and character arc by having the ‘bad guy’ shoot first.
The art of kids’ stories is the adult-friendly layer, which kids pick up even if they don’t see the full sophistication – but which is still the arbiter for them, as it is for adults, as to whether the story is cool or dumb. Achieving that balance is incredibly difficult. The original Star Wars had it. The tweaked version didn’t.
Now? No question that Star Wars has become one of the pillars of western pop-culture. Which is totally awesome – but as always, that isn’t one-size-fits-all. I’ve been a sci-fi fan since forever (hey, I write the stuff!) – but I also look for human stories in movies, and so for me, the question is whether I should see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I gather it’s redeemed the franchise a bit. Recommendations?
Or am I better to watch this:
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015