Earnest thoughts on Star Wars Episode VII

Posted: July 29, 2014 in Film

When it was announced that Disney had bought Lucasfilm and commissioned the Star Wars sequel trilogy, it’s fair to say my reaction was a bit like this Robot Chicken sketch. Yeah, I’m not a SW hyper-nerd – I’m a big fan of the original films and I know a fair bit about the concepts explored in the Expanded Universe (EU) but that’s about it – but I approached the idea of more films with trepidation, even if I had always wanted them to be made.

As a kid, I think most Star Wars fans will have contemplated what happened next. We all have our own ideas. Those who wanted to take it to the next level will have read the EU novels instead, beginning with the Thrawn Trilogy. It provided a concrete story for those that wanted one – Han and Leia getting married and having children, Luke getting married and having a son, the establishment of a new Republic and a new Jedi Order, and various other increasingly far-fetched and ridiculous plotlines based around absurd villains.

New films were always the dream. However, I suddenly became dubious of the idea when they were surprisingly confirmed in October 2012. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that it didn’t look like they would be made up until that point, and we always want what we can’t get. There was an air of mystery around it (for those of us who didn’t like the books), and limitless possibilities of potential stories.

After it was confirmed that they would actually be made, it dawned on me that perhaps it’s better having limitless possibilities. Gradually over the next 17 months and the four years after that, those possibilities will diminish and there will be one reality. We’ll probably learn the fates of the main characters from the original trilogy. The chances are some of them will die. It’s a bit bleak, really – this next series of films will torpedo dreams rather than inspire them.

Of course, much of this will depend on the quality of the films, and boy do they need to be good.

I subscribe to the traditional view of Star Wars films, which anyone who has seen Red Letter Media’s brilliant Mr Plinkett reviews of the prequel trilogy will be familiar with – Star Wars (“or, as assholes call it, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope“) and The Empire Strikes Back were the best films, Return of the Jedi was good too, and the prequels were abysmal. There’s very little I could say on the prequels that hasn’t already been covered by the likes of the Plinkett reviews – they are entertaining in and of themselves as well as being accurate reviews, so I suggest you set aside a few hours and watch them if you’re interested in deconstructions of them.

The prequels have certainly lowered expectations for the upcoming sequel trilogy. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were such enormous disappointments for just about everyone other than 9-year-olds (like me) that they have left people wondering how far the franchise will plummet rather than how high they can reach with these new films.

This leaves them with a lot of work to do to convince the general audience that these films don’t have to be mindless money-making juggernauts. The films will no doubt be enormous successes financially regardless, because Star Wars remains a pop culture icon and the first one is being released in the lucrative holiday season next year, but that doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to win over people into thinking that they are any good, let alone great.

It also has to provide plausible, sensitive closure for this saga that viewers will respect, if it is indeed to be the last of the trilogies of the main series. The prequels completely cocked this up by turning the back story to the original trilogy into an incomprehensible, unappealing mess, but luckily since the template was restricted by what came after, there was a limit on how damaging they could be. The sequels could be much more damaging – if they drop a bridge on an iconic character like Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, they’re going to piss off a lot of people.

The other aspect of this is that these films didn’t need to be made. Whereas Lucas probably made a bed for himself when he decided to rename the original trilogy Episodes IV, V and VI, the arc was complete after ROTJ – the bad guys had been defeated, Darth Vader had saved the world, and it ended on a happy note. Lucas deliberately made sure all of the loose ends were tied up because by the time he made it, he didn’t expect more sequels to be made. He reiterated this for the next two-and-a-half decades.

The sequels are thus fighting an uphill battle because they are inherently superfluous, unless they can bring something new to the table that also continues the themes of the previous six films. Even if they can, it still looks like they were tagged on to make more money, but at least good films will keep the cynicism in the background.

So I was intrigued by some of the rumours that have emerged from the production of the film, which has been ongoing in the last few months and is just starting to pick up pace – there are sets in Pinewood, they have been filming in Abu Dhabi and the Forest of Dean, and they are currently on the spectacular island of Skellig Michael in County Kerry, Ireland.

The biggest alleged leak emerged last week. It suggested that Luke Skywalker has been missing for 30 years, having left the rest of the group of heroes around the time of the final battle depicted in ROTJ. The initial part of Episode VII will seemingly centre around the search to find him. Mark Hamill has been spotted at Skellig Michael, where there is a ruined monastery, which suggests that he’s not just sitting around waiting for someone to rescue him.

Who is searching? The indications are that it will be the characters of John Boyega (a stormtrooper-turned-good guy) and Daisy Ridley (possibly the daughter of Han Solo), along with Han Solo. The MacGuffin that initially drives the search for Luke is reportedly his hand and lightsaber (though which hand and lightsaber is unclear) which is depicted in the opening scene. It also seems likely that there still is a certain amount of ongoing galactic conflict.

I like the idea. After the hideously complicated stories of the prequels, with no character depth and no plausible motivation for many of their actions, it goes back to the original idea behind Star Wars – a classic quest with humble beginnings that likely leads to something larger. Luke being missing adds the mysterious element, and it’s entirely logical that there would still be wars going on, because the Empire would not have simply collapsed when the Emperor died. So it feels like it’s back to basics without being unrealistic.

Many Star Wars nerds have gone apeshit, though. There are two main reasons for this. One is that they don’t like the idea of the hand being seen floating through space at the beginning (“because it’s not Star Wars”), even though we have no idea how this will be shot – JJ Abrams isn’t an idiot and isn’t going to make the opening shot in his Star Wars film look utterly ridicuous.

The other is that they don’t like the idea that Luke would have just upped and left after the final battle in ROTJ. They say he had more worked to do, to “pass on what he has learned” as Yoda instructed him to do. I don’t see the sense in that criticism either. We haven’t been told his motivation for leaving yet but it makes sense that he would have to leave in order to do more research on the Jedi in secret, or perhaps secretly find an apprentice and train him/her. Even if this isn’t the case, there are still many more reasons why he might leave. We don’t know yet so it’s not worth complaining about.

The problem is a lot of Star Wars nerds already have an idea in their heads of the form these films should take, based primarily around the ideas set down by the Expanded Universe, and that anything running against it will be “wrong”, because supposedly that was the logical path things had to take after the end of the original trilogy. They want a conservative film that sticks to the same characters and premise set out by the EU. It would be like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – the same people doing the same stuff but when they’re old. And we all know how that came out.

On the contrary I hope the new films take a massive dump on the Expanded Universe and do something totally different, which seems to be the case. The plots of some of the various series are so unimaginative and uninspiring they read like the ramblings of a 9-year-old: there’s a new big bad evil person or group of people and they have to (and invariably do) destroy them before they take over the galaxy. Some new characters have arcs but the main characters from the films remain pretty much the same, which is kind of logical from a marketing perspective but boring from a creativity perspective.

The films have the chance to do something much more interesting with the old characters. I appreciate that people don’t like change but these are new Star Wars episodes, not The Adventures of Luke Skywalker and Friends. If you want a general audience to enjoy this film and become emotionally involved in it, the characters have to be believable and go through an arc. This is partly why the prequels were so bad – the characters were flat, boring and impossible to relate to, and the only one with a half-decent arc in any of them was fucking Jar-Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace.

The Expanded Universe was made for SW nerds, not for a general audience. Most people want more than visually-appealing gratuitous violence and Luke Skywalker doing boring hero stuff because he’s Luke Skywalker. To think otherwise would be to entirely miss the point of the original trilogy.

Time will tell if JJ Abrams also misses the point. But I trust him because he’s a professional film-maker with a good record of making interesting films, and I’m excited by what I’ve heard so far. That feeling of trepidation about these films is long gone.

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