the latest

« Screens

Star Wars Day: Happy May the Fourth, And a Very Merry Revenge of the Fifth

One man's 35 year trip to a galaxy far, far away
Richard Whittaker, 7:34pm, Sat. May. 4, 2013

I will always remember the first time I saw a Star Wars film. It was early 1978, and it changed my life.

This was back in the days of battered up movie houses, when films would open in the USA and the rest of the world could wait weeks, months or in vain for films to arrive. Living in the North of England, with only one single screen picture palace, it was a roll of the dice whether we'd get to see this amazing film, with space knights and laser swords and robots, that we'd heard so much about.

I remember the evening clearly, or at least I think I do. A dinner of fish and chips. The long walk to the cinema. Playing with a rubber ball, waiting for the doors to open. A pre-feature short documentary about dune buggy racing. And then that crawl, and the big ship chasing the little ship, and my life changed.

It wasn't just the film. It was that it opened my eyes to film culture. On a recent trip back to the UK, I found my old copy of the Marvel Star Wars Official Collectors Edition, and I remembered how it had opened the doors. Imagine my pre-teen self, having already been taken to a galaxy far, far away, and now reading that the film had a history. Director/creator George Lucas was weaving this film out of threads of culture. The articles talked about how pulp classics like Buck Rogers and Tarzan had inspired favorite moments. I'd heard of those: After all, the BBC regularly reshowed those series, but I turned the page and found about about Metropolis and Scaramouche. It name-checked Todd Browning's Freaks and John Ford's The Searchers, and I wanted to find those films and see how a weird horror and a Western had shaped this film that I loved so much.

That's what Star Wars did. It changed film culture, and to deny it is to deny cinema's destiny. Without Star Wars, I don't know if I would ever have discovered Kurosawa, or been so excited by more unconventional SF like Silent Running. And I think that's true about a generation of film buffs.

Let's put everything else to one side for a second. I firmly believe that Star Wars was the kindergarten film school for a wave of cineastes. I read all those making-of books, and I learned what storyboards were, and matte paintings. Sound designers like Ben Burtt and makeup pioneers such as Stuart Freeborn became heroes to me, just as much as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

And 35 years later, I still know where my heart and my first cinematic debt lies. Through the sequels and the special editions and the prequels, I have been there every step of the way. As Anakin Skywalker fell and was redeemed by his lost son. As Han Solo went from scoundrel to hero, and as Lando Calrissian rose from traitor to savior of the galaxy. As Leia Organa became the heroine that held on to her mother's dream of democracy. As Emperor Palpatine died at the savage end of his own hubris. As Obi Wan Kenobi watched one novice extinguish the light of the Jedi, and another bring the flame back to life. I was there, and every moment moved me. I'm not going to say I hate The Phantom Menace just because it's the easy, trendy, too-cool-for-school thing to say. The pod race, the closing duel of the fates, the subversion of everything we knew about Vader: It still brings a lump to my throat. And if you can't concede that the final hour of Revenge of the Sith is an emotional rollercoaster straight down with one tiny light at the end of the tunnel, well, it's OK. You're still good people.

Yeah, I said, I like the prequels. They fit tonally with the original trilogy and they have barbs and sharpness that most contemporary blockbuster film makers would fear to include.

But the nerd lords held a council and handed down a ruling: You're not allowed to like anything Star Wars related after Wicket W. Warwick poked Princes Leia with his spear. Lucas is stuffy and out of touch, they say. He can't write real people. He keeps tinkering with the story. He raped childhoods, the nay-sayers repeat. And they roll out Gary Kurtz, who transformed a career making Star Wars films into one talking about how they never would have happened without him. It's a job, I suppose. And, considering how fond of nit-picking and idol-dismantling nerd culture can be, a pretty profitable one.

And now we're in the middle of the most tumultuous year for Star Wars fans since Luke had his Maury Povich moment. Lucas divested himself of Lucasfilm to Disney. Now he is taking the $4 billion and change he received to build museums and get involved in education policy as a proponent for arts and creativity in schools. Disney announced that it is moving forward with episodes VII, VII and IX. And here's where it gets … worrisome. After much speculation, Disney hired J.J. Abrams to direct a non-existent script, churning out a sequel every other year through 2019. On the even numbered years, they will move beyond the core Skywalker narrative, and create one-off spin-offs.

Should everyone get worried? Not really, but absolutely. Abrams is technically a very strong film maker. But he has sometimes lacked the brightest spark of originality. His first Star Trek film is an elaborate and expensive piece of fan fiction that seals the franchise off in a pocket universe. Super 8 was a love letter to Lucas' old compatriot Steven Spielberg. He has spent his entire career trying to be Lucas. Now he has the keys to the maker's Fiat Bianchina, and that's a lot of hotrod to handle. But, truth be told, Abrams is of that first Star Wars generation, bathed in the lore. Maybe he really knows what's at stake, beyond a big budget and a lot of merchandising.

And there's a core lie or, at minimum, misunderstanding about what's going on. To say there will be more Star Wars ignores the decades of material, known as the Expanded Universe, that has been produced in novels, comics, video games and TV shows. Thousands of artists, both visual and narrative, have added their own little corner of that big ol' galaxy. Disney's first step was to cancel everything it didn't control. Understandable, predictable, but still saddening. Some losses are proven: Dark Horse's comics have often been stellar (pick up any volume of their Star Wars Tales for some fascinating anthology work.) Others are more speculative: After all, all we had for the lost-in-development Star Wars: 1313, the franchise's first true next gen console game, was a bad-ass trailer. But it's a little insulting and depressing to think that Disney will write off all that work, and all that emotional investment from the fans, out of the canon.

The loss of Dark Horse is particularly galling to many fans. The firm did a lot to revive interest in the franchise back in 1991 with the Dark Empire comic mini-series, and filled in a lot of character blanks with their Clone Wars series, published between 2003 and 2006. Two years after the series finished, Cartoon Network picked up the dropped light saber with a new animated show, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. A lot of people got pissy when they lumped the first few episode of season one together for a cinematic release, saying it wasn't Star Wars-y enough. But five seasons later, the show has a fanatical and growing following. Of course, Disney has now cancelled it, far short of the rumored eight season plan.

The animated The Clone Wars worked because it took time and energy to build up original characters and weave them around the existing mythos. It recently snagged a bounty hunter's dream catch of Daytime Emmy nods: Three nominations for performance in an animated series (Jim Cummings as space pirate Hondo Onaka, David Tennant as padawan-training robot Huyang, and Sam Witwer as the revived Darth Maul), animated direction, musical direction and composition, animation sound mixing, plus the big chance for the title of outstanding animated program.

Like the best of the EU material, The Clone Wars wasn't just another cash-in. The over-arching story line has Anakin Skywalker teaching a padawan, Ahsoka Tano, to become a Jedi Knight in the midst of a galactic civil war. Since the early episodes, it has spread out to deal with maturity about issues of guilt, responsibility, war crimes, rebellion, loyalty. It's up there with Avatar: The Last Airbender as the best show on TV in recent memory about the experience of war. Like Avatar, it manages all that within the safe shell of a kids show.

And that's what Star Wars has always done. When everyone bitched and whined about how The Phantom Menace gets caught up on tariffs and trade embargoes and senate sessions and how this wasn't Star Wars-y, well, yes it was. From day one. From scene one, with Darth Vader talking about ambassadors and consular ships. And go back to read the original novelization of the first film, later redubbed A New Hope. Allan Dean Foster wrote, "Like the greatest of trees, able to withstand any external attack, the Republic rotted from within though the danger was not visible from outside. Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and restore the remembered glory of the Republic."

Somehow, Lucas gets lambasted for making kids happy to watch a political anaology. When Senator Amidala announces, "So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause," everyone knew it was the decade's most searing on-screen commentary about the Patriot Act. And it was right there, in a blockbuster that kids will watch and rewatch and grow up with and show to their children.

For decades, Lucas et al treated kids with a hell of a chunk more respect than most film makers manage, and they responded. And then he gave them Jar Jar Binks, and I'm so bored of explaining why the most belittled character in the mythos is actually a perfect representation of the cosmic fool that I'm done having this discussion. Kids love Jar Jar, just like they love R2-D2. Because, at the end of the day, they were characters built with love, and not by script-polishing committee.

And here's the truth. Star Wars was not built by franchise-friendly directors. Like him or not, Lucas was the art house kid who decided to turn Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces into a space fantasy. Prior to Empire, Irvin Kershner biggest project was the giallo-tinged The Eyes of Laura Mars. And when Lucas was looking for someone to direct Return of the Jedi, Richard Marquand caught his attention with Eye of the Needle – a World War 2 spy thriller. For all the toys and books and spin-offs, the Star Wars narrative was a swirling epic of family drama and grand adventure, of inheritance and responsibilities. And go back and watch the opening scene of Revenge of the Sith. Lucas even did lens flair before it became an Abrams trademark.

Happy May the Fourth, everyone, and a very merry Revenge of the Fifth.

Next in Screens: Trailer Park Is Young at Heart »