When interviewed by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel for their 1990 television special The Future of the Movies, George Lucas identified his signature filmmaking trait as the speed with which the visuals moved, and the quickness of the cuts. “It’s a pace and an editorial style more than it is an actual photographic image that is the essence of what I am,” he said, singling out the sequence in the original Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon escapes the Death Star and Luke Skywalker and Han Solo shoot down pursuing TIE fighters from the ship’s gun ports.
Audiences in the 1970s unaccustomed to such a quick style of shots and cuts couldn’t process every detail, and that was the point. Not only because Star Wars is structured around swashbuckling exploits and breathless cliffhangers designed to race across the screen, but also because filmmakers throwing model spaceships and rubber puppets before the camera don’t always want the audience to look too carefully. Now, in the digital age, all we do is look carefully, and this has ruined much of the magic.
Generation X – my generation – with its entitled, sometimes nasty sense of ownership over the movie and TV properties we grew up with is doing the lion’s share of the ruining. The biggest problem with Star Wars now, save for a few exceptions, is that it’s being made both by and for possessive devotees who are often more interested in fan service than storytelling. It’s nigh impossible to be objective about something you cherished growing up. Entrusting Gen Xers with the future of Star Wars is like giving a kid the keys to the toy store – which, in a sense, is exactly what has happened.
For Lucas’ Boomer generation, the whole point of cinema was that it was ephemeral – a dream that evaporated when you “woke up,” i.e., left the darkened theater. Well before home video emerged in the late 1970s, movies were meant to be experienced in the moment and dreamed about later, not have their every detail pored over. Even when movies started playing on television in the 1950s, they were one-and-done broadcasts. Dissection came later when cinema studies originated in academia and fan communities began to organize at conventions. It reached its apotheosis in the age of the internet, where everything is preserved “forever.”
But one of the reasons that Lucas modeled Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark after the Saturday afternoon matinee serials he loved as a kid was because they were disposable. You weren’t meant to scrutinize every detail for verisimilitude. They were thrown together cheaply, they were cheap to purchase admission to, and they provided cheap thrills. When they were over, you could relive the highlights with your friends, but if something didn’t hold together, you didn’t care. It was about the rush of speed and motion on screen. It was about feeling galvanized. You weren’t about to go home and complain about how the filmmaker didn’t “respect” your patronage by interpreting some detail in a way that you didn’t find acceptable. These kinds of movies were purely about having an experience.
Now they’re more about fitting into an ever-expanding “canon,” where every detail must be carefully filled in, every backstory elaborated, whether it has any inherent dramatic interest or not. This problem arises, at least partially, because Gen X understands Star Wars primarily not only in terms of nostalgia for the films, but also of nostalgia for the merchandising — especially the toys — which was arguably more prominent in our childhoods than the movies themselves. This is the reason why Jon Favreau’s The Book of Boba Fett and The Mandalorian and J.J. Abrams’ sequels (The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker) are so familiar to every kid who threw a plastic AT-AT on its side in a sandbox, or a Yoda action figure on the back of a Boba Fett for some homemade adventure.
But playtime didn’t need to make sense. It didn’t need to have any internal logic or greater purpose. That same approach rarely works when cobbled together into a filmed narrative. You need more than shared touchstones, more than a closed-loop of references to tell a story. And increasingly, especially with the incoherent mess that is The Book of Boba Fett, this approach reveals its hollowness. As Disney and J.J. Abrams made clear when they “retconned” Rian Johnson’s bold The Last Jedi with the risible The Rise of Skywalker, most Gen X Star Wars content is primarily concerned with its relationship to itself and its fans. I’m excluding for this argument the animated content, which has generally proven to be both more superior and more ambitious than the live-action content over the last 15 years. No wonder it is being absorbed into the new live-action shows.
There’s nothing wrong with reference and allusion, which have been part of storytelling at least since the ancient Greeks. Lucas himself worshipped the movies of Classical Hollywood and the 1950s creature features and Westerns, as well as postwar Japanese films that made their way to American shores. Star Wars is almost as famous for those influences as for the text of the film itself. The difference is that Lucas married these raw materials with his political objections to U.S .foreign policy to make new art. Abrams, Favreau, Robert Rodriguez (who has directed three episodes of The Book of Boba Fett and one of The Mandalorian), and company only make simulacrums of existing material – Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lion King, Iron Man, Sin City, et. al. They seem so knocked out by the faithfulness of the facsimiles, by the awe of reproducing the beloved material they grew up reading and watching, that they are satisfied not trying anything new. The Rise of Skywalker, The Book of Boba Fett, and, to a lesser extent, The Mandalorian prove that the desire of Gen X Star Wars creators to tell new, thematically resonant stories is as dead as flattened Jawas – if it ever existed in the first place.
One thing often forgotten when considering the Star Wars prequel trilogy is that Lucas was making independent films — very expensive independent films, admittedly, but films over which he had complete control. There was no studio interference. It’s one of the reasons why, compared to the sequels and the TV shows, the prequel trilogy looks and feels so different. Yes, all the complaints about them remain true. But watch them without the dialogue (try to keep the music and sound effects on if possible) and you can see the massive ambition of the story worlds and the visuals, the desire of Lucas to take risks with something new (save for perhaps his overreliance on lightsabers). The subsequent corporatization of Star Wars has inevitably purged any chance that risks will be taken. But the problem is worse than that. It’s not just that Disney is squashing the artistic ambition of the filmmakers. The studio has retained certain filmmakers because they have no desire to take risks with the original material.
As a proud Gen Xer, I’m overjoyed by the fact that my previously analog cohort has been able to gather virtually to celebrate our pop culture love across time and space ad infinitum. The iconic Gen Xer Kevin Smith dramatized that dream in his pre-internet Clerks when his characters theorize about the nature of Death Star politics. But our generation has become proprietary bordering on obsessive over all that joy. With a few exceptions, like Rian Johnson with The Last Jedi and Dave Filoni on the animated shows, Gen X creators seem crippled by their love, rather than empowered by it. Hopefully, Deborah Chow, a Gen Xer herself, will right the ship with her work on the forthcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series. If not, it may be time to hand Star Wars over to Millennials or Gen Z artists not clinging so zealously to the brand. Or maybe, God forbid, the new generations of filmmakers and storytellers should be encouraged to come up with something altogether new, with nary a Star nor a Wars anywhere to be found.
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