MIND MELD: The Future of Star Wars
With the release of the new Clone Wars movie, we here at SF Signal have looked at the box office results and pondered where the Star Wars franchise goes from here. For this week’s Mind Meld, we turned the future of Star Wars over to our panel of respondents.
Star Wars‘ place in popular culture is doing just fine, thanks. It’s still one of the most popular franchises on the planet, and that’s not likely to change any time soon, and the 1977 release of Star Wars will always be a benchmark in American film history regardless.
This same question came up repeatedly around the turn of the century regarding Star Trek. The notion that people were tired of Trek when there was only one show on the air and the occasional movie is silly when, from 1987-1999, there were one or two shows on the air and a movie every 2-3 years — and the franchise was at its most popular and nobody was sick of it. What hurt Star Trek wasn’t too much Star Trek, but too much Star Trek that wasn’t appealing to people.
Star Wars is hitting the same problem. It’s not that people are tired of Star Wars, it’s that they’re tired of Star Wars that ain’t so hot. The problem The Clone Wars is having is that it’s not something that the world at large is dying to know about. Whatever the flaws of the prequel trilogy — and they were legion — they were also chronicling the background of Darth Vader, one of the greatest menaces of 20th-century fiction. There’s no similar hook in The Clone Wars — not aided by the fact that this conflict has already been covered in novel, comic book, and animated form previously (Genndy Tartovsky’s collection of five-minute shorts was a magnificent piece of work) — and people are also fatigued from the giant black hole of dreadful that was the prequel trilogy.
People are more than happy to keep coming back if they enjoy what they see. The Stargate franchise is an excellent example of that. Stargate SG1 lasted ten years, and now is being continued in very successful direct-to-DVD movies, Stargate Atlantis is now in its fifth season, and a third TV show is in development. Nobody’s talking about franchise fatigue for Stargate, because they’re still producing material that people want to see.
If the new live-action Star Wars series is good and appealing to a large audience, then it will breathe new life. If it continues the downward trend of the live-action films that really goes back to the moment the Ewoks first showed up in Return of the Jedi, then they’ve got problems.
George Lucas is not one of us.
No one, I hope, will question my Star Wars fanboy credentials. I own my own lightsaber. I know the name of the jedi-knight with tentacles on his head who appears on screen for one second in Revenge of the Sith, and gets killed (Kit Fisto). I love these movies.
No, let me correct that. I love Star Wars, the idea of Star Wars; I love what Star Wars should have been. I hate the movies, precisely because they are not
what they should have been. Let me tell you (in reverse order) what they are, and what they should have been, and tell you why they are not what they should have been.
They are not what they should have been because George Lucas is not one of us. He is not a science fiction guy. He does not have a feel for space opera. He does not get it.
This sounds too absurd to believe, does it not? Star Wars was a phenomenon. There has never been anything like it before. Had it not been for Star Wars, there would have been no Star Trek The Motion Picture, no Star Trek The Next Generation, and no Battlestar Galactica, not the original and not the re-imagining. No Sci-Fi Channel; no plethora of science fiction and fantasy television shows. Science fiction books would still be relegated to one small bookrack in the bookstore, not three or four aisles, plus a new romance-SFF section. In short, Star Wars is what made Science Fiction mainstream. And yet I say George Lucas does not get science fiction. He does not understand it and does not know how to do it.
What he does know is movies. He especially knows and loves the old Saturday Matinee cliffhanger serials: Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon starring Buster Crabbe, and maybe even Phantom Empire starring Gene Autry. He knew how to update those old space operas with new special effects like nothing ever seen before: he
understood ‘the sense of wonder’: he got gosh-wow.
Everyone in the audience knew what kind of film they were in for the moment the words started crawling up the screen. There is only one kind of film where words crawl up the screen. Star Wars was an homage and a love letter to the beloved space operas of this country’s youth.
So what happened? Gosh-wow cannot be sustained over six movies over twenty years. So George Lucas had to add stature: he had to add some grander theme. The end of Empire Strikes Back added a theme as grand as anything in a Greek Tragedy: Vader is Luke’s father. Well, the theme then became one of redemption: could Luke save his father’s soul from the corruption of the Dark Side? For the prequel movies, the theme became one of corruption: what turns whiney teen Jedi Anakin into dark and mysterious Darth Vader? Unfortunately, George Lucas did not have any clear idea of what makes a Republic turn into an Empire, or what makes a knight turn into a traitor.
You see, my point here is that George Lucas tried to add stature in a human dimension, by making Luke or Anakin face impressive moral quandaries. What he did not add is stature in a science fiction direction. Let us compare and contrast: the sequels to, let’s say Galactic Patrol by Doc E.E. Smith or the sequel to Skylark of Space got bigger by orders of magnitude to their predecessors. In Galactic Patrol the Gray Lensman is fighting Space Pirates. By the third or fourth sequel, he is fighting in the immortal interdimensional super-psionic superhuman creatures of Eddore. In the Skylark of Space Richard Seaton is fighting the World Steel corporation. In Skylark Duquense, he is teleporting one galaxy into another galaxy to turn the whole thing into a galaxy-sized cloud of supernova material, meanwhile teleporting all the human planets through the fourth dimension to a third and safer galaxy. That is scope. That is grandeur. That is a sense of scale.
By the time Return of the Jedi rolled around, the planet-destroying threat of the Death Star was, well, another Death Star. Meanwhile, teddy bears were wiping out walking tanks on the forest moon of Endor. With logs. Wooden logs. The prequel was a giant step backward. Instead of a space drama, we got a confused clash of robots fighting clones and a bunch of soap opera.
I notice that Dark Helmet can recover from getting all four limbs chopped off and being dunked in lava, but Space Princess cannot survive a C-section…? Dying in childbirth might be fine for a soap opera, and draw a tear, but it is not even as impressive a Science Fiction Physician operation as something from a James White Sector General story, or even the futuristic sick bay of Dr. McCoy.
Where was the sense of wonder, the grandeur, the spectacle? Where was the science fiction? Where was the space opera?
Well, I will tell you where it was. Genndy Tartakovsky had it. The five-minute Clone Wars cartoons had cooler heroes and more dramatic villains than anything George Lucas could do, even though George Lucas was the one who made them up. For example, General Grievous kicks major ass in the Genndy Tartakovsky cartoon, and in the movie he is just a thug who gets mopped up with not much drama by young Obi Wan. Glenndy Tartakovsky got the concept of awe and wonder. The difference between the two, using the same characters and same material, could not have been more clear. Tartakovsky understands science fiction. His Samurai Jack can attest to that. He is an SF guy. He is one of us.
Hope? I think there is hope for Star Wars for the same reason there was hope for Star Trek once the beloved Gene Roddenberry was no longer in the picture. If George Lucas does not have much to do with the live action TV show, it may do just fine.
If someone who is of us, someone who gets it, gets his hands on the franchise, if another Lawrence Kashdan or Genndy Tartakovsky takes the helm, we can hope for the best.
I am so going to get stoned by otherwise friendly Star Wars fans. I know it.
Growing up, I was a major Star Wars fan. The movies sent tingles through me. I could recite just about everything. I had shelves and shelves full of all the Star Wars books that came out, and when I began stumbling into writing, it was Star Wars stories (They were rubbish…but they weren’t so bad, and I’m proud of that kid who wrote ‘em for trying). I had all the Star Wars games, and that’s continued pretty much to this day.
And the movies… The movies just generally did less and less for me as I got older. Especially when the prequels came out and we, as a nation of Star Wars fans, collectively went “er…”
But as I watched the prequels (and I dared to get excited for every one, based on the trailers, and my own nutter optimism), I got to really thinking about why they did and didn’t work. They had wooden acting. Well, watching objectively, the original Star Wars trilogy had some pretty wooden acting too. The dialog was bad. It wasn’t always so hot in the original trilogy either. They were campy, they were big and noisy and they were all of them full of little people. So I guess I came away thinking that the prequels were really, pretty much on-par with the original trilogy. Good for what they are, but non-existent when you try to reach beyond that.
So much of the fantastic, breath-taking passionate and decade-spanning love of Star Wars is all in our heads. We did all the legwork and imagination. We took good movies, and we turned them into life-altering things in our excited (perhaps overheated from standing in line) brains. And that’s fine. I think that they’re good if they do that to you. All of ‘em.
That’s the first thing I think. The second conclusion I have is that you really do need to be a certain age when you first come into Star Wars, to make it all work for you. I’ve never had the shadow of a doubt that out there, there’s some eight-to-fourteen year old who just sat down and watched Episodes I through VI and is blown away, in a way that someone who grew up in a world where there were no prequels could be.
I also just realized that the Expanded Universe, the books and the comics, were always far more interesting and exciting to me than the movies. The stories were better. And I hope Star Wars continues making enough public noise to justify the Star Wars publishing empire. Through Star Wars books, I discovered Timothy Zahn, A.C. Crispin, and others. They make a great gateway drug into other SF literature. Today, Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. Tomorrow, Timothy Zahn’s Angelmass. The day after…the world.
And this all comes at a point when I’ve just watched an official release trailer for the video game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, said trailer giving a teaser of the storyline, and I am excited for it in a way that I was when I was very young and Star Wars really entered my life. I can’t wait. When no one’s around, I keep re-watching the trailer. And getting more excited. The video games have very, very rarely let me down.
And if nothing else, the Star Wars movies – especially the prequels – gave us astonishing soundtracks. I thought the Episode I, II, and III soundtracks were some of John Williams’ best work.
With both Star Wars and Star Trek, I was disappointed with the decision to go back and mine the history rather than move forward, something that seems counter-intuitive to living at the start of the 21st century. And in both cases, the respective franchises have been struggling under the oppressive reigns of just one vision – in Trek‘s case Rick Berman. Hopefully, JJ Abrams can breath new life in – it certainly seems like he’s being given enough free reign to do so; and I think the Star Wars television series will succeed or fail depending on the amount of control Lucas himself exerts.
I was personally very sad to hear there was going to be a Star Wars television series. I love the iconography of Star Wars – The Phantom Menace is a great movie to watch without sound – and Star Wars is unequaled in the amount of creativity, thought, and effort that has gone into the design of its various aliens, ships, planets and hardware. Sadly, its storytelling is rarely up to the level of its artistry, and so when Revenge of the Sith ended, I quietly celebrated what I thought was the vacated niche that other creative people could now rush in to fill with new space operas just as beautiful to look at, but hopefully more rewarding to listen to.
Now that we know we’re not rid of Star Wars yet, I can only hope that younger, more intelligent storytellers are engaged to pen the series, and then left alone to do so. Nothing would make me happier than to see a new Star Wars that excited me as much as The Empire Strikes Back did all those decades ago. I remain hopeful, because, good or ill, it’s looking like the force will be with us, always…
My feelings about the problems with Star Wars was summed up in the title of an essay I did for Star Wars On Trial. That title was – Millions for Special Effects, Not One Cent for Writers. The creative and entertainment height of Star Wars was The Empire Strikes Back, which also had a screen play substantially written by a very good writer named Leigh Brackett. She knew SF, she knew movies, and she knew how to tell a story. (She also gave Han Solo that Humphrey Bogart-inspired presence that defined the character.) Unfortunately, we lost Leigh Brackett, and Star Wars has never been the same.
Just like with Star Trek, or with any other entertainment, there has to be a good story first. (As Walt Disney said, “get the story right.”) CGI, no matter how spectacular, doesn’t engage without a story that grabs people. The Lord of the Rings movies built on a great story, and the CGI supported that.Other movies tried to use CGI for big battles (Troy, Alexander, etc) and they bombed, because the story was only there to support the CGI.
Unfortunately, Lucas isn’t married, so he doesn’t have a wife to keep telling him he’s not a god and he really needs someone else to write movies. So if Star Wars is to be saved, Lucas needs to be married, preferably to someone with the temperament of Princess Leia in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. (I can just see her grabbing the script from Lucas: “You didn’t plan this very well, did you?”)
As a writer, I find it interesting that you date the decline and fall of the Star Wars franchise from right about the time that Leigh Brackett died, and therefore stopped making her very valuable contributions to the development of the story arc. But is it really “time to reassess Star Wars‘ place in popular culture?” I hardly think anything that dramatic is necessary.
The place of Star Wars in modern pop culture is secure; fixed and immutable. The release of the original 1977 movie, and the gas bubble in the zeitgeist subsequently associated with that event, was so significant, it put a permanent dent in the scrith. Yes, in hindsight it now appears that the brilliance of the original movie was more a matter of serendipity than intent, as Lucas’s subsequent remixes and reissues prove, but to argue about those points now seems about as productive as arguing about the quirk of fate that cast Humphrey Bogart in the lead role in Casablanca. Star Wars is, and for better or worse, we’re stuck with it.
Is it time for Star Wars to go on hiatus? Probably not. Lucas has flopped before, and if you don’t believe me, I’ve got a copy of The Ewok Adventure here I’ll gladly loan you. I keep it in a special place in my film library, right between THX-1138 and Howard the Duck. Lucas has not only flopped before, he’s delivered some big whoppin’ navel-poppin’ skin-burnin’ high-board pool-emptying bellyflops before, but sooner or later, he always manages to bob back to what’s left of the surface. Case in point, does anyone else here remember The Star Wars Droids and Ewoks Adventure Hour?
Is there hope that the new, live-action TV series will breathe new life into the series? Again, probably not. Older fans, like me, have mostly reached the stage of grief known as acceptance. We have come to realize that like it or not, Star Wars is Mr. Lucas’s personal amusement park, and if he wishes to paint the sidewalks purple, fill the water slide with kitty litter, and rename the Tilt-a-Whirl the Great Gungan Gooberfish Boomerizer, there’s nothing we can do about it except turn our backs, walk away, and spend our entertainment dollars elsewhere.
But what of the younger fans? Is there no hope that the Star Wars universe will deliver something for them? Why yes, as a matter of fact, I do work with a carefully selected focus group of 12- to 15-year-old boys, and to a man — er, boy — there is something they want to see from Star Wars. It’s not a new book. It’s not a new movie. It is most definitely not a new TV series. No, what they all want to know is:
When is LucasArts going to release Star Wars Battlefront: Renegade Squadron for the PlayStation and XBox?
Because, let’s face it: Star Wars is an amusement park. What made me love the original movie 31 years ago, now that I think about it, wasn’t that I gave a fig about the plot, the acting, or the story arc; it was that I wanted to be in the movie, driving a landspeeder, flying an X-wing, blowing up shit, playing with cool toys, and beating the stuffings out of straw villains with a magic sword. Thirty-one years later, that is still the essential Star Wars experience.
And if that is not enough for you, maybe it’s time to think about leaving LucasLand and going someplace where you can hang out with adults. I hear ScalziLand is pretty good this time of year.
Hell, yes. And that’s coming from a guy who saw the original over 120 times in its year-plus theatrical run.
Star Wars was a thing of beauty when at its core it was a love-letter to all the pulps and serials that tent-poled the genre long ago. But it has devolved not only to the level of horrible SF/Fantasy, but of bad storytelling, rife with nonsensical politics, vague meaningless prophecies, and convoluted conspiracies. It occupies the same dramatic strata as Pokemon and Power Rangers, only with a bigger budget and better looking aliens.
The central conflict is pretty piss-poor. The Jedi, unstoppable telekinetic warrior supermen, are horrible at their jobs. They will chase any distraction they see, lack even basic deductive skills, and (aside from Obi-wan) seem incapable of winning a fight.
The villains all look really cool and menacing, but none of them match Dr. Loveless or Bester of Psi-Corp for true classic antagonist status. Armies of droids and clones carry out epic battles that don’t serve any real purpose or have any lasting significance.
In the end it’s an “epic” devoid of virtues, conscience, or hubris. Those aspects of drama it does deliver, like fallibility and damnation, it does so only in big sloppy handfuls.
The exception to all this is Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars line, which has been spectacular. It’s gone from the deep history of the old republic to several generations past the end of RotJ, featured some truly compelling characters with tangible motivations, and shown some eye-candy moments that even the films haven’t approached.
But the sales numbers on these books are the barest fraction of Star Wars fandom. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that those die-hard fans who view the films as a “mythos” and proclaim the primacy of Star Wars in the SF genre are hypocrites who require pretty pictures flashing in front of them to placate their brains, but…well, actually I would say that.
Star Wars place in popular culture is irrelevant. It’s Lucas’ baby, let him purposely deform it if he wants.
The original Star Wars film came out when I was 17 years old, and it changed my life. I love Episode IV and Episode V, and I always will. They inspired me to study astrophysics, to pursue a career at NASA, and later to become a science-fiction writer and editor. They taught me about storytelling. They gave me dreams.
When Episode VI came out, it was a disappointment. Perhaps, after Episode V promised a darker and more profound story than we had ever expected, this was inevitable. But the Ewoks, and their triumph over Imperial forces, signaled a turn in the saga toward more child-friendly, less serious storytelling. It felt as if the director was turning to me and saying, “You didn’t really take all this stuff seriously, did you?”
Episodes I, II, and III were one blow after the next for me. Each time I hoped George Lucas would tap the power of the original two films, but I was left in the theater feeling nothing for the characters and caring nothing about the events they showed.
I have not seen The Clone Wars; I’ll probably rent it on DVD. I don’t hold out any hope that future Star Wars films or TV shows will recapture the magic of the original films. I think George Lucas has clearly shown, over multiple films, what he wants Star Wars to be, and unfortunately, it is not the saga that I originally fell in love with.
I think that George Lucas could certainly create magic again, with a new universe and a new story, and I would love to see that, because few works of art have struck me with the power that Episodes IV and V did. But as for Star Wars, I’ve been disappointed too many times now and am afraid I will have to move on.
Actually, “The Star Wars Franchise” is one of those wonderful fannish constructions, which has always existed more fully in the collective consciousness than in reality (and even more so in the rationalizations of a million fans talking at once). Consider Boba Fett — the biggest badass in the galaxy, on the basis of about five lines of dialogue and some battered old armor. Fett’s image was almost entirely constructed by the fans’ desires and dreams, goaded on by the fact that his action figure was a rare giveaway when they were mostly young and impressionable.
The truth is that various Star Wars products started letting us down as far back as Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, Alan Dean Foster’s serviceable but dull novel. Of course we can rationalize any single inconvenient story or piece of data away — it’s just when they come in cohorts that we have trouble. The Han Solo books were oddball space opera and the Lando Calrissian books even weirder, but Empire Strikes Back was the rare middle of a trilogy that didn’t sag (probably because it was the movie where George Lucas ceded the most power to real professional writers and directors), so the mystique could live on.
And then Return of the Jedi had Ewoks, but also lightsaber duels and the rehabilitation of Darth Vader (which seemed like a good idea at the time), so we were happy. And then we had to live off the other media for a long time — and those weren’t real — so Star Wars got tied up with nostalgia and our images of our past selves. It’s not quite that nothing could live up to our image of Star Wars, but it’s awfully close, since that image was mostly of who we were then.
And so the last decade has been a string of disappointments, because that’s what adulthood is for most of us. We’re not thirteen anymore, and most of us never kissed the prom queen or scored the winning touchdown or even made a fortune on our Internet start-ups. We’re older, but we still expect a new Star Wars product to make us as exuberantly happy as Empire did. Those of us who actually did grow up, and not just get older, found other things that make us that happy — I could mention, for myself, the birth of my two sons, and a lot of moments with them since.
Oh, sure, the more recent trilogy is pretty lousy, and apparently the new animated Clone Wars movie is even worse — I won’t dispute that — but even if they were as good as Return (and Revenge of the Sith is, most of the time), that wouldn’t be enough. We can’t get as happy as that anymore.
If you look at them with dispassionate eyes, all of the Star Wars movies are no more than decent space opera — the first trilogy is indisputably more successful than the second (in all areas except quality of special effects), but those aren’t on any intelligent person’s list of the best hundred movies ever made. (Even when it comes to great adventure movies, Lucas’s greatest contribution will always be Raiders of the Lost Ark, where he had Stephen Spielberg to know what to do with the camera.)
So: Star Wars was never as good as we thought it was, and our kids know that it’s not as bad as we think it is now. (They’ll be disillusioned by it — or maybe by something else — in their turn.) And the question of the “life” of the series will be determined by how many people actually watch the new animated TV show, week in and week out — not by any number of us grumpy old fen pontificating on the Internet. We’ll continue to be disappointed, because that’s what happens to people our age. Soon, we’ll start yelling at the kids playing on our lawns and talking about the “good old days.”
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