Star Wars, Original Recipe: Why Episode IV Is Still The Best

In which I alienate people who hate fun… .

cinest5Over the past couple weeks I have watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (hereafter Star Wars) twice, along with bits of other films from the prequel and original trilogy.  Also last month, I saw The Last Jedi in a special preview.  My kids talk about Star Wars nonstop, have huge amounts of Star Wars Legos, books, lightsabers, droids, and video games.   This is different from when I was a kid: we saw Star Wars once a year on TV, and The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi once every two to three years (seeing the Ewoks was a treat).  Star Wars bonus material was hard to come by even in gaming stores and other genre-oriented places.  It wasn’t until I had kids who were old enough for Star Wars that I noticed the glut of material now available (including the entire EU, which was around, but not really part of my universe).  Soon after that Episode VII was announced and you’re all familiar with the story from there.

I am sick of Star Wars.  I hear about it whenever my kids are home.  It is plastered all over my house.  It is the number one topic of conversation (and I am thankful for that, in a sense).  Being the primary parent, I am the one who talks to my kids and plays with them the most, so most of the time I am talking and playing Star Wars.  I am not complaining, and I know this is my doing, but I’m more into Milton than I am into Spiderman (and I’m really not that into Milton).  I’m grateful that my kids are more interested in Star Wars than other “franchises” that I don’t like so much, but for my own enjoyment I would appreciate something else to talk about.

All of the above means that I don’t often see Star Wars, the original movie I first saw when I was four years old.  There’s too much material competing against it, we don’t own it on Blu-Ray, and I don’t go out of my way to watch it when I can check it out of the library.  I often associate Star Wars with all the ancillary material, and rarely consider watching it, as it’s just going to be more of the same stuff I see day-in/day-out.  I see my kids watching Rebels and I’m happy to just go do my own thing.  I have seen these movies countless times.  When they announce they want to watch the original trilogy, I don’t get excited.  I actually didn’t watch Return of the Jedi (my favorite), or The Empire Strikes Back with them two weeks ago, and I can’t even remember why.

That’s a mistake.  New Year’s Eve my boys decided to watch Star Wars at 10 PM.  I was doing the dishes while they started the movie, and when I came in for my favorite scene (the “coffee hour” in the Death Star board room) they were all asleep.  I would have turned it off except that my middle son Khalil insisted on staying with the movie so he could watch the final scenes.  He fell asleep within five minutes later and I watched it by myself.

I simply forgot what a fun movie this is

Just as I always forget how funny Monty Python and the Holy Grail is, I have forgotten what an awesome movie Star Wars really is.  Where other Star Wars films written by George Lucas are melodramatic and trite, Star Wars is an adventurous thrill ride.  The good guys are fighting the bad guys, swordfighting, pulling guns, swinging from the rafters, and diving into the garbage.  They knock out the enemy soldiers and put on their uniforms; they get into barfights; they save the princess; and the princess has an attitude.  And the bad guys are bad: they are heartless, they blow up planets, they slap people around, they fight with each other, they sacrifice their own soldiers, they kill old men and stomp on their clothes.  On top of all that it’s full of cool robots and aliens and rayblasters.  There’s dogfights in space and explosions and…have you seen this movie?

It’s fun.  That’s the main difference I can figure out, but there are a few others that really make a huge difference:

  • There is a clear difference between good guys and bad guys like an old-fashioned space opera, things I still saw on TV when I was a kid.
  • You’ve got all the varieties of hero you need, but they are all heroic.  The rogue, the naive farm boy, the old man, the princess, the Walking Carpet.
  • They all take risks and their motivations are clear.
  • It’s not complicated: you can tell the Empire has a whole bureaucracy and complicated command structure but no one needs to mention it.  It’s really not important.
  • It’s a parody: even though the story was fairly original, the way the characters talk and use catch-phrases (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”) lends it a pulpy flavor that I find delectable.
  • It’s vague where it needs to be.  The magic is totally vague.  Totally mysterious.

Star Wars is the quintessential space opera.  It capped off an era of fun, adventure-oriented pulp stories, almost like a parody, just as American Graffiti was a deliberate projection of what the late fifties and early sixties were like for teenagers.  It was a particular experience.  If you don’t know the kinds of stories I’m talking about, head over to Librivox and listen to some of Leigh Brackett’s stories about Mars, or even read Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.  The opening crawl of Star Wars says “evil Galactic Empire” and you know you’re getting a packaged deal.  There’s really very little need for nuance or even drama, although there is enough when it’s needed.  When Obi-Wan dies, for instance, or when Luke switches off his targeting computer.

Contrast this with Rogue One and The Last Jedi.  I liked The Force Awakens better than both of these, but it has the same problems.  Instead of heroes, we have complicated characters, which I think are great anywhere else.  Indeed, these are good movies, done with great actors, and wonderful special effects (better than the prequel trilogy certainly, where the actors don’t even look like they’re on the same blue-screen stage).   They just don’t have the punch, or the almost comic level of clarity of the original movies.  Whereas Lando was about as conflicted as anyone needed to get in the originals, everyone in Rogue One is impossible to trust.  Again, I understand that was the point, but wouldn’t that be better done with a totally new story?  Conflicting motives make for great drama, but drama is not what made Star Wars great.  Adventure did.

The new films concretize things that are better left unsaid and unspecified.  I was disappointed enough with midichlorians, but everything in the newer films seems made for people to speculate on.  I’m speculating myself, but it feels like marketing and fanfiction, and theorizing about upcoming films is driving a lot of the storytelling.  If things are kept as vague as they were in Star Wars (or even in The Empire Strikes Back, the movie that had me and my brother saying “Yoda is a friggin’ Taoist, man”) any theory about the force or the Jedi or anything in the movie is just about as good as any other.  However, the newer films and the aforementioned glut of material handles things much more like post-Tolkien fantasy novels than a Leigh Brackett story.  When you have good guys up against bad guys, vague magic is often good enough.  It’s more like sword-and-sorcery (again of the Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs era).  The way things are handled by Lucasfilm now, it seems like they are actively encouraging speculation, and that is hurting the story.

My main point is fantasy/space-opera drama has its place, and that place right now is the bookstore.  Good-guys-versus-bad-guys adventure, as childish and unsophisticated as it seems, also has its place, and the movie theater is a much better place for it.  Star Wars is an unparalleled adventure film, and I think we have a place in our society for good entertainment on this basis (again, much of it being for children who are learning how the world works, and will get the nuances in their late teens and twenties).  I don’t buy all the crap about fascism inherent in Star Wars, somehow nullifying adventure stories.  That’s just another way of saying there are no good people in the world, which you’d see as clearly false if you would turn off your computer and step out your front door.  There are heroes in this world, and we need stories about them.  Again, tell that non-heroic story if you want to, there’s no reason it has to have a Star Wars logo on it.

logans_run_movie_posterPostscript: I also watched Logan’s Run the other day, and it is nowhere near as good a movie as Star Wars.  The funniest thing is it’s rated PG, as is Star Wars, but contains multiple scenes of total nudity (male and female), albeit non-sexual, and the line “C’mon, let’s have sex.”  One thing is clear from  both films, however: where there’s high technology and space travel, there is no underwear.

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