Now that George Lucas has roundly flogged it off, it’s a good time to talk about Star Wars.
An awful lot of cock gets talked about Star Wars, most of it derogatory. Since the 1999 explosion of Phantom-Menace-Is-The-Worst-Thing-Ever culminated in the general dismissal of Revenge of the Sith, much of that talk is sneering and dismissive. In a strange reversal of fortune from when I were a lad and we all ate coal for breakfast, it’s now much cooler to like Doctor Who than it is to like Star Wars. Obviously it’s absurd to try and encapsulate what everybody thinks about a film series – opinions always vary – but the interquartile range of Star Wars opinions probably lies between two narratives: one is that the prequels represent a naked betrayal of the first three films to commercialism, basically the Ewoks writ large; the other is that Star Wars was always a silly series of films, ludicrously overrated over the years, and the prequels were naked cash-in efforts whose crime was to be even worse than the first three.
Through it all, there’s a third truism. George Lucas is now (or was always) a money-grabbing shit who only wants to steal cash from his loyal, shat-upon fanbase. The recent release of a horrible 3-D Phantom Menace, and Yoda popping up in a Vodafone ad, are the actions of someone wringing every last possible bit of money from a franchise has systemically betrayed its fans.
So to get a view that might just be a bit more balanced – that might just, say, explain why hundreds of millions of children adored Star Wars – let’s look at George Lucas.
Having seen him interviewed several times, Lucas is impossibly charming and unpretentious. He’s also transparently a nerd, someone who grew up on Saturday morning cinema and understands populist film-making as well as anybody. Hearing George Lucas talk about other people’s films is to hear someone who knows and loves cinema*. While he isn’t – and never was – a very good director, George Lucas understands how and why films work. He understands their relationship with their audience, not in the marketing-lead demographic-speak of today, but in a deeply personal sense. Star Wars has had an enormous effect on children because Lucas knew what it was for, better than anyone. His critics (and many of his fans) have always been out of step with why Star Wars and the genius of the man who created it.
Many years ago, Mark Kermode made the following statement: “George Lucas cannot write. His writing skills are not even pre-school.”**
Let’s start there, shall we?
Even if you allow for comic exaggeration and substitute “fifteen year-old” for “pre-school,” this statement is bilge. The construction of Star Wars is intricate and beautiful, driven by a dynamic structure that throws open the scale of the story the further we progress into the film. It’s sufficiently well-written that the exploits of two robots manage to remain entertaining for most of the first act, and structured oddly enough that we don’t even meet the protagonist until nearly half and hour in. What starts as a dogfight between two spaceships, and then gets even smaller as it relocates itself to a farm on a backwater planet, acquires a truly galactic scale through the use of a quest narrative. The notion that a story so tight, so well-controlled and yet having such a vast scale, is badly-written…? Ridiculous.
Yet there’s more to it than that. As a child, watching Star Wars around Christmas time (I was just too young to see the films in the cinema on their original release, although I do remember going to a showing of all three – dressed as an X-Wing pilot – a couple of years after Return of the Jedi came out), the fascination of the story started with something that nobody has achieved before or since: this was a film for children that felt tremendously adult.
Which is to say it exclusively featured adults, but the adults were driven by motivations that children could recognise. Almost every single children’s film features a child as the lead character, but Star Wars gave us grown-ups; and yet , brilliantly, it portrayed them from a child’s point of view. It understood that children don’t actually see themselves saving the world when they’re eight years old; kids are acutely aware of their own helplessness, and they know it’s grownups who get things done. But here were grownups you felt you understood, felt you would become. Here was a world you could exist in.
And what a world. Anyone who thinks George Lucas is a cynic doesn’t pay attention to the fantastic detail embroidered into his films. Worlds like Tatooine have an obvious, tangible existence off the edges of the screen. This is done through obsessively cohesive detail in every facet of the production. When Uncle Owen declares “I need a droid who understands the binary language of moisture vaporators,” it’s dismissed as technobabble. But what does that line tell us? “Droid,” as a contraction, tells us that androids are commonplace hardware in a lived-in future. “Moisture vaporators” are entirely consistent with the world we see: the construction of the phrase suggests moisture being condensed from the atmosphere. “Binary language,” meanwhile, gives us a world where machines talk to each other. Other films made up sciencey language that sounded good; in Star Wars, these lines contributed to the dynamic of the universe.
The design was a key part of this, too, and children instinctively understood the nature of each location from how they looked: witness the greys, blacks and harsh lines of the Death Star, an entirely man-made environment which is imagined as a nightmarish authority-bound place where navigation is impossible and you can’t be in the corridor without a reason. The Death Star is a child’s nightmare of a school more than anything else.
Once you see the film this way, as a network of fascinating story-environments connected by a fairly standardised plot, then it’s obvious that Star Wars is the best of the original trilogy and you can stick The Empire Strikes Back up your jacksy. Not that Empire is bad; Hoth and Bestine and Dagobah are all fascinating, although they’re all more obviously one-liners than Tatooine. Empire has also been immeasurably improved by the digital retrofitting, which turns all the tedious running-around corridors at the end into tantalising glimpses of the city in the clouds.***
The prequels, then, work in exactly the same way. They are primarily about the places and the links between them. The first two have obvious problems. The Phantom Menace is a mess for the first half-hour, settles down on Tatooine, and then falls apart again at the end. By actually including a kid, it suggests that George Lucas has forgotten what he did right in the original trilogy. Oh, and even kids didn’t really like Jar-Jar, they just loved the universe and wanted to like Jar-Jar. As for the second… much of it’s good clean fun but the narrative’s not straightforward, the ending is risible and no-one ever managed to explain where those insects all came from. Finally, both films have far too many scenes where characters sit around explaining the plot, and the underdirected performances are… variable.
Revenge of the Sith, though…
Far, far too many people are pretending that Revenge of the Sith isn’t a squarely gorgeous film from beginning to end, and for the sake of the world in general it has to stop immediately. Smug sneering at a film as expansive, as confident and as brimming with verve as Revenge of the Sith – from a culture that simultaneously lionised the narcissistic-as-fuck “men in sunglasses and leather coats” aesthetic of The Matrix, and the tediously predictable machismo of Peter Jackson’s clunking computer-game travesty of Lord of the Rings – is… well, if not outright stupid, it’s unbecoming.****
Revenge of the Sith has maybe a dozen scenes where the dialogue clunks and the joins show. None of them matter. The same banal dribblers who like Battlestar Galactica and think “dark” is a synonym for “good” ridiculed the film because Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader happened over him fancying a girl. In so doing they showed themselves up as bereft, because watch it through the eyes of a twelve year-old and it’s obvious: when you’re twelve, being told what to do by your parents (and the Jedi are basically parents) for no good reason is exactly what tyranny is. Anakin is an adult in love, yet he still can’t be with who he wants. That is the worst thing imaginable when you’re twelve. And the pressure of being a golden child, burdened by expectation from above – yeah, children get that too. At the time, other films for children became obsessed with post-modernism, and Shrek and its ilk busied themselves making knowing winks to grownups over their core audience’s heads. Monsters Inc thought it was hilarious to have mythological creatures with office jobs, for crying out loud. And then there was Star Wars, the only thing that still made self-sustaining, dynamic worlds for children on their terms. If the grasp of the dramatic in those films often failed – and to be clear, in Revenge of the Sith it really doesn’t – the world-building didn’t. You understand the architecture and the relationships underpinning worlds like Naboo and Coruscant. You knew those places, just like you knew Tatooine.
And thanks to the oft-decried merchandising – or to put it another way the toys, the action figures available at pocket-money prices which enabled children to build their own worlds and stories within the universe Lucas created, to superimpose their own motivations onto the two-dimensional icons Lucas gave us – you could exist in them. You could thrive and create and get smarter.
So if you want to see the 3-D rerelease and the selling off to Disney as anything, it’s the tired actions of a man who created something flawed but beautiful and got repeatedly sneered at for it. Not just by cynical arsewits who never engaged with his universe, but by all-growed-up fans of the original trilogy who decided Han Solo was the point of the whole thing, and trashed the prequels for not being all adult and serious like Babylon 5. Forgetting that they loved the films because they were for children, and that when they played at Star Wars they always wanted to be Luke.
It’s not like Lucas was likely to do anything else. Even if he now has more money than god, I don’t begrudge him a penny. I’m saddened to see the trilogy go to Disney because only George Lucas really understood the Star Wars universe and how it related to children, but I don’t blame him for getting shot of a franchise that it’s fashionable to dismiss. The prequels didn’t piss all over his legacy, they were cronky and flawed and brash and vivid and loved by their target audience.
And while Disney has made many films, but the chances of them understanding that dynamic are close to nil. Star Wars VII will almost certainly destroy the other six, and will almost certainly be better-reviewed than any of the other films. So it goes.
Well, I just want to say thank you to George Lucas. He made my life so much better. And I’m grateful. That’s all.
*When Mark Kermode made a Steven Spielberg piece for The Culture Show some years back (Kermode can be an interesting voice, but his dislike of Lucas’s films is as tedious as it’s well-known) some years back, it was remarkable that Lucas delivered far more interesting critiques of Spielberg’s films than Kermode himself… or indeed, anyone else in the documentary.
**You can find the quote here, if you must, but you have to wade through a fair amount of Star Wars bashing to get there. Although this might give some insight into the lazy, smug, oh-so-literate griping about the films which annoys me so much.
***Something else: once you accept this film is about making environments, then the Special Editions all improve on the originals. Only the first has any real duff moments, with the screen sometimes overly-crowded and the slug-like Jabba not really working.
****Serenity – the emetically dreadful spin-off from half-decent-but-abysmally-overrated TV show Firefly – was released a few months after Revenge of the Sith, and the fact that Serenity didn’t feature any aliens at all was held up as an example of how much grittier the film was. The fact that a film was set in a far-off galaxy and didn’t feature any non-human lifeforms, and that this was seen as a good thing, tells you everything you need to know about how the torpor infecting sci-fi back then.