Star Wars was first released in 1977, and to this day it remains the most profitable saga in cinematic history. It’s fanbase is rabid and devoted, grown bitter and angry over the many years it seemed the original creator and central ideas turned their backs on the franchise. We live in a world spoiled by sequels with relative merit, and now the excess bile of a collective generation gets to stew and sit, quizzically scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to react to the latest installments–not as good as the originals, not as bad as the prequels.
Personally I was never a huge fan of Star Wars. I wore an Anakin Skywalker costume when I was 5 and that was about the extent of my interest. No one in my family pushed the series as anything worth getting worked up about, and I already had the “Luke, I am your father” twist spoiled a thousand times by the age of 9, so nothing grabbed me as a reason to sit down and take in the original.
That is, until the release of The Force Awakens. I watched it in theaters without any expectation or hype, and I was pleasantly surprised. So too, it seemed, did the rest of the world. I then went back and revisited the old series and now have at least a passing understanding of what makes everyone get so worked up about, which happened to be right around the time everyone decided The Force Awakens sucked for being basically A New Hope all over again. Except with better effects, interesting characters, genuine intrigue, and more refined dialogue.
I may be in the minority on this, but I don’t get the hubbub around A New Hope. It’s entertaining enough but very clearly wants to be its own thing. No indication of a sequel was given within the movie–which is understandable since the studio assumed it would fail on launch–and that made the characters feel shallower and underdeveloped. George Lucas’s presence doesn’t help either, clearly felt behind (mostly) stilted performances and writing that hasn’t aged very well.
What remains impressive is how the film influenced effects and sound design technology leading to today, effectively creating the modern blockbuster and inciting the imaginations of many of today’s most prodigious directors. So the opportunity for Star Wars to create another installment nearly 40 years after its original release poses an interesting point for observation. On the one hand The Force Awakens is its own thing, but on the other, it borrows heavily from and pays homage to a group of films that itself is an extension of.
Star Wars effectively created a whirlpool of incest, trying to stay loyal without copying its forebears, stay current without alienating, and continue an old story and laying the foundation for some sort of conclusion, all while putting out newer installments that make continuity a chore rather than a hobby (OK, so Rogue One was a prequel to the original and a sequel to the prequels meant to bridge the gap between two different installments of the same franchise while technically being part of a third wave. Got it? Good).
After George Lucas definitively showed the world what his passion project would look like if sensible people didn’t nail his feet to the ground back in the 70s, the fanbase felt alienated and longed for a point of entry back into the majesty of what Star Wars at it’s best (The Empire Strikes Back) can be in modern day. I believe The Force Awakens handled that task reasonably well. It’s a first installment that doesn’t feel shallow for just setting up more movies by crowbarring in elements that won’t come into play until later (*cough* Marvel Cinematic Universe *cough*). Which isn’t to say The Force Awakens isn’t innocent of that same “branching narrative” bullshit from time to time, but it’s sandwiched between compelling characters I have investment in combined with swanky practical and CG effects that make the most of the source material.
And let’s talk about the effects. Part of what made the disappointment of the prequels so unbearable was the fact that the CGI–which aged terribly with very few exceptions–overpowered everything. The landscape was all blue screen, a tactic the industry has since dropped in favor of practical effects, which, when utilized effectively, create a better sense of immersion for the audience. Graphics more than any other single factor inspired the fervor surrounding Star Wars, and the newest installments serve to illustrate how far we’ve come in letting visual narratives tell an actual story.
Taken as a whole, Star Wars represents the very best and worst of the industry. It’s schizophrenic and difficult to pin down, but manages to endear by catering to popular trends and endeavoring to make them timeless (“endeavoring” being the key word). Empire Strikes Back is a genuine masterpiece that took all the best aspects of Star Wars and made something truly ageless, and I have hope that The Last Jedi will do the same.