Binging the Star Wars Eight-ology

| December 10, 2017

Star Wars Binge

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Star Wars saga, and in light of the upcoming The Last Jedi on December 15th, I have spent several days working my way through all eight (yes, eight) movies in the central saga both from the George Lucas and the J.J. Abrams film factories.  With those two visionary forces now present in the saga, it may now be time to try and see how this octa-saga would connect.

George Lucas has always said that the films were to be watched in numerical order, but I suspect that very few actually do this.  The quality of the series is so sporadic that I suspect that most casual fans skip on over to A New Hope and run through The Force Awakens.  More rabid fans are apt to start with Episode III because in the larger scheme of things, the first two installments really aren’t necessary.  It is Anakin’s turn toward the dark side that is the jumping off point.

I’m a bit of a super-fan as those close to me well know.  But that distinction disturbs the technical merits of my upward duties as a critic.  How can I see these films from a critical standpoint and still be fair when they have meant so much to the tapestry of my movie-going life.  “If my passion for movies were a galaxy,” I wrote on May 25th of this year,”Then Star Wars would most certainly be its brightest star.”  That kind of passion most assuredly obscures the critical vision that I now put into play.  I must be honest.  I must be fair.  I must be a critic.  So here we go.

I began my journey where Lucas instructed, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  Effectively a children’s movie whose tone and themes seem a galaxy away from what was to come.  There is an odd bearing when you begin here because the world seems oddly skewed.  Yes, the fragile democracy that has stood for a thousand years is beginning to crumble, but not under the weight of aggressive action or the development of superweapons but rather on . . . taxation of trade routes.  Really George?  C-SPAN?  This is the story of how a cute little boy grew up to be the galaxy’s most imposing monster.  Why do we care if there is a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Vallorum?

For most people that’s not really the tipping point but it is a dreaded sign of things to come. The public reaction could either come from the massive volley of exposition, or from the new information about The Force – i.e. Midichlorians – which twists and bends the zen philosophy right out of existence (and thankfully would fade out as the series progressed).  Or it could come from the film’s chief blunder, the comic relief of Jar Jar Binks whose clumsy shenanigans bring the movie to a dead stop.

For me, however, the trouble with the movie comes in the emotional investment which seems a little off kilter.  There are moments that should hit like a hammer-blow, such as when Anakin leaves his mother.  Her son is leaving!  Presumably forever.  Why is she regarding him like he’s heading off to his first day of school?  There should be a greater weight to that moment.  We should sense doubts in Anakin, a reluctance to leave.  When the movie ends at a celebration after a hard-fought battle there is a shot of Anakin smiling at Obi-Wan and Padme, but how hard would it have hit if we saw that smile suddenly drop or turn into a sneer.  The movie ends in sunlight where there should be clouds.

* * * * * *

I think it would have helped to sense some struggle in Anakin from an early age.  His good nature feels a little off as we push forward 10 years into Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, wherein Anakin is now a young man boiling with unbalanced passion.  This is, of course, the most reviled entry in this series and largely it has to do with Lucas’ dialogue which is wooden and perfunctory.  There is not a single line here that isn’t merely for the progression of the plot, and that kills a lot of the film’s great emotion.

Much of the negative reaction to the film has been laid on Hayden Christensen, which I think is unfair.  An actor can only work with what they are given and Lucas’ dialogue paints Anakin as a frustrated kid rather than a raging force.  That dilutes the most important moment in the film, when Anakin gives in to the dark side.  This moment should shake the pillars of the Earth – this is Darth Vader feeling his power for the first time!  Why does it feel like a hissy fit?

Plus, Anakin’s frustration over the Jedi order, I think, is mishandled.  It should come from the death of his mother.  Instead it – I dunno – feels a little vague.  The forbidden wedding at the end (because Jedi aren’t suppose to get hitched) is suppose to be a private protest, but it never comes up or is even resolved.

* * * * * *

I complain endlessly about these two films but I don’t think that my arguments are totally unfounded.  To be fair, I believe that technically they are remarkable, but they lack the personality that would come in the later entries.  While I can’t call it a great films, I will say that Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is slightly better due mostly to the fact that Lucas didn’t make the mistake of keeping it light.  No, this is a dark, deep, sad film.  It plunges the galaxy into the darkest hole it can find and I applaud it for that.  That, and the idea that the story literally sends Anakin into the fires of Hell where he will emerge as something less-than human.

* * * * * *

So, here is where the story branches off.  How does Lucas’ Episode III hook up with the Lucas-less Rogue One?  Well, it’s an odd transition.  First of all the movie does away with the opening crawl, which if you’re watching these in succession feels a little off – but in truth it didn’t really need it.  Second, this is the only Star Wars movie in the cannon that doesn’t have a “wait and see.”  It’s pretty much self contained and coming off the darkness of Episode III the tone seems just about right.

Twenty years have passed and we sense that war and oppression become part of everyday life.  Those caught in the middle are weary, tired, worn down from years of warfare.  The plans for the Death Star are a tiny glimmer of hope, and the value of the film is helping us understand fully why and how things in the next Episode would follow.

* * * * * *

The connection point between Rogue One and Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope feels a bit strange.  After a walloping third act, the movie runs right up to the point where the next episode begins, but in jumping from the end of Rogue One to the beginning of A New Hope, the pacing is off.  The rapid fire pace of the earlier film makes the events that follow almost seem laconic.  The two don’t evenly match in that regard.

For this viewing, I did something odd.  Instead of watching the Special Edition of A New Hope, I pulled out my 2007 DVD of the original – the one without the alterations.  Lucas, to be fair, was trying to match the technological levels of the forthcoming prequels by giving his original trilogy a facelift and, largely, it didn’t work.  Narrative-wise, I think it works better without it.  Rogue One was a movie that seems so dead-set on downplaying the CGI brick-a-brack that it flows much easier into A New Hope.

And YET . . . and yet, the change in creative teams is evident as you move out of Episode III and into Rogue One and back out again into A New Hope.  Gone are Lucas’ signature colors which are replaced by a corner of the galaxy torn apart by war that we never saw in the original trilogy.  It’s odd.  We move from George Lucas to Gareth Edwards; from John Williams to Michael Giacchino (whose work in Rogue One is remarkably and refreshingly his own).  We enter into a volley of side characters that we don’t know who brush briefly up against a cast of characters that we know all too well.  It’s an odd mixture, like being at Hogwarts and spending time with the students on the other side of the campus.

Because of this, it connects well, even though the tone is almost completely different.  The most refreshing thing about Rogue One while binging is that you’re finally out of the sawdust of the prequel trilogy and now into the meat of the story.  And having gone from the downplay of technology into the downplay of technology in the un-altered A New Hope, the flow is much easier to swallow.

* * * * * *

Having now seen Rogue One, it bends my perception of the ending of A New Hope, which now feels like Rogue One‘s long extended grand finale.  But you are left with questions.  The Death Star is gone, but The Empire still has its regimes.  It was wise to push Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back to another point in time – four years, according to The Expanded Universe – which gives us time to catch up with how the rebellion has regrouped, how Han and Leia have chewed on their mutual feelings for one another, how The Empire has become a ferocious regrouped regime; and, most importantly, how Luke has become a lone warrior; the last of the Jedi minus a teacher.  The Empire Strikes Back is where the original trilogy finds its heart and bays at it’s mythology in a way that none of the previous films could match.  All by itself, this is one of the best dramas ever written.  There are new ideas here, a new story to be told that plunges our heroes into the depths of ultimate despair.

Jumping from A New Hope and into Empire is a bit jarring if you are aware that two directorial styles that are in play.  Lucas’ style is very technical and there is a great deal of “get to the next thing” on his part that leaves key emotions unresolved – Luke, all-too-quickly drops his mourning over the brutal murder of his aunt and uncle and Leia is all-too-casual over the decimation of her entire civilization.  That stunted emotion is not present in Empire which, under the direction of Irvin Kirshner and written by Lawrence Kasden from a screenplay by the late Leigh Brackett (proving that women can write sci-fi) the emotions are right at the surface.  It has to be emotional, it’s the tipping point that throws an otherwise good soul into the depths of despair.

Luke’s petulance leads to near-tragedy.  Giving in to his passions, he leaves his training and faces his adversary Darth Vader without really understanding his place.   That leaves us with a mind-bending conclusion at which Han is taken prisoner, Luke is left with the secret of his parentage and the fate of the galaxy is a giant question mark.  The Empire Strikes Back ends on one of the great cliffhangers of all time, one that seems itching to offers us an on-screen title reading “To be continued . . . ”  What would follows again another emotional leap.

* * * * * *

Moving from Empire into Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is, again, another leap in style.  Leaving behind the surface emotion and cold-steel tone of the previous, film, Jedi has a tone that is much closer to A New Hope.  Yet, there seems to have been a much warmer feel here,
Under the direction of Richard Marquand, who worked largely in television, you can feel a bit of that here.  Many scenes feel stunted due largely to a great many TV-style close-ups and much stiffer – and at times childish – dialogue written by Lawrence Kasden with much more of Lucas’ involvement (it shows).

The movie of course, has an agenda in that it must untie all the knots from The Empire Strikes Back and bring us to a finale in which all is right with the world galaxy.  For me, this is the only place in which I felt that Lucas’ alterations were unquestionably successful.  I watched A New Hope in the unaltered version, but I watched the Special Edition of Jedi and, to be honest, it is an improvement.  The original ending of Jedi felt a little stunted, taking place at the Ewok village and feeling like a private party.  Lucas’ alteration spreads the celebration across the galaxy with John Williams beautifully re-orchestrated 1997 theme replacing that hacky “Zub-Zub” that marred the original.  HOEVER, where Lucas succeeded in his alterations, he flubbed later with an alteration made after the Prequel Trilogy.  In adding ghost Hayden to the end of Jedi he marrs the brilliant revision he had already made.  Its like he restored a beautiful stained glass window and then toss a rock through it.

* * * * * *

Now for the million dollar question: How does the end of Jedi cross over into the Lucas-less Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Well, to be honest, I think the fact that 30 years later the galaxy is still rotten gives the original trilogy a little more weight.  You knew that there had to be some factions of the Empire that wouldn’t just lay down and accept a New Republic.  You knew that Luke’s lineage would be a problem.  You knew that everything wasn’t going to be just peachy.  Yes, Han and Leia had a relationship (does this civilization have marriage?) and that their off-spring would create some tangible problem.

I think it fits perfectly well with the original trilogy because of J.J. Abrams affection for the material.  Here, for the first time, the saga falls under the supervision of an entirely new creative team and what I find interesting is the way in which Abrams actively tries to disavow the Prequel Triolgy.  Yes, that happened in this continuity but there are one or two subtle knocks at those films that you find kind of refreshing – up to and including the complete shut-out of any mention of Midichlorians.  Were they a myth?  I certainly hope so.

Watching the film over the course of a day, I find that it’s a wonky journey.  It is not like Star Trek or James Bond or the Harry Potter where the creative teams and the continuity are much more fluid.  Here you are dealing with different styles, different writers, different times likes – both on the screen and off – and that makes for a very odd experience.  I’m a veteran when it comes to Star Wars, I was six-years old when A New Hope came out and I’ve followed this odd journey from one end to another.  It’s been as interesting to follow over the course of time as it has been over the course of a day.  I still love it, Midichlorians and all.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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