As I watch the online excitement build for the coming series of Disneyfied Star Wars sequels, I find myself taking pause and wondering if it will do as well as we all think.
An Old Story in a New Day
I wonder whether the earnestness of the series and its storyline will play to 21st century audiences. I wonder if we have grown past the space opera, or at least the space opera in its George Lucas form. I wonder if people want Jedi and Sith, or whether they want more morally ambiguous characters. Do they want grand tales of white knights and dark knights fighting for the soul of a vast realm? Or do they want ordinary guys being thrust unwillingly into roles that demand that they make really hard choices?
The Big Test, of course. will be how Episode VII does at the global Box Office against, say Avengers II or Guardians of the Galaxy. Are the Star Wars films playing to an ageing cadre of die-hard fans? Or can the story attract the passion and fervor among new audiences that the original films did 35 years ago?
I am not sure. We may well find out that what Star Wars needs is not a sequel, but a complete revisioning of the earlier episodes to reflect the sensibilities of an audience that is more at home with less morally monochromatic characters.
That’s not going to happen, of course. There are too many people for whom Star Wars is a religion, and you don’t mess with the canon when fanatics are involved. But we can hope.
The Lapsed Jedi and the Flawed Master
Okay okay, I’ll confess. I am a lapsed Jedi. I used to love Star Wars. From the time I was 12 to the time I was about 35, I was a huge fan. And I awaited each new Star Wars movie in a way that only a member of the 501st Legion could truly understand. But somewhere, the series lost me.
It wasn’t just the prequels: yes, they were awful, but they could be treated as a mistake independent of the earlier films, just as the fourth Indiana Jones movie is treated by many of the fans of that series. But I’ve been back to the original films (part of my duty as the father of a pre-teen son). And even those have lost their magic.
The problem is not just the prequels. What the prequels manage to do is throw into stark relief the fact that behind the SFX and the epic scale of the story, the tale is second-rate. You cannot blame all of this on the fact that George Lucas cannot write dialogue to save his life.
At the heart of the problems with the series is that the characters seemed too much like archetypes and not enough like, well, real people. Characters who should have been more interesting were cardboard cutouts, even caricatures. And Lucas never figured out that “backstory” and “narrative progression” are not the same thing as character development. It was as if Lucas was really trying to do an exposition of Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey rather than actually tell a story in an absorbing way.
Star Wars may yet go down as the best fairy tale told against the backdrop of a galaxy far, far away. But it will fade, as all fairy tales do, from the center of our culture to the collective bookshelves of our minds. And I fear that nothing that J.J. Abrams and the Disney Imagineering machine will do with the story can do much to change that.
The True Hope
Not long after the first Star Wars came out, I was raving about it to my older sister Bonnie. She listened patiently, then looked at me knowingly and told me to go to Pickwick Books in Westwood Village and pick up a copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune. There, she told me, I would find the story that Lucas really wanted to tell. I bought the book, and in so doing opened the door to the world of speculative fiction that I occupy yet today.
I would wager that I am not alone, that an entire generation – perhaps two – of speculative fiction buffs, writers, video game developers and players owe their passions and otaku obsessions to that moment in a movie theater when an Imperial Star Destroyer filled the screen with its immense techno-cool evil. For that, if nothing else, we owe Star Wars a debt.
And for that reason alone I hope that I am terribly, terribly wrong about what is to come.