Okay, kiddos, I’m taking a break from talking games and game design for something new. Well, sorta. Last week I went into Star Wars nerd mode and detailed why Konami is terrible at adapting it; this week I’ll talk about how Disney might be terrible at adapting it. Star Wars means a lot to me, as it does to a lot of people, so with The Force Awakens coming, now seems like a perfect chance to talk about it. Recently, on the Fatman on Batman podcast I frequently listen to (and you should be doing that too), they dedicated pretty much an entire episode to The Force Awakens’ last trailer.
You see, unlike most Star Wars fans that were ecstatic at the announcing of a new trilogy, I was rather cautious because the man responsible for creating the franchise was, for the first time, not involved. While the prequels, for the most part, were not the stellar movies everyone expected, you can’t accuse them of being unambitious. For example, they pushed CG to and beyond the limits of the time, and over a decade later their CG is still up to par or better than that of modern movies. Now, you may be wondering why any of this is relevant, so I’ll elucidate. In the previously mentioned podcast, it was said that “JJ gets Star Wars” and “Lucas may have forgotten what Star Wars was about” when he made the prequels. These two lines got me thinking, my brain juices ruminating and my gray matter firing on all cylinders. Let’s discuss what Star Wars is about.
I usually walk you step by step through my thought process before giving you my conclusion at the end, but this time I’ll just tell you straight up, and then we’ll work backwards to see why I think the way I do. Put simply, Star Wars is about the Force, first and foremost. This is something George Lucas understood immensely well, and something the public at large doesn’t seem to get. To go back to the podcast, it was said that 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the closest thing to a Star Wars movie we’ve gotten in decades, which is to say that the Prequels weren’t “Star Wars”. This isn’t a sentiment held only by the podcasters, and if you’ve watched Red Letter Media’s reviews on the Prequels it’s pretty apparent. The crux of this belief seems to be that Star Wars, which is a story about a massive galaxy, should always be about a ragtag group of people coming together to take on some big threat while making snappy quips and dodging consequences. That’s the ill-informed perception.
George Lucas, and the many others providing Star Wars content created vastly unique stories from the perspective of multiple characters, and were able to do so because they understood that what is at the heart of Star Wars is not a ragtag group of cowboys coming together, but rather the mystical energy that binds. Think about it: what was the underlying message at the end of Episode 4? Trust in the force, for it is greater than any technology. Even going to the prequels, you had Palpatine who defeated his Jedi opponents not through lightsaber combat, but with overwhelming them with the Force, and the Jedi vs an entire army of Separatist droids.
Over the thirty years since Return of the Jedi, Star Wars has evolved from being just about “rebels” vs the empire, and has told fascinating love stories, political intrigue, spy thrillers, straight action stories, horror, suspense and pretty much every genre out there. That’s why I’ve termed it an “ill-informed” perception: because people just don’t know about how extensive and diverse Star Wars has become. Let me give you examples of how many genres its dipped its hairy wookiee toes in:
Love stories. Just off the top of my head, and ignoring the prequels, there’s the story of Darth Malgus. Malgus was a Dark Lord of the Sith during the Old Republic era, which takes place four thousand years before the movies, and was one of the most powerful Sith Lords of his era. He fought to expand the Sith Empire so that the Sith could rule the galaxy once more: you know, typical Sith stuff. But Malgus wasn’t your typical Sith. He was hopelessly in love with a twi’lek by the name of Eleena Daru, and in the novelization of his appearances, you see just how much he’s driven by his love of her. Sure, it eventually ends in tragedy, but it’s a love story and one managed to be told in one of the most violent eras of the Star Wars universe.
Let’s look at another. Darth Sion was a Sith Lord, who by all logic should be dead, held together by his sheer hate and the unnatural powers of the Dark Side of the Force. He’s defeated because he essentially falls in love with the main player character, Meetra Surik, and the hate keeping him together fades and he dies.
Horror. The Clone Wars series, during its second season had a mini-story arc where the Geonosians were controlled by space parasites, and these parasites could infect the living and control them. There’s also the Nightsisters, who are essentially witches that use the force, more specifically the dark side, as an evil magic that corrupts and causes pain, injury and death. In Star Wars.
Political Intrigue. At least half of the runtime of the highly acclaimed Darth Plagueis novel is devoted to Palpatine’s political career and Darth Plagueis’ manipulation of politicians. It’s some of the best you’ll see in Star Wars. Let’s also not forget the novels that pretty much started Star Wars Expanded Universe, the Thrawn Trilogy, where politics were integral. Do not think of this as writers pandering to Lucas, since the Thrawn Trilogy came years before Episode 1, and Plagueis came nearly a decade after Episode 3.
The point has been made sufficiently by now, I think. You can tell any story in Star Wars, so long as you relate it to the Force and its mysticism in some way. You don’t need to pigeonhole yourself into crafting a story of rebels vs an empire, where the main cast is a lightsaber-user, a bounty hunter, a team pet, and a droid because that’s the set-up of Episodes 4-6.
The Prequels are highly cerebral films. Now bare with me here and put out the torches and put down the pitchforks. They’re a strong meta plot with many hidden themes woven into them like the silliness of blindly following prophecies, the dangers of stagnation, and copious amounts of foreshadowing, both blatant and subtle. Lucas spent an exorbitant amount of time and effort into crafting this story, and while his directing and dialogue was lacking, the plot most certainly was not. There’s a reason why, once you remove the actors and images and leave nothing but the plot, like in the movie novelizations, you end up with critically acclaimed stories. Seriously, if you have not read the novelizations, you should.
In this sense, George Lucas “got” Star Wars. He understood the flexibility of the universe and that you don’t have to trap yourself into writing just one kind of story. He went into an epic space opera with the prequels, whereas the Original Trilogy was just, well, space cowboys. Let’s look at it this way. What was the fallout from the Clone Wars? A galaxy that distrusted the Jedi, as Palpatine had engineered. What was the fallout from Palpatine and Vader dying? Or the first Death Star being destroyed? Nothing addressed in the movies. That’s because the original trilogy are just action movies, while the prequels are far more ambitious in story and is actively going somewhere.
Now, this isn’t to say that I think the Original Trilogy is bad; I mean, who does? The fact is, the Original Trilogy focused more on its characters, while the Prequels focused more on the setting. Namely, how does the setting move from the “civilized age” Ben Kenobi talked about into the desolate hellhole that is the Original Trilogy? The only characters from the “civilized age” we know of in the Originals are: R2, 3PO, Ben, Yoda, Vader (and whoever his lover was) and the Emperor. These same characters are the ones that get the most prominent roles in the Prequels and we don’t get new prominent ones, but are instead introduced to sprawling new environments, we get the mechanics of the various cultures and races, and we get to see the Galactic Republic fall into becoming the Galactic Empire. No, we don’t need Maul to be the new Vader, nor do we need Count Dooku or Grievous to fill that niche either, since their stories clearly don’t carry over to the Original Trilogy. The setting was the most important thing in the prequels since it directly affects the Originals, and it was a novel way to handle the whole concept of “prequels” by Lucas.
This leads back to something I brought up in the intro to this article: how Disney might go wrong. Star Wars is a very diverse universe where you can tell a wealth of stories, and from what we’ve seen so far of The Force Awakens and their various tie-in media like Disney Infinity, comic books, tv shows and novels, they’re all mining the original movies and for the most part ignoring the much larger, much more extensive prequel galaxy and concepts. For this reason, I’ve not been able to be excited for the Force Awakens, and have largely not been following it as it developed. I’m not interested in sitting through the Original Trilogy rehashed to me, and I couldn’t fathom how anyone could be excited for such a thing.
Then I listened to the podcast. I heard two men in their 40s fondly reminisce and how eager they were to take their kids to see these movies and to re-live the feel of the old movies. It was in a moment of clear epiphany that I realized that people are excited for this movie because it’s a return to the Star Wars of old and nostalgia is a powerful tool, along with the fact that people don’t understand that Star Wars is so much deeper than just a generic space western. I know what it sounds like, but this isn’t me passing judgment. It’s great that people feel nostalgia for this, and that they want to create a whole new generation of Star Wars fans, but personally I don’t see the appeal.
See, what I find the most interesting about Star Wars is the Force, and I feel that is what is truly at the heart of Star Wars. If the Force is a compelling part of the story, I might get sucked in, but I doubt that’s the case since the focus seems to be on blasters and Han and Chewie and all the old memories instead of exploring the metaphysics of the galaxy. The Force is what sets Star Wars apart from a Star Trek or any other show with “star” or “space” in the name, and without the Force, it just can’t compete. There’s nothing so far from the Force Awakens merch and trailers that has me looking forward to it.
So in the end, I think Lucas, more than anyone else, “got” Star Wars. He allowed so many different storytellers to create content because he understood his galaxy. If anyone doesn’t seem to “get” Star Wars, it’s Disney, who has restricted what’s being produced to almost exclusively Original Trilogy-related material.
Anyway, that’s it for my ramblings this week. Tune in next week when we return to our comfort zone of game design and such.