May the Fourth be with you! Having finally caught The Rise of Skywalker (2020), we feel able to weigh in on the entire Star Wars saga, beyond our more skeptical and jokey previous posts on Hardware Wars, Spaceballs and The Star Wars Holiday Special.
Having experienced the unfolding of the series in real time ever since the release of the first film in 1977, I’ve been slow to warm up to everything that has happened since the completion of the original trilogy. I saw those three movies at ages 12, 15, and 18 — pretty much the core demographic. Then 17 more years passed. The original experience was well in my rear view mirror. By the time The Phantom Menace hit I was 34 years old — very much not in a place to stomach what I considered childish nonsense. The cinematic releases I was into in 1999 included Milos Foreman’s Andy Kaufman bio-pic Man on the Moon, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and Tim Robbins’ The Cradle Will Rock. But I did see The Phantom Menace not long after its release, and when the movie turned out to be disappointing besides, I couldn’t transcend it and indeed did not see the other two movies from that trilogy until quite recently. Nowadays however, things are very different. We are conditioned to binge-watch massive multi-part series like Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter series, etc. The experience is more novelistic, and we are accustomed to forgiving the flaws of individual chapters once we have bought into the overall totality. So I want to begin with apologies to my friends who are a decade or two younger than I am. I have long been dismissive of something that’s very important to them. I think it has been an accident of timing, more than anything.
Some context for the debut of the original film. As we wrote here, pop culture in the 1970s was largely driven by nostalgia. Star Wars creator George Lucas was front and center of the movement, first by launching ’50s chic with American Graffiti (1973), which then inspired Happy Days, and later with the Indian Jones films, homages to adventure serials of the 1930s and ’40s. In between came the original Star Wars movie (1977), which people my age will NEVER, EVER call Episode IV: A New Hope. For the cinematically savvy, this film in particular is a post-modern pastiche, incorporating elements of Flash Gordon, Casablanca, Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Lawrence of Arabia, Shogun, the original Star Trek, the writings of Joseph Campbell, and technology (and later some of the actors) we then associated with Jim Henson’s Muppets. It was widely noted that the byplay between C-3PO and R2-D2 was like that of a vaudeville comedy team, in particular Laurel and Hardy. There are other echoes: Peter Cushing was from the Hammer Horror universe (later Christopher Lee would come into the series as well). The whole thing is done on a David Lean scale (reinforced by the gargantuan presence of Alec Guinness), with pictorial landscapes that frequently evoke John Ford, at least on the desert planets. And Carrie Fisher was of course the daughter of two old time stars Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.
The B movie reverberations of Star Wars evoke World War Two. We are in a Fascist universe. It is a world where freedom is a precious commodity, obtained only in short, stolen snatches. Darth Vader and his storm troopers are terrifying, suffocating. I think Darth Vader is one of the scariest screen villains of all time. In the late ’70s, it was probably the most popular Halloween costume, joining the ranks of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy. As kids we were vaguely aware of all the echoes, certainly the media and our parents talked about it, but it was also new, THE pop culture phenomenon of the time. It passed Jaws (1975) as the highest grossing film of all time, and held the position for years. There were Star Wars toys, action figures, comic books, lunch boxes, posters. We actually listened to John Williams‘ swelling, exciting soundtrack — he’s probably the first Hollywood movie composer who gained something like pop musician cache. (I actually had the hit single of the Star Wars Cantina Song, which was a hit on the pop charts).
Prior to the advent of the first sequel The Empire Strikes Back (1980), a couple of the then relatively unknown cast members were elevated to the ranks of stardom. Harrison Ford, who had previously been in Lucas’ American Graffiti, was obvious leading man material, good-looking, macho, and sort of a cynical lone wolf in the Bogart tradition. Before the next Star Wars film dropped, Ford appeared in Force 10 from Navarone (1978), Apocalypse Now, The Frisco Kid, and More American Graffiti (all 1979), among other things. And prior to the 3rd Star Wars movie The Return of the Jedi (1983), Ford starred in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) at which point his stardom went through the roof. Carrie Fisher, whose unique Princess Leia hairstyle was as iconic as Darth Vader’s mask, dated Paul Simon and Dan Aykroyd and appeared in the popular comedy The Blues Brothers (1980), among other things. Ironically, though he was the ostensible lead in Star Wars, Mark Hamill did not become a star outside the series, a fact that is frequently attributed to a bad car accident and alteration to his face.
The first two sequels brought the welcome addition of Frank Oz as (the voice of) Yoda, Billy Dee Williams as the elusive Lando Calrissian, and such characters as the Sydney Greenstreet-like Jaba the Hutt and the bounty hunter Boba Fett. I strongly disliked the development that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father, and all such similar melodramatic revelations as the series went on, as though the galaxy were as small as some Arkansas County. It felt (and feels) inorganic. I understand that it was baked into the series from its inception, but it feels contrived, and I am never moved by it.
Having been a teenager at the time of Return of the Jedi, by the time the prequel trilogy launched in 1999, I was technically more than old enough to have had a teenage kid of my own. (As it happens, I had a couple of toddlers). Like most people, I disliked The Phantom Menace at the time, but when I went back and rewatched it recently, while not forgetting its flaws, I found it more enjoyable. The weaknesses have been exhaustively catalogued, I think. There is the lack of fun and sparkle at the heart of the script. A grim storyline is legitimate, of course, but it’s not what we experienced in the original trilogy. All of the main characters in the original three movies were sort of funny, but Liam Neeson, Ewen MacGregor, and Samuel L. Jackson are humorless here — as if Errol Flynn had been switched out and replaced with, I dunno, Gordon MacRae (whom I’ve taken to calling “Boredom MacRae). And I find Hayden Christensen, who played the grown Anikin Skywalker, just as boring, with the added drawback of being unappealing. Meanwhile, in The Phantom Menace, the comedy has all been shifted to a single character, the obnoxious, grating, and racistly conceived Jar-Jar Binks. And females are almost nonexistent in this phase, the dominant and lively warrior Princess Leia now replaced by passive shrinking violet Natalie Portman.
And yet, there were things that I liked. Ultimately, The Phantom Menace feels like a strange mix of a kid’s movie and a slow moving Biblical/ Roman epic from the 1950s. The climactic race scene feels like Ben Hur meets Hanna-Barbera’s Laff-a-lympics. There is also some salvation for Jar-Jar. I read that he is somewhat based on Walt Disney’s Goofy and it was originally conceived of for Michael jackson, who had worked with Lucas on Captain Eo (1986). That would have been way better, and picturing it as intended helps one forgive the lesser outcome. Also Jar-Jar has a moment in the climactic battle scene which references Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances. In Attack of the Clones (2002) Anakin’s attempt to rescue his mother reminded me of Ford’s The Searchers. Ultimately, I was surprised by how the entire arc of Anakin’s evolution into Darth Vader actually worked for me over the series. That, reinforced by the devolution of the republic into an empire ruled by Palpatine, is quite powerful, especially in light of the context during which I watched it (the Trump administration. Since he works in the Oval Office, let us now call him Emperor Ovaltine. That’ll take the starch out of shorts!).
The third trilogy (launched 2015), and some of the satellite projects (films and series outside the 9 film epic) feel like far less of a survey course on Cinema 101 than the previous six films, but recapture some of the fun of the first trilogy, which was welcome. These films are also less about nostalgia, apart from memories of the Star Wars saga itself, thus we get reappearances by Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca (and Baby Yoda shows up in The Mandalorian). It feels fresh and I like Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Daisey Ridley, etc, whose youthful energy recaptures some of the lost cheekiness. I actually very much enjoyed the anomalous and contemplative penultimate installment The Last Jedi (2017), directed by Rian Johnson, and was therefore pretty disappointed by The Rise of Skywalker. For all its sound and fury, bells and whistles, it feels like an anticlimax — adequate, I suppose for a random installment, but far from such as the culmination of all nine. One has to strongly suspect that it suffers from the death of Carrie Fisher. With her at or near the center as was intended it would have kept us close to the original film, for it is her character who launched Luke Skywalker on his original adventure by leaving that S.O.S. in R2-D2’s memory. Very little in the final product evoked memories of that, or of any sort. It had some very enjoyable set pieces but no emotional center and very little tying it to all that went before. Some of the early characters return in what amount to cameos but that hardly seals it. At the very least, I’d like to have seen 3PO and R2 in leading roles, which would have accomplished what I’m describing, and would have been easy to achieve, to boot. Ironically, then, though I initially disliked it, I now esteem the prequel trilogy much higher now than the sequel trilogy, which, while entertaining, now feels like the least of the three. As a whole, and not illogically, since it was made by many cooks over many decades, the series was already inconsistent in tone, and feels jerryrigged. The last episode would have been the opportunity to reconcile a lot of that, but instead it’s just sort of sprawling mess, just another chapter, instead of the big punctuation mark that we all expected, and that it needed.
But given how it has all unfolded, what do you want to bet that in 20, 30 years somebody remakes the whole nine? I hope they do. There are worthy mystical, philosophical, and political elements to the series that I appreciate, if at a pop culture level. There are moments when Star Wars feels like it actually has something like meaning, although those moments invariably slip away, and as we said, evaporate almost entirely in the home stretch where it counted most.