It is what it Is.
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: in a bunker
Nick Gillespie has one of the more interesting contemporary analyses on the Star Wars phenomenon I've seen. It starts out seeming like a complete rant, but at points is actually fairly insightful. However, he misses the crucial dramatic points as to why the first two movies were both critical and popular successes and why all the other movies have disappointed.
Here's a story:
An orphan boy grows up on a boring farm, dreaming of a life of adventure. He has never met his real parents, and while he loves the people who care for him, he knows he doesn't really belong with them. He meets two exotic strangers who befriend him and become his servants. They wind up leading him through a brief misadventure to an old wizard. The wizard tells him there's more to his past than he ever realized, and gives him a magic sword. He also teaches the boy how to unlock amazing powers he never realized he had within him. After discovering that his family has been killed by minions of a dark knight in the service of an evil king, the boy goes off on an adventure with the wizard into strange lands full of exotic creatures. Their mission: rescue a beautiful princess from the clutches of the same dark knight. The Dark Knight also controls a giant dragon that can wipe out horrifying numbers of people with its devastating fire breath. Along the way on their journey, they are joined by a lovable rogue knight and his strong, silent squire. Together, they invade the dark knight's lair, escaping from the dragon's belly with the beautiful princess in tow. They later rally to destroy the dragon, but before they can bring the dark knight to justice, the dark knight escapes to fight another day. The princess rewards them all, and there is much rejoicing as they are applauded as great heroes. The end.
That, of course, is the entire plot of the first Star Wars film.
The second film is about the budding romance between the rogue knight and the princess, the boy confronting his inner demons, discovering horrifying revelations about his past, and becoming a man. The chapter ends on a note of wonder: scared for the future, but we're older and wiser, and hopeful and determined for the future.
The third movie was little more than a big satisfying "crash" of an ending, wrapping up all the major themes of the first two with some epic battles. Frankly, if it hadn't been for those f****ig Ewoks it would have been a fine film. Dramatically simpler than the other two of course, but that's just becuase it was just a climax. Complaining that it's simpler and less interesting is like complaining that orgasm is simpler and less interesting than foreplay.
The fact that the story was so very simple and so filled with familiar archetypes is the entire reason people have found endless allegories to them in such things as the Cold War, the Iraq war, Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate, and all that other stuff. It's not because Lucas really put any of that in there at all. It's just that a story filled with fairy tale archetypes is one easilyi adapted to almost any real life situation. Can you see the original Star Wars trilogy as an allegory to the Cold War? Sure you can if you want to. You can just as easily see it as an allegory of your conflict with your jerk boss and the lousy company you work for.
The original Star Wars trilogy was nothing but a fantasy story given a more "real seeming" background by putting it in space with aliens instead of in a magical fairy kingdom. By the end of our teen years most of us come to the realization that no matter how hard we imagine it, we know we're never going to find the magical portal that leads to Middle Earth or Hogwart's--but by putting his fantasy stories in space, and invoking New Age mysticism with "The Force," George Lucas made it a little easier even for grownups to think maybe something like all that was actually possible. Oh not likely of course, but they could believe it just enough to make the speculation seem fun and not completely silly; after all, despite the abject failure of parapsychologists to prove their existence after decades of research, most people find things like telekenesis and telepathy far more believable than magic spells and fire-breathing dragons.
The new movies have all that the old ones had and more in terms of stunning special effects and interesting fantasy settings. But they fail dramatically. Why? The main reason, I suggest, is that all the mystery, all the questions the story invokes (What were the "clone wars?" What happened to the Jedi? How did Vader become evil? How does "The Force" really work?) were already set up for us in the original movies. The mysteries are all established for us before we walk in. All that's left is Revelation.
And Revelation is almost always less interesting than mystery--unless your revelation creates still more mystery. If not, the fascination you once had for the mystery generally ends.
For example: one of the reasons people remain so utterly fascinated by JFK-assassination conspiracy theories is that they contain endless mystery: who "really" did it? Who engaged in the coverup? Who else may have been involved? What were their motivations? Are they still around, and if so, what are they up to?
The idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone is an unpopular view. Why? I suggest that it's not just because people don't like to believe that a great and powerful man could be brought down by a lone nut. People don't like that, but there's more to it: if we don't accept that the lone nut did it, then we have a fascinating mystery to enthrall us, into which we can pour all of our own interests and fascinations. How much more interesting! We can now endlessly debate the grassy knoll, the less-popular overpass location for the second (or maybe even third!) gunman, possible Mob involvement, possible CIA or KGB involvement, maybe LBJ or possibly even Castro were involved somewhere...
It never ends, and for many people, just having it end would be upsetting. They don't want a definitive and simple answer because having one ruins their fun. A moody, disaffected Marxist gets off a moderately lucky shot and takes down a President? How utterly boring!
Think similarly about people's fascination with dinosaurs. Why are we fascinated by them? It's not just what we know about them, it's what we don't know that fascinates us. Indeed, a part of the enduring charm of the dinosaur is that every time paleontologists uncover new facts about dinosaurs, those new facts inevitably spark debate and open up still more questions. And it's endless fun to debate the causes of their extinction. (At least, for dinosaur fans it is.)
Or think of physics. Why are we so interested in, say, black holes, or the secrets of the atom? Well, part of it is that as we learn about them, we learn about still mysteries. Usually, new breakthrough discoveries in these areas lead to still more mysteries. Once we definitevely proved the existence of the atom, it raised the next obvious question: what's the atom made up of? For a long time we weren't sure. Then the answer: protons neutrons and elections! Well what are those made up of, and how do they work?
At least so far, the answers to all those questions have not only been interesting in their own right, but they have created further mysteries. So we don't just get an answer to our earlier questions, but we also get new fun: more mysteries!
George Lucas' second Star Wars trilogy falls flat for most people not just because George Lucas is rusty and out of shape from 20 years away from the director's chair--although that's undoubtedly part of it. They also fail not just because of the wooden dialogue--although that's part of it too.
No, their biggest failure by far is that these new films present no new mysteries. There's some political intrigue, but most of it seems obscure and uninteresting, not grand and compelling. Beyond that, almost none of the story in this second set of films creates any mysteries for us to wonder about or debate.
We're just handed a pile of answers, most of which don't go anywhere. Nor are the answers organized in the way of great archetypal themes like the first two films were: Lucas tries to do this with gestures like giving Darth Vader a virgin birth, but it's handled in such an offhand way it's uncompelling.
It's notable that the few times that the movies do rise beyond the pale and tedious it is when they again move into the realm of mystery ("how did this come about?") and into the realm of universal archetypes ("how did a good man become evil?"). Whereas the first films dwealt on both mysteries and on universal archetypes almost entirely, these second films barely manage to do that--and when they do, they don't do it anywhere near as adroitly.
It's telling, though, that almost everyone seems to agree that this third film is the best--and what does this film deal with? It spends the entire film building up a big mystery ("how did he get hurt and become Darth Vader?") that it does not reveal until then end. And it is otherwise all about universal themes: the choices we make in life, fear, loneliness, anguish, rebellion. When it rises to those levels--and when we're kept in suspense by the mystery until the very end--we tend to like the film better.
In short, then:
First set of films: Filled with universal archetypes and themes that everyone recognized at a visceral level. Set up lots of mysteries and challenges. Made fantasy concepts feel almost like maybe, just maybe, they could be real.
Second set of films: Universal archetypes and themes largely missing and/or buried in obscuring, overcomplicated plotlines. Old mysteries solved, with very few new mysteries introduced for us to wonder about. Add in a screenwriter and director who's lost his touch for good dialogue and pulling the warmth out of actors, and you've got a much less interesting set of films.
Here's my prediction to Nick: the original Star Wars films will endure and still be loved even by our grandchildren. Because they were not cultural phenomena: they hit on themes universal to the human experience, regardless of culture.
The second set will be remembered mostly as a sort of addendum, an "here's more if you wanted to explore that universe a bit more." Not unlike The Silmarillion to The Lord of the Rings. Or the fourth or fifth Hitchhiker's Guide books.
* Update * As a good lesson in how silly it is for people to look for deep "hidden meanings" in movies that are really just made up of grand archetypes, look no further than Pundit Guys funny piece on how Star Wars is really a messsage to the Catholic Church to keep priestly fidelity and keep women and homosexuals out of the clergy. Me? I say the whole thing's George Lucas' message to my wife to tell her that she should get the day job and let me stay home with the kids and play video games all day.