December 21, 2017
On an Unfortunate Case of Short-Term Thinking and the Diminishing of a Masterpiece
Let’s say you decided to binge-watch the Star Wars films. Where would you begin? Years ago, Lucas suggested that people start with Episode I, also known as The Phantom Menace, and if one did this, they would be starting the series with a film that is a bit of a narrative mess. On the one hand, the film wants desperately to appeal to the young; hence, the additions of Jar Jar Binks, the head of the Gungans, the focus on Anakin as a very young child, and the thrilling, yet unnecessarily long pod race. On the other hand, it surrounds these elements with a complicated tax dispute, a silent and brutal assassin, and a Jedi Counsel that without having seen the other films lacks context. Episodes II and III would make sense to the audience, seeing as they follow the story lines established in Episode I, while wisely lessening Jar Jar’s role and adding more darkness to Anakin’s character. By the end of the third film, viewers would know a lot about the Skywalker family, such as the fate of Padme Amidala, Anakin’s turn to the dark side, and the fate of the twins the two of them had together.
And here it where it would get tricky – and a bit unpleasant. Episode IV would introduce characters that the audience knew a great deal about already, and that would make Leia’s kiss for luck more than a little uncomfortable. It would also change the way viewers saw Vader. The Empire Strikes Back would still be an effective film, despite another scene in which sister passionately kissed brother, yet the film’s climactic moment would be a letdown. Audiences would already know Vader’s big reveal. Return of the Jedi would still provide a fitting end to the trilogy, and the indelible image that closes the film would still inspire immense satisfaction and a deserved sense of closure.
Seen in this order, it is doubtful that Star Wars: Episode IV would still be considered a masterpiece by those who were discovering it for the first time. Episode V would have fewer surprises, and Episode VI, in which the truth is revealed to all in the Star Wars universe, would have less power, as it would be revealing facts long known by viewers.
I continue to think this is the wrong order in which to watch these films. Seen in the order in which they were released, the films would retain their power to impress. Episode IV would still blow people’s minds, The Empire Strikes Back would continue break their hearts, and Return of the Jedi would once again restore their faith in humanity. Episodes I and II would be a bit of a letdown, seeing as how the films seem intended for newer, younger fans. After all, the tagline of The Phantom Menace was “Every generation has its legend.” However, viewers who stuck in out would be rewarded with a series that grew in quality and ended on a surprisingly emotional note. They would understand its implications, and it may even alter their previous perceptions of certain characters.
True, these six films could be repetitive. The end of Episode IV, VI, and I all end in similar fashion, yet as long as viewers could set aside their incredulity that the emperor would create a second Death Star, leak its plans to the Rebels, and leave in its design a flaw similar to the one the fell the first Death Star, the films would still have the same enjoyment factor.
The same cannot be said, however, of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Imagine watching these films so closely after the first two trilogies. It’s hard not to picture jaws dropping, eyes rolling, and a strong sense of déjà vu overwhelming viewers. Another droid with secret plans. Another decent person appealed to for help. Another cantina-like club. Another rescue attempt. Another massive weapon with a critical flaw. Another death of a key character at the hands of the primary antagonist. I could go on, but you get the point. Watched in this fashion, The Force Awakens would come off as an uninspired copy, and its flaws would be glaring. Sure, what’s original in it is quite impressive, but the repetition would keep it from being the crowd-pleaser it seems to have been upon its release in 2015. Sadly, The Last Jedi would suffer the same fate, as much of its plot seems borrowed from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
I have considered myself a Star Wars fan for much of my life, and I have no doubt that I will be sitting in a theater on the opening night of Episode IX. However, I wonder what I will tell my daughter about the series. I did not buy the Blu-ray release of the original trilogy, nor do I think I would ever update my copies of the prequel trilogy. And while I bought the Blu-ray of The Force Awakens, I have yet to watch it. In fact, it’s one of those films that has gotten progressively worse in my head since I first saw it. Would I feel differently if I saw it so soon after Episodes I, II, and III? Somehow I doubt it.
And this brings me back to Star Wars: A New Hope. It is a film that helped define a generation, and it permanently changed cinema as we know it. Yet there’s no denying that my enthusiasm for it has diminished. Perhaps that’s the natural consequence of taking a tight, beloved trilogy and diluting it with unnecessary prequels and sequels that seem far too familiar far too often. Star Wars seems less a milestone now than the zenith of a series that has as many highs as lows. This is what happens when a series becomes about profits and is no longer a labor of love. It becomes just another series.