We’ve been here before.
This year is Proustian for those who remember the first time Star Wars was everywhere. Even deep in the English provinces our local ironmongers, which sold no other toys, had a rack of Star Wars figures (RRP £1.59), which your correspondent could flip through while a parent shopped for ostensibly more necessary items.
We’ve been back here before too. In 1999. Then, as now, the first Star Wars film in over a decade was imminent. Anticipation, both genuine and that created by marketeers, was building. Star Wars was everywhere – but then the film that emerged was an unexpected, but universal, disappointment, as were the sequels to it that followed in 2002 and 2005.
And yet, The Phantom Menace clings on in the top twenty all-time box office hits. Its position isn’t due to a “box office mugging” either. (Planet of the Apes (2001), did well over its opening weekend, but nosedived once people who’d seen it talked to anyone.) Its business sustained throughout its cinema run.
Critically too, it did better than you remember. Janet Maslin (New York Times) called it “up to snuff”, Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) wondered how jaded an audience would have to be to reject it, writing “How easily we become accustomed to wonders”.
The Daily Telegraph review is notable for the fact its critic felt the need to justify having “loved” the film, released in the UK two months after the US. This followed weeks of negativity flowing across the pond, which had by that point taken on a life of its own.
From where did that negativity come? From those to whom the previous Star Wars films mattered the most: the fans.
Fan response is exemplified by the periodic outbursts of actor/writer Simon Pegg, already a celebrity Star Wars fan when the film came out. His public pronouncements on the films include recently calling all three prequels “a monumental misunderstanding of what the original three films are about. It’s an exercise in utter infanticide… (like) George Lucas killing his kid.”
Pegg had bought his ticket and with it the right to say what he liked – and his reaction, while extreme, isn’t atypical. This fan-rage phenomenon, then unusual, has since occurred with other film series. In early 2012 I joked that I was looking forward to Alien and The Lord of the Rings fans having their own original-director-led prequels to viscerally loathe. I was still pretty astounded when it actually happened.
There’s something interesting here, concerning both ownership and semiotics, in just how personally some of the audience expressed disappointment as the guy who made Star Wars made more of it. Especially as those less invested couldn’t distinguish the hated new from the beloved old.
US writer Mike Klimo, averaging reviews from each film’s original releases, discovered Revenge of the Sith came top, with the original Star Wars second and Attack of the Clones third. (The Phantom Menace was in last place, as it happens, but by only one percentile; it was only three percentiles behind fourth placed The Empire Strikes Back.)
Kids too, never noticed – indeed, continue not to notice – the asserted qualitative difference between the trilogies. Because it’s not really there. You’re probably familiar with the concept of the vanity of small differences, and that’s what’s at play here.
The prequel is an odd subgenre. To contain anything surprising it needs to subvert what it’s based on, and an overly proprietorial audience isn’t particularly open to being subverted.
The Star Wars prequels subversions are multiple, and the films are rarely obvious as a consequence. Things that fans assumed would be hugely important are skated past; unexpected things are given enormous screen time.
So it is that the fussy C3PO was built in a shack by a slave; the grungy R2D2 escaped from a palace. Anakin Skywalker is trained to be a Jedi Knight off-screen between films. The entire Clone Wars, the conflict alluded to once in Star Wars and obsessed about fans since, also happens off-screen between films. There are dozens of others.
Klimo’s “ring theory” concerning Star Wars’ structure is cogent and persuasive – a true internet age piece of film criticism, rivalled only by Joel Bocko’s commentaries on Twin Peaks. But it isn’t, except punningly, wholly revolutionary. It was the 1986 edition of Films and Flmmakers – a peer reviewed IMDB on paper – which identified the primary dramatic conceit of the films as layered “duplication and inversion”.
It’s not a great innovation to say that Hamlet features more than one murdered father and more than one son who is seeking revenge; or that the actions and responses of Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras, Old Hamlet, Polonious and Claudius duplicate, mirror, echo and invert each other’s. Star Wars, also concerned with fathers and sons – indeed patricide, with civic decay, imperial ambition and revenge in the mix too – works in a similar fashion.
Any viewer of Return of the Jedi notices that Luke Skywalker cuts off Darth Vader’s hand, just as at the climax of The Empire Strikes Back, Vader had cut off Luke’s. It requires a heroic failure of comprehension to not see Luke looking from the fizzing robotic stump of his Father’s severed black gloved hand to his own replacement artificial, black-gloved hand, as a thematic and character point being made through action and visuals. (You will presumably be recalling by this point that there are several other scenes across the series in which arms are removed with lightsabres.)
Repeated lines of dialogue (e.g. “I have a bad feeling about this”, “This is where the fun begins”, “It’s not my fault!”) work in a similar way, drawing the viewer’s attention to other times things these things are said and inviting comparison between those occasions.
It’s not a big step from acknowledging something this blatantly obvious to realising that virtually everything in Star Wars – plot, story, music, visuals, dialogue – is like that, and pretty much all the time. Some scenes reflect all five other films simultaneously, a pattern that built in complexity every time Lucas added a film to his series. This was only possible because Lucas, uniquely among blockbuster directors, was spending his own money and working with characters and concepts wholly of his own creation, making it a peculiarly personal popcorn project.
Our first and last shots of C-3P0, from episodes IV and III respectively.
The final shots of episodes I and IV.
Luke’s first and last days on Tatooine, from episodes III and IV.
Left: Luke reacts to Darth Vader killing the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi in episode IV; right: Obi-Wan reacts to Darth Maul killing the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn in episode I.
A direct modelling after Shakespeare isn’t implausible. After reading Lucas’ THX-1138 in 1969, Francis Ford Coppola told Lucas to read more Shakespeare to improve his sense of structure, and gifted him some variation on the Complete Works shortly afterwards. (This might explain why Star Wars’ overall structure closely resembles that of Shakespeare two tetralogies of English history plays, which were written in the opposing order to that in which they are set.)
The problem, of course, with this “Ah, but…” approach to defending something is that you can’t tell someone they did enjoy a film that they didn’t. But the reverse is equally true – and 2015 has seen a glut of pieces about how the prequels are maligned or misunderstood, as those who were pre-teens when they came out muscle their way into the commentariat. (This is exactly the process whereby the 90s saw The Empire Strikes Back finding itself acclaimed as amongst the best films ever made despite initially disappointing box office and reviews.)
More recently, there’s been an interesting real world inversion, too. Among the other prequel films to be violently rejected by its fan base has been Star Trek Into Darkness, in which Simon Pegg appeared. With the boot on the other foot, Pegg, with no sense of irony apparent, called out its critics:
“It’s asinine, you know? It’s ridiculous. And frustrating, as well, because a lot of hard work and love went into that movie, and all JJ wanted to do was make a film that people really enjoyed. So, to be subject to that level of sort of, like, crass fucking ire, I just say ‘Fuck You’.”
George Lucas is no longer involved with Star Wars, having sold it to Disney and since quit even his advisory role on the new films. In Lucas’ place as director and (co)screenwriter is JJ Abrams, who made Star Trek Into Darkness.
Early in The Force Awakens’ production Lucas was told by his soon-to-be-erstwhile-colleagues that they needed to make a film “the fans would love”. He responded by saying that what he wanted to do was “tell a story”.
This, predictably, caused snide internet outbursts – but in any other circumstances, this would be seen as an individual being rebuffed for refuting a crass impulse. (Disney intends to make as many Star Wars films in the next five years as Lucas made in 30.)
The Force Awakens will do huge business. It may even review well. The trailers suggest a box-ticking pastiche of Star Wars – but then Abrams’ career consists of well-crafted pastiche.
Is he here giving the audience what he anticipates it wants, creating something which plays up to fan’s expectations and desires – rather than confounding them, crashing into them in pursuit of its own concerns? Will that work?
No one expects to be disappointed. Anticipation is building. Star Wars is everywhere.
We’ve been here before.
James Cooray Smith is the author of the Virgin Film Guide to George Lucas.
Screenshots courtesy of Mike Klimo.