The Force is a fluorescent highlighter

I have never been a purist of Star Wars. Never attended a fan convention, can’t name the dates when the films came out, have never read a book on the Extended Universe. I know the films, and that’s it.

As most kids of the 80s, I had an extensive collection of Star Wars toys. I still remember the day me and my brother received our first: I had Chewbacca and he got a Sandman. Me and my mum later went to see Return of The Jedi when it came out in the cinema. As a good mum, she asked cousin Philip (6 years older than me) if it wasn’t too scary. “Of course not”, he answered. He was mostly right: lazer beams and clumsy Stormtroopers falling about. And of course speed racing in the forest and teddy bears.

The Jabba the Hutt scene left quite an impression, as did the final fight with the Emperor. For an impressionable 7 year old, probably a bit too much ! Otherwise, OK.

Even after watching the films, I can’t say that me and my friends “knew” about Star Wars. We never likened Luke Skywalker to Darth Vader and never saw value in the Power of the Jedis. None of this mattered. It was good guys VS bad guys in a universe with humans, monsters and space ships. Never mind that Darth Vader was a robot or a human. Nor was it important whether Jabba used the toilet or how Yoda acquired his powers. It was a suspension of disbelief in its purest form.

Star Wars was a classic fight between good and bad guys that all could understand. Despite its accolades about the high degree of creativity, there is less creation than first appears. From a literary perspective, the structure of the narrative is a universal story of a modest hero (Luke) who is born in a time of war and joins a group of rebels. He learns that the leader of the bad guys is his dad and that he has a choice to make.

Then there’s the Force of course, whose major purpose is to serve as a fluorescent highlighter for the top main characters and create an easy-to-understand hierarchy. (Lucas had to create something “special” to distinguish a Luke from a Han Solo.) Call it a literary technique that was sold as a meaningful feature of the universe. Crafty.

The Force factually serves not one but two purposes: to shine a light on the “special” characters and emphasize the symbolism of the hero who must leave his chrysalis by acquiring this Force.

Incidentally, it helps to win a few battles but it is never a weapon that meaningfully impacts the narrative. Whereas Tolkien’s Ring is at the center of the narrative, Lucas’ Force is not. Star Wars does not happen around the Force. The battles do not happen to enable Luke acquire the Force. Only the clever film titles suggest that it is the case.

I concede that the monsters are memorable and pleasing to the eye but there is never a degree of anthropology that is explored. A character will walk into a bar similar to any bar on Earth. It’s just the customers that look different. Other reminders of Earth are the laws of physics, the way of exchanging currency for items, to have a profession, to break the law, to desire material goods… It seems only Religion is missing from this very terrestrial space universe. And tennis.

Back to the 1980s when the Original Trilogy had been shown enough times, the buzz wore off, the kids grew up and we put Star Wars aside. I can’t remember anyone wishing they’d make a new one for the simple reason that the story had been told. Even when we became aware of the rumours of more episodes, there didn’t seem to be any reasons to justify them.

Star Wars was enjoyed as it was, as was fully demonstrated by the colossal success of the films we had. From a narrative point of view, there was no confusion that needed clearing relating to the motives of the characters or the plot.

When the news came out that they were making new Star Wars films in the 2000s we were admittedly quick to forget our indifference. I remember going out to rent the 3 first Star Wars to celebrate with some friends. (And incidentally, to remind ourselves what the whole thing was about.) It had been a good 20 years and hadn’t exactly been high on anyone’s list of conversation topics lately.

Little did we know that we were entering some very bizarre film making conventions, quite unlike those that had made the name of the franchise until then.

Officially at least, the next 3 films were to tell Darth Vader’s story when he was in short pants, a daring artistic choice considering the story HAD already been told. (I repeat myself) Was this to be a new Star Wars story or was it an introduction to the story spread over 3 films? Was it going to have the qualities of a usual film or was the fact that it was divided into 3 while also being an introduction place it above such criteria?

Under the guise of rendering the films from 20 years ago more comprehensible, (yes, those ones no one was talking about) Lucas pulled back the veil of mystery from much of the universe: the galactic dictatorship, the Jedi council, Darth Vader, Jar Jar bloody Bonks, Queen Amidala (they have kings and queens now?), Boba Fett’s fatherly duties, the Stormtrooper factory, and strangest of all, the Emperor.

The case of the Emperor perhaps symbolizes best the damage that unnecessary over-explaining brought to Star Wars. Instead of a magical evil sorcerer that struck the imagination by his senseless wickedness, we now learned that he was just a blonde human politician who spoke like a professor at Oxford. We were Force-sold the idea that he cleverly maneuvered his way into the top spot of the Republic which incidentally he could easily have bypassed by hypnotizing the leader of the Stormtroopers to help with his big takeover.

Yes Emperor, why do it the legal way if you’re going to be illegal a second later anyway? You have magic powers, remember? You’re bad, organize a coup! I’m all for an evil character who manipulates, doubles crosses his enemies, plays one against the other and makes secret alliances like something out of Madame Bovary but the Emperor did none of this and just waited for his turn on the throne.

In case Lucas needed reminding, much of the depth of Star Wars was created by not explaining. The imagination of the viewer did the rest and the appeal was that no one knew why the bad guys were bad, or what the Force was or whether Yoda has really died. The films were had were the films and despite Lucas’ generous intentions I saw nothing in the later ones that brought much to the originals.

As standalone films, it would be hard to argue that they left any lasting impression. A muddled story about a “chosen one” who grew temperamental and went to the “dark side” – a feature no one ever sees happen or understands. It manifests itself by having yellow eyes and a red sword. Here also, Lucas fails at any sort of anthropological depth. What does being “on the dark side” even mean? Is there some specialized studying to do, or a philosophy to embrace? Do you torture baby rabbits until you are fully desensitized?

Even now I am not quite sure that Christopher Lee was an evil Jedi at all, such did Lucas fail at conveying the depth of the universe. Lee seemed more of an “independent thinker” and businessman than an associate of the Emperor. Maybe the fact of never seeing the two together in a scene contributed to this. Though it would have been epic to see 2 bad guys verbally dueling to establish who had the poshest English accent!

All in all, the saving grace of these 6 films was that they had been made by Lucas and bore the artist’s mark. It was still his artistic vision and to a degree, the films were not entirely dissimilar to the original films of the 80s. But our luck stopped here.

When Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney, they bought a name and the rights to the characters. They had the whole arsenal of tools to continue making the films except for the main ingredient: Lucas himself. To those who don’t see the oddity in this, it is like having the Rolling Stones retire and selling their catalog of songs to a record company who would prop up four new guys on stage to play brand new material and continue the legacy. What’s missing? You guessed it: the Rolling Stones. They have the name, the guitars, the amps, the clothes, just not the musicians. But we’ll call it the Rolling Stones anyway.

As much as I find abhorrent to sell the art of the artist without the artist actually making it anymore, this Disney purchase didn’t come at Lucas’ highest professional point. On the contrary. he had just made three forgettable films and had made very public that just about anyone had a shot at making as good a Star Wars film as he. Lucas was no longer irreplaceable but did have a thing of value in his hands in the form of his Stars Wars universe. The cleverest thing to do was to sell the whole lot and let Disney fructify the investment into millions of dollars for decades to come.

For the next three films Disney achieved the unexpected and gloriously tripped over their shoelaces by employing two directors who didn’t get along, as well as injecting a never hitherto seen dose of gender politics. Director 1 laid the premise for the next two films, which director 2 threw in the waste paper bin, and whose inconsistencies director 1 tried to repair in film 3. It was a game of yes-no-yes. The producer of the films insisted that the female hero should always win, show no weakness, no learning curve and be much more powerful than any man Jedi we had ever seen.

To add to the fun, Stormtroopers now had feelings and could fight with lazer swords, the young girl not-yet Jedi could beat a trained Jedi in her first ever fight, Luke Skywalker was a mopey old guy stuck on a boring island achieving nothing, Han Solo was a shit dad, his kid was a tortured emo, the Force could do anything Disney wanted, people could space hop, time travel, hologram fight, come back as dead people, fly like Mary Poppins through space…The new villain Snoke was killed off fast, and for lack of an alternative the Emperor was brought back…and that’s not even addressing the plot and character inconsistencies that are too numerous to fit in a blog post.

As to what exactly happened in those Disney Star Wars films, I couldn’t quite say. I seem to remember that there’s yet a new Death Star that the main character Jedi had to destroy with a new group of rebels. That and something about the still-not-dead Emperor now having thousands of huge ships he somehow built and the powers to throw lightning bolts strong enough to destroy planets. (It makes you wonder how Darth Vader ever beat him in a fight with one hand.)

The original films from the 1980s were built around classic story telling principles, enhanced with monsters and space ship battles. It was unique for its time and made even better by the amount of detail given to the many exotic names, the specificities of the robots, the sounds of the lazer beams (and of R2D2) while not forgetting John Williams’ defining soundtrack.

The films were their own piece of artwork which followed a classic storytelling frame while adding a futuristic aesthetic to it. It was a house on which they’d stuck gingerbread and sweets, but it was still a house.

Twenty-seven years later, Lucas gets it in his head that people are itching to know why Darth Vader became bad and also wishes to find out whether there’s much of a future in bad CGI and annoying Jamaican frogs. Having since forgotten the formula that made Star Wars work, he realizes his inability of doing the films any better than anyone else. He sells the rights to Disney who is of the opinion that art is the paintbrush and the canvas without the artist, and who despite their unlimited financial means cook up a half-baked film for which any teenage Star Wars blogger could have written a more compelling plot.

In all of this, the key fault that Disney and Lucas have demonstrated is having forgotten the nature of the business of cinematographic storytelling. A film only entertains by the quality of its story, and the entertainment Disney so much wishes to sell cannot work without the support of credible characters and a viable plot. Just as a novel can’t just get away with “Bang! Huge amazing fight”, neither can films. Both the reader and the viewer have to be guided by quality storytelling devices.

If storytelling isn’t the trade to which Star Wars is affiliated we must conclude the existence of another possibility. Yes, it’s a film. Yes, it has characters and explosions. No, it doesn’t have a story.

So what line of business is Star Wars in now exactly?

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