Happy birthday, Star Wars! The present I was hoping to get you is not quite ready yet. So instead, inspired by some debates on episode 7 (e7), I’ve recently read, I’ve decided to analyze why the original films of SW worked, and the new stuff less so.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
E4, the original Star Wars, is almost perfection from a storytelling standpoint. From the outset the audience is brought into this new universe with some basic concepts they can grasp to give them a handle on understanding what’s happening. Likewise we are given a very clear plot device.
I know some might say that it is not always required for a story, you can get away with a macguffin, but in a tale involving a fantastical setting, yes a clear plot device is needed. The macguffin in a movie like Ronin or Pulp Fiction (a briefcase) can remain mysterious in those stories because the settings and characters are familiar in their humanity; we can understand their motivations. However when a story takes place in a completely new setting (like another galaxy) there is no reason for the audience to believe that the characters – even if they look human – are human. Therefore the plot devices in fantasy & scifi stories need to be explicit and understandable for the audience to grasp the characters and plot. The plans detailing a threatening doomsday weapon and possibly its weakness is something the audience can understand. We would also want that if we were in the same situation, so the audience is able to cross the gap between the familiar to the fantastical by this understanding.
From this solid cornerstone, the story is built very tightly. Every action is caused by the efforts of characters in relation to this macguffin. Random events happen to hinder the protagonists in a believable manner. The jawas don’t intend to help the Empire when they shoot R2-D2 – if they knew the full scope of what was going on, they might even offer to help the droid. But they don’t understand the wider picture, they’re scavengers on a barren planet desperate for resources so they attack our beloved droid because they need to. Everything in the film revolves around moving the plans closer or further away from the rebels until the climax. There, the rebels finally get the macguffin, and it does exactly what we were promised: reveal the Death Star’s weakness by which the heroes save the day.
Yes there are hiccups and questions that arise in the course of the story, but to answer any of them would take away from the story’s central goal and focus, which ironically ends up weakening the story over all. Ultimately with the limitations inherent to the format of the medium it exists in, Star Wars is perfect as a story.
Empire Strikes Back (e5), while a superior sequel, ends up being a work which is only superior because of the preceding piece. As it is, E5 cannot stand alone. It depends on the audience already having some understanding of the fantasy world so it can build further from there. This time the Empire is the driving force but at first there is no obvious macguffin. Instead we open on what might be any random day in the life with the rebels hiding and the empire seeking. It is only much later in the film that the truth is revealed: Luke is the macguffin. While he goes off to train with Yoda, Darth Vader pursues his friends solely that he might later use them in a trap for Luke. In this movie, the story is structured to show us who are the characters we met before.
Now let’s take a brief step away and examine the prequel films. How does e1 begin? Jedi are sent to a conflict. At some point they resolve to go to Coruscant. The villains make great effort to keep them from reaching Coruscant. The entire first half of the movie revolves around the characters reaching a destination. Then, when they reach that destination, what happens? One of the main characters goes back home to raise up a local army to solve the problem. Making the entire previous part of the film? Entirely pointless. The heroes’ and villains’ previous efforts? Entirely wasted. It would be the equivalent of R2-D2 getting to the rebel base in e4, only for the rebels to download the Millennium Falcon’s sensor logs for how to destroy the Death Star – it’s a complete betrayal of the story’s set up and promises.
We move on to e2. How does it go? An assassination attempt is made on Padme’s life. She opposes the creation of an army. This attempt leads to an investigation by Obi-Wan which ultimately uncovers an army which the republic then uses. Thus making the entire previous part of the film… entirely pointless. To make it even worse, given her experience in the previous film, Padme – more than anyone else – should know and understand the use and importance of a military to a governing system. She should be the principle advocate of creating a Republic military. It would then makes sense for the opposing side to try and kill her to prevent the Republic from ever marshaling a force against them. Killing the leading opponent to an armament effort would seem to increase the odds of that armament effort happening. Anyway, with Padme demonstrating no character growth from the previous film, e2 ends up further rendering e1… entirely pointless.
E3 then becomes the best of the prequels because it is fundamentally a character study during a time of war. We follow the main characters as they struggle during times that try men’s souls. The story structure is at least present and logical as each character makes [roughly] logical choices to accomplish understandable goals. While not executed to perfection, the basic structure is present and intact.
Let’s return now to e6 (Return of the Jedi). This movie is more like two stories stitched together. We start with rescuing a beloved character on Tatooine and while Han helps out in the multi-pronged attack in the climax, never is it made clear that he was vital to this effort. At the climax of e6, we have 3 battles going on: the ground battle, the space battle, and the spiritual battle. The ground and space battles are linked, in order for the latter to succeed, the former must as well. So part of the story leads the audience to ask if Luke is really needed in this scene. Should the ground battle win and the space battle blow up the Death Star 2, what could have saved the Emperor or Darth Vader? Conversely it must also be asked, could Luke have done it alone? If he confronted the Emperor and Darth Vader and defeated them as was shown, could the Empire had done much to stop a full Jedi Knight from destroying the Death Star 2 from the inside? Given what we see in the movie, it seems the answer is no. E6 ends up being the weakest of the original 3 because the first half of the story is only tangentially related to the second half, and the two main conflicts at the end are related only by proximity.
This brings us ultimately to e7. I know it is fashionable to say it is a remake of e4, but the fact is, you’re wrong – it’s a remake of e6. The story starts off with a plot device related to a beloved character. Halfway through the movie we find out this plot device is… entirely pointless. The character searched for plays no role in the final conflicts which boil down to 2 main threads: a physical battle and a spiritual battle, both of which are related only by proximity. No, really think about it a moment. Both heroes and villains at first are searching for a map to Luke Skywalker. Why? They say he would be important to the war but never how. A doomsday weapon is later revealed which Luke would in no way make much of a difference in stopping, and in fact they blow it up without his aid anyway. So ultimately, what would change in the story if he was found earlier or later in the plot?
Finn, the ex-stormtrooper, seems like he might be a humanized plot-device. Using his status as a janitor, he could give intel to the good guys on the location of the super-weapon and it’s weaknesses. Instead he is… entirely pointless. Everybody finds out where it is by looking up and Han Solo comes up with the infiltration plan. The most Finn does is give them directions to get inside meaning he could be replaced with a GPS voiced by Brian Blessed.
It is a testament to how strong the original movie was and just goes to show how a tightly paced, focused, and well-done story can support so many sequels much less well crafted. There’s always hope the next film might return to the core principles of good storytelling which gave birth to a work of art these many years ago.