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The State of ‘Star Wars’

Aired on December 27, 2015 (Episode #575)

With the release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Sounds of Cinema took a look at the past, present, and future of the Star Wars series in an attempt to grapple with the saga’s meanings for cinema and for popular culture.


I. The Star Wars Revolution

II. The Special Editions

III. The Second Star Wars Revolution

IV. Star Wars and Race

V. The Future of Star Wars

I. The Star Wars Revolution

Star Wars has been such a dominating presence in cinema for the last thirty-eight years that it is difficult to imagine American movies and pop culture without it. But it’s worth understanding where Star Wars came from to fully understand what it has become.

The original Star Wars was released in the midst of the New Hollywood movement, which remains the greatest period of American film. Spanning from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, the New Hollywood movement gave rise to filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, and Stanley Kubrick who made movies like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Coming Home, The French Connection, and A Clockwork Orange. These movies upended filmmaking conventions, redrew the boundaries of censorship, told stories of moral complexity, and dealt with difficult subject matter.

Two things happened at this time that made the New Hollywood movement possible. The first was the destabilization of American society. Watergate, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and insurgent social movements like second wave feminism and gay liberation shook up American society. At the same time the American film industry was going through its own structural change. The major studios were in financial trouble and the old standards of musicals and historical epics were no longer making bank. The studios went from standalone companies to divisions of much larger conglomerates. The new corporate owners didn’t know much about movies but they were interested in reaching the youth market and so they turned to young filmmakers. Under the old Hollywood studio system the average feature film director was in his mid-forties but now twenty year olds were given license to make what they wanted in the hope that it would regain the public’s interest in the movies. These young filmmakers produced motion pictures that reflected their own view of the world.

It’s in this environment that Star Wars was made and the movie was in its own way revolutionary. Writer and director George Lucas was operating within the studio system while alienated from it. He and his contemporaries were among the first graduates of film schools and Lucas saw himself as an outsider who would make experimental movies. His first two features, THX-1138 and American Graffiti, didn’t resemble traditional narrative filmmaking and Warner Bros. and Universal reedited them before release, angering Lucas and prompting him to assert more control over his films and properties. Star Wars was more conventionally narrative than those pictures but it was even more experimental in its style and technique. The rapid editing and technological innovations revealed new methods of producing visual effects and ultimately new ways of making movies altogether.

The story of Star Wars was also revolutionary or perhaps more accurately it was counter-revolutionary. The film spoke to the youth of the time as it depicted a galactic civil war in which young people figuratively (and later literally) rebelled against their fathers. But Star Wars rejected the ambiguity of the New Hollywood movement in favor of the optimism and moral absolutism of an earlier era. The youth of the 1970s saw their struggles against the establishment in the Rebel assault on the Death Star but their parents would have recognized Darth Vader’s headgear as a synthesis of the Nazi helmet and the SS Totenkopf symbol, giving the conflict a different point of reference. This mix of mainstream and revolutionary elements is a large part of what made Star Wars a hit and made it both a part of and apart from the New Hollywood movement.

Star Wars is also a revolutionary film in the way that it altered the trajectory of the film industry. The enormous box office of Star Wars recalibrated Hollywood’s barometer of financial success and so the picture is often credited—or blamed—with ending the New Hollywood era. But that’s not altogether true. Like any business owner, the executives running Hollywood studios were always interested in making products that would generate the most revenue. By the late 1970s the audience was exhausted with downbeat stories and the success of Jaws and Rocky had already begun to shift Hollywood’s tone. Following Star Wars, the subsequent box office failure of somber films like Sorcerer and Heaven’s Gate and the success of upbeat pictures like Grease and Superman: The Movie completed the redirection of the industry toward escapist fare.

It’s become a cliché to say that Star Wars changed the American film industry. But that is so often said because it’s true. Star Wars was as important a cinematic milestone as Citizen Kane and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and like Orson Welles’ and Walt Disney’s movies, the style and techniques of George Lucas’ original space opera have been so embedded in mainstream films that contemporary audiences can’t see what was so special about them. We’ve been living in the era of Star Wars for nearly forty years and what began as a youthful cinematic rebellion has become an empire in its own right. Now that we are on the cusp of a new era of Star Wars films, it is time for audiences, critics, and filmmakers to reevaluate what that means.

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II. The Special Editions

It’s impossible to discuss the Star Wars film series without talking about the Special Editions. For those of you who don’t pay attention to these things, George Lucas revised the original trilogy in 1997, remastering the picture and sound but also materially changing the movies. Most of the alterations were done to the special effects. In some cases new backgrounds or additional characters were inserted into existing material or composite shots were adjusted to remove matte lines. But in many instances, special effect shots from 1977 were replaced entirely with new material created using digital technology. The bulk of the work was done to the original Star Wars but alterations were also made to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Released with great fanfare in 1997, the Special Editions became one of the most contested subjects in Star Wars fandom. At issue was not simply that Lucas had tinkered with these films but that he intended the Special Edition to be the only version of Star Wars to exist in perpetuity. The Special Edition was subject to a second draft in 2004 when the movies were issued on DVD and Lucas made a final set of changes to the original films and to the prequel trilogy for the series’ release on Blu-ray in 2011. 

It’s worth noting that George Lucas was not the first filmmaker to create a “special edition” of a popular film. Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind was originally released in 1977, six months after Star Wars, and a special edition of Close Encounters was issued in 1980 with a subsequent “Director’s Cut” of the film released in 1998. Studios and filmmakers have followed suit, issuing unrated and extended versions of movies as a way of generating new revenue from old titles.

Yet, there are fundamental differences between the typical “special edition” or “director’s cut” and what Lucas did with Star Wars. First and most importantly, the original versions of the movies generally remain available. In the case of other important and beloved films given the special edition treatment such as Aliens, Apocalypse Now, and Blade Runner, both the theatrical cut and the director’s preferred version are easily accessible. This is important because it balances the interests of the audience, cinema history, and the creative integrity of the filmmaker. Everybody gets what they want and had Lucas gone this route the whole matter would have gone much more smoothly.

Secondly, the Star Wars Special Edition was made decades after the original production and included material that was entirely new. That makes the Special Edition fundamentally different from a restoration. Pictures like Touch of Evil or Once Upon a Time in America were finished as the director had intended and then were subsequently altered by the studio. The newly available versions of those films involved the recovery of material created during the production. There is a difference between that kind of restoration and waiting twenty years to indulge second guesses and hindsight. Despite what he might say, the Special Edition is not George Lucas’ original vision of Star Wars any more than a remix of a song is the same as the original tune. Art is a product of a specific time and place and creative decisions are made by the artist based on his or her sensibilities at that moment and with the tools available at the time. The Special Edition is a new article, a hybrid of the George Lucas of 1977 and the Lucas of 1997 and it both benefits and suffers from his changed sensibilities and a different set of filmmaking tools.

Until Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, no one of sound mind would debate that George Lucas had a legal right to do whatever he wanted with Star Wars. But that’s not what is at issue here. The Special Editions inspire such passion because they represent a moral and ethical problem.

Like many filmmakers of the New Hollywood era, George Lucas subscribes to the auteur theory of cinema, in which directors are the most important creative force behind a movie and they are to be regarded as the primary authors of a work of cinema. There is certainly a lot of truth to that, especially when the director asserts as much control over the property as Lucas did with Star Wars, but auteur theory does not tell the whole story. Filmmaking is a collaborative art form and actors, writers, and technicians all contribute to the making of a movie. This is especially the case in large scale films or movies that are cinematically innovative. The original Star Wars included groundbreaking filmmaking processes and The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were directed by other people. Discarding the work of collaborators and other directors, and in particular work that is important to cinematic and cultural history, goes well beyond being an auteur and it is ethically problematic to say the least.

The other ethical conundrum presented by the Special Editions is the preservation of film history. Whatever opinions each of us may have about Star Wars—good, bad, or indifferent—it cannot be denied that the original trilogy was seminal in cinema history and the content of the original picture is important to preserve as a matter of the cultural record. The changes made in the Special Editions are very much like the colorization of classic movies; it’s a fine thing to do but at best the altered version should exist in companion with the original cut and cannot be allowed to replace it.

In all likelihood the original version of Star Wars will eventually be restored. In 2012 Disney purchased Lucasfilm and market forces will probably compel The Mouse and 20th Century Fox to eventually release Star Wars in its unaltered form. But the debate about the Special Edition remains important and even a telltale struggle of our time. The alteration of the Star Wars trilogy occurred against a background in which advances in technology and shifting cultural mores have made the future of intellectual property rights and artistic integrity much more fraught. Since Lucas made the Special Edition, altering or discarding the work of his collaborators, many fans have done the same to Lucas’ later films by making their own cuts of the Star Wars prequels and creating so-called “Despecialized Editions” of the original pictures.  We are now in an age in which art and media are much more fluid in form and content as is the cultural sense of ownership. Star Wars ignites such passion because the fans view these films as belonging to them. While Disney owns Star Wars in the legal sense of the word, on another level the fans are right. There’s no clearly defined moment when Star Wars became a cultural institution but it is a part of our heritage in the same way as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. That’s no license for piracy but it does compel the legal owners of Star Wars to be good stewards of a motion picture and a cultural artifact that means so much to so many people.

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III. The Second Star Wars Revolution

Sixteen years after completing the original Star Wars trilogy with Return of the Jedi, George Lucas returned to his galaxy far, far away with the prequel trilogy, which told the backstory of the existing films. It is an understatement to say that the Star Wars prequels, which began with 1999’s The Phantom Menace, continued with 2002’s Attack of the Clones, and finished with 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, were regarded as a disappointment by fans and critics alike. It’s also uncontroversial to say that the new crop of movies, starting with The Force Awakens, are intended to distance the series from the prequels and preserve the Star Wars brand for the future.

What may be controversial, and which I will argue here, is that the prequel trilogy—and in particular The Phantom Menace—was as significant and as influential of a cinematic event as the original Star Wars.

If nothing else, 1977’s Star Wars was a landmark movie because of the technology that was invented in the process of making it. On the level of technical craft, The Phantom Menace has some equally groundbreaking accomplishments; unfortunately those accomplishments are embodied by Jar Jar Binks. There had already been computer generated characters in movies, namely the dinosaurs of 1993’s Jurassic Park, but there is a difference between creating an animal versus a sentient being who communicates and interacts with the other human performers. The latter requires a subtlety in the performance that calls upon a different set of skills. Although Jar Jar Binks is among the most reviled characters in Star Wars (or any other movie for that matter) the fact is that without Jar Jar we don’t get Gollum of Lord of the Rings or Caesar of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Along with creating totally digital characters, the Star Wars prequels also innovated entirely digital environments. This was another important breakthrough. Where movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park were filmed in a physical space and then inserted digital characters or other elements in post-production, the Star Wars prequels reversed this; the movies were essentially animated films with live action components. This has had a profound impact on the way movies are made. First, the digital back lot has become a reality and on big budget studio films the most involved and time consuming portion of the filmmaking process is no longer the shoot with the actors but the post-production period in which digital technicians shape the material. Second, a whole new kind of movie has been made possible: the motion capture film. This hybrid of animation and live action moviemaking allowed Robert Zemeckis to make The Polar Express and James Cameron to create Avatar.

This leads to the third technical accomplishment of the Star Wars prequels and that is creating a standard for the quality and quantity of the work. Previous to The Phantom Menace the average tentpole film might have 400 effect shots. Virtually every shot of the Star Wars prequels was digitally enhanced in some way—that’s about 2000 shots per film—and they are of uniformly high quality. This same density of digital effects can be seen in The Avengers and 300.

There was another technical innovation spearheaded by the prequels: digital filmmaking. Attack of the Clones was the first feature film to be shot entirely with digital cameras. This was quite controversial at the time and whether or not this was good for the motion picture industry continues to be a matter of fierce debate. But the fact of the matter is that the future of cinema is digital and, for better or worse, Star Wars led the way in that conversion.

In each of these cases, whether it was computer generated characters or digital cameras, the filmmakers of the Star Wars prequels devised an entire process to get from a concept to a finished product. That infrastructure created new kinds of filmmaking jobs while ending old ones, reshaped the way that movies are made, and altered the expectations of the audience. In short, the prequel trilogy was the second Star Wars revolution.

The technical breakthroughs of the Star Wars prequels don’t excuse the many flaws of those films. But when it comes to taking stock of the legacy of Star Wars it’s a mistake to stop counting the series’ impact in 1977 or even 1983. The prequel trilogy has directly shaped contemporary motion picture production perhaps even more so than the original movie.

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IV. Star Wars and Race

One of the criticisms that has dogged Star Wars has been its representation of race. This has been a particularly touchy subject for Star Wars fans who in some cases regard the films with the same reverence given to a holy scripture, and treat criticisms of it with the same indignancy.

The fact is that Star Wars has a complicated relationship with race and gender issues—which is not the same as being wholly and irremediably racist or sexist. The original 1977 film features virtually no actors of color and The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi have only one such character (Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams) even as the alien population of the series becomes much more diverse.

There was an attempt to correct this in the prequel trilogy with the addition of several more actors of color, most notably Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu. However, that progress was offset by several alien characters who, whether intentional or not, mimicked racial stereotypes in their voice, behavior, and character design. Toydarian junk dealer Watto echoed the clichés of Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs and Jews, the Neimodians of the Trade Federation spoke like Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Gungan goofball Jar-Jar Binks recalled the embarrassing history of minstrel shows.

But Star Wars’ portrayal of race is not all terrible either. One of the themes that runs through the series, both the original films and the prequels, is that the heroes are people whose goals are democratic and who fight against tyranny by building coalitions among alien races. The Empire is ultimately defeated in Return of the Jedi by a Rebel fleet piloted by a variety of alien creatures and by ground forces that forge an alliance with the Ewoks. This is replicated in the climax of The Phantom Menace as the Gungans join with the human Naboo people to take on the occupation of the Trade Federation. By contrast, the titular army of Attack of the Clones is made of people who are literally homogenous (and in that respect indistinguishable from the automatons of the Separatists) and in Revenge of the Sith the clones become the basis for the Empire’s army of Stormtroopers. The fact that Star Wars tells stories of racial cooperation against oppression is itself significant no matter how compromised it may be.

The portrayal of women in Star Wars is not quite as knotty as its portrayal of race but it’s worth mentioning. As with characters of color, there are very few female characters in the entire series, with Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher) the sole female lead in the original trilogy. But Leia is a tough and complex character who is both assertive and feminine and she is rightly regarded to be among the great sci-fi heroines. More women were added in the Star Wars prequels, but mostly in background roles with few or no lines, and Padme Amidala actually regressed over the series, beginning in The Phantom Menace as an active player and ending in Revenge of the Sith as an anxious housewife.

Clearly, the filmmakers of Star Wars—which until now has primarily been George Lucas—have struggled with racial and gender representation in their movies. But there are two additional things to say about that. First, Star Wars underrepresentation of women and people of color is not exceptional at all. The critiques of this series are accurate but those same criticisms apply to virtually all Hollywood films. According to a 2015 study by UCLA, seventy-five percent of lead roles are held by men and eighty-three percent of lead roles are played by white actors. The racial and gender flaws of Star Wars are not particular to it. Rather, they are indicative of the entire Hollywood marketplace.

Secondly, representation of minorities in media is an issue that matters. If people never see themselves on screen in the most popular, most powerful, and widest reaching medium of our time it creates a sense of exclusion from society and renders those people invisible while reinforcing the impression among white male viewers that their stories are the only ones that are worth telling. But again, this is not about one story or one series. It’s about an entire entertainment system that has excluded a great deal of the population.

Hashing over the racial and gender politics of a populist sci-fi movie may seem like a waste of time that ought to be spent debating “serious” movies or other issues. But popular culture is still culture and Star Wars is a touchstone that transcends race, politics, and socio-economic class. Han Solo and Princess Leia and Darth Vader are as much a part of our American heritage as Jay Gatsby, Paul Bunyan, and Atticus Finch. But unlike those characters and their stories, the mythology of Star Wars is still open to addition and revision. As Star Wars moves into the hands of new filmmakers, I hope they will aspire to the best aspects of this series and create a universe in which all are welcome as characters and as audiences.

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V. The Future of Star Wars

With the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney and that company’s plans to continue to make Star Wars films as long as is economically feasible, the series has entered a new phase.

The original Star Wars was released at a time when it was an anomaly in the motion picture marketplace. By the time George Lucas got around to making the prequel trilogy quite a lot had changed. Science fiction and fantasy movies were a regular fixture of mainstream culture but Star Wars still stood out among in the sci-fi and fantasy genres because of its breadth and ambition and creativity.

The Force Awakens comes out in a different context from either A New Hope or The Phantom Menace. The multi-film science fiction and fantasy epic isn’t just familiar. It is now a staple of the studio business plan. Every few months a new installment in one fantasy series or another gets released and Hollywood is constantly in search of the next Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Hunger Games series that it can implement into a long term franchise. The new run of Star Wars films fits neatly into that plan.

The new Star Wars film also aligns with another current trend: the nostalgia sequel or the soft reboot. Earlier this year, Creed (a spin-off of Rocky) and Jurassic World found great success by reigniting dormant franchises with stories that appended onto the continuity of earlier movies while adhering closely to the basic themes of the series. The Force Awakens does the same, deliberately connecting itself to the classic trilogy of films and repeating many of the familiar beats of the original Star Wars. But reliance on nostalgia comes with its own risks.

Until now one of the outstanding things about Star Wars—and part of its appeal—was its independence from the Hollywood system. The original Star Wars was made under difficult conditions and some executives at 20th Century Fox actually opposed its production because it was so out of character with the conventional wisdom of the time. Out of that struggle and the movie’s success emerged the popular myth of George Lucas as the auteur who bucked the Hollywood power structure. And there was quite a bit of reality to that myth. Despite how wealthy this series made Lucas and how unscrupulous he may have been about exploiting the licensing rights, the fact is that five out of the first six Star Wars movies were independent films in the true sense of the word. They were financed outside of the Hollywood system and were not subject to studio notes or focus groups. As a result, all of the Star Wars movies made under the Lucas regime have a strange and singular creative vision behind them. They were experimental in technical craft and ambitious in their mash up of filmmaking genres.

The Force Awakens completes the transition of Star Wars from an independent and insurgent cultural phenomenon and into a fixture of the Hollywood institution. That’s evident in the degree to which the filmmakers of The Force Awakens go out of their way to appease the audience. Where Lucas flagrantly didn’t care about anyone else’s opinion (sometimes to the detriment of his movies), the filmmakers of The Force Awakens play to the nostalgia of the audience and give them exactly what they want and little else. But while that wave of nostalgia has been the very thing drawing crowds to theaters it also risks being the series’ greatest liability.  

Complacency is the death of creativity. Any worthwhile piece of art requires a certain amount of risk and stories need characters and conflicts that continue to grow and develop. This is why The Empire Strikes Back is still held with such high regard. It didn’t rehash the original Star Wars. It took the series in new directions and expanded and enriched the material. Callbacks are fine but an ongoing series like Star Wars cannot be built solely on repurposing the same old set pieces. That sort of narrative decadence results in creative decay that eventually rots a series from the inside out. The filmmakers of The Force Awakens were caught in a tough spot, having the follow the sour taste that the Star Wars prequels and the Special Edition left in the fan’s mouths. The overabundant nostalgia of this movie was probably necessary to make amends and to rehabilitate the Star Wars brand. If the box office is any indication, that mission has been accomplished. But as the new owners of Lucasfilm move forward without the company’s namesake it is imperative that they find new stories to tell and new ways to tell them.

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