It’s truly amazing to see how Disney is determined to leave no two stones standing in the Star Wars edifice. Talking about making the rubble bounce!
Though I have already announced that Star Wars is dead to me, I remain a fan of the original trilogy – a work of timeless genius that should rightly stand unsullied from what came after. Indeed, the more Disney tries to warp the franchise into some sort of G-rated Barbarella, the better the originals look.
That being said, there is a path to redemption. But before we get to that, we first need to look at how things went off the rails.
It’s the Canon, Stupid
We must begin at the end – specifically the conclusion of the original trilogy in 1983. The release of Return of the Jedi (the best of the original movies!) was a triumph in storytelling and its satisfactory ending cemented Star Wars in the public imagination.
This is why we must regard the original versions of the films and their novelizations (which due to publishing requirements were often based on earlier drafts of the script) as the ‘canon,’ or Official Lore.
Just as the films got better, so did the books, and James Kahn’s novelization of Return of the Jedi stands well above the predecessors, not only in the quality of writing but in the extra detail brought to the print versions of the characters. In the pre-digital age, this tome was memorized by fans whose parents regarded more than four trips to the movie theater excessive.
From these sources, we learn a number of things about the immediate past of the Galactic Republic:
Obi-Wan was once a general in a significant conflict called The Clone Wars and Anakin also served in the war.
As for the clones, they were clearly on the losing side of the war, and in the desperate attempt to defeat this soulless, endless supply of soldiery the Imperial military was forged, complete with a super-weapon that only entered service after the war was won – perhaps as a guarantee against future onslaughts.
This has to be the case because stormtroopers have distinctly different voices and also physical characteristics. Leia’s quip that Luke is a little short to be a Stormtrooper doesn’t work if they are all clones. For one thing, Luke would have immediately been spotted as an impostor long before he reached her cell.
When Obi-Wan met Anakin, he was already a great pilot, the clear implication being that he was an adult. Further proof is found in the fact that his uncle’s cover story – told to Luke as he was growing up – had his father serving as a navigator – not a job typically handed out to little kid.
An adult Anakin also makes sense because of the similarity it creates between Obi-Wan training him and later Luke. Yoda’s misgivings about Luke’s age clearly were meant to parallel those regarding Anakin. The age differential in the prequels therefore makes zero sense.
The Force is mysterious energy field given off by all living things, not some sort of biological phenomenon. It has to be something unexplainable by science or it becomes just another gadget.
Lightsabers are civilized and elegant, used sparingly. When Luke tries to wield it in a general melee against Jabba’s minions, he gets shot in the hand. This is why Darth Vader lets stormtroopers lead his assaults.
Anakin did not know Luke’s mother was pregnant with twins, nor did the Emperor. After giving birth, Padme stayed with the Organa family and died at least two years later, when Leia would have been old enough to recall memories of her.
“Uncle Owen” is actually Obi-wan’s brother, not an relative of Luke. This places Obi-wan’s home on Tatooine and explains the testy relationship between Owen and Ben (“That wizard’s just a crazy old man!”). Obi-wan wears the outfit of a moisture farmer as part of his disguise. (The notion that Jedi dress as Tatooine moisture farmers or Obi-wan would ‘hide’ in a formal Jedi uniform is too stupid for words.)
There is little information about the rise of Emperor Palpatine, but we know that by the start of the films, his power is not yet absolute. Senators have diplomatic immunity from Imperial troops, something Leia has repeatedly exploited. There are frequent expressions of concern that sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate (“Holding her is dangerous!”) might cause political difficulties. It is only after the Death Star becomes operational that the transformation into dictatorship is complete.
The effect is that the Emperor has to be a skilled politician, deftly maneuvering against an increasingly alarmed political opposition. This directly contradicts the narrative set forth in the prequels where the Jedi can be massacred with impunity via a clone army personally loyal to the Emperor.
Sadly, all of these intriguing plots lines were wiped out by the prequels, requiring extensive edits in the originals to smooth over the resulting contradictions.
Vulnerability, Not Strength, Makes Characters Interesting
It was common when the original films came out for critics to sniff that they were merely pulp stories dressed up with special effects. This is in fact true (it was explicitly an homage to Flash Gordon), but they resonated because the characters were relatable and compelling.
All of the original cast – including Vader – had weaknesses and that was what made them interesting. Vader in particular was a creature of brooding menace, but when his helmet is removed, we see a sad, scarred old man. So it was with the rest: Luke must learn wisdom, Han becomes selfless, and Leia opens herself to being something other than a wartime leader. Even a secondary character like Lando experiences a change of heart and personal growth.
No comparable growth is visible in either the prequels or the movies that came later, which is why they fail as storytelling. Anakin starts angry and ends angry. Padme is a cipher. Obi-wan is sedated. The sequels were even worse, bringing us Jedi Mary Sue, who is better than everyone at everything. This is supposed to make her admirable.
What modern writers forget is that true bravery is about conquering fear, not the absence of it. The jittery humor on the stolen Imperial shuttle as it approaches Endor (“I don’t know, fly casual!”) resonates because it lets us know that even these seasoned warriors – who took down the original Death Star and defeated Jabba the Hutt – still feel fear.
They are heroes, but not super-heroes, which is why we can relate to them.
The Hole in the Middle of the Story
I mentioned this before in passing, but it bears repeating: any story that purports to cover the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the rise of the Empire must place the character of the Emperor front and center. His cardboard-cutout lack of depth cripples the prequels and the sequels. What is his motivation? He’s obviously ambitious, but to what end? He vows vengeance on the Jedi, but why?
From there was can move on to Obi-wan, who as the brother of a moisture farmer becomes far more interesting than just another monk. Maybe he and Owen are only half-brothers, or Obi-wan inherited the gift but his sibling did not. The reunion of the two with an infant Luke would have been a great opportunity to show that even Jedi have family and complicated relationships.
Anakin should have been like Luke – a talented but rough Outer Rim pilot who meets Obi-wan during the war. This would cement the ‘like father like son’ parallel.
As the losses mount (particularly among the Jedi), Obi-wan decides to train him, but Anakin is too undisciplined and the fury he brings to the war is exploited by the would-be Emperor to turn him to evil.
A key component of this is that Palpatine not only needs to be more fully developed, he has to have charm and charisma in addition to his ruthlessness. In fact, his hardness could at first be seen as virtue, as the Republic fights off despair and defeatism in the face of the clone onslaught. It is only later, as the war deepens and the Republic gains the upper hand that this courage turns to cruelty, perhaps even vindictiveness.
This is important because the notion that a pie-faced old dude can also double as a cackling hooded villain under the very noses of the Jedi Council destroys any notion that the Force can sense anger, and arguing that the Dark Side is super-hard to spot is simply a cop-out. After a display of military ruthlessness (say bombing a hostile planet beyond any strategic need), perhaps one of the Jedi might mutter about darkness enveloping the Republic’s leader. Maybe even some of the Jedi begin to become dark as well.
While the Jedi are feared and respected, they are never loved by either side. Whether one considers the Force “hokey” or “an ancient religion,” no one thinks much of them. This indicates that far from having to issue a super-secret (yet galaxy-wide!) order to annihilate them, it would be possible for the Emperor to whip up popular fear and suspicion to kill off the last of the war-depleted knights.
A War About Nothing
While I’m at it, can anyone explain what the Clone War is even about, and why anyone should care who wins? Lucas dropped some vague anti-capitalist crap into the clunky dialogue, but the Republic is using test-tube raised slaves as their fighting force.
Forget about the oppression of droids, what about these poor souls? At least the enslaved humans in The Matrix get the illusion of free will!
Also, what do the Sith actually do that makes them evil? Christopher Lee sells Count Dooku entirely on the basis that he’s a recognized and venerated actor known for playing villains. It speaks volumes that the greatest moral outrage in the entire series comes when Anakin personally butchers a bunch of defenseless kids. The fact that it makes zero sense (why not brainwash them to be Sith commandos?) only adds insult to injury.
The point is that the Clone War in the prequels is a sloppy, morally ambiguous mess without any reason for the audience to care, when it should have been dramatic and emotionally stirring. You have to hand it to Lucas: he actually made a galaxy-wide war boring.
A story where an unprepared Republic hastily mobilizes against a cruel despotic regime using endless waves of soulless clones would have that moral component that is so conspicuously absent. Instead of trying to make us care about Clone #390824134 (in the beginning of Episode III), we could see the hardships of the diverse alien populations of the Republic being forced to fight for their very survival. Sorry, but there’s zero emotional resonance when clones die.
Now consider an alternate version that shows the impact of the casualty lists being posted and all the various aliens howling in grief at the loss of their loved ones. The music swells as we see new recruits marching towards the transports – not stormtroopers, but recognizable people, their faces grim as they contemplate the business ahead. We now cut to the Senate, where the Emperor thunders away at the latest atrocity and vows that the clones will pay tenfold for what they have done. Some of the Jedi express alarm, but others nod in agreement.
That would make a great tale of how justifiable war measures led to a loss of liberty. It’s a hell of a lot better story than Jar-Jar Binks sponsoring an enabling act.
Bury it at Sea and Start Over
At this point the Star Wars ship of state has taken on too much water to make salvage viable. No clever parallel universe/alternate history device is needed or required. The best approach is to be honest with the audiences and start over. This has happened with innumerable super-heroes and the countless remakes of various films. Time to open the scuttles and abandon the ship.
No one tries to square the Daniel Craig and Sean Connery versions of James Bond because they are of different eras. The same is also true with Batman, Superman and other properties. So it should be with Star Wars.
An announcement that the new series would highlight the points given above would electrify the fan base, and statements that the film returns to the “original vision” of the trilogy would be greeted with enthusiasm.
For those who wonder how such a story would evolve, here is my take on it.
Whether my template is followed or not, this seems to me the only path forward to redeem the series. The prequels stunted the originals, and the repeated edits to force them into conformity are proof that the story was not fully-known back in 1977 but made up as it went along – and then made up again 20 years later.
The process of trying to force continuity has resulted not only in an incoherent story, it has also degraded the greatness of the original films. The “big reveal” of the Millennium Falcon, for example, is now completely wrecked by a previous (and unnecessary) scene with a CGI Jabba the Hutt.
Don’t call it a ‘reboot,’ call it a ‘do-over.’
There’s no point in trying renovation. Bulldoze the site and start fresh.