How Star Wars could be great again

Posted on December 8, 2014

In this essay, I am making the prediction that the upcoming Star Wars films will succeed or fail (when examined on merit rather than money) based on how well they adhere to a set of guidelines. Of course, the statements below will likely never reach influential hands and would be too late if they did. Thus, they will never become actual guidelines. This is just steam that had to get out.

Having watched the trailer for Star Wars, Episode Seven, I found it to be far less revealing than other trailers of big-budget films of the past several years. This is a welcome change. There are few things worse than sitting down in the theater and watching a movie only to realize you’ve already seen all the good stuff. Further, there’s something very satisfying about watching a movie in the “huge story” category with little or no prior knowledge of who’s who or what will happen. I generally make an effort to avoid trailers for things that I already plan to watch, for exactly this reason. I couldn’t avoid this one, so I’m quite happy it didn’t contain the whole movie.

I happen to have been in the right age bracket to have grown up under the influence of the first three Star Wars movies, now known as Episodes Four through Six. For many who were young kids when these films were released, some part of them remains with us. This is because of the great mythology that George Lucas and his team created, including the Force, the Jedi, outstanding character development and the galactic struggle to rebel against an overwhelming imperial enemy. There were, of course, points that could be criticized in this original trilogy, but the storytelling and delivery hold up, even decades after their release.

With all eyes on them, anticipating recaptured greatness, the prequels released between 1999 and 2005 had a very difficult task. They had to show us something that was new but remained true to what we loved about the old legend. The overwhelming consensus is that Episodes One through Three generally failed at that task. While producing excellent visual effects, these movies offered nothing more than name recognition to those who cared about the older stories. The feelings of mystery and awe, created in the first film (Episode Four) and built to crescendo in its sequels, were notably absent from the prequels, whose outstanding visuals could not make up for poor storytelling, questionable casting and the inexplicable, highly disturbing insertion of a clown into a mystical quest.

With the recent news that JJ Abrams is to deliver a trilogy of sequels, there is a lot to anticipate. We’ve seen a good trilogy and a poor one, to be left pondering the place of Star Wars in history. There is great hope, but so much could go wrong, potentially leaving the legend forever tarnished. With that said …

How Star Wars could be Great Again

Mr. Abrams has, debatably, risen to the occasion of remaking Star Trek in a way that old Trekkies should appreciate. So, he’s shown he can respect the old mythology and resist the temptation to turn something into a caricature of itself for a paycheck. To do so would be disheartening to those who care about the legend. There is, however, a greater challenge here because of significant damage already done via the prequels and the alterations to the first films. Mr. Abrams, along with co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, has to show old Star Wars fans something that makes them want to talk about the movies again. They need to win us back by somehow creating the same feeling. Here’s how to do it:

Do not admit clowns.

I do not doubt that we could fill a stadium with people who have already told Mr. Abrams not to include a character like Jar Jar Binks in Episode Seven. I think it may still be worth repeating. We could do without the singing Ewoks as well, if we are going to make this thing for the crowd that cares the most about this mythology.

If he has an understanding of this audience; those who were disappointed by the prequels but are hopeful that the legend can have renewed life, Mr. Abrams will carefully examine what was wrong (bordering on offensive) with Jar Jar and how his inclusion took something away from the entirety of Star Wars. I’ll stop short of going into any descriptive detail about the character or his interactions. No one needs to relive that nonsense.

Burn down the Jedi Temple.

Given the extermination of most of the Jedi during the existing movies, this may seem unnecessary to say, but the buttocks of new characters should not fill the Council seats of old. There should not be some central “Hall of Justice” in which all the wise elders in the galaxy sit and make decisions. Burn it down. Leave the characters spinning in uncertainty with no headquarters to visit for guidance.

Venturing deep into the woods or the swamp on some remote planet, hoping they exist, should be the only way to find one of these mystics. Think of the iconic image of Luke looking out into the vast desert as the two suns set on Tatooine. He may have had a feeling he’d soon embark on a journey, as the viewer could have predicted, but wouldn’t have had the first clue what to look for, what he’d find or where he’d end up. The viewer can take on a perspective like that and be drawn into the adventure. Further, not every search should be fruitful. What’s left of the Jedi Order should be spread out sparsely across the galaxy, principally only rumored to remain in existence. That can be written within the balancing of the Force prophesized in Episode 1 and seemingly realized in Episode 6.

Don’t let proficiency with the Force be everything.

To allow this would create obvious problems of predictability, as to the conclusion of the first new movie and how we get there. However, there’s another reason to avoid having the Force singlehandedly save the day. The trend in action movies over the past several years has been that visual effects rather than people tend to drive many of the climactic scenes. This was a major issue affecting the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and, to some extent, the Harry Potter films. Specifically, the battles between good and evil wizards didn’t have enough happening in the physical realm. It is remembered as just two guys pointing their arms at each other, with the addition of effects. When one animation wins over the other, it doesn’t necessarily connect with the viewer that our hero did something more proficiently than the villain. It must be difficult to convey magic versus magic in a way that is still exciting for those of us unimpressed by animation. That the Jedi and Sith were written to have lightsabers as their weapons of choice helps with this to some extent, as a sword fight generally makes things clear, but it will take more for Episode Seven to sidestep the label of an effects-driven film. This bullet is especially validated by the existence of the prequels (rightly criticized as effects-driven with the exception of the best moments of Episode Three) and makes it a critical point in distinguishing the new trilogy from them.

So, Mr. Abrams has to avoid letting this be just a fireworks show. One way to steer clear of that is to have a non-Jedi (or a non-Force action) save the day once in a while. Imagine that. It would bring back some of the Han Solo magic of old, though of course it should not be Han or any of the original cast.

Write some rough characters on both sides.

As noted above, there should be a critical (at times heroic) character on the good side who is not morally flawless and is certainly no Jedi. One way the writers could do that is to think back to what Han Solo was at the start, before he was altered to be so lawful and noble by the story’s later events and Mr. Lucas’ terrible Greedo-shoots-first edit. I would guess that Mr. Abrams would be aware of that and will have thought of someone interesting.

For the dark side, the rough, chaotic characters are surely easier to write. Abrams and Kasdan will just have to avoid steering too close to Darth Vader’s description on this one, as he should keep his special position in the legend.

Leave mystery about who’s who (good or evil, familial relationships).

There should be major characters whose relationships and motivations are unclear before the story develops. It seems that Senator Palpatine was written this way in the prequels, which may have worked to some degree, if they were not prequels.

It should almost go without saying, because of other revelations in the movies as released, that they should be watched (by first-time viewers) in release order rather than chronologically. Given that, for those of us who knew the original trilogy, there was no mystery as to Palpatine’s destiny or intentions. With these forthcoming films as sequels, we again have a chance for some mystery, if the producers and the media can cooperate by keeping us in the dark.

Keep us in the dark.

This should be done in both the literal and figurative sense. I don’t generally watch slasher movies, but one of the few things the first Halloween movie got right was to not give the villain a whole lot of screen time. The viewer generally didn’t see much of Michael Myers at all until a split second before he carved someone up. There’s suspense in that.

Literally hiding the villain is not necessarily the path, but the concept does at least illuminate the path. What Mr. Abrams has to do to keep us in the dark is to proficiently misdirect us and reveal things very slowly, letting suspense build. As the young characters search for guidance, security or whatever their objective might be, they should be in literal darkness and territory unfamiliar to the viewer. We should not even know entirely what we’re looking at until we’ve seen nearly all of it.

Add to the mythology.

Perhaps there’s something unforeseen in the galaxy that presents a threat to peace. Maybe there’s something else going on – a directed (or exploited) elemental disturbance so heavy that a couple of Jedi can’t just walk in and Force it to pieces. Show us, JJ, that you can write something truly new and unpredictable that fits within Star Wars canon. While challenging, it is possible. If you can do that, given the right cast, delivering it properly will be quite achievable. I’d put up with the price of admission (and the other tortures of going to the theater) to see that.

Take great care with casting.

Part of the voluminous criticism of the prequels was directed at the casting choices. While I agree that neither of the two young actors who played Anakin was ideal, filling their roles with big celebrities would not have helped. It didn’t help with those roles Mr. Lucas did fill as such, though Samuel L. Jackson managed to contain his inner Jules Winfield most of the time and Ewan McGregor deserves some credit for his effort to portray Obi Wan under the circumstances.

A significant part of the challenge of being a storyteller in 2014 is getting past the media’s job of creating and delivering celebrity news. One of the things that was so cool about the first trilogy was that viewers didn’t so readily recognize the people on screen from the news or their other work. The possible exception to that was Sir Alec Guinness, but he had 45 years of acting on his résumé when the first film came out and was unlikely to go rob a liquor store and get his mug shots in the paper to screw things up for everyone’s imagination. It’s unfortunate that when one of the young actors in these new movies drives drunk, trashes his/her hotel room or beats someone up, you’re going to know all about their dirty laundry before the next episode comes out. It will be difficult not to think about it (taking the actor out of costume) when you see him or her on screen. Sadly, in recent years, that’s what we’ve been programmed to do. That’s a challenge Mr. Lucas didn’t have when making the original trilogy. With the exception of the returning actors (whom I hope are motivated to build on the legend rather than seek attention for themselves), Mr. Abrams needs to have casted unknown (but not for lack of skill) actors, shut down their social media accounts and practically kept them in solitary confinement until the movies are out. We need to see only the characters on the screen.

Don’t rely exclusively on familiarity with the holy trilogy.

Create a new legend that gives the hopeful viewer a similar feeling. There has to be something more to see than just the return of familiar characters, weapons and vehicles. Those of us who watched the prequels, in the absence of good storytelling but already caring about the Star Wars galaxy, were given nothing for which to get excited except seeing Obi Wan and Anakin develop into what we knew. Perhaps that is a general warning against writing prequels, but writing movies that held the promise of being a big deal to so many people should have been done far better.

Can it still be done? I remain quietly hopeful. When we take our seats in front of the big screen next year to see Episode Seven’s prologue text in space begin to fly by, as John Williams’ intense overture fills our ears, there will be a moment of anticipation for something great, in the same way that Star Wars was great in our childhood. That is why I was compelled to write this down. There is still hope for the legend.