I was six years old when the original Star Wars movie debuted in May 1977. I didn’t actually see it for a couple of months but I already knew the whole story by the time I went to the theater. It was all we talked about at school. Star Wars was our world.
Adults said they had never seen anything like it before, and looking back at it from 2019 they were right. There had been many sci-fi movies before, and there had been other movies based on mythology. Both tended to be pulp films, Saturday throwaways with bad music and cheap scenery. But Star Wars was epic and transformative and derivative in a way that created a new alchemy on the silver screen. Kids like myself and my peers found it fascinating and accessible. We loved Luke, were fascinated by the Sandpeople and the Jawas, we wanted to know more about the Jedi, we feared Darth Vader and we leapt out of our seats when Han turned good and helped destroy the hated Death Star. Leia was a feisty angel. Adults connected to it on a deeper level, subconsciously seeing the hero myth wrapped in an entertaining ride in a lived-in universe that seemed wholly new and yet deeply familiar. It had bumps and scratches and weird walking carpets and droids. And they dug what was then the Luke-Leia-Han vibe. Funny how that turned out.
Star Wars should have felt immediately familiar to any student of international cinema. The original, since re-badged as Episode IV: A New Hope, owes its main storyline to Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. We didn’t know that in 1977. There was no internet and non-American cinema was confined to film school discussions and arty theaters. George Lucas surely knew that, and that he had a free run at re-crafting the Japanese master’s works for American audiences and infusing it with Joseph Campbell’s work on mythologies. He could pattern his main villain after samurai armor and most of his audience would never make the connection. When Darth Vader first strode onto the rebel ship, the entire spectacle was so new. What are these plans he’s looking for? What’s the backstory here? Why is he breathing like that – and just what in the galaxy is he? So many questions just from the first few amazing moments of this unique new epic. Every nuance became the subject of playground recreations and debates.
Star Wars also debuted at an entirely different time in our cultural history. We had just been to the moon and back. The breezy space travel we saw in Star Wars seemed possible, especially to us kids who knew nothing about physics. The hovering landspeeders, the swords made of light, the blaster guns, the great battles in space, it all seemed like part of a real future. Lucas was either very clever or lucky to cast it as having already taken place, a long time ago. That made it all seem even more possible, which further stoked our imaginations.
Since that first burst of creativity, Star Wars has had its ups and downs. The awful 1978 Christmas special would have killed any normal movie franchise, but Star Wars has never been ordinary and the Christmas special didn’t even slow it down. In fact, it still managed to create an iconic character in Boba Fett. It aired once and then disappeared for years, which probably helped too. There was no way for cynics to revel in its pandering awfulness. The segment of the Star Wars fan base that hates Star Wars didn’t exist yet.
In between the first and second films, we OG fans debated every aspect and possible future path. We bought and played with the action figures, each purchase transforming the art and business of movies for generations. When Empire Strikes Back arrived, three long years after Star Wars, it was by far the most anticipated movie ever. We elementary school kids were now close to our teens and ready for a more grown-up Star Wars. Lucas & company delivered, and Empire is now considered the best Star Wars film of the lot. Many critics panned it at the time. No one listened to them.
Empire was the dark turn necessary to bridge the brighter original and sequel finisher, Return of the Jedi. It set arcs in motion and moved the characters forward logically. It revealed the big twist and that Star Wars was to that point the story of the Skywalkers.
And then after Return of the Jedi, Star Wars…stopped. For years it was a dormant trilogy and nothing more. Lucas went on to make some truly awful films, and turned his attention to Indiana Jones and Industrial Light & Magic. The action figures stopped selling. Most of us OG fans ended up giving them away.
Star Wars wasn’t cool anymore. We grew up and grew out of it. But there were the books and comics and games for die-hard fans, and there were always rumors that there would eventually be more Star Wars films. But I never really believed that and I suspect most of the original Star Wars kids didn’t either. The trilogy was so complete. The whiny kid became a Jedi. The villain was explained, defeated and redeemed. The empire fell. The galaxy was free. The possibility that we would get the backstory of Darth Vader’s transformation from good Jedi to evil machine was tantalizing, but it never seemed real and as the years went by it seemed more and more like a mirage. We lost our faith that Star Wars would ever truly return.
Then Lucas re-ignited the galaxy he had created when, in 1997, he released the special editions. Apart from mangling Han Solo’s introduction in that bar in Mos Eisley, they were well received. Lucas’ turn on Solo was the first major sign that he had lost touch with his own galaxy. Han needed to shoot Greedo first, in cold blood, so his turn at the end is more heroic and his arc through the three films works better. Lucas went politically correct and mauled his own narrative. He, too, had lost faith. Some years after Return of the Jedi, he revealed that he saw the Ewoks as Vietcong fighting against the American empire, which was a betrayal of the core ideology that made Star Wars great. Originally we saw the rebels as plucky Americans fighting a combination of the Soviet and Nazi empires. Lucas’ turn to the woke side caused disturbances in Star Wars culture.
Nevertheless, the special editions re-captured our imaginations in ways no other film series could have. We didn’t feel like kids again, not exactly. We were adults by then. But the special editions renewed interest in the possibility of more Star Wars movies to come, and the technology displayed in them held out hope that these would be even better than the originals. Lucas could envision anything and computers could convincingly put it on the screen. He was no longer limited to puppets and scale models. Just as we original fans were now adults, the technology of movie-making had matured.
Or had it? We walked into theaters on opening day in 1998 hoping to live that old magic again. We walked out in silent shock: We now lived in a world in which awful, offensively terrible Star Wars movies were possible. Jar Jar? Midichlorians? The prequels disturbed the main story arcs and never captured the same lightning in a bottle that the original trilogy captured so effortlessly. The digital environments and effects betrayed the humans — and more deeply and insidiously, their story. We cared about Luke, Leia, Han, Ben, Chewie, Yoda and the droids the first time around. The prequels never got us there. They felt rote, even obligatory by the time the third one premiered. We knew where it was going, it was just a matter of how it got there and it was becoming harder to care. Everything was all about setting the stage for films that were already decades old, and we had memorized. For original fans, the prequels drained the story of its blood and drama.
From plot holes to plot armor, the prequels put many pixels but too little spirit and flesh into the Star Wars galaxy. They brought the story back to the screen but not back to life. We’ve seen things we would probably have been better off debating and speculating about. We’ve heard the great villain called “Annie,” and seen him in some of the cringiest attempts at romance ever captured on film. We’ve seen so many bad characters, implausible dialogues, and poorly thought out story lines. The parts add up to less than the whole. The original three Star Wars films swaggered across a vast galaxy, but the prequels stumbled and shrunk the universe.
So what about the sequel trilogy? The acting is better than the prequels. They’re also less predictable. The Force Awakens was serviceable but derivative of a derivative original, like an image photocopied too many times. We can see the outlines while the details fade. Those we do see are twisted. The Last Jedi is somewhat better than many OG fans will allow, but it still isn’t good and it’s not even close to the original three. Luke’s ending does not fit or feel right. The battles are beautiful but hollow. Vader’s absence is a massive void, but his arc finished in the original trilogy and so one of cinema’s greatest villains was left with nothing to do, even if he chose to intervene as a force ghost for good. The Rise of Skywalker feels like it was being edited the morning it was released, but is probably the second-best of the new group (which isn’t saying much).
The saddest truth of the trilogies that now bookend the original is that they have become what the old, wizened Ben Kenobi said of Darth Vader in A New Hope: “He’s more machine now than man.” Then, Star Wars had a magic all its own. Now, Star Wars is a product and marketing engine, more digital than physical, more spectacle than story, more machine than human. We see the final film out of obligation. It finishes the saga and to some extent, inevitably disappoints. Our childhoods are long over now and we carry as many scars as Luke’s X-Wing. There are more bad Star Wars films in the trilogy of trilogies than good ones. Yet in Rogue One and The Mandalorian, we have a new hope that Star Wars can still be redeemed.