By: Daniel Reynolds
To see all of the Same Page’s Summer Sight and Sound series–a look at the biggest films of each decade from 1975 on–check here.
After he was announced as the director for Star Wars: Episode IX, Colin Trevorrow said it was “not a job, not an assignment… We’ve been charged with telling new stories for a younger generation because they deserve what we all had–a mythology to call their own.” On its face, this is a heart-warming sentiment. Unfortunately, as writer Alex Pappademas rightly pointed out, it is also wrong.
Star Wars arrived in 1977 as a total unknown. Much of its wild mythology, made up by creator George Lucas, feels like it was invented on the fly–inspired, such as it was, by old movie serials, swashbuckling tales, and Kurosawa. That it spawned a massive universe of stories speaks to its enduring cultural and imaginative power. So then, how could a continuation of the Star Wars timeline constitute a new mythology? Obviously, it can’t. Yet, since Star Wars was sold as a $4 billion intellectual property to Disney, it’s been re-energized as such. This is not necessarily something to get angry about. Lots of people (including me) love Star Wars. It’s just a sad thing to realize that nothing has quite been able to replace it.
In 2005, the state of Star Wars was different. This was the year that Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the final instalment of the so-called “prequel” trilogy, was released. At the time, everything Star Wars-related, including books, comics and video games, was still within the grand realm of Lucasfilm, held in the genteel grip of George Lucas. Star Wars, as a franchise, was also burning through cultural capital faster than you could imagine.
Allow me to be extra clear: not actual capital. Revenge of the Sith made $380 million domestically, easily dwarfing the number two movie of the year, The Chronicles of Narnia, by almost $90 million. Still, it was hard not to feel as though the (twin) suns of the franchise were setting in more ways than one. Revenge of the Sith represented the end of a cycle started in 1999 after a year of breathless hype, endless excitement, and people camping out in front of theatres. Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the first Star Wars movie to be made in 16 years, was released that May. It made a ton of money too (almost $475 million), but also cast the die. This trilogy was not going to recreate the magic of the old Star Wars adventures. In fact, by the end, it would actively harm its own mythology.
Revenge of the Sith is a dark film, probably darker than you remember. This was the promise of the prequel trilogy, its hook the descent of Anakin Skywalker from wide-eyed boy (Jake Lloyd) to surly Jedi trainee (Hayden Christensen) to Darth Vader, a man who kills people with his mind. There was no way these films could have a happy ending–despite the promise of A New Hope–because the hero was always meant to become one of the most iconic villains of all time. To that end, numerous characters get killed in Revenge of the Sith–scores of nameless Jedi shot in the back, Samuel L. Jackson electrocuted out a window, a room full of children left cauterized. In retrospect, it does start to feel rather relentless. While we could get into all the weird changes (midi-chlorians) and needless characters (Grievous) introduced throughout the prequel trilogy, it’s this feeling of crushing inevitability–the idea that we must end here–that proves to be the film’s undoing.
There are moments of life in Revenge of the Sith, mostly buried in the work of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi and R2D2 sight gags. And sure, it’s hard now not to chuckle unintentionally at Ian McDiarmid mewling and hissing as Palpatine or at Natalie Portman‘s stiff line readings. But the entire film feels like it’s being shunted along by a tractor beam of dutiful narrative responsibility and winking fan service. This is how the Empire is formed, there’s the Death Star, and hey, isn’t that Chewbacca? Even its title is an old allusion. This is what happens when you watch the beginning of a story that is actually the end. It can’t help but feel like a funeral.
There’s an obvious parallel to be made here between the decline in uninhibited love of Star Wars and the passage of time. Of course much of Star Wars today no longer affects people over a certain age in quite the same way. Of course Revenge of the Sith and the other episodes could never live up to the attendant hype or expectation. Of course I know this. The prequels, in their unintentional way (every effect in the film feels unintentional), put the romantic notion of Star Wars to rest. This is what has really happened with the mythology, and what I like to believe Trevorrow meant in that quote. As we’ve aged, Star Wars has fallen into a kind of disrepair. Where before we were effortlessly enthralled, now we notice the holes in the story or things like the marketing potential for battle droids. Star Wars no longer feels invincible. We can blame George Lucas and the quality of his writing, or Jar-Jar Binks and the like, or we can just accept something was always going to be inexorably lost.
Disney’s first move once it took ownership of Star Wars was to wipe away all of the Extended Universe stories within the canon. The books, comics, video games, and other ephemera still exist in their physical forms, but we are collectively starting at something almost fresh. As we come to the end of the Summer Sight and Sound series, I’m left to think about what makes a successful summer blockbuster movie. These films can come as a surprise, like Jaws, or be inconceivable today, like Back to the Future, or perhaps be built off of some previous foundation, like Batman Forever. For all the jokes we lob at it, it’s worth noting Revenge of the Sith and the original Star Wars have a bit of all three elements. Not wholly new or surprising or impossible, but somehow endless.
Roger Ebert once said that if he were asked to name the films that will survive through the centuries, he’d list, “2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Wizard of Oz and Keaton and Chaplin, and Astaire and Rogers, and probably Casablanca… and Star Wars for sure.” So maybe that’s it, maybe even knowing what we know now by a certain age, we just need to smile and acknowledge it: Star Wars is irreplaceable.