I recently saw an interview with Quentin Tarantino that got me thinking about George Lucas and Star Wars and the challenges faced by filmmakers trying to build on this mythology which is probably the most significant in pop culture. The following is a quote from that interview:
“In the case of Kill Bill, it’s the first time I’m creating, for lack of a better word, a comic book mythology – creating my version of the marvel universe. I was watching a movie once and the director had done a good job and he was talented, having said that, he was trying to kind of create his own world, but I realised he didn’t know it that well – he hadn’t thought about everything. He hadn’t painted in every picture of that universe, so I knew I wasn’t in good hands. He dealt with what he needed to deal with, but I know there were a lot of questions he didn’t ask. I knew that when you create a mythology – stuff that’s never going to make it into the movie – you need to know everything. I need to know how Bill was born, how Bill got to be Bill [Interviewer: You’re talking about actor’s subtext?] Yeah, like I said if you’re creating a mythology you gotta know all the rules of that, it doesn’t matter what the audience knows – they have to know that you know. You can explain to the actors something as simple as one of the rules of a Hanzo sword is once you unsheathe it, it has to drink blood before it ever goes back in the sheath, even it means you just gotta put your thumb to it – you know it’s thirsty. Now Daryl Hannah doesn’t do that, and she’s like “Hey, this is a pretty good sword” and Michael Madsen isn’t going to say anything to her and then she goes in to the fight with a demerit against her – with that bad karma and the audience doesn’t need to know that but it’s important that the actors know that and it’s important that I know that.”
So the obvious question when considering Tarantino’s argument about cinematic mythological world building is were we in safe hands with George Lucas? And are we in safe hands now? The answer for George Lucas to me is an easy one – no we were not. It does not take long looking into the development and making of the original Star Wars film and the subsequent sequels to see that there was absolutely no grand vision, no planned narrative arc and no deep thinking into the mythology that was being created and that to put it frankly the man was making it up as he went along. This is further evidenced by his constant post-release tinkering.
The precedents and influences of Star Wars are well known – 50’s sci-fi and adventure serials, samurai films (particularly those of Akira Kurosawa), Westerns and the model of storytelling described in Joseph Campbell’s book on mythology ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces.’
It was from this cultural stew Lucas began work on Star Wars. There are many examples to me that show that Lucas had not thought the mythology of this universe all the way through, in fact it is quite clear all elements of plot had not been thought all the way through, let alone subtext and the un-seen mechanics and logic of world building. There’s little things like Han Solo originally being a big green alien (budget constraints nixed this), but bigger things emerge when you look into just how much of the Star Wars universe’s creation should be credited to concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, who for one thing introduced the helmet to Darth Vader.
Probably the most egregious evidence of the flimsy, incomplete grasp Lucas had over the mythology comes from the fact that it was not originally intended that Darth Vader be Luke’s father. One of the reasons the twist is so shocking is because there was absolutely no build for it, this idea only came when the sequel was being developed – how can Lucas possibly claim (as he retroactively does) that he had all of this planned out when the single most important element of the plot and thematic concern of the original trilogy was done on the fly?
In fact it seems quite clear when watching the original Star Wars that it is self contained, it never needed a sequel and it doesn’t set up a sequel but for popular demand – the story is finished and Lucas has in Tarantino’s words dealt with what he needs to deal with, he had thought about the mythology enough to get him through, the trouble comes with expanding that story and the inevitable contradictions that occur when you have not planned long form storytelling from the beginning (and we haven’t even got to the prequels yet)
The other big reveal – Luke and Leia being twin siblings? This idea was introduced simply to add tension to Luke and Vader’s fight at the end of The Empire Strikes Back as Yoda says there is another, Lucas has stated he wanted the audience to believe that Luke could be killed if there was a possibility of another Jedi. This is in contradiction to showing Luke infatuated with Leia and to try to make sense of it you have to come up with your own justifications but the fact is from a storytelling point of view it does not make sense to show Luke and Leia having a possible romance, only to reveal they are siblings and it doesn’t make sense because it wasn’t planned from the beginning.
Coming up with your own justifications and filling in the plot holes is quite the past time for a Star Wars fan. I can forgive plot holes, I don’t watch films for plot, what hurts is that these plot holes are indicative that we are not in safe hands, this mythology with which we were enraptured in childhood has not been fully fleshed out.
There are three main elements of the Star Wars mythology that are established in the first film. The most interesting and most important is the force and the Jedi as the wise warriors who wield it in a similar mould to samurai’s or western protagonists with a quasi-religious inclination. The concept of the force is a brilliant idea, it is loaded with eastern spirituality but could also be semi-accepted as an expression of quantum mechanics.
The Jedi, as evidenced by the enduring appeal, are also an excellent creation and the most important thing NOT to mess up. The second is the geography of the galaxy, defined by the technology of space craft that allows for the traveling of vast distances and giving a grand sense of scale and possibilities for many creatures and landscapes, for many worlds that nevertheless are closely connected.
The third is the empire – quite clearly Nazi stand ins in the original film and quite cartoonish in their evil without an ideology, it seems to be another example of not being thought through – does the empire believe the galaxy is better off with them in charge? Do they believe they are the goodies? Since for the purpose of the first film they simply need to serve as antagonists, Lucas doesn’t need to think of these things, but the further you expand, the more these details become glaring.
As Tarantino says you have to have the audiences trust that you know the rules – you don’t have to establish, over explain and explore everything as long as that trust it there – when it is not is when you get the focus on swiss cheese plot holes which are subsequently compounded by prequel inconsistencies and the investing of emotion and logic into it just starts to feel dumb, how anyone could have this trust in Lucas is beyond me.
Expanding on a mythology can often ruin it, the character arc of Jack Sparrow was perfectly completed in the first Pirates of the Caribbean, the sequels turned his tics and mannerisms into caricature. The worst example in recent memory to me though is the Matrix sequels, when thinking of the scene where Neo speaks to ‘the architect’ I quickly wish the original had been left well enough alone.
So George Lucas had a tall task when trying to build upon the Star Wars mythology with prequels – he wanted us to believe this had always been planned, but we know that is not true and that he was building an extension on a house with a rotting foundation of insufficient detail and possibly without proper planning permission.
I could spend thousands of words griping with the prequels – I would instead direct you to definitive review of the films from Mr Plinkett:
But I will point out the major thing I think specifically damage the mythology established in the original trilogy. Not the boring ‘trade talks’ and trying to show the process of democracy – perhaps retroactively trying to cover the half baked ill conceived concept of a governing evil for evil sake empire leading to plot holes such as this famously discussed in Clerks:
No it is the crux of the prequels – the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, it was what we were all wondering! Except it wasn’t. It is quite clearly explained that he was a good man who was seduced by the dark side and his humanity was both figuratively and physically gone, at no point was I dissatisfied with this explanation or felt the need for further exploration. The redemption that Anakin Skywalker finds at the end of Return of the Jedi by killing the emperor to save his son – proving Luke correct that there was still good in him, strongly suggested to me that Anakin was a good man who strayed from his natural path and he finds his true self again in that finale.
Lucas though, retroactively with the prequels thought he needed to come up with reasons why Anakin had turned to the dark side that were definitely not anything to do with how the character is presented in the original trilogy. This is where things get repugnant. Firstly he turns Anakin into Jesus, of a virgin birth and ‘prophesised’ to bring balance to the force. The force which was this beautifully conceived, ambiguous yet defined in the viewers mind, but it needs to be balanced by a person? That’s like saying someone was born to bring balance to gravity. Even if we are take it as some kind of metaphor, it’s still a ridiculous idea that elevates a character from Jedi gone bad to a demigod like figure.
He turns Anakin into a victim and in fact near enough every single event is something that leads to him turning to the dark side, it was as if it was destiny – but the whole idea of Anakin turning was that it was not what he was supposed to do. He was supposed to be a Jedi knight and on the side of good like Obi-Wan. The prequels operate from a place where we know this character becomes Darth Vader and then spends three films coming up with reasons why he did, the idea of the Darth Vader turn set up in the original seemed to suggest that nobody could have seen the turn coming as Anakin was ‘a good friend’ as Obi-Wan describes and has fathered two children and that he was cleverly manipulated by the emperor and the dark side.
How could anyone not see the turn coming in the prequels? They constantly refer to him as reckless and hateful and angry, he is shown to carry out murderous revenge – every step he takes is a step towards Darth Vader. The tragedy of Anakin Skywalker is that he wasn’t supposed to be Darth Vader, the prequels essentially show him to have no choice, that he is so strongly drawn towards becoming Darth Vader and this is being orchestrated so completely that never had a chance of not turning to the dark side. This to me is a complete contradiction of the original trilogy and can only happen when a hack is rewriting a character’s history thirty years later.
In Revenge of the Sith it is even revealed that the emperor has somehow manipulated the dark side to create the virgin birth of Anakin – so he is some dark side Frankenstein’s monster from the beginning? That is some horse manure convoluting to rival the architect in The Matrix Reloaded.
While this was the biggest problem that the prequels had in spoiling the mythology, there were others – the addition of ‘midichlorians’ which served as a quantifiable way of determining how strong someone was with the force. How could Lucas possibly have thought it was a good idea to demystify his best idea in this manner and to turn it into top trumps or computer game attributes?
He made the Jedi’s a boring left wing think tank – I was expecting them to argue the merits of Trotskyism vs Stalinism, how was it possible to make the Jedi so un-cool? You would expect a boring, charisma vacuum performance by the monotonous Liam Neeson – but he even managed to force Samuel L. Jackson into one. If the Disney sequels never mention midichlorians it will be too soon.
He made Yoda fight and flip around, this seems cool at first until you realise it betrays the character and the concept of the force in an irredeemable way for the sake of cheap spectacle. The addition of ‘Sith’ and the rules randomly made up for them is not as awful, but really should have established from the start, IF YOU WOULD HAVE THOUGHT IT THROUGH YOU BILLIONAIRE SON OF A GUN (I don’t much like the prequels.)
Also, why can’t Jedi’s love? Had not enough been taken from Christianity with the virgin birth, now the Jedi have to be randomly celibate? Luke seemed pretty horny in the original, in fact I thought it quite clearly implied that getting away from the farm and having his own adventure no doubt included and was maybe even primarily motivated by getting laid – he was pretty excited to see that hologram of Leia. Part of Anakin turning to the dark side was that he wanted to save Padme from dying in childbirth – but not everyone dies in childbirth, seems like a weird blanket rule and besides Nils Lofgren’s wife died in childbirth and he carried on as he had little girl to raise and then he wrote a nice song about it:
Is the implication that feeling love leaves the Jedi vulnerable to loss and therefore to the dark side so the alternative is being numb, sexless dullards who take a lot of cold showers? Yeah, no thanks you can take your lightsabre back now. It was establishing fake conflict, screenwriting 101, absolute nonsense.
With the prequels, Lucas trashed the mythology of Star Wars and proved he was not to be trusted. The questions the audience might come up with, we know he had not thought of. This is a sad realisation as the mythology of these films were important to me as a child, but up to scrutiny they do not stand.
Which brings us to the Disney sequels who have the challenge now of building upon and within the mythology of Star Wars the foundation of which is rotting due to a complete lack of a binding agent, a damp-proof membrane and a backfill of hardcore (these are foundation metaphors.) It seems the sequels at this point may be content to rely on nostalgia:
Or as with Rogue One content to rely on iconography to the point that it feels like a 100 million dollar fan film covering up plot holes:
Part of the challenge Disney faces is that they cannot repeat any idea for the sequels that were in the countless novels, comic books, video games, or even well known fan fiction and that takes up a lot of the good and logical ideas. They have been left with a broken mythology that leaves film geeks who worship ‘detail’ like characters names that are never named to speculate on the holes that are left by Lucas’ lazy writing:
The Force Awakens had every right to be a lot worse than it was because of all the things it had to achieve, particularly cleansing the palette after the prequels – they really had both arms tied behind their back with it. I am somewhat hopeful as to where new writers might be able to take it, but I think the challenge is insurmountable and the so called studio-eschewing maverick auteur George Lucas didn’t do the world building necessary – how will this be done more effectively by the corporate committee at Disney? How can we trust that these new writers (who have grown up as fans) can present a coherent mythology when the original creator couldn’t? We cannot give them the authority of our trust, which means all the sequels are destined to feel like elaborate fan fiction.
I think they could possibly do some interesting things with force-wielding characters that are predicated more on the notion of duality rather than black and white delineations between the dark side and the Jedi, but unfortunately these films will be successful no matter what and it is likely that the chances of a cohesive mythology being maintained with impenetrable internal logic is something we are now far, far away from and maybe we should have given up a long, long time ago.