How to recognise Star Wars from quite a long way away

This may sound a tad hypocritical after my critique of Rise of Skywalker a few days ago, but I don’t envy J.J. Abrams. In fact, I don’t envy anyone engaged in delivering new Star Wars content to a 2020 audience, a task that I imagine to be very similar to feeding the hungry inhabitants of a lion pit while dangling from a slender, fraying rope. The problem is this: what is Star Wars, what constitutes proper Star Wars? These are questions that a vast number of fans with different levels of zealotry and entitlement will answer very differently – but when George Lucas released his prequels to, let’s say, mixed results, the megaphone/Death Star combo that is Twitter didn’t yet exist. These days, creating, or even just acting in, a Star Wars thing that some people dislike can pretty much result in this:

What is Star Wars, though? What makes one film ‘more’ Star Wars than another? When some people criticised Rian Johnson and The Last Jedi for ‘getting Star Wars wrong’, what does that mean? Similarly, while I praised The Last Jedi for its originality and daring, it’s not like I don’t have ideas myself that there are elements which need to be present in order to qualify as Star Wars. In fact, I’m pretty sure that when I watched The Phantom Menace more than 20 years ago (!), already during the opening crawl I found myself thinking, “… the taxation of trade routes… the greedy Trade Federation… whatever this is, it ain’t Star Wars!”, even though those lines had been penned by none other than the creator of Star Wars himself, George Lucas. Do I know better than Lucas what his property is supposed to be? Isn’t that fan arrogance of the worst kind – not so much criticising the original creator as denying him a say in what his creation is or isn’t?

While the original trilogy, from A New Hope to Return of the Jedi, did hint at a template of sorts, this was more along the lines of Plato’s allegory of the cave: we see the shadow puppetry on the cinema screen and deduce from this what Star Wars is. Not only will everyone have different interpretations of what the shadows signify, which ones are essential and which ones are merely the projectionist having a bit of fun in between lightsaber battles. If we let three films define what Star Wars is and can be, all we can ever come up with is… well… J.J. Abrams’ cover version of A New Hope and his The Emperor’s New Groove. Echoes, repetitions, copies of copies of copies. That’s not a creative property, that’s a simulacrum, albeit one that will make Disney millions if printed on t-shirts and lunchboxes.

At the same time, it would be silly and/or naive to say anything goes in the name of novelty. The challenge inherent in any creative property is to find a balance between the things that remain identical, those that are varied and those that can be completely new. With the original trilogy, this was relatively easy, as the core cast of characters remained the same – Luke, Leia and Han, Darth Vader, the droids, Chewbacca – as did the overall tone and genre of the films. What about the prequel and sequel trilogies and what about other stories told in the same universe? Or, for something more current: what makes The Mandalorian recognisably Star Wars – for some segments of the fandom more so than some of the recent films?

I’m not going to propose a set of lowest common denominators of what makes Star Wars, because I find it difficult enough as it is to separate this question entirely from the issue of what makes a good Star Wars story. I can say which elements I find most enjoyable in Star Wars, though, and a large part is the way that from the first Star Wars put elements together in a rapacious, eclectic mix. There’s the iconography: you have the Nazi cosplay of the Imperial troops and commanders, the quasi-WW2 aerial battles of the attack on the Death Star, the ’70s fashions of the good guys. Most of all, you have Ralph McQuarrie, perhaps the person who most defined the look and therefore the retrofuturistic feel of Star Wars. While the franchise is nominally sci-fi, it feels lived in, analog rather than digital. The prequels lost this to some extent, going for more organic, Art Deco aesthetics, but for whatever reason those designs never came to feel as iconic, perhaps because McQuarrie rejected the offer to work as a designer on the prequel trilogy. There’s a strong sense of personality and style to an X-Wing, a Stormtrooper helmet or an R2 unit that just isn’t there to the same extent with The Phantom Menace’s battle droids, a Naboo Starfighter or indeed Jar Jar Binks. There’s obviously not only a visual aspect to this, though, and composer John Williams and sound designer Ben Burtt more than deserve a mention. Most people won’t need more than a second of the opening fanfare to go “Star Wars!”, and arguably the buzz of a lightsaber, the roar of a TIE Fighter passing by and the breathing sounds of Darth Vader are as iconic – but at that point we get into specifics. Lightsabers, TIE Fighters are essentially Star Wars, but they are not essential to Star Wars, so to speak. The blend of influences that makes the aesthetic is.

Then there’s the blend of genres. Lucas stole generously from the samurai drama of Jidaigeki and especially the early samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, but he also looked at the epics of David Lean, the pulp serials of a Flash Gordon and westerns both of the John Ford and the spaghetti variety. Again, it is not a single element that makes for that particular Star Wars feeling but the blend. People might point to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and its tropes, and these are clearly a large part of Star Wars, in particular the original trilogy, but without the freedom to vary the structures and tropes there’s definitely a real risk of just telling the same stories over and over, just with different faces and names (though, more likely than not, a larger-than-average number of them will be called Something Skywalker). That may be the point of the monomyth, but it doesn’t make for a very interesting fictional universe.

If it’s the mix of influences, of aesthetics and genres, that is key to Star Wars, then it makes even less sense for fans to implement purity checks. Star Wars is the equivalent of looking in the fridge and concocting a pasta sauce out of the leftovers of the last week, resulting in a meal that at best or indeed at worst has the lived-in feel of the Star Wars universe (and possibly the hairy texture of a wookiee). It doesn’t need Jedi, it doesn’t need hoary old space wizards back from the dead, and it doesn’t need technological terrors able to pulverise planets at the touch of a button.

The Mandalorian isn’t perfect, its plots are simplistic even compared to the grand old fairy tales of the movies, and it is definitely not immune to the lure of fan service (which I’m not sure it is altogether possible or indeed necessary to leave away entirely), but it definitely gets the whole Star Wars-as-loveable-mutt-of-questionable-parentage right. It is happy to leave out some beloved Star Wars tropes while leaving in others and, most importantly, playing with yet others. It has that heady mix of the familiar and the fresh, definitely much more so than Rise of Skywalker, and it makes me think that if Star Wars is to take a sabbatical from cinemas for a few years, perhaps it’s the playground of TV where the franchise can recharge its batteries, try out a few different things and get away from the ever-diminishing returns of Being John Skywalker.

Actually, now that I think of it, I think I might force choke a person for a Charlie Kaufman-style Star Wars film. Anomaleia, perhaps?

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