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This past weekend’s release of Star Wars The Last Jedi has been one of the most interesting, emotional, and overly dramatic film debuts that has the potential to rival the angst and anger of Anakin Skywalker himself.
Easily said, Episode VIII has drawn some harsh criticism this week from some of the core fan base and raises to question what the makes a good Star Wars film. Do we focus on the use of practical effects, the use of nostalgic references? Perhaps it is the story and flow of the narrative? What can a director or Lucasfilm possibly do to give us the Star Wars story that every fan has been craving?
The answer is simple: Nothing.
The backlash we see with The Last Jedi isn’t unfamiliar territory. In fact, it’s a trend all too easy to recognize. Vader pun intended. Star Wars fans are fickle, hard to please, and have become so attached to the franchise that no matter what we are given, we will never be truly satisfied.
The Early Days of IV-VI
The start of this emotional powder keg dates back to May 1977. A New Hope was released and the world was introduced to one of the most groundbreaking and revolutionary films in modern cinema. The game had changed, and there was no turning back. It created a blessing and also a terrible curse for fans. How can we possibly top that first breakthrough? How can anything ever be as powerful or as surprising again? The pedestal was created, and the beast of our expectations was born.
Then, when The Empire Strikes Back was released, a radically different Star Wars was given to us all to sink in and appreciate. The medium was shattered, the galaxy was in turmoil, and we were all left wondering what we had just seen.
After all these years, it is considered a cult classic, fan favorite, and the best Star Wars film by many. Still, something didn’t quite sit right with everyone. The New York Times‘ review of Empire sheds some light onto the surprising realization that even the best can just as disliked:
“The Empire Strikes Back” is not a truly terrible movie. It’s a nice movie. It’s not, by any means, as nice as “Star Wars.” It’s not as fresh and funny and surprising and witty, but it is nice and inoffensive and, in a way that no one associated with it need be ashamed of, it’s also silly.”
This tug of war between praise and criticism was emphasized with other elements of the trilogy that include the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi and the remastered Special Edition releases in 1997 for the 20th anniversary. The newly revamped films scenes, CG Creatures, and alterations were not accepted with open arms. One of the longest and most hostile debates to this day is the whole “Han Shot First” debacle that spawned from the re-release.
Flocks of fans still get into fights about that scene. The fervor is strong and hot. In the grand scheme of things, does it really take away from the film that much to get hostile about it? We have all had these movies built up in our minds and hearts for so long that any changes feel like a personal attack.
It’s one thing to dislike a change, and in some cases, it’s warranted. Yet, we get hung up on these differences in opinions and forget to pay attention to the positive. It’s worth taking a step back for a second look.
The restorations in 1997 saved and severely cleaned up the footage used for each installment. The process essentially preserved Star Wars at a time we weren’t sure if anything else Star Wars would even exist.
Some of the additional scenes also look amazing. A perfect example is the establishing shot of the Falcon taking off from Mos Eisley. The same can be said for some of the new shots of the Death Star trench run. Getting an up close and personal look at some of these ships creates a cleaner look that compliments the original work rather than detracts from it.
I do agree that fans should have the ability to see the original release of these movies, but without the release of Special Edition, we may not have opened the door to a larger universe or have gotten a wider scope of planets, battles, and key scenes. Star Wars has endured and continued because of those efforts.
The Prequel Era of I-III
Beyond Special Edition, one of the biggest rifts in the fandom came from the release of the prequel trilogy. Universally, the prequel films are disliked and have become a taboo subject when talking about Star Wars. We all know the typical reasons: Jar Jar Binks, Hayden Christensen, CGI, blah, blah. It’s a very worn out record at this point with some of those bitter feelings growing stronger in hindsight as the years have passed.
Yet, these films were widely successful despite critics and mixed feelings towards them. In fact, some of the first reactions to the prequel trilogy were actually quite favorable. If you look at some of the early reactions to The Phantom Menace’s release, a completely different attitude is given towards it all.
There are also a lot of groundbreaking achievements brought forward by the prequels. Despite his lack of fans, Jar Jar Binks was the first fully computer animated character in a live action film. The pod race sequence was revolutionary and one of a kind. These movies had some breakthrough moments that echo the work done on the original trilogy. The funny thing is, there are a lot of fans who don’t even realize those similarities are there.
From a lot of fans’ viewpoints, these films are digitally dominant and do not use practical effects at all. Though George Lucas did heavily rely on the advancement of computer graphics and special effects, a lot of practical wizardry and old school techniques were still used.
The pod racing sequence used real models in both small and large scale to create the entire race portion of the film. Aliens and creatures were also brought to life by practical effects, such as the Neimoidians.
Real locations were used for pivotal points in the series, such as Villa del Balbianello in Italy. One of my favorite shots from the entire franchise is from Attack of the Clones for that reason. It’s a magnificent space and leaves a very memorable impression.
Another example that shows the true magic of the prequel trilogy is the duel on Mustafar. At first glance, it would seem like the entire sequence is digital and computerized. ILM went out and captured real footage of a live volcano site. The set team also built up an entire establishing model of the planet and path for the duel, which was used in the wider shots and later combined with the CG models and real sets used by the actors.
The fight scene itself was completely done by Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor. There were no stunt doubles used. Every moment of the duel was carefully choreographed, memorized and shot. The actors did not need anything else but practice and when it was all put together, it created one of the most iconic duels in the entire saga.
Regardless, these movies weren’t like the original trilogy. Therefore, they don’t fit the mold of the fan expectation. A lot of the segments that deserve praise and discussion fall to the way side due to the bitter feelings that have grown and stayed with us all this time. It has created a hostile attitude that has made it hard for anyone to show any difference in opinion.
As a fan that enjoys the prequels and isn’t super passionate about the changes to the original trilogy, I am often quieted or shunned by fellow fans. From personal experience, the conversation is very rarely positive.
In some cases, trying to express any form of opinion is not only unwanted, but violently countered. Bullying and abusive behavior are quite common; especially when you look at the fast paced world of social media. The harsh reality of the fan divide dominates the discussion and turns the whole thing sour. Our clash of expectations keeps us divided and scattered.
The Disney Era of VII and Beyond
After what appeared to be the end of the Star Wars story, Disney purchased Lucasfilm and George Lucas was out of the picture. Movies, tv shows, video games, and book deals were struck within nanoseconds of the deal being signed off. Star Wars had life again.
Immediately after the announcement, controversy spread on whether or not Disney could properly handle the franchise. To add fuel to the fire, Disney discarded the Expanded Universe to make room for new stories and interpretations of the saga.
Though this is a fair reason to be upset, fans lashed out and immediately cracked down on Disney for making such a radical decision. Though, the reason behind their choice was very logical, a cord was struck. Some fans were unable to accept that the EU not only ties the hands of Lucasfilm on what they can produce, but also risks a even higher level of disappointment since our expectations would be extremely high and unmatched with any content the studio could produce.
Instead, a clean slate was given and JJ Abrams was announced to helm Episode VII. As a fan himself, JJ wanted to do his best to honor the original trilogy. The campaign called for practical effects, real sets, and everything Lucasfilm could possibly throw at us to make everyone feel at home with the franchise again. The Force Awakens was that result, and set the tone for the new chapter of Star Wars.
At first, you would think this is a win win for everyone. Fans get a movie that fits the mold of their favorite part of the franchise and the creators get a chance to make a big start to a new slate of films. Sadly, that wasn’t the case and despite critical acclaim and overall positive reactions, many fans cried out saying it was a reboot of A New Hope. Critics said the story wasn’t original, and the movie was put under the microscope by the very fans it was created for.
Rather than focus on the new characters, differences in tone, and ways that JJ and company gave us a fresh perspective on Star Wars, harsh words were again tossed into the mix. What makes it even more frustrating is that now we have two additional films in the Star Wars canon that have the opposite problem. We can’t seem to agree on what the fans want to see.
Rogue One and The Last Jedi were attempts at taking risks with Star Wars. We were given something different and new. Yet, now the pendulum swings from “too similar” to “too different”. It’s a maddening cycle that doesn’t seem to find a balance.
I feel that a lot of fans miss the reason why I like all of these movies and why others might too. What makes Star Wars so special is that it isn’t a one size fits all type of story. There are so many unique and diverse pieces of the puzzle that people young and old can cherish in their own ways that still fits into the collective mass of nerds that makes Star Wars a cultural phenomenon.
Whether or not you are fan of Jar Jar Binks, Ewoks, or Jedi Rocks is beside the point. There are fans out there that that appreciate these films in ways that the mainstream may not. Star Wars would have died a painful death a long time ago if there wasn’t a large group of people out there that love these movies for what they are, and not what they could have been. Whether it is Episodes I-III or The Last Jedi, the spectrum is wide and very diverse.
Not everyone has the same viewpoint, and that is what makes the reaction to The Last Jedi so dangerous. We’ve gotten to the point where there are Change.Org petitions to remove it from the official canon. There are articles being posted that are investigating the possibility that fans are creating fake spam bots to help destroy the fan user rating on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. One hashtag I have been seeing pop up is #NotMyLuke.
We don’t own Luke Skywalker. We don’t own Star Wars. We are a part of the system, but not the dictators of how it will play out. This line of thought of personal ownership is arrogant and needs a balance. Where will this all end? Why does it matter so much to us as fans to tear down a movie that didn’t fit what we thought it should be?
What the response to The Last Jedi is teaching us is that we need to be more open minded and look at the big picture. This may not be “your” Star Wars. It may be someone else’s Star Wars. Respect the road we have come from and where it is leading. The story is more than just your own, and we are all in this together.
May the Force be with you!