It’s annual Star Wars Day! Also probably the biggest “celebration of a kind of ropy pun” day.
One of the things I became vaguely known for in Internet circles was my opinion that The Empire Strikes Back is not as good as people have convinced themselves it is. But other than a mild dislike of Ewoks and the obligatory loathing for the Prequel Trilogy, I still considered myself a Star Wars fan. I had been since I was five and always would be. Heck, even if I didn’t think Empire was all that and a bag of chips, I could still enjoy it well enough.
But a few months ago, when they announced that production of Episode VII had begun, I had an epiphany that nearly floored me: I didn’t care.
I say “nearly” floored me because I didn’t care so much that I didn’t care that I didn’t care they were finally going to make the final three films. It did, however, cause me wonder why it is I didn’t care. After all, I’d been a fan since I was 5 years old. That’s 35 years. That’s a pretty significant chunk of time in anyone’s life.
And it hit me.
I didn’t care because it wasn’t going to be a continuation of “my” Star Wars. And not just because the Prequels cocked things up irrevocably.
The reason I didn’t like the Prequels wasn’t really Jake Lloyd or Jar-Jar or too much ponderous plot and action and too little character development and decent dialogue. It’s just that it bore little or no relation to the Star Wars I knew and loved. Sure, it was the story of how the world of “my” Star Wars (Episode IV, A New Hope), had come to be except that… it wasn’t.
Though the events of Episodes I through III, do hamfistedly arrive at a sort of interpretation of the universe in the first (er, 4th) film, it’s not actually the same world. And this is the real reason (not the ones in my previous essay) I never cared for the 5th and 6th chapters in the Star Wars saga either.
In Episode IV there’s a real menace in the galaxy. We learn in later films that this menace is a dark wizard made of pure, undiluted evil, but in Episode IV the Emperor is an unseen entity who we understand has the juggernaut of his military put the boots to anyone who gets in his path. Or is he? He might only be a figurehead under the sway of the military. He might be a child. He might not even really exist. Who really knows?
If you only watch A New Hope the impression you get is that the Emperor is a master politician; more of a Ceasar or Richard III than a Sauron or Voldemort. Or maybe he’s not. It’s not important. The Emperor is just the idea of unstoppable power. So huge, it can’t be shown on screen. Your imagination does a better job.
But we do get the impression he’s just a man. He even employs a sort of dark wizard (there’s no mention of the Sith) as an attack dog (the chillingly viscous Lord Vader) but instead he has placed a Nazi death camp Commandant (Grand Moff Tarkin) as his second in command. This says a lot about this Emperor we know hardly anything about. It shows what he values as strength and what kind of man he thinks can run his empire best.
It makes zero sense coming out of the Prequel Trilogy that Vader isn’t in command of the Death Star. Sure, apologists can make excuses (not based on anything actually in the films) about why this might be, but in A New Hope Vader isn’t an avatar for the Emperor the way he is in Empire and Return of the Jedi. Tarkin is.
It’s Tarkin who is the cold, dispassionate face of a bloated bureaucracy grown too large to sustain itself economically and is forced to rule by suppression. It’s an empire run by the unthinking, banal, human evil we see in our own world.
As soon as we see the Emperor in Episode V, everything changes and by Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, it’s completely altered. The Empire is now the playground for an insane, megalomaniacal wizard. The plight of the rebels goes from fighting a system of government that’s slid out of control and has begun to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed in the name of maintaining order, to fighting against cartoon henchmen under the sway of an evil magician. It changes the very nature of everything in the saga from the political situation to the psychology of those involved. It’s a completely different story set in a very different universe.
Everything in A New Hope has a certain sense of reality about it. From the aging technology in Mos Eisley, to what we understand of this crumbling Republic which has just been disbanded, to moisture farms, to the droids. It’s a world far removed from our own, but still very similar.
Even this thing called The Force that these relics (Obi Wan and Vader) from some old monk order seem to be able to use is a very muted kind of magic compared to the unlimited source of power we later come to understand it as. In Episode IV it was something you could almost believe you could personally tap into. Let go of your feelings. Feel the Force flow through you. Is this what happens when we meditate and focus and can suddenly make that 2-point basketball shot? Even if we know it’s not, it’s a magic we can relate to.
It’s so subtle that Han Solo doesn’t even really believe it exists. What kind of a halfwit, after all those massive Jedi wars of the Prequels, wouldn’t believe in The Force? It’d be like us not believing atomic bombs were used in WWII. The way we see The Force in A New Hope, it makes sense he wouldn’t believe in it. It really would just look like “luck” to him. It’s more interesting that way than Yoda and Vader being able to throw giant metal cases around hanger bays like overstuffed pillows with the mere flick of a finger.
Perhaps I see Star Wars Episode IV with too literal an eye. But it’s the eye with which I fell in love with that story 35 years ago. Even when I saw it at the age of 8, The Empire Strikes Back never sat right with me and I wasn’t able to put my finger on why. Since I was only 8, I just thought it was because I didn’t like Han getting Leia instead of Luke and it ends on a bullshit cliffhanger.
Now that I’ve had a few more years to think about it, I understand I’m still waiting for the proper sequel to that movie I saw in the summer of 1977. A movie I still love above all others.
So, May the 4th be with me!
But not The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th or 6th.