Few would argue that the last three films in the Star Wars franchise were missing a little something.
Now for some of you, up until this moment it may have been that those easily forgettable films were missing from your mind altogether, while others may still be struggling to forget them like a bad nightmare. Whichever camp you may fall into, we bring them to mind here with good reason: it is only through observance of the past that we can correct the ails of the future.
Granted, if we look far enough back, the Star Wars movies still offer pioneering examples of sci-fi cinema. So what changed along the way?
Well, set design, for one thing: in fact, a big part of giving a film a realistic flair is having, well, real sets. With the exception of the interior design of a few battle cruisers, it seems like there was more CGI used for backdrops than real brick and mortar in Episodes I – III; and in truth, the same goes for flesh and blood, for that matter. Arguably, the computers generating the CGI used in those films were the real stars of the prequels, since they probably had more screen time than all the actors combined.
Hence one of the reasons there is, to be punny, A New Hope inspired with the release of the teaser trailer for J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star War installment, The Force Awakens. From what little we’ve seen, the sets are not only more realistic looking, but the familiar setting of Tatooine returns us somewhat to a period in the Star Wars legacy that is also like homecoming to the sci-fi enthusiast: one might compare it to being the “comfort food” of the Star Wars universe.
But arguably, the use of familiar, more realistic looking sets in the Abrams installments won’t be the only thing to return to the Star Wars films, as there is another aspect that once existed there, perhaps as strong as The Force itself, which has been missing for decades like a rouge Jedi: spontaneity.
And arguably, this simple, but defining aspect can be attributed mostly to one character… who we’ll get to in a moment (as if you didn’t already know).
What, you might ask, was more spontaneous about the original three films? They were based on scripts and the master-workings of that celebrated mage-of-sorts, George Lucas, just like the latter three. But if you consider the stiffness of the character acting in those newer films, ranging from
the chemistry between Annakin Skywalker and Padme, to even the shortcomings of otherwise-badass actor Samuel L. Jackson’s attempts at convincingly portraying a Jedi, you know precisely what I’m talking about. Oh yeah, and then there’s Darth Vader’s heart-wrenching “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!” toward the end of Episode III (heart-wrenching for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately). Imagine if we had instead witnessed Darth waking up to learn that Padme is dead, only to rip the robotic arm off in a mindless, primal display of emotional protest, followed by his destruction of the laboratory that created this “updated” version of himself in the style of Weapon X (i.e. Marvel’s Wolverine), only to realize that the cyborg enhancements that saved him are his only future, even if one among the walking damned. Yeah, sadly that’s not what happened.
Looking back to the original three films, however, we remember one of the most famous lines from that pinnacle among them, The Empire Strikes Back, being Han Solo’s retort just as he’s being lowered into a frosty date with carbonite imprisonment. As Leia calls to him and professes her love for the smuggler, he replies with a strikingly sincere sort of smartass quip that became legendary: “I know.”
This is a famous scene not just for the attitude Han’s character expresses, but also for the fact that it was a notable instance where an actor in the Star Wars franchise rebelled against the Lucas empire and actually improvised (which, as we know, actor Harrison Ford is known for doing anyway). According to the background story, Han was supposed to mirror Leia’s sentiments as he is shown being lowered into the imprisonment that awaits him, but Ford improvised the line “I know” instead, because it seemed more like something Han Solo actually would have said. Boy, wasn’t it?
Thus, utilizing his actor’s intuitive powers in this way (or maybe by sheer exertion of the Force), Ford made an otherwise potentially sappy scene a classic, and apparently to the chagrin of Lucas, who had been none-too-pleased with Ford’s sudden diversion.
Part of what makes film entertaining is its ability to convey realism in otherwise unbelievable circumstances, which in turn allows the viewer to escape the everyday, and ease their minds into the realm of fantasy with less effort. Nothing will impede that quite like bad acting, though, and as we unfortunately see in the Star Wars prequels, even the greatest stars can fall victim to bad acting if their characters aren’t allowed room to breathe.
Of course, with Ford’s return, along with that of several other members of the original cast, our Newest Hope is that some of that sassiness we once came to expect of the Star Wars universe will have returned, and that maybe with the addition of fresh blood, organic looking sets, and a more classic “space western” approach, we might be able to recapture the magic of the old films, but translate it effectively onto the modern screen.
Sometimes, the old adage “less is more” really does hold true. With the release of the teaser trailer for The Force Awakens, some fans bitched relentlessly about the crossguard on the new Sith-saber (which, as my cohort Chris Heyes points out, is actually among the accepted canons of saber-wielding in the Star Wars universe). But others celebrated the return to old ideals we’re already seeing in the trailer, by rendering a “LucasFilms Special Edition” version that shows how the trailer might have looked, had Lucas’s same approach to filmmaking been applied again. We’ll leave you with that version of the trailer below, along with the haunting memory of what could have been: