Friday, February 11, 2005

Award Winning Star Wars Essay

Note: This essay was originally written for and won an essay contest at TheForce.net's 'Star Wars Saga' Forum
Note #2: This essay was written the December before 'Revenge of the Sith' came out, which, for the record, I really liked.

TWO AUDIENCES, TWO SPIRITS
Differences between the two ‘Star Wars’ Trilogies
By David Brennan

INTRODUCTION:
The original Star Wars trilogy was explicitly designed to please the common man. The new Star Wars trilogy is explicitly designed to please the Star Wars fan. Therefore, it is inevitable that the two trilogies have vastly different spirits.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, R2-D2, C-3PO….all these characters have the same names as they did in the original trilogy, all of them look the same, but somehow they’re just not hitting the same notes with the public as they used to. It is the thesis of this study that the different tones of the two Star Wars trilogies are the byproduct of intentional, conscious choices George Lucas made in response to changes in the marketplace.

It’s important for the thesis of this study that we put a quick end to the transparent lie that George Lucas is guided by some “singular vision” of the Star Wars world. He’s not. By now the Star Wars movies have had so many different versions that the average Kentucky high school graduate couldn‘t count them all. If Star Wars were a man, he’d be going through a bigger identity crisis than Michael Jackson in the middle of a race riot.

The prime victim of George Lucas‘s ever changing “vision” is the very first movie in the series, Star Wars: A New Hope. There have been at least four U.S. versions of this.[1] (But hey, only three of them were “definitive” versions!) The rolodex-list of changes to this poor movie - special effects made and unmade, actors added and dialogue erased - are more than enough evidence to prove that George Lucas has got no definitive “vision.” Just to be sure, though, Lucas himself gave an accidental confession when, on the DVD audio commentary for Return of the Jedi, he talks about the unceremonious death of the character Boba Fett: “Had I known he was going to turn into such a popular character, I would’ve made his death more exciting," Lucas continues, “I contemplated putting in a shot where he [survived his death to please fans of the character.]“

If that’s a “singular vision” then Alaska has “a little bit of snow.”

It is overwhelmingly clear that the Star Wars movies have not been made to suit some mystical vision of George Lucas’s. No, both trilogies were made to suit a target audience. The difference in spirit between the old trilogy and the new trilogy is caused by who that target audience is….

THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY:
In 1977, when the 20th Century Fox marketing department was deciding how to advertise their summer releases, the paperwork for Star Wars probably looked like this:

Movie: “Star Wars”
Target Demographic: EVERYBODY!

Lucas attached the following quote to each copy of his original screenplay for Star Wars[2]

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man
Or the man who’s half a boy

This quote, echoed from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, laid clear Lucas’s ambition to please not just “males between the ages of 18 and 30,” not just “children over the age of 6 but under the age of 13.” George Lucas wanted to please everybody.

All three movies in the original trilogy - Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi - were designed specifically to please the people of Norman Rockwell‘s Main Street as well as the people of Greenwich Village’s coffee houses. Lucas wanted to bring a smile to gruff lumberjacks but also to gentle poets.

He wanted to please the common man.

Creating a work that is universally appealing is no easy task. So Lucas did what most people in Hollywood do when they’re in a bind, he copied somebody else’s work.

Lucas modeled Star Wars after mythical classics. The Odyssey, The Legend of King Arthur, and Beowulf have all been acknowledged as source material for Star Wars.[3] Lucas was striving to achieve the same populist ends with his story as these myths achieved with theirs, and so he made a conscious effort to have the original trilogy follow in their footsteps. Star Wars, therefore, is a second generation fable. You could call it a neomyth.

The first of these three tales for the common man opened on May 25, 1977 and over the course of the next six years George Lucas’s Star Wars movies were each amongst the most successful of all time. Just as with he was with The Odyssey and Beowulf, the common man was pleased with Star Wars in 1977.

All good things, though, must come to an end, and, the Star Wars trilogy’s ending did not disappoint. In 1983, the series was brought to a rousing climax with Return of the Jedi. George Lucas signed off literally and figuratively in a popular documentary that chronicled the making of the three movies called From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga. After the credits roll, Lucas is seen giving a military salute as he boards a plane.

“As attractive as the Star Wars world is,” he says, “sooner or later you have to leave home.”[4]

All three parts of the Star Wars story - Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and The Return of the Jedi (1983) - were wholly satisfying to the common man, so George Lucas had achieved his goal. It was a story not just enjoyed, but beloved by the common man, and it had ended just wonderfully.

It was all so perfect….

THE NEW TRILOGY:
Financial troubles gave birth to a new Star Wars trilogy. It turns out that a divorce had dug a fiscal hole for Lucas and he needed to use the beloved Star Wars name to climb out of it.[5]

Perhaps it was because he was now beholden to the financial burdens of fatherhood, or perhaps it was because he had grown so attached to wealth that he couldn’t dare to lose it, but for some reason George Lucas wasn’t going to take any chances with his new trilogy.[6]

George Lucas told the common man to take a hike, because with this new trilogy he had a way to guarantee the financial success he needed. This guarantee was usually a male, usually between the ages of 12 and 24. He usually liked to play video games and he spent oodles of money on pop culture fads….

He was Fanboy, a heavy-spending, pop-culture-junkie who did not even exist when Star Wars was released in 1977. Fanboy was such an extravagant spender, in fact, that the people in marketing said that just one of him was worth ten of the common men.

Ironically, for all the control Fanboy would have over the second Star Wars trilogy, he hadn’t even been a big fan of the first Star Wars trilogy until a decade after it had ended.

In 1995, Lucasfilm re-released the Star Wars movies with sleek new packaging and “THX Re-mastering“ which supposedly made the decades-old movies looked crisp and modern. The marketing play was a pop culture blitzkrieg and this was how Fanboy first made his presence known to Lucasfilm. It wasn’t just the movies that Fanboy threw money at, but comic book tie-ins and action figures and anything and everything else….all for movies that were over ten years old! This formula was such a success in 1995 that it was duplicated again in 1997, this time with a theatrical re-release of the movies….”In a way you’ve never seen before!”

Fanboy was ecstatic.

Common man, of course, was indifferent to all the hype for these re-releases. Common man had children to feed, loved ones to tend to, and sights to see - so he wasn‘t interested in buying yet another version of movies he‘d already seen in theaters and on video tape. No, common man found all this hype rather silly (and maybe even a little pathetic.)

So Lucasfilm wasn’t getting any money from common man. But Fanboy….he wouldn’t stop spending! Comic books, video games, toys, Taco Bell, Frito Lay, Pepsi; there was no sense of restraint in Fanboy. In fact, there wasn’t much sense in him, period. There was just these bizarre, fleeting fads. “More Boba Fett!” he cried one minute. “More computer effects!” he yelled the next. “More tude!” he bellowed soon after! [Note for common man: “tude” is Fanboy-ese for “attitude.”]

Of course, mythical tales like The Odyssey weren’t designed to withstand the trendy scrutinies of Fanboy, nor did they have any pretense of offering their readers an identity. They were designed to entertain the common man, not some niche demographic. Moreover….they were just stories.

But again, George Lucas had a different agenda for this new trilogy. For this older, money-driven George Lucas, money talked and everything else walked.

And so, when the first of this new trilogy was released in 1999, it was Fanboy, not common man, who was calling the shots. Watching The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, you can almost hear Fanboy telling George Lucas what to do. “Gimme another big slimy creature here….yeah, that’s right.” George Lucas nods accommodatingly. “I want Boba Fett. What, he’s dead? Call ’im Jango Fett then, I don’t care.”

George Lucas’s pandering to Fanboy[7] worked….kind of. While the box office for the new movies were good, somehow they seemed incapable of ever again being great.

It is empirically indisputable that the common man has become less and less impressed with the Star Wars movies with each passing entry.

BOX OFFICE GROSSES FOR ‘STAR WARS’ MOVIES (Chronologically)
1977, Star Wars: 1.2 bil……….….…………..(1st out of 5)
1980, The Empire Strikes Back: 603 mil…….(2nd out of 5)
1983, The Return of the Jedi: 578 mil……….(3rd out of 5)
1999, The Phantom Menace: 521 mil……….(4th out of 5)
2002, Attack of the Clones: 328 mil…....……(5th out of 5)

Source: BoxOfficeMojo.com
Note: Figures are adjusted for inflation

Lucasfilm won’t even admit that their box office is decaying. Instead, they have more rationalizations than Dean Martin had groupies. They’ll say that the box office is declining because the new trilogy is “darker,” even though all five of the Star Wars movies have gotten the exact same “PG” rating. They’ll say that the new movies aren’t doing well because they star children or because they’re romances, as if E.T. and Titanic were flops.

If the defenders of the new Star Wars movies are correct in their claim that the movies offer some mystical greatness that is invisible to the common man, then certainly educated film critics, with their discerning tastes and trained eyes, would have picked up on these suspiciously elusive qualities and recommended The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones with the same fervor as they did the original trilogy.

They haven’t. In fact, the critics’ tastes and the taste of the common man mirror each other almost exactly.

PERCENTAGE OF MOVIE CRITICS WHO RECOMMENDED EACH
‘STAR WARS’ MOVIE, (Chronologically)
1977, Star Wars: 93%………………….…..(2nd out of 5)
1980, The Empire Strikes Back:98%……....(1st out of 5)
1983, The Return of the Jedi, 80%………..(3rd out of 5)
1999, The Phantom Menace, 62%………...(5th out of 5)
2002, Attack of the Clones, 64%………….(4th out of 5)

Source: RottenTomatoes.com

The downward spiral is undeniable. A couple more of these and they’ll be in Gigli territory.

At the end of the day, any objective study will reach the exact same conclusion: the Star Wars movie franchise is decaying, slowly but surely.

CONCLUSION:
The problem with the second Star Wars trilogy was not that it was pandering. As noted above, the original trilogy pandered too.

The problem with the new trilogy is that it is pandering to a fleeting and unstable audience whose tastes change from one week to the next. The first trilogy was built for the human spirit, the second trilogy was built for this very specific niche market that did not even exist when Star Wars came out in 1977.

The characters, the settings, the filmmakers: they all have the same names….but that does not mean that the spirit of the two trilogies are the same. They aren’t.

ENDNOTES:
(1)The four U.S. versions are (deep breath): 1) The original theatrical version without the subtitle "Episode IV, A New Hope," 2) The 1981 re-release version which inserted the aforementioned subtitle as well as some voiceover changes, 3) The 1997 Special Edition version which is different still from…. 4) The 2004 DVD version.
(2)George Lucas: The Creative Impulse. This was the book included with the 1993 laserdisc release of Star Wars.
(3)Sources stated from the documentary Empire of Dreams included on the Star Wars Trilogy DVD set, released in 2004.
(4)George Lucas, From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga, 1983
(5)The Charlie Rose Show, 2004. George Lucas says, “[After I finished the original trilogy]….I got a divorce and that sort of set me back quite a ways….one of the reasons to go back to Star Wars was it would hopefully make me financially secure enough to where I wouldn’t have to go back to studios and beg for money.”
(6)There's only one issue for a filmmaker….Will this make its money back so I can make the next one?” -George Lucas as quoted in Time Magazine; April 20, 2002
(7)"It's harder for them to accept the fact that these are made for adolescents - they're movies for young people they're not movies for 30 year old and 40 year olds." -George Lucas as quoted by Peter Bowes of BBC News; May 14, 2002

11 Comments:

Blogger David Brennan said...

The greatest column ever written, David! More, MORE, MORE!!!

2:31 AM  
Blogger Fish1941 said...

This essay is nothing more than another rant against the SW Prequels by another fanboy who is disappointed that the movies after A NEW HOPE did follow the 1977 orignal's Saturday matinee-style with its one-dimensional characterization and feel-good morality. How disappointing!

3:03 PM  
Blogger Alicia said...

Get a life....I have nothing more to say to you.

11:51 AM  
Blogger TBC said...

A well conceived essay, but you make two key mistakes. First of all, you can't compare the original trilogy's box office with that of the prequels. The market has changed so much since then, with lots more competition for screens and rapid DVD releases, that it's impossible for any film to have the longevity at the box office the original trilogy enjoyed (ANH was in theaters for over a year non-stop, and was re-released several times even before the Special Edition).
Second, the claim that critics loved the originals and hated the prequels is a myth. As this Rotten Tomatoes article shows if you compare the reviews from the time of the original trilogy's release with the prequels, the prequels actually got better initial reviews than the original trilogy overall.
I look forward to your response.

9:31 PM  
Blogger David Brennan said...

TBC,

I agree with the overall premise of your post, but I want to note two things.

First off, even with DVD and even with more competition in the entertainment marketplace, I still think that the box office of the two trilogies is overwhelming evidence of the original trilogy's superiority. One thing you could do to adjust for these changes in the equation is gauge how far ahead the original trilogy movies were of the #2 box office movies in the years they were released, and compare that to the new trilogy. (In fact, AOTC was the first Star Wars movie not to be number one the year it was released, as Spider-Man absolutely trounced it.)

And as far as the critical consensus issues at the RottenTomatoes link, I'll say two things. 1) My essay was written before ROTS came out, which was the best-received of the new trilogy. (And, for what it's worth, I loved ROTS myself.) 2) Quite frankly, I'm skeptical of those critical reactions to the old trilogy cited in the article. They said ROTJ got only 31% positive reviews? I....just have a hard time with that. I don't want to seem like a total skeptic, but, I just can't buy that.

I wrote this well over a year ago, and it's funny because I thought that I was sort of writing rhetorical and maybe being too contrarian. But, in truth, I stand by it. The quality of ROTS, I think, definitely narrowed the gap between the two series, but on the whole I think there's little question that the original trilogy was remarkably more successful in all ways than is the new trilogy.

(Although I do concede that it's possible that link at Rotten Tomatoes was accurate, and the original trilogy wasn't reviewed well.)

5:45 AM  
Blogger TBC said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I'm glad you enjoyed ROTS and I did enjoy your article even if I disagreed with some parts of it.

2:40 PM  
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11:34 AM  
Blogger Juanita's Journal said...

The problem with the new trilogy is that it is pandering to a fleeting and unstable audience whose tastes change from one week to the next. The first trilogy was built for the human spirit, the second trilogy was built for this very specific niche market that did not even exist when Star Wars came out in 1977.


I'm a little confused by the above statement. What exactly were you trying to say?

12:00 PM  
Blogger Juanita's Journal said...

(In fact, AOTC was the first Star Wars movie not to be number one the year it was released, as Spider-Man absolutely trounced it.)


And yet, AOTC ended up earning a bigger profit than SPIDER-MAN. I guess I find that ironic. However, I don't think that SPIDER-MAN being a bigger hit at the box office was a sign that it was a superior movie than AOTC . . . or that Lucas had lost his touch. It oculd be that the moviegoing audience were not or are still not ready to face the more ambiguous story that Lucas told.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Levi Senft said...

Pathetic douch. Please masturbate to the millenium falcon until you die.

12:39 AM  
Blogger Juanita's Journal said...

I was not that impressed by this essay. It seemed like another example of Prequel bashing. And the author's conception on the box office take seemed very questionable.

For once I would like to read an essay about the saga without someone bashing one trilogy and putting the other on a pedestal.

Very disappointing!

12:42 PM  

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