Deconstructing 40 Years of ‘Star Wars’ – Exploring the Identity of the Franchise

What changed about the Star Wars franchise over the years? How they can innovate again.

Monkeys Fighting Robots

For generations, Star Wars was the introduction to science fiction. What formed to be Star Wars was George Lucas’ childhood memories growing up with adventure serials, World War II films and Asian mythology.

He found the perfect combination that enshrined a legacy that’s spanned 11 films to date, multiple TV series and video games, an unfathomable diverse variety of paraphernalia for fans to celebrate for four decades.

Is there anything else to say about the franchise that hasn’t already been said? Well, I’m going to take on the daunting task of how cinema has changed in and around the Star Wars franchise and how its attempted to stay relevant for all these years. The biggest changes throughout the years are how the franchise handles the rule of 3, the relationship between the characters and their environments, and how Star Wars can keep innovating cinema. This will focus mainly on the films from A New Hope to The Last Jedi with some allusions to the external content.

There will be spoilers throughout.

The Rule of 3

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford in Star Wars (1977)
The original iconic trio of Star Wars

I would argue the biggest reason why Star Wars original trilogy was as successful as it was the way it handled the rule of three. In this case, I will start with A New Hope with the three central characters: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo played  by Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, respectively.

Each of their stories started apart with Leia imparting the plans to the Death Star to R2-D2 before her capture at the hands of the Empire. R2-D2 and his droid companion, C-3PO make their way to Luke on Tatooine. With the help of Obi-Wan Kenobi, they meet with Han Solo at Mos Eisley Spaceport to book passage to Leia’s planet of Alderaan.

All their paths converge on the Death Star where they all build the strong foundation you see throughout the trilogy. Luke and Leia fight together before they find out they’re siblings for a cause greater than the both of them. Luke and Han bond over their sense of adventure and being a brother in combat looking for each other’s back. Han and Leia fall in love with mutual fascination of each other’s stubbornness and unfamiliarity of being challenged.  Their bond is prevalent throughout the trilogy even when they’re apart.

The bond between Luke, Leia and Han is something sorely missing since Return of the Jedi. In the Star Wars Saga (a.k.a. the prequels), you never really saw that balance established until the second film. The three central characters of the Saga are Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor), Anakin (Jake Lloyd/Hayden Christensen), and Padme (Natalie Portman).

Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen from Star Wars Attack of the Clones
Obi-Wan, Padme and Anakin

Obi-Wan and Anakin never really had a chance to develop much of any bond until the end of The Phantom Menace after Obi-Wan promised to fulfill Qui-Gon Jinn’s (Liam Neeson) final wish to train the boy. In fact, Anakin had more a better established relationship with Qui-Gon than Obi-Wan.

While you can argue Obi-Wan had the better established relationship with Luke by the time they met Han in A New Hope, Luke and Han had far better quality interactions together than Anakin and Obi-Wan in The Phantom Menace. You really don’t start getting to know Obi-Wan and Anakin until Attack of the Clones.

Anakin and Padme in their brief interactions that don’t have as much to do with the plot as say Leia and Han did, had pretty much what you would expect the bare minimum interaction of a nine year old and a 14 year old would have to get something started. If you’re going to write a film about kids, let the kids have fun. Instead, the subplot of podracing that really just involves two of the main characters becomes a side focus of the film.

Meanwhile we get too heavily invested in the Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as partner Jedi to try to unravel a conspiracy involving The Trade Federation and the blockade they’re running. Both try to help Padme, the queen of Naboo, take back control from The Trade Federation. Personally, I would have changed it to where Padme as part of the royal family, let her have her adventure with Anakin, let them be kids and develop them. Helping a king and/or queen would have served the plot better.

Oh and if shoehorning R2-D2 and C-3PO weren’t enough, you had Jar-Jar as toilet humor exposition.

Lucas would spend his last two Star Wars films playing catch up with Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme to get a sense of a bond we never really felt for from The Phantom Menace. In Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, you did see Anakin have a hand with everyone from his master Obi-Wan; Padme, his forbidden love; and Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), his future Sith master.

What are the interactions with Obi-Wan and Padme? Well, there’s certainly no fraternal bond between the two. Padme asks him about Anakin, while keeping from him the secret love and marriage until Sith. There’s nothing really Obi-Wan asks of Padme, except who’s trying to kill her and play detective to the conspiracy Palpatine’s trying to orchestrate.

When you compare them with Luke and Leia’s interactions, both pairs have had their share of battles. Yet, the conversations between Luke and Leia are far different. Two specific scenes between Luke and Leia I want to mention are the escape from Cloud City during The Empire Strikes Back where Luke fell and landed on an antenna after his first fight with Darth Vader. He used The Force to communicate with Leia. Leia, who was never trained in the ways of The Force, listened and got Lando (Billy Dee Williams) to pilot the Millennium Falcon back to save him. The other was in Endor when  Luke tried to talk to Leia about family. He asked her about her real mother, which obvious missed plot hole not addressed in Revenge of the Sith, and the reveal that they’re brother and sister.

The only such interaction, which was more to move the plot than develop characters was when Obi-Wan told Padme the truth about Anakin’s actions as the newly minted “Darth Vader.” On top of which Portman’s role in Revenge of the Sith was largely diminished with her being pregnant carrying Luke and Leia. I will say this for the Saga, Anakin’s bonds to Obi-Wan, Padme, and Palpatine were strong for what they were and maybe it’s done by design, but it was a real missed opportunity for Lucas to properly develop what he needed to follow that same formula to what made Luke, Leia and Han work.

John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac
Finn, Rey and Poe – When will they share a meaningful scene together?

While I can’t judge the complete impact of the sequel trilogy with The Last Jedi’s release in December and Episode IX in 2019, I can assess how the rule of three applies with The Force Awakens. The film established the three main characters as Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), yet only two of those relationships were really established. Both centered around Finn with his journey beginning with freeing Poe, the hotshot pilot of the Resistance, and his journey to the Resistance with the assistance of Rey.

While the twist is both characters tie to Finn, instead of say Luke. Rey, like Luke, is the potential, but has no relationship with Poe whatsoever. She forms a close bond with his droid, BB-8, but really, there’s almost no interaction except for their reunion and Rey and Poe exchange their pleasantries, while understandably, Poe and Finn’s reunion was much fonder.

I will grant that Ford’s presence as Han this time around, you can argue took on the role Alec Guinness’ role as Obi-Wan, except since Han isn’t a Jedi, we would have to wait until Rey’s fateful meeting with Luke at the end.

Speaking of which, Mark Hamill did touch on the missed opportunity he and Ford never got to reunite in The Force Awakens since Rey’s meeting took place after Han’s death. It’s as tragic as it is fractured that we never got the Han-Luke closure we needed unless Ford somehow cameos in a flashback in The Last Jedi and/or Episode IX and does share a scene with Hamill.

The same applies for the lack of Luke and Leia in The Force Awakens, but predictably, we’ll see them on the screen one last time in The Last Jedi. Naturally, Han and Leia did have their closure in TFA.

Characterization and the film’s bonds are what made A New Hope and by the extension, the original trilogy so special, but I found myself far more invested in Rey and Finn than Poe, who much of his story could have easily been given to Rey. She could have piloted the X-Wing that helped take down Starkiller Base, but J.J. Abrams had to have her lightsaber battle with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) on the planet.

We’ll see how this progression goes, but the films have long deviated from equally emphasizing the three main characters coming together with Luke, Han and Leia.

The Relationship Between the Characters and Environments

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship on what in Star Wars’ priorities. To me, it’s always been about learning about the people behind the sandbox they play in. The main reason why A New Hope was special to me was how revolutionary the synergy was between the characters and the “Galaxy Far Far Away” they were in. There’s something to be said about how the actors immerse themselves in their environments and make it their own.

A New Hope hit all the cylinders, because not only were the actors engaging, but the setting was never that deep in science fiction before. It was novel and iconic at the time.

The problem when it comes to the art of cinema is that much of what became successful, often gets recreated. The novelty of Star Wars and its special effects wore off, because the audience becomes desensitized over time with the bombardment of other space adventures in TV and film. The way space battles were choreographed in 1977, was revolutionary, not so much in 2017.

As we marvel at the capabilities of Industrial Light and Magic with the galaxies and world they create, humanity somehow took a backseat. I would argue much of the soul of Star Wars was the people who populate the universe, but they got lost in the shuffle the more items plastered on the screen whether if it was tacking more ships and guns to more lightsabers. They’ve essentially traded emotion for spectacle.

I wanted to feel for the fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith. I really did, but that fight was far more about “Look what I can do” than the raw emotions and psychological strain of a relationship broken. It really lacked emotional weight.

Speaking of which, I’m not just singling out the prequels, but I felt as more subtle the Rey and Kylo fight were in The Force Awakens, it didn’t really serve anything more than fan service. It helped set the tone to the more emotional-type of fights of the original trilogy, but the two characters just met. There wasn’t an expectation of a long-winded clean fight.

It’s not the lighsaber fights that suffer from this, the space and planetary combat became more formulaic and predictable. Aside from the parallels between A New Hope, The Phantom Menace, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, it seems traditional for the protagonists to always take out the primary plot device of interest whether if it’s the Death Star, Starkiller Base or the droid control ship.

It’s not just about nitpicking about going to the nostalgia well too often with different characters, it’s also about the priorities of the franchise. When Lucas revisited the franchise in the late 1990s, it was clear he prioritized the special effects over the actors. He felt a duty to himself to change what he created because of a “half completed film.”

When you consciously care more about how much more your computer animators can fill up the screen artificially, it distracts from the main attraction. While I’m not going to gripe about the re-inclusion of an old deleted scene with Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt in A New Hope: Special Edition, I will gripe about the necessity of adding more to Tatooine when Luke, Obi-Wan and the droids make their way through a landspeeder through Mos Eisley Spaceport. There was nothing wrong with how it was.

It was similar in Return of the Jedi, when he felt the need to undermine the existing practical effects particularly in Jabba’s Palace. There were two CGI alien characters: one replacing the existing female singer and added male singer to the number. Worse yet, the ending was altered in two ways in the Special Edition: First to denote a more grandiose celebratory tone to encompass the world depicted in the Saga when none were ever depicted in the original trilogy. Yes, shoehorned in soulless CG crowds, you know, like there isn’t any anarchy or riots that occur doing a coup or anything. Second, Christensen replaced an much older Sebastian Shaw as a Force ghost Anakin, like Luke would recognize him or anything. I was happy with the original ending just happening on Endor. There was nothing wrong with the original music, but I would say it was an improvement.

Sebastian Shaw and Hayden Christensen - Return of the Jedi Changes
Was the change really necessary?

The priorities were also far evident when Lucas opted to shoot all of the prequels on green screen instead of on-location. Neeson, McGregor, Portman and Christensen never to got experience the rigors the original trilogy cast and crew had to endure in the hot desert of Tunisia or Greenland, representing both Tatooine and Hoth. There’s an authenticity missed when actors are just running lines and don’t become immersed in their backgrounds.

I can commend Disney and Lucasfilm now to their back to basics grounded approach with the new films blending in the practical effects and CGI, because there was a type of authenticity that was there on certain scenes in The Force Awakens like Maz’s Cantina because of its use of puppets and costuming.

Perhaps the blending of both digital and practical now is what we can finally accept “this” as the future of Star Wars. If TFA is any indication, perhaps there’s hope to putting characters first again.

Innovations in Storytelling

It’s no secret Lucas drew from inspiration from the adventure serials, westerns, and the films of Akira Kurosawa. One of the great wonderful things about the Star Wars franchise is the expanding connective tissue of the universe. Lucasfilm does a wonderful job spoonfeeding audiences the nostalgia they crave while transitioning the new. The fact The Force Awakens currently holds the title of highest grossing North American film is a testament of the strength of the original trilogy cast even if one of them just appeared for less than 10 seconds.

Fact is, Star Wars can act as a conduit to tell other recognized stories. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a popular story about a war of attrition, has often been revisited numerous times, most notably with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the most critically acclaimed Star Trek film of all time. It also served as the outline for The Next Generation’s most successful film, First Contact.

Personally, I’m tired of them revisiting the Death Star over and over.  I wish there were other threats the First Order and Resistance faced instead of just each other. Perhaps The Last Jedi should be the last time we see a Jedi in training. I would be more compelled to see Kylo Ren in training as a Sith as we never really knew what Anakin endured as his way to becoming the Vader he came to be by Rogue One. We don’t know what training the Emperor did for him.

As long as Disney’s cherrypicking from the former Expanded Universe, they should consider.  Thrawn was already re-introduced in the current canon in Star Wars Rebels and has his own novel written by his original creator, Timothy Zhan. He wrote the Thrawn Trilogy for the old Extended Universe.

What other ideas could work in the Star Wars films? I can think of a few: time travel, a story similar to Firefly where you have a band of smugglers trying to survive living under the Empire, the discovery of the Force, a Valkyrie-inspired coup attempt within the Empire. It could be like Rebels, but Jedi-free.

There’s a wealth of ideas and storytelling that’s ripe for the taking.

What directions would you take the franchise?