I’m writing this post in response to a few of my fellow Cinema Studies majors wrote about on Facebook, How “Return of the Jedi” Ruined “Star Wars” Forever; forgive me for ranting and responding as if I was continuing an already in-progress conversation, because I am. As always, this is my two cents.
Alright, now that I’ve had some time to think about this, I’ll start off by discussing my initial violent reaction. At first, I thought the author was some snot nosed kid that grew up on the prequel trilogy and was bad mouthing Jedi because he or she was an uninformed little brat that had no appreciation for the art of storytelling and the choices made in the process of story development. After all, anyone can have a blog, and just because this entry was on a site like Indiewire (which I confess I never heard of before today) doesn’t mean he or she knows what the hell they’re talking about. I mean, I have a blog after all, and that doesn’t mean I know what the hell I’m talking about!
Nevertheless, I decided to relax, do a tiny amount of research to avoid sticking my foot in my mouth right off the bat, and think about my response for a while. To that end, it looks like the guy is in my age bracket which means he likely saw Jedi in theater on its first run, just like I did. So I had to rethink my desire to just blast him on that count. Damn it. Similarly, it appears that he reviews films on a regular basis and is well informed in this area. That doesn’t make him right, mind you, but it does make him reasonably qualified to speak about the subject. Not to mention, he did more research for his post than I am for mine, but I digress…
So that strips me of all my rationale for dismissing him and leaves me with just my area of specialty, which is purely subjective: creative writing. Ultimately, I can’t fault him for having an opinion, but I will nonetheless discuss why I feel he’s wrong.
When writing any story, choices have to be made about characters, plot, events, and more. While having a rigid plan for these elements at the outset may work to get the story told, unless you are an exceptional storyteller, you’re going to make changes somewhere along the way. Sometimes the changes will be for the better, sometimes not. The important thing is for the changes to be made based on the content and direction of the story. In some cases, it’s important to make changes that are less dramatic for the sake of the evolving characters and story you’re writing. Although I’ll get to this in a bit, I’ll gladly take a living Han Solo and the evolved nobility of the Jedi (as in a Jedi wouldn’t seek revenge) over Solo’s death for the sake of saying that no character is safe.
Addressing Mr. Taylor’s specific points, Han’s death would have served no purpose. While he was a hero of the Rebellion, the trilogy’s main character is and has always clearly been Luke Skywalker. Through A New Hope and Empire, Solo was at best an affiliate of the Rebel Alliance; he wasn’t officially enlisted in the fight. He fought along side them because he generally believed in the cause but didn’t want to be tied down to supporting them. He was mainly in it for his relationships with Luke and Leia. In his own words from A New Hope, he wasn’t “in it for the cause” he “expected to be paid”, though that obviously changed somewhat before the start of Empire. While his death [20 minutes into Jedi] would have been unfortunate for the vast majority of the Rebel Alliance, most wouldn’t have been impacted any more than any other soldier’s death. How many nameless Rebel soldiers lost their lives in the trilogy? Did anyone weep for Dak, Biggs, or Porkins? How many people held candlelight vigils for Gold Leader? Han’s death wouldn’t have served as a rallying point for the Rebel forces to rise up and destroy the Empire; the only people it would have had a serious impact upon, besides the audience, are the core heroes: Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and perhaps Lando. (I love Lando, but he himself wasn’t a major part of the Rebel Alliance until after Jedi.) Depending on the nature and timing of the theoretical death of Han, it’s entirely possible that Chewbacca and other characters might have died along with him. For example, had the Millennium Falcon gotten destroyed or crash landed in the sandstorm right after they dealt with Jabba, Luke’s extended (and, in the case of Leia, real) family would have died right then and there. Now, given the important time clue that Mr. Taylor gave us, 20 minutes into the film, we can probably surmise that this would have been during Han’s rescue, in particular over (or in) the Sarlacc pit. This particular fight is revisited in a series of dreams that haunt Luke in Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire”; as this is a twenty year old book now, I’m going to come right out and state that Luke kept dreaming that a certain red headed woman he later marries intercepts his lightsaber when he begins to fight Jabba’s guards, which of course meant that the friend’s escape would have been virtually impossible. Without getting into any supposition about how Han might have died during that fight, let’s look at the likely outcome: the heroes’ trust in themselves, their abilities and each other would have been destroyed. None of them would have been able to confidently state that they would be able to infiltrate the moon of Endor, take down the defensive shield, and attack the second Death Star successfully. Even with Han, Luke, and their self confidence after succeeding on Tatooine they were barely able to pull it off. Luke would have been hit the hardest by another failure. Let us not forget that the burgeoning Jedi failed significantly twice in Empire: first on Dagobah in the Force-vision confrontation with Vader, then in Bespin, the Cloud City, in protecting his friends. (Not to mention crashing on Dagobah, failing to get his X-Wing out of the swamp with the Force, falling into Vader’s trap, getting the crap beat out of him by Vader’s use of the Force, and, on top of all of that, losing his hand.) It was Luke’s plan to rescue Han in Jabba’s palace, and had any of his friends, especially the one that he planned to rescue, had lost their lives in the process, he would not only have lost the confidence he was beginning to develop in the Force, but would have begun to doubt the Force and himself. If he was lucky, it would only get him killed; if not, he probably would have turned to the Dark Side. Without his confidence, trust, and steadfast belief in the Force, Luke wouldn’t have been able to face Vader and Palpatine, let alone face them and live. The hero’s journey would have been unfulfilled.
Everything that has been mythologized about the Jedi Order since the release of the original Star War film in the prequels, cartoons, books, comics and fan fiction has been based on just two Jedi: Obi-wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker. (Ok, three if you count Yoda, but aside from showing off his ability to lift objects through the Force, we only really see the philosophical side of the Jedi through him.) Obi-wan was the mentor/sage that got Luke started on the path, and Luke walked the path. As later books would describe, Luke was only half trained [even at the end of Jedi]; he was the weapon the Jedi needed to strike down Vader and the Emperor, but he was not all that a Jedi should be. Still, as Mr. Taylor points out, the original subtitle of the third film was Revenge of the Jedi. While I’m sure that marketing had something to do with the plot change to the film, allowing Han to live so that action figures could be made, the change in subtitle conveys that even as the film was being made, Lucas’ understanding of what the Jedi Order was and could be was evolving. The best explanation I’ve head about why the title changed came from Lucas himself: “A Jedi wouldn’t seek revenge.” Luke’s close connection with Han throughout the original trilogy would surely have led to revenge had the latter died, and reshaped the entire direction of the Jedi Order in everything that came afterwards. Given the Buddhist/zen basis of the Jedi principles expressed through A New Hope and Empire, it was too late to allow the base desire for revenge to creep into the Jedi way. It’s something of a pun for me to use here (so naturally I will), but that’s the way of the Dark Side. Allowing Luke to seek or achieve revenge would have been a minor corruption of the principles that Lucas had set forth for the Jedi; one that would have led to other corruptions, and a less pure ideal that these heroes were seeking. Letting Han live was a hell of a lot easier than trying to explain the difference between justice and revenge.
How about something a little less critical than the mythology of the Jedi: the Ewoks. According to Mr. Taylor’s post, the Ewoks were “originally conceived as a slithery band of reptilian lizard creatures.” Oddly, that’s the first I’ve heard of that. From everything that I’ve heard over the decades, the original intention was to make Endor a Wookie world, meaning that it would have been hordes of 7+ foot tall hulking creatures helping the heroes on the forest moon. Naturally, given Chewbacca’s height, strength, and abilities, this would probably have given the heroes an unfair advantage over the Imperial troops stationed on the planet, and would have even cast the likelihood of the Empire’s presence there into doubt altogether. As I’ve heard it, they made the decision to make them half as big and a lot more primitive than the Wookies that we’ve come to know over the years; thus the Ewoks were born. But lets say they had been vaguely humanoid reptilian creatures instead. Given the make-up, costuming, and special effects of the time, at best we might have gotten something that looked more or less like Greedo or Bossk (one of the bounty hunters on the Executor that Vader addresses in Empire) and at worst either the Gorn (from the original Star Trek TV series) or the Sleestak (from Land of the Lost). I rather doubt that anyone would have taken them any more seriously than the “Native American teddybears” Mr Taylor complained about or, God forbid and forgive me, that goddamned Rodian kid in The Phantom Menace that couldn’t even give proper high-five. To me, it almost sounds like Mr Taylor would rather have Avatar’s 8 foot tall blue Na’vi running around in the Ewok’s place, and if that’s the case, then that’s his right. As for me, I don’t remember much in the way of huggable Ewoks at the time or for years afterwards, not even during the short lived Ewoks live action TV series/movies or cartoon. Maybe I just missed them. Sure, there were countless bits Ewok merchandise just like all the rest of the characters, but I wouldn’t say that it was strictly a marketing choice. Even if it was, Mr Taylor seems to have forgotten that Lucas held all the merchandising rights on the franchise and practically cornered the market on tie-ins with the first film. How could you expect him not to do it for Empire and Jedi? And before you rush to judgement and say that Wookies would have been better, I have 4 words for you: Star. Wars. Christmas. Special.
Taylor goes on to say that “everything in the ‘Star Wars’ universe became cuter, cuddlier and less dangerous.” I’m sorry, I have no intention of snuggling with a rancor. I don’t want to wake up with a sarlacc next to my bed. As much as I respect Admiral Ackbar and the Mon Calamari, seeing one in real life would probably make me swear off fish for life. Don’t like Ewoks? Fine, I understand, I have no problem with that. Bag on a whole movie as being cuter and cuddlier because of them? You may as well stop reviewing movies.
Before I get too far into this, I would also like to mention that from what I saw among friends, family, and fans of the original trilogy, until the mid to late 90s, Empire was actually the black sheep of the franchise; many people didn’t like it because it was the darkest of the trilogy and offered little of the hope and triumph that the other two films offered. Maybe the sentiment was significantly different where Mr. Taylor lived, and in his circles, but that’s how it was in the places I lived and ventured.
Getting back to the writing aspect of my analysis of his analysis, the biggest problem with most sequels is raising the stakes over the prior entry in the series. At its core, A New Hope did have a single climax: the destruction of the Death Star. But it did have other climaxes as well, it just didn’t have as much of the parallel editing (cutting from one line of action to another, such as following the heroes then cutting to what the Empire was up to) that was used through out Empire and Jedi. I don’t mean this as an insult, but I’m sure many people will see it as such: A New Hope was a far simpler, less sophisticated film in terms of editing than either of its two sequels. It was much more straight-forward than either Empire or Jedi, it got straight to the point: these are the good guys, these are the bad guys, the good guys are trying to rescue the princes and destroy the Death Star, the bad guys are trying to wipe out the good guys, the good guys win because of the hero. Yay!
Empire, on the other hand, was the tough middle film. The middle film almost always has to deal the heroes of the first film a set back; meaning, in this case, that they have to have their asses handed to them. In the time honored military tradition, that meant dividing them before conquering them. It doesn’t matter that the Empire didn’t divide them; that was done as a matter of plot; Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids just as easily could have gone to Dagobah with Luke as he could have gone with them while attempting to rendezvous with the Rebel fleet. Honestly, how fucking awesome would it have been to see Luke and Han laying down covering fire for one another as the two ships, the Falcon and a X-Wing, weaved between the star destroyers and taking out tie fighters? Obi-wan told Luke to go find Yoda, he didn’t tell him to do it alone. So by dividing the heroes, the plot got more complex by necessity. Ultimately, as Mr Taylor stated, we got more climaxes as Han is encased in carbonite after a romantic climax with Leia, Luke gets his hand cut off then learns that Vader is his father, and the movie ends on the depressing realization that the good guys not only lost, but lost badly. But there’s still hope…
So, we come around to Jedi, which had the distinction of being the last Star Wars film for 16 years after its release. Despite Lucas’ stated (way back in the early 80s) intention of making three trilogies, Jedi was the last film in the series for nearly two decades. It had to raise the stakes even further, which resulted in more complexity in the plot and thus even more lines of action than the earlier films. Each of these lines of action had their own stories, their own beginning, middle, and end, which of course means that they each had their own climax.In order for them all to be resolved at the same moment of film time, parallel editing was completely necessary. Otherwise, you would end up with something along the lines of a Tarantino movie: Han and Leia’s team attack the shield generator, fight alongside the Ewoks, blow up the shield generator; Lando and the Rebel fleet arrive at Endor, attack the Imperial fleet, detect that the shield is down, and blow up the Death Star; and then finally, Luke turns himself in, hangs out with his dad and the Emperor, fights them, watches pops kill the Emp, drags his dad off the station and arrives just in time to party with everyone else. Roll credits. I don’t think anyone would remember half the details of the other storylines by the time we got done with the final one without parallel editing. If you can’t handle that as a film student or even a credible film critic, I don’t know why you’re wasting your time talking about film.
I’m not going to go into the prequel trilogy. I’ve talked about them enough in my other Star Wars related posts here, but the gist of it is that in the 16 years between Jedi and Phantom Menace, Lucas not only became a very rich man, but he became a very powerful man. Not necessarily in Hollywood, but in terms of culture. He changed the culture of this world, and, in my opinion, was changed by the fact that he was no longer a filmmaker or even a storyteller. In many respects, Lucas became a god, and without necessarily intending to do so, became an absolutely unchallengeable and unapproachable authority within the franchise. Everything had to be the way he envisioned it regardless of whether it agreed with his original vision when he made the original trilogy. He had stopped being a filmmaker in the 80s and ran his businesses for all those years in-between; while I’m sure money wasn’t the first thing on his mind when he got up or the last thing when he went to bed, he certainly had an entire culture to shape and a legacy of innovative marketing to maintain by the time he made the prequel trilogy. The George Lucas of the 70s and early 80s was gone, the storyteller was replaced by the businessman. While the businessman longed to be the storyteller again, he couldn’t recapture that magic any more. That’s the simple truth of the prequels and the last decade of the Star Wars franchise. Jedi didn’t change Star Wars forever, Lucas did.