Like Star Wars fans everywhere, I walked out of the The Phantom Menace in 1994 scratching my head and thinking, “That was Star Wars?” I’d anxiously awaited the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker—and it was a terrible disappointment. A decade later, though, I’m glad the prequels sucked so badly. Their failure provided fans with the incentive to remind studios what we expect in a Star Wars movie. And with a multi-million-dollar franchise on the line, it’s in Disney’s best interest to listen up.
I recently created an Open Letter to JJ Abrams in video form, which outlined four rules that distinguish the prequels from the original Star Wars trilogy. The video went viral online—great evidence that masses of fans share my perspective. The video’s rules are mere observations of the differences between the two trilogies; but if Disney were to read between the lines of each rule, they would find concrete filmmaking techniques they could leverage to make better movies. Disney, if you’re listening, I’m going to spell it out for you. Here’s why the four rules made the original trilogy so great.
Rule One: The Setting is the Frontier
What it does: Activate the Imagination
Star Wars fans all over the Internet have been loudly requesting the use of practical elements and puppets in Episode VII. This is, in part, a reaction to the overuse of CGI in the prequels. However, I think this demand may also be driven by a desire for the creators to leave some things left unseen—a technique that the original trilogy employed deftly
It’s true that limited technology in the original Star Wars era dictated what was seen on screen and, more importantly, what wasn’t. Some aliens we saw, but many others were obscured, below the waterline or off screen. For everything shown, something else was hinted at. But this had a great, if unintentional, side effect. It activated the biggest tool a director has: the audience’s imagination. Leaving gaps forces the audience to engage more with the story. The audience has to immerse themselves to help their own brains fill in the details of the world, and in doing so, they develop deeper personal relationships with Star Wars.
Our imaginations are activated when the right balance is struck between close-ups and wide shots; with carefully designed sound stages rather than unlimited greenscreen; seeing a partial Krayt dragon skeleton on a sand dune versus a CG Krayt dragon full-on stomping across the screen. The former whets the appetite for more, while the latter leaves little room for imagination. Balancing on the boundary between the known and the undefined creates “movie magic”. It’s why the video advocates making the setting the frontier. The frontier is the line between the wilderness and civilization, the border between known and unknown. Set Star Wars on the frontier, don’t show everything, and let the audience fill in the gaps.
Rule Two: The Future is Old
What it does: Creates the Brand
In A New Hope, George Lucas introduced the “used future” aesthetic, and audiences had never seen anything like it. It made sense in the context of the Star Wars story world: If technology has been around for millennia, of course the spaceships feel banged up and dirty. Pulling from industrial design, George Lucas created a look that became the signature Star Wars style.
Then, in the prequels, he ditched the “used future” aesthetic completely. His logic for doing so was that the pre-Empire era was newer and shinier. For the Star Wars story, this may have made sense—but for the Star Wars brand, it was terrible. The original trilogy purposefully moved away from the shiny, Buck Rogers look to create a style never before seen in film. The prequels’ return to “shiny” pulled Star Wars backwards, into the realm of generic sci-fi. It’s as dubious a creative decision as to ditch the lightsabers or the Force. There may be a place in the Star Wars universe without lightsabers, but is that a story we really want to hear? The original trilogy has an amazing brand. Don’t dilute it; build on it.
Rule Three: The Force is Mysterious
What it does: Makes us Believers
The Force is a distinctive spiritual element not found in 2001, Star Trek, or Firefly or other sci-fi brethren—the Force differentiated Star Wars. Star Wars didn’t try to tell audiences why they should believe in the Force, it simply MADE them believe. It used techniques religions have used for centuries: chill-inducing music, Jedi riddles and the moving poetry of Yoda’s “The Force is My Ally” speech. The Force in the original trilogy was an emotional hook, never a logical sell.
Its address of the human need to believe is part of what makes the original Star Wars timeless. Why was this beautiful reverence edited out of the prequels in favor of over-explanation? Of course, Moore’s law and rapid advances in technology breed the belief that science can explain everything—and perhaps that’s why George Lucas caved in to the temptation to give reason to the Force in the prequels. But I would argue that making the Force quantifiable, even a little bit, strips it of its powerful mystery, and that a mysterious Force becomes more important in a scientific world, not less. Star Wars VII creators, don’t attempt to lecture why the Force is real or great. Please, you must MAKE us believe.
Rule Four: Star Wars isn’t Cute
What it does: Creates Complex Heroes
A cute pratfall or two can be OK. It would be a mistake to portray Star Wars as completely “gritty” or “edgy”, because there is lightheartedness in George Lucas’s world. Star Wars is fun. But it earns its fun by including its darkness. In the original trilogy, Luke walks the hazy rail between dark and light. Han is an amoral scoundrel who shoots in cold blood. Leia is a vociferous shrew. The funny droids, the Jawas, and the Ewoks worked in the original trilogy, but only because they had multi-dimensional heroes to support them.
In the prequels, morality was dolled out along party lines. Jedi were good. Sith were bad. Anakin was mostly good, until—suddenly—he was bad. There was no complexity, and little subtlety. The lighthearted humor, which might have been welcome if the characters were more interesting, felt flat. So listen, Disney: “Cute” can work in Star Wars, but not unless there’s a realist backbone supporting it.
No one can guarantee a story’s success—even for a beloved franchise such as Star Wars—and there’s no formula for making a classic. But if Disney is willing to take these four, tangible steps, they will push Episode VII in the right direction. Fellow fans, consider your role in this, as well. Are you willing to settle for mere spectacle? Or do you demand good storytelling? As the audience, we decide with our dollars what kind of stories get told. If these four rules do nothing else, I hope they at least make us actively reflect on the entertainment we choose.