This article was published online on June 21, 2021.
When I look out my window, a few floors up in New York City, I see Star Wars. Rooftop bouquets of dirty satellite dishes, jumbled architectural styles united by peeling paint, variously shaped (and largely face-masked) life-forms jostling on the sidewalk—each sign of shabby modernity feels like something I glimpsed in childhood while hypnotized by George Lucas. In the director’s 1977 space fantasy, wizards lived in what appeared to be crumbling stucco huts, and moon-size superweapons had onboard trash compactors. As a kid, I believed that Earth was just another planet in Lucas’s universe. Today, I’m still susceptible to that lovely illusion.
The Star Wars franchise offers action and escapism, but re-enchanting our own world was always its greatest trick. As Luke Skywalker rises from backwater farmhand to galactic savior over the course of the first three films, audiences gain a visceral sense of why the galaxy he lives in is worth saving. Debris-strewn sets convey that exotic planets have history and commerce. Silly-looking critters and robots carry themselves with dignity and purpose. A supernatural “Force” hums throughout the interstellar menagerie. Viewers come to feel a humanistic, or even animistic, connection. Star Wars immerses you in the awesome knowledge that peripheral things—the neighbors you don’t understand, the buildings you don’t notice—have their own sagas.
Right now, Star Wars is at a turning point. Lucas’s original vision famously inspired an era of big-budget blockbuster movies whose creators, just as famously, eventually ran out of new ideas and came to rely on sequels and spin-offs. Inevitably, Star Wars itself succumbed to that fate. After releasing a divisive trio of prequels around the turn of the millennium, in 2012 Lucas sold his franchise to Disney, Hollywood’s chief recycler of old stories. Fresh Star Wars films began to roll out in 2015. Though early acclaim and profits were impressive, creative troubles began to hurt the bottom line. In 2019, dismayed reviews and relatively soft ticket sales greeted The Rise of Skywalker, the finale of a trilogy set 30 years after the action of the first films. Around that time, Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, announced a moviemaking “hiatus” for Star Wars.
Had Lucas’s galaxy lost its power, or had its new stewards simply mismanaged it? The recent success of a remarkable Star Wars television series suggests the latter. When the streaming-TV service Disney+ launched in late 2019, it featured The Mandalorian, which picks up five years after the events of the original trilogy, and follows the adventures of a mysterious mercenary who has sworn never to take off his helmet. By the end of Season 2, a critical consensus had emerged: It was the best live-action Star Wars product to arrive since the early 1980s. Millions of viewers cooed over the short-statured enigma known to fans as Baby Yoda, who has a price on his adorable head for unknown reasons. As The Mandalorian’s laconic and lethal hero travels from one planet to the next, the sublime feeling of immersion that laced Lucas’s early movies reemerges. To watch the show and then look back at the sweep of Star Wars history is to understand where that feeling comes from—and why most of Hollywood’s hero-driven, special-effects-laden fantasies never attain it.
The plot of The Mandalorian unspools like a thin, near-invisible thread: Each week, the protagonist completes a discrete quest that unobtrusively points the way toward the next quest. The pleasure of watching lies very much in the journey and not the destination. This episodic, open-ended style of entertainment is a hallmark of dramatic TV—but it’s also very Star Wars. Soon after its initial success, the first movie was retitled Episode IV—A New Hope because Lucas wanted viewers to feel as though the film were one chapter in an ongoing Saturday-morning serial. In the new book Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars, by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, Lucas says this of his work on the first film : “It’s always been what you might call a good man in search of a story.”
What Lucas means is that when conceiving Star Wars, he dreamed first of visuals, concepts, and feelings—not of plot. He felt drawn to make “a movie in outer space like Flash Gordon used to be. Ray guns, running around in spaceships, shooting at each other.” He also wanted to mash up tropes from samurai films, Westerns, and spy flicks. Above all, he wanted a look and feel that prized “credibility” rather than the “clean,” sleek sci-fi of 1950s serials and 2001: A Space Odyssey. His own days working in a greasy mechanics’ shop, plus the thought of NASA’s Apollo capsule returning from the moon full of “candy wrappers and old Tang jars,” informed that vision.
Without a narrative he was burning to tell, Lucas had trouble turning such notions into a workable screenplay. He wrote multiple, overlong drafts that each radically refigured its characters, arcs, and themes. Eventually, he arrived at a relatively straightforward tale modeled on ancient legends. Lucas had been reading the work of Joseph Campbell, a literary scholar who identified a “monomyth,” with a predictable structure, occurring across cultures throughout the centuries. Star Wars would be a Chosen One story; Luke Skywalker was like King Arthur or Siddhartha Gautama. This blueprint, with its prescribed wise-mentor figures, talismanic weapons, and trusty sidekicks, helped make the mess of a script gel.
Lucas’s reverse-engineered fairy tale resonated with audiences, but Star Wars aficionados tend to overrate plot when explaining his success; books have been written about the profundity of Luke’s search for identity. In the new oral history, the critic Roy Morton articulates conventional wisdom when he argues that Lucas’s “most significant creative decision in crafting the script” was to draw from myths. Disney’s chief Star Wars executive, Kathleen Kennedy, says that “what was really important to [Lucas]—and certainly important to me—was story.” Whenever Star Wars films have faltered with audiences, commentators have blamed shoddy storytelling: the needless complexity of Lucas’s prequels, the inconsistent logic of Disney’s sequels.
Yet the hero’s journey in the original movies was always sketchy. The opening 15 minutes of A New Hope feature strikingly few recognizable human characters, and Luke Skywalker is usually the least interesting thing in any scene that follows. A lot of the film’s suspense derives more from wondering what the movie’s about—the touristic curiosity of “Where is this going?”—than from tracking clues to how Luke will fulfill his destiny. Secrets of the Force documents that the trilogy’s iconic twists, which would seem key to choreographing a monomyth, nearly weren’t filmed. In the shooting script for A New Hope, the mentor figure, Obi-Wan Kenobi, survives to the end rather than dying midway through. Some drafts of the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, don’t indicate that the evil Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Glorious though such surprises are, Lucas’s work wasn’t driven by them.
In fact, the story crescendos are compelling because they double as world-building. Learning who Darth Vader really is raises a host of tantalizing questions about the history of the galaxy (not least, how does someone become Darth Vader?). Kenobi’s early-movie references to mysterious concepts such as “the dark times”—exposition left unfinished once he dies—also spark rich intrigue. “Lucas makes movies that are intentionally designed to have holes in them that need to be filled later,” the producer Brian Volk-Weiss says in the oral history. He’s right except for one thing: Do they need to be filled in? Many a mediocre Star Wars product has arisen from trying to define every entry in the galactic glossary. The original films work precisely because of the holes.
They also work because Lucas, as a filmmaker, was fastidious about blending novelty with naturalism. Directing the initial movie, he insisted that the sets be streaked with scum and scorch marks. He spliced together footage of World War II dogfights and then invented special effects to make space battles look like those dogfights. When the time came to shoot, Mark Hamill (who plays Luke) first delivered his lines with campy panache—but Lucas encouraged him to be more low-key. “These actors believed the world they were in,” Liam Neeson, a star of 1999’s The Phantom Menace, says in Secrets of the Force. “Mark Hamill jumps into his speeder and—phooph!—he’s off ... To them, it was everyday stuff.”
Such far-out realism has rarely been achieved since then. In the dreary prequels, Lucas went overboard with then-novel computer-generated imagery, losing the lived-in feel he’d once prized. The Disney sequels are too frantically paced—and too packed with winks to old Star Wars films—for viewers to settle in with the new sets, creatures, and costumes. Both of those later trilogies told strenuously mythic stories: The prequels followed the tragic transformation of a hero into a villain, and the Disney movies amounted to another Chosen One tale. The flaws of their scripts have been rightly scrutinized, but fixing those flaws would not solve the more fundamental failures of execution. When Star Wars is bad, its galaxy feels like a thing on a screen—not a place you can go.
The world of The Mandalorian, thankfully, is sturdy, like well-worn concrete. The hero flies a rickety spaceship modeled on a ’70s warplane. Baby Yoda’s twitching puppet ears convey the expressive range of actual toddlers. Most important, the showrunner, Jon Favreau, has absorbed the take-your-time, exploratory ethos of Lucas’s first trilogy. One early episode spends 10 dialogue-free minutes following the Mandalorian as he tries to survive on an arid planet. Two episodes later, the Mandalorian arrives in a forested village where locals harvest bioluminescent krill from ponds. He doesn’t just save the village from a hostile tribe’s attacks. He moves in to live the Star Wars simple life for a few weeks.
Such wanderings do have a mythic quality. The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda are an odd couple: protector and charge, father and son, man and beast. There is also a running plot, involving a black-armored arch-villain, that fulfills the demands of modern blockbusters to set up future spin-offs (10 other Star Wars TV shows were announced in December). When the second season culminated in a CGI-assisted cameo from the original-trilogy cast, some critics fretted that the show was about to devolve into Hollywood hackery. But thus far, archetypal storytelling and serialized intrigue—ingredients often misused in franchise-driven entertainment—have mainly just anchored Favreau’s careful creative riffing. If the miracle of The Mandalorian continues, viewers of future seasons will only rarely notice an overdetermined hand of fate guiding the action. They’ll instead continue to be caught up in individual moments.
To cheer for a Hollywood product that emphasizes look and feel rather than story and character may sound superficial. But in life, aesthetics are not incidental. The dents on a vehicle tell a story. So does the glint in a stranger’s eyes. Tidy plots are scarce, and populations do not readily divide into Chosen Ones and Unchosen Ones. Star Wars has proved that mass entertainment can wake us up to such realities. My favorite of the many arcs in The Mandalorian involves a froglike creature carrying her unhatched eggs to another planet. Because the alien doesn’t speak his language, the Mandalorian treats her coldly—until she commandeers a droid’s translation system and delivers a desperate plea for help. Watching that scene jangled my empathy so much that I began to look even at subway rats with a sense of wonder. They are characters in this galaxy too.
This article appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline “A New Hope for Star Wars.”
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