Thursday, February 21, 2013

What JJ Abrams Should Retain, and Jettison, for the Star Wars Sequels

I am alternately elated and frightened regarding the announcement of upcoming Star Wars sequels directed by JJ Abrams.  The elation is easy to explain, of course.  I am a huge fan of the Star Wars films, and ever since I was a child I have been craving to know what happens to the galaxy once the emperor has been defeated.  Back in the early 1990s, I intently devoured the Timothy Zahn-authored sequel novels, and even constructed my own imagined plot for a sequel trilogy.

My trepidations, in light of the letdown occasioned by the Lucas-helmed prequels, should be equally easy to understand.  Of the three, only Revenge of the Sith was really worthy, with Phantom Menace lame and most of The Clone Wars all but unwatchable.  The mediocrity of these films damages the bright luster of the originals, and cheapens them to an extent.  (The fact that Lucas then put changes into the originals to make their plots more consistent with the prequels is even more galling.)

I do have some hope that JJ Abrams will do a good job.  Everyone wants to see harbingers of his approach to the new trilogy in his reboot of Star Trek, but I think the excellent Super 8 provides more clues.  I thought Super 8 was a highly underrated film, and that it combined art, pathos, adventure and comedy together in a masterful way.  That same combination of factors is what made the original Star Wars trilogy so great.  Here are some things from the prior Star Wars films that are kept, and some that ought to be let go.

Ambiguous Characters
People want to think of the Star Wars saga as a battle between good and evil, but many of the best characters are actually quite ambiguous, and they tend to keep proceedings from getting too moralistic and dour.  For instance, Han Solo is a cut-throat smuggler who initially refuses to assist the Rebel Alliance in their Death Star assault, and on Hoth decides to abandon the cause simply because he's welched on a bet.  Lando is extremely ambiguous, and the audience's trust and sympathy for him as a character swing wildly during his time in Empire.  Even Obi Wan is not to be trusted, since he intentionally hides the truth from Luke for his own purposes.  The new films need characters like these if they are to be interesting.

Non-Forced Comic Relief
Despite all the seriousness of The Force and Jedi training, many of the best moments in Star Wars films are the humoross kind, like Han being unfrozen at Jabba's palace, asking Luke how things are going, and Luke telling him just like the old times, and Han snarkily huffing, "that bad?"  Han and the Droids tended to provide the best comic moments, but Luke and Leia had their share as well.  The prequels suffered so much because the main characters had little sense of humor, and the comic relief was outsourced to the execrably unfunny Jar Jar Binks, whose brand of prat-falling physical humor went out with the Keystone Kops.

The droids added so much to the original sequel, and not just in terms of humor.  They often commented on the actions of the human characters, and allowed the audience to see things from multiple perspectives.  Much of the Ewok stuff in Jedi is completely tedious, but the elements involving C3PO are funny and endearing, especially in how his behavior does not always match wishes of his supposed human masters.

The Star Wars universe, as presented in the original sequel, grabs the viewer right away.  I feel this is the case in large part because unlike other science-fiction universes, it is a gritty place where things are dented, stained and used up.  It feels lived-in, and surprisingly organic.  Very early on in Star Wars, the viewers are taken inside the Jawa trawler, which is a kind of rolling junk shop full of second-hand droids.  The prequels, which I guess were supposed to reflect the galaxy before the destructive effects of war, showed a world that was glittery, gauzy, sparkly, and relatively clean.  It was not inviting or homey, it was sterile and lifeless, despite the color.  For the new sequels to work, they need the dirt, grit, dents, and wear and tear of the originals.

Dump Politics
I still don't understand the political plot of the prequels, beyond the fact that Palpatine takes power.  I do not give a damn about the Trade Federation, or understand the machinations of the Senate.  The original sequel contains just enough politics to drive the plot forward (Leia is on a "diplomatic mission" and the Senate's been dissolved) and that's it.  I'd say that's all you need, even if there is potential for a political plot based on the need for the heroes of the originals to establish a new government in the wake of the Empire's collapse.  The thing is, we go to Star Wars films for their epic mythos, not to contemplate the rigors of state building.

Dump Midochlorians
Making the Force a matter of biology enables an insidious, Social Darwinian view of society.  Perhaps Abrams can have a little aside where the viewers learn that the "science" surrounding midochlorians was actually proven to be false.

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