Of all the pop culture franchises, Star Wars feels the most like a religion. In fact, Jediism has become a real religion, at least as a joke answer for British censuses. But with 40 years of films behind it, countless games, and infinitely more countless toys, Star Wars has become the cornerstone of Western Nerd Civilization. Generations of fans have been raised in the ways of the Force. However, the cult-like status surrounding Star Wars these days limits the franchise.
After decades of film and merchandise, there is a standard orthodox view of what the Star Wars franchise should be. Disney’s newest editions to the universe have adhered to the accepted dogma as written by fans over their lifetimes. We must have the Empire. We must have TIE fighters. C-3PO and R2-D2 and Jedis and all the standard imagery must be there. There is one particular kind of story that must be told and nothing else. Even the Original Trilogy strayed into weird elements like Jabba’s Palace and Ewoks. But now we can have no innovation. We can only have Chewbacca, Lightsabers, and all the standards of a dusty Greatest Hits collection of space opera expectations.
If Disney wants Star Wars to be a yearly release, it needs to show us something new. It cannot be the same six or seven Star Wars elements over and over. The audience needs something shocking, unexpected. But we cannot ever get anything unexpected with these films so heavily examined as to their Star Wars “purity”. Every movie is weighed for its Star Wars orthodoxy as if keeping the proper tone of an old goofy sci-fi trilogy is a massive culture war that must be fought with every release. If we need to have this discussion every movie, the new Star Wars series is not going to last very long. Star Wars needs the freedom to just be movies again.
The Scale of the Star Wars Universe
Despite taking place across an entire galaxy, the accepted Star Wars universe is actually rather small. It’s low fantasy but also soft sci-fi. It cannot be too violent or dark, but also cannot be too cute. Compared to other sci-fi series, Star Wars is extremely limited in the kinds of stories it can tell and what sorts of events can occur.
Star Trek, for example, has a massive unexplored universe where literally anything from Tribbles to God himself can be hiding around the next bend in spacetime. Add in time travel, and you have a formula for half a century’s worth of TV series and movies. Star Wars has nothing so fantastic. It has a small geography of galactic countries. Doctor Who can do anything anywhere anytime from the beginning of the universe to the end. Star Wars cannot escape a few generations of the Skywalker family.
If you’re making a Star Wars movie, orthodoxy only allows a galactic war with a band of young heroes fighting for good in the middle. That is the only kind of story the series has told so far. That should be no surprise as the title does imply there will be a “Star War”. But how can Disney keep presenting movie after movie with such a small wheelhouse? No matter how much you love Star Wars, this is going to get tiresome – faster than you think.
Rogue One’s Insecurity
Rogue One, the most recent spin-off, was an attempt to do something different with the Star Wars license. It was a gritty war story without Jedis meant to show the uglier side of the Star Wars universe. However, it also gave an air of insecurity. Disney was clearly not certain the movie was Star Wars-y enough for the fans. As a result, the film was packed with cameo after cameo. Seeing the various rebel pilots from A New Hope was entirely unnecessary, but they’re in the film to reassure you. “Yes, this is a Star Wars movie. Remember the butt-face alien and his friend with the weird nose? Remember blue milk?” The movie even interrupts itself a few times to visit with Darth Vader, who is nothing but fanservice. He even clumsily shatters the tone of the ending to remind everybody how cool Star Wars is.
Worse, the film’s reception was filled with all kinds of questions as to how “true” it was to Star Wars. It was this ugly preoccupation that every discussion around the movie had to have. We could not judge characters and events on their own merits, but whether they fit into the pedestal we’ve created for Star Wars. “What does Rogue One mean for the greater Star Wars franchise?” “Is Rogue One too much of a gamble for Star Wars?” Over and over.
Does it actually matter? Did we forget to ask if Rogue One was a good movie? Or if maybe Rogue One could have been better if it did not have to carry 40 years of Star Wars baggage?
Envelopes Almost Pushed
Meanwhile, a lot of the most interesting stuff in Rogue One is the content that looks the least like Star Wars. The film shows us several planets and places that previous films never featured. There’s a greasy space station slum built between two asteroids. We get to see inside a prison. We visit a city under intense imperial occupation with a running guerilla resistance. Several characters are morally ambiguous or have their own selfish motivations. But we see all these places for just a few moments before we have to return to familiar territory, the Death Star. (Again.)
The character with some of the most potential was Saw Gerrera. Saw and his band of rebels are on the Rebellion’s side, but they’re basically terrorists. Saw tortures a character he distrusts. He is well on his way to becoming like Darth Vader. His body is mostly machine now, and he huffs gas like he’s Frank Booth from Blue Velvet. He’s paranoid and violent.
We do not see much of Saw Gerrera, which is a shame since his existence implies a lot to this universe. Not all of the Rebels were good guys, and that’s a cool grayer side to the story, but Rogue One flees from the implication. Before the movie can get too far away from a standard black and white story, Saw Gerrera is kicked out of the script. His disappearance weakens the story since he’s one of the few figures that can expand on the heroine, Jyn Erso’s character (which is currently very blank). After Saw disappears the movie instantly returns to familiar territory. You get your unambiguously good heroes in a big space battle.
Cheer for Darth Vader now.
I’ve written about this before on Fandom, but for all their faults, the prequels were doing something different. Fans have argued for 17 years whether or not the prequels got Star Wars “right”. Critics built whole careers around complaining about the subject. The prequels certainly made their continuity errors, they changed the concept of the Force, and they got the visual language of the films all wrong. They are not the Star Wars you grew up with.
But even if the prequels got Star Wars “wrong”, that’s what was necessary to tell a new kind of story in this universe. They relied on some old imagery but created their own in the Gungans and droid armies. Unlike four other more orthodox movies, they never once centered their plots on a Death Star or Death Star rip-off. George Lucas never had to worry about fitting into the preconceptions of Star Wars. Star Wars was whatever he said it was. He just went ahead and made his own new trilogy of sci-fi fantasy films.
Perhaps the prequels were just wrong-headed in concept. They are attempting a morally gray story where a hero, Anakin Skywalker, becomes a tragic villain. There is no “good” side or “bad” side in these films. Both sides are evil. Fans can complain about how the prequels break from dogma, yet they have a level of ambition that is lacking in Disney’s new universe. There is a confidence to the prequels. Meanwhile one gets the sense that the new films are second-guessing everything in committee. The prequels might be bad movies, but calling them “bad Star Wars” hurts the franchise.
We Need Heresy
It is already exhausting to have the same conversation every year as to how “Star Wars” each new Star Wars is. The Force Awakens clearly passed the test. But to pass, it was processed to be absolutely sure it was exactly the Star Wars movie we all have on a pedestal. The result was a movie that was A New Hope in new clothes. You want things to look and feel just like the old stuff? It’s going to be just like the old stuff.
Time travel, mind control, wizards, magic rings, alien empires, transhumanism, complicated morally gray storylines, none of this sounds like it belongs in a Star Wars movie. But that’s just the problem. If Star Wars is so small, what can you make movies out of? Nostalgia is driving the Star Wars craze right now, but nostalgia as a fuel source does not last forever. People love The Empire Strikes Back, but do they really want that movie again for Episode VIII? If that was all we wanted out of Star Wars, why do these new movies even exist? With the Marvel films, every movie can be different and new. Star Wars doesn’t have that option.
What Disney needs to do is make a Star Wars horror film. Or a wacky kung-fu movie. Or a romantic comedy. It needs anything that takes this series off the gilded pedestal we’ve left it on. It needs a movie with only the vaguest connections to the main series, taking place in the fringes of the universe, away from the characters we’ve gotten to know far too well already. We need heresy. You cannot add to a sacred text. But if you stop treating Star Wars so damn seriously, maybe you can make fun new movies.