It’s easy to forget, now that we have a new Star Wars movie coming into theaters every single year for (supposedly) the rest of our lives, that there was a time when Star Wars was actually scarce. There were no new movies were being made for well over a decade and no new television shows. There was only the vague hope that someday – maybe – George Lucas would get around to making those prequels or sequels.
So when George Lucas announced that he was re-releasing the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997 it was cause for celebration. A whole new generation of Star Wars fans had never even seen the films in theaters, and the promise that the trilogy would now feature new special effects and new footage (!) was too titillating to ignore. We all flocked to theaters to watch this new version Star Wars on January 31, 1997 (twenty years ago today), and we all left kinda happy. Kinda.
Because although Star Wars was still Star Wars, it was also obviously caving in on itself. The new scenes didn’t expand on what we already knew, and in some cases they even contradicted our existing ideas about the series. The audible protest that “Han shot first” is the most obvious example, a reference to the fact that in the original theatrical release, Han Solo killed a bounty hunter in cold blood, which became an important part of what made his character unique and interesting in the first place. In the “Special Editions,” Han only shoots in self-defense, and while it seems like a small change it does alter the context of his character. It’s an addition that doesn’t complement the original. It’s an addition that simply inserts itself into the conversation whether it works or not.
There are other examples. Jabba the Hutt, an off-screen character in the first two Star Wars films, only spoken of in hushed and frightened tones until he was finally revealed in Return of the Jedi as an unpredictably grotesque monstrosity, now had a scene in the original Star Wars. What’s more, he was significantly smaller than he was in Return of the Jedi (creating a distracting continuity error), and even though the plot of the movies dictates that Han Solo should be actively afraid of angering Jabba the Hutt, the new scene featured Han Solo walking all over the villainous criminal, figuratively and literally. All that dramatic build-up to the character’s first appearance in Return of the Jedi was now redundant. Jabba the Hutt was neutralized.
These sorts of additions kept audiences who were looking for more Star Wars relatively sated but they didn’t add anything meaningful to the series. The remastered sound effects and touched up VFX, like now-missing vaseline smear under Luke Skywalker’s speeder, were largely appreciated. But in the absence of “new” Star Wars we were being asked to settle for a rehashing, and for content that was technically new to us but that failed to expand on what we already had in any significant way.
Twenty years later, those Star Wars special editions are now as old as the original trilogy was when they first came out. And yes, we’re now technically getting “new” Star Wars movies, but I wonder if even Disney – the contemporary proprietor of Star Wars and the custodians of the franchise’s legacy – haven’t fallen prey to the same regurgitating mentality. I wonder if “special editions” of Star Wars are all we’re ever really going to get under this new administration.
The complaints are already on record about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, an honest-to-goodness sequel to the original trilogy that – to the delight of some and the frustration of others – faithfully rehashes a distracting number of elements from the original films. The desert-dwelling hero who leaves on a journey of adventure because of a cute droid with important documents and who then becomes a powerful Jedi, facing off against a black-clad Sith Lord (or “Knight of Ren,” functionally similar) whose secret identity is revealed just before dropping a family member down a pit. A fascistic imperial organization who have built an absurdly large weapon of mass destruction that must be blown up in the climax, the list goes on.
At least Star Wars: The Force Awakens moves the story forward, but the sense of extempore that came with even the first theatrical Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, has been replaced with obsessive self-reference and self-reverence. For all of its finer qualities – and indeed, there is a decent argument to made that the purpose of the film’s recycled storyline is to highlight the concept that war, itself, is fundamentally cyclical – it’s hard to get past just how familiar it feels. There’s always the nagging awareness that on some level The Force Awakens plays more like a high-quality remix.
But although there is still hope that Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Star Wars: Whatever The Ninth Chapter Will Be Called will finally move on and introduce audiences to fresh new ideas, the so-called anthology films don’t seem to instill much confidence. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first example, released last month, and a solo film about Han Solo is on the horizon. Every other film on Disney’s Star Wars schedule promises not something new but something old.
On the surface, Rogue One seemed like a pretty cool idea. It’s a heist film and a war film set in the Star Wars universe, one that depicts how a band of rebels managed to steal the Death Star plans that were in Leia’s possession at the star of Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s a pulpy concept that toys with genres that were inherent to Star Wars but that hadn’t necessarily been highlighted before, at least in theaters.
And yet by its very nature Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is yet another “special edition,” adding content that the original trilogy didn’t need to work in the first place. You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who said that the original Star Wars movies were bad movies because we didn’t see how the Death Star plans got stolen. And without content that directly affects future films in the franchise (at least for now), that means that the events of Rogue One – though technically substantial to the overall plot – exist in a pocket of the Star Wars universe that is, by its very nature, inherently disposable. It may or may not be fun to watch, but it wasn’t a story that was necessary to tell.
Indeed, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a trip down memory lane, revisiting the era of the original Star Wars trilogy in a literal sense while the newer sequel trilogy revisits it at the same time, in a referential sense. It was completely unnecessary to include cameos by Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Boba on the desert moon Jedha, particularly just a short time before the city they were in was blasted by the Death Star, giving them very little time to escape and go bar-hopping on Tatooine a couple of days later. Is it possible? Yes. Is it an enormous and distracting coincidence that was included for the sake of including it? You bet.
The timeline and plot of Rogue One also necessitates the presence of the Death Star, yet another recycled idea that the franchise can’t quite get past. It also necessitates that the Death Star be used as a weapon of mass destruction, but not at its full capacity, which makes little sense within Rogue One and instead holds true to the idea that in A New Hope, Alderaan was the first planet destroyed by a planet-destroying weapon that the Empire would and could have easily used beforehand.
The plot of Rogue One adds new and – in a vacuum – exciting elements to the Star Wars story, but they don’t contribute to that story as a whole and indeed create more problems than they solve. If you’re frustrated that Han didn’t shoot first then you should probably be equally annoyed that Darth Vader was chasing the rebels with the Death Star plans onto the Tantive IV, and witnessed the plans being placed on the ship, and chased the ship away from a war zone, only to – in the original film – respond to the rebels’ excuse that they were on a diplomatic mission to another planet like it wasn’t an obvious lie that he could disprove with his own personal experience.
Revisiting old ideas, incorporating new ones that don’t contribute to the overall storyline, these are all “special edition” ideas. And what else is a “special edition” idea? Adding characters to the film through the use of distracting CGI, which is exactly what happens with the character of Grand Moff Tarkin, played originally by Peter Cushing, an estimable actor who died over 20 years ago. The debate rages on, and with good cause, over whether this CGI-recreated character was a nifty homage to a classic performance or an unethical step in the wrong direction for the industry (not unlike releasing “special editions” and suppressing the original theatrical versions). Time may tell which side of that coin history lands on.
Whether you enjoyed watching them or not, Rogue One and (to a lesser extent) The Force Awakens are perpetually looking backward, taking what we already liked about Star Wars and reheating it, adding a few new spices to hide the fact that we’re basically eating leftovers. And there’s nothing wrong with leftovers unless you’ve been eating them for years and are desperate to eat something new. Maybe a lot of Star Wars fans are content to stew in nostalgia for now but with a new movie coming out every single year it’s only a matter of time before what’s old doesn’t feel new again, and instead feels simply… old.
When that day comes, these sorts of “special” editions – in practice or in theory – aren’t going to cut it anymore. If Star Wars is going to keep going forever eventually it will have to take a big step forward, without looking back.
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Top Photo: LucasFilm
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.