So long to ‘Star Wars’

The new movies don’t feel the same, and it’s not just because they aren’t as good.

I’m going to squander many years of effort trying to look cool and admit that I used to be very into Star Wars. By “very into” I mean I had books, audiobooks, action figures, micromachines, all sorts of manuals and guides, comics; by “used to be” I mean that after my mom introduced me to the movies one summer when I was around 8, this obsession persisted until an age when most of my peers were getting into girls or recreational drugs. By then, as a teenager, my interest was aided by the thin pretense I appreciated it in an ironic sense, rather than being really into it. But I was really into it.

In fact, I loved Star Wars with such passion that it’s a little strange to think how much that interest ended abruptly and completely. The opening strains of the John Williams score stirs nothing in me; the appearance of “A Long Time Ago in A Galaxy Far, Far Away” no longer gives me a shudder of joy. The reason is not maturity; I can regress with the best of them and indulge my other nerdy boyhood enthusiasms. I still enjoy samurai and submarine movies, and I still catch myself Wikipediaing World War II fighter planes, but the love of Star Wars is dead inside me.

In a way, my first forays into adulthood were aided by Star Wars: I took my first venture out of my parent’s apartment alone in a taxi, to go to FAO Schwartz and buy action figures. Star Wars also drove me to crime: I stole a rare vintage action figure from a local comic book shop, which some research informs me now was of the insectoid character Zuckuss, one of the bounty hunters assembled by Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back. (After a sleepless night I confessed to my mom who took me back to the store to apologize.)

I was never very interested in the moral crusade aspect of the movie, although it was explained to me that it was an allegory of the Second World War, something else I was fascinated with as a child. I liked the anti-hero Han Solo more than the hero Luke, but in fact, I didn’t really care much about the story or the characters at all. What attracted me to Star Wars was the aesthetic, what elevated film critics call the mise-en-scene: the background and setting of the movie, the production design, the spaceships, costumes, the droids, the aliens. A lot of these were conceived of by the illustrator and designer Ralph McQuarrie; I collected books of his sketches and convinced a very skeptical teacher to let me write a report about him.

Everything looked real, partly because they were puppets and models rather than CGI. But they also had what’s now called a “used future look.” Lots of the ships and robots were dinged up, rusted, and peeling. To a kid growing up in pre-Bloomberg New York this lent them further verisimilitude and also gave it something familiar, almost cozy. Although it was a fairy-tale world, there was something possible about it. That sense of possibility fired my imagination, and I wanted to know about or invent the rest of the entire universe.

The new Star Wars feel too modern — not convincingly “a long time ago” — and also too self-referential, too much like Star Wars

There seemed so much more in that vast galaxy, more stories, more fantastic worlds and cities, civilizations. There were many off-screen things mentioned that you had to just imagine. What was the “Old Republic?” What were Bothans? What was Chewbacca’s planet like? All of these possibilities were kept open by the fact that there were so many things unexplained and unresolved. The movies themselves began in media res, like epics traditionally do — when The Empire Strikes Back — Episode V came out in 1981, the first Star Wars retroactively became Episode IV. It was as if we had some tantalizing fragment of an ancient ruin or text. What came before and after the original trilogy was again something that could be left to the imagination.

Still, all I wanted in the world was for there to be more Star Wars movies than the original three. I had no idea how lucky I was living in a time before they existed. When it was announced there would be more movies, I was of course ecstatic; I waited on a massive line to see Episode I – The Phantom Menace on opening day. At 14 years old, it was difficult at first to admit to myself how disillusioned I was. (I think already had some premonition that not all was right: The Special Editions of the original movies, released in 1997, were dotted with awful CGI revisions.) I was barely interested in the ones that followed, which were supposedly improvements. I even ended friendships with two boys when I learned that they preferred the new movies to the originals. Who could think that?

The originals have many qualities that are superior to the prequels and sequels in terms of storytelling and screenwriting, but I tend to think now that it was impossible for the new movies to ever live up to the originals, even if they had been better films. Just by making more movies, something was irretrievably lost. Every work of art has a form, which is created by the interaction of the artist and his or her materials. A form is always essentially limit; it’s the shape imposed by the artist, but it’s also defined by the intrinsic qualities of the medium. A Bernini sculpture would not look so great if it was carved out of Styrofoam; the marble gives it its strength. And CGI will always be more like Styrofoam or plastic than marble: easy to manipulate if you have the technical resources, but ultimately weak and unsatisfying.

Once Star Wars represented limitless possibility of imagination; now it’s just another boring action series, of which there are already one million.

At one point early in the first Star Wars movie, Alec Guinness’s character, the Jedi Knight Obi Wan Kenobi, calls the lightsaber “an elegant weapon for a more civilized time.” You could say the same for the original Star Wars trilogy. The material it was fashioned out of — the marble, if you will — was high quality. The visual references, plot, tropes and script they borrowed from the best of the cinematic culture that had come before it: Lucas was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress for the plot; there’s hints of Humphrey Bogart and Casablanca in the character of Han Solo and the desert spaceport of Mos Eisley; there’s something of the understated chemistry and witty banter of the Golden Age of Hollywood; the score borrowed from Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Holst; the production design drew on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In retrospect, this gave the films an air of sophistication: I didn’t feel patronized as a kid, despite a few occasionally cutesie moments. And without these classic notes, the new Star Wars feel too modern — not convincingly “a long time ago” — and also too self-referential, too much like Star Wars.

The very notion of a trilogy itself has a formally satisfying limit: the rule of three is a classical proportion in that holds in both visual art and writing. Three was enough to provide just enough content, but to allow for the imagination of the viewer space to begin its own play. Now, there’s just too much of everything. Once Star Wars represented limitless possibility of imagination; now it’s just another boring action series, of which there are already one million. Here, as with all cultural products, we’re approaching a general glut of the human spirit, caused by the overproduction of boring crap.

I do realize that these movies are for children and my own disillusionment with Star Wars came around the natural time when a young person’s interests turn elsewhere, but I wonder if kids will ever experience the Star Wars I loved. The answer is quite literally no. The original movies are very difficult to find, as George Lucas refuses to release them, and one can only find the aforementioned Special Edition versions with their ridiculous CGI add-ons. (Even more changes were apparently made to the 2004 DVD releases to bring them into line with the prequels.)

Granted, this is not the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind. It is, after all, only a movie. I don’t share the sense of rage and betrayal some fans do when their favorites aren’t faithfully dealt with. To me, that’s a particularly ugly and pathetic form of entitlement, as if the world owes us gratifying fantasies to crawl into. With Star Wars, as with so much else, one has to realize certain things are not coming back. But there are, after all, better things in the universe.

John Ganz is a freelance writer and the executive editor of Genius.