For an entire generation, Star Wars is not the story of Luke, Leia and Han. It’s the story of Anakin, Obi-Wan and Padme. “The old movies” just don’t measure up. Who needs Stormtroopers, Hoth and the Death Star when you have Clones, Naboo and the Jedi Temple? You can deny the value of the prequels, but anyone who deals with teenagers today can affirm that a lot of this generation’s geeks missed the memo declaring that the prequels suck.
How could this be? On what twisted world could the geeks of the next generation prefer Hayden Christensen’s whiny acting to Mark Hamill’s?
I’d wager that this all has to do with audience. One of Lucas’s key defenses of the prequels has always been that we, the original Star Wars fans, grew up and forgot that Star Wars is and always will be for kids. That’s why we got Jar Jar, young Anakin, and a love story that only an eight year old could find emotionally honest. You can reject this defense as much as you want, but it should at this point be recognized that the theory bears out. Episodes I-III spoke to the kids of the last fifteen years and made them life long fans. They will look back on podracing with the nostalgia that we look back on the Death Star trench run.
But the cost of this was to create a divide that needn’t have existed between old and young. The original Star Wars films were perfect for children, but they also communicated to adults on a level that mattered. Now, to be fair, the whole kidifying of the Star Wars universe did begin with Return of the Jedi and the ewoks, but for the most part, the original trilogy works for the mythical ‘kid of all ages.’
For the next Star Wars trilogy to work, the filmmakers must rediscover this balance. It needs to get the question of “Who is our audience?” right. Here’s how:
I. To Communicate to Children Star Wars doesn’t need to feature Children (or other assorted cuddlies).
The biggest mistake Lucas made with the prequels was making Anakin a child in Episode I. I’m not blaming Jake Lloyd here; the acting made little difference. No, this choice made it so that we could never fully sympathize with Anakin because the Anakin we really needed to get to know only appeared in Episode II and turned bad about a movie and a half later. This made sure that his relationship with Padme never came across as anything other than quasi-creepy and entirely underdeveloped. It made sure that Hayden Cristensen could never fully own the role. It made sure that Obi-Wan and Anakin’s true friendship had to form mostly offscreen.
The choice made little narrative sense, and I imagine it was done to please children. Lucas put ewoks into Jedi to please children, and the natural follow up was to put actual children into Star Wars so they could “relate” to them. This assumes that my twelve year old self was unable to relate to the eighteen year old Luke. Of course I could and did. The notion that women can only relate to women, men can only relate to men, children can only relate to children and so on is simplistic and wrong. This does not mean you should only feature adult men in Star Wars; it means that you shouldn’t feature a type of character because you have a particular audience in mind. It’s Star Wars. The audience will be huge. Throwing in teddy bears and goofy lizards and child Jedis will not get kids into the theaters; they’ll be there either way.
II. Get the Tone Right
The question of audience is really a question of tone. If you feature children, ewoks and gungans, the tone of the film will be more childish and lighthearted. But even though Star Wars and Empire featured few ‘cutsey’ characters the tone was never too adult and serious.
The strangest thing about the prequels is that, though they were created to be more child-friendly, they came across as far less spirited and exciting than their predecessors. Think of all the (poorly acted/constructed) political intrigue throughout the prequels. Somehow, though the originals featured less kid-friendly elements the stories were far more simple and communicable.
This is because the tone always worked. It may not have been about children but it told its story in so simple a way that anyone could understand what was happening on the most basic of levels. Even at its darkest, Empire was still fun. The prequels picked up more kiddy stuff but forgot about the fun. For Episode VII to restore Star Wars to what it was it needs to nail that tone: always exciting, willing to go dark, but more than anything, fun, fun, fun.
III. Don’t Cater to Us Adults Either
The new filmmakers should not risk going in the opposite direction. A big problem with the current ‘reboot’ mania of Hollywood is that a lot of it relies on the nostalgia for my generation’s big properties. Transformers were awesome! So were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Wouldn’t it be great if I could watch those stories again and feel like my youth hasn’t passed me by?
The prequels may have catered to children problematically, but at a certain point they also catered to our desire for everything old to be new again. Fans hated Episode I? Fine, give them what they want: Boba Fett’s father! Fans hated Episode II? Let’s bring back Chewbacca! There’s an extent to which Episode III cleverly builds to the world of the original Star Wars but to a larger extent, it also just attempts to play on our desire to see the original films again. Does it make sense for Artoo and Threepio (and the others) to end up on the same blockade runner that opens up Star Wars? No. But it was real neat-o to see it again, wasn’t it?
For these new films to work, they should rely less on trying to rehash for the sake of earning some opening night cheers from fawning audiences and more on trying to capture the spirit of the originals in a completely new form. In other words, if you shouldn’t pander to kids, you also shouldn’t pander to adults who just want to feel young again.