Probably the main emotions I associate with the Star Wars movies – such a hot thing back when I was 6 years old, not to say ever since, and fervently so again now the resumption of the series has been announced – are vague disappointment and anti-climax of the childish kind, a bit like the taste of flat Coca-Cola? Even by today’s standards few motion pictures have ever been so aggressively and unremittingly marketed; a process that’s not always compatible with innocent ideas of escapist fun.
I think that’s why, when I was kindly escorted to see Star Wars (‘Episode 4’, as we never knew it) at the age of 6 – I was quite puzzled to find that what was on the screen hardly lived up to what had been going on in my head, having already seen tie-in comic books, picture books, kiddie-novelisations and breathless reports on the whole phenom by John Craven’s Newsround and Frank Bough’s Nationwide. I suppose one learned something there, before one could give it words, about how the excitement of the human imagination lives on its own and seeks objects to attach itself to. The main point is, I’m certain I enjoyed playing with Star War toys (i.e. a great deal) vastly more than watching Star Wars.
Those, then, are the big twinned disappointments of the Star Wars thing: its vanguard role in the modern-day science of Selling to Kids, together with the variable quality of the movies lurking in back. Again, memory is vulnerable (I was 12 when I saw it) but I find it hard to believe viewers of any age weren’t groaning through Return of the Jedi (‘Episode 6’), with its pat resolutions and endless talk and insufferable fur-ball cuteness . With the second trilogy of movies that came out between 1999 and 2005, pictures I admit I’ve only glimpsed on small screens, even the diehard fans seemed to break out in revolts of distress, despondency, rage.
My one clear thought about Star Wars around that time came when me and a small film crew were scuttling around Denmark making a Channel 4 documentary on the Danish Dogme 95 film movement, during the production of which I was constantly being told by sneering US and UK film journalists that this vaunted avant-garde was just a shallow marketing ploy to sell a slate of low-budget Danish movies. That critique never looked more kneejerk-insular to me than when our crew stopped for supper at a motorway McDonalds outside Copenhagen, and with our Happy Meals we were served, quite irrespective of our wishes, a little set of plastic tat promoting Star Wars Phantom Menace (‘Episode 1’). There’s marketing and there’s Marketing, see.
But of course I’m not here to bury Star Wars. I suspect for many viewers, and not just apostates like me, it’s the indisputable excellence of The Empire Strikes Back (‘Episode 5’) that provides most of the abiding images of the series. I do recall going to see that one (aged 9 this time) as the first occasion 'going to the movies' felt both giddily exciting and also a bit painful in the heart vicinity – rather like how falling in love would shortly come to feel. And one needn’t summon critical respectability to this, but Pauline Kael’s championing of Empire as the best American movie of its year (a year that included Raging Bull) was quite telling. What’s good about the picture, as with most good pictures, is its writing (by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, veteran of the Hawksian western and film noir) and directing (by Irvin Kershner, who began his career making smaller ‘personal’ films, and nearly turned this one down), and its production design, in the fullest sense.
Pauline Kael was also very big on the movie’s visual-aural texture – Darth Vader’s armour lit for maximum gleam and menace, the venerable green-fuzz aura around Yoda, the affecting sounds of Chewbacca’s deep mournful howl and Luke’s grim whimpers after his sword-hand is lopped off. Empire was shot by Peter Suschitzy, whose son I knew slightly at university, and who went on to become David Cronenberg’s preferred DP. The film is properly dark, hard-edged, a really satisfying pop version of all that mythological stuff George Lucas professed to love in the creative anthropology of Joseph Campbell.
And now the Star Wars series is cranking up again, three more movies resuming the storyline after the events (!?) of Return of the Jedi. They’ve gone and hired Michael Arndt to write it and, professionally, I accept that – I wouldn’t have been the man for the job, my screenwriting CV hasn’t got quite the same lustre as his, I doubt I would have aced the pitch meeting... However I’m happy to offer Mr Arndt these tips on ‘which way to take it’:
1. Stay dark. Whoever the hero is this time, undermine him, menace him, keep in mind the limits of heroism, make everything come at a cost, such that triumph feels like perplexing failure. After all, the seeming point of the series has been that there are continual reversals of fortune in this war between The Force and the Dark Side. You need to preserve a sliver of ambiguity there about which is which.
2. Remember Hitchcock’s maxim: the better the villain, the stronger the picture. No Darth Vader this time out. But you need someone interestingly threatening, not called Darth.
3. Keep it mythological. Go Greek, go Shakespeare, go Wagner, go folktale. But avoid attempts at contemporary resonance (e.g. about the corruption of great republics and whatnot, when what your story proposes is an ‘evil empire’ of cosmic proportions.)
4. By all means ‘feed the theme-parks’ with white-knuckle-ride set piece sequences (which even partially redeemed Return of the Jedi.) But please think less about feeding the toy stores with opportunities for marketing soft gonks to pre-schoolers.
5. Kill Han Solo and kill him well, as Harrison Ford has long seemed to wish – the mere threat of which did so much to distinguish Empire Strikes Back. Clearly there is potential in ‘Episode 7’ for an Ibsen-like plotline of the aged warrior summoned out of brooding retirement by the woman from his past who urges him to take a final but fatal stand.
6. Try and cast older actors with proper voices, who can cope with the kind of fanciful dialogue these pictures seem to require. Star Wars got so much mileage from Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing. Episode 3, conversely, took the mystery of how Anakin Skywalker came to be imprisoned in Darth Vader’s armour then voided it of interest by casting Hayden Christiansen. (A proportion of these proper actors should be British/Irish but don’t have to be the biggest British/Irish movie stars of the moment...)
7. These stories require characters, not stereotypes, however much the audience likes to give the impression they prefer the latter. A big trick of them, it seems to me, is how to pace a character’s slide from good to evil, or their ascent in the other direction. Even Billy Dee Williams was briskly effective in Empire as the unreformed scoundrel who betrays Harrison Ford. (He got turned round very swiftly in Jedi, but I suspect that had a bit to do with saving Williams from a lot of abuse at fan conventions.)
8. Nothing is written, everything is permitted: didn’t Lucas invent quite late on the whole wheeze of Darth Vader being Luke’s father? And thank god for that. Anything twisting of previously given information is forgivable in the cause of making things less boring.
9. Really you need a family at the centre of things, with tensions therein, and... but, what am I saying? Over to you, Michael Arndt. Disney, I am available for Episode 8, probably.