Star Wars must unlearn what it has learned

It probably says something revealing about me that I learned about the new Star Wars trilogy while reading an economics blog. For instance, that I gave up on the franchise around the start of the Yuuzhan Vong storyline. And I think that has a lot to do with why I’m finding myself pretty unenthused about the prospect of more movies.

Like just about everyone, I didn’t much like the prequels. But unlike just about everyone, I thought The Phantom Menace was the best of them, largely because it was slightly more interested in developing its own actual story rather than scene-setting the events of the original trilogy. Episode VII presumably will not be a prequel, but given the state of the franchise, its story could be in even more trouble.

That economics blog was actually a really good place to learn about all this, because Matt Yglesias has a pretty interesting thought:

That puts an interesting spin on Lucas’ vows earlier this year to never make another Star Wars movie which at the time was generally interpreted as meaning there wouldn’t be anymore Star Wars movies. It turns out that he meant something closer to the reverse—that he, personally, was interested in stepping away from the Star Wars industry and selling the company.

I don’t know if this means that Lucas himself bought into the idea that he was too closely involved in developing Episodes I-III, although I’d expect he was just ready to move on. In any case, it seems like Episodes VII-IX will get made in a similar way to Episodes V and VI, with Lucas in a consulting role, except now he’s taken an even bigger step back.

Which isn’t necessarily a good thing either. The big difference between now and 1983, when Return of the Jedi was released, is that dozens of writers have written scores of books, comics, games, and whatnot describing what the galaxy of Star Wars looked like after the movies, nearly all of which is supposed to be canonical. It’s produced a lot of clever stories that took the universe in interesting directions, but very little of it really captured the basic moral struggle that defined the original trilogy. As the universe expanded, its ideas became more unfocused, and by the time Episode I came together, the story had become too big and sprawling for the intensely personal story that it had to tell.

All that happened despite the fact that the Expanded Univers rarely touched on the details of events prior to Episode IV, precisely to leave room for the prequels to operate. By contrast, there’s a ridiculous amount of information about events, characters and galactic politics after Return of the Jedi, and I think Episode VII would do best to ignore just about all of it.

The original trilogy stands up so well partly because you don’t need to know anything else about the universe to watch them: They tell a self-contained story from beginning to end, while Episodes I-III borrow the approach used by most of the EU, and try to link as many disparate elements of the universe together as possible. That’s also why the plots of the original trilogy are so much stronger; only Episode I managed to avoid a hopelessly convoluted narrative.

Back when he was developing his new Star Trek movie, a story broke about a meeting he had with George Lucas, which led to all kinds of gags when details of the movie started to come out. But if Abrams took any lessons from The Phantom Menace, they were pretty clearly the right ones: The movie went out of its way to provide a clean slate to work with, creating a completely new branch of the franchise to play in. I don’t think Star Wars needs to take the idea quite as far, but its quality will depend a lot on how well its makers learned the same lesson.

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