In a galaxy where story matters

By Tobias Ma

Happily, no one was trampled or stabbed during last weekend’s Star Wars auditions in the United Kingdom, possibly because the local crazies had been lured away by Black Friday deals. The popular science fiction franchise will expand with a new trilogy, the first of which will hit theaters in 2015. George Lucas will be involved but has sold the films’ rights to Disney. Fans will watch these new Star Wars films with bated breath, particularly after the lukewarm response to the prequels.

What made the original trilogy so timeless? Why do we keep coming back to Star Wars in spite of modern sci-fi movies that surpass its visual effects and production value?

Star Wars struck a spiritual nerve and evoked a sense of a time both lost and yet to be found. For the most part, the original films evenly balanced tension, comedy and melancholy. To recreate the same ambience that sculpted the longevity of those films, Disney needs to incorporate those elements carefully into the new trilogy.

J.J. Abrams, who is billed to direct the next instalment, invigorated the Star Trek franchise by shifting its focus onto action and quickening the story’s pacing. However, Star Wars fans have good reason to be apprehensive of Abrams injecting the same visual formula into his next big project. His Star Trek films have followed the trend in action films of upping the chaos ante. The Star Wars prequels are guilty of this as well. Battle scenes are frenetic and consist of shaky cuts meant to disorient the viewer. Explosions scatter the background, heroes and villains survive unbelievable punishment in fistfights. Huge chunks of debris soar past the main characters by a hair, who charge through the commotion with obviously scripted grace. Even the spaceships wobble and spin like toys in a tub. As entertaining as these effects may be, they break immersion and are often distracting.

A New Hope has one of the most memorable opening scenes in cinematic history because of the slow, methodical way it is shot, a technique the other films wisely adhered to. The film opens with a fleeing spaceship and then the underbelly of its pursuer, a Star Destroyer, which stretches across the screen like the belly of a whale. The scene is sparsely cut enough for the viewer to focus on the Star Destroyer’s size and get a sense of how overmatched Princess Leia’s ship really is.

Some of the best moments in the films are successful because they hold back. Stretches of silence recreate a sense of forgotten space and isolation that makes the films’ central motif — the disappearance of something powerful and mystical across civilization — more poignant. This elusiveness only enhances the catharsis (or terror, in Darth Vader’s case) of the moments that we do see Luke connect to the Force.

Many people remember the scene in which Luke stands atop a rock and gazes into the distance, a confused portrait of adrenaline junkie angst and unexplored potential, John William’s score dimming the desert planet’s twin suns behind him. The films’ yogic, ethereal depiction of the Force — and the difficulty in mastering it — is what balances the hyperrealism of the galaxy’s technology advancement and transforms the plot into something more spiritual. When Luke dangles upside down in an ice cave, about to be eaten by a ravenous beast, he does not escape through superhuman reflexes. His ability to calm his mind saves his life.

Violence is the main method through which Star Wars plots advance but it often seems absurd in the prequels. Jar Jar Binks fighting droids. The ballerina-like twirling during the lightsaber duels. The terrible dialogue before every confrontation.

The original trilogy managed to screw up a bit as well, such as the Ewok log traps taking out the Imperial walking tanks. However, Han Solo shooting Greedo from under a table without a word of warning reveals far more to the viewer about his cynicism and the pervasiveness of evil in the setting’s universe than a choreographed bar fight would have. The lightsaber duels, particularly the one from The Empire Strikes Back, are superior to the prequels’ because they carry emotional weight. They are slower and less flashy, but this only underscores the dynamic between the characters. Luke is unprepared to face Vader and there are consequences. Far from pulling victory out of his hat, he loses his right hand and is dealt a psychological sucker punch. The sight of a spent Luke flailing at Vader and tripping on himself creates fear in the viewer not only for his personal safety, but also for his ability to resist the dark side, which promises to fast-track the weaknesses Yoda’s training failed to fix. Few other films risk the viewer’s approval by humiliating a protagonist so completely, but the payoff was a believably mature Luke in Return of the Jedi.

The Jedi mantra of self-restraint in a world of convenience is a necessary counterweight to the flashing lights of spaceships and Han Solo’s mercenary philosophizing. The new films’ pacing needs to reflect this or miss exploring the story’s most interesting contradictions.

The understated atmosphere of the original Star Wars trilogy made these movies brilliant. Disney should elaborate on the original trilogy’s tone and mood, which often does more with less. We do not have the Force in our world, so part of the series’ appeal comes from watching characters tap into a well of spiritual energy and discover power through which they can reshape their fates.

For the purposes of entertainment such energy is often showcased in the physical abilities of the Jedi and Sith, but overemphasizing this will devalue its role as the story’s emotional artery. We do not want the magic of this series to be taken for granted or stuffed down our throats. After all, the resonance of Star Wars derives from our identification with flawed human beings, struggling for control over a power within themselves that is intangible, mysterious and easy to misuse.

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