A couple weeks ago, a humble open letter found its way onto the Internet, and not just any open letter. This one was accompanied by top-notch animation, an exclusive interview on io9, its own launch party, and an a cappella soundtrack. It’s title: “4 Rules to Make Star Wars Great Again”
That isn’t actually what it is; that’s just what it’s called. It would have been more accurate to title the video: 4 Pieces of Lame Conventional Wisdom and 1 Really Obvious Marketing Ploy. Hit the jump for more.
Just so we’re on the same page, here’s the video:
This is, after all, not the work of some gurus of storytelling or scholarly monks who’ve devoted their lives to analyzing the works of Mr. George Walton Lucas, Jr. This is a marketing agency in Portland, Oregon that figured unleashing a video custom-engineered to go viral was the best way to show off their skills.
And drum up new clients. Mostly, that.
I begrudge them not even a little bit for this. Kudos to them for garnering so much attention for their company — that would be Sincerely Truman. See, it worked. I just gave them some publicity.
I don’t even begrudge the actual rules they offer up. Everyone should have an opinion. Well, not everyone. This is Sincerely Truman’s opinion:
Rule 1: The Setting is the Frontier
Rule 2: The Future is Old
Rule 3: The Force is Mysterious
Rule 4: Star Wars Isn’t Cute
What I do begrudge is so many people in the geek-o-sphere embraced this tripe so uncritically. From io9 to CNET, and every blog in between, the video garnered nodding agreement, if they even bothered to comment on its substance at all.
Sometimes it was enthusiastic, as in the case of Serial Optimist magazine, where their entire commentary was summed up with, “Yes, Star Wars can be great again!”
Geek Tyrant “ultimately really like[s] what it brings to the table,” without ever really delineating what it is.
On CNET, Amanda Kooser “sure hope[s] [J.J. Abrams] is paying attention to Sincerely Truman’s sweet and simple video.” She even signed the petition.
Oh yes, there’s a petition. The video is paired up with a site, DearJJAbrams.com, where you can add your name to the list of people who also nodded in agreement with the video. “If we can hit one million virtual signatures,” the site says it will “hand deliver our petition along with a copy of the video.”
The video is on YouTube, which I think they have access to at Disney’s headquarters. I’m not sure why they need to deliver a copy of the video.
The petition, as of October 6, was at a measly 14,540 strong. There’s only 985,460 to go.* Thank God for that, because I for one sure hope J.J. Abrams is not paying attention.
Let’s look at these rules, one by one.
“Star Wars doesn’t happen in the city. It doesn’t happen in parliament, or in the library. It happens out here, away from civilization, amidst smugglers and bounty hunters.”
“Star Wars is a western,” it concludes, putting a great deal of emphasis on every syllable of that word.
No, it is not. Or rather, it is not just a western. It isn’t even primarily a western. It’s many things tossed into a blender: Arthurian legend, adventure serials in the tradition of Buck Rogers, samurai action films, and yes, westerns. That’s just for starters.
Back in 1977, when the film came out, this fact was so fascinating they wrote scholarly essays on it, including one by Robert G. Collins in The Journal of Popular Culture entitled “Star Wars: The Pastiche of Myth and the Yearning for a Past Future.”
Even Wikipedia gets in on the act, devoting a couple paragraphs in its article on pastiche to the Lucas-creation. It cites not only westerns and science fiction serials, but also gangster films and fantasy. Clearly Star Wars is blended from a rich tapestry of influence.
Reducing all of this to frontier vistas and a single genre is not only overly simplistic, it ignores plenty of great Star Wars stories. The Knights of the Old Republic games had a compelling narrative and engrossing characters, and its plot unfolded all over the galaxy: from urban cityscapes to dangerous ruins on backwater worlds. Timothy Zahn’s popular Thrawn Trilogy of novels doesn’t shy away from the metropolis of Coruscant. Then there is the Clone Wars animated series, which is an outgrowth of the hated prequels, but manages to be compelling nonetheless.
The strength of these stories was their characters, not their settings. They embraced the entirety of the Star Wars galaxy, and they were better for it. Trying to shoehorn their narratives into a barren, desert milieu would have only made them feel smaller, more limited than an entire galaxy could ever be.
The voice over informs us, with a tone that can only be described as derisive, “Star Wars’ beauty isn’t clean. It isn’t new. It’s dirty, gritty, a second-hand world.” Meanwhile, we see animated representations of Amidala’s sleek silver shuttle from Episode I. In this case, however, it’s rendered as flat and color-free, with intermittent static that suddenly vanishes when the image transforms into beautifully detailed illustrations of R2-D2 and the Millennium Falcon.
Star Wars’ beauty is “the beauty of the frontier,” the video says. There is that word again.
Why should an entire galaxy be flying around in battered, garbage-can-esque ships? If there are rich people and poor people in our world, there must be galactic equivalents of Lamborghini’s cruising alongside the Ford Pinto spaceships. Right?
Rule 3, “The Force is Mysterious,” on the other hand, is entirely unobjectionable. When the voice over intones , “The greatest power of the Force is the sense of magic that comes from the unknown,” that’s unarguably true.
Of course, this has literally nothing to do with whether the next cinematic depiction of Jedi versus Sith will be good. It’s simply a rebuttal to the midi-chlorians of Episode I. The magical and mysterious Force was reduced to a biological phenomena you could run a blood test for. The horror!**
Yes, that was deflating and unnecessary. It was also a rather minor part of that film, a relative blip on the radar of the entire prequels, to say nothing of the full Star Wars universe. So why would it show up as one of the four most important rules for making the franchise great again?
Sadly, the whole video is basically a rebuttal of the prequel films. Specifically, it’s a bunch of unsubtle jabs at the parts of the prequels Star Wars fans hate the most:
Over-explaining the Force? Check.
Boring trade disputes and political debates? Check.
Shiny, polished ships that seem more advanced than the old beaten up ships of the original trilogy, even though the prequels are technically set in the past of the Star Wars timeline? Check. Now try to decrypt that sentence to win a lightsaber.
Rule 4 is more of the same: “Star Wars Isn’t Cute.” How does it illustrate this message? With this: “Han always shoots first.” Also the animation has Jar Jar Binks pop up on screen to wave and wink at you. Then he gets his head blown off by J.J. Abrams, dressed as Solo.
We get it! The prequels were disappointing, to say the least. George Lucas “raped your childhood” and stole your hopes and dreams. Peace in the Middle East was made impossible by the production of the prequels.
Everyone bashes Star Wars for what it became in the 90’s and venerates what it was in the late 70’s and 80’s. It’s become predictable, a kind of self-parody. When a guy shows up with a baseball bat to whack at the Jar Jar Binks piñata, we just assume the paper mâche had it coming.
But it didn’t. Star Wars was always cute. The Ewoks were cute, but well before that there was R2-D2 and C-3PO. They were cute comic relief, a robotic Laurel & Hardy routine. Cute, or the lack thereof, has nothing to do with the greatness of that galaxy far, far away.
George Lucas had a vision. As it turns out, much of that vision is utter bollocks, but he had one, nevertheless. In the face of naysayers, he held fast. He specifically did not listen to the people beyond his own vision.
That is what made Star Wars great.
As a film, it revolutionized the medium in a number of ways, telling its story in a way that would’ve been far less powerful if it were just a book or a play. Robert Collins’ 1977 article said it best: “As visual literature, a film such as Star Wars proves anew that the descriptive capability of the camera can be effective, as words cannot.”
That is what made Star Wars great.
As a story, it yanked at the threads of pop culture, from its low-brow pulps to its most refined heroic tales, and wove them into an epic greater than its individual parts. While the franchise has become known for its world-building, that first film was much more about the few characters at its center. The world of the rebellion and the empire was mostly background.
This video is just more fan service masturbation. It adds to the chorus of those who love these films, but can’t really explain why Star Wars holds such sway. The average movie-goers understanding of how a story works is minimal, at best. Why do we think a director should listen to that?
Especially this director, who’s proven time and time again (and most recently with Star Trek Into Darkness), that he’s at his worst when engaging in mindless fan service.
So yes, J.J. Abrams. I echo the last bit of pleading from this inane, though beautifully executed video. “Please don’t mess this up.” Your first step in achieving that goal is to not listen to us. We’re just fans, after all.
*In fairness, I suppose I should note this video isn’t exactly blowing up the Internet. In addition to the low number of petition signatures, the actual video hasn’t even cracked one million views on YouTube. But it sure has gotten Star Wars fans clacking.
**George Lucas, it should be noted, had the idea for midi-chlorians way back in 1977. He included it in his notes for the authors who would expand Star Wars into novels. Don’t believe me? Go pick up J.W. Rintzler’s The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. It’s in the appendices. Of course, just because Lucas thought of it early on, that doesn’t make it a good idea. It does, however, make it a more interesting topic than people who can’t stop fuming about the prequels would lead you to believe.