Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope—or as you might more appropriately call it, Star Wars—takes every clumsy clone of the original film and drops it into the trash compactor. If we ignore Empire Strikes Back for a minute (which was not directed by George Lucas, but we’ll get back to that), there’s little more to the franchise that followed the 1977 space opera beyond the thinly veiled, commercialized rehashing of A New Hope’s main plot. We loved it, but let’s be real: no part of its follow-ups actually functioned well as standalone content.
Lucas recently confessed in an interview with Vanity Fair that even he didn’t enjoy his extended run with the series.
“You go to make a movie, and all you do is get criticized, and people try and make decisions about what you’re going to do before you do it,” Lucas said of the franchise. “It’s not much fun, and you can’t experiment. You can’t do anything. You have to do it a certain way. I don’t like that, and I never did.”
What many Star Wars fans forget is that, before his extended foray with that galaxy far away (and more specifically his time with the Star Wars prequels), Lucas was considered a really good director. Watch American Graffiti, and you’ll see in his work much of what we initially loved about A New Hope: inventive stage settings, memorable (albeit clunky) dialogue, and great, well-developed characters.
I will argue that the crippling blow to Lucas’ career was that the original Star Wars was too good of a movie.
It opens with a Star Destroyer, hunting down a rebel spacecraft, which escalates into a quick, yet epic battle. The exposition is a lesson on the Force and a captive princess. Enter a series of other memorable characters—a dashing rogue and his furry friend. Eventually, plot lines weave till we work our way up to a series of intersecting battles between the evil Empire and the hopeful rebels. Boom. Something explodes, applicable parties celebrate, and then it’s over.
This is Star Wars. It’s about the underdogs, working to take down an evil far bigger than themselves. And there’s always that moment of inflection—that moment we get a glimpse of the good in the evil and the evil in the good. In A New Hope, this is when Obi-Wan reveals Darth Vader was once his pupil, much like Luke. In Empire Strikes Back, this is when Darth Vader reveals he is Luke’s father. In Return of the Jedi, this is when Luke reveals that he can see the good in Vader.
The expectations were firmly set by the original, and much of the technical issues with the other films surface in the bizarre subplots that service these motifs—whether it’s the Ewoks emerging as unlikely allies in taking down the Galactic Empire, or the Gungans emerging as the unlikely allies in taking down the Trade Federation, or an army of clones emerging as the unlikely allies in taking down the Trade Federation again. We see it over and over again, but never to the effect of its original poignancy.
You can see how adhering to the formula became frustrating for Lucas—to have immense fan and studio pressure locking in his decisions. Much of the franchise reads like fan fiction, with countless sad attempts made at recreating the ingenuity of the original plot.
The notable exception, of course, is Empire Strikes Back, if only for the fact that it never tried to compete with the original in scale. Still, if we were to canonize one film, why stick with the installment that is only considered superior on the grounds that it never sunk into the sad trend of the rest? The multibillion-dollar franchise was not built out of Irvin Kershner’s Empire, a darker, character-driven reimagining of Lucas’ original work, but out of the fresh universe that A New Hope so brilliantly illuminated for fans. It was built out of Darth Vader, arguably the evilest villain in all of film. And yes, it was built out of the Force, the strange magic that animates all living things in the Star Wars universe and imbues the galaxy with purpose.
The successes of A New Hope squelched all hope that Lucas could produce something of new importance after it. We fell in love with Star Wars, but not just the overall themes behind it. We love the nuts and bolts, and wretched fans that we are, we will fault and sabotage anything screwed in a little differently.
This is why the original is the only Star Wars.
Featured Image By 20th Century Fox