Watching both Star Wars trilogies, it’s hard not to notice the incongruities. The prequels are longer — and also bigger, with a cast of thousands and elaborate lightsaber battles. They feel different. The original trilogy features old-fashioned haircuts, and is a lot less shiny. Also, the prequels spoil Luke’s parentage, and there’s no way to pretend the Obi-Wan or Yoda of the original trilogy had been through the prequels. In the original trilogy, the Force feels like some kind of mystic Eastern religion, and it’s treated almost like a rumor; in the prequels, it’s a physical part of this fictional universe that characters can easily measure, and the Jedi are well-established, inspiring none of the wonder of the chronologically later films. Fans have debated in what order the six movies are best watched, and one of the reasons is that the prequels feel like prequels. Watching them, you’re very conscious of the fact that they were movies made later than the original trilogy. There’s just no separating the production history from the fictional history.
But there’s another way in which I, at least, am very conscious of the Star Wars movies as movies. My essay “How Star Wars Broke Cinema” (which I greatly revised for inclusion in A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe) points out a lot of logical flaws of the series, focusing on the original trilogy. Of course, all stories have some sort of logical flaws, and whether you’re able to ignore them and immerse yourself in a movie-viewing experience has a lot to do with your own sensitivity to such flaws, what kind of flaws they are, and your personal bias towards or against the material and its genre. I happen to be more sensitive to the logical flaws of Star Wars than most, and although I can enjoy plenty of scenes in the movies, these flaws make me even more conscious of the fact that I’m watching a movie. I often can’t make heads or tails of Star Wars as a universe as a real place — how space travel works in it, or how this galactic empire really functions.
Fortunately, I have a theory that fixes all of these problems: the movies are movies, and they’re a product of the fictive universe they depict. They’re political, and the prequels were indeed produced a generation later, just like they feel.
The rebellion in the original trilogy is essentially a revolution. Think, perhaps, of the Russian Revolution, which overthrew the czars. In the wake of that revolution, many internal depictions of that revolution were thoroughly propagandistic. The old regime was depicted as thoroughly evil, and the revolutionaries as heroic underdogs. The victors write history, and in the wake of revolution, that history tends to be nervous and especially one-sided. The revolutionaries in these depictions might make moral mistakes, in a way that shows that war entails tough decisions, but their basic rightness is never questioned. Moreover, the revolutionaries are shown to be on the side of the common man, although every revolution has had its share of nobility involved.
This is exactly what we see in the original trilogy. Darth Vader and the Emperor are very evil. There’s almost no reason to destroy Alderaan except to illustrate this. Everything’s pretty black and white. The heroes are underdogs. Han Solo is the scrappy rogue who represents the common man. He’s a classic propagandistic figure: someone who initially doesn’t believe in the cause who, through the revolution, rises to his better self. Princess Leia is the good noble, who sides with the revolution against the evil government. Luke starts out as an everyman, but in fact his ancestors were essentially elite military personnel, exterminated and oppressed by the current evil government. The original trilogy is a tale of revolution, including the contradictions inherent in revolutions, but it’s told in a thoroughly propagandistic mode. Sure, the original trilogy is entertaining, but so is the best propaganda.
The criticisms of the original trilogy that emphasize moral ambiguity aren’t uncommon to works of propaganda. In retrospect, we’re able to see that the Empire, while depicted as evil and cruel, must also be a uniting force in a chaotic galaxy. Even the Death Star, while focused on destruction, represents a tremendous public works project of which only an empire would be capable. Looking back, we’re able to wonder whether the stormtroopers of the old regime weren’t simply enemy soldiers but might actually have been people too.
These criticisms parallel the way history itself tends to become more nuanced, as it distances itself from revolution and partisan warfare. For example, movies of the 1940s and 1950s very rarely depicted the Allies in World War II as anything but morally right, and even their indiscretions or difficult decisions were framed in this patriotic context. Later, it becomes more acceptable to depict Allied soldiers as only following orders or even as amoral, or the Allied side containing opportunism and incompetence. Naturally, a nation isn’t likely to see its own side as the evil one, but moral nuance grows. A generation or so after a revolution, one might accept that the old regime wasn’t 100% bad and the revolution, while still good, did cause a certain amount of chaos and suffering.
To me, the prequel trilogy feels like a new round of movies, produced in the Star Wars universe a generation after the first. Now, the revolution depicted in the original trilogy is a bit more distant, and it’s permissible to make the overthrown czar the main character and to depict the rise of the old regime. True, the Jedi in the prequel trilogy are still the good guys, but they’re bound up in galactic politics. They’re part of a bureaucracy. And the villains are much more sympathetic. They at least believe, most of the time, that they’re on the side of right, or at least of order. Never in the original trilogy does Darth Vader or the Emperor even really bother to justify their evil ways, or to present to the audience a realistic point of view. But in the prequel trilogy, Darth Vader’s the protagonist, and he basically turns evil because he loves his wife. It’s almost like, as the initial revolutionary period gave way to a kind of glasnost, the filmmakers felt comfortable depicting the tyrannical villain of the revolution as a human being.
We can even see some of the in-universe discrepancies between the original trilogy and the prequels in this light. In the wake of the revolution, the revolutionary Jedi and their Force seem mystical and the subject of rumor. A generation later, the culture of the revolution has given way to scientific and historical advancement, so the Force is something measurable and the Jedi are an accepted fact.
This theory means that there are no mistakes in the entire six-film series. No mistakes are possible, because these are fictional relics of the fictional Star Wars universe. In fact, even the mistakes become more interesting, because in theory everything communicates something about the post-Return of the Jedi society in which these films were made. Essentially, we’ve never seen anything of the Star Wars universe; we’ve only seen its artifacts.
I admit that this theory might initially seem out-of-sync with Star Wars, since Star Wars stories don’t tend to be very meta-fictional, preferring instead a more straight-up adventure mode. However, this totally makes sense if these stories are historical fiction to the people who made them. You don’t usually write stories about George Washington that wink at the reader. But every detail of those stories tells us about the society in which those stories were created.
How does The Force Awakens fit into this? I have no idea, since I haven’t seen it yet. This is just a theory about the six Star Wars movies I’ve been kicking around in my own head for a few years. But taking the idea that these movies can’t hide their production history, The Force Awakens would also be a product of the Star Wars universe, produced after the prequel trilogy — and the maturing post-revolutionary culture that produced it.