The Five Generations of ‘Star Wars’

About ten years ago I was working at a video store that no longer exists. Up at the cash registers, along with the usual movie theater-style boxes of Junior Mints and Milk Duds, was a display of assorted Star Wars bobblehead toys. The last of the Star Wars prequels, 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, had come out two years before, and as far as anyone knew at the time, that was the end of it. There had been a Cartoon Network series, The Clone Wars, that ran between the release of 2002’s Attack of the Clones and Sith, but in 2007 there was no serious talk of another series, and certainly not of any more movies. Hayden Christensen had already been copy/pasted into the end of Return of the Jedi, and if that was what the future of Star Wars looked like, I was perfectly happy to leave Luke and Leia and Han back on VHS where they belonged.

As I stood at the cash register one night, however, I overheard an argument happening just below me. Two ten-year-old boys were engaged in spirited debate over whether one particular bobblehead was Boba Fett, the mysterious bounty hunter of the original trilogy and Expanded Universe novels, or Jango Fett, the decidedly unmysterious “father” of Boba (who is actually his clone, for some reason) of the prequel trilogy. If either of them had taken a second to actually read the toy’s box, they would have known that it was Boba Fett. But having been a brawler in many a schoolyard battle over Star Wars arcana, I understood that the thrill of the fight was more important than being proven correct or incorrect. And it occurred to me, in that moment, that there was now a generation of younger Star Wars fans who saw no difference between the original and prequel trilogies–and in fact (gasp!), they might actually prefer the CGI polish and flashy action of the prequels.

Of course, it was naive of me to think that there were only two generations of Star Wars fans, just as it was naive of me to think that Revenge of the Sith would be the last chapter (or Episode) of the series. Now, ten years later, we are in the midst of a full-fledged Star Wars renaissance, with new movies scheduled yearly through at least the end of the decade, a near-constant stream of new novels and comic books, and two entire theme parks under construction at Disney’s California and Florida resorts. And when you consider the innumerable thinkpieces and listicles (like this one) thrown into the Internet’s gaping, Sarlacc-like maw, it is possible to spend every day of your life reading or watching something new related to Star Wars.

(Sidebar: Is Star Wars The Singularity?)

All of which begs the question: Who is Star Wars for? The series has been around for 40 years now, and its millions of fans, casual or otherwise, have experienced it in many different forms. The answer to that question is presumably “Everyone,” but not everyone wants the same thing from a new Star Wars product, if they even want a new product at all. In fact, what we want and expect from Star Wars greatly depends on where we fall in what I call the Five Generations of Star Wars.

Generation Zero were the grownups. One of the achievements of the first film, with its grab bag of Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa, Lawrence of Arabia, World War II movies, and Mexican solderadas/Hopi women, was the immediate creation of a new mythology–alien in its particulars but familiar in its broad strokes. Those of us in later generations often encountered those influences in Star Wars first, then worked backward to the source material. But Generation Zero, here defined as anyone college-age or older at the time of the original trilogy’s release, would have seen the source materials first, and so recognized George Lucas’ early-Boomer nostalgia mashup for what it was, either positively (such as Roger Ebert, who was thrilled by the state-of-the-art effects and postmodern humor applied to the structure of old movie serials, here as well as in Lucas’ Indiana Jones films) or negatively (such as my grandmother, who wrote the whole thing of as a Wizard of Oz ripoff, with Luke as Dorothy, Chewbacca as the Cowardly Lion, C-3PO as the Tin Man, etc.). As much as each generation can claim Star Wars as their own, Generation Zero was there first: the sci-fi conventioneers and Starlog subscribers of the mid-seventies; the disco kids who danced to this remix of John Williams’ iconic score and watched Carrie Fisher host Saturday Night Live; the guy dressed as Chewbacca who went into Poplar Tunes in Memphis and handed my dad a button that read “May the Force Be With You”; and the critics such as Ebert and Pauline Kael, who defended the film’s pop art bona fides against the likes of New York‘s John Simon, who looked down his nose at the whole thing (and described Carrie Fisher as “bovine”) in his dismissive review.

Generation Zero was also the generation most dazzled by the special effects, each film better than the last in that regard, and least invested in the Expanded Universe of novels, comics, video games, and the dreaded prequels. In his three-and-a-half-star review of The Phantom Menace, Ebert wrote:

“I will say that the stories of the ‘Star Wars’ movies have always been space operas, and that the importance of the movies comes from their energy, their sense of fun, their colorful inventions and their state-of-the-art special effects. I do not attend with the hope of gaining insights into human behavior.”

Fair enough, and that’s probably a healthier way to live than a lifetime of gnashing one’s teeth because baby Darth Vader’s catchphrase was “Yipeee!” Ebert was forgiving of Phantom Menace, but rightly recognized Attack of the Clones as the nadir of the series. He saw Revenge of the Sith as a return to form, with its darker, more serious tone–although the conflation of darkness with quality is a troubling practice that is all too common amongst Star Wars fans, and genre fans in general.

So if Generation Zero did not go to Star Wars to gain insights into human behavior, then who did? Meet Generation One, here defined as anyone of primary school age during the release of the original trilogy. These are the kids who bought the toys, and the lunchboxes, and went to the theater a dozen times that Summer, and launched the first wave of schoolyard (star) wars that would reverberate through the decades, resulting in those two ten-year-old boys arguing Boba vs. Jango in the middle of a Hollywood Video. On a larger cultural scale, you might also call these kids Generation X.

Generation One was the first to love Star Wars and to embrace it as a way of life. The onslaught of merchandise, truly George Lucas’ greatest achievement, certainly helped. They were the first to wear Star Wars, to sleep in it, to quote it, and to keep it alive during those dark years from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, when public interest in the films fell off. Generation One’s dedicated fans made Timothy Zahn’s novels into bestsellers, which inspired a new canon of novels and comics known as the Expanded Universe, portraying events before, during, and after the original trilogy. Generation One’s casual fans brought the films back to prominence in the mid-nineties through the same wave of semi-ironic nostalgia that resurrected flared pants and polyester. Episodes of The Simpsons were chockablock with Star Wars references from the very beginning, and a burgeoning online community brought those schoolyard debates to the information superhighway . A new line of action figures was launched in 1995, alongside a digitally remastered VHS release of the original trilogy. The theatrically re-released Special Editions came out two years later, in honor of the first film’s twentieth anniversary. And two years after that, the long-awaited Episode One.

Generation One was also the first to hate Star Wars, or at least feel crushingly disappointed by it. And it started early, with those goddamn Ewoks. The Empire Strikes Back is popularly thought of as the ‘dark’ one of the original trilogy, with its shadowy camerawork and cliffhanger ending, but Return of the Jedi has plenty of darkness of its own. This is a movie where Princess Leia is threatened with sexual assault by an alien slug, and takes her revenge by graphically strangling it to death; where Luke Skywalker’s path to actualization requires him to kill his own father; and where the climax involves the Emperor torturing Luke with lightning from his fingers, accompanied by a hellish male chorus and pipe organ. (Not to mention the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of anonymous Rebel and Imperial soldiers that put the ‘war’ in Star Wars.) But then the whole thing ends with a teddy bear picnic. The previous two films were certainly kid-friendly, but Jedi was the first to tip into outright childishness; the Ewoks seemed to be there primarily to look cute and sell toys. Sixteen years later, George Lucas would chase that unfortunate muse to its logical conclusion, with the literal childishness of a nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker (played by Jake Lloyd) and the bufoonish near-minstrelsy of Jar Jar Binks. The Phantom Menace was too much for Generation One to handle. Card-carrying Generation One member Patton Oswalt had perhaps the last, best word on this subject.

But you know who didn’t mind the Ewoks as much? Generation Two, those late Gen-Xers and early millennials who were born during or immediately after the first trilogy, the ones who never lived in a world without Star Wars, and for whom the movies’ natural habitat was VHS. This would be my generation, and the first to have experienced Star Wars passively. We didn’t hear about Star Wars and then make the decision to go to the movies and see it. We were given it, instead. It was brought to us by our parents (Generation Zero) to be consumed, and so our affinity for the original trilogy exists in an almost pre-memory state. I can’t remember the first time I saw Star Wars any more than I can remember the first time I ate McDonald’s or saw a Bugs Bunny cartoon. For Generation Two, the original trilogy was not three separate movies, but rather one unit. And not just one unit–the first unit, with the expectation of more to come. By the time Generation Two grew into active consumers, the prequel trilogy wheels were already in motion, a proper sequel trilogy was ever-rumored, and the mid-nineties glut of re-releases, merchandise, and cultural saturation was in full-swing. Star Wars wasn’t a thing that was popular, then not as popular, then popular again. Star Wars just was.

But just because Generation Two began its relationship with Star Wars passively doesn’t mean it stayed that way. Just as Generation One saw Return of the Jedi regress into cuddly Ewokism, Generation Two saw Lucas using the 1997 Special Editions to sand down some of the series’ rougher edges. To wit: Han Shot First. If you’ll recall, shortly after agreeing to ferry Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi to the planet Alderaan, Han Solo is cornered at gunpoint by Greedo, a henchman working for crime boss (and aforementioned alien slug) Jabba the Hutt. The point of conflict is an unspecified amount of money that Han owes Jabba for a smuggling mission gone wrong. Greedo attempts to extort the money for himself, and with a sarcastic quip, Han shoots him from underneath the table, leaving Greedo’s charred corpse for the poor bartender to clean up (presumably). It’s a short but iconic scene, not only showing off Harrison Ford’s effortless cool, but also establishing that in this galaxy, even the good guys are some rough customers. Han Solo is not just a charming rogue with a heart of gold, but an active criminal and killer, which makes his falling in with the Rebellion and risking his life for its cause so narratively satisfying.

But in the Special Edition release (now officially renamed Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope), George Lucas used then-new CGI technology to rejigger this scene. Now Greedo is the one who shoots, inexplicably missing Han at point blank range, and Han fires his killshot in self defense. It was a clumsy, awkward moment even in 1997, and seen today looks about as phony as, well, all the other CGI “enhancements” that were imposed upon the Special Editions. Making Han’s shooting a defensive gesture (which, I would argue, it already was, as Greedo was threatening his life at the time) undercut the redemptive arc of his mercenary-to-hero journey, but more disturbingly, it taught George Lucas that he now had not just the ability but the right to treat his actors as literal puppets. For the 2004 DVD release, Lucas reworked the scene yet again, this time with Han and Greedo firing simultaneously, but the damage was already done.

(Sidebar: On the commentary track of that 2004 release, George Lucas insists that he can’t tell the difference between the optical effects work of the original trilogy and the CGI effects work of the Special Editions and prequels. First, this is bullshit and everyone knows it. Second, the effects in the original trilogy hold up so well because they were as good as that style of effects work ever got. The work there was perfecting essentially the same techniques as had been used since George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon in 1902, whereas the the Special Editions and the prequels were on the ground floor of the CGI revolution, and so look more rudimentary with each passing year.)

The Special Editions were intended to update the look of the original trilogy and give us a taste of what was in store from the upcoming prequels. And they achieved that goal, for better or worse, as Lucas leaned into an acquired taste for endlessly busy CGI backdrops, unpleasant looking creatures inserted for seemingly no other purpose than to look unpleasant (Hey there, slobbery dog-thing singing in Jabba’s palace!), and using nine words when three would do. (Darth Vader’s line in Empire went from “Bring my shuttle” to “Alert my Star Destroyer to prepare for my arrival.” Why? Who knows.)

And when the prequels finally came, there was no buffer between these new tastes and the finished product. There were no budgetary constraints, no studio pressure, no competing visions from other writers or directors. Lucas, surrounded by Yes men who assured him that Jar Jar Binks was America’s next sweetheart, crafted a plot of corporate espionage and political intrigue more befitting a David Baldacci novel, yet seemingly pitched at the age and attention span of its nine-year-old protagonist–a protagonist who is only interesting for the promise of what he will do in films to come. And while you could defend the lush, shiny CGI of the prequels as reflecting a decadent, Weimar-era Old Republic about to collapse into fascism, the result on screen was so distant from the ramshackle, lovingly worn-out look of the original trilogy that it felt like a ripoff of Star Wars instead of the real thing.

Or maybe I just felt that way because of my generation. Because those two ten-year-old boys at Hollywood Video, members of Generation Three, born right before or during the prequel era, seemed to have no problem with Jango Fett. For them, that was the Star Wars they were raised with, as much as I was with the original trilogy. And that begs two questions: Are the prequels perhaps better than I gave them credit for? And is the original trilogy worse than I’m willing to admit? My God, was John Simon right all along?

The answer to the first question is certainly No. But the answer to the second question is…maybe? There are certainly legitimate criticisms to level against the original trilogy, and many of them mirror Generation One and Two’s problems with the prequels. Are Hayden Christensen’s performances really any worse than Mark Hamill’s? Is C-3PO really less insufferable than Jar Jar? Both trilogies value flash over substance, both trilogies strand great actors in underwritten roles, and I have a deep suspicion that all the writing about Star Wars and Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung and the power of myth is a way to justify the amount of time spent thinking about a rinky kids’ movie from 1977. I can think all those things, but it doesn’t change how I feel about the original trilogy, nor does it retroactively invalidate the hours I’ve spent watching and playing and talking about and writing about them. I don’t watch the prequels, but it’s not my place to invalidate the experiences of Generation Three or anyone who watched them and played them and talked about them and wrote about them. And as we move into a new era of Star Wars that seems embarrassed by the prequels’ existence, I wonder what will become of Generation Three and all their stupid midichlorians.

Because now we have Rey. And Finn. And Poe. And BB-8. And now we have kids.

Generations One and Two are in the midst of raising Generation Four, for whom The Force Awakens and the standalone “Anthology” movies like Rogue One will likely be their entry point. And just as Generation Four is made in our image, so too are the new movies in the image of the original trilogy–sometimes too much so, though your mileage there may vary.  And what will Generation Four want from Star Wars? What will they expect from these movies, and what will they inevitably be disappointed by? It’s astounding to think that, as I write this, I can’t even imagine that Generation Four won’t have schisms and schoolyard debates just like my friends at Hollywood Video, who must be around twenty now, and perhaps are arguing about who Rey’s parents might be at this very moment. And maybe they still talk about Jango Fett for whatever stupid reason, and maybe they’d never even seen the original trilogy on VHS. That’s okay too. The galaxy is big enough for all of us.

 

 

 

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