Now that the teaser for Star Wars Episode VII has entered the collective consciousness, we are all forced to wait a year to find out if the movie will heal old wounds. For many of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s the original trilogy shaped not just our imaginations, but the way we view good and evil, destiny and spirituality. Then in 1999, we re-entered the theater as adults to watch The Phantom Menace and left in confusion. That confusion quickly turned into anger, which led to hate...and yes, we all suffered and quickly turned to the dark side.
There has been plenty of time now to digest and discuss the many flaws of the Star Wars prequels. But there is one story issue that is often overlooked, and it is the single reason why The Force Awakens is almost definitely the best Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi. Hint: It has nothing to do with the teaser.
First, let's list some of the tired but true arguments against Episodes I - III.
- Bad and unnecessary CG
- Bad dialogue
- Too many fart jokes
- Too many poop jokes
- Too much politics
- Too many lame coincidences
- MIDI-CHLORIANS! YARGH!
- This guy:
- This kid:
So on and so forth. Again, I agree with all of these complaints, but none of them compare to the trilogy's most fundamental flaw, which is that it is devoid of a certain storytelling device that made its predecessor so effective:
Think about it. Think about how much you learn about these two guys, the mentor and the villain, by the end of Return of the Jedi:
The amount of history between them is astonishing.
Now think about how much you know about their equivalents in the prequels:
"But, that second guy looks so cool!"
He sure does! But who is he? Do we care if he dies?
You could argue that the real character equivalents in Episodes I - III are young Obi Wan and Senator Palpatine, but how much new information do we glean about them either? How much do we know about Mace Windu or Count Dooku?
The problem is that when George Lucas sat down to tell the backstory of the original movies in Episodes I - III, he forgot to create new backstory. It made the characters less interesting than the light sabers they were wielding. They were one-dimensional beings in service of a plot, rather than deep, complex creatures with interwoven fates.
Had Lucas given Master Windu needs and desires or a family history, for instance, perhaps he wouldn't look like he'd rather be fighting snakes on a plane than sitting in a jedi council meeting.
Now, a decade later, here comes J.J. ship-hopping from the Enterprise to the Millennium Falcon, ready to blow our minds. Will he? Time will tell. But he has inherited enough backstory to kill a Bantha. And that is a very good thing.
On the other hand, I could be totally overestimating this whole backstory concept. After all ... Crystal Skull.