The only constant is change; so goes the cliché. Star Wars is a testament to this platitude, and the simplicity and ubiquity of the adage is particularly suited to the simple, dark-and-light philosophical core that dominates the galaxy far, far away. Star Wars is not just a preeminent franchise and an ever-expanding, tightly-controlled property, it’s also a demarcation-point on multiple fronts, a line marking film’s move into a new, hyper-commercialized, synergy-mad era, probably twice-over. Despite its status as a landmark, the franchise has itself buckled under new pressures over time, pressures singular to this post-blockbuster era. Star Wars is not immune to the undulations of public opinion; in fact, it’s proven more susceptible. Indeed, as has been shown, fear leads to anger, anger to hate, and then on to suffering in kind.
But even this cycle of expectation and despair has proven impermanent and diffuse. Star Wars has had a strange journey through the critical continuum from its beginning. It is in a seemingly-continuous state of assessment and reassessment, valuation and devaluation, ebbing and flowing and rising and falling, sometimes simultaneously as iterations change hands. Subgroups and demographics weigh in, change themselves, and the changes feed back into mutating opinion constellations, fueling reconsiderations and the appreciation of new vantages. The crux is that Star Wars, as a series and a franchise, has remained alive and critically relevant for an unprecedentedly lengthy amount of time. Some of this is due to the nature of it as a perpetually relevant brand that is constantly being propped-up, extended, refreshed, and resynergized. Some of it is due to its aesthetic value and place as a technological touchstone. And, in combination, the chatter surrounding both of these sides feed each other into oblivion, in a feedback loop emblematic of postmodern criticism.
For such a longstanding and much-discussed cultural pivot, Star Wars has proven strangely resistant to consensus. Rarely if ever has there been a series so carefully dissected in all of film. Star Wars started as a smash hit, a consumer-behavior-changing revolution in blockbuster form and a solidification of the blockbusting model. First perceived as a youthful diversion, it soon garnered critical attention beyond its merits as insta-iconic spectacle and sleek, simple storytelling. Over time, it has been filtered through many strains of philosophy, aesthetic theory, genre theory, consumerist schemas, and, obviously, film studies. But, it has also been subject to rampant critical discourse, breaking down its components and dissecting its value and form and its objective successes in the medium of film. For a series so entwined with a new cultural consumerist paradigm, and one so rooted in youthful discovery, opinions quickly turn personal and factions tend to dig in as with few other works in modern popular culture. Everyone remembers when they first encountered Star Wars and in what form; it’s that culturally ingrained.
Over time, it has become a general line that The Empire Strikes Back is the apogee, where the themes of the series darkened and deepened. This is of course a point of argument, chiefly for Lucas, who has routinely bristled at this assertion, adding to the haze of opinion. Return of the Jedi is seen as an unabashed return to the cutesy side of Star Wars, rehashing the plot of the first, bringing an overall satisfying conclusion and embracing the light and the dark in ways that are both engaging and silly. Now, Jedi is also viewed as a linchpin between the stylistics of the first two and the more kid-friendly prequel trilogy that followed sixteen years later. Generally, the preference for these films goes from Empire to the original to Jedi; but there are entrenched factions and opinions that will dispute these rankings from all sides. And, time and age have allowed detractors to slowly gain ground, picking at flaws and concessions that were once considered charming.
Then there’s the prequel trilogy. Over the years, the vitriol first spouted vehemently in the direction of the cartoonish Star Wars prequels—The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith—has diluted if not died. These too have a generally accepted preference order—Sith, Clones, Menace. And again, factions dispute from all sides. Upon its release, The Phantom Menace was widely panned, to put it very mildly. Over time, appreciation has cropped up for its relatively competent establishment of a backstory for the series and for its plastic-kineticism, best on display in its pod race and three-way climactic light-saber combat. It has, for some, shaded over to the more forgiving side of kitsch. Clones was seen as a marginal improvement when it first came out, though nothing to rile or revert, and has gained some ground for its passing interest in genre-hopping. Sith was touted as the best by a stretch—grimmer, conclusive—but was still disliked and a disappointment for many still clinging to the “standards” of the original three. These opinions too have changed, and so has the understanding and appreciation of this second trilogy in the Star Wars canon, making way for new fanatics and a coterie of increasingly emboldened apologists. Some look back with some cautious nostalgia—a strange concept itself and a millennial update of this perpetual human predilection. Some have found solid ground firm enough to stake whole-sale claims to the grand artistry of the prequels within the Star Wars universe. The tide has begun to turn, and with a new entry just around the corner, old battles have gained steam in the light of a new day.
Really, the flow of opinions surrounding the series hasn’t even been this clean and linear. What’s particularly fascinating about this series in relation to others is that the disjunctions and the differences in opinions and impressions are so stark, but still the wind changes every decade or so. And the process by which it has been received and constantly reappraised is so forward in the popular culture discussion. And Lucas is a tinkerer, callously unsympathetic to the way people hold dear to the ragged contours charred in the cultural collective unconscious, and somewhat quixotic in his relentless pursuit of some flashy CGI ideal. With his grandest creation, he has been prone to periodically—sometimes quietly, mostly gregariously—sanding down the edges of his films, sometimes with antithetical returns, complicating and problematizing this thorny terrain and adding more caveats to the way people argue and defend and describe. In the course, the shape and tone of the movies has changed at points. When Lucas revisited the original trilogy in 1997—my introduction—in preparation for the coming trilogy—which began in ’99—new short scenes were added and “state-of-the-art effects” were injected, giving the previously tactile, “practical effects” a new sheen, and bending the aesthetic of the first trilogy to meet the second. New backgrounds and inserts made sequences friskier (puerile, some might say). Once the new trilogy was completed and unleashed in the wild, new alterations were made again to the original three films to accommodate characters and information from the new brand additions. It sought to patch together a buckling universe, but it also stoked further resentment and division amongst those who felt (and probably still feel) thoroughly betrayed.
Still, there are a growing number of Star Wars followers eager to reclaim the second trilogy and resituate it as culturally important. It too was an event, perhaps of a different sort than the original trilogy, but a cultural happening nonetheless. Why should youngsters weaned on a perceived-inferior series be blamed for it not meeting expectations? And isn’t that just the way of things, an older generation holding on too tightly to media from their past, a never-ending cycle of “they just don’t make ’em like they used to”? And shouldn’t the prequels be celebrated at least in part for their impact on a new, media-hungry generation, satiating that first taste of experiencing the fever pitch of cultural communion? Perhaps it’s inevitable that the entire prequel trilogy has increasingly been offered retrospective analysis and reappraisal, afforded guarded praise for technical achievements and underrated elements that were lost in the CGI fray and the unassailable expectations. The relatively straight-forward and circular first three are pitted against the perhaps-intentionally banal and pseudo-byzantine second trilogy. This process is coming to its peak at this very moment in preparation for what’s to come.
Star Wars is a series that has proven the rabid unquenchable thirst of the public and the fickleness of modern media criticism, amateur or no—a terrain that exploded in the years between the two three-parters. Generational differences are at the center of this discourse, as many point out. Arguably, given the shifting tones and demographic marks of the series, kids who grew up with the new Star Wars were targeted precisely much more so than was expected, to the chagrin of the older generation, but still with some curious asides (they are quite a bit more concerned with the galaxy’s lumpen politics). After Menace, the demographic medians were incrementally raised to suit the bankable meat of the population—kids literally and figuratively grew up with the second trilogy. The obviousness of this corporate calculation draws ire, but conversely, it’s no wonder many still look to these films as formative totems from childhood and adolescence. Perhaps an unbridgeable divide was built into the prequels as a failsafe. A noticeable gap in opinion is emerging based simply on generational affiliation and the accordant context associated at each end. This is coming to bear in criticism where now-older consumers are coming up and finding a voice in the fray and looking to stake claim in revaluing and contradicting, hoisting alternate opinions not colored by expectation.
When the first Star Wars came out, there was really nothing like it in the landscape. It was canonized accordingly. When the second trilogy came out, the playing field had leveled, and spectacle-driven competition was heavier—the Wachowski’s with The Matrix and Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, sandwiched between, in particular, did these three no favors. The barometer for excitement and awe had drastically changed in the intervening years. It was an entirely different playing field, a landscape created then hastened by the original trilogy. As The Force Awakens, we are coming to the end of an unprecedentedly lengthy period of speculation and anticipation and reappraisal. It’s almost hard to believe there will be a two-hour movie at the end of this marketing gauntlet. Information, when it has come in small chunks, has been picked apart and dissected to a molecular level, with multiple sources breaking down trailers frame-by-frame and analyzing each part of fragmented and decontextualized compositions. The now twentysomethings that came up on the second trilogy will be primed with a glitzy creative team, the older generation’s childhood will be rehashed by situating the original characters in new storylines for the first time in over three decades, and a new younger audience will inevitably be hooked in (and has been already no doubt by the animated extensions) for the inevitable reboot/extension down the road. The demographics balance is getting trickier and more tangled and more fascinating the further along we go.
The story of Star Wars may go down as less about stylistic revolution than a constantly raging critical battle in search of the elusive soul of an increasingly gargantuan entity. It’s a ceaseless process of traversing the ever-shifting terrain of reception in the modern media era. It’s a testament to the malleability (futility? absurdity?) of criticism, and the changing cultural and artistic forces that govern it. The ways the movies speak to their audiences and to each other as intertexts have come under greater analysis. It has brought up debates about receptive modes and particular storytelling methods, as well as the virtues of even debating works that seem intent on catering to different base audiences. In Star Wars, the criticism community itself cultivated its own gawking following. With the prequels, reactions were fierce and the sounding board of a fledging internet flexed its power. In many ways, analysis fell by the wayside and knee-jerk reaction dictated the first-wave of opinions—feverish anticipation gave way to fiery rage in unprecedented measure. Considered criticism bent to reflex repetition in one of the earliest instances of viral ill-will. It was again a turning point, this time for film criticism, amplified as never before by the interconnected echo chamber of the internet. With an expected new trilogy on the way, it will be fascinating to see how this plays out. The comeback narrative is all but written. But, response and opinion, on a scale like this, it turns out, are never solid, as subjectivity itself changes over time in striking and inconsistent ways. Years, decades from now, when we talk about Star Wars, it will continue to revolve less around reading the texts than reading the response to the texts and measuring the changes and predicting the tides. In this galaxy, subjectivity about subjectivity creeps in; interpretations of interpretations reign as the dominant discourses. Star Wars is not just a struggle between dark and light; it’s a critical battleground, a bellwether for the never-ending conflict between objectivity and subjectivity.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.