Over the course of our 2015 Star Wars Series, we’ve been able to dig into some of the most controversial topics related the the epic franchise. From Han shooting first to the ever-divisive Jar Jar Binks, we’ve covered a lot of ground this year.
But the series offers such a rich vein of conversation that, even after thousands of words, there are other debates, especially about the impact of the series itself, that we just didn’t have time for.
Luckily, we’re able to get to the heart of some of those questions with the help of our regular Fact or Fiction column. It’s simple: we throw out a statement, and each member of the Drunk Monkeys Film Department takes their turn to say whether they think that statement is FACT or FICTION. And, to keep things even more interesting, none of the staff members see the others’ answers until the article is posted. Then the arguments can really begin.
So join us as we discuss the ways in which the galaxy far, far away has affected our own world, and let us know what you think in the comments below. And, as always, may the force be with you.
FACT or FICTION: Star Wars, and the mega-blockbusters that followed, ruined film.
Gabriel Ricard, Film Editor: FICTION. The auteur era of filmmaking was only going to last but so long. It gave us powerful films from the likes of Dennis Hopper and Martin Scorsese. It also gave us a number of bloated, indulgent, boring disasters. Star Wars ushered in the era of the blockbuster, which is arguably still going on at this time. It changed film forever, to be sure, but I don’t think it ruined film. At worst, it made it a little more challenging for filmmakers to tell very personal stories that aren’t likely to make a lot of money. Yet those films are still being made.
Taras D. Butrej, Film Critic: FICTION. First, I’d say that Jaws was the first ‘true blockbuster’ movie out there and it debuted in 1975, beating Star Wars Episode IV by two years. Secondly, there have been so many fun, amazing, and even award-winning films that were marketed as blockbusters. Say whatever you want about Avatar (the blue-skinned ones, not the bad remake of an animation) but it only happened because mega-blockbusters existed.
So no, the Star Wars films didn’t ruin film. Every decade or so a new trend occurs that people claim will ruin film. Sometimes the trends dissipate, and other times they become part of film canon. But none of them have destroyed the movie going experience.
Scott Waldyn, Editor-in-Chief, Literary Orphans: FICTION. In the age of the Internet, crowd-funding and easier (and cheaper) access to high-quality filmmaking equipment, this statement is a complete fallacy. We’re on the cusp of a cinematic renaissance, one where virtually anyone can have access to the tools to make great visual art. While the Hollywood establishment may implode from too many mega-blockbusters, the art of film will be perfectly fine. Film isn’t just Hollywood after all; it’s the art of visual storytelling from many creators all across the globe.
Ryan Roach, Film Critic: FICTION. We still have great, great films that come out every year. Occasionally, we even have a blockbuster that is also a truly great film. Mad Max: Fury Road is this year’s example. There was even a little decade called the 1990’s that for my money, produced some of the best films we’ve ever had. Now…have we lost some great actors to the “blockbuster studio system”? Yes, we absolutely have. Robert Downey Jr, for example was a great indie actor who made tons of interesting little films and now seems only interested in being Tony Stark. That’s definitely a loss for lovers of great film. We also went through a period throughout the early aughts were it seemed like only blockbusters were being made and it was harder and harder to make small independent films. But with now that literally anyone can make a movie and if their idea is good enough, can get it funded on Kickstarter, the studios no longer hold all the cards.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom, Contributing Editor: The way I see it, there are two FICTIONs here. The first being that film is ruined. Now, I’ll be the first one to complain about twenty-first century movies. It seems every movie is a YA movie. Fans and filmmakers think the three-act formula is the only thing that makes a movie good. But that’s not Star Wars’ fault. That’s the fault of fans going to see movies like that even while they complain about it. Sure, a lot of current movies don’t interest me, but If I want to find a good movie, I can find one.
Donald McCarthy, Features Editor: FICTION. The studios did it. Lucas’ films were blockbusters, no doubt, but they also had vision and cried out for sequels and world-building. Lucas was an auteur and while his vision lent itself to blockbuster films, he wasn’t selling out or just trying to make a ton of money. He genuinely wanted to explore and expand the Star Wars mythos.
This is starkly different from a studio deciding we need three versions of Taken. Besides, while blockbuster films weren’t what they are today, there were already movie series before Star Wars- just think of the James Bond films.
It’s also worth noting none of today’s blockbusters are much like Star Wars. There are not a ton of science-fantasy films; most blockbuster films are based on already established franchises. Sure, Star Wars borrowed from old serial films, but it was still an original universe. That’s rare in blockbuster filmmaking.
Matthew Guerruckey, Editor-in-Chief: The theory goes like this: the films of the 70’s were tough and gritty and smart, and then Steven Spielberg and George Lucas mucked it all up with their big, dumb blockbusters. Soon everything was laser swords (as George Lucas would call them) and dinosaurs, and gritty independent movies were crowded out of the multiplexes for good.
What is fact here is that many daring films got made in the 1970’s because of the collapse of the Hollywood studios. There are many factors that led to that, but it’s important not to forget the overall economic picture of America in the 70’s. With the economy in the tank, people had less discretionary income to spend at the movies, and the studios had less cash to throw around on big-budget features. Once movies like Jaws and Star Wars started making money, and the economy recovered in the 80’s, studios went back to cranking out the same garbage that they had in the 60’s. It’s not like the studio heads had any interest in making smarter movies, they just had interest in making cheap movies. The people writing and directing those cheap movies just happened to be extremely talented.
Star Wars didn’t ruin film, that’s FICTION. And the fact that every studio broke their necks trying to make the next Star Wars can’t be pinned on poor George Lucas’s weighty jowls, either. That’s just how Hollywood does it.
But, interestingly, If you want to pin the current lack of Hollywood creativity on any Star Wars movie, look to The Phantom Menace (poor Jar-Jar, you never get a break). The 90’s was one of the most diverse decades for film, as the success of major blockbusters fueled a surge in independent movies, for instance, from the Disney-owned Miramax. The list of the top films of the decade shows that creativity, led each year by a different huge blockbuster -- only two of them (Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and The Phantom Menace) built from existing properties.
But of the sixteen years since The Phantom Menace topped the box office, only Avatar is a purely original movie. Everything else is either a sequel or derived from previously successful source material. From the economic success of The Phantom Menace, the studios learned that a movie doesn’t have to be any good to make money, it just has to be familiar.
FACT or FICTION: If the original Star Wars was released today, it would bomb.
Gabriel Ricard: Goodness, what an interesting question. I’m not even sure I can answer it to anyone’s satisfaction. My instincts tell me this is a FACT, if only because it’s really hard to sell pure experience films in this day and age (in terms of the fact that you’re seeing the film for the visuals and style, and not so much for the cast. But really, it could go either way.
Scott Waldyn: FICTION. Star Wars was released “today.” It was called Guardians of the Galaxy, and it did very well for itself.
Ryan Roach: FACT. The puppets, the hokey dialog and acting, the basic black-and-white morality. All that would be a major turnoff to a modern audience.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: FICTION. It may not be a phenomenon, but it would certainly find its audience. The first Star Wars movie is really good. There’s a lot to take away from it. There’s lots of ways of looking at it. It’s a fun, thrilling movie that’s deeper than it appears. There’s an internet; I would hear about it. I would still love it.
Donald McCarthy: FACT. With few exceptions, blockbuster films have to have elaborate action sequences every ten to fifteen minutes because they don’t respect the audience’s intelligence. At least twenty to twenty-five minutes spent on Tatooine would have to be cut, especially the parts with C3-PO and R2 roaming the desert.
I also think you’d be hard pressed to have a good portion of the film lead up to a climactic duel between an old man and a dude in a robot suit who doesn’t move very quickly.
Last, like I said above, Star Wars isn’t based on an existing franchise and would therefore be a harder sell in our current film environment where most blockbusters are based on already existing works.
Matthew Guerruckey: I say FICTION here, but there’s almost literally no way to answer this question, because Star Wars itself defined so much of what came after it, as far as big-budget effect movies, that if we had never had Star Wars, it’s hard to say exactly what sort of horrible, Biff Tannen-led future we may have ended up with.
When I hear people say this, usually, it’s because they think the movie’s too slow. And if you’ve just watched anything made in the last decade, it’s no wonder you feel that way. Movies are cut so quickly today that the audience barely has time to register what’s going on -- a technique that always takes me out of a movie, but excites plenty of other people.
But for its time, Star Wars moves at breakneck speed, and It’s worth mentioning that very few people ever spoke of Star Wars dragging until five extraneous minutes of squawking CGI critters were added to it in 1997. The original edit of Star Wars flows naturally, and allows the audience to absorb the world that they’re in. And the trench run sequence at the end is the best action sequence in all of movie history.
But beyond all of that, Star Wars would still be a hit today because it communicates on a very basic level. There’s a reason that Star Wars became the narrative template for modern Hollywood: it’s just an exceptionally told, very simple story, with characters we care about in a world that’s fantastical but that we can still imagine ourselves in. If the film was released today, as-is, it would still transport this jaded generation to that galaxy far, far away.
FACT or FICTION: The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film.
Gabriel Ricard: FACT. Are you kidding me? There’s no contest. Empire is an extraordinarily complex, satisfying film experience. The others range from entertaining to insipid, but none of them match the depth and intensity of Episode V.
Scott Waldyn: FACT. It’s one of two Star Wars films, the other being the original, that transcend the bounds of pop entertainment and dazzle us as true examples of heartfelt, artistic expression. Complex. Awe-inspiring. So very human. The Empire Strikes Back is a film that takes us on an adventure we haven’t seen before, as well as makes us feel for true, rounded characters. It’s a soulful experience, one where every line of dialogue out of old Master Yoda’s mouth has a double meaning. The Empire Strikes Back isn’t just an exciting continuation of the Star Wars saga — it’s a film about life.
Ryan Roach: FACT. It may not be my personal favorite on an emotional level, partially because I saw all three films out of order originally, with Empire being the last. But yes, FACT. It is the best made, best written film with a great plot and a jaw-dropping reveal (maybe the most famous one in movie history), as well as a gripping cliffhanger. Also, Han says “I know”, which is simply fantastic.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: FICTION. The best Star Wars film is Star Wars. The Empire Strikes Back may be the one with the fewest imperfections, but it is not the best. If there were no other Star Wars movies made--no sequels, no prequels, no Disney-made sequels--Star Wars would still be a great movie. The original conceit of the film--you’re seeing one fragment of an old pulp serial--is a brilliant one. The Empire Strikes Back made it all feel more real, but it does not have the conceptual brilliance of the original.
Donald McCarthy: FACT. I mean, c’mon.
Matthew Guerruckey: My opinion on this has changed so many times over the years. The Empire Strikes Back is an exceptional movie. In our group discussion post, Lawrence Von Haelstrom called it “what we talk about when we talk about Star Wars” -- and he’s right! Empire takes Luke from a whiny farmboy to an idealistic crusader, deepens the philosophy of the series, and takes Darth Vader from a tall guy in a dark suit to one of the most terrifying movie villains of all time. It’s one of the most beautiful action movies ever made. The cinematography is outstanding, and the film is moving in a way that flows naturally from the characters and situations.
And yet. There’s just something about Star Wars. The 1977 original has a sort of awkward charm to it that Empire doesn’t. Empire is polished, Star Wars is a bit shabby, and I think that helps me believe in this rickety world all the more. Then there’s the matter of pacing. Star Wars flows much more naturally from scene to scene and character to character. Each new character we meet leads us on to the next location, which all culminates in that spectacular attack on the Death Star. In Empire, there are problems with pacing and time -- characters are placed where the plot requires them to be. On repeated viewings, Empire drags just a bit more than Star Wars. (And, again, I need to bag on the 1997 special edition release of these movies for fucking up the pacing of A New Hope.)
If you ask me again tomorrow, I might have a different answer, but right now, I call this FICTION.
FACT or FICTION: Star Wars fandom is driven more by nostalgia and merchandising than by love for the films themselves.
Gabriel Ricard: I have to go with FACT on this one. At the end of the day, you’re talking about an entire fandom that more or less exists on a foundation of six films, with only three of those being considered good by a majority. Yeah, there are TV shows, comics, and novels to devour, but those are generally only being consumed by the biggest die hards. Disney’s acquisition of the property may change this, since new films and spin-offs are being lined up for the next several years. However, at the moment, the fandom really only revolves around the original trilogy.
As much as I hate the argument, I’ve always preferred Star Trek for this very reason. As opposed to a handful of films, Star Trek gives me hundreds of television episodes, a dozen movies, and god knows what else.
Taras D. Butrej: Mostly FICTION. Sure, there are people out there who ride the nostalgia train and refuse to get off. But most people don’t go into merchandising unless the love the source material. I don’t know anyone who owns a LEGO Millennium Falcon who is unable to quote half of the original trilogy. Hell, one of them is young enough that they can quote most of the prequel trilogy too.
I’d say that Star Wars merchandising takes advantage of the fandom. Nobody is going to stand in line for eight hours just at a chance of buying a remote control droid if they’re driven purely by nostalgia. Sure, it helps, but fans are legitimately excited for the new stuff. They’re just as excited to learn about the new characters as much as they want to catch up with the old.
Scott Waldyn: FACT. When I was a child, Star Wars fandom was about the galaxy, about immersion into the Star Wars universe through movies, video games, books, tech manuals, translation guides and toys. The movies launched the fandom, but the co-creators and world-builders who came later made the fandom what it is today. I don’t think anyone can doubt this. Star Wars isn’t one movie; it’s a universe teeming with life and possibility. Fans don’t watch Star Wars; they breathe it. It’s limitless imagination, accessible to anyone, and the merchandisers are more than aware of this. Don’t believe me? Visit a Target.
Ryan Roach: I’m not into the fandom. I’ve near been to a convention, nor read any Star Wars novel, or purchased any merchandise. But I’ve got to believe it’s the love of the original films that begat all the rest of it, so it’s that love that ultimately drives it. FICTION.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: At this point, FACT. Just what are people getting excited about with The Force Awakens? Disney did some market research and decided that what people want out of Star Wars is a whole bunch of the same shit they’ve already seen. So they made a movie with more X-Wings, more Tie Fighters, a droid who’s just as adorable as R2-D2 but isn’t R2-D2, and a lightsaber with extra lightsabers sticking out of it. People are excited about seeing familiar things and pretending it’s something new. There’s a desert planet, but, see, it’s a whole different desert planet!
Donald McCarthy: FICTION and FACT. A lot of fandom is driven by nostalgia for the original trilogy, a nostalgia that allows people to look past its flaws. That sense of nostalgia doesn’t extend to the prequels, part of the reason they’re hated so intensely (that and the fact they don’t have a huge interest in just repeating the original trilogy). In the original films, C-3PO could be vastly annoying, Han could be repetitive, and Return of the Jedi is a mess, redeemed by a few key scenes and performances (notably, not Harrison Ford’s). The old films are far from perfect; even The Empire Strikes Back has the kiss between Luke and Leia, an eye rolling scene even if they didn’t end up related.
The merchandising itself isn’t driving the love, which is why I also say fiction; it is more representative of the nostalgia for the original film- you could have nostalgia for the films and not have merchandise but no way would it work vice versa. When you couldn’t see the film, you could play with the toys and reenact it as best you could.
But damn if Star Wars merchandise isn’t awesome. They sure know how to put out a good video game, after all.
Matthew Guerruckey: FICTION, but I have to be honest: it’s a tough call. The core movies are really good. The original trilogy is solid, made up of two absolute classics and Return of the Jedi, which is still pretty damn fun. And then there’s the prequels … (crickets) …
But having Star Wars merchandise everywhere right now, in the run-up to The Force Awakens, has reminded me of what the world was like in 1983, when Return of the Jedi merchandise was on every shelf (I had RotJ cookies, sheets, toys, puzzles, dixie cups, and toothbrushes when I was four). And that’s definitely connected me to a nostalgia for that time. Just last weekend, Mr. Von Haelstrom gifted me with a Star Wars read-along record much like the one that my grandma used to play for me every night to help me fall asleep. Listening to the record, holding it, running my hands over the pages of the booklet, brought back those moments in a visceral way.
The generation that grew up with Star Wars, myself and people just a little older than me, entering their forties, were very often children of divorce. So when we look back on our childhoods, it can be complicated. The original Star Wars trilogy features equally complicated familial relations (to say the least), but it has a happy ending. Even The Empire Strikes Back, a genuinely dark movie, ends on a note of hope. Luke might have just gotten his ass kicked (physically and emotionally), and Han Solo might be in the hands of a bounty hunter, but they’re going to get right back up and go get him. Because that’s what families do.
Because of that hope, the world of Star Wars was a refuge for me, and a quick way to bond with other kids who came from similarly chaotic backgrounds. when Luke Skywalker watches the twin suns of Tatooine set, no lonely little kid needs to be told that he wants to escape. Nostalgia will always be part of Star Wars -- it’s a thread that runs, uninterrupted, throughout my life. But what still keeps me coming back is more than just those toys, it’s the films that those toys represent, and the adventure it promised me all those years ago, a promise that it’s always delivered on.
FACT or FICTION: Star Wars will be better off without George Lucas.
Gabriel Ricard: FACT. Lucas is the father of this juggernaut. That should never be forgotten, nor should we ever focus primarily on the various indulgences and missteps with the new trilogy. Lucas put this whole ship together, surrounding himself with brilliant artists and performers, and he made it fly. But with the release of The Phantom Menace, it became clear that he was no longer the right man for the job. Same thing with Gene Roddenberry. If Gene had his way, we never would have gotten the films that we got, and The Next Generation would have never reached the heights it would eventually reach in the later seasons. It’s not unreasonable to ask a creator to turn over their property to other voices. It doesn’t always work out, but when it does, the universe of that property becomes bigger, richer, and deeper in its spectacular complexities. I am hoping very keenly that this will be the deal with The Force Awakens.
Taras. D. Butrej: FACT!!! I love what George Lucas has done for special effects in film. He and Peter Jackson have made sure that now, more than ever, filmmakers are less limited by modern day effects than ever before. If you can imagine it, you can almost certainly make it happen.
Buuuut…he doesn’t know jack about story, and it’s pretty evident from reading interviews with many of the actors that Lucas never let ‘acting’ get in the way of special effects. So yes, I will go on record as saying definitively that the Star Wars universe without George Lucas will be a better written, better acted place with dialog that won’t make you cringe. There will probably be no aliens that look or act like racist caricatures of old-timey films. There will most likely be no terrible comic relief.
For these reasons I believe that, yes, the entire new Star Wars universe will be better off without George Lucas. But I don’t believe this means we should ever minimize what he’s done by starting the entire universe in the first place. The first three episodes still hold up as tons of fun and there are at least three or four redeeming qualities in the prequel trilogy worth admiring. Here’s to hoping the new regime keeps the fun and ditches the rest.
Scott Waldyn: I abstain.
Ryan Roach: This can’t be a serious question. Let me just say, you can’t spell “FACT” without “L-U-C-A-S”. Oh, wait. There’s no F or T in “Lucas”? Who cares, we’ll just digitally insert it in later.
Lawrence Von Halestrom: I guess it depends on what is meant by “better off.” Will people like these new manufactured sequels and spin-offs better than the George Lucas directed prequels? Of course they will. The movies will be full of the same familiar shit we already know we like. But will the movies have any meaning beyond their own existence? Probably not. George Lucas may be a clumsy artist, but he is an artist. There’s an attempt at something deeper; there’s something intangible and magical in his films. Someone like J.J. Abrams knows only about momentum. His films move. Things happen, then other things happen, then another thing happens that doesn’t make any sense--but it was kept secret, so we’re happy to see it. I have no doubt that a lot of things will happen in The Force Awakens. But I don’t have much hope beyond that. A long time ago on an internet discussion board (far away), I answered a question about why I don’t take the Star Wars Expanded Universe seriously. I said the Star Wars film are singular works of art. The EU novels are work-for-hire merchandise. And now, with George Lucas out of the picture and Disney in full control, the new films are just more work-for-hire merchandise.
Donald McCarthy: FICTION times a thousand. Yes, Lucas has made mistakes, but the man has a unique vision and he has fantastic ideas. His execution can be flawed, sometimes very flawed, but on an idea level he’s got a good game. The recent news that all of his outlines for the new trilogy have been discarded is pretty upsetting and I don’t think it bodes well for the future of the franchise. Lucas needs someone editing him, absolutely, but a Star Wars without George Lucas won’t be the same and I don’t think it’ll be as daring. Say what you will about the prequels, but they were sure interested in taking chances. Right now, The Force Awakens looks to be a retread of A New Hope judging by the trailers. That might make the audience content, but I’d much rather see what weird direction Lucas would take the series in. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I have a feeling the lack of Lucas will always leave me a little unmoored from the series going forward.
Matthew Guerruckey: I get it, guys. George Lucas is a weird dude. He’s had the same haircut since 1977 and he wears plaid like Jay Leno wears denim (if George Lucas had a lightsaber, it would have a plaid blade). He seems to have very little idea of how humans relate to each other. His conceptions of romantic relationships and other cultures seem to be stuck in the world of his suburban 50’s childhood. But Lucas understands narrative, he understands myth, and he understands Star Wars. And I’m not sure what Star Wars is without him.
And yet, we’ve had twenty years of Star Wars without George Lucas, in the form of the expanded universe books, comics, and video games. Very little of it ever felt like real Star Wars. And now, Star Wars is just another cog in the great Disney machine. Not only will we be getting more Star Wars, we’ll be getting one new Star Wars movie a year. I don’t want that. Didn’t order it, didn’t ask for it. Don’t need it. I’ve really enjoyed the Marvel movies, but with each one that comes out they become less special. I don’t want to ever feel like I’m tired of Star Wars.
By the time the sequel trilogy wraps up in 2019 (just four years from now!) we’ll have had an entire trilogy, plus two “anthology” movies, in almost the same amount of time that would usually elapse between installments of the Lucas trilogies. That’s going to be exhausting, and it’s not being done for story purposes, but because Disney wants to make good on their $4 billion investment as quickly as possible. Lucas is a canny businessman, and there’s no question that he made some decisions strictly for their merchandising potential (hello, Ewoks), but Star Wars itself was never just a product to him.
Lucas originally planned to just keep making Star Wars movies forever, but life got in the way. And that was for the best, because then we knew the whole story. And the story came first. What is the story that needs to be told in Rogue One? They get the Death Star plans. I know that because it was told to me in one sentence of the opening crawl of the original Star Wars. What do we need to know about the young Han Solo? Nothing that we didn’t learn when he was played, as he always should be, by the young Harrison Ford -- one of the most charismatic actors in movie history. And what, when it comes right down to it, is the story that needs to be told in The Force Awakens? Is it a story that actually needs to be told, or that just one that can be told? There’s an important difference. And until I know that answer, I need to reserve judgement.
But, to me, the story itself might not be the point of The Force Awakens. The point is that, for one last time, Star Wars fans get to celebrate a new Star Wars movie as something special, not as an annual obligation.
Our Star Wars series is coming to a close as the new film is ready to make its debut! Join us here for a day-of-release review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and for a group discussion of the film soon after that.