Star Wars Shouldn't Need to Get R-Rated to Stay Relevant

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It’s clear that Lucasfilm is eager to continue expanding the limits of the Star Wars universe. But they should rely on genuinely innovative storytelling, not superficial grittiness, to keep audiences interested.

When Lucasfilm announced that Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss would be writing and producing their own series of Star Wars films, fans immediately wondered if the deal signaled the studio’s desire to start bringing darker, more “adult” stories to the screen. After all, it’s confirmed that the new films will be distinct from both the Skywalker saga as well as the recently-announced independent trilogy being developed by The Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson — and given Game of Thrones’ reputation for exhaustive sex, violence, and dark gray morality, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that Benioff and Weiss were brought onboard to explore narratives that might be a little too gritty for the mainline trilogy.

Admittedly, no further details concerning the series’s content have been released. But that hasn’t stopped the Internet from speculating if Benioff and Weiss would be helming an R-rated installment of Star Wars, or outright declaring that “Yes, It’s Finally Time For An R-Rated Star Wars Movie.” The choice wouldn’t be totally unprecedented — after all, the box office success of recent of R-rated genre flicks like the superhero blockbusters Deadpool and Logan as well as the supernatural horror IT has proved that darker storylines can still be immensely bankable. In addition, the development of Quentin Tarantino’s reportedly R-rated Star Trek project seems to further suggest that studios are willing to introduce more provocative content into established franchises that have proven themselves as reliable family draws.

Yet an R rating doesn’t inherently signify higher-quality storylines or more complex character development — it only represents the inclusion of “adult material,” which generally means overt sexuality, violence, drug abuse, or profanity (PG-13 films can usually get away with one f-bomb). Moreover, it’s doubtful that the addition of any of these elements would actually enhance the Star Wars universe in any meaningful way. While the audience is presumably aware that, in theory, there are places within the galaxy where nude Twi’leks dance in a gentlemen’s cantina or death stick addiction ravages planetary neighborhoods, the series’ sweeping cinematic structure seems ill-equipped to handle these kinds of narratives with much seriousness.

To be sure, the franchise already contains a fair amount of potentially distressing content — there’s the systematic genocide of the Great Jedi Purge, routine dismemberment, and reliance on the galaxy’s state of constant warfare and its attendant horrors — yet the Star Wars franchise has always held an enduring, sincere reverence for the power of hope, as opposed to the glib nihilism and realpolitik that characterizes sprawling prestige dramas like Game of Thrones. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the latter — only an acknowledgment that Star Wars inhabits a different, more clarified moral universe, and that the impulse to ask for a Star Wars film that’s simply Game of Thrones in space would be a misunderstanding of the saga’s most fundamental themes.

After all, Star Wars is a series that has a broadly optimistic faith in human goodness, one in which its heroes constantly seek to redeem their enemies rather than permanently eliminate them through killing, and one that urges us to believe a murderer can be redeemed in death by his son’s love. The appeal of Star Wars is arguably similar to Craig Ferguson’s summation of Doctor Who, another long-running and beloved sci-fi saga, which he describes as “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.”

That’s not to say that there’s no potential for moral nuance at all; the arcs of Finn and Kylo Ren in the new trilogy deconstruct the idea of goodness as an inherent quality, and the animated The Clone Wars series examines the humanity of the clones bred to unconditionally serve the Jedi and the Republic before the rise of the Empire (making their inevitable betrayal in the execution of Order 66 seem all the more tragic). The Last Jedi even explicitly calls attention to the Jedi’s failures as an institution, slightly complicating the saga’s existing paradigm of Jedi = good and Sith = evil. Star Wars is already capable of exploring these questions without relying on visceral and/or gratuitous violence. Perhaps most crucially for Lucasfilm, it’s a series that adults can watch and discuss with their children — and it seems unlikely that the studio would waste the momentum of a feature release by excluding a huge swath of their potential audience.

Yet that doesn’t mean the new Star Wars standalone films should remain bound to the same kind of storytelling that’s come before. The best existing example of the kind of vast, interconnected media universe that Lucasfilm likely envisions for Star Wars’ future is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which already encompasses 18 feature films and 10 television shows with countless more still in development. The sheer scope of the MCU has allowed its superhero films to delve into a broader range of genres even as they remain within the same generally-connected world. Its two most recent (and highly praised) releases, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, are about characters whose arcs seem roughly similar on their face — both would-be kings of isolated realms whose reigns are threatened by the arrival of an antagonistic, previously unknown family member — yet one is a quasi-Shakespearean drama with shades of Afrofuturism and James Bond, while the other is a 1980s-tinged space romp with a distinctly irreverent, comedic bent.

Star Wars contains the same breadth of narrative potential and perhaps more, given the thousands of years of canonical galactic history preceding the events of the prequel trilogy. Lucasfilm has already made a grounded war drama with Rogue One, and trailers for the upcoming Solo suggest it’ll be more like a heist film. Some have theorized that given their experience crafting Game of Thrones’ faux-medieval fantasy, Benioff and Weiss could be making a trilogy based on the Knights of the Old Republic video games, which are set almost 4,000 years before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope and explicitly examine the choice between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force with a kind of moral uncertainty that has yet to be seen in the Skywalker saga.

If Star Wars is indeed willing to further experiment with genre, there are countless other paths that its standalone films could take — imagine a political conspiracy drama or mystery set in the last days of the Republic (think “Mr. Smith Goes to Coruscant”), a galaxy-spanning espionage thriller set during the initial 29-year cold war between the New Republic and First Order, or even a psychological horror flick steeped in Sith mythology and starring plucky teen padawans. Instead of going out of the way to include the kind of explicitly contrived “edginess” that only an R rating would make possible, the franchise’s first priority should be to earnestly explore the galaxy’s untold stories.

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Aline is a writer and student. She is very passionate about campy period dramas, female-driven horror films, and obscure Star Wars lore.