The Known Unknowns of Star Wars

Star Wars shows signs of being stuck in fan-fiction mode, exploring its own backyard.

Over four years ago, as part of the announcement that he had sold Lucasfilm to Disney, George Lucas quipped that the benefit of this was that now he would get to “experience [Star Wars] as a fan.” As he reminded us, since he was the architect of all the Star Wars films up to that point, he never had the opportunity to experience any of the stories sight-unseen with fresh eyes.

Of course, three years later, he would express some disappointment in The Force Awakens. Though he initially tried to be diplomatic, he eventually lamented, “They wanted to do a retro movie. I don’t like that.” His reaction was that TFA was too similar to his own films, which ran counter to the way he felt he worked to innovate his entries, “I worked very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships ‐ you know, to make it new,” he said.

Just to defend TFA for a moment, I’ll point out that Lucas himself did a great deal of mirroring his own work when he made the prequels. Particularly in Revenge of the Sith, there are a great many moments of Anakin’s journey deliberately designed to callback to moments of Luke’s journey. Heck, in The Phantom Menace, we don’t just revisit Tatooine, but Anakin gets a space battle victory that plays out very similar to Luke’s one-in-a-million shot that destroys the Death Star. You don’t have to look hard to find the prequels echoing major moments in the earlier films. It’s the inspiration for Lucas’s infamous “they rhyme” comment when comparing the prequels to the originals. Thus, while I don’t deny that TFA deliberately parallels much of the original Star Wars, those moments are recontexualized much as the prequels are.

In other words, it feels slightly hypocritical of Lucas to call out another filmmaker for something he deliberately did himself. However, that doesn’t me he doesn’t have a point. And frankly, I think it’s a point that applies even more aggressively to Rogue One.

The first Star Wars was built on the ethos that the universe should look “used.” It’s a brilliant observation and one that makes incredible sense. The wear and tear on the world makes it feel lived in. It gives credibility to the world since it has a history and that same thought went into the mythology of the series. The first film makes casual reference to past events in a way that gives them mythic importance. We hear of the Clone Wars in two passing references, and reference is made to Luke’s father and his death at the hands of Darth Vader. Of course, Vader and Obi-Wan also allude to a past duel.

Of course, all those unanswered questions became provocation for fan debate and speculation. What were the Clone Wars? How did Darth Vader turn to evil? When did he and Obi-Wan fight? Some of these details were fleshed out as the original trilogy wrapped, but most was left open to the audience’s imagination. At its best, the canvas of the Star Wars universe is so large that it’s hard to put a limit on the kinds of stories that could be told.

And yet… so much of the filmed Star Wars product since Jedi has been focused on documenting “known unknowns.” The creators aren’t expanding the mythology so much as filling in gaps in continuity. Thus, three feature films are spent on Anakin’s history, Vader’s fall and the Clone Wars, which also became the basis for an animated series. That’s defensible, certainly. The saga certainly feels more complete with the first three episodes, but it also underlines that Lucas is far from the first storyteller in this sandbox to look backwards. At least TFA pushed the story forward 30 years and showed us what had become of the galaxy and our friends in that time. The story was at least advanced into a new place.

When it was announced that Lucasfilm would be doing anthology, “non-episodic” films, my reaction was a mixture of skepticism and optimism. My hesitation came from a place of wanting these movies to be special. When a new Star Wars film came out, it was still a rare enough occurrence that it was an Event. Turning it into a yearly ritual by releasing non-saga chapters in the years between Episodes VII, VIII, and IX felt like it was risking over-saturation. Overexposure always threatens to breed dilution. I couldn’t see a good reason to rush the standalone films before the saga films ended ‐ but, if they were telling stories that redefined Star Wars, it could be a worthwhile pursuit.

The first “Star Wars Story” ended up being a direct lead-in to the original film, focusing on the theft of the Death Star plans. To be fair, I went into Rogue One with an open mind and I rather enjoyed it. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s the fourth Star Wars film to feature a Death Star or similar superweapon and it comes just a year after we saw the most recent superweapon. Just as a mission statement, it might have been stronger for the first film to throw off the shackles of the episodic structure be something that went to a truly unexpected corner of the universe. Instead, we visit this “known unknown” ‐ a film where one major aspect of its outcome cannot be in doubt.

And what’s on tap next? A Han Solo prequel featuring Lando. My worst case scenario is that it’s about him winning the Falcon from his old friend (something we already know) and then doing the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs (ditto). Not that there aren’t reasons for optimism. It’s a Lord/Miller joint and if ANYONE can prove prejudgments wrong, it’s the guys who made The LEGO Movie. Just for extra insurance, they’ve brought Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. So this has a more-than-likely chance of being good just based on that pedigree.

But that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? If men of these talents can make even the most unlikely premise a hit, why should they play it safe with a fan-fiction premise like showing us events in Han Solo’s life that we’ve likely been teased with? The galaxy is a big place, so if we’re breaking free from the Saga, why not go into totally virgin territory?

When I examine it like that, I better understand Lucas’s frustrations. He sold the company in part, it appears, because he didn’t have the interest in making Star Wars movies for the rest of his life. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have gotten a kick out of someone doing something completely unexpected in his universe. I don’t blame him for being disappointed that the first two solo efforts appear to be spun out from plot points and lines of dialogue he wrote decades ago. More than likely, he had his own notion of how the Death Star plans were stolen or how Han’s early days were. In his heart of hearts, I think Lucas wanted to see something he wasn’t expecting.

As much fun as Rogue One was, I might have preferred that too. Why not a Star Wars Story from the perspective of people within the Empire who aren’t soldiers or Rebels? What kind of identity crisis does an Imperial Soldier have when the leader he’s been fighting for is gone and the way of life he’s known is falling away? Maybe a story about Jedi who escaped the Purge and have been in hiding successfully up until the destruction of the second Death Star? That has more appeal for me than a story about Obi-Wan hiding out on Tatooine.

There’s no mystery why there’s appeal for films dealing with the topics that have been fan debates for years, but maybe it’s time to leave those to the fans and give them something they didn’t even know they wanted.

For more on Rogue One and Star Wars history, check out The Star Wars Story: