May The 4th Be With You

Being already in its fifties, the most legendary franchise is going on through the Galaxy far far away. Except the new episodes, directors and characters its trunk is full with cartoon series, spin-offs, comic books and graphic novels, along with numerous cosplayers` groups and even official postal stamps of several states. But there is a strange item in this Millenium Falcon`s glovebox – it can be a treasure chest or a can of worms as well – I mean the Disney announcement of the forth trilogy conceptually supervised by Rian Johnson (the director of The Last Jedi). Let`s dive deeper in what is good and what is bad in the Star Wars universe.

George`s the one with the Force

Dear hard-boiled fans, please cut some slack if some facts seem well-known, but I can`t help reminding that back there to the starting line George Lucas himself placed the emphasis on two things:

  • The film was basically made as a teenage action, aiming at the audience of 12 – 14 y.o.
  • While watching the first cut of The New Hope his friends told him: “George, what`s up with all this Force stuff? Where are blood and firefights, where are those wars?”

Now lots of grown-ups are referring themselves as the Jedi (or the Sith), but from the very beginning Lucas was absolutely right about choosing the target audience. Making an excellent teenage movie means not just repaying the shooting costs but also double the popularity of the movie: merchandise, comic books and posters are securing much more audience`s interest than any serious film. This also guaranteed the audience for years to come: the teenagers of 1970ies was devotedly waiting for the release of their favorite heroes` next adventures, and then in 1980ies at the top of Star Wars success transferred the newly formed tradition to their own kids. It`s like being fans of a soccer team as a family – a tradition, a great fun, and a clue to generations reunion. So the Force was in this simple decision to make a big extended franchise with reasonable pauses to give the audience time to miss Star Wars in the gaps between episode and trilogies.

That was the glorious times of Lucasfilm and the individual rule of George Lucas and his total control over the shooting process and the entire concept development. Now, when the franchise is guided by Disney, is completely different story: the studio tends to release about two films a year (an episode + a spin-off). Such a pace has led the creators of new Star Wars and their Disney higher-ups to the imagination drain and consequently to a tough choice of making the episodes X, XI and XII about the brand new characters in absolutely new setups. Anyway, let`s not run ahead the Millenium Falcon.

The filmmaking is built on friendship

Star Wars may have not become so popular if not uniting the most amazing trends and genres of all the times: space, fantastic, adventures, action, charismatic characters, quaint baddies, the magic of the Force, incredible visual effects and, of course, humor. Having all this given, Lucas`s idea was still unique and shaped Star Wars as a new authorized genre of sci-fi. Besides the uniqueness and popularity, the success was enforced by friendship of the two greatest directors – George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. It was Spielberg who adored the ideas of Lucas and was one of his few friends who was absolutely excited after seeing The New Hope`s assembly cut. Friendship has made a lot for their further cooperation: they effectively co-worked on the plot of Indiana Jones, films were shot at Lucasfilm with Spielberg as the director, and many actors from Star Wars appeared in Indiana Jones movies.

Photo credit: Getty Images

In Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade Harrison Ford (Han Solo/Indiana Jones) was accompanied by Julian Glover (General Veers, The Empire Strikes Back) playing villainously rich Holy Grail hunter Walter Donovan, and another British actor Michael Sheard (Admiral Ozzel, The Empire Strikes Back) as Adolf Hitler himself. Sheard also was in Raiders of the Lost Ark along with Peter Diamond, the Snowtrooper, Tusken raider and Death Star guard and the stunt coordinator of all three films of the original trilogy.

I’ve got a vision about this

However the things could have gone the other way if the stars shaped other constellations. What the classic Star Wars could have become if David Lynch was the director of The Return Of The Jedi? By the way, being deeply impressed by his works George Lucas offered him such an opportunity, but Lynch denied it and preferred to develop his own galactic project – the screening of Frank Herbert`s Dune. The two films were released consequently: The Return Of The Jedi in 1983 and Dune in 1984, highlighting the top interest to sci-fi on screen. Completely different sci-fi – adventurous and a bit cartoonish, serious and ideological, – since both directors longed to depict his own vision of space fiction. Lynch usually gets inspiration from dreams and nightmares, and what was the source of inspiration for George Lucas while he was creating his own universe?

It`s not the most well-known fact that Lucas was the fan of camerawork style of Pavel Klushantsev – the Russian film director and photographer, the author of many inventions in the field of camera equipment and lensing (including underwater filming), who made documentaries and scientific films with action and feature film inclusions, literally joining chronicles and sci-fi. In the years of so called ‘perestroika’ (the Soviet structural reform in mid-1980ies) George Lucas even asked for a meeting with Klushantsev, but Soviet bureaucrats even had no idea (or pretend to have no idea) who was that, so the meeting of two directors never happened. Meanwhile Lucas always names him as “a godfather of Star Wars”, so surprisingly we should be grateful to Soviet camerawork old school and Lucas`s full control over the shaping of the Star Wars canon.

Many years passed after the triumph of the original trilogy before the trend of successful sci-fi, and Star Wars in particular, was back. The next big wave of sci-fi emerged with the comedic but tremendously fantastic The Fifth Element was on screen in 1997. This wave was immediately caught by Star Wars (The Phantom Menace in 1999, Attack of the Clones in 2002 and Revenge of the Sith in 2005). The prequel trilogy is apparently the most ambivalent part of the franchise. On the one hand, all the three films were made by Lucas himself at his choice without the interference of any third parties and supervising studios. On the other hand, they ignited the first flame of discussion over making Star Wars totally commercial to the core. There is no other explanation why Lucas, famous with his skills to emphasize the dynamics of events and to make it breathtaking on screen, needed three most lengthened out films to tell the tale of Darth Vader origins?

But still it`s all Lucas`s. It took him almost 20 years to get back to Star Wars, and taking the helm again he elaborated all the plotline connections in tiniest details (that was lost afterwards in Disney`s ones) and style, invited favorite and recognizable actors and kept his friend Spielberg in mind: remember the aliens in the Galactic Senate in Episode I (a link to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and Kamino citizens in Episode II (a link to Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Source of the Force

Prequels have launched the new era of visual effects for Star Wars. Massive battlefield scenes, splendid landscape views of imaginary planets became possible, and the audience has finally seen Master Yoda`s lightsaber skills. But this technical advantage hides the cunning drawback: all the setups moved to the green-backgrounded studio pavilions (except Episode I that brought everything back to the shooting in Tunisia). Actors had to work their imagination with no decorations and no plastic and rubber-made creatures that were a bit ridiculous but real in the original trilogy. The landscapes for Episode I, II and III was shot separately from action scenes in Italy, Thailand, China and Switzerland. To make these three episodes more alive the filmmakers flooded them with the lightsaber fights – graphics is good, but there`s still a place for real action.  Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Ray Park and Christopher Lee devoted time to fencing training. Anyhow while watching the prequels there is a feeling that they lack something.

When the franchise came into Mickey Mouse`s gloves of Disney, the creators of the new films put a special focus on spectacularity. It`s good that the studio spends its enormous budgets not just on digital graphics but also on the craziest shooting in the most picturesque places in the world, like amber wavy desert of Rub’ al Khali in UAE (desolated lands of Jakku), unique Puzzlewood forest in Gloucestershire, GB (Maz Kanata`s estate on Takodana), sunny tropical Maldives (the Imperial secret base on Scarif), mysterious Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia (the crystal planet of Crait), severe and pristine Skellig Islands in Ireland (the hideout of the ascetic Jedi Luke Skywalker) and famous for numerous movies Dubrovnik castle in Croatia (planet-casino Canto Bight).

For fairness`s sake it`s worth mentioning that in the good old days of the original trilogy with its puppet Yoda and plastic AT-ATs all the outdoor shooting was made in grand style. Frozen views of Hoth were shot in Norway at Hardangerjøkulen glacier to the south from Flåm.  Guatemala became the home for the Rebellion base at Yavin IV, wildly forested Endor were filmed in Redwood National Park in the north of California, and sandy Tatooine – not only in the well-known Tunisia, but also in Yuma desert in Arizona and Death Valley National Park between California and Nevada.

Death Valley photo credit: kot_pofigist

Tunisia became a kind of a “spirit location” for Star Wars. Altogether filming was done in 9 Tunisian towns and villages for episodes I, II and IV. Curiously enough that despite of weather conditions the Star Wars directors frequently picked up Iceland in all its mighty grace: it`s just Eyjafjallajökull volcano as a snowy Starkiller base after another Myrdalssandur beach with black sand as Director Krennic`s fabulous catwalk in Rogue One.

Is there anything rogue in Rogue One?

 By the way the first spin-off in the entire Star Wars history took its well-deserved place of a chain between the prequels and the original trilogy, and not only due to the plotline chronology. In terms of stylistics Rogue One is made in closer connection with the original classics than any other newly made film. Sure, it looks more cruel and lifelike than the familiar adventurous canon, but it contributes largely to the desperate story around the Death Star.

The film employs the strongest visual images of the original trilogy: the Death Star, Darth Vader in all destructive power of his anger, Rebellion base at Yavin IV, well-known droids, Star Destroyers, AT-ATs on march, Imperial corridors, stormtroopers, fast and reckless X-Wings, Mon Calamari fleet and the very pathetic fight and sacrifice against the system. And the impactful digital graphics that helped to revive Grand Moff Tarkin and young Princess Leia will undoubtedly make it into the history of filmmaking not only as the most expensive visual effect ever, but as the most breathtaking as well. I`ve seen the first reaction on Tarkin`s appearance on screen of true fans and those  who was never much about Star Wars before Rogue One: while the first were deeply impressed and glad to see one of the most important characters` of the original trilogy back, the others didn`t even notice any effects.

Nonetheless the new characters, aliens, creatures, planets, ships and droids do not stand out from the style and do not distort the picture at all. Maybe the trick is that all the Rogue One cast and director Gareth Edwards are 100% fans of Star Wars? The Death Star builders and best frenemies Mads Mikkelsen (engineering genius Galen Erso) and Ben Mendelsohn (Director of the Imperial Advanced Weapons Orson Krennic) were arguing at the press conferences who of the two was the first to become a true fan of Star Wars. The latter wasn`t even able to concentrate at set `cause “omg we`re going to do some scenes with Darth holy donuts Vader!!”. Such a fanboy moment can be an excuse for Mendelsohn – a geek, a gamer and a movie fan – so need I say a word or two about younger actors of Rogue One who caught a luck of becoming not just a part of the franchise but of the one of the key films, the so-called Episode Three-And-A-Half.

The spin-off creators followed all the Lucas`s commandments not only in the matter of style. The legacy of prequels and the original trilogy was supported by actors who renewed their characters on screen again: Genevieve O’Reilly as senator Mon Mothma (in 2005 she appeared in this role in Revenge Of The Sith), Jimmy Smits as senator Bail Organa (previously in this role in Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith) and, of course, Anthony Daniels, the irreplaceable C-3PO for all films of the saga. By the way, Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson have created their own succession by playing cameo in films by each other: Rian Johnson took part in Rogue One as an Imperial technician, and Gareth Edwards played a Resistance soldier in Crait battle in The Last Jedi. Edwards also played a Rebel Alliance soldier in his own film.

Two years passed after completing the film production, but there are still many rumours about what happened to the initial footage, and how Disney had to “save” the film from the screenplay disaster by deciding to re-shoot almost 35 min of final scenes and to invite a new film editor to complete this task. Tony Gilroy who took the helm of post-production told The Hollywood Reporter that he actually was never interested in Star Wars and just did his job and followed the guidelines of producers, so paid no special respect to the whole idea. Honestly, it`s hard even to comment such words since Star Wars is a kind of a calling. I truly doubt that Star Wars fans could appreciate such a revelation. However the film proved to be well-done, and I still hope to see Gareth Edwards`s director`s cut on a kind of a limited Blue-Ray once in a blue moon.

Always in motion is the future

The new Star Wars have brought to the canon a row of new favorite charismatic heroes. Surely, Episode VII was apparently full of logical incoherence and far-fetched links, but it`s already hard to imagine the saga without Kylo Ren, Rey, Poe Dameron, Finn, General Hux, Captain Phasma and cutie BB-8. The original trilogy got a new perception after having the Rogue One`s background. Moreover, the Star Wars universe is not limited by films only for so long now – licensed cartoon series, comic books, table-top games and novels. We owe to the most famous Star Wars writers and visualizers – James Luceno, Timothy Zahn and Pablo Hidalgo – the story of Rebel and Imperial backstage cobwebs and such well-naturalized new canonic characters as Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Meanwhile some other characters have provoked flammable disputes. The dust over The Last Jedi has already settled, but the fans are still discussing who`s the guy Snoke, is Laura Dern in style for Star Wars and is it fair to spend much of screentime for Rose Tico. Both fans and critics were intrigued by Benicio Del Toro`s character: there is no doubt that his ambivalence will show up in Episode XI. Although there still is something to have a bad feeling about in the new Star Wars: the passing of Carrie Fisher made the Episode IX screenplay writers face a complicated challenge. She completed filming in Episode VIII so there was no need to use digital graphics, but the next episode is about to start shooting at Pinewood this summer. And while bringing a new character to the endless Star Wars universe is quite easy, it is much harder to figure out the reason why a character should leave it (especially such a major one as Princess Leia). Since Princess Leia stayed alive in The Last Jedi, it`s now J.J.Abrams`s turn to figure out the decision, we only have to rely on his fancy imagination which has no borders in fact now – if Disney is sure about its decision to make a brand new trilogy of episodes X, XI and XII he will not have to follow any old rules or steady habits.

We met Julian Glover, the legend of all possible film franchises (007: James Bond, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones) and General Veers from The Empire Strikes Back at the XoGold Charity Meeting with Star Wars Cast & Crew in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and talked over the Star Wars evolution:

“I`m of the generation who saw the very first film for the very first time. I went and seen it twice right when it came out, it was the first of its kind and simply staggering to us, young people, absolutely staggering – it was so exciting, we couldn`t believe it, because there was nothing like that. Then, #2 and #3, the emotional and intellectual content of the film improved, and it got more and more interesting. We`ve rather smirked in the beginning with all that thing of the Force, but then realized that it was what held those first three together. It was the thing that no one can explain it in real life – the Force, what is it – it`s something up there, and I thought those first three told it terribly well. I have no doubts that Alec Guinness deserved every penny he got for that.”

“I loved being in the second one because it was for me the most mature of three. Not because I`m in it (smiles). And then we`ve got the wonderful part three. Then there was a five hundred year gap before they made a next one. And when I went to  see it I thought that this is very good, but it hasn`t got something. Just hasn`t got something. Then they went on and made some more, and Harrison Ford came back. Now they gonna make more with completely new characters, completely new setups, new stories, no connection with the old stories. I think those new films are extremely well-made, you can`t fault them, the invention is absolutely tremendous, especially effects are wonderful, but they don`t carry the same impact as the first three did `cause people have seen all the sci-fi stuff. But as a part of Star Wars I think it has lost its heart.”

Photo credit: BlogProFilm

And one can hardly disagree with the acclaimed actor – Star Wars jumped from the pedestal of its own into the abyss of commerce and merchandise. Is there anyone to save the dream?

Today Disney officially claims that they are going to launch their own vision of Star Wars with no use of Lucas` ideas and put it like “Congratulations, Star Wars. You are being rescued. Please do not resist”. The whole world is waiting to see the second spin-off on screen, and despite of all the possible debates over Alden Ehrenreich`s performance and Emilia Clarke`s applicability to Star Wars, the key thing is that the factor of friendship played its card again. After a certain changes in the Solo director`s chair Ron Howard, another good old friend of Lucas who worked with him and Harrison Ford on American Graffiti in 1972, took the helm and led the film to its completion in keeping with Lucas` best practices.

The film that started as a scandal have almost turned into a production hell was suddenly saved by friendship. Not only Rebellion is built on hope. Maybe the entire world of Star Wars too. Let`s see it with our own eyes this May and next year, when the Star Wars Land is open and Episode XI released.





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