Make Star Wars cheap again

The Star Wars franchise is constantly producing a stream of profitable new merchandising and material, including video games, novels, comics, and animated shows. But the film and TV side of Star Wars feels like it’s struggling. Over the past five years, Disney has repeatedly announced plans for new movies, then unceremoniously canceled them or just kept them silently back-burnered. Disney Plus’ recent Star Wars live-action shows keep promising new directions for the franchise, then pulling back and mixing messages. There’s no clear vision or coherent narrative direction for the screen versions of the franchise, even though they’re the most visible and mainstream part of Star Wars. Everybody seems to want something different out of this grand, sprawling story.

So Polygon is gathering some thoughts about the franchise’s future under the loose banner of What We Want From Star Wars. These opinion essays lay out what we love about the Star Wars universe, and where we hope it’ll go in the future … or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars is in a state of interrupted transformation. Disney’s slate of films and TV events are straddling the gap between the auteur-driven hero’s journey and a fully franchised system of blockbusters. Some of the individual installments are managing it pretty well. Others have, let’s say, growing pains.

Disney’s newest Star Wars movie trilogy isn’t tentpoles so much as the actual tent that most of modern Star Wars content can shelter in. Those films are divisive — a word that undersells one of the touchiest fan conflagrations of the online era, a conflict that drove Lucasfilm into a hiatus of consideration. The controversy grew to encompass many things, but was rooted in competing interpretations of exactly what defines “a Star Wars story.” Is it the characters we know? The places we recognize? Is it the philosophy? The morality? And if so, whose interpretation of that morality?

There are many potential answers to this question, and only one way to figure them out: Star Wars needs to experiment. But how does a $300 million production that’s expected to make back three to four times its budget both reach for four-quadrant appeal and experiment with the future of the franchise? It’s an impossible scenario.

We need to take a lightsaber to this Gordian knot. We need to make Star Wars cheap again.

Your credits are no good here

Image: Lucasfilm

It’s impossible to say something about Star Wars these days without it being controversial to someone, so it’s worth unpacking: Star Wars needs to evolve. Not because there’s anything wrong with it in the present state, necessarily, but simply because that’s how stories survive more than a limited number of tellings.

The versatility of long-running franchises depends on discovering which details are indelible to the story and which can change to meet the moment. Otherwise, the story itself will become a relic, fit for adaptation or remake but not continuation. The universes of DC and Marvel Comics, the transmedia franchise of Star Trek, the BBC’s Doctor Who — these are stories where creators have found ways to renew and update the basic narrative. Some of these franchises have evolved through slow, gradual change, and others through, well, crisis and regenerative fire.

What they have in common is successful experimentation. Every new issue of a Marvel or DC comic is a new experiment in what works for those settings. Each new Doctor or Captain is a chance to lay the bones of the franchise in a different configuration and ask, Does this work? Is this interesting? Is this what the audience needs right now?

It doesn’t seem controversial to say we would not still be talking about Star Trek if those words only encompassed James T. Kirk’s Enterprise, and if Gene Roddenberry et al. hadn’t taken a chance on the idea that Star Trek could work even when it wasn’t about the electric triangle of Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Star Trek: The Next Generation proved that the necessary (warp) core of a Star Trek story wasn’t the characters but the setting, the ideas, and the theme.

And Star Wars is likewise familiar with swift leaps of evolution, as it’s been through one already.

The science of Star Wars

Luke and Vader square off in The Empire Strikes Back, dark silhouettes with their lightsabers blazing.

Image: Lucasfilm

We also would not still be talking about Star Wars if not for the leap The Empire Strikes Back made from A New Hope in tone, setting, characters, and moral ambiguity. Sure, A New Hope would still hold box office records and play on AMC as a cult favorite of science fiction fans, a fascinating ode to the pulp era of Flash Gordon serials. But it’s easy to forget how many things are now considered inextricable from Star Wars, even though they didn’t exist until Empire: family ties between Sith and Jedi. Force visions. Shadowy Force ghosts. A choice between studying the Force and making personal connections. Conflicted romance. Bright lightsabers in dark rooms. John Williams’ “The Imperial March”!

In its day, Empire was a controversial film. Some critics were outright dismayed by how far it veered from A New Hope’s simple, upbeat hero story. The reviews were middling, and many fans were put off by its far darker tone. Some disliked the reveal of Vader’s true identity and bristled at Leia’s burgeoning romance with Han Solo over the more heroic Luke. Today, Empire is considered among the best Star Wars movies ever made, if not the best. It’s an experiment that paid off in the long run, but to get there, director Irvin Kershner and the writing team had to take chances, make bold choices, and risk failure.

Not all Star Wars experiments have been so lucky. Lucas attempted to experiment with the prequel trilogy himself, prioritizing modern digital special-effects technology over the practical effects and puppetry that were core to the first three movies, and revealing the Jedi as much less than the image of golden-age crusading knights that his original trilogy conjured. The resulting movies were flawed, generating confusion and disdain in the short term, and only earning affection in the long run. Rogue One and Solo: A Star Wars Story each have their boosters, but the comparatively weak box offices for both suggested that the eternal-prequel approach wasn’t a steady enough foundation for Disney to rest another global theatrical production on.

And regardless of your personal opinion on The Last Jedi (an Empire-like experiment in warping the Star Wars story to a new place) and Rise of Skywalker (an experiment in seeing whether another carbon copy of Return of the Jedi would please 2019 crowds), you have to admit that neither made it out of the gate untattered by audience scorn.

A mixed reception to the newest Star Wars film meant something quite different, however, back when The Phantom Menace and its sequel were essentially massive independent films backed with their director’s personal money. The Walt Disney Company couldn’t stomach immediately divisive Star Wars movies because its plan for the franchise rested on every installment being not merely a success at the box office, but also an emotional success with consumers as a non-controversial brand — to drive the sales of books, games, toys, clothes, home furnishings, theme parks, cruises, and so forth.

This is how movies like The Last Jedi, Rise of Skywalker, and Rogue One, each of which grossed more than a billion dollars, can still send a studio on a three-year soul-searching pause. They’re failures because they didn’t immediately please everyone. That bar isn’t something that any work of art should have to reach, but that’s the box Star Wars was put in when Disney announced its (short-lived) plan to produce a massive, massively expensive Star Wars blockbuster every year.

There’s a larger discussion to be had about the effects those kinds of expectations have on our modern mythology. But this isn’t a “What do we want from the Hollywood machine?” piece, it’s a “What do we want from Star Wars?” piece. And what I want from Star Wars movies is for them to stop being too big to fail.

Star Wars thrives in scarcity

Uncle Owen looks despondently up from the small Jawa who just tried to cheat him out of his money by selling him a broken droid in Star Wars: A New Hope.

Image: Lucasfilm

We all know that the original Star Wars films were made on a wish and a prayer, with the crew blowing up spaceships cobbled together with parts from battleship model kits. But I think we’ve forgotten it on a more emotional level.

We could stand to be reminded that Sir Alec Guinness was the most compensated actor on that set, and that even Harrison Ford was getting more work as a freelance carpenter than as an actor at the time. It can be difficult to remember the ad hoc constraints of the original trilogy now after George Lucas retroactively covered them up with each new video format release, removing blue-screen lines around pilots on Hoth, peopling Mos Eisley with extra CGI inhabitants, and in some cases digitally replacing entire actors, all in the name of more closely realizing his vision.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope went perilously over budget, with production costing $18 million. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $85 million today. Other modern action films made for around that much include Sonic 2, Shazam!, and Birds of Prey. The Force Awakens’ budget, meanwhile, was $300 million.

Hold on now, you might say, Star Wars needs that money to look good. To which I would reply that Disney’s first foray into prestige Star Wars television, season 1 of The Mandalorian, cost somewhere not far above $100 million, and it’s a couple hours longer than The Force Awakens. Somewhere between that $300 million for two hours and $100 million for eight 30-to-50-minute episodes, there is room to make many great-looking, relatively small-budget two-hour Star Wars movies.

You could even argue that a smaller budget could make the films look better. The ad hoc techniques Lucasfilm pioneered to make the original Star Wars movies have become an indelible, ineffable part of the franchise’s vibe. Practical effects, efficient costumes, reusable sets, fewer CGI characters and more puppets — this is how you make Star Wars look like Star Wars, and modern directors know it.

The Mandalorian looks back at Baby Yoda in the cockpit of the Razor Crest.

Image: Lucasfilm

If future Star Wars movies only cost a fraction of Rise of Skywalker, they’d only be saddled with a fraction of the expectations. And then it becomes a simple case of the law of averages: One of them will find the key to Star Wars’ franchise status. Or, in an even more likely scenario, multiple films will find that their smaller scope is well supported by smaller, discrete portions of the audience — like the fans who really do want to see all-new characters with no old callbacks, or the fans who want less Light Side and Dark Side and more moral ambiguity.

So let’s make more low-budget Star Wars! Make a movie inside the Volume! Make a movie that never leaves the surface of a planet, or the halls of a Jedi Temple, or features a cast largely consisting of puppeted droids. But above all, give the franchise the breathing room to experiment.

Because Star Wars has got to evolve to stick around. And evolution requires mutation, and mutation will create some failures, and the possibility of failure demands the reduction of risk. So for the good of the franchise, we must return Star Wars to its roots. We must make Star Wars cheap again.


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Star Wars needs more moral ambiguity

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