Somehow I managed to not see “Star Wars” (1977) until I was in high school, sometime in the mid-90s. Even at that late date it, watching it for the first time was like receiving a blow to the head.
Here is a film that grabs you by the shirt collar and hurls you on an interplanetary adventure that is, above all, fun. And somehow it was plunked into the middle of the 1970s. Its closest cinematic relatives, the “Flash Gordon” serials, existed forty years prior, and by 1977, fun and adventure had all but disappeared from the movies. “Star Wars” can be credited for reviving them.
That begins to explain its importance in cinematic history. But why does it continue to connect with audiences? I grew up in the wake of its release, and my childhood was packed with fantasy adventure films that were inspired by it. If anything, it should have appeared dated, even slow-paced, by the time I got around to seeing it. Instead, it became one of my favorite films.
I think the reason has something to do with the film’s “used future” aesthetic. That is, it places us in a fully realized alien galaxy. Technology is worn and battered. Locations are dirty. Each alien has a unique culture. In the “Star Wars” universe, each object, each location, each character, and the galaxy as a whole, has a history. At each moment it teases the imagination with glimpses of these stories left untold.
“Star Wars” tells of how young Luke Skywalker left his family farm to pursue the legacy of his starship pilot father. This unfolds within the context of a galactic civil war, of which we only learn about obliquely. For all its expansiveness, “Star Wars” is indeed only a small “episode,” if you will, of a larger saga. It raises tantalizing questions. Who is the man behind Darth Vader’s mask? Who is the Emperor, and how did he come to power? What exactly happened to Luke’s father? What is Hyperspace? What was Alderaan like? Who is Jabba? And on and on.
Of course, the success of “Star Wars” resulted in sequels, comic books, novels, video games, TV series, encyclopedias, and databases that provide officially licensed answers to any question about any minor character, ship, or location. But what a magical time it must have been when all you had was your memory of this two-hourlong movie, your handful of action figures, and your imagination.
It’s no wonder so many fans felt personally betrayed by the prequel trilogy. They spent two decades dreaming up stories about Anakin Skywalker and the twisted Senator who rose to power and became Emperor. Even if it had been a competent motion picture it would have disappointed many fans, but its spectacular failure on the most basic levels sent a shockwave of despair through the nerd-space continuum.
One small example: C-3PO, my favorite character from “Star Wars.” A sensible backstory for him would have included: 1) his manufacture, or at least the mention of his manufacture, by a galactic robotics corporation, 2) his original owner, who would have been a wealthy individual or business, i.e. someone who could afford cutting edge technology and who would have need for a protocol droid, and 3) the development of his persnickety personality as a result of this privileged lifestyle.
If we accept the existing plot of “The Phantom Menace” for the time being, it would have been much more satisfying for C-3PO to have been the property of Queen Amidala, or even the Trade Federation. In fact, one of the first characters we meet in Episode 1 was a protocol droid in the employ of the Neimoidians. What a perfect role that would have been for C-3PO, especially since he was the first character we meet in the opening scene of “Star Wars.”
Imagine that he somehow gets caught up in the Jedis’ escape from the Trade Federation and is dragged from his comfortable, climate-controlled ship on this adventure into space and onto the wild, dangerous, muddy swamps of Naboo. He would hate it, and complain endlessly, as he should. Then he would meet R2-D2 on the Naboo cruiser and learn something about bravery from him. Over the course of the film, 3PO would develop a repressed admiration for the little droid and we would see the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
As a bonus, C-3PO’s presence in the sidekick role would have completely eliminated the need for Jar Jar Binks.
But instead of this, C-3PO was built by a slave boy on a poor, remote desert planet. For some reason, the boy wanted to build an exact replica of a protocol droid. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t capitalize on the character’s established traits. That’s the prequel trilogy in a nutshell.
We can hope that J.J. Abrams makes better use of his opportunity. Here again, the fans have been imagining the future of these characters for three decades now, and in very few months we will finally see the official story of what happened after the fall of the Empire.
So what will happen to 3PO? Well, he’ll be a 70-ish-year-old droid at this point. His hardware is probably obsolete. Newer protocol droids can probably translate 6 billion forms of communication and have sleeker designs with more fluid limbs that allow them to perform more tasks. Perhaps they’d be programmed to be more friendly and easy-going. This would infuriate 3PO even more. The antagonism between 3PO and his newer model could make a great comedic subplot.
I imagine the offspring of Han and Leia having varied reactions to him. One would be baffled, another would gush over his retro design. When the time came for their adventure, they might even consider leaving him behind. Their grandparents’ quaint robots are fine to keep around for nostalgic value, but on a dangerous mission they would be an encumbrance. But somehow or other, he’d get involved with the story and would eventually get a chance to triumph over his replacement.
We will see. One thing is certain: the endless stories thought up in the imaginations of countless moviegoers will continue for decades to come. All thanks to George Lucas and his silly space adventure film.