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Star Wars Doesn’t Exist

Star Wars doesn't exist.

Okay, wait, let me explain. Stars Wars, the sprawling phenomenon, exists. Obviously. It's the most successful media franchise of all time. (The Marvel Cinematic Universe is higher-grossing, but will we still care about the MCU in 2051? I don't even care about it now.) Star Wars, the ubiquitous cultural touchstone, exists. Even those who managed somehow to get this far in life without ever seeing Star Wars have absorbed it by osmosis. And Star Wars, the ground-breaking landmark of cinema history, exists. It cemented the blueprint for the Hollywood blockbuster. It revolutionized special effects. It introduced Joseph Campbell to generations of screenwriters (for better or for worse). So why doesn't Star Wars exist? Well, answer me this: What is Star Wars?

Don't say "media franchise." Don't say "cultural touchstone." Don't say "landmark of cinema history." Lord of the Rings is all of those things too, but I can tell you exactly what it is: a fantasy epic based on Tolkien. See? I did it in five words. So what's Star Wars? Swashbuckling space fantasy drawn from Kurasawa and Flash Gordon? That's mostly A New Hope. (Yes, I know the original title was just Star Wars. Don't split hairs.) Multi-generational family epic? Sure, sort of. But isn't it more about good versus evil? Or democracy versus autocracy? Or spiritualism? Or destiny? Universe-building? Selling toys to kids? The answer to almost every one of those questions is both yes and no, depending on which slice of Star Wars you look at. It's Schrödinger's space opera. The only exception? Star Wars never stops trying to sell toys to kids. But... but that can't be all it is, right? Right?

The truth is, Star Wars is a mixed bag, and a HUGE mixed bag, at that. It's undefinable, because it means something different to every one of us. The words "Star Wars" represent real estate in our imagination, more than they do any one film, book, video game, or toy. More even than the franchise taken as a whole. Star Wars, to me, is not a movie. It's not a book. It's not a toy. It's not a Baby Yoda Facebook meme. And it sure as hell isn't a computer-generated racist stereotype (take your pick). Star Wars, to me, is an idea. An idea I can't begin to define. That's what I mean when I say Star Wars doesn't exist.

The Empire Strikes Back turns forty this year. So, to explore the very personal ways Star Wars has meaning, let's take a look at that particular slice. It's not hard to find people who feel that Empire is the single best piece of Star Wars media. So easy, in fact, you've already found one of those people without even trying. (It's me. I'm your father.) Empire is the Star Wars movie against which all other Star Wars movies are judged. And it's also not hard to see why. It's a masterpiece. The Vader imagery alone is definitive. But so many other things we recognize as intrinsic to the series came from The Empire Strikes Back, too. There are a lot of firsts. The first serious exploration of The Force, and the seductive temptation of the Dark Side. The first climactic lightsaber duel. The first attempt to turn a heroic would-be Jedi towards evil. It's not the first random bottomless shaft (Star Wars' most weirdly-specific tic). But it is the first time someone fell into one. The first instance of the Imperial March, one of the most significant pieces of film score ever composed. The first Force Ghost. The first appearance of Yoda. Of the Emperor. Of Boba Fett. I think there was some kind of iconic plot twist in there, too, but I can't remember it offhand.

It's impossible to watch Empire today without the rest of the franchise hanging over you like a snake on Dagobah. (Go watch those scenes with an eye out for snakes, by the way. You'll have a lot of fun.) But imagine watching it in the theater in 1980, with no point of reference besides A New Hope. It must have been mind-blowing. And yet, for all that, The Empire Strikes Back is not the quintessential Star Wars, to me. There are pieces missing. Space battles. Backgrounds crowded with the most ludicrous and lurid creatures the imagination can conjure. Whimsical architecture inspired by Gaudi. The irrepressible sense of fun. These aren't criticisms of Empire, mind you. But they are essential qualities of my quintessential Star Wars. (Of course, when J.J. Abrams attempted to make such a film, it came off as empty pandering. Star Wars is hard.)

No two Star Wars movies are the same. That would actually be a great quality if fewer of them also sucked. Which brings me to the hardest part of being a Star Wars fan... it lets you down. All the time. It's actually remarkable. If we include only major cinematic releases, there are still 1,600 minutes of Star Wars. By my count, somewhere between 245 and 500 of those minutes are worth their weight in celluloid or digital. The rest? Somewhere between disappointing and infuriating. So why do I keep going back? I finally figured it out in 2018, on my way to see Solo. I knew I had to manage my expectations. I was ready for disappointment. But I realized it didn't matter if the movie was bad. Because Star Wars doesn't exist.

Star Wars is not one disappointing movie. Star Wars isn't one or two disappointing trilogies. Star Wars isn't even Empire Strikes Back, high water mark though it may be. Star Wars is mine. It’s a place in my head. It's a place in your head, too, even if you've never seen a frame of it. It's yours. Star Wars looks different to you than it does to me. It looks different to younger fans, whose first exposure was the prequel trilogy. It looks different to everyone who ever loved, hated, or felt indifferent towards it. Star Wars doesn't exist.

Wait, no. That's not quite right. Star Wars does exist. There's a moment. After the 20th Century Fox fanfare. After those immortal words: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." The screen goes black. You know what's coming. The shattering orchestral blast. The stirring theme. The crawl.

In that moment, in the darkness, right before the music starts, anything is possible.

That's Star Wars.


Edward Gibbons-Brown

(Sometimes) a theatrical director/actor/producer and writer, and (mostly) a bartender and New Beaconite, often found in semi-aimless wander. Edward is pleased and honored to contribute to the most excellent Story Screen.




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