Like so many others old enough to have seen the Star Wars franchise since the beginning, I’ve been catching up with the latest Disney films. Contrary to the gnashing of teeth by hardcore fans, I think they’re a blast and hold true to George Lucas’ original vision better than even The Master Himself. However, they’re suffering from an issue that’s beginning to bug me, and it’s one that I hope that future film makers will consider for future installments.
The Return of Star Wars Minimalism
One of the most insightful criticisms that Red Letter Media had about the Star Wars prequels was how obsessed George Lucas was with his backgrounds and special effects. More than half the time, it seemed as if every scene had to happen against the backdrop of a massive CGI set with a million things going on at once in the background. As a result, this undermined many of the saga’s most dramatic moments.
The best example of this was the showdown between Anakin and Obi Wan in Revenge of the Sith. This was supposed to be the climax of the trilogy, the moment when Obi Wan lost Anakin to the Dark Side and Anakin suffered the horrible injuries that led to why he ended up in that iconic Darth Vader life suit. Unfortunately, thanks to Lucas’ obsession with large-scale backdrops and CGI spectacle, his moment couldn’t have been flashier or busier:
Now don’t get me wrong–this is a visually stunning, dazzling spectacle and a tour de force of CGI and fighting choreography. But therein lies the problem. It is so amazing, so beautiful, so mesmerizing that the drama that’s taking place between the two men is completely overshadowed by everything that’s going on around them. It’s just more interesting to watch them hop, skip and jump across this ginormous lava field than it is to get emotionally wrapped up in what’s happening at that moment.
When you look at the Disney films, it seems as if the behind-the-scenes people took everything that Red Letter Media said to heart. The movies have reverted back to the minimalism of the original trilogy. Gone are the cavernous Lucas-style backdrops, the busy CGI special effects and all the other stuff that bogged the prequels down. The sets are no more ostentatious than they need to be and there isn’t a bunch of craziness happening behind the characters like something out of a Zucker Abrahams Zucker film. Finally, so much of the action in these films is about the human element and heartfelt moments, not about technical and visual whiz bang.
However, there is a problem: though Disney did a bang up job returning the franchise back to its minimalist roots, it’s gone too far in the other direction. The sequels may have cut everything to the basics, but now so much has been taken out in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi that nothing feels like it’s taking place within a vast, sweeping cinematic universe filled with billions of people and many planets. There are no establishing shots or scenes and practically all of the background extras are either Rebellion or First Order. In addition, the sets all have been limited to Rebellion and First Order locations and nowhere else.
Because of this issue, the Disney films–though excellent–don’t have the epic quality that defined the Lucas movies, which had you feeling as if you were being swept off your feet and pulled into a vast world of which the main characters are a part. Everything so far has had the feeling of happening inside of a tiny fish bowl.
I noticed this problem in The Force Awakens and was hoping it would be fixed in The Last Jedi, but it actually became worse in the latest Disney entry, and was bad enough for me to pass comment on it. There are many moments when it rears its ugly head in The Last Jedi but if I had to pick one, I guess it would have to be Luke’s flashback of the moment that led to Kylo Ren destroying his temple and kidnapping and killing his students. Not only is it the best example of my complaint about Disney’s minimalism, it begs comparison to the Anakin and Obi Wan showdown in Revenge of the Sith.
On one hand, this flashback thankfully has none of Lucas’s bombast. There isn’t a Gungan farting in the background for comic relief as they duel, there isn’t that signature Lucas backdrop with hundreds of CGI characters running around in the background and there aren’t tons of dizzying special effects popping onscreen every second.
On the other hand, the moment is oddly underwhelming because of how minimalist this sequence is. It all basically boils down to a few short tightly-framed shots of Luke and Kylo Ren locking sabers. Couldn’t we have had at least a few establishing shots before this confrontation of Luke’s temple when it was up and running? Couldn’t there have been a few shots of him training and interacting with his students before the massacre happened? Or even a few shots of his pupils fighting or running for their lives as Kylo massacred them? Just something to show that yes, there were actually other people besides Luke and Kylo involved in and directly impacted by their conflict? But there isn’t anything at all to show that. The students are mentioned in passing and all we get is a fleeting shot of Luke’s temple burning in the background.
Another perfect example of Disney’s minimalist approach can be found in A Force Awakens, with the destruction of Hosnian Prime. Keep in mind that this moment was huge–not only were billions wiped out, it was meant to show the levels of depravity that The First Order and Kylo Ren were willing to sink to. Yet, as momentous as this event was, very little was done to establish how vast Hosnian Prime was or how many people lived there. There are no establishing shots leading up to this event, no scenes of a large, teeming metropolis beforehand to show the audience, “Hey, billions of people live here, and Hosnian Prime is huge both in terms of population and political importance.” You see the death ray sweep across the countryside, you see a dozen people scream, and that’s it.
Normally, the Hosnian Prime destruction scene and showdown between Luke and Kylo wouldn’t have bothered me so much if these were isolated cases, but they bother me of how pervasive this issue has been throughout The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens. Aside from the fact that, like I said before, it’s causing these movies to lack the grandeur that made the original trilogy and prequels feel epic, there is this other problem. With so little to establish the world that the characters live in, everything that The First Order does feels as though it’s happening in a vacuum in which all it wants to do is kill off the Resistance. As a result, the conflict between the two enemy factions and the world they inhabit has reached 1980s cartoon show levels of insipidness.
If you ever watched shows like He Man: Masters of the Universe, Thundercats or The Smurfs, you’ll know what I’m talking about. There would never really be anything to the conflict between the two enemy factions other than, “The bad guys are scheming to take out the good guys because they hate the good guys,” or “The good guys are stopping the bad guys because the bad guys are trying to kill them.” Since that’s what all the conflict amounted to, there was very little to establish any real background to the conflict or the larger world in which the factions existed. You would hardly ever see any other people outside of the main characters or places other than where the two factions hung out. In the rare moments that there were other people or places shown on the show, it was only in service of the Conflict of the Week Plot.
It’s this kind of stuff that makes me realize why, for all their flaws, the Star Wars prequels deserve some credit for what they were trying to accomplish. In fairness to the critics, the politics and intrigue in those films became so overwrought at times that they took away from the most important story arc (the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker). However, what was great about that stuff was that it gave the existence of the Sith a breadth that elevated it above mere plot point or age old theme of Good vs Evil. In the prequels, the Sith weren’t just evil archetypes or there to foil the protagonists; they were characters who were using the Force to cause imbalance within the galaxy itself, and on a grand scale. They started wars, manipulated trade agreements, plotted political assassinations and wreaked all kinds of havoc.
Because of the political maneuvering and everything else in the Star Wars prequels, you got a better sense of just how destructive and formidable the Sith were. Why? Because everything they were doing had such devastating, far reaching consequences everywhere, you were emotionally invested in seeing them defeated, if not so that the Jedi could prevail but also so that balance could return to the galaxy at large and people could live their lives out in peace.
With the new Disney films, it’s different. There doesn’t seem to be much going on with Kylo Ren and The First Order other than they’re the bad guys who hate the good guys and want to kill them off. So there’s no depth or scope to any of this conflict other than, like I mentioned previously, the 1980s cartoon series Conflict of the Week in which Skeletor battles He Man or Mumm-Ra battles the Thundercats.
Balance is the Key
After all I’ve said, I know what some people are going to say. “Oh, you stupid Star Wars fans! You’re never satisfied! First you complained that the prequels had too much background and political stuff going on. Now you’re saying there’s not enough! To hell with you!”
No, I’m not saying that at all. What I’m saying is that Disney had the right idea by going minimalist. The problem is that it went so far with it that its approach is becoming just as bad as George Lucas’s. Whereas Lucas went overboard with his “Show, Don’t Tell” philosophy in the prequels, Disney is now going overboard with its “Tell, Don’t Show” philosophy with the sequels. So, what I’m suggesting is that in the future, directors strike some kind of balance between the bare bones minimalism it’s doing now and the vast world building and political intrigue of the prequels.
So, should it still keep sets to a minimum? Yes. Should it focus primarily on human drama and emotion rather than special effects and massive backdrops? Most certainly. Should it not delve too deeply into political intrigue or not have a million extras and side characters running every which way but loose? Of course. But let’s have some scenes and shots establishing that everything is taking place within a larger universe in which other people live and are impacted by what’s going on. Let’s bring some of the epic feel of the trilogy and prequels. Let’s both Show and Tell, not Tell, Don’t Show.