The last time the Star Wars saga came back to the big screen in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, it was one of the most anticipated movies in the history of cinema.
However, The Phantom Menace and the rest of the prequel trilogy were such horribly made films that there is a sense of trepidation as the series returns to theatres for a 7th installment this week.
JJ Abrams faces a much more complicated task in directing the first of a new trilogy, The Force Awakens, than simply making a quality film. He has to rebuild faith in the series, bring it back to what made it great and make everybody forget the horrors of the prequels ever happened.
The most important thing with the new film is to make it feel like a Star Wars movie. The prequels were each devoid of the charm that made the original trilogy such timeless classics.
Part of this was a result of the overwhelming amount of CGI and green screen usage throughout all of the films. George Lucas is undoubtedly a pioneer of special effects, and deserves huge credit for what he did with the original films, but he got completely carried away with the technology available to him in the prequels.
It’s a positive and comforting sign that JJ Abrams has put a great deal of effort into, as production designer Darren Gilford says, “being as true to the original trilogy as possible”. This includes using real sets, miniatures and actual quality film-making techniques beyond simply putting actors in front of a green screen.
Of course there will be a need for use of computer graphics in a film of this nature but for The Force Awakens, Abrams will have to find a balance. The prequels felt sterile, lifeless and unnatural; the actors clearly disjointed from the amazing visuals happening behind them that weren’t present when filming.
This over use of CGI was far from the only problem with the prequels though. Simply using real sets and scaling back the amount of the film that’s created on a computer is only part of the job for the director.
The prequels are some of the most poorly written films of all time. The characters are dull and uninspiring, and are all hampered by truly tragic dialogue.
Lucas rushed out the scripts for each of the three films, without stopping to consider whether the audience would be interested in the characters, or if the plot made any sense. It’s difficult to care for about the journey of Anakin Skywalker when his character is either an exceptionally annoying little kid or a grumpy, power hungry young Jedi.
The characters backing Anakin are even less interesting: Mace Windu, for example, offers absolutely nothing to the plot of the three prequels bar being played by Samuel L. Jackson. And then there is Jar Jar Binks; the insufferable cartoon creature clearly shoved in to please little kids.
Lucas did something similar in Return of the Jedi, the final movie in the original trilogy, when he introduced the cute cuddly Ewoks. That film survived, however, because it was a well told story with interesting characters that the audience cared about.
All the excitement that was built up in anticipation for the Phantom Menace pretty much died the moment people started talking about the taxation of trade routes and intergalactic politics. When you start telling the audience that the force is actually just microscopic bacteria, it ruins several of the most magical moments from the original trilogy.
It’s to the benefit of the new Star Wars movie that George Lucas is no longer involved in the production of it. There was none of the craft and care that was present in the original trilogy put into the prequels.
It feels like Lucas just threw together a rushed script and shot it all in front of a green screen so they could get it out there and make a lot of money off of box office sales and merchandise. The same thing happened with the last Indian Jones movie: it was just a cash in, playing on people’s nostalgia and love of the series.
Not a lot has been given away from the trailers for The Force Awakens, but there are already signs that we should be optimistic about this. JJ Abrams is a good choice for the director; he oversaw the recent Star Trek reboot and can certainly make a fun, fast paced sci-fi action movie.
We can see, even in the brief glimpses we get from the trailer, the characters showing emotion and behaving like real people. They look like people we can care about: we can become invested in their journeys.
The Force Awakens is a new journey both for the fans of Star Wars and for the series itself; a story of characters new, but familiar, that has yet to be told.
Once JJ Abrams makes it with the care and affection that was absent from the last installments of the series, then there is a new hope for Star Wars – and not just in a galaxy far, far away.