Why Star Wars is so effective at world building

Star Wars Month was both the easiest and hardest theme month I’ve done so far.  It was the easiest because it was clear to me back in September that EVERY movie blog would be talking about The Last Jedi come December, and – unlike horror or DC movies – I actually wanted to see this tent pole.  But it was the hardest because it’s not clear where to start or where to end. I definitely didn’t have the time (or the stomach) to watch all eight previous films, not to mention all the ephemera and extra-textuals. So I decided to focus on what I am still impressed by: the fact that the original built a world that, nine films later, we’re still exploring.

Before going much farther, I recommend you check out Rocket Jump Film School’s video essay discussing how the Star Wars we know was assembled largely in the editing room.  (I actually agree with The Solomon Society’s counter video that saying it was “saved” in the edit is a bridge too far. It was edited; nothing more, nothing less.)

Although earlier I touched briefly on some of the ways that the original Star Wars built its world, I’d like to elaborate here.  First, it only gives you what you need to know. As Rocket Jump’s video covers, the original crawl contained far too much information. What we actually saw has only the essentials. Important words are even capitalized to further focus our attention, a trend that continues through The Last Jedi. As Keith Phipps eloquently puts it in his overview of the film on The Dissolve, “more goes unexplained” than not and the film only “offers a glimpe at a new world, but it’s enough to create a demand for more.”  By the time the camera pans down to the battle, know all we need to in order to start the movie.

And the movie parcels out more information and fills in more details in ways equally expository as the crawl. Aside from spectacular set pieces, Star Wars is mostly known for its abundance of audience surrogates. And those surrogates are constantly getting things explained to them. Darth Vader explains things to Princess Leia and the occasional choke-worthy official, Obi Wan explains things to Luke, and C3PO and R2D2 explain things to each other. Even the film’s editors describe cutting to R2D2 for reaction shots as a way to punch up their exposition. (As a Latin and Ancient Greek major – yes, that’s a thing – I was part of a small theater group that put on plays with one character speaking only Latin and the other characters continually restating his dialogue: “You say you’ve never seen him?” “What do you mean, you have no money?” “I agree – it is too expensive.” We called it “R2D2 dialogue.”)

But the things Star Wars explains and those it glosses over are very deliberate. The important things get additional focus: multiple characters discuss them, and we get to see them in action. The Force is discussed by Obi Wan, Luke, Darth Vader, the official Vader chokes, Tarkin – even Han has a view. It’s used all well – first by Obi Wan, then Vader, and finally Luke. Ditto for the Death Star, light sabers, and Jedi knights. Everything else is background. The Clone Wars sound cool (definitely cooler than they looked in the prequels), but we don’t hear anything more about them than a throwaway line.

The Clone Wars are a great example of how Star Wars is able to skip some expository steps: it makes its world have some parallels to our own. All we know about the Clone Wars is that the older generation fought in them; in 1977, the natural parallel would be World War II. Likewise, since no one explains the geopolitical (or is that galacti-political?) realities of the Republic, Senate, and Empire, it’s hard not to think of Rome’s transition from republic to empire. (That said, the more you dig into the world of Star Wars, the messier those parallels become. Better not to dwell on the similarities between the medal ceremony and Triumph of the Will, or Lucas’ statements that the Empire was the US and the Rebellion to Viet Cong.)  Anyway, if you were a kid, you likely didn’t need any historical parallels. But the movie needed to be simple enough for you to understand it.

And it is simple. As I said before, that’s not a slam.  The plot is simple: our heroes need to find the McGuffin, rescue the princess, and blow up the bad guys. The characters are simple too. Calling them stereotypes is maybe a bit unfair, but they are, in no particular order, the country bumpkin, the charming rogue, the prissy comic relief, the evil villain, the imperious manager, the wise old man, and the damsel in distress (although, to the film’s credit, Princess Leia routinely subverts that cliche). Stereotypes and consistency mean that we don’t have to pay too much attention to each character’s motivation.

The film is visually simple as well. Luke and Leia are always in white, Darth Vader always in black, and Han in black and white (further reinforcing his conflicted personality); Rebel and Imperial soldiers wear different uniforms; light sabers are different color. In other words, it’s easy to tell who everyone is even at a glance. No one can mistake Darth Vader for anyone else. (This may not be an actual borrowing from Akira Kurosawa, but it does remind me of Kurosawa’s direction that each actor develop a visual tic so the audience easily recognizes his character.) And it’s not just characters that are visually distinct. The aesthetic is different between the Rebellion and the Empire, with the latter sleek and futuristic and the former grubby and lived in. All of the space ships look different as well. And in the same way that kids don’t need to know the difference between the Roman republic and empire, adults don’t need to know the difference between an X-Wing and a TIE fighter – that they can tell them apart is the important part.

As I said before, it’s interesting what George Lucas kept out and what he put in.  Never is that more apparent than after watching the Rocket Jump video discussed earlier and/or the deleted scenes. On paper, some don’t sound bad:

  1. Luke watches the opening battle from below, emphasizing he’s looking “to the future, to the horizon” (to quote The Empire Strikes Back)
  2. Luke talks to his friends about the Rebellion and the Empire, providing a little more detail on the world than we get otherwise (it struck me as very out of the blue when Luke blurts out his thoughts about the Rebellion and the Empire this time around)
  3. Luke fails in his first trench run because he doesn’t use the Force, but succeeds on his second

But watching the first two and imaging the third, they are TERRIBLE choices.

Dialogue heavy scenes are not Star Wars‘ strong suit; the film is clearly action-driven, not character-driven.  (Sadly, all of these sound like something I’d suggest in a Script Doctor post. I guess sometimes being messier works to a film’s benefit. I’m reminded of The Next Picture Show‘s discussion of Get Out, where it’s paid the slightly backhanded compliment of being almost too tightly written such that EVERYTHING fits together.)

Despite this messiness, it’s remarkable that Star Wars does most of the heavy lifting for the rest of the original trilogy. Consider how few important characters or worlds are introduced in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. We get four new major characters (Yoda, Lando, the emperor, and maybe Jabba the Hutt) and we’ve already heard about half of them in dialogue; we get four new worlds (Hoth, Dagobah, Cloud City, and Endor). Compare this to the dizzying number of characters that The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi add, as well as the sheer number of new worlds/Battleground II levels in Rogue One (five new planets in one movie!). To give credit where it’s due, however, Rogue One has more beautifully composed shots than the original trilogy combined – so there is some tradeoff.

But with that heavy lifting out of the way, it gave the subsequent films in the original trilogy a chance to deepen the world it created. Without all of that effective exposition in Star Wars, there is no The Empire Strikes Back. Having nothing new to add allowed those films to focus on character development and theme. Is it any wonder that Rogue One, The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi have an overabundance of new stuff and a lack of character development or consistent themes?  The times The Last Jedi really shines in when it deals with the two characters we know best: Rey and Kylo Ren.

More than anything, though, I keep coming back to what the original Star Wars would look like today under Disney. Instead of the original trilogy, we would have Rogue One, an American Grafitti-esque Luke Skywalker origin story, the upcoming Han Solo origin story, the Darth Vader origin story (aka Revenge of the Sith), and then – finally – Star Wars. And it would be exhausting for the same reason that the modern Marvel canon is exhausting: watching all those movies just to see what the next one might be feels like homework.  It’s nice that Star Wars captures the sprawl of its universe narratively, not in minutes of screen time or pounds of film. Within that narrative, it’s now possible to make decent but imperfect films based on a single sentence (!) of exposition in the original. If that’s not a impressive job of world building by essentially one film, I don’t know what is.

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