Simplicity is key when faced with the task of Star Wars-ing, as perfectly outlined by the first two prequels in the franchise. Now, class, this lesson isn’t going to be a big downer about the prequels, but alas George Lucas has presented us with a clear example of how to Star Wars well and how to Star Wars badly, and I’m going to need to get into it.
Consider A New Hope. A New Hope can be summed up in one sentence: The bad guys have a weapon that the good guys need to destroy, and they do. Admittedly, this lacks the nuance of the movie’s telling, but the basic idea is there. Lucas based his masterpiece upon the sci-fi serials of the 50s, where the plots were simply that a bad guy wants to do something and the good guys stop him. Of course, the continued appeal of A New Hope is its characters, its action, its world building, and its mythology. Mythology is a big part of the Star Wars series. In A New Hope we get a sense of the Jedi and the Force without too much. Obi Wan mentions the Clone Wars but doesn’t elaborate, and Luke learns about the death of his father but we don’t get the full story. There is a feeling that we are just seeing a tiny story in a huge galaxy of potential tales that if we’re lucky we’ll get to see more of later.
The issue with The Phantom Menace is that this mythology about the Force and the Jedi is all laid out at once, with the Force – a seemingly magic power – turned into something biological, robbing it of its mystique. The prequels also go out of their way to give origins to characters who don’t need them. We don’t need to know where Boba Fett came from and we don’t need to see Anakin as a little kid. It is interesting to see Anakin eventually get corrupted but we don’t need his entire life story. The main difference between the prequels and the originals, and the thing that makes the movies sink and swim is fun. The prequels, being mostly about stoic, emotionless Jedi, are not very fun. They lack an audience surrogate character to poke fun at it all and to raise an eyebrow when something crazy happens. Han Solo provides so much good stuff in the originals that he single-handedly elevates the trilogy above the prequels. He provides the quips, the snark, and half of the romance. The prequels never get close to a character like Solo and because the Jedi are super serious all the time they feel airless and slow.
Overall, when faced with Star Wars-ing the key things are fun and mystery. Build a world but don’t give away all of its secrets. Fill the world with serious characters if you would like but sprinkle some fun ones on there too. People should want to live in the world you’ve created for your movie whether they’re serious and disciplined or a bit wilder, they should be able to see a place for them up there on the big screen.