Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Ten Year Ago, Star Wars Fell Off A Cliff

I hadn't realized that it had been over 10 years now since The Phantom Menace was released. Of course, I imagine that is not an anniversary most people tend to observe, but it is significant as it marks the downfall of one of the great science fiction franchises.

I use 'downfall' purely from a quality standpoint, of course. Star Wars still makes scads of money and has many ardent fans, my 8-year-old nephew among them. But few people who aren't wonder-filled prepubescents can deny that as far as story quality and cultural impact goes, the franchise is only a shadow of its former self and shows no sign of resurging. Phantom Menace was simply a bad film, and Attack of the Clones somehow managed to be even worse. Revenge of the Sith was better than the first two but was still only mediocre at best.

Its interesting that the franchise has fallen so quickly and so completely in the public's eye. Once, it was held as the pinnacle of fantasy-related story telling. Today, its just another scifi franchise among many, and far from the best.

Its also interesting that it is not weathering its current downturn anywhere near as well as many of its peers among long-running scifi franchises have handled theirs. Star Trek and Dr. Who have all had up periods and down periods, yet none of them fell quite so spectacularly as Star Wars. I have to wonder why.

Star Trek has had many mediocre, and some outrightly atrocious, episodes among its many series and movies. And yet, the public seemed a lot more forgiving of Trek's sins than those of Skywalker and co. Even after outright bombs like Star Trek V and Nemesis, the Trek brand remained essentially untarnished.

I think in part it might be just the sheer volume of Trek stories out there. Everyone seems to have a sense that if the current incarnation of Star Trek sucks, another one will eventually come along that will be better (and that's pretty much exactly what's happened recently.)

But also I think Star Trek strives for something Star Wars never has: story transcendence. It tries hard to be more than just pulp adventure; it explores new ideas and is unafraid to ask the BIG questions about things like destiny, mankind, existence, god, love, and other things. And very occasionally, it succeeds ('The City On The Edge Of Forever,' 'The Inner Light,' 'The Visitor.') Even when it fails (which is more often than not) we recognize the nobility of the attempt, we are more willing to overlook it because hey, at least they're trying.

Doctor Who is very similar in this regard, especially in its modern incarnation; it too tries for story transcendence and occasionally succeeds, though its best stories tend to be quite a bit darker than Trek's. ('The Empty Child'/'The Doctor Dances' and 'Human Nature'/'Family Of Blood' are the two storylines that stand out most for me.)

I guess Dr. Who and Trek are like good friends that we see struggling and striving for a hard-to-obtain goal, so that when they succeed, we can't help but cheer. And when they fail, they pick themselves up and try again. Who can't admire that, at least at some level? Its almost like what Rocky Balboa said--its not how hard you can punch, but how many times you can pick yourself up after being knocked down that determines if you're a winner or not.

Star Wars hasn't picked itself up yet, if it ever will. The keepers of the franchise insist that its mistakes were in fact successes, that there is nothing really to correct, that there is no higher goal for them to try and reach. It fell to the mat and apparently likes it there. And so the franchise keeps floundering, and the public has no interest in seeing it revive, as its not even trying to do better. What's there to cheer for?

The potential for future greatness is there, mind you. The Star Wars universe is very rich and can be mined for a lot of great stories and ideas, as some authors in the 'Expanded Universe' novels and comics have shown. But will we ever see that creative vitality for Star Wars make its way back onto the screen? It doesn't seem too likely, anytime soon.


FanBusters said...

As bad as the Phantom Menace was, I think Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith hold up pretty well.

If Clones had been Ep. 1 and Sith Ep. 2 with a new bridge in Ep. 3 with Vader hunting the last Jedi and the Bothans stealing the Death Star plans everyone would have been pretty happy.

Phantom Menace should have been left as a novelization.

Gustaf Hallberg said...

Actually I'd say that even though the films have lost traction, some of the computer games (namely Knights of the old Republic) keep the series going.

Paul Lucas said...

Fanbuster, that's a pretty interesting idea. I would crtainly have liked to see a bridging chapter myself with Vader in full evil mode. But given how mediocre in my opinion the other prequels were, I'm not really sure if it would have guaranteed a better movie, since the same people would have made it.

Gustaf, I can't really speak for the franchise computer games, but I have friends who've played them who've been fairly impressed with them. Its just too bad that kind of creative quality couldn't make its way onto the movie screen.