Stepping Back: The Key to Star Wars’ Broad Appeal
Joshua Sikora | On May 25, 2013
“One of the things that I’m doing in these films, to give it a little bit of a reality, is to give the shots a kind of documentary feel, where things float off the shot. I don’t really put people in the center and I let them sort of drift around in the frame a little bit more than you normally do in a movie…. It just gives you the sense that it wasn’t just staged perfectly for the camera — that things are kind of caught — they aren’t perfect and that actually happened.”
— George Lucas
Last week, I looked at how J.J. Abrams’ take on the Star Trek universe missed the heart of what Gene Roddenberry had created. Now, Abrams is turning his attention to my other favorite sci-fi franchise as he preps Episode VII of the Star Wars saga.
Many people are hopeful that Abrams’ sensibilities will better fit the more “action-packed” world of Star Wars, but I fear that once again this is an example of poor casting — Abrams may look the part, but I’m not sure he can play the role. It’s not because I don’t think he’s a talented filmmaker — I tend to be a fan of his work — but ultimately his style is at odds with what has given Star Wars so much staying power.
When I look back on the Star Wars saga, I think the most distinct difference between it and Abrams’ work (not to mention much of contemporary Hollywood entertainment) is the use of an objective point-of-view. Star Wars has always been told through an objective lens, whereas the common tendency today is to hone in on the main character and subjectively play out the action through his or her eyes. In literary terms, this is the cinematic equivalent of third-person vs. first-person storytelling.
Abrams’ Emotional Rush
Abrams loves getting in the head of his protagonist, and he’s quite good at it. His films and TV series take the viewer on a tightly wound emotional roller coaster, and when he does his job right, you’re deeply invested in the journey of James Kirk or Ethan Hunt or Sydney Bristow. His use of the camera tends to reflect the mental state of his characters — often employing a kinetic handheld approach that viscerally connects the audience to the hero.
Abrams isn’t unique in this approach, although I think he may be better at it than most. This is really the style of the hour and many audiences resonate with it. It can be a powerful and effective way of taking viewers on a cinematic journey. However, it’s not without its disadvantages. Perhaps the biggest danger to using this approach is that it can end up being all-or-nothing — the audience either connects with your hero and goes along for the ride, or they don’t. I know many people who love Abrams’ version of Kirk or Sydney from Alias, but I know just as many people who have trouble relating to those characters. And because everything is tied to their emotional journeys, if you can’t connect to the character, you can’t connect to the film.
Where this is especially problematic is if your film is intended for a broad audience. For all of their energy and bluster, Abrams’ Star Trek films appeal to a pretty narrow crowd — sure, it’s Hollywood’s favorite demographic of ticket-buying young adult viewers, but most people over thirty will be turned off by the immature kids crewing the starship, while most younger viewers will care little about Kirk’s emotional arc. With everything wrapped up in that singular focus, if you’re too old or too young for that emotional sweet spot (or simply don’t find brash, roguish heroes all that relatable), then you’re really out of luck. Amidst all of the flash and chaos, there’s not much else to latch onto in these sorts of films.
Taking a Step Back
Compare this then to Star Wars, which George Lucas told from a very objective point-of-view. On many occasions, he’s likened his approach to that of a documentarian, capturing the reality of a foreign world in an almost detached way. Of course there are heroes in the films, but the movie doesn’t force you to experience the story through their eyes. The camera sits back and observes these characters and that lets you figure out what to latch onto and what to connect with.
At first, this may seem counter-intuitive, but I believe this is key to the longevity and success of the Star Wars films. Different viewers will find different things to invest in throughout the films — and more interesting than that, as viewers age and mature, their focus will also change. I grew up watching the films and over the years, I’ve noticed that how I relate to these stories keeps changing. As a kid, the droids were my entry point into the universe. Since then, I became more heavily invested in Luke’s story. At other times, I found Han and Leia’s relationship more compelling. As I got older, I became more fascinated by Anakin’s arc over the six films.
And many times I’ve watched the films without needing to latch onto a character at all. There is so much on display, that sometimes I just sit back and study the production design, the background characters, or the political machinations. The action, especially in Episodes I through III, is meticulously choreographed and a wonder to behold. The music, with John Williams’ perfect leitmotifs, tells a story of its own across the saga. When I find Luke to be too immature for my tastes or Jar Jar too annoying, I need only look elsewhere in the frame to find something that is fascinating.
It is this sort of rich world-building that has made minor characters like Boba Fett so popular or made ships like the X-Wing and Star Destroyer so iconic. Compare that to Abrams’ Star Trek films. Is there anything compelling outside of the lead characters? Everything is designed around them. In the latest entry, the characters visit the Klingon Homeworld, but the film reveals absolutely nothing about this potentially intriguing culture. We travel to a barren part of the planet with generic, meaningless structures. We know nothing about the Klingons save what we learn through dialogue.
In Star Wars, every planet is unique. Every culture has specific traits and imagery and backstory. Even if you haven’t seen the films in years, you can probably name distinct qualities about Tatooine, Coruscant, the Ewoks, or the Gungans.
Who Do You Please?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the subjective style that Abrams’ employs — just as a first-person narrative can often be a great way of telling a story — but it has its limitations. Never is this more clear than when all of Hollywood tries to craft their films to be “cool” for the teenage viewer. When everything gets focused on pleasing young adults, the world of the film gets very, very narrow.
At its worst, Star Wars has also suffered from this. Much has been made of the saga being too kid-friendly, but this always seemed like a strange critique for a series Lucas intended for kids in the first place. Like Pixar’s films, Star Wars‘ appeal to older viewers is almost incidental — but it’s because Lucas captures his world objectively that this is even possible. The Ewoks may appeal to children, but amidst those scenes Lucas also gives us some deeper character-driven scenes and some incredible space action. There’s something for everyone.
So as Abrams approaches Episode VII, he has a few challenges. First, he’ll have to decide who his intended audience is. Will he embrace this as an adventure for children, like the previous six films, or will he see this as a chance to “grow up” the series and give us something “cooler”? Can he flesh out the world with rich design and history? And can he pull the camera back enough for us to be able experience it?
I don’t think there’s a right answer to those questions. Maybe a cooler Star Wars is exactly what’s needed right now. Abrams has a lot of directions he can take, but in order to make a good film, he’s going to have to find a way to adapt his strengths to mesh with the world in which he’s playing. He’s been at his best when he’s created the world himself (Alias, Lost) and he’s stumbled the most when he’s most clearly trying to riff on someone else’s ideas (Super 8, Star Trek Into Darkness). He’s a smart filmmaker, so I think there’s hope that he’ll get this one right — but it’s going to be more difficult for him than it would be for others, whose sensibilities already line up better with Star Wars. Ultimately, I’m most anxious to see where Abrams goes after this — I’d love to see him return to something more original, where his distinct voice and strengths as a filmmaker can be better expressed.