With the new trilogy now completed, and with this being May 4th/Star Wars Day, I thought it an appropriate time to look back at a film I loved at the time and have only grown to love even more now we have a whole set of news film, including the highly under-rated Solo: A Star Wars Story, to compare it with.
Form the very start, I had faith in director Gareth Edwards, even when the internet imploded with the scandalous rumours that reshoots had been ordered from the higher-ups in Disney because of fears that this was going to be a ‘dark’ film. And it is, and all the better for it.
My first hope had always been that while the full-on Star Wars series could very well ape what had come before (and boy, did the newest trilogy ape the original Star Wars film beat for beat when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out), when there was a plan to release stand-alone Star Wars films, such additions to could be their own thing; their own brattish offspring shaped and moulded to leave the fingerprints of the director (in this case Edwards) all over it. Having seen his low budget debut, Monsters, as well as the over-bloated Godzilla, I was impressed that Edwards could do scale.
Epic, gargantuan scale, and he does. Star Wars is all about the epic; the vast long shots that establish not only planets but environment, topography, alien life and culture.
Jedha, the shot up and shat out war-torn world so important to the mining of kyber crystals Jedis had once used in their lightsabers, feels suitably lived in and worn out. It’s a world on the brink of annihilation because of the Empire’s Machiavellian machinations and also the planet on which Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) brings together – more by accident than by design – a rag-tag team of down and outs that has something of the Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai about them. But then, that’s the point.
Lucas was deeply influenced by the visionary director Akira Kurosawa, and it is well known of the many, many narrative and visual cues he took from films such as Hidden Fortress and others. In fact, when I first saw the green Naboo vistas upon which the Gungans and humans battle for their planet in The Phantom Menace prequel, it reminded me of the same lush green vistas of Kurosawa’s King Lear epic, Ran. Lucas wears these influences proudly, as does Edwards.
Rule one for making a successful Star Wars film: borrow from the best, but don;’t juts regurgitate. And, as a Seven Samurai in space, this does just that, with similar end results to the story too.
Similar to Seven Samurai, the film opens with the saving of a young Jyn by an ageing Ronin like rebel, Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker) on a very Kurosawa-esque planet, Eadu.
Eadu looks and feels like the Mount Fuji based Throne of Blood, all washed out, ashen, damp and dark. The very place you would go to hide from an evil Empire keen to reacquaint themselves with Jyn’s father, and Death Star guru, (Mads Mikkelsen), Galen Erso. The set dressings here, as elsewhere in the film, looks and feels very familiar.
Rule number two: keep it familiar but add your own twist. Erso’s moisture farm stands in antithesis to Lars Owens’ own moisture farm on the desert planet Tatooine and Jeddah’s bustling city is chock full of the same kind of ‘scum and villainy’ as Mos Eisely.
There are a fair few familiar faces that crop up in cameos throughout the film too, that help add a smile to fans in a film that, on the whole, is the darkest (if not the darkness) addition to the franchise. Only fleeting in many cases, but satisfying nods to fandom nonetheless. The scenes on Yavin 4, as well as Vader’s superbly placed cameo, not to mention Grand Off Tarkin’s revival via CGI magic, intrinsically link this film to the original trilogy more than anything in the past three films. It’s a fantastic prequel to Star Wars: A New Hope.
Overall, this is and isn’t a Star Wars film. It is, because it has all the same old familiar design elements and battered, frayed edges. It has echoes of Kurosawa sown through it, maybe even more than Lucas ever did, but it is also Edwards’ own film too.
It is dark, tragic, grim. It starts off, quite literally, with bang and no crawling exposition that has traditionally started every single one of the other seven films. The ending may leave you emotionally drained too, be warned, but it is also a reminder of what is just waiting around the corner; a bright young farm boy with big ideas and even bigger dreams and the return of the Jedis!
With the success of this film, as well as its place at the top of many fans’ favorite Star Wars film these days, it felt like Disney were willing to do something different for once. Something less conservative. But then came Solo, and the background chatter that surrounded the original two directors, Phillip Lord and Christopher Miller, who were, allegedly, allowing their actors to ad lib and rife of one another while filming. A big no-no for a franchise so heavily guarded and one that saw them thrown off the film to be replaced by a safer pair of hands in Ron Howard. Which, in retrospect, feels like the wrong move to have made, if you review my original hope for these new films.
Why couldn’t we have a more humorous, looser Star Wars film? Another film with a different style to it, but still canonical. I mean, look at what they’ve achieved with The Mandalorian, itself a stand-alone style that harkens back to the Westerns that Lucas also took inspiration from. A series that, like Rogue One, stands apart from the other films but is clearly still part of a bigger universe thanks to Baby Yoda, IG-11 and trips to Tatooine. What if Disney had just had more faith in their original directors, and if only this wasn’t picked up and ran with by the press; who knows what kind of Solo film we would have ended up with? And, who knows what other entries into the Star Wars universes we could have had. But, as we know, that wasn’t to be. For now. However, with the success of The Mandalorian, who knows whether this will get the executives at Disney food for thought? What we have been left with is screaming fan rage at a final film that, to be fair on JJ Abrams, not only had to tie up the whole Skywalker saga, re-write the gender imbalanced of the past, but also make sense of some of the revelations from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. That as always going to be a tall task to achieve, even from someone like Abrams.
But, as they say, the dark before the breaking light of dawn is always the darkest, although, as Jyn constantly reminds us, hope is on the horizon, a new hope. After all, with a Cassian Andor and K2SO espionage series upcoming, maybe we will see more of that experimentation with genre, style and substance. And that can only be a good thing for this franchise.