A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
Those words first came across the movie screen in the 1970s. The world was a different place then, and Star Wars brought a lot of expectations to the young movie goer. There were nine to twelve films planned to tell an epic story of long time ago humans. The saga of Luke Skywalker, and Han and Leia (with her Hopi hair), connected to the idea that the history of humans in the universe was cyclical, that great civilizations rose and fell and planted seeds of the next even across the vastness of space over countless millennia. The ‘ancient astronauts’ idea, popular in the seventies, played a role in the reception of the original trilogy. Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica were basically the same ‘ancient space’ story, one starting at the beginning of the wars and the other starting when a ragtag fleet leaves a destroyed civilization to seek Earth.
Somewhere along the way that bigger vision got lost. The ancient astronauts idea is now largely associated with a guy with big hair who says “I’m not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens.” Star Wars itself became a corporate profit machine and like most corporate things, it keeps repeating the same story for the sake of continuing profits. If they had the ‘BattleStar Galactica’ ending now, they’d probably get sued and audiences would be irate—considering it worse than the ending of Game of Thrones. So the epic nature of the original story got watered down into another small victory story, a simple family story of a person going back to a small community, adopting a new name and supplanting a dark side.
There’s an interesting article about the original ending of Star Wars that Lucas intended, but it’s written from the perspective of seeking out old scripts, not remembering the audience mindset of the seventies. It says that “a long time ago” was supposed to be from the perspective of a storyteller in the restored Republic looking back on ancient history. It doesn’t mention the notion that many young people watching in the late seventies attached “a long time ago” to the idea of galactic generations of humans creating civilizations which were destroyed by war. Of course, it’s all a fantastical notion. A clever way to fold futuristic ideas into ancient ones to interest young people in human history.
Presenting grand ideas to stir the imagination used to be the realm of science fiction. Now it seems that small ideas (the same old same old) get so overhyped that there’s bound to be a letdown when they finally get to the screen. Watching Star Wars almost feels like a responsibility to a corporation and the creatives they employ. It’s a whole economy unto itself, one too big to take risks and challenge prevailing perceptions, and somehow that ends up feeling small and no longer connected to those bigger notions of a long time ago.
Where will Star Wars go next? There’s one plan for Rian Johnson to do a new trilogy. I imagine they’ll be a time jump away from the Skywalker era, with a branding tag like “this isn’t your father’s Star Wars”. Maybe they’ll try to tell a grander story and get back to the ideas of connecting those humans long ago to us here on Earth. Johnson has said that directors shouldn’t approach the creative process with an idea of making fandoms happy. He says “I want to be shocked, I want to be surprised, I want to be thrown off-guard, I want to have things re-contextualized, I want to be challenged as a fan when I sit down in the theater…”. If he gets his trilogy, will they really allow him to go there?