Fair warning: In this post I plan to express some controversial opinions.
I didn’t think the Star Wars prequels were very good.
Okay, maybe that opinion is not all that controversial. But when I was thinking about what Star Wars means to me, I nonetheless found myself thinking about the much-maligned Episodes I through III. Specifically, I thought about what it means to not like a work, as compared to a world.
Both by natural inclination and because I’m a working writer, I consume a lot of media, especially within the confines of science fiction and fantasy. That means, almost inevitably, that I run into things that I don’t like. Books that don’t work for me, movies that didn’t click, games I find boring. It happens! Nobody likes everything. My response is, usually, to maybe talk to my friends a little bit about it and move on. (Occasionally, when a movie is particularly nonsensical on the “science and plot” front, I write snarky things on the internet about it. But, hopefully, all in good fun!)
But this was, to put it mildly, not my response to the Star Wars prequels. Indeed, I have to think that by this point I’ve probably put more time into thinking about these movies than into many movies I genuinely loved. It’s not just that I didn’t like them — it matters to me why I didn’t like them, what about them didn’t work for me.
So I’ve watched Mr. Plinkett’s reviews, several times over, and then the rebuttals to the reviews and the rebuttals to the rebuttals. I’ve read books on the subject — David Brin’s Star Wars on Trial is a stand-out. I’ve written essays’ worth of comment-thread arguments. I’ve explicated my own theories to my friends, at somewhat alarming length. I’ve speculated on what changes might work, and why, and —
Well, and so on. The question that interests me today is why. What is it about these movies that makes me willing to put in all this effort, where I forget another summer blockbuster a few hours after leaving the theater?
I think the answer is that, for me and many others (my behavior is hardly unqiue!), some media exists as a world of its own, independent of the works that comprise it. It’s not a hard and fast theory, just a kind gut feeling, reflected in the way we judge works. An ordinary movie can be bad, and that applies to both the movie itself and to the world of the story. But Star Wars is different. After so long — after the original trilogy, the novels, the games, and everything else that makes up the media juggernaut — there’s this sense that the world of Star Wars exists in some nebulous but real sense, independent of the works that make it up.
I don’t mean that I think there really is a galaxy far, far away full of blasters and robots. Rather, I (and every other Star Wars fan) hold in our heads a kind of Platonic ideal of the Star Wars universe, the world that we envision, a composite built up from all the various sources. Regardless of how official canonicity is defined, I feel like we judge new work against that world, rather than judging the world by the work. A Star Wars movie can be bad, but Star Wars itself can never be tainted, any more than a real-life location is made worse by a mediocre movie being made about it.
This idea slips into our discussions about it. We talk about portrayals of familiar characters, as though they were real people who had an existence separate from the works that they take part in. In much the same way that different movies might give us different versions of, say, Abraham Lincoln, we argue about which movie or novel or game captures Luke Skywalker or Han Solo best, does the most justice to their complex personalities.
In this sense, the reason for all the time I spend on the prequels is clear. It’s not just that the movies didn’t work for me — it’s that (by my own, deeply personal metric) they had failed to live up to the world of Star Wars. This sense that they’re part of a larger continuum makes them fantastically more interesting to talk about, in spite of the fact that I didn’t care for them. Theories can be invented, alternate sources of possibly dubious canonicity invoked, plots interrogated. And all of this is part of what creates the Star Wars world, the shared delusion that is somehow so enduring.
Star Wars is not the only property that invokes this sense of being, of “worldness,” obviously. But it’s one of, at best, a tiny handful, out of all the books and movies and games that come and go, and that makes it special. And it’s the reason fans like me can watch the prequels, dissect them, express our dissatisfaction — and then be first in line when the next movie comes around.