This week’s question is from Staff Writer Alex McCown:
“If you could change one thing about the Star Wars universe, what would it be?”
I’m going to jump in and snag the blindingly obvious answer: more women. Now, in Star Wars’ defense, sci-fi was a sausage fest long before George Lucas showed up, and he did give us a singularly well-rounded feminist character in Princess Leia, whose wisecracking, ass-kicking take on the damsel in distress was revolutionary in 1977. But that was really never followed up. In both Empire and Jedi, there are precious few female characters with dialogue, and Leia is the only woman whose character even has a name. (We only know what Mon Mothma’s is because she has an action figure.) Every droid is male by default, as is every alien who isn’t an exotic dancer. It didn’t have to be that way. For starters, there are loads of characters whose gender doesn’t matter to the story at all, so why default to male in every instance? Is there any reason Count Dooku couldn’t have been a Contessa with a less-stupid name (apart from the unshakeable Hollywood rule that, if you can get Christopher Lee, you cast Christopher Lee)? Or that the rebels wouldn’t recruit female pilots to attack either Death Star? Or that the entire Imperial fleet wouldn’t have a single woman working in any job at any level? Even apart from that kind of basic representation, there are a lot of character dynamics that could be made a lot more interesting if the cast were less of a boys’ club (as Jason Reitman explored with the inspired casting of Ellen Page as Han Solo in his table read of Empire). What if Qui-Gon Jinn had been played by Michelle Yeoh? (Who, let’s face it, has much better swordfighting bona fides than Liam Neeson.) Some playful flirtation between Yeoh and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan would have added a charge to what ended up being a pretty stilted mentor/pupil dynamic. And any hint of romantic feelings on Obi-Wan’s part would have made Qui-Gon’s death even more affecting. And that’s just one example. It’s a vast galaxy. We’ve seen high-strung robots, philosophical Muppets, and two different kinds of giant alien slug. Surely we can stand to fit a few women in there.
I’m going to piggy back on Mike’s answer and ask not just for more women, but also for better arcs for the female characters that do exist. Both Princess Leia and Queen Amidala start out as pretty badass leaders, yet wind up weirdly neutered in their final films. This is far more egregious in the case of Amidala, who’s introduced as a kickass teen queen in The Phantom Menace (one of the reasons it’s my favorite of the prequels, come at me), but winds up a love-sick mess in Revenge Of The Sith. I’m supposed to believe that the politician who once stormed her own palace with guns blazing later leaves her newborn twins motherless for no medical reason other than the fact that she’s “lost the will to live”? Fuck you, George Lucas. While Leia fares much better by comparison, Return Of The Jedi also struggles to get a handle on her once she’s in a relationship. Slave bikini nonsense aside, I’ve never liked the way Leia becomes basically an entirely different person in the Ewok village–one who mopily wanders through the trees, speaks in weirdly vague platitudes, and breathlessly asks Han to hold her. I’m all for letting badass female characters have a vulnerable side (otherwise they just wind up as stereotypical “Strong Female Characters”), but I just wish the original trilogy and the prequels had found a way to better integrate those vulnerabilities into the fantastically competent, complex women they originally created.
The thing about Star Wars is that it basically takes the most fun parts of Republic serials, World War II movies, samurai flicks, and ’40s swashbucklers and distills them into one monomyth, which is how you end up with white dudes with faux-Asian names fighting space Nazis to music that sounds an awful lot like Erich Korngold. The problem with just about everything spun off of Star Wars, and the reason why it all can’t help but underwhelm, is that its primary influence is Star Wars. So I’d say more outside genre influences. Imagine what a serious wuxia buff could have done with the Jedi.
I don’t hate the prequels like so many of my fellow Star Wars fans seem to, but I do really dislike the idea of midi-chlorians. These biological specks take the abstract alchemy out of the Force, reducing an unknowable mystic concept to one with all the philosophical pleasures of chloroplasts. So I’d wipe out the midi-chlorians from the Jedi mythology, just as surely as the Galactic Empire wiped out all those cute kids who had their blood tested for midi-chlorians so they could train to be Jedi. Conversely, I’d be in favor of keeping the midi-chlorians but altering them back into the magic of the Force, maybe by making them closer to the order of “Dust” from Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy: mysterious, conscious cosmic particles that gather around sentiment creatures who have imaginations and share knowledge.
I might be courting controversy, because I’m a relative newcomer to the Star Wars world at 34 years old, but I’d love it if C-3PO was just slightly less self-centered. His schtick can be funny enough at times, but other times, it both slows down the films and drives me crazy. When, for instance, in Return Of The Jedi, he’s complaining about R2-D2 not having put on his leg while R2’s trying to save the Millennium Falcon and all parties involved? Get over yourself, C-3PO. And while I’m sure George Lucas thought he’d be comic relief, he also thought Jar Jar Binks was comic relief, so I don’t have a lot of faith in him in that regard. All this being said, I’ll fully admit that if I had gotten into Star Wars as a kid, I might have thought C-3PO’s bullshit was charming. As an adult, though, I just want to kick him in his shiny gold head.
Just because he’s become practically synonymous with misbegotten new characters doesn’t mean we can avoid the endlessly obnoxious space elephant in the galactic room: Jar Jar Binks was a colossal mistake from the start. George Lucas’ effort to create a fun, kid-friendly creature, meant to be goofy and appealing in equal measure, almost singlehandedly sucks the air out of The Phantom Menace. Even if you set aside the ugly racial overtones of the Gungan—something rather hard to do—his cringe-inducing presence drags down scene after scene, reducing great actors like Liam Neeson to pretending to grab a tongue and chastise him. Despite recent efforts to rescue the character from his ignoble reputation, a viewing of the first prequel film should remind everyone what’s so awful about Jar Jar in the first place, and why he should never, ever be missed.
Because this is a trope I hate any time it crops up in genre fiction—looking at you, Harry Potter—I’m going to eliminate Anakin Skywalker’s status as “The Chosen One.” First off, the prophecy surrounding him makes very little sense, given what Vader actually accomplishes—and yes, I’ve read all of George Lucas’ statements about how “balancing the Force” actually refers to killing Palpatine and wiping out the Sith; it still comes off logically weak and kind of dumb, especially since everything I’ve seen about The Force Awakens suggests that evil Force users are still hanging around and making trouble, anyway. And in the second place, this kind of narrative hyping is just so damn unnecessary; unless you’re doing something interesting with them (and Lucas definitely isn’t), prophecies like this (and Anakin’s weird immaculate Force conception, which we can also ax) only serve to make a character seem extra important and cool. And given that the character in question was already Darth fucking Vader, one of the most badass characters in all of science fiction, the choice to also make him Space Jesus of Tatooine just feels like ridiculous, unnecessary overkill.
Nothing against the talents of the great Jake Lloyd, but I think the whole prequel trilogy would be a lot easier to swallow if Anakin had been an angsty teen from the beginning. The plucky kid we meet in The Phantom Menace is pretty positive about everything, despite the fact that he and his mother are slaves, so it’s hard to understand why the Jedi Council would refuse to let him learn how to use the Force. However, if Anakin were already hinting at a tendency toward rash violence and an inability to suppress his more powerful emotions—if he were, in other words, a teenager—then Yoda’s opinion that he’s “too old” to begin the Jedi training would make a lot more sense, as would his eventual fall to the dark side and the love story between him and Padmé. Basically, I’m arguing that Hayden Christensen should’ve played Anakin in all of the prequels, which may make it seem like I didn’t really think this through, but I totally did. I want more Hayden Christensen!
The ending of The Empire Strikes Back (the best Star Wars movie to date) is just about perfect; our heroes have suffered their first major setback with the capture of Han Solo and the loss of Luke’s hand, but, bloodied, they haven’t given up the fight. It’s a great cliffhanger, but like nearly every great cliffhanger, it leaves the sequel a lot of mess to clean up. If I could change something about Star Wars, I’d make the rescue of Han Solo more plot relevant somehow to the rest of Return Of The Jedi. As is, it’s a thrilling sequence that shows Luke’s newfound confidence as a Jedi, but, apart from getting Han out of Jabba The Hutt’s clutches, it has nothing to do with the Rebellion’s fight against the Empire. The whole thing is a narrative cul-de-sac, robbing Jedi of the forward momentum that, up until that point, had been one of the series’ greatest strengths.
Like a lot of Trekkies (that’s what they call us Star Wars super-fans), I know of the movies primarily for inspiring the instant classic Star Wars Holiday Special, co-written by funny man Bruce Vilanch and co-starring Bea Arthur. This exquisite expansion of the Star Wars universe put the focus where it should have been all along: on Chewbacca’s extended family, his home planet, and the erotic holographic fantasies of his older male relatives. The special focused on Life Day, a holiday celebrated on Chewbacca’s home planet that has gone on to usurp Christmas in popularity on our humble little blue marble of a planet, and I’ve always wondered why the movies didn’t delve as deeply into this rich and vibrant territory as the special did. Are the screenwriters prejudiced against Wookiees? Do they not want to make money? Are they worried they could never write about Wookiees with the authority and sensitivity of a Bruce Vilanch (who is actually part Wookiee and part Muppet, which is why he’s able to write for them so eloquently) so there’s no point trying? Those are all fine reasons, but I’d like to see these upcoming Star Wars movies spend at least an hour on Chewbacca’s home planet and focus on at least one of his people’s cherished Life Day-like rituals.
As far as its various planets, populations, and Skywalker-related antics, I haven’t had many changes to suggest for the Star Wars universe beyond silly fanboy desires to see, say, any number of A.V. Club-suggested spin-off movies actually produced. But actually, now that Star Wars is a Disney property, my official request would be sort of the opposite of that: I want slightly less of the universe. Not in terms of expansiveness or new characters, all of which sounds good; I’m just a little unsettled by the decision to produce a new Star Wars movie every year or so for at least the next four or five years. Individually, I’m excited for these projects: Rian Johnson is one of my favorite filmmakers so I’m dying to see what he does with Episode VIII, and I love the idea of spin-off movies dabbling in less Skywalker-centric corners of the universe. But between all of those movies, plus a new cartoon series, plus all other manner of ancillaries, I’m a little worried about Star Wars overkill. Obviously I don’t have to indulge in all of the ancillary stuff (much as I love the universe, I was never interested in the old EU material), but even sticking with the films I enjoyed the way the prequels were meted out every three years (like the originals), allowing time for real anticipation to build. The Force Awakens is exciting partially because it’s been 10 years since the last real Star Wars feature; I’m a little worried the next few will seem less special. There’s no use in telling a giant corporation like Disney to slow its roll, but if I could force them to, just a little, I would. (Unfortunately, mind tricks don’t work on them; only money.)
Since my first instinct picks have been taken—tip of the hat, Caroline and Mike—I’ll go with an easy one. Let’s cut Anakin’s horrendous, “Nooooooooo!” out of Revenge Of The Sith. Between performance, scoring, direction, and the prequels’ lack of appropriate build to that moment, Anakin’s reaction to the news of Padmé’s apparent death by his hand is laughably bad. As in, I had to stifle my laughter as I shook with it in the theater when I first saw the film. Sure, it adds an entertaining element of so-bad-it’s-good, but if some of the changes above went into effect, the moment where Anakin shuts down and becomes Darth Vader could be devastating, and that’s not going to happen with a comedically big “Nooooooooo,” no matter how well executed.
There are a lot of interesting alternate paths Star Wars could have followed. The possibility of David Lynch directing Return Of The Jedi—if he hadn’t turned down the job in order to make Dune—would have been a major tonal shift for the series climax than the one that made it to screen. As much as I sincerely enjoy Alec Guinness’ stoic turn as Obi-Wan Kenobi, I would love it if Toshiro Mifune had agreed to George Lucas’ offer to play the part of Luke’s Jedi mentor. Not only would Mifune inject an additional hue into A New Hope’s ethnically monochromatic rainbow, it’s also super fun to imagine his fiery, intensely passionate take on the forgotten Jedi in contrast to Guinness’ deadpan sage. Playing the role as a desert hermit simmering in regret under the heat of twin suns, it’s easy to imagine the unhinged intensity Mifune could bring to the character. In Obi-Wan’s final duel against Darth Vader, he calmly allows himself to be struck down to become one with the Force as well as earn the heroes time to escape. To have Mifune’s Obi-Wan enter the duel as a willful act of self-negation—an atonement for his past mistakes—would be very much in line with Obi-Wan’s ronin influences. Finally, given how the original trilogy dealt with the subjectivity of identity and perspective, Mifune’s experience with the unreliable narration of Rashomon would be wholly appropriate.
I’m too close to Episodes IV through VI to really want to change anything in those films, but Nick’s suggestion has reminded me of a great missed opportunity that makes me wonder if there’s any chance that I might’ve enjoyed Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith more if Leonardo DiCaprio had been available to play Anakin Skywalker. Given that George Lucas has been known to rub some actors the wrong way with his tendency to place his focus more on special effects than, you know, actual acting (see the saga of Terence Stamp for more details), there’s every chance that DiCaprio would’ve clashed with the director and might never have successfully finished the films even if he had been cast. But the thought of seeing someone in the role of Anakin who might actually have connected with the character certainly makes one wonder, “What if?”
The next time George Lucas decides to tamper with his own work, can he please go ahead and just remove all the weirdly racist caricatures from his flagship series? Look, I get that Star Wars is a universe built from the debris of other entertainments, which makes it possible to look at, say, greedy Watto or those conspicuously accented Neimoidians as homages to a less enlightened cinematic era—an age when offensively “ethnic” sidekicks and villains came with the territory. But Lucas doesn’t subvert those nasty depictions so much as just slap an alien skin on top of them, to the point where his “tribute” looks more like an accidental revival. At its best, Star Wars is pure escapism, so why not leave those ugly stereotypes when and where they belong: a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away? Bonus: We’d lose Jar Jar in the process.
Let’s take the Fetts out of the Clone Wars equation, because, like nearly every other aspect of the Star Wars universe, Boba Fett was more interesting without all that backstory. Episode II did more than make him just another sad space kid at the center of the prequel trilogy: For years, Boba Fett was perceived and portrayed as a solitary figure, a sort of mirror-image Han Solo, and here’s Attack Of The Clones revealing that there’s a whole army of dudes who are his genetic duplicate. (At least he got to hang onto his individuality—and his head—longer than his “father,” Jango.) In my revision, Jango would consent to the cloning process, only to sabotage it before any copies other than Boba are made. The duo would then Lone Wolf And Cub its way across the galaxy, blithely unaware (like the rest of us) where all those clone troopers came from.
Because I imagine that interstellar travel has its share of dull stretches, I wish that the Star Wars universe had better games. On the board game front, there’s dejarik, which is the chess-like game that Chewbacca and the droids play during their first voyage on the Millennium Falcon, and there’s holochess, which is dejarik. (The Star Wars wiki Wookieepedia insists that holochess “differed on crucial points from dejarik” without feeling the need to mention what any of those crucial points might be.) And the lore also makes occasional reference to sabacc, most famous for being the game in which Lando Calrissian lost the Falcon to Han Solo. I just spent the better part of last weekend binging on Fallout 4, and I have to think that the far-flung game developers of Star Wars’ galaxy could muster something similarly immersive. It’s a minor point to be sure, but it would enhance the fantasy for me if I knew that Han Solo could go shoot virtual womp rats and level up his agility stats whenever he gets tired of sitting in the cockpit, smelling Wookiee B.O.