by A. A. Matin
What was the most mind blowing moment in the original Star Wars Trilogy? Was it the first time we saw a light saber Was it Vader killing the Emperor? Was it Luke training with Yoda? Was it Leia in a metal bikini? No, it was none of these. When I tell you what I think – I doubt you will disagree. But first let me give a little backstory. Star Wars was inspired by Saturday Morning Serials. These would be a short feature, typically about 20 minutes, that was a chapter of a longer story. They screened once a week on Saturday mornings in a local movie theater. The entire story would be about 10-15 Chapters.
Lucas said that you would inevitably come in the middle of a serial and not know what happened before. That is part of the reason why the first movie is “Episode IV.” When thinking about serials, he remembered two types. One was the space opera type – which became Star Wars. The other was the swashbuckler adventure type. This became the Indiana Jones films. Now I will go on a slight diversion about Indiana Jones (don’t worry, it is all pertinent). I have always been a film geek. Even in elementary school I had consciously thought, “You know Spielberg and Lucas make similar films. They should work together.” I didn’t know that they were already friends.
Then one day I was watching TV. White text over black saying “Jaws. 1975” appeared on screen and grows. Then “Star Wars. 1977”. Followed by “Close Encounters of the Third Kind 1977”, and “Empire Strikes Back 1980”. The narrator says that the two biggest names in Motion Pictures are teaming up. I thought, “Awesome!” What followed was a lot of fast cutting of the action beats in Raiders. At one point I thought, “Hey, is that Harrison Ford?” but it was moving so fast I couldn’t tell. Then the trailer ended with a classic shot from the Truck Chase. Looking down the hood of the truck, Indy is holding on to the Mercedes Benz hood ornament. It slowly bends backwards and then breaks off and Indy falls out of frame. At that point the commercial cut to black and was over.
At that moment my mind exploded. Grey matter was splattered all over my parents’ living room. I squealed, “OH MY GOD! I HAVE TO SEE THIS MOVIE RIGHT NOW!” I had to see how Indiana Jones got out of that predicament. It was a perfect example of the Cliffhanger that was the lifeblood of the serials that inspired the film. Each chapter of a Serial would end with a Cliffhanger. We all know what they are. But think about the term. The hero would be hanging off the edge a Cliff about to die (or some other similar peril). And you had to come back next week to see how he would get out of it.
And that was the greatest moment in the original Star Wars Trilogy. The end of The Empire Strikes Back when Vader says, “No, I am your father!” That is when collectively all of our minds exploded all over movie theaters around the world. It was and still is one of the greatest shocks and twists in movie history. The great part of that age was that people were respectful of it. No one was blogging about the secrets the next day. I saw Empire Strikes Back after it had been in theaters for a month. No one told me about the end or even hinted at it. And the question of whether Vader was being honest was buffeted by the fact that Han Solo was frozen in Carbonite. You just knew that his friends were going to have to rescue him. But how?
To me that was the reason why the prequel trilogy sucked. It wasn’t the wooden acting. It wasn’t the digital sets. We all would have forgiven them if we had that one moment where our minds were truly blown away and we were given a reason to want to come back and see the continuation of the story. The last set of films forgot their roots in the serials. Episode I ended in a neat little bow. Episode II did have some questions. Like who was Master Sipho-Dyas that commissioned the Kaminoans to create the Clone Army and where did he get the money. But this felt more like bad screenwriting than a question that demanded an answer. (and ultimately was never answered). George got lazy because he knew he had a built in audience who would come back for Parts II and III.
The reason I have hope is because J.J. Abrams comes from Television. TV is the evolution of the Saturday Morning Serials. Most TV shows are a serialized dramatic story told in 12-23 episodes. Usually, the end of an episode will dangle a carrot or end on a cliffhanger moment to get you to tune in next week. I hope Abrams brought some of this mentality to the movie. Business decisions are often made from a place of fear. It feels less risky to spend money on a concept or formula that has already shown itself to be successful. Movies that truly shock and surprise us are few and far between. We are so used to seeing the same tropes recycled time and again that when a film really pulls the rug out from under us – people always enjoy it. Citizen Kane, Psycho, The Empire Strikes Back, Pulp Fiction, American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier were all films that shocked us out of complacency. There is a reason they are considered classics. And if we are lucky we will be able to say the same about Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.