The first three Star Wars films are the Odyssey of our time.
They are the greatest works of any artist, anywhere in the American era. What you are experiencing right now is the Pax Americana, the long peace, the Greek empire of the modern world. More than any other story, Star Wars is the work that transcends this time and place, a story that will cast its shadow into future cultures and times.
Long after you and I are dead, children will watch Star Wars in school as a signature artistic work for our place in history.
Hundreds or thousands of years in the future, after the American civilization crumbles to dust, replaced like all civilizations before it with something else, as yet impossible to foresee, people will still see the original Star Wars and wonder what life was like for us? What did we think about? What did we believe? What did we fight and die for? What was day to day life like for us?
They'll look to it as a lens into America and the world in the 20th century. They'll dissect its values and try to figure out just what kind of people we were and what we wanted in life.
The same can't be said about the second set of films.
While episodes IV, V and VI represent the pinnacle of artistic achievement, episodes I, II, and III are doomed to the dustbin of history.
The reasons are quite simple.
What nobody tells you or any artist is that their time is incredibly short. They are only capable of producing incredible art for the briefest of moments, subject to circumstances, their willpower and the will of the Muse.
To make an amazing piece of art, that transcends the tiny boundaries of time and space, an artist must be willing to destroy himself. He has to throw himself on the fire and sacrifice anything to make his or her vision come to light.
In the early days of Star Wars, Lucas battled everything from his father (the drama of that battle becoming a central theme in Star Wars played out with Vader and Luke) to studio execs who didn't understand or believe in him to the doubt of friends and family. That kind of pressure creates a unique cauldron of creation for an artist. It forced Lucas to write the original screenplay again and again and again. Whatever the story needed, he would come back to the page and fight through it, even if it meant tearing up everything and starting over.
I remember reading early drafts of Star Wars in the labyrinthine script library at NYU's film school. Quite frankly, the early drafts are nothing short of atrocious. I remember reading about Luke Starkiller wandering in the desert for thirty pages or a half hour of screen time and not meeting a single other character. Nowhere is Chewbacca or the wise cracking Han Solo. Nowhere is the story you love and care for at all. But would it surprise you to know that this is the humble beginning of all great work? They all start off as garbage, the merest flickering of an idea that must be honed through great sacrifice into something grander.
As a young artist, forged in the fire of adversity, he retooled the script, re-writing it over and over until the true story took shape. Along the way he learned what all great artists learn and that is that the story is not their own, they are merely a conduit for it. Like the Force, they use the fire of creation but it's not theirs to control. And so they sacrifice themselves. They let go of marriages and friendships and riches. Everything becomes about the work to the exclusion of all else. Friends fall away as they refuse to go out for yet another round of drinks. Their marriages disintegrate as they sacrifice time with their lover for the chance to create one Boba Fett or Darth Vader. To do that, they must get out of their own way. They have to destroy themselves, self-immolate to get beyond their own tiny boundaries to see other points of view. That is how a character like Darth Vader comes through to this world, through the sacrifice of a great man like Lucas.
So why won't the second set of movies still be around a thousand years from now?
Because Lucas was not the same person when he made them. As a young artist he suffered. Through suffering, he was forced to get better, to refine his craft every day, to get stronger and stronger. Of course, because he made the sacrifice early in his life, he was rewarded with 100s of millions of dollars. We've gotten to a point in our society where we no longer think people deserve to make lots of money. We're angry and jealous of the rich but a man like Lucas became rich because of his uniqueness. There is no one like him on a planet of 7 billion people and so we reward him with everything he could ever want. Unfortunately, that fame and fortune are often the death knell for an artist.
In the past where Lucas had doubters, telling him the script will never work, he he became a wealthy man, surrounded by yes men who told him everything he did was wonderful. Because of that, instead of ten or fifteen drafts, his script went through only three of four. The script is good, because he is already a master writer and director, but without the fire of adversity an artist no longer has to push himself and the work suffers.
Some of this is the problem of the artist as well. They look back on the sacrifices they had to make, sleeping in the studio, staying up all night, having yet another relationship break up and they decide they don't want to suffer like that again. Surely there is another way to create great art they think, one that lets me live a balanced life, instead of that insane drama that pushed me right to the edge? The muse whispers "no, there isn't," but they ignore it.
And so the second set of films were not forged in the same fires as the first and as such they have no chance of lasting far into the future. They're imperfect films, with wooden acting, tin-ear dialogue and the most beautiful special effects. They're like the hottest person you ever met, the one who could barely make a conversation. You loved the way they looked and you kept hoping they would finally become interesting, but they never did and you moved on.
Disney made the right move resting control away from Lucas. Time will tell if the new films are able to become the Iliad to the original trilogy's Odyssey. History has room for one other great story to compliment the original. Whether the new stories fit that pattern depend greatly on whether the new filmmakers, J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, are willing to throw themselves on the pyre to make something that transcends them as individuals as well as time and space and history.
It's safe to safe statistics are not with them.
Even if the new films are wonderful and worth watching, it's likely they won't reach the heights of the originals.
That's all right. They might still be good and worth seeing, without becoming masterworks.
Very few artists are willing to make the sacrifices that Lucas did for the original films and even if they did, they don't have the skill and talent and the clarity of vision to make it something worth watching, to bring something that did not exist into reality through personal sacrifice and dedication.
To create something unique for all time requires a commitment that almost nobody can understand in order to do something that outlives us all. The original trilogy represents such a singular achievement.
As for the new trilogy, I'm hoping for the Iliad, but I'll settle for a something I don't hate as much as Jar Jar Binks. Let's just hope it's at the very least watchable and fun. I can live with that. Like a first date, we'll take it slow and go from there.