SPOILER ALERT! This post discusses specific plot points of the first SIX Star Wars movies, but it DOES NOT include spoilers for Episode VII: The Force Awakens. If you haven’t yet seen Episodes I-VI, consider yourself warned that key details will be discussed below.
I love “Star Wars”. I remember seeing the original trilogy at The Uptown Theatre in DC when I was a kid, loving every minute of these amazing space spaghetti Westerns that George Lucas created for us. The popularity of the original “Star Wars” even earned it a posthumous retitling, where “Episode IV: A New Hope” became part of the name in all of the marketing material instead of just the opening crawl. “The Empire Strikes Back” (Episode V) is one of the few sequels to be truly on par with the original (if not, in some ways, better), and “Return of the Jedi” (Episode VI) was a solid end to the original three, marred only by the Ewoks’ ear-clogging “Jub Jub” song.
Fast forward 14 years, and “Special” editions are rolled-out: enhanced, re-CGI’ed, and–unfortunately–altered states of reality, such as one where Greedo shot first. (I don’t care what manner of Sith torture they aim at me, HAN SHOT FIRST and you’ll never get me to believe anything else.) Lucas used the new technology of the time to rewrite canon, not even deigning to feed us all retcon in our popcorn; the best part of these films was getting to see the majority of the movies we loved on the big screen again.
Starting a mere two years later, we got the prequels: Episodes I – III. These movies were problematic from start to finish. “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was largely useless, introducing a character we’d love to hate (like Jar Jar Binks) and providing only minimal buildout of the Skywalker clan’s backstory. “Episode II: Attack of the Clones” fared better, although the brutally written love story of Anakin and Padme was enough to make Shakespeare spin in his grave; let Lucas build a universe, but for the love of all that’s holy, please never let him write another “romantic” line in a screenplay ever again. And then we come to “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”, where Lucas finally had to finish what he started. It was at this point where he needed to show how Anakin became Darth Vader, and he also had to give out more doses of retcon when it came to the birth of the Skywalker twins, Luke and Leia.
(In “Return of the Jedi”, Leia explains to Luke that she only remembers her mother very slightly, and how beautiful and sad she was; we expect that this was supposed to be Padme–who later we see died in childbirth–so it’s either a continuity error or Lucas meant for that other woman to have been her adoptive mother, Queen Breha Organa of Alderaan.)
So, after all my complaining about Lucas’ poor writing skills and his being so utterly hypnotized by CGI advancement as to wreck key plot points, what is it that bothers me?
It’s the escalating violence–because it’s unclear that it consistently serves the plot although it does potentially jeopardize younger viewership.
The new film, “Episode VII: The Force Awakens”, received the same rating as Episode III: PG-13. These are the only two movies in the released slate of seven that have such a rating; the others were all PG (the original trilogy completed a year before the PG-13 rating was introduced). Now, granted, bad things have to happen to Anakin in order for him to turn into the part-metal Sith Lord that we would see from Episodes IV-VI. And it’s totally understandable that it couldn’t all happen off-screen; you need to see the impassable breach between Anakin and Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan mutilating Anakin and leaving him for dead certainly provides ample justification. But still, there’s plenty of violence and death in Episodes I and II, and both sported PG ratings. In fact, when “The Empire Strikes Back” was re-released in the “Special Edition” format, the rating was reaffirmed as PG, even when PG-13 was a possibility.
DD wanted to see “The Force Awakens” when it came out, so we got her caught up using the “Machete” order (IV-V-II-III-VI), and she was distressed by the violence at the end of Episode III. Truth be told, the Emperor’s torture of Luke at the end of “Return of the Jedi” didn’t sit too well with her, either, but at least it wasn’t nearly so gory as a half-melted, de-limbed Anakin flailing on a beach of cooling lava.
Without getting spoilery on “The Force Awakens”, I can say that it earned its PG-13 rating. Much like Episode III, “The Force Awakens” features scenes of “science fiction violence”, and it isn’t always pretty. Should a nine-year-old see this film? Well, that depends on the nine-year-old, doesn’t it? DH and I went to see the movie Saturday night because YEAY DOUBLE DATE NIGHT and also because we wanted to screen the movie for dd to determine whether it would be suitable for her. It wasn’t at “Game of Thrones Level” (a show dh has long-since stopped watching because the amount of violence and gore exceeded his tolerances by Season Two), but there were a few scenes where it was clear why the MPAA rated it PG-13 instead of PG.
I talked about this a bit on my personal Facebook account, and one of my friends wondered aloud if I thought this way because I am a parent, if my judgment on this was clouded (or biased) by the fact that I was trying to shield my child from something that may be disturbing to her. That’s fair, but it doesn’t diminish my belief that if they could do five out of six films at a level that was rated PG (or if we go with the “modern era”, two out of three), they could make this one PG, too. Did the manner and level of “science fiction violence” advance the plot or contribute in some major way, as it really had to at the end of “Revenge of the Sith”? In my mind, no. I think it could’ve been toned down ever so mildly to get it to a PG and keep the audience options a bit more open.
If the marketing is any indication, Star Wars is being targeted at both the parents and the kids, with the sweet spot for the kids’ merchandise being below the age range generally able to handle a PG-13 film. A quick search of Target’s website showed that the largest age group targeted for Star Wars products is 3-9 years old. A similar search of the Kohl’s website showed the target age range as “Little Kids” (typically sizes/ages 7 and below), and the number of “Toddler” items was nearly the same as that for “Big Kids” (8 on up). Of course, the Disney juggernaut also paints the world Marvel every time they release a new MCU film, BUT those movies were PG-13 from the get-go and never had a claim to a straight-up PG. They started at the higher rating and stayed there. It’s a matter of consistency in messaging; the merchandise is a signal for the positioning in terms of accessibility and target viewers, as well as who holds the wallet.
Now, I say all of this not having been in the room with J.J. Abrams and Co. as they saw what they would have to do to get to PG and made the decision not to go there. I’m sure they had their reasons. But, much as sex is used to sell everything from burgers to automobiles, I’d like to hope that the violence will be used only as it’s actually needed and that it will only be employed to advance the plot–not to distract from a lack of it. Part of what made “Star Wars” such an incredible franchise, aside from the depths of its philosophy and richness of storylines, is that it’s accessible. The PG-13 rating may seem like no big deal to those of us well past that age, but if the filmmakers want to keep opening this up to the next generation as soon as possible, they need to make sure that they’re doing a bang up job of balancing the needs of the Jedi masters with those of the younglings.