A fellow blogger‘s preliminary review of the pilot episode of The Mandalorian (2019-), as well as discussions of the contemporary Walt Disney era Star Wars (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019) films by Red Letter Media, prompted this question: Is the Star Wars franchise more “Space Western” or “Space Opera?” If those hybridized genre amalgamations sound weird to you, then I’d wager you’re not alone. As explained in one of my earliest essays on this site, George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983; produced by Lucasfilm and distributed by 20th Century Fox prior to Lucasfilm’s purchase by Disney in 2012) influences popular cinema to this day:
- Star Wars was the first big-budget genre film to appeal to wide audiences that also blended various popular genre formula, from American and Oriental Western conventions (e.g. arid backdrops, rogue gunslingers, wandering ronin, samurai sword-fights, etc.) to fantasy tropes (e.g. mysterious cultures, philosophical mysticism, magical religious overtones, etc.) to science-fiction iconography (e.g. space-travel, spaceships, alien races, futuristic tech and gadgetry, etc.).
- The shockwave of Star Wars‘ popularity directly or indirectly led, depending on which historians you ask, to the decline and eventual collapse of the American New Wave, a period in 1960s-1970s Hollywood where fading studio influence and declining theatrical revenue led to studios’ deferral to younger, often college educated auteurs like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, and Brian De Palma.
- Following in the wake of the first true summer blockbuster that was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Lucas’ magnum opus transformed Hollywood into the cosmopolitan, populist, special FX-heavy blockbuster machine it is, now. The lucrative, near universal appeal of “high-concept,” high production value blockbusters inspired by Star Wars and similar films by Spielberg and Lucas (e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark ) continue to the present day.
Star Wars, therefore, remains an enduring cultural icon for both its intellectual property (IP) brand and Hollywood’s unending obsession with big-budget, genre-blending tentpole features that appeal to international audiences of all ages. One can draw a direct line from the success of Star Wars to contemporary superhero franchises, Fast and Furious (2001-) mayhem, and various disaster-porn blockbusters made by Roland Emmerich. They all, in some manner or another, bask in the legacy of the original big-budget Hollywood space opera.
Or is the series’ audiovisual style more in the vein of a space western? What’s the difference between the two definitions? This debate over how to classify the original Hollywood franchise IP in part stems from the movies’ genre-blending character — a little American Western here, an Akira Kurosawa samurai epic there, a Flash Gordon (~1930s-1950s) influence over there — as well as the series’ sheer tonal diversity across different franchise installments. When film enthusiasts describe Star Wars as a “Space Western,” I wager they recall the arid production locations of Tunisia and southern California, as well as the space-cowboy antics of Harrison Ford’s iconic Han Solo. They favor the rugged, anti-hero adventures of the original 1977 Star Wars, Solo (2018), and The Mandalorian over the space-magic and esoteric discussions of The Force in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Force Awakens (2015), and The Last Jedi (2019). When cinephiles define Star Wars as a “Space Opera,” they base their love of the franchise around light saber fights, characters moving heavy objects with their mind, and the “duality of man” trope Matthew Modine referenced in Full Metal Jacket (1987), best exemplified by Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) relationship with Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones).
Put another way, and paraphrasing Rich Evans of Red Letter Media: Star Wars is either “a Western with space-paint” or “a fantasy movie with space-paint”
It’s difficult to discern which genre-hybrid recipe has a greater hold on the franchise. Star Wars‘ original inception, the 1977 film, was clearly dominated by the space western adventurism of Ford’s charming, charismatic rogue and Hamill’s yearning for adventure, with the sprinklings of Force mumbo-jumbo and the Jedi used as background decorations for the burgeoning diegesis. It was not until Irvin Kurshner’s Empire Strikes Back that the philosophy of the Jedi and the Jungian implications of space-magic dominated the series’ narrative, transitioning from world-building material to the foreground of Hamill’s character development. Ever since that first sequel, often considered the single best Star Wars feature and one of the better Hollywood films ever made — i.e. the original blockbuster sequel that bested the original blockbuster in every conceivable aspect — the franchise has whip-lashed between these two flavors to the point of incoherence, not to mention endless fan debate.
My interpretation of this franchise’s dueling identities may explain some of the IP’s enduring legacy: The Star Wars series can pander to suit the popular culture of a given time period as a function of its diverse, at times haphazard combination of genre flavors. That could be the reason why the Star Wars brand remains profitable despite having long lost its uniqueness amidst so many obvious competitors, offshoots, and copycats. Because the franchise is constructed from such disparate genre ingredients as cowboys, fantasy space-magic, aliens, laser-sword battles, dogfights in outer space, rogue gunslingers, and the occasional Satanic military industrial complex, new installments can be mixed and matched from any of these long established traits.
Much of this heterogeneous makeup was evident from Lucas’ 1977 feature, the last (good) film he ever directed. Over the decades, however, different filmmakers and now different studios have amplified different parts of this Tinker Toy set to create vastly different stories. Star Wars only feels tired for its continued appeal to general audiences — I doubt we’ll ever see an adult-oriented, hyper-violent crime drama in space directed by Quentin Tarantino, nor a complicated romantic drama on Coruscant from Gina Prince-Bythewood — but within that broad target demographic known as “the vast majority of the human population,” Star Wars has a formidable tool shed of dynamic genre flavors from which to gross money.
One can argue — as critics have done — that the series, whether in Lucas’ hands or others, hasn’t taken full advantage of this toolbox. Given the aforementioned contrast in styles between various features detailed above, I offer a partial rebuttal, regardless of my assessment of each movie’s individual execution. Let’s summarize all Star Wars live-action media released through 2020, shall we?
- Star Wars (1977): The film that forever changed American studio filmmaking was a scrappy mishmash of Hollywood Westerns and Japanese samurai epics set against the backdrop of intergalactic World War II-era combat. Fantasy elements are minimal outside a few monologues regarding Obi-Wan’s (Alec Guiness) past with Luke’s father, whom is briefly mentioned in a couple lines of throwaway dialogue. Everything else is small-town cowboys reenacting Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958).
- Solo (2018): Arguably the first unapologetic return of the original installment’s tone, the tortured production history of Solo produced, in the end, a contemporary neo-Western with the mildest of science-fantasy trimmings. Not only are Jedi and Sith ignored throughout much of the film’s running-time, we only see a single lightsaber for a few seconds (Darth Maul’s pointless holographic showoff), the Galactic Empire is barely present, and I don’t recall any character mumbling about the Force once.
The Mandalorian (2019-): That this burgeoning series has garnered the most praise of any Disney-era Star Wars project bodes well for this particular flavor of the franchise moving forward. Although both the Empire (Werner Herzog! Giancarlo Esposito!) and the Force (Baby Yoda!) feature more heavily here than in Solo, our title character (Pedro Pascal) and his costars are such obvious Western archetypes and their standalone adventures, so derivative of John Ford classics, you can’t help but appreciate the high quality imitation.
- The Empire Strikes Back (1980): The best installment in the franchise to this day is what transformed the Star Wars IP from genre pulp to pop culture mythology. Luke’s relationship with mysticism and spirituality, combined with his familial revelation in and rivalry with Darth Vader, take center stage, displacing the space-frontier backdrop that was the star of the original film.
- George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005): These films arguably solidified the dominant space-opera tone of the series more so than Return of the Jedi (see below), as Anakin Skywalker (the precursor to Darth Vader, portrayed by Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen) is elevated from a cool antagonist with a tragic backstory to a veritable Space-Jesus.
- Disney’s Sequel Trilogy (2015, 2017, 2019): The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker all lean into certain characters’ reverence to the Force and the spiritual journey of their main characters, so much so that fans’ religious protectionism of those concepts played a role in the films’ indecisive studio control and inconsistent directorial vision. Is Rey (Daisy Ridley) a Skywalker? Are the Jedi not heroes? What does the Force actually mean? What is a Snoke (Andy Serkis)? Why does Kathleen Kennedy still have a job?
- Return of the Jedi (1983): The final movie of the original trilogy is difficult to quantify, as its entire first act is vintage space-western that sees Luke and company rescue Han Solo from the clutches of the ruthless gangster, Jabba the Hutt. The complete absence of the Force and the Empire are reversed in the remainder of the film, however, and Luke’s final confrontation with Vader before Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) remains iconic to this day.
- Rogue One (2016): The Empire dominates as the primary antagonist throughout, with occasional guest appearances from Vader and a fanboy-pandering lightsaber showcase towards the end. Then again, none of the heroic castmembers use lightsabers, acknowledge the Force much (Donnie Yen mumbles a few lines here and there), or give much thought to Star Wars‘ fantasy ideology.