In my first post on this site, I mentioned that I might someday write a post explaining a reference to the cantina scene in Star Wars. That day has come.

Once again I violate my ban against discussing those god-awful prequel movies that everyone else seems to think are Star Wars movies. I hope my own cardiac tissue will forgive me for this. I also hope you’ll bear with me if I nerd out for a bit. Now [insert deep breath here] please allow me to clarify terms:

• by Star Wars I mean the movie entitled Star Wars, later entitled Star Wars: A New Hope;
• by “Star Wars movies” I mean the first three;
• by “the first three” I mean the three that actually came first, in 1977, 1980, and 1983.

That said, what made Star Wars brilliant, and what made the Star Wars movies brilliant, was that the universe in which they took place was so much larger than what you saw on screen. Lucas establishes this beautifully in the cantina scene—which, for those of you who are either under 25 or not nerdy enough to know what I’m talking about, is the scene where Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker go into a bar full of aliens to meet Han Solo and Chewbacca. But you don’t even have to know who any of those dudes are. What you really need to know is that those dudes walk past, talk to, get in fights with, and happen to be the same room with members of dozens of different alien races, almost none of which ever show up again in any of the films.

Think of all the effort that went into the costume design for that scene. You’ve got to envision not just their anatomy but what they’re going to wear, what they’re going to drink, even how they’re going to drink (if you design strange mouths for them), what sort of weapons or musical instruments or wristwatches they’ll have (and, if you give them strange hands, how they carry their stuff), how their facial structures define what speech patterns they’re capable of, yadda yadda yadda.

On top of all of that you want some of them to look pacifistic, others to look malicious, others to seem stupid or panicked or drunk, and in making those choices you cause your audience to think a little bit about their cultures and dispositions. In other words, just by deciding to put that scene in your movie, you create scores upon scores of planets, languages, customs, civilizations, technological eras, and so on. Just by panning your camera through the cantina, you develop the world in which your characters live.

That’s why Star Wars blew audiences out of their seats. It wasn’t just the aliens; it’s the starships, the guns, the droids. None of them ever get explained; they just pass on by in the background, begging us to ask, “Where’d that come from?”

Now, is the cantina scene ripped off from Barliman Butterbur’s Prancing Pony? You bet. Is the whole Star Wars galaxy based heavily on Middle Earth? As sure as Glamdring and Sting glow the same color as Luke and Obi Wan’s lightsabers. But to paraphrase Picasso, good artists copy while great artists steal. Lucas was right to base his universe on Tolkien’s, because Tolkien’s has the same quality of seemingly infinite depth. We in the audience get the feeling that the storyteller could have followed anyone out of the Prancing Pony or the Mos Eisley cantina and taken us on an equally thrilling ride.

This pops up in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi too. Boba Fett isn’t cool because of his costume. He’s cool because the baddest badass in the galaxy goes out of his way to tell him, “No disintegrations.” He’s cool because not only does Han Solo know the dude by reputation but he’s actually afraid of him. (Don’t ask me who’s making that wimpy Wilhelm Scream off-camera just before Boba Fett falls into the Sarlacc pit. I don’t know; I just know it ain’t Boba.)

So, if you want to make a prequel movie to Star Wars, the one thing you absolutely must not do is make the world smaller. You can’t, for example, have Boba Fett show up. At all. And you definitely can’t make Boba Fett’s dad a hireling of Darth Vader’s boss, thereby transforming the coolest bounty hunter ever into a petulant whiner who went into daddy’s profession because he couldn’t come up with anything more original.

By the same token, given the hundreds of unique droids puttering around namelessly in the backgrounds of your first three films, you cannot have R2D2 or C3P0 show up in your prequel. Oh, and if you make the world-shrinking mistake of putting R2D2 in your prequel, you certainly can’t have him meet Obi Wan Kenobi, because Obi Wan’s very first bit of dialogue establishes that he’s never seen R2 before.

The alleged prequels have plenty of other problems too. They get the ending wrong, for instance. (Natalie Portman’s character doesn’t die.) But what I was talking about in my first post was the genius of the cantina scene for developing a richly textured setting with just a few sweeps of the camera. No dialogue! Just show us the cantina and we can see how much bigger your galaxy is than anything we’ve seen before.

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