Audience age for Star Wars films

Over the last year or so I've re-watched nearly every Star Wars film. My sons (6 and nearly 5) have been making their slow initial journey through the Original Trilogy and into the prequels. (We're currently paused between Episodes II and III. The former is even worse than you remember.)

Reflecting on these repeat viewings in conjunction with the recent new entries and the conversation surrounding them (not to say controversy, though whether that term calls for scare quotes is an open question, given the heavy doses of bad faith and trolling involved)—anyway, upon reflection, I've noticed one way to slice up all ten films: by the implicit age of the film's target audience. Let me show you what I mean:

IV: All ages
V: Adults
VI: Children
I: All ages
II: Children
III: Adults
VII: All ages
RO: Adults
VIII: Adults
Solo: Adults

These designations are arguable, obviously. And audience age doesn't in itself correlate with quality (though I suppose that's arguable, too): Solo is middling affair, though aimed at adults, while both IV (all ages) and VI (children) are superior films.

But disaggregating the SW series in this manner is helpful in a few ways, I think.

First of all, it can clarify some of the arguments about which films are "best" (or one's "favorite"). Most kids who grew up with the OT on VHS or DVD have VI as their favorite, for example. Why? It's the only one exclusively aimed at them! They don't mind the silliness and character flatness and narrative problems that bother adults; they ignore such things, focusing on what's fun; and since there's a lot of fun to be had in VI, it's their favorite. (Kids also love series' conclusions, so there's that, too.) My boys also enjoyed II, which is a categorically awful film, and at least part of the explanation is that it, too, is aimed squarely at them.

Whereas many adults have plausible arguments about which they prefer most, IV vs. V and/or VII vs. VIII (or even opposing one of the latter group to the former). At least part of what that's about, in my view, is whether one is judging the film simply as a species of the genre film, or instead as a species of the sub-genre universal myth/hero's journey/space opera (or even the smaller sub-sub-genre, Star Wars film). Part of the appeal of the latter two sub-genres is precisely their catholic appeal, uniting people from a variety of backgrounds, ages, cultures, etc., in affection and appreciation of George Lucas's far-away galaxy, which sweeps along all who give themselves to it. But neither Empire nor Last Jedi has this sort of appeal, not (as the erroneous opinion has it) because they are inferior films, but rather because they lack the universality of the originals to which they are sequels. They are relatively stand-alone (ironic, given their in-the-middle status), subtly crafted works of visual art aimed at adults who appreciate the formal as well as the material aspects of the medium. Even if one's opinion of either V or VIII is lower than this high judgment, the thoughtfulness and craftsmanship behind both are undeniable. (They are together, by the way, the only films out of the 10 to feature a more than superficial relationship between a male and a female character, romantic or otherwise.)

The fact that VII is very nearly a remake of IV, by the way, also suggests why some people prefer it to VIII or any of the other new films, even when they grant its redundant qualities: catholicity in blockbuster fun covers over a multitude of sins.

(I should also add that there's a good argument to be made that Phantom Menace is a children's film, and I would have agreed until I re-watched it. Jake Lloyd and Jar Jar Binks certainly bend it that direction. But I was shocked by how well directed, how well acted—at least, that is, by McGregor and especially Neeson—and how thematically adult and not-stupid it was. Subtract child-Anakin, JJB, Midi-Chlorians, the casual racism, the stiff acting by others ... okay, that's a lot ... but still, the themes of decadence, self-mastery, obedience, elite insouciance—plus the surprisingly lovely compositions by Lucas—and it could have added up to something good. All of which is to say, Lucas was aiming for all ages, old and young alike. He failed, but his failure was laudable in a way that Attack of the Clones manifestly was not.)

Finally, the fact that all four of the recent SW films have been aimed at either all ages or adults helps to explain why none of them has been panned critically or bombed commercially (reports of the contrary being false in both cases). No one hated Solo, though it was simply fine, and Last Jedi was an enormous success with critics and audiences, even if a small segment of fans didn't care for it. Now why is that? One possibility is that none of the four is a kids movie. This reminds me of Ta-Nehisi Coates' remark, after VII was released, in response to Ross Douthat's confusion about the film's positive reception: that The Force Awakens was, at long last, an actual, bona fide movie, unlike the prequels. Expanding that point, I think people, critics included, appreciate going to a SW film and not being treated like children; not being condescended to cinematically, that is. (No Ewoks—yet!) Even when the results aren't A-level (as with VII's plot replays, Rogue One's script issues, and Solo's shrug-inducing, unimaginative checklist of greatest hits), they're not meant for 7-year olds. Movies made for adults can be mediocre, or just good, or controversial. But they're still for adults, or at least for adults and kids.

So my theory goes, at least. Let's just hope J. J. Abrams keeps it in mind for Episode IX.


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