I once worked in a book store frequented by some science fiction fans. One of them, whose name I’ve forgotten, came in now and then and talked to me about science fiction, especially films because I didn’t read SF novels anymore. He was a pleasant person, inept at talking to women or anyone who hadn’t made an effort to talk with him.
He came in one night and expressed his excitement about the new Star Wars trailer. He thought it looked amazing, as did many fans of the Star Wars films. A little irked at my low-key response, he said, “You got to admit the lightsabre fight looked amazing.”
I didn’t want to douse the guy’s enthusiasm for something he was excited about—really, I’m not always a dick—but I was a little older, and felt I had every right to hold an opinion about Star Wars since I’d been a fan since I was 12. I was there on the ground floor of the Star Wars phenom, and unlike most kids I knew then, I was a big fan, not just someone who liked the movie and moved on. When The Empire Strikes Back came out, my high expectations were met and exceeded. Return of the Jedi I enjoyed at the time, but not so much as the years passed.
My point is, Star Wars meant a lot to me as a kid. As time passed and I read more SF, fantasy and mythology, I appreciated one element of the movie more: the lightsabre. It’s Lucas’ most powerful single creation, all by itself fusing Arthurian romance with scientific achievment, symbolizing honor, bravery, physical skill, Right, and technological superiority. I didn’t own a replica, I didn’t talk about this much, but I found the lightsabre an absolutely inspired idea. I was primed to see how it was used in these new movies.
“It all looks so choreographed and fake,” I said as I put books away. I may have flailed away in imitation of the shots of Kenobi and Silent Face Paint Guy. “Would people in that situation BE that way?” I chuckled, thinking he’d maybe agree but maintain his enthusiasm. People used to be able to handle it when someone didn’t share their opinion.
From that moment on, when he came into the store to check out the Science Fiction section, the customer never chatted with me again. I’d encountered my first Star Wars Real Fan, one for whom any disagreement is a personal, unforgivable insult. I was we didn’t swap opinions of The Phantom Menace. The moment when I lost all hope for it being any good was when a wall of marching robots fired endless laser blasts into blue ray shields carried by technologically-primitive beings who live close to the earth. (We had no idea how close Lucas came to getting to Avatar before Cameron). The battle scenes were intercut with that Broadway musical-style lightsabre dance. All of this was made even more obnoxious in the climax of Attack of the Clones, with dozens of Jedi warriors using dozens of lightsabres to fight off hundreds of laser bolts. It’s aggressively boring.
The use of light sabres in the prequels feels both rote and desperate. None of it comes close to the impact of the two best lightsabre battles in these movies: Kenobi vs. Vader in Star Wars (I ain’t calling it that other name, sue me), and Luke vs. Vader in Empire. To modern SW fans these are archaic and dull, yet they’re the two with the most personal stakes.
The first shows an aged teacher dealing with his former pupil, and it shows—they both know the danger of their weapons, and are using them to test each other, seeing what the other is capable of.
The second of these shows a reversal, a father trying to see just what his son and potential student is capable of, toying with him until he is wounded by a cheap shot. The EMPIRE duel is the only one in the series that reveals a master fighting a powerful amateur, someone who could be dangerous even if he isn’t very smooth. It’s the one lightsabre battle that is itself a storytelling device with severe consequences on all that will follow.
The Star Wars fight was inspired by Kurosawa. The Empire fight was a continuation of that pumped up by less-fragile props and better stunts and choreography. The Jedi one was not their equal because there wasn’t much more juice in the idea–Lucas used the lightsabre fight to play out the Luke/Vader/Emperor story, so it was necessary, but it just felt a little played out. John Williams’ music even included the title “More Duel,” not exactly “Duel of the Fates.”
The lightsabre was a great idea, the perfect embodiment of what Lucas was doing by blending various genres, and symbolic of the themes he was working. Which may be why the lightsabre fights in The Last Jedi are so dull. The moviemakers don’t believe in what the symbol means, so how could they use that symbol effectively?