Disney’s Star Wars trilogy, featuring the return of beloved characters and the introduction of a new generation of heroes, is nothing if not polarizing. Despite being overwhelming box-office hits, The Force Awakens was either a true return to a galaxy far, far away after the universally hated prequel trilogy, or it was an unoriginal cut’n’paste of A New Hope. And then The Last Jedi set a new bar for polarization in film. It was widely praised by film critics as being bold, new, and exciting. At the same time, it incited hatred in “true fans” who stand as self-appointed gatekeepers of Star Wars mythos.
This article is not a defense of the narrative choices made by either J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, or Disney itself. No, this article is about something that can bridge the gap between upset fans and erudite film critics alike. I want to bring balance to the lovers of Star Wars. Whatever you think about the newest Star Wars films, I think we can all agree: they all look amazing. The reason is simple — film.
Film vs Digital
One of the visual hallmarks of Star Wars, as opposed to the cleanliness of Star Trek, is that this galaxy far, far away feels gritty, dirty, and lived in. Everything from the helmets and droids, to the clothes and spaceships, looks used. This aesthetic makes the worlds of Tatooine and Endor look and feel like real places.
Like all movies prior to 1999, the original Star Wars trilogy was shot on celluloid film running through a camera. The magic of film is that real light hits a physical film reel which is then developed in a chemical bath. What you get is a negative that real light must be shown through the film again to create the image. Then, those pictures must be shown at 24 frames per second to create the illusion of movement. Film is a very organic process.
Shooting in film is to work with the inherent imperfections of film. Each film slide is a unique piece of celluloid that might be slightly different than the one before. And film has this beautiful grainy-gritty quality. This aligns perfectly with the Star Wars aesthetic of a universe that feels dirty and lived in. As well, it’s expensive, and in limited supply, so actors and directors don’t have the benefit of infinite takes.
A Menace to Itself
Everything changed in 1999, though, when George Lucas was the first filmmaker to introduce digital cameras to the workplace with The Phantom Menace. The problems of the prequel trilogy may have begun with this single decision. Now don’t get me wrong, digital has many virtues, but when it comes to the Star Wars universe, I believe it is out of place.
As opposed to the organic nature of film, digital is clean, crisp, and cheap as hell. Light passes through the lens, and rather than being redirected onto a piece of photo-sensitive celluloid, it is captured by a sensor. This removes a lot of moving pieces that give film that grainy-gritty and warm quality. And instead of a finite roll of expensive film, digital allows you nearly infinite roll time which saves on money and stress.
That does not sound like the Star Wars universe. In a galaxy far, far away, resources are always in short supply. They are not “post-scarcity” with replicators that can magically poof out matter ex-nihilo like digital. And while you might be flying a spaceship, it was probably stuck in a swamp for a while. The Millenium Falcon, despite being an in-universe icon, is often mistaken for junky garbage in that same universe.
All of this is to say that shooting a Star Wars movie on digital is a visual betrayal of the spirit of Star Wars. The prequel trilogy is problematic is many ways, but it is wrapped in visual packaging that runs across the grain of Star Wars and made the whole thing worse.
Star Wars: The Return of the Celluloid
20 years later, most movies are shot digitally. Most moviegoers didn’t even know this transition happened and probably couldn’t care less. Honestly, I could care less most of the time. However, there are certain movies, franchises, and stories that deserve to be shot on old-fashioned film because of their cultural importance and artistic styling. Film has this capacity to enhance every single frame and should be used for these cultural monoliths.
Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, and Steven Spielberg, as well as many others, are filmmakers that refuse to use anything but film. And if you are paying attention, these are also the filmmakers that create movies that become pillars of American culture. There is a reason these guys are well known. They know their craft and have a reverence for the magic of cinema.
I remember watching the trailer for The Force Awakens for the first time and having chills all up and down my back. Not just because it was a return to Star Wars, but because of how gorgeous everything looked. J.J Abrams made a lot of wise decisions when shooting The Force Awakens. Among the wisest was the decision to shoot using real old-fashioned film. When I read this, I nearly jumped for joy. And this trend continues through The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker.
We live in the age of the digital camera and Star Wars is one of the last bastions of true-blue film. So whatever you think about the narrative of Disney’s Star Wars trilogy, good or bad, I think we can all be a little grateful for the celluloid-ic beauty of a galaxy far, far away.
Some Clarification if You’re Still Lost
*For those still trying to figure out the visual difference, let me try some metaphors that capture a close approximation of what film vs digital is like: hand-drawn 2D animation vs 3D CGI Animation; vinyl records vs mp3. But probably the best cinematic example would be The Lord of the Rings trilogy vs The Hobbit trilogy. Watch them side-by-side. LOTR is film and The Hobbit digital. The visual difference is staggering.
**The look and feel of Disney’s Star Wars is also due to real props, real explosions, real locations, minimal use of CGI/greenscreen, and IMAX cameras.