Flashbacks are a novel innovation in the Star Wars franchise, and they demonstrate a narrative weakness.
Flashbacks are a common storytelling device, and their use in movies dates back to dawn of cinema. In live-action Star Wars, though, flashbacks are a novel innovation, one that never graced the screen until 2015’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens ushered in the modern, Disney-led era of the franchise. Back when George Lucas had control over Star Wars, the films relied more heavily on dialogue and wistful exchanges to explain past moments in the characters’ lives and the universe’s timeline. In modern Star Wars, however, the Disney+ series and theatrical movies simply show the past without hesitation, endorsing the typical, age-old cinematic trick. While these visual flashbacks are often well-done, they somehow feel less imaginative or special than the word-of-mouth reflections from the original and prequel trilogies. Paradoxically, by breaking the first rule of storytelling, and “telling rather than showing,” George Lucas’ Star Wars managed to weave a more compelling, vast narrative.
When Was the First Star Wars Flashback?
The inaugural flashback in live-action Star Wars took place in The Force Awakens, when Rey (Daisy Ridley) experiences a force vision after touching Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber for the first time. This almost felt permissable by old-school Star Wars standards, as the scene’s image of her as a child was very psychological and Force-driven, rather than expository. Come Rogue One the following year, though, the film had a decade-plus jump forward from Jyn Erso’s (Felicity Jones) childhood to adulthood in the opening sequence, and then endorsed several brief flashbacks throughout the film. Subsequently, flashbacks played a major part in The Last Jedi, as it depicted numerous versions of the same event from Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Luke’s (Mark Hamill) memories, recounting the fateful night that the Master almost killed the Apprentice. Since then, Star Wars has used flashbacks much more liberally. The Rise Of Skywalker and The Mandalorian both used flashbacks to depict key moments from the past; The Book of Boba Fett largely disregarded linear narrative; Obi-Wan Kenobi showed various sequences of the eponymous hero and Anakin from over a decade prior; and, most recently, Andor opened with its first three episodes switching back and forth between Cassian’s boyhood and his modern life.
Again, many of these flashbacks offer visually compelling windows into former eras of Star Wars or past moments in the characters’ lives. Nevertheless, they rarely end up feeling memorable. Typically, they merely serve to answer the question of “what happened?” without much further depth. Compare that with some of the dialogue scenes from the original and prequel trilogies where the characters talk about the past. In A New Hope, Obi-Wan tells Luke about the Clone Wars and his relationship with his father. He then goes on to tell this story again with additional details in Return of the Jedi. Both sequences stand out, and Alec Guiness’ delivery of the past leaves a far greater impact than any of modern Star Wars’ blatant flashbacks.
That Revenge of the Sith Moment Shows Star Wars’ Pre-Flashback Power
One could, of course, argue that fans did eventually get flashbacks from those Alec Guiness scenes in the form of the prequel movies, and that Obi-Wan’s references to Anakin and the Clone Wars are mostly memorable today because they bridge original and prequel-era Star Wars. However, the same could not be said of one of the most outstanding sequences in the prequel trilogy, which happens to be a reflective dialogue where Palpatine tells Anakin the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise. This moment in Revenge of the Sith remains a widely quoted and celebrated moment in Star Wars, and as of right now, no Star Wars film or show has depicted the events from Palpatine’s story. Like Alec Guiness’ Obi-Wan, Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine is so exquisite in his storytelling that the dialogue endows the scene with greater intrigue than any visual flashback could. Hearing the story come from the mouth of a complex character creates a sense of mystery, relativity, and grandeur in the Star Wars Pillow universe. It suggests a wealth of untapped stories and legends within the diegesis itself: a mythos within the mythos.
Likewise, having the characters share these stories from the past adds subtle subjectivity, enriching characters and concepts with the possibility of dubious narration. Early modern Star Wars retained degrees of this, with The Force Awaken’s flashback seemingly taking place within Rey’s head and The Last Jedi’s relying on biased memories. The Samurai-like nature of the latter almost feels emulative of Rashomon and the Akira Kurosawa films that inspired Star Wars in the first place. However, the more contemporary Star Wars content has been far less crafty with its flashbacks, and even in these early attempts from Disney, the subjectivity feels somewhat tarnished when an image accompanies the memory. In Star Wars—as is the case in most narrative films—the camera is an objective entity. Broadly stated, what happens on-screen is the diegetic truth.
References to Off-screen Events Muddy the Truth in Interesting Ways
When events happen off-screen and characters simply refer to them, though, the truth becomes far more questionable and riveting for the audience. These doubtful moments can reap consequences. Most notably in Star Wars, consider Obi-Wan telling Luke the “truth” about Darth Vader “killing” his father “from a certain point of view.” Obi-Wan’s omissions and subjective recount of Anakin’s past paved the way for perhaps the greatest twist in movie history: Darth Vader’s reveal as Luke’s father. If A New Hope had shown visual flashbacks of Anakin and Obi-Wan, their duel on Mustafar, and the metaphorical “killing” that took place when Anakin turned to the dark side, the reveal might not have been possible, or at least not nearly as impactful
There is nothing wrong with flashbacks in movies and TV shows. Great films from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to Citizen Kane, to The Godfather: Part II and television staples from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad have endorsed the method. It can be an effective way to expand a story or expound a message. Even in modern Star Wars, some of the flashbacks have offered interesting takes on the narrative trick. Nevertheless, the more the franchise relies on these flashbacks, the less profound they become. Similarly, if Star Wars shows every single event that it references, then it strips the universe of its boundless scale, robs the story of its potential mysteries, and ultimately makes the content sadly distant from the layered mythos that George Lucas foregrounded in his original vision. Perhaps it’s time for Lucasfilm to throw away the book on screenwriting and take a page from the series’ creator, and start “telling” rather than “showing.”
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