Does Star Wars really need the opening crawl?
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was a departure from previous Star Wars films in many significant ways. And one of the least significant ways in which it differed from previous entries is the lack of a lengthy prologue wherein paragraphs of giant yellow block letters scroll before our eyes and taper off to a distant vanishing point. It would appear that after lots of intense discussion among the folks at Lucasfilm, it was decided that Rogue One, as a so-called “standalone” film not tied to the Skywalker saga, would be the first Star Wars film not to include an opening crawl.
It didn’t exactly hurt the film’s box office haul, which makes me wonder: Could this set a trend for future Star Wars films? Should Lucasfilm retire the opening crawl completely?
I say this in light of cast and crew confirming that Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi will be the first installment in the Star Wars franchise to pick up exactly where the previous film left off. If that’s true, what will the opening crawl of The Last Jedi be, anyway? Just a recap of the events of The Force Awakens? Some have even sarcastically suggested the possibility of an opening crawl that summarizes the missing five seconds between films.
But here’s an even better suggestion: Given the success of Rogue One, which lacked a crawl, and the upcoming Last Jedi, which most likely doesn’t need one, maybe it’s time to completely do away with opening crawls for good. That’s wishful thinking, I know, but I for one wouldn’t miss them.
I don’t exactly consider myself a Star Wars “fan”, so you can take my thoughts on this subject with a grain of salt, but I never cared for the opening crawl—in the Star Wars movies, or in any movie, for that matter. A long, long time ago, we had a recurring joke on this website about the Curse of the Opening Crawl, which states that pretty much any movie with opening expository text outside of the Star Wars franchise is guaranteed to be terrible (okay fine, along with a few other exceptions, like De Palma’s Scarface).
It’s obvious why films with opening crawls are usually bad: it’s because a crawl typically provides exposition that should have been included in the movie itself, but somehow didn’t make it in, either due to budgetary constraints, or (more likely) general incompetence on the part of the filmmakers. Or, on some occasions, we’re forced to sit through opening crawls full of irrelevant/unnecessary information thanks to last-minute studio meddling (“The test audiences don’t understand the story! Add a big word-wall at the beginning explaining everything!”). You know how the first thing you learn in Screenwriting 101 is “show, don’t tell”? An opening crawl is the very definition of “tell, don’t show”. Film is a fundamentally visual medium and yet here we are, using big blocks of text to get a point across.
(Speaking of general incompetence on the part of the filmmakers, I’d just like to say that, over 10 years later, the worst abuse of the opening crawl in movie history still has to be Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark, which opens with paragraph upon paragraph of scrolling text, to the point where you feel you’re being called upon to read a short novella before you get to watch the movie. But I digress.)
Despite the general awkwardness of this narrative device, it would seem there are a large number of moviegoers (including the man who designed the opening titles for the first Star Wars) who are disappointed that Rogue One didn’t include an opening crawl. Some fans have in fact taken to YouTube to generate their own versions of what that crawl should have looked like.
Rogue One’s lack of opening crawl is easily the worst thing to have happened this year
— Ben Gibson (@Phil_Oshite) December 22, 2016
It’s sad that I even have to wonder if this is sarcasm.
This is despite the fact that an opening crawl probably wouldn’t have worked for Rogue One anyway, because the film opens with a flashback sequence to the main character as a young girl. So would this hypothetical crawl have described events prior to the flashback, or events that occurred after the flashback but prior to the main story? And that’s not even taking into account that Rogue One is basically the live-action adaptation of the opening crawl of the original Star Wars anyway, thus we would have had a crawl describing another crawl, otherwise known as a crawl-ception.
As it so happens when writing about these things, I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and stumbled upon a compilation of all seven Star Wars opening crawls in one video, and the experience of watching all of them back to back was interesting.
I can still recall watching that Phantom Menace crawl in the theater, with my eyes immediately glazing over when I saw references to congressional debates and the taxation of trade routes. Watching it today, my eyes glaze over yet again, but now I can also see the numerous problems with it, including the fact that the whole conceit of an opening crawl was inspired by Lucas wanting to pay tribute to old-school action movie serials like Buck Rogers, where lengthy opening blocks of text were meant to catch you up on previous installments you might have missed. But Episode I was ostensibly the opening chapter in the Star Wars “serial”, so what exactly was this crawl supposed to be catching us up on?
Frankly, the rest of the opening crawls don’t fare much better. Out of the seven crawls, the only one that stands out is the one from the original Star Wars, of course, because not only is it relatively terse and well-written, it exists almost entirely to set the mood. It’s not there to explain the whole movie for you, but rather to give the feeling that what you’re watching is merely one chapter of a (then-nonexistent) larger galactic epic, while also allowing John Williams’ score to be fully heard.
I can understand Lucasfilm thinking that the following Skywalker-centric Star Wars films need to have opening crawls for nostalgia purposes, but they haven’t worked for me 85% of the time. And there’s no denying how dated they feel; there’s no way any other franchise in this day and age could get away with delaying the start of the movie for 1 to 2 minutes to provide a textual infodump that’s mostly meaningless to people watching the movie for the first time and don’t know any of the characters anyway.
But rest assured, despite what I’ve written here, the next Star Wars film will indeed have an opening crawl. Nostalgia is too powerful of a force in marketing and moviemaking these days. But I suspect The Last Jedi, just like most movies, would be better off without one.