Total Pageviews

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars & You—Episode I

Even if you have no interest in Star Wars, you’re stuck with it. Not just because people won’t stop talking about it, but because everything is Star Wars now. From the inescapable parallels in 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy*, to the fact that “believe in yourself” became the #1 theme in Hollywood films for the past generation, you’re constantly rewatching Star Wars. That’s no accident. George Lucas deliberately built the story around Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology ideas, reverse-engineering a new myth from the archetypes of the old ones. Temptation, virgin birth, the hero’s journey, transcendence, prodigal sons, seeking ancient wisdom, betrayal and redemption—it’s all in there. So, in a sense, everything was always Star Wars, just without the merchandising.

In a Bill Moyers interview, Lucas said that after the first film came out, there were people of all faiths saying, “Hey, there’s our religion up on the screen” (my paraphrase). Of course, Campbell had pointed out examples such as the virgin birth of Osiris out of Isis being a precursor to the Christian nativity, boiling down the archetypes into transparencies. Lucas took the creative next step, rebooting it all in outer space (but, fittingly, LONG AGO) so that he could not only make an entertaining film, but also so he wouldn’t have religious zealots targeting him for blasphemy a la Last Temptation of Christ or The Satanic Verses… although his own take on a virgin birth produced almost as much controversy among movie nerds. In his Bethlehem there was born, not a savior, but the many-layered, often cringeworthy life story of Anakin Skywalker in all its toe-curling, pod-racing, Princess-wooing bravado. This would end in heartbreak for all, starting with Liam Neeson's character, as if punishing him for trying to reduce the previously spiritual Force to blood-borne cells called mitichlorians.

Some folks work hard to dismiss Lucas from his own creation, especially when it comes to the much-reviled prequels. Since he was more in command with the making of Episodes 1-2-3, backed by the enormous financial and technical wealth of Lucasfilm, and presumably unfettered by any editorial controls, they assume he is probably to blame for their suckitude. I see the prequels as a mixed bag, though—a judgment also fair for Return of the Jedi. Yes, almost all the travails of young Anakin are lame, and the melo-dialogue hits spectacular lows especially in romantic interludes, and Samuel Jackson sadly does not a Jedi make; but I love Ewan MacGregor’s exasperated humanity as Obi Wan Kenobi, the superior martial arts, surprising new applications for lightsabers, and of course the final, brutal, chilling “end” of Anakin Skywalker. There’s much to enjoy, and probably just as much to dismiss, but dismissing Lucas himself? Hm.

“What’s George Lucas good at?” asked a friend about a week before Episode 7’s release, right after she said she was glad Lucas gave up control of Star Wars (I agreed). He’s not an ace at writing dialogue, or at directing actors. “World-building” was the only answer I could come up with at the time, but even that might not be defensible, since artists like Ralph McQuarrie and Jim Henson’s creature workshop did most of the heavy lifting when the Star Wars universe was populated and engineered. But, just like Stan Lee over in the Marvel universe, with his huge debts to Jack Kirby and other artists, or even Steve Jobs and his legendary “asshole with vision” status, there was still some kind of magic at his command.

In our own universe, the ability to channel the Force does not, however, necessarily grow with experience and/or wisdom. Sometimes it’s like catching lightning in a bottle. Stan Lee had a hell of a run in the Sixties and Seventies, but it’s fair to say that by the time he got around to creating “Speedball” 20-some years later, he was spent. Lucas did fine co-creating Indiana Jones, but somewhere in there he made Willow, which can safely be called a swing-and-a-miss.

I’m not film nerd enough to research decades of minutiae about Lucasfilm, but I still think I can elaborate on the “world-building” thing. Lucas was good at big ideas, at naming things, at establishing archetypes, at themes and conflicts, and at commanding convincing, game-changing imagery. He committed terrible but occasionally brilliant dialogue (admit it—for every dumb thing that is said in a Star Wars movie, you can find an equally awesome thing—and it’s not fair raising the bar too high, because these movies are for kids as well as adults, which is also why we must suffer through Ewoks and Gungans), and he created characters who, despite some dumb aspects (I never realized until reading a recent Facebook post just how silly it is that Chewbacca can’t say his own name), lodged themselves quickly into the popular zeitgeist and are now dictionary-level household reference points.

It’s a testament to this kind of vision to observe that, as Americans, my generation grew up sympathizing with “the Rebellion” despite living in the current dominant imperial power on this planet, where the closest analog to Luke blowing up the Death Star is probably Tim McVeigh blowing up the Oklahoma City government building. Of course, that building didn’t scoot around star systems and obliterate inhabited planets, but it was still filled with plenty of oblivious functionaries of the Empire: storm troopers, janitors, droids, and trash-compactor monsters who were just doing their jobs. I suppose Hollywood helps us all live double lives, thanks in no small measure to George Lucas—convinced deep down that we are rebels all, and harboring some special inborn capacity to channel a hidden power despite our humble origins.

*Is Groot Chewbacca, or is Rocket Chewbacca? Maybe both. Is Star Lord Han Solo or Luke Skywalker? Maybe both. Is the green chick Leia? Pretty much. There's some shuffling of the Star Wars deck, but you get the picture.