‘Star Wars’: Still With Us, But No Longer Above Us (Column)
The Force is no longer with us. Don’t deny it. Just say it and accept it. Let go of the fear. In losing the Force, much to regain we have. Maybe even our souls.
But not, if there is a God, for too long. Have you seen the President of the United States that 40 years of living inside the addictive narcotic of fantasy culture has brought us? Maybe it’s time to give up a dream that was actually played out long ago.
In the mid-1970s, when everything except punk rock moved at a pace so slow that Jimmy Carter’s drawl seemed charismatic, two movies, “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” famously gave rise to the new blockbuster aesthetic of Hollywood. It was a retro revolution, and it wasn’t just about movies. It was about a way that all of us would start to see the world.
When “Jaws” came out, you knew that it was bigger than big, because everyone went to see it, and everyone was talking about it. Yet earlier in the ’70s, a number of other films had been domineering and buzzed-about cultural juggernauts, like “The Godfather” or “The Sting” or “The Exorcist.” In the age before the mainstream media made box-office grosses seem like a member of the family, you’d have had to be a real industry insider to know that “Jaws” opened on more screens than any film before it, or that the change it represented was, to a degree, about the mass advertising of movies on television.
“Jaws” and “Star Wars” will forever be linked as the escapist twins that drove a stake through the heart of the New Hollywood. But if “Star Wars” hadn’t come along, I doubt if “Jaws,” by itself, would have had that effect. It was, after all, a thriller rooted in a virtuoso sort of minimalist split-second realism. Three men on a boat; one shark; no cheating. Spielberg’s technique was as pure and elemental as Hitchcock’s (and Hitchcock was a great admirer of “Jaws”). You could make a case — I would — that though “Jaws” was heart-in-the-throat, hold-onto-your-seat entertainment, it was also, in its way, a quintessential expression of the New Hollywood. No, it didn’t have the whole world on its mind the way that “Chinatown” or “The Conversation” or “Nashville” did. Yet Spielberg staged “Jaws” as a trip-wired human drama. It was a great movie in the same way that “The Wages of Fear” or “Lifeboat” were great movies. It was splendid fun, but it didn’t necessarily point the way to an all-popcorn-all-the-time future.
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“Star Wars” did. It was like a cheesy ’40s/’50s space serial reimagined as a video game (which is saying something, considering that video games were still in their Pong-era infancy), and from the get-go it was something much bigger than “Jaws.” I don’t mean that it made more money (though it did). I mean that on opening day, which is when I saw it at my local mall theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan, you could sense the change that was in the air. The line snaked back from the ticket counter and took a turn at the corner into the mall and kept going. And though the film onscreen may have echoed the schlock serials of old, it was also something transcendently new: a miraculous explosive yet frictionless space ride that somehow played like the myth of King Arthur acted out by a sexy hip version of the cast of “Flash Gordon” as directed by Howard Hawks. (Let’s say something outright: In two movies, “American Graffiti” and “Star Wars,” George Lucas was one of the greatest filmmakers of the last half century.) If you watched it hard enough, you could just about feel the Force. It was there in the vibratory glow of those lightsabers, in the glower of Darth Vader’s death mask (and James Earl Jones’ sonorous drone), and in the unprecedented jetting speed of the battles. There was a Force at work — alive — in this movie. It was one that would enter us all.
That feeling in the air applied to the millions who became born-again fans of “Star Wars” and went back to see it over and over and over again. It applied to more casual viewers. It applied to everyone in Hollywood. It applied to critics. The feeling was: “Star Wars” is bigger than you. Not because it was greater than the movies that had come before it (though to many of its generation, it was probably the greatest movie ever made), and not just because it was bigger at the box office — but because through some karmic fusion of bigness and novelty, it reset the program, baptizing a new fundamentalist age of entertainment, the essence of which was that entertainment would now be all-consuming in its escape. It would be an obsession, a drug, a religion. A way to be.
You’d think that the shoddy and convoluted “Star Wars” prequels, 20 years later, would have killed off the dream. They should have, as Lucas emerged from his cave of technology to direct three films that felt like they’d been conceived and hatched in a lab. (I no more believed that Hayden Christensen, in the culminating scenes of “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” would become Darth Vader than I bought that Oasis were the new Beatles.) Yet the amazing thing was that even as most of the world was disappointed by these movies that carried forth the mythology of “Star Wars” by reducing it to a scattershot parable of digital fetishism, it somehow didn’t matter. The dream persisted. What the prequels proved, mostly through the Force of their box-office might, is that “Star Wars,” even in fatally flawed form, could still hover over us all.
Until it didn’t. The final three movies in the series have, on balance, been much better than the prequels. Yet in the doggedness of their attempt to recapture and, at the same time, update the magic of the saga, their effect has been to fatally splinter the “Star Wars” audience. And when the “Star Wars” audience can no longer agree on the fundamental question of what a “Star Wars” movie is, or should be, the fundamentalism of the ultimate franchise leaks away. The real star wars are now the ones that take place among fans: The series is too obsessed with recreating the original two films! It’s too obsessed with diversity! It’s now just diverse enough, and anyone who rejects that rejects the spirit of “Star Wars”! “The Last Jedi” was a busy botch! “The Last Jedi” was the best film in the series since “The Empire Strikes Back”! “The Rise of Skywalker” hits the bull’s-eye for fans! “The Rise of Skywalker” is sheer fan service, and therefore sucks!
Let the Tylenol be with you.
Amid the chatter, the hectoring that turns everyone who touches it into a troll, the testy fragmentation of the very essence of “Star Wars” fanship, the magic of “Star Wars” — which was always rooted in its big-tent quality — has dribbled away. The first true sign was the tanking of “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” No “Star Wars” movie had ever generated such earthly box-office grosses. It was only one movie, but it was like that scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where we glimpse the man behind the curtain. The myth had already been fraying; at that moment, it tore. The myth, of course, being that these are movies that everyone loves. Everyone in the world.
No longer. They’re just movies now. And the saga of Luke Skywalker, and all those he touched, is done. What’s left?
We all know what’s left. Disney, the company that bought and now owns the soul of “Star Wars,” will drag out this franchise for the next 10 or 20 years. They will launch new trilogies and spin-offs; they will program “Stars Wars” in theaters and on streaming services; they will sustain it as movies and chop it into series. And, just maybe, we’ll even keep watching. But we’ll no longer feel as if we’re gazing up to the heavens of our imaginations to do so. “Star Wars” won’t be a religion anymore. It will just be a bunch of movies, or shows, or whatever. We now have to find something else to bring us together.