Excessive Use of the Force

This review in the January 31, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader provoked a fire-storm of angry letters. I was attending the Rotterdam International Film Festival while many of these were arriving, and I can recall having to write a reply to some of them from there. The main point of disputation was whether or not Lucas had in fact appended the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” to Star Wars when it first premiered in 1977; I knew he hadn’t, because I vividly remember attending a first-day showing in Los Angeles (and subsequently writing about it for Sight and Sound in an essay, “The Solitary Pleasures of Star Wars,’” that was reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics) . But quite a few of my indignant readers were convinced that George Lucas in his wisdom had already foreseen that the film would be so successful that it would launch three prequels and were eager to set me straight. The Reader’s facts checkers eventually confirmed my claim by phoning Fox, and I was left musing about the chilling ease with which the Star Wars industry had seemingly managed to rewrite its own history, at least in the minds of many viewers who, having bonded with their parents and/or siblings over the blissful spectacle of mass annihilation at a later date, either weren’t there to see the premiere in 1977 or else were somehow persuaded afterwards to re-imagine what they saw. — J.R.

Star Wars: Special Edition

Rating — Worthless

Directed and written by George Lucas

With Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, Eddie Byrne, and the voice of James Earl Jones.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Semantically as well as historically, there’s an important distinction to be made between light and lite entertainment, and the release of Star Wars 20 years ago marked a watershed in defining where it lies. From the 1930s comedies of Ernst Lubitsch to the best 50s MGM musicals to Howard Hawks’s 1959 Rio Bravo, light entertainment at its best was a pleasurable way of spending time with a pleasant group of people. Some of this carried over into 50s sitcoms such as I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners and The Jack Benny Show, in which the main attraction was the glitter of attractive personalities.

Star Wars launched its own set of enduring pop personalities, only some of them belonging to people. But the prospect of spending quality time with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), C3PO, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), R2-D2, Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca, or even Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi (Alec Guinness) is at best incidental to the pleasures the movie has to offer. None of these characters has any depth, and they’re all treated like the fanciful props and settings—as pulp staples that keep the action going. In this respect, Star Wars stands a universe apart from such SF touchstones as Forbidden Planet (1956) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to which it’s highly indebted for many details. Star Wars is grounded in the short-term rewards of TV watching, where every moment tends to be equal in emotional importance to every other and where the only serious continuity is in a consistency of mild diversion rather than in a persistence of personality. This form of entertainment can only be called lite—constructed out of ersatz familiar materials meant to be admired for their momentary cuteness or for details of their design.

Like the differences between Georg Lukacs (a Hungarian Marxist literary historian) and George Lucas, the differences between light and lite consist to a large degree of different assumptions about history and audience, truth and illusion, war and peace, human and nonhuman. For the past 20 years we’ve been living more in a world foreseen by Lucas than in one hoped for by Lukacs, and Reagan’s Star Wars program is only one of the more obvious artifacts of this development. (The fact that last year’s Special Effects, a 40-minute Omnimax commercial for the rerelease of the Star Wars trilogy, and a few more-recent fantasy blockbusters received major funding from the National Science Foundation is surely another—and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Clinton say that it’s the duty of every American to see Star Wars.) Even more pertinent is the gulf war, a media event that I seriously doubt would have been sold or experienced in quite the same fashion without the example of Star Wars—and not only because it’s impossible to hear James Earl Jones say “this is CNN” without thinking of Darth Vader.

Twenty years ago Star Wars postulated itself as both the beginning of something (a new way of marketing toys) and the end of something (an older way of moviemaking, commemorated by a heap of favorite bits plundered from movies ranging from King Kong to Triumph of the Will)—an ingenious form of doublethink echoed in the very premise of a fantasy of the future beginning with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Today it relaunches itself as a “special edition” in the middle of a nightmarish continuum, with a trailer for both of the retooled sequels, an entire ad (rather than a mere logo) for the technology of THX sound, and, after “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” the suggestive and ominous title: “Episode IV: A New Hope,” heralding three future prequels.

Consider the prospect: twenty more years of Star Wars movies, toys, comic books, weapons programs, video games, trailers, promos—and tons of New Age jive to link it all up with Homer, the Old Testament, Virgil, the Koran, Arthurian legend, Joseph Campbell, and even Walt Disney. What was once at best an OK diversion for ten-year-old boys has become a cornerstone of Western civilization. “There was something that happened to many people in their late teens and early 20s when they first saw it,” muses Star Wars: Special Edition producer Rick McCallum in the press book. “It was a turning point where you actually realized that almost anything was possible and realistic at the same time.” Even, one might add, a new form of mass annihilation experienced as a spectacle.

I won’t bother you with the plot in any detail, since you’ve been living with it for years even if you’ve never seen the movie. Suffice it to say that an earnest farm youth on a remote planet, son of a vanquished Jedi warrior, meets another former Jedi who trains him in the mystical ways of the Force; finds his aunt and uncle burned to cinders by minions of the evil Empire (in homage to The Searchers), which occasions about 15 seconds of tragic reflection; hires a hardened mercenary with an exotic, nonhuman servant to pilot him and his guru and accompanying robots to save a princess captured by the Empire; then blasts the Empire’s Death Star to sparkling, bubbling, and extremely satisfying smithereens. Along the way, the guru is killed by the Empire’s Darth Vader, one of his former pupils, which occasions about 20 seconds of tragic reflection—not counting a few inspirational posthumous voice-overs such as “Luke, trust your feelings” and “Remember, the Force will be with you, always.” I’ll say. With two refurbished sequels and three yet-to-be-made prequels, that’s an eternity of Force to contend with.

It can be, and has been, argued that all this is a glorious triumph of technology—which was also said of the gulf war. Of course plenty of Americans lost or risked losing family members in that war, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that any of them experienced that event as light or lite entertainment. But for those of us who experienced the annihilation of Iraqi innocents and the partial destruction of Baghdad as bloodless zaps and light shows, it was a new kind of impersonal warfare, for some even a kind of masurbatory fantasy that Star Wars provided the blueprint for. Interestingly enough, Star Wars used blueprints of earlier styles of aerial bombardment, which it made even more abstract, even less connected with human suffering. The climactic Death Star attack was modeled directly on a compilation of air-battle clips from more than 50 war films. The nub of Lucas’s postmodernism was to retain the kinetic pleasure of those clips and remove everything that might suggest human devastation or historical nuance, turning it all into a giddy fireworks display. The applause that still often greets the orgasmic explosion of the Death Star is therefore made to seem as healthy and innocent as the simple appreciation of a lighted Christmas tree. And when Reagan named his weapons program after Lucas’s light show he was telling us what mass annihilation might look like in the future—not to those experiencing it of course, but to those getting a rise from the spectacle on TV.

“But you’ll have to admit,” I can hear some Star Wars fans insisting, “it’s beautifully put together.” In 1944 George Orwell wrote, “The first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.”

Now let me be fair. Star Wars may be a wall, but it doesn’t surround a concentration camp. It surrounds a kind of moviemaking and a kind of humanity that it has been supplanting and making irrelevant (and milking) for the past 20 years. The success of this movie convinced studio heads that movies should be made to sell merchandise (the major point of Mel Brooks’s underrated lampoon Spaceballs), that antisocial ten-year-old boys are the viewers to target, and that anyone who thinks otherwise about movies can take a hike. If every existing print of Star Wars were burned to a crisp, just like Luke’s aunt and uncle, I doubt that the world would be a much better place, because the changes it has helped to usher in are already part of the modern world. But I don’t think I’d shed any tears.

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