More than two years ago, I was feeling overwhelmed by the hype and moved to write the following piece, which some readers viewed as anti-“Star Wars.” So you can imagine how it’s going for me this week, as the excitement over the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” goes full throttle. Happy reading, everyone, and don’t look for me at Comic Con. - S.J.
This column was originally published on May 31, 2013.
May the Force be dissipated.
Seriously. Let it go already. And as that happens, may mentions of "the Force" also fade away, except in the case of big-city cops talking about their place of employment.
Maybe I'm late to the noticing party, but I feel as if I've been besieged in recent years by references to "Star Wars," a series of six movies of generally diminishing quality that began 36 years ago and, with the recent purchase of the franchise by Disney, shows no signs of stopping.
George Lucas' films, of course, enshrined the idea of a universal "force" guiding our actions, just as they enshrined Darth Vader as an ultimate villain, pride in geeking out over an aspect of popular culture and turning films into shameless marketing juggernauts.
Instead of slipping into a corner of memory from which it can occasionally be summoned, the "Star Wars" saga continues to be pushed front and center by its devotees. And those of us who maybe didn't wait in line to see "The Phantom Menace" or, worse, "Attack of the Clones" are expected to know Naboo, Sith Lords and "Phantom Menace's" spot in the chronology as well as we know the Constitution. Wait. Bad analogy. As well as we know the hierarchy of Special K flavors, which, indisputably, begins with Red Berries.
I guess I'll find out the answer after this piece runs, but I've been wondering for a while if it is OK to not particularly like "Star Wars," to be put off by the continued reverence for movies that appeared a long time ago in decades far, far away and, frankly, come across that way. Thank you, Mr. Comedian on TV or fellow guest at dinner party, but, no, I don't want to automatically laugh at your Jar Jar Binks reference, just as I didn't laugh when Lucas had the Jar Jar character doing comic shtick in the middle of a pitched battle during "Menace."
Just a few examples of how we are force-fed "Star Wars":
Stephen Colbert began his Comedy Central show, in 2005, by noting that on that very day Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew received his U.S. citizenship. Colbert hasn't let up since.
(Chewbacca is just a first-order "Star Wars" reference, one most of us can't help knowing, but it would be inconsistent to lament all these mentions and then expect readers to know them. So: Introduced in the first movie, he was a Wookie, a sort of superintelligent Yeti who co-piloted the Millennium Falcon starship and turned out to be one of the better in Lucas' insistent and often awkward menagerie of nonhumans.)
You get the feeling that if life had broken a little differently for Colbert, he would have been one of those guys in full "Star Wars" character regalia at the annual Comic-Con gathering. Just last year, he used an elaborate "Star Wars" comparison to explain the Republican presidential primary. President Barack Obama, in Colbert's faux-Republican worldview, was Darth Vader, and the GOP was the Rebel Alliance, and it went on from there.
Obama himself tried — and notoriously to some, bungled — a "Star Wars" reference in March. He said it would take a "Jedi mind meld" to make Congress avoid the federal spending cuts known as sequestration. "Jedi" is a "Star Wars" term, while "mind meld," it turns out, comes from "Star Trek." Instead of showing pop-culture savvy, Obama committed a form of nerd apostasy.
But the point isn't that the president got it wrong. It's that this man who clearly has just the right amount of "Star Wars" knowledge (i.e., a little) felt obligated to try to go deeper into the mythology.
Volkswagen ads in recent years used "Star Wars" for both good and ill. The little boy in the Darth Vader suit, as John Williams' score played in the background, was note-perfect: funny, touching and comprehensible whether you've seen all six films 10 times each or wouldn't watch one of them even if your Internet was down and it was the only thing left in Redbox.
The follow-up VW ad, though, made exactly the kind of mistake I'm talking about. Set at the "Star Wars" cantina where Lucas had interstellar thugs gather to listen to clarinet jazz, it assumed a familiarity with the movies that people just shouldn't be expected to have.
Lest you think this is just big-stage stuff, references people make to show off to one public or another, I'll tell you what happened when I was at my local library recently in preparation for this article. I was seeking help in finding a DVD of the first "Star Wars" film that the catalog said should have been on the shelf.
The librarian looked at his computer and actually said, "I've got a very bad feeling about this, to paraphrase Han Solo."
And, indeed, when I watched the movie again, there was Solo, Harrison Ford's intergalactic smuggler-with-a-heart-of-gold, saying, "I got a bad feeling about this," as the walls of a giant trash compactor closed in on him. A version of the "bad feeling" line pops up half a dozen other times in the movies too.
The DVD, it turned out, was downstairs in the children's section, bearing a label, "Especially for older kids." That seems about right.
The world is full of people who testify that the first "Star Wars," or the first trilogy, changed their lives, and I am in no position to argue with them (or, thank goodness, date them).
But I can say that, seeing it again, I was reminded that even when I first saw it as a 13-year-old, it didn't blow me away. If you had read, for instance, Tolkien, the "Star Wars" story seemed threadbare, especially next to the special effects. It's filled with a lot more talking in hallways than you remember, and nothing will lead you to contest the general opinion that dialogue and plotting are not Lucas' forte.
That film, renamed "Episode IV: A New Hope" after the sequels and prequels came along, is important, to be sure. It put sci-fi space opera on the big screen and pushed filmmaking down a special-effects path that has led to today's CGI showcases (with occasional interruptions from humanlike characters).
And while Hollywood probably would have gotten there on its own, "Star Wars" is complicit in the industry's focus on finding repeatable franchise films pitched to the raw emotions and fantasies of righteousness of the average teenager.
But a movie being influential shouldn't require us to be intimately familiar with it. Imagine, for instance, that I got a detail of fact or interpretation wrong in this piece, and you are a "Star Wars" devotee seething over my ignorance. Thank you for proving my point.
By the time Lucas restarted the "Star Wars" saga with the prequel trilogy that began with "Episode I — The Phantom Menace" in 1999, much of the momentum from the first three films seemed lost. But, still, "Star Wars" gained cultural power, surviving even the director himself ticking off aficionados by tinkering with his originals: Lucas changed "A New Hope" so that Han shoots second in that cantina sequence, and he now has Darth Vader yelling "Noooo" on Blu-ray before killing an ally in "Return of the Jedi" to protect his son (spoiler alert: It's Luke Skywalker).
Not only do these changes blunt some of the few sharp edges "Star Wars" had, they are an affront to an idea of what a movie is. It exists not just as a director's creation but as an artifact located in a specific cultural context.
Worse still is the fact that I now know and understand the meaning of Lucas' emendations and, as I write this, am getting a little hot under the collar myself. Don't even get me started on the director introducing the notion, in the prequel trilogy, that the Force was actually the result of a biological agent, rather than what we all believed, an energy field connecting the galaxy.
I am outraged, and I am outraged that I am outraged. And I find myself wanting to quote Vader: "Nooooooooo!"
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