As the final installment of the Star Wars saga, Revenge of the Sith, hits viewscreens from here to Tatooine, there's one important question that catches in our collective throats more fully than one of Chewbacca's hairballs: Why the hell do we still care about Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Anakin, Obi Wan, and the guy played by Jimmy Smits? (OK, nobody cares about Senator Bail Organa; in fact, given the amount of career heat Smits has gotten from appearing in fake Elizabethan garb in the Star Wars flicks, you almost have to think he was placed there by the same folks in the federal witness protection program who cast him in The Old Gringo.)
What might be called the continuing cultural hegemony of Star Wars is no small matter. With the possible exception of The Lord of the Rings, no other franchise has maintained a similar hold on the public imagination for so long a period of time. In a curious way, the first two installments in The Godfather saga did (as evidenced by the appropriation of its themes and motifs in everything from countless lesser mob movies to standup comedy to rap music). But it's undeniable that Star Wars is in the warp and woof of American culture, ranging from politics to toys to, of course, movies, novels, and comic books. It very much provides a backdrop, a framework, a system of reference for the ways we talk about things, whether we're talking about missile defense systems, visions of the future and technology, of good vs. evil, you name it.
This is all the more stunning given the generally acknowledged mediocrity of the Star Wars movies themselves. Indeed, it's a given that if Star Wars didn't start to go downhill sometime during the "Cantina Band" sequence in the very first flick, then the series actively started to suck wind harder than Billy Dee Williams in an action sequence by the start of the third release, Return of the Jedi, a film so bad that it may well be the space opera equivalent of The Day The Clown Cried. (Personally, I lay in with those who peg the beginning of the end, if not the actual end of the end—or perhaps the high point—of the whole series to 1978's little-remembered yet still nightmare-inducing The Star Wars Holiday Special, which comes as close to the death-inducing video in The Ring as anything ever shown on non-premium cable).
And yet, despite the craptacular nature of at least four out of six Star Wars movies, there's little doubt that no film event has been more anticipated than Revenge of the Sith (with the possible exception—and in France only—of the next Asterix et Obelix extravaganza).
And even littler doubt that no film event has been more reviled. While some critics, such as the Ebert & Roper team, have given Sith a thumbs-up blessing, at least as many, especially among those with pretensions that go beyond writing the script for Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens, have smacked the new movie with a Death Star rating.
"May the Force Be Over," says the Village Voice in a representative pan—representative because it slides seamlessly between attacking George Lucas (for essentially being a perpetual adolescent who never quite made it back from the journey to the center of his mind that was the executive producer job on Captain EO) and attacking Lucas' audience for the soft bigotry of "low expectations." Americans put up with this sort of thing, runs this kind of indictment, for the same reason they put up with George Bush: because they are stupid, shiftless, conservative, reactionary, lacking in taste and cultivation, and so on.
Audience contempt is shot through Dale Peck's bromide inThe New York Observer, in which the perpetually-aggrieved novelist cum critic rants with Ewok-like spasmody against "the poor schmucks in the Boba Fett and Anakin Skywalker costumes" and "the loss [of] the cantankerous sexual triangle of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia."
As heartfelt as it might be to mourn that the Star Wars movies never became an intergalactic variation on Jules et Jim, it does little to answer the question of why Lucas' imagined universe has captured the country's collective imagination for the past 30 years. At more than a few moments in Peck's critical impersonation of Grand Moff Tarkin, one feels the "heavy, boneless hand" of an equally imperious, contemptuous critic like that dubious arbiter of "the human," Harold Bloom. A few years back, Bloom weighed in on another uber-popular franchise. He looked upon the spectacle of pre-teen readers showing up at bookstores at midnight to get the newest Harry Potter novel and saw nothing but inky darkness: These poor muggles, averred the man who made his reputation by chronicling the "anxiety of influence," didn't realize that J.K. Rowling, whose career as a welfare queen was far more productive (and brief) than that of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 2, merely fed her fans' "vast hunger for unreality" and made "no demands upon her readers." Bloom, mustering all the fury of Jabba the Hut being cheated out of the last donut in the box, raged that the Harry Potter books had displaced Tom Brown's Schooldays like some disposable clone warrior.
Peck, to his credit, at least asks the right questions in rare moments between spit takes:
Is Star Wars actually a kind of antidote to the pessimism of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate generation? A movie that allows conservatives to believe in a just war and liberals to believe that resistance can, finally, lead to victory? A movie that reassures both sides that good deeds need not come at the expense of personal happiness? You could certainly make that case, and it's by no means the worst thing in the world—whatever else it is, Star Wars is hardly reactionary. At the very least, it pays lip service to the idea that corrupt or unjust governments should be removed from power. But what, then, is the context of the current trilogy? What is it that compels millions of fans to shell out billions of dollars on tickets and movie-related paraphernalia for three of the worst films to plague theaters in recent memory? What is it that led a handful of diehards to pitch a tent outside the Ziegfeld [theater in New York] weeks before the movie opened, so that they could buy the first tickets when they went on sale?
A few years back in Reason, Michael Valdez Moses hazarded a guess as to why Star Wars, along with the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, were so successful not just at selling tickets (and DVDs, toys, and more), but at dominating our cultural conversations. Part of the reason, he wrote, was that these series each presented "a dramatically compelling (as opposed to a didactically plodding) struggle between good and evil." More important, they "respond to a specifically modern set of social anxieties. Indeed, each expresses a deep discomfort with modernity itself. If the fundamental narrative structure of the films borrows heavily from tradition, the specific forms that both good and evil assume within them are those of the modern world."
Moses' conclusion is worth quoting at length:
The deepest utopian appeal of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter is not to an adolescent yearning for a world inhabited by wizards, hobbits, and Jedi knights, but to a modern consciousness torn by mutually contradictory desires. In divine fashion we would redesign the entire cosmos according to our individual whims and throw off the chains of all external authority. We wish at once to be free and to be a god to others. We would return to an idyllic past and progress forward to an unbounded future. The truly magical power of these films and stories is that they allow us, if only for the brief moment in which we are enthralled by their spell, to believe that as modern individuals we can be both at home in the world and at one with ourselves.
We might supplement Moses' account by noting that these franchises, in nascent and perhaps even incoherent fashion, track loosely enough with current events to give them an extra oomph. Throughout the 1960s, for instance, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was widely read as an allegory about nuclear weapons and the need to renounce such power. That such a gesture was essentially impossible only added to the power of the books. Similarly, by the time the Peter Jackson movies hit American screens, it was difficult not to read the story as an oblique commentary about post-9/11 and the need to stare down evil. Neither of these readings needs to be done reductively. In fact, they shouldn't be; if they are, the material becomes worse than "didactically plodding."
This is to say that franchises such as Star Wars provide not so much a master narrative for contemporary America, or a way of mapping out exactly what happened yesterday, is happening today, and will happen tomorrow. Rather, Stars Wars opens up an almost infinite number of entry points into conversations about what it means to be alive at the tail end of the 20th century and in the early years of the 21st. In short, Star Wars provide space for the queries that an exasperated Peck reels off like indictments. Telling a story, however broad-stroked and fictional, about how a republic turns into an empire, is an interesting gesture given where we're at in Iraq and elsewhere. Whether this adds up to masked criticism of George W. Bush—something Lucas denies and Michael Medved suggests—is no more important than whether Jar Jar Binks demeans gays, Caribbeans, stroke victims, and all audience members, or only one of those groups. The point is that the movies provide a context for precisely those sorts of open-ended, what-if, hey-maybe conversations.
Media scholar Henry Jenkins studies fan communities and the way they use mass-produced culture to create not only complex artifacts but living, breathing communities of all shapes and sizes. Jenkins has noted that science fiction communities, because of "the utopian possibilities always embedded within" the genre, tend to be the most long-lived and intense. That's because science fiction explicitly attempts to create and explore new worlds and social possibilities.
Star Wars represents one of those exceedingly rare moments when characteristics of fan communities have gone mainstream and in some attenuated way, have taken hold of our larger society. We won't be talking about Star Wars forever—witness the long, slow decline of the Star Trek franchise, or the generally lackluster reception of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie, which came out 20 years too late to capitalize on that once huge book series. Or, for that matter, the stunning flameout of the Matrix movies. The first film, released in 1999, spoke to a number of concerns about the plasticity of identity and reality that were in the air during the late days of the tech boom; the sequels disappointed both on their own terms but also because they no longer raised interesting issues about the world in which they were released.
The enormous Star Wars industry—the movies, the cartoons, the toys, the pop-cult references—still generates interest, excitement, pleasure (this last is something that most critics, whether liberal or conservative find absolutely terrifying), and, most important, a cultural conversation worth having. The series may well be crap—and a grave disappointment to critics who know so much better than the rest of us—but surely that's the least interesting thing about it.