[17 June 2009]
In a past life, before I became a marginally employed arts critic, I was a Star Wars geek. And I don’t mean in an “I saw all the movies in the theater when I was a kid” kind of way. I mean I dressed up as a Jedi for six straight Halloweens. I carried around The Essential Guide to Star Wars Characters like it was an important reference book. I had a life-size cardboard cutout of Boba Fett in my bedroom. I owned five plastic lightsabers and over 300 action figures (including at least 15 Luke Skywalkers). I wore out VHS copies of the original trilogy. I can still recite all of Lando Calrissian’s lines when he’s piloting the Millennium Falcon during Return of the Jedi, which still come spilling out of me when I’m a little drunk.
And on more than one occasion, I have argued about Ewoks. Vehemently.
I mention this not as a way to assert some geek cred, which despite all odds, has become some kind of gauche badge to wear amongst my generation. I mention that because, unlike Tariq Jalil—the director, writer, and narrator of A Galaxy Far Far Away, a film about Star Wars fandom in advance of the release of the first prequel—I feel like I can relate to the people who Jalil claims to be presenting, but is in fact ridiculing. Far too much of A Galaxy Far Far Away is set up for Jalil and producer Terry Tocantins to confront, deride, and poke fun at the freaks who dress like Darth Vader, relate to Luke Skywalker like a relative, and were genuinely excited about a new Star Wars movie.
Re-released recently in an extras-packed edition with multiple commentaries and new interviews to celebrate its 10th anniversary, Galaxy Far Far Away, was produced in 1999 in advance of the release of Phantom Menace after Jalil noticed the story of a group of loyal fans who started waiting in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles 42 days before the film premiered. This prompted Jalil to traips across America to catch up with fans at conventions and with the people standing in that line. This lead to discussions with random celebrities who Jalil apparently could con to appear in the film (in one of the extra interviews, Jalil and Tocantins admit to lying their way onto a charity golf tournament to interview the likes of Joe Pesci, Andy Garcia, and Meat Loaf).
Jalil claims early on that the conceit of the film is to discover “why” fans are obsessed with Star Wars—but that should seem plainly apparent to anyone with a basic understanding of fandom. Star Wars fans like Star Wars because it gives them something to obsess over. It gives them something to believe in. More importantly, they like it. Same goes for people who love Star Trek, love Hannah Montana, or love to make movies, like Jalil. Other people’s obsessions are seem weird only if you don’t share them.
But Jalil wants to “understand” why fans like Star Wars, so he proceeds to have an endless parade of Star Wars geeks to laugh at, including a guy who dresses up like a hip-hop Boba Fett, a guy who spent thousands of dollars on a life-size replica of Han frozen in Carbonite, and a guy who sings off-key rap-rock songs about being a Jedi. The question of whether Jalil is exploiting or presenting the fans for liking Star Wars is never really resolved.
A similar problem harmed the Star Trek fandom docs Trekkies and Trekkies 2, but in those films, it at least seemed like the creators acted like they could relate to the fans. Whereas the interviews that represent the crux of Galaxy Far Far Away are conducted in a standoffish manner, leading to an incongruity of what Jalil perceives the movie’s point to be and what it actually is. Often, Jalil or Tocantins corner a meekish fan at a convention and ask him, “Why do you like Star Wars?,” “You think you can relate to this movie?”, and “Why are you here?” and not in a way that would lead to thought-provoking or open answers.
The filmmakers are talking to people with a sense of derision and lack of interest in their approach, which becomes painfully apparent when one fan says he relates to the loyalty Luke shows his father because his own father was bedridden and very ill. Instead of allowing the guy to choke/cry his way through the rest of his story, and more or less define exactly what the movie and its characters mean to him, Tocantins jumps in with another question that quells the emotion.
Jalil closes the mercifully short film (it clocks in at a hair over an hour) by saying that while he doesn’t understand Star Wars fans, at least they have something to believe in (which most Gen X-ers don’t, apparently). Which is a redeeming statement, to be sure, but it’s a bizarre conclusion to come to, because that statement doesn’t mesh with the tone of the film in the least.
There’s never a moment, until the final voiceover, where you’d believe the point of the movie was that “at least these people have something to believe in.” A more appropriate voiceover, given the tone of the movie, would have been “Look at these people, aren’t they weird?” If you don’t “understand” Star Wars fans before watching A Galaxy Far Far Away, you won’t learn anything new or anything that will change your opinion.