[25 May 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For those unfamiliar with geek lore, yesterday, 25 May, 2007, was a true nerd milestone. On said date, 30 years ago, an unknown sci-fi spectacle with very little advance buzz opened on movie screens across America. It starred nobody famous, was created by a filmmaker best known for his nostalgic nod to the 1950s, and confused critics with its jumbled genre crossing designs. Granted, the new fangled special effects looked mighty cool, but would audiences really queue up to see a bunch of basic eye candy wrapped around an obviously allegorical narrative? After all, three of the main characters were a pair of bumbling robots and an interstellar first mate who looked like Bigfoot. How could this possibly succeed?
Well, two sequels, three god-awful prequels, and umpteen billions of dollars later, its eventual conquest is now a glorified given. Indeed, Star Wars has come to mean more than just a novel 1977 popcorn flick that carried its creator George Lucas to both the zenith and nadir of fan obsession. It’s a corporate tag, a merchandising behemoth, a licensing label that has expanded across all marketing paradigms to prove its value as a type, a logo and a motion picture mission statement. Anyone who sat in the theaters some three decades past and thought they would see characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Darth Vader mythologized into fictional keepers of the science fiction faith would have been declared insane. But thanks to rampant fandom, the rise of recordable home video, and the arrival of the Internet as a new form of implied community, all speculative fiction now finds itself compared to the worlds of Wars.
Granted, there was nothing wrong with Lucas’ lucky lament. Upon a first viewing, the original Star Wars was like a stick of imagination imploding TNT. As you sat in your seat, whisked away to planetoids never dreamed of, with characters you couldn’t have conceived, the cinematic scales fell from your eyes. In their place remained indelible images that still stand strong today – the figure of our hero, Luke Skywalker, standing against the backdrop of a multi-mooned sky; the devious orb of destruction known as the Death Star; the black hooded Darth Vader commanding respect from his easily replaceable crew; Han Solo saving the day, blaster blazing away in a flurry of laser light glory. From the initial space shot to the final interstellar dogfight, Star Wars stands a singular work of inspired genius. Like all exceptional art, it taps into many elements at once, combining to easily transcend and transform them all.
The sequels remain the first step in ruining all that. No matter how great you think Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi are, they destroyed the initial aesthetic generated by Lucas and their team. They took what was probably a one-off experiment (though Georgie constantly disagrees with such claims) and expanded it far beyond anyone’s ability to control. No longer a personal or private vision, the new films had to be retrofitted to meet the demands of a blockbuster craving public. Thankfully, Lucas understood his own lame limits and turned the projects over to others (Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand) to fulfill their newly compromised promise. He went on to make fledgling F/X house Industrial Light and Magic a definitive dream machine. The hope was to provide an outlet to secure any and all filmmaker’s wildest vision. And as said business plan resoundingly succeeded, Star Wars continued to become more and more culturally relevant.
This didn’t mean it mattered cinematically or artistically. Instead of finding a way of making his spin-offs feel organic and original, Lucas continually rehashed the same old storylines (Skywalker’s in trouble, Vader is mad, Solo is suave, Leah is lost) and accessorizing their similarities with new characters (Yoda, Jabba the Hut) and ever expanding vistas. What he had initially was something very special, something that spoke to a generation eager to experience imagery and imagination unbridled and unfettered. In it’s place, Lucas simply created a cottage industry (and, eventually, a major motion picture force), one that forgot that fun was also part of the motion picture mix. Near the end of Jedi, with familial connections revealed, loyalties tested and tried, and every last manipulated emotion employed, our filmmaker let his cuddly duddly Ewok characters announce last call. Slightly satisfied, the crowds disbanded and went on their way.
It’s important to note that all of this occurred in an era with no reliable home theater construct. VCRs had been around since the early ‘70s, but few owned them and studios basically balked at the idea of releasing first run films onto a magnetic tape format (they had just caved on cable a couple of years previous). When movies finally started arriving on both Beta and VHS, they were incredibly expensive (well over $100 dollars) and limited in their reproduction quality. So for most of us, memory – and the occasional revival at the local arthouse – was all we had. And inside such wistful thoughts, Star Wars became something much more than its inauspicious origins. It became a phenomenon, a rite of passage, a part of everyone’s collective memory and any other lame metaphysical cliché you can clamp to it. Reality remained far off in the distance. In its place was the new religion – with new cathedrals built to its amusement immortality.
The first church eventually evolved from said videocassette. When Lucas finally put his War films out on the market, they were pan and scan shadows of their former big screen selves. Holding back as long as he arrogantly could, he turned each and every release into an epiphany. When the devoted demanded widescreen versions, mimicking the larger than life theatrical experience, he eventually complied. Soon, the digital technology that ILM helped found was firm enough to allow Lucas to tinker with his titles. The outrage was, initially, overwhelming, but with the promise of additional sequences and improved interstellar opulence, the whiners soon quieted. All three original movies were tweaked, and 1997 saw a 20th anniversary celebration of all things spacey. And like new prophecies from up on high, the faithful drank them in and learned their slightly different dogma.
The next logistical place of worship was the Internet. While continuously stereotyped as a place where freaks and dweebs tend to meet and greet, there is no denying the support group mentality inside the Information Superhighway. There, individuals who believe their obsessions are wholly and completely their own learn that others exist outside their sphere of experience and – believe it or not – their fetishism was the same as everyone else’s. It was here where Lucas’s sovereign state went nuclear. Fellow Warlords used bulletin boards, free Geocities webpages, and college computer lab time to outline their defense of the subtext strewn Skywalker realm. They opined on minutia, imagined plotlines of their own, and coalesced the entire Lucas empire (books, movies, video games, TV shows, comics, trading cards) into a doctrine drenched in exaggerated meaning and overhyped worth.
Naturally, their loose canon L. Ron had to respond, and Lucas solidified the sorry state of Star Wars’ artistic merits by delivering three of the stupidest space operas ever. The perfunctory prequels – movies predating the events in the original trilogy – did an amazing job of hallowing out everything that had come before. Darth Vader, an icon of imposing evil, was turned into a pitter-patter bratling with a tendency to express his joy in diaper wetting shouts. Even worse, as the films moved along, adolescence found the future Sith sulking like a paperboy who just been bitten by a teacup Chihuahua. By the end of the turgid third film, a lava-pruned Vader was reduced to an archetype – that is, a love lorn loser whose emotional depth is, again, reduced to monosyllabic shouts.
Failing to see how he pissed on perspective, Lucas did what any self-determined god does, and declared his works to be “good”. Then, he went on to deliver his final Soviet state revisionist sentence. The original Star Wars, he said, was never to exist again. Instead, it would only be available in the CGI revamped Special Edition. Those who didn’t like the decision needed to get with the times, he insisted, and stop living in the past. The problem was, the past was decidedly better. Forgetting the dated look of the fantasy for a moment, the spirit imbued throughout the original film was lost in a gloss of fake fictional creatures and overdone sci-fi cityscapes. Sure, the story remained the same – sort of (No, the whole Greedo episode will not be discussed here), but the heart of the narrative had been ripped out and replaced by something that looked like shameless self-promotion.
There is a bigger picture problem involved here as well. By purposefully thwarting art’s inherent element of timelessness, Lucas and others open up the entire category to unnecessary interference. For example, an owner of Picasso’s “Guernica” who believes it would look better in full color, or a studio convinced that a movie’s box office appeal was limited by a director’s choice of subplot are now supported in their frequently misguided notions of reconfiguration. And before you toss out the typical “they’re his films” mantra, remember two things. One day, they won’t be (no one lives forever) and Lucas didn’t make these movies just for himself. He put them out into the marketplace to be accepted and/or rejected. Once taken, a creative contract is implied. He can pragmatically retrieve and rewrite the original entertainment agreement, but by doing so, he opens himself to claims of fraud and falsehood. It may not hold up legally, but it sure stinks ethically.
And the worst was yet to come. Last year, among much hoopla and hand wringing, Lucas reneged on his ‘no original versions’ dicta and provided long suffering fans with a chance to own the initial ‘70s standards canoodling free. Of course, there was a catch, and DVD lovers soon learned that these transfers would be non-anamorphic and non-remastered. Amid rumors of a 30th Anniversary HD release, the shilling appeared shameless. Yet even this latest laugh in the face of the fanbase couldn’t dampen Star Wars’ freakish faithful. Many lined up this week to sit through all six films in this over-inflated franchise, and here’s hoping that mental health officials were standing by to treat the traumatized. To anyone who stood for hours to see the 1977 original – sometimes more than once – the irony is caustic. Today, there are dozens of ways to enjoy Lucas’ lumbering legacy. Back then, there was only the Bijou. We had no choice but to wait. Perhaps that’s why so many of us are Star worn today.