I had come to a multiplex in the Boston suburbs on Christmas morning expecting to enjoy a movie alone, or at very least in the company of only a handful of non-Christian refugees from the barrage of Yuletide cheer. I was wrong; the screening room was packed with hundreds of eager moviegoers, excited to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the latest installment in a cinematic saga that has run for 42 years. The film was playing on all of the multiplex’s screens, and so, with no other choice, I joined them.
Settling back into my seat as the opening crawl began (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”) catching us up with the latest news that the “sinister voice of the late Emperor Palpatine” (the saga’s archvillain) had been broadcast across the galaxy, I decided that this wouldn’t be so bad. In fact, it seemed only right to be there at the end of the narrative, since I had been there at the beginning.
I first heard about Star Wars months before it opened in 1977 from my cousin Ralph. “It’ll be out soon,” he said. “It’ll be bigger and better than Star Trek.” An avid reader of Starlog and Cinefantastique, Ralph just knew about things. My 12-year-old imagination could not even conceive of anything bigger and better than the television series that, in endless reruns, had kindled what would become a lifelong love of science fiction. But I took Ralph at his word.
Star Trek is the first adult television program that I clearly remember watching. I grew up with Mr. Dress-Up and Friendly Giant on the CBC, and although I remember them fondly, I cannot recall the specifics of any particular episode. Perhaps Casey and Finnegan just got into the same kinds of adventures so often that, like Spongebob a generation later, nothing notable really stood out.
Star Trek stood out. I remember sitting in my friend David Lough’s family room one afternoon, watching Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, allied with Abraham Lincoln and “Image of Surak” do battle with the forces of evil in the episode “Savage Curtain.” I was hooked, and when I watched “The Man Trap” with my brother a few weeks later, that episode’s salt vampire became the demon that would haunt my nightmares for many years. I loved it, but it scared the living crap out of me.
So the idea that anything could be better than Star Trek seemed a bit of a stretch to my youmg mind, Yet it was also an enticing possibility that I eagerly anticipated until I finally got to see it in June 1977.
The first installment of George Lucas’s space epic – always simply Star Wars to me, with none of that “A New Hope” nonsense – had entered into something of a science fiction wasteland. CBS cut the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise two years short in 1969 and there had been very little to replace it. There were the Planet of the Apes films, and Douglas Trumbull’s criminally-underrated Silent Running, whose marquee posters I could only marvel at as I walked by the Film Box in Sainte Anne de Bellevue, QC. I was too young to see them and, besides, science fiction just never seemed to get any real traction in the 1970s.
Having discovered Star Trek as a seven-year-old, I was bitterly disappointed by each promised revival or replacement. The two seasons of the animated series that ran on NBC in 1973 and 1974 fell, more often than not, in the same uncanny gulf as the Spiderman series. The Starlost, which ran at about the same time on CTV in Canada – now that I think about it, cousin Ralph had promoted it at the time as a Star Trek surrogate (it even featured Walter Koenig in a couple of episodes) – fizzled out pretty quickly. I even jumped enthusiastically into the primary-color disco-ball wackiness of Space: 1999, only to be blindsided by the bizarre turn of its second season and ultimate cancellation in 1977.
So I was seriously primed for Star Wars. I would have been happy if it has been almost as good as Star Trek; hell, I would have been thrilled if it was only as good as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, a 1969 film that seemed to play on the CFCF Midnight Movie every couple of months. It turned out to be even better than I had hoped, with action that transfixed my preteen eyes and special effects that blew Star Trek clear out of the quadrant. The first record I bought with my own money was the double-LP Star Wars soundtrack album recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. (My friend Dave Boutcher had the version by the Electric Moog Orchestra and, to be honest, I liked that one better.)
My enthusiasm was widely shared. Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby called it “the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial of all time.” He had doubts about the film’s narrative and thematic depth – doubts that I did not at the time share – but hell, it was such good fun! And audiences agreed, ultimately making it the top-grossing film of 1977, indeed the biggest moneymaker in cinmatic history up to that point.
Moore importantly to me, Star Wars turbocharged cinematic science fiction. It is irrelevant whether it really was, or is, science fiction at all, the fine distinctions between fantasy, “space opera,” and real SF are really only of interest to specialists; but it showed that science fiction, with or without space ships and aliens, was a viable cinematic and television genre. George Lucas’s success – and Steven Spielberg’s with Close Encounters a few months later – ushered in a new golden age of science fiction, leading to Battlestar Galactica, the Star Trek films, and television shows that continue down to this day, from Space: Above and Beyond to The Expanse. American popular culture was a science fiction desert before 1977, afterwards it was a lush jungle, with ten Star Wars sequels and prequels following upon the series’ first installment.
That was good news for the burgeoning legions of SF fans who, launched from the “galaxy far, far away” would explore infinite universes of imagination. So, with the final entry in the Star Wars trilogy of trilogies opening a a couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a reverie of nostalgia. Yet, when I did look back, I realized something that I hadn’t noticed in my excitement, as I sat in my seat at Fairview Cinema in Pointe Claire 42 years ago… Star Wars was actually really problematic.
To be honest, I think I did have a slight inkling of that thought at the time, but I chose to ignore it. It did bother me that the Imperial Stormtroopers had terrible aim, while the plucky heroes of the Resistance could pretty much hit anything shooting from the hip. And the incongruity of a princess fighting to restore a republic kind of stuck with me in a way that the prequel trilogy never resolved. It always seemed as if words like “republic” and “empire” had no discernible meaning in the Star Wars universe apart from vague associations of good and evil drawn from high school textbook accounts of Roman history and the American Revolution.
Subsequent Star Wars movies just piled one absurdity upon another, as I dutifully went to the cinema over the next couple of decades. I couldn’t imagine why a civilization with levitation and vectored-thrust technology would build vehicles as ridiculously cumbersome as the AT-AT Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back unless they wanted them to have a glaring vulnerability. (I grew up on Ultraman monsters with glaring vulnerabilities, so I knew one when I saw it.) And did George Lucas really expect me to believe that, in a time of faster-than-light travel, moon-sized space stations, and sentient droids, it was still possible for Princess Amidala, in Revenge of the Sith, to die in childbirth like the tragic heroine of a Victorian novel?
Some of my friends have suggested that the princess’s death was actually a clever critique of 21st century America, where Jeff Bezos has built a fortune of hundreds of billions selling high-tech luxuries, while the poor die of lead poisoning and cannot afford medical care. I’d like to think this is the case, but I think that gives Star Wars far too much credit. This is, after all, a movie franchise that asked us to accept, in Rogue One, that the Empire’s interstellar-networked computer system still needs Jyn to sneakernet a floppy to a disk-drive. In The Rise of Skywalker the technology is at least upgraded to an inter-ship Ethernet cable. (I’m not kidding.) This isn’t clever commentary; it’s the use of awkward devices to keep an otherwise unworkable plot working.
I understand that a “suspension of disbelief” is necessary for almost all science fiction. According to the laws of physics, faster-than-light travel and artificial gravity without centrifugal force are impossible. Consequently, to enjoy a film like Star Trek, viewers willingly agree to ignore all of the liberties it takes with, you know, science. The problem with Star Wars is that it always pushed that contract to its breaking point in order to cover sloppy story telling. Of course, it wouldn’t be so much a problem if any of the Star Wars films had a story worth telling.
Part of the myth about George Lucas is that, inspired by the anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, he devised the whole nine-part Star Wars saga while still a freshman at the University of Southern California’s film school in the early 1960s. The notion that the whole Star Wars saga is more than, as the Times’ Canby said, a derivative “comic book” really depends on that story and Lucas was more than happy to promote it whenever he had the chance. For example in 1985, at a National Arts Club dinner held in his honor, Lucas called Campbell a “person of magic” who had inspired his work. “If it hadn’t been for him,” the filmmaker said, “it’s possible that I would still be trying to write Star Wars today.”
Although Campbell’s ideas are today widely regarded as simplistic, and rooted in Eurocentric colonialism, Jungian mysticism, and the enthnographic gaze, they had great currency in West Coast college counterculture circles in the 1960s, when Lucas was at USC. The Hero With a Thousand Faces was the kind of book that nerdy white boys would conspicuously read in the Quad to impress girls (who would normally ignore them), or bring to the desert, where they’d take peyote and go “whoooooah…”
Campbell’s theory, that there is a single, archetypal heroic myth hardwired into all of the world’s cultures, is the kind of thing that college students really get into when they first encounter it in their freshman Introduction to World Literature and Cultural Anthropology 101 classes. And in the atmosphere of the 1960s, when everyone was dropping acid, smoking huge blunts and trying to play the sitar, the idea of some kind of shared narrative mystically binding the collective unconscious had deep resonance.
It didn’t take any great creative insight for Lucas to take Campbell’s main monomythic archetype, “the hero’s journey,” fill in the blanks, and run with it. Literally every other filmmaker, fantasy writer, and rockstar who went to college in California in the 1960s was doing exactly the same thing. If anything, that must have produced a confirmation bias that legitimized Campbell’s theory: “Duuuuuuude… See how many people are writing hero’s journey stories? That means it must be an archetype embedded in our collective unconscious!”
If anything, Lucas’ version of “the hero’s journey” is both obvious and literal, and if his narrative is an archetype, then his characters are certainly types. There’s Luke, the hero of purest heart, his sister Leia, the plucky-yet-stalwart ally, Han Solo, the honorable rogue, and the ultimately-ambivalent villain Darth Vader. They are good or evil, and that’s it; there is literally nothing else to these characters. The final trilogy that wrapped up with The Rise of Skywalker, in fact managed to tell the exact same story, with the same character/types, but with different names this time. Rey is Luke, Finn is Leia, Poe Dameron is Han Solo, and Kylo Ren is Darth Vader.
That kind of “storytelling” is well and good for mythic allegories that transmit moral teachings or situate the place of humanity in the cosmos – bad things will happen if you disregard oracular authority like Oedipus did – and for comic books – “truth, justice, and the American way!” Canby wasn’t wrong when he described Star Wars as “a gigantic comic-strip of a sci-fi movie;” that was what Lucas meant it to be. Frank Miller aside, no one expected a great deal of complexity from comic books in 1977 but, after forty years and nine films in the one saga, is a little character development and motivation really to much to hope for?
None of the characters in the series have any motivation, apart from either being good or evil, or good-then-evil, or evil-then-good. Even as a child, I couldn’t get my head around the idea that Luke, an orphan raised by his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, simply shrugs off their gruesome deaths on the planet Tatooine and gets on with it. Anakin Skywalker does sort of the same thing when his mother is killed in an inevitable parallel archetypal scene (also on Tatooine) in the prequel trilogy. It’s not exactly the same, since Luke’s dad gets mad, kills a bunch of Tusken raiders (more on them in a moment), and turns from binary good to binary bad, but I was still left thinking what are these teenagers thinking? What is the psychological impact of these traumas?
There is none. There is no psychology in the Star Wars universe, only good and evil. It is a very, very chaste place. Feeling anything, according to the mythology of the Force is a bad thing, in fact, it’s what gets poor Anakin into so much trouble and ultimately leads to the long saga that concludes back on Tatooine in The Rise of Skywalker.
There is clearly sex and romance, of a kind, in the Star Wars universe; people have babies, after all. But there is little of what resembles desire. Anakin and Padme’s whole forbidden love shtick felt a lot like an Ikea ad where a Billy bookcase sits next to a Poang armchair. I am willing to grant that a lot of that had to do with the fact that Hayden Christiansen has the acting range of birch veneer, but Natalie Portman? She can act (and sometimes overact) the paint off a barn; the only conceivable reason why she was so flat in the Star Wars prequels is that she was directed to be.
The romance between Leia and Han Solo is a major element in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but it always felt more like a narrative device. When Leia tells Han on the ice planet Hoth that “I love you,” and he says, with characteristic swagger, “I know,” we aren’t witnessing passion, but plot. It is through this relationship that the one-ambiguous Han is interpellated into the “hero’s journey” on the side of good.
In The Rise of Skywalker, a lot of very attractive young people living on the edge of peril share a lot of friendly, platonic hugs. And nothing else. Director J.J. Abrams even toys with the audience over this, setting up John Boyega’s Finn and Naomie Ackie’s Jannah for that tired, racist cinematic trope where the only two black characters in a movie inevitably fall in love. Hell, they bond over stories of shared childhood, they’re both ridiculously attractive, they even go for a freaking horseback ride together (admittedly across the hull of an imperial destroyer, but still…) and, nothing.
Nothing is the point; it reflects the content of Star Wars characters’ inner lives which is nothing other than good and evil, and certainly nothing as complicated as sexual desire. One could, I guess, make the case that Star Wars is kid-friendly, so it must be chaste, only that would be a lie. Have we forgotten Princess Leia’s metal bondage bikini in Return of the Jedi? Not only was that costume explicit fan service for the ten-year-olds who had seen Star Wars in 1977, and were sex-obsessed, hormonal teenagers in 1983, the whole set-up was pretty gross.
Think about it, in that scene Leia is the chained sex-slave of Jabba the Hutt, the talking-slug crime-lord of Tatooine. He is literally the slimiest character in the whole saga and, if you let your imagination go where adolescent boys’ (and presumably, Lucas’) imaginations went when they saw Princess Leia in a bikini and loincloth, you can see probably what this whole thing was about. I’m not going to spell it out except to say that in the imagined world of Star Wars, sexuality is vile – an abomination.
It sort of has to be in a narrative where there is only virtue and vice, the light side and the dark side. Sex, desire, and real human motivations are complex and would only complicate the binary, and Star Wars is about nothing if not binaries. They are built into the ethnographic worldview of Campbell’s work, and Lucas – and now, Abrams – are happy to embrace it as their own because, I presume, it serves their interests.
The Star Wars universe has a clear dividing line between inside and outside and us and other. With the exception of the human characters, who come in varieties of good and evil, almost all other species (“races” in the language of the saga) are either good or evil. If the main protagonists are all types, then the various “races” are stereotypes. In the original films the Jawas, junk dealers driving their caravans through the desert, are unscrupulous hagglers and the Tuskens – intentionally modeled on Tuaregs – are savage tribesmen.
There is an arresting scene in The Rise of Skywalker where the intrepid band of heroes land on the planet Pasaana to find that the elephant-like Aki-Aki “race” is in the midst of a great tribal festival. The ensuring production number, in which the Aki-Aki swing their trunks in a mass dance, resembles, more than anything, the kind of thing you’d see in a patronizing, colonialist, ethnographic documentary shot by Leni Riefenstahl in the 1950s.
As for Jar-Jar Binks and his Gungan “race” in the prequel trilogy, the less said, the better.
To be fair, Star Wars – in particular the original trilogy – sometimes provided cinematic moments that transcended the plane of its two-dimensional mythos. For example, in the scene when space-bros Luke, Han, and Chewie come to rescue Leia from Jabba the Hutt, the princess frees herself by strangling her gastropod captor with her own chain, inspiring an entire generation of young girls. They could be princesses and rebels and, most importantly, they didn’t need boys to save them: they could kill the slimy patriarchy with their own hands.
Moreover, the Star Wars films are enormously entertaining. The first few minutes of The Rise of Skywalker features a rapid-fire montage of Kylo Ren’s rampage to extend the dominion of the First Order (the quasi-Fascist party/state of which he is the leader) across the galaxy. It is jarring, dizzying, and disorienting like a futuristic roller-coaster – and just as bracing. The scene in the Mos Eisley Cantina in the first film, the lava-lake duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the innumerable canyon chases in every film: these are wild, gripping moments of excitement.
They are also exemplars of the kind of brilliant special effects that Industrial Light & Magic – visual effects company founded by Lucas and Trumbull – pioneered, and elevated to the level of art. The techniques and technologies ILM perfected for Star Wars, from stop-motion animation, to animatronics, to CGI, have transformed American cinema. You can see their legacy in Battlestar Galactica and Netflix’s Lost in Space, indeed even in Cats’ weird digital fur, and Robert DeNiro’s young head on a geriatric body in The Irishman. But Star Wars did it first and, if I’m being honest, usually did it best.
With that in mind, why should anyone take the Star Wars saga’s manifold literary shortcomings and ideological problems seriously? Why not just sit back and enjoy the show?
I tried. But Star Wars isn’t just a show; it is a vast phenomenon that penetrates to every corner of global culture to an extent once reserved for religion and myth. Lucas originally intended to mobilize the archetypes of Campbell’s monomyth and succeeded in redefining those archetypes in his own image. The language of the Deathstar, Jedi Knights, the Force, and the Rebel Alliance has passed into the vernacular – not only in English, and not just as wry, or faintly derogatory cultural signposting.
Colleges began offering classes in Star Wars in the fall term of 1977, both as an example of Campbell’s theories of mythology in literature and film studies courses, and as a mythology itself, to be studied and understood on the level of the classical pantheon. Books like Robert Short’s The Gospel From Outer Space, and Mark Horowitz’s Stonehenge to Star Wars invited readers to take serious consideration of the saga’s philosophical and theological implications.
When the original film opened in 1977, the Washington Post asked whether George Lucas intended to create a cultural phenomenon – a “cult” – as extensive and as pervasive as Star Trek fandom. The answer was “yes” but, looking back, that must be qualified with the consideration that Star Wars turned out to be much bigger that Star Trek. In fact, it’s bigger than the Beatles – bigger than Jesus.
Make no mistake: that was Lucas’ intention from the very beginning. Even before Luke stepped into the dunes of Tatooine on movie screens across North America in the spring of 1977, Lucas had inked a deal with Kenner to sell his 3.75” inch action figure. The toy maker was completely unprepared for the demand and sold out its stock of tiny Lukes, Leias, Hans and Chewies long before Christmas. Lucas also licensed his properties to record companies, comic book publishers, and any other crossover merchandising opportunity that came to mind. Subsequent products included Christmas in the Stars, a holiday disco album featuring the voice of C-3P0 in 1980, and the truly bizarre Star Wars Holiday Special – a Lucas brainchild – in 1978.
Lucas didn’t invent crossover merchandising. I had a Batman lunchbox emblazoned with the faces of Adam West and Burt Ward long before Star Wars, and pretty much every cool vehicle from The Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet in their Corgi Toy form. Lucas almost certainly had Star Trek on his mind as he planned the Star Wars merchandising empire. A generation of Trekkies spent a whole lot of money on Trek stuff, from the 1967 insider book The Making of Star Trek (I had a copy), published just as the series was being canceled, to the Starfleet Technical Manual (I had a copy of this, too), to plastic models of starships, phasers and tricorders (I had a few of these), and the Starfleet uniform shirts that you could buy at Eaton’s (that, too). Star Trek fandom was built and sustained for more than a decade on this commerce, and Paramount pictures made a huge profit from it.
That was Lucas’ model, but he took it much further. Merchandising was never merely an adjunct to the Star Wars universe, it has always been a fully integrated part of it. The action figures, comic books, novels and later, animated television spinoffs and productions right down to The Mandalorian have all been part of an ongoing project to construct an enveloping cultural experience. One need not only make periodic contact with the galaxy far, far away in those rare moments when a Star Wars movie is in the theaters, or watching a Blu-Ray disc at home, it can be a continuous thread of one;s daily life.
This kind of extensive cross-market merchandising isn’t unique to Star Wars, of course, but no other franchise, not even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, can match its pervasiveness and cultural penetration. You don a Captain America t-shirt, or an Incredible Hult Halloween costume, you live Star Wars. It has become a touchstone in every realm of culture and society. Even people who have never seen a Star Wars film can instantly reference “baby Yoda.” The mythos Lucas created and marketed carries such awesome cultural weight that it is necessary to ask what it all means.
The answer is both everything, and nothing. Its binaries contain so much space that they can accommodate pretty much any politics and philosophy. The vapid theology of the Force promotes a contradiction of “balance” and repression. Palpatine’s evil Empire can be as much a critique of the liberal “deep state” as of the resurgent white nationalist neofascism of Trump’s America. Star Wars offers a model of selfless heroism without saying what that heroism is for, except for the triumph of good over evil. And it provides no clues to recognize them except that the one has a blue light saber and the other a red one.