If the “Star Wars” juggernaut survived the widely disappointing prequel trilogy — not to mention controversy over the sometimes unpopular “Special Edition” revisions, most notoriously the “Han shot first” debate — can anything kill it?
By the most empirical of measures, it doesn’t look like it. From another angle, one could equally ask: At this late date, can anything revive “Star Wars”?
Yes, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” directed by J. J. Abrams, will be a monster hit; not only will it break box office records, it will break records for breaking records.
Fans, including critics of the prequels, will be generally be deliriously happy. In the company of old friends — Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo — not seen in more than 30 years, they will find balm for their wounds.
That said, it’s worth noting why the original “Star Wars” trilogy has been so enduring in the first place: what set it apart from other action/adventure blockbuster franchises of the 1970s and beyond, from the “Star Trek” and Indiana Jones films to “Jurassic Park” and “The Matrix” — and what in some ways was lacking in the prequel trilogy.
Although the success of “Star Wars” blazed a trail for all of these franchises and more, along with individual films from “E.T.” and “Dragonslayer” to “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth,” “Independence Day” and “Armageddon,” none of these films matched “Star Wars” in offering what can be called, in every sense of the word, a new mythology, a work of what Tolkien called mythopoeia.
Like any mythology, “Star Wars” functions as a shared archetypal narrative expressing in metaphor something of how we understand the world around us and our place in it. It occupies a place in the collective consciousness of countless fans around the globe that touches on the sacred. Walter Chaw, in his loving review of “The Force Awakens,” expresses this when he writes: “My office is full of these toys. They are fetishized relics for me. I hold them and they possess a totemic value.”
As influential as “Star Wars” was, few of the films in its wake even aspired to its mythic achievement — and those that did, like “The Dark Crystal,” were not among the more successful.
Instead, the main influence of “Star Wars” lay in pioneering a new era of big-budget escapist entertainment, of spectacle, nostalgia, and fantasy amid the jaded, sophisticated auteur cinema typical of post-Golden Age New Hollywood — films like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Godfather” and “Chinatown.”
“Star Wars” didn’t accomplish this on its own, of course. Steven Spielberg contributed with “Jaws,” the first true summer blockbuster, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” released the same year as “Star Wars.” “Superman” and “Mad Max,” released the following year, had both been in development for years.
But “Star Wars” was different. To start with, it targeted a younger demographic — the demographic that would collect those toys that went on to become totemic relics into adulthood.
“Jaws,” “Close Encounters” and “Mad Max” are all adult in tone, rooted in different ways in the anxieties of the times. Even “Superman” ironically contrasts its hero’s idealism with his cynical contemporary cultural milieu. “Star Wars” took viewers out of the culture entirely, to a wholly imaginary world of simple good and simple evil.
Like Tolkien, Lucas drew on a wide range of influences and cultural precedents, from serial adventures and Flash Gordon–style space opera to Arthurian literature and even Tolkien himself. What made “Star Wars” so powerful was Lucas’ visionary fusion of these influences into a new world unlike anything anyone had seen before, rich in detail, culture, and history, lived in and persuasive — an achievement unduplicated until Middle-earth itself came to the screen in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings.”
Superman and E.T. embodied mythic themes, but there’s no place on Krypton that is real in our minds like Uncle Owen’s farm or the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine. E.T.’s ship is just a generic flying saucer, not a vehicle we know and love like the Millennium Falcon or even Luke’s X-wing.
“Star Trek” does have a certain mythic dimension giving shape to important themes such as discovery and diversity. The place of Kirk, Spock, and Bones is comparable to that of Luke, Leia, and Han, and the Enterprise is as real in our imaginations as the Millennium Falcon.
But there is no defining “Star Trek” story — no controlling narrative giving a canonical shape to the mythos. “Star Trek” can be about anything the storyteller wants, whereas with “Star Wars,” for all the extended universe novels, comic books, animated adventures, and so forth, the story will always be centrally about the battle of the Rebellion and the Empire, Luke’s journey from farm boy to Jedi knight, and the fall and redemption of Darth Vader.
Crucially, this defining story blended Lucas’ rich world-building with a narrative simplicity evocative of fairy tales. Space-opera trappings aside, “Star Wars” looks remarkably like a fairy tale: an orphaned hero raised in obscurity, a wizard mentor, a magic sword, an imprisoned princess, a dark lord, a fearsome fortress, a magical victory.
“The Empire Strikes Back” goes deeper into mythic territory, with the hero’s apprenticeship in self-mastery, his journey into himself and confrontation of his own dark side. Finally, “Return of the Jedi” offers a bold parable of redemption in which the hero triumphs over evil not by fighting and destroying it, but through suffering and compassion.
This blend of rich world-building and fairy-tale simplicity is crucial to “Star Wars”’ immense cultural and imaginative impact. The “Star Wars” films are simple enough to colonize the minds of children, rich enough to occupy the obsessive imaginations of adolescents, and generally well-crafted and imaginative enough, despite undeniable weaknesses and limitations, to entertain adults.
At the heart of Lucas’ mythopoeia is the Force, the source of power both for the heroic Jedi and their evil counterparts, called the Sith in the prequels.
Described by Ben Kenobi as an energy field “created by all living things” that “surrounds” and “penetrates” us, the Force is the locus of mystery and meaning in that galaxy, far, far away. It is an object of faith, even religious faith — religious faith notably in decline in a largely secularized culture.
An officer named Motti sneers about Vader’s “sad devotion to that ancient religion,” and another officer, Grand Moff Tarkin, remarks that the Jedi are fallen and Vader is “all that is left of their religion.”
Likewise, the skeptical, materialistic mercenary Han scoffs: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side …. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.”
On the other hand, a Rebellion leader tells the troops just before the final battle, “May the Force be with you” — and even Han hesitantly echoes this benediction to Luke. (In “The Force Awakens,” grizzled old Han finally confesses his faith: “It’s true. All of it. The dark side. The Jedi. They’re real.”)
Faith in the Force is contrasted with exclusive reliance on the world of the senses and of science. “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed,” Vader says to Motti, speaking of the Death Star. “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
Likewise, Ben helps Luke unlock the power of the Force by covering his eyes so that he can’t see what he’s doing and must act on instinct. At the climax, Luke deliberately turns off his targeting computer before making the difficult shot to destroy the Death Star, and the swelling strains of John Williams’ score tell us in advance that the Force is with Luke and he can’t miss the shot.
In these scenes, the Force essentially functions as a metaphor for taking a leap of faith, of trusting in something beyond the empirical. Trusting, feeling, or using the Force implies a concept of destiny, of things that are meant to be, and a power or principle at work guiding people or events toward their proper ends.
Fairy-tale simplicity is one of the key ingredients most glaringly lacking in the prequels. I have always been struck at how easily even the youngest of children can follow the original trilogy; my oldest son was only four when he first saw “Star Wars,” and he followed the main action with only a few simple explanations. (“The bad guys sucked in the good guys’ ship with a sucky thing like a magnet, and now the good guys are stuck. So they have to try to turn off the sucky thing before they can escape.”)
With the prequel trilogy, by contrast, pity the parent trying to explain even the opening crawl of Episode I, “The Phantom Menace,” to a child of any age. (“There’s some kind of fight about taxes on trade routes, and some bad traders have made a wall of ships around a planet because they think that will help them win … somehow.” What?)
That’s just the beginning of a saga that often lapses into dull political and economic discussions and committee meetings. (One of the prequel’s most unintentionally ironic moments comes when Han’s offhand quip from “The Empire Strikes Back” about not having time to “discuss it in a committee” is super-solemnly recycled in “The Phantom Menace” by Amidala — in an actual committee meeting.)
While Anakin’s descent to the Dark Side is not without mythic resonance, the prequel trilogy is doomed above all by the weakness of its protagonist. Darth Vader is one of the cinema’s three greatest villains of all time, along with the Wicked Witch of the West and Hannibal Lecter. His origin story needed to be the tragic downfall of a great man.
Anakin should have been the pride of the Jedi order: charismatic, confident, inspiring, a natural leader, with the combined strengths of Luke and Han at their best. Reminiscing with Luke about his father, old Obi-Wan says Anakin was “the best star pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior … and he was a good friend.” The Anakin of the prequels is a good pilot, but the cunning warrior and the good friend are never seen.
Instead of the tragic downfall of a great man, we get the pathetic subversion of a talented but petulant, callow youth hung up on an older girl who comforted him when he lost his mother. The fall of the Jedi order, likewise, could have carried the weight of the breaking of the Round Table and the fall of Camelot, if Lucas had remembered the sources that inspired him well enough to celebrate the glory of Camelot in the first place.
Once again, old Obi-Wan gives us the elegy of “a more civilized age” — “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic … before the dark times, before the Empire” — but what Lucas gives us in the prequels doesn’t live up to that billing. Instead of celebrating the myth of the Jedi, Lucas demythologizes them — not an invalid approach, but one squarely contrary to the original trilogy.
Gratingly contrasting with these child-unfriendly elements is the adult-unfriendly buffoonery of the widely despised Jar-Jar Binks, with his pidgin English and pratfalling physical comedy. Lucas has always dismissed criticism of Jar-Jar with the contention that the films have always been “for kids,” which makes you wonder if he thinks kids groove on politico-economic intrigues, Freudian psychology, critical demythologizing, and the dreary, angsty drama of Anakin and Amidala’s unromantic romance.
Precisely because of the mythic significance of the “Star Wars” story, the shortcomings of the prequels were felt by fans as more than a disappointment — they were a betrayal, a subversion. Happily, “The Force Awakens” goes a long way toward rectifying this. The heavy political machinations of the prequels are gone, and the bantering fun and excitement are back.
As escapist spectacle, it works nicely. At the same time, the filmmakers are clearly aware of the emotional power of this story for their audience. Han, Leia, and Luke are essentially legendary figures, and there is a moment in which an important artifact, almost a sacred relic, is imbued with literal totemic power, not unlike the power the toys have for collectors.
I’m not convinced, though, that “The Force Awakens” has the fairy-tale flavor of the original trilogy, or that it contributes anything essential to the mythology, as the original films all did (and as the prequels at least tried to do).
The “Star Wars” franchise will go on to nine episodes, or twelve, or however many Disney feels like making, and of course there will be more cartoons, novels and other expanded world-building. It may be, though, that the mythic power of the original trilogy will never be touched — that henceforth “Star Wars” will merely be nostalgic space opera, and “The Force Awakens” and its sequels, however entertaining, will never be more than an unnecessary afterthought.
Then again, it may be too soon to say for sure. Given how “The Force Awakens” ends — no spoilers here! — the full measure of “The Force Awakens” may not be clear prior to the release of Episode VIII, coming from writer-director Rian Johnson.