Film * George Lucas * Galactic Dystopia * 1977
I have a contentious relationship with Star Wars. Obviously, as a child of the eighties, I grew up with these movies. Ratty old VHS versions, edited for TV versions, pretty much anything we could acquire with Star Wars on it was happening. My family didn’t have a ton of money when I was young, so I didn’t have much in the way of merchandising, but whatever, kids in the eighties were into Star Wars. Then it kind of went away. Somehow, some of the highest grossing and thus most generally mainstream and popular movies of all time became the providence of nerds. I suppose the ‘true fans’ delved deep into the extended universe and went to conventions and shit, none of which I ever did. Still, when the special editions hit theaters in the late nineties, I was beside myself with excitement. I had never seen a Star Wars movie in the theater! It was watching the special edition of A New Hope that a pattern would emerge, one that would continue through the release of the prequel trilogy and end up ruining the franchise for me permanently.
Here’s the pattern. We’ll start with 1997, my senior year of high school. This age, incidentally, serves as most people’s introduction to nostalgia. You’re about to finish school and embark on adulthood. This is exciting and scary, so naturally many people look back to earlier childhood fondly in this moment, remembering a time when the future was still far away. You look back to things that made you happy as a kid, such as Star Wars. So the timing was perfect for me. I still remember the excitement, building throughout the day. I don’t think I did a midnight show, I’m not sure they were even a thing back then (those came later, for the prequels), but it was definitely a packed nighttime theater. Everything was noisy, throughout the previews of whatever the hell. Nobody cared. Then the blue letters appeared on screen – you know the ones – and people lost their shit. Then that first orchestra hit and oh boy here we go. And it was great. Still probably one of my favorite moments in a movie theater.
The pattern continues. Rising excitement. Tons of fun during the actual movie, everyone having a great time. Then immediately afterward the excitement hasn’t yet dissipated and you continue talking about all those classic scenes, how amazing everything was up on the big screen. Time passes. Maybe you see it a few more times. More time goes by and the excitement wears off and at some point something scratches the inside of your mind. Something like “Jabba the Hut in the first movie makes no sense.” Now you’re confused and a little disappointed, plus those CGI additions looked kind of… bad. Even in 1997. However, life goes on and you forget about it, because the rerelease of Empire is on the horizon. At least the special editions of the next two films weren’t quite as egregious.
I’ve read reports of people hating the special editions and the prequel movies right away, like as they were watching them in the theater. Maybe these were turbo nerds highly sensitive to these things, I don’t know. That wasn’t my experience, and it certainly wasn’t the experience of most of the people I went with at the time. In retrospect, yeah, the special editions suck. I’m not trying to watch stupid cartoon shit in the background here. But at the time? Whatever, I’m seeing Star Wars in the big screen, which I had never been able to do before. It was amazing.
Yet the pattern persisted, until finally the prequels were done and I could look back on all of it and just go, “what the fuck, Star Wars, you used to be cool.” The more I thought about it, the more I started to hate it. The idiot choices made in those prequels, their tone and ‘writing,’ retroactively made me like the original films less. Time went by, and eventually I just ceased to care. I couldn’t even work up the interest in being mad at them any longer. By the time The Force Awakens came to theaters, I had checked all the way out. I still haven’t seen that movie. Oversaturation combined with prior experience simply led me in a different direction, and the pattern is dead.
This incredibly long preamble is to say I haven’t watched a Star Wars thing in probably ten years. Xbox, of all things, brought me back to at least re-evaluate them. Back in 2008, a game called Force Unleashed came out in which you play a dude with the delightful name of Starkiller. From what I could gather at the time, you were the apprentice of Darth Vader and you get to wreck up shit with your dope Sith powers. I didn’t play it then as I was still actively angry at Star Wars. It wasn’t until nine years later that Xbox Live presented the game as one of its free Games with Gold games, and I thought, why not? The game begins on the Wookie home planet, Kashyyyk (ugh, these fucking names), and you’re goddamn Darth Vader. You pop your lightsaber and start slicing up these bullshit Wookies and in the background TIE fighters are zipping all over the place and oh, yeah, I forgot.
Lightsabers are fucking awesome.
I ended up finishing the game, even though it wasn’t exactly a great experience. Much has changed in game design since ’08, and going back can be rough sometimes. Still, the actual story was okay, and it told a decent Star Wars story. It felt right, and mostly hit the right notes the original movies did oh so long ago. That game remembered what is cool about Star Wars. Lightsabers, obviously. Darth Vader. TIE fighters. The Death Star. Telekinetic lightning. Robots and lasers. Upon finishing the game, which ties in neatly with the original trilogy (I picked the Jedi ending, so I’m not sure what happens if you go Dark Side), enough had been stirred within me that I was ready to give Star Wars another chance. Not like it needs me, of course, with its billions upon billions of dollars in revenue. Still, those sound effects are so iconic and so well done that they pull me in. So here we go.
Aaaand I fell asleep before the Death Star blew up. This was partially on me, as I waited until later at night to fire it up. To my credit, I made it all the way to the rebel meeting and woke up during the medal ceremony, so I didn’t really miss that much. Still, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the series. It turns out that even if I haven’t seen this movie in a decade, I’ve still seen it approximately 72,000 times. The first film is one of the better ones, but it has its share of issues. There are lightsabers, but the only fight in the movie is wooden and graceless, which is kind of a metaphor for all the acting happening here. Han Solo is cool, of course, and Leia is as lovely and fierce as ever. Look, it’s difficult and borderline pointless to say anything about the actual film on screen in this day and age. So let’s talk about fascism.
The set-up for A New Hope is absolutely dire. As a kid I certainly never appreciated this, but the subtitle kind of gives away the situation. Things are bad here in this mysterious, long-ago galaxy. There are many intriguing, off-hand remarks alluding to a long history in this universe, most of which were extrapolated poorly in later movies, but I digress. Obi-Wan Kenobi, presented as one of the last remaining Jedi, is our exposition man. He’s the one who drops terms like ‘The Old Republic’ and ‘the clone wars,’ and whatnot.
The long and short of it all is this: once upon a time the galaxy was peaceful, and many worlds lived in harmony under the protection of a mystical order of knights known as the Jedi. These cats used quasi-magical brain powers to ensure that everyone lived in some kind of harmony with each other. However, in the not-too-distant past some real baddies showed up on the scene. These jerks channeled their power from The Force, just like the Jedi, but they wore black clothes and are therefore evil. They formed The Empire, which is a vast power structure that rules the galaxy under what seems to be mid-20th century totalitarian guidelines. The Empire has a vast war machine consisting of lots of clean, white lines and endless hordes of Stormtroopers.
Life for the average citizen isn’t as oppressed as it was in, say, Nazi Germany. While the Jedis were ruthlessly hunted and exterminated, it seems mostly what the Empire demands is fealty. The film begins properly on the planet of Tatooine, and the depiction of the society here is commonly cited as one of the reasons Star Wars was so successful. This is to say that the world seems lived-in. Things are dirty, and have apparently been there for a long time. Planetary routines seem to be in place, and as the camera follows around these dumb droids around, we’re interrupting a society that would clearly operate just fine with or without the Empire. Jawas find machinery, strip it, and sell it to poor dirt farmers like Luke “Power Converter” Skywalker’s dumb uncle. Places like Mos Eisley exist, where dirtbags like Han Solo can rip each other off. The Empire suffers all of this, because they don’t seem to be terribly interested in how people live.
Actually, I think that might be my paramount criticism of Star Wars in general, and I’ll be sure to be keeping an eye on this as I watch the rest of the series. That is, I’m not entirely convinced at what the primary motivation of the Empire is. Power for the sake of power? We see during the opening text crawl that the Empire is dismissively labeled ‘evil,’ so I guess motivation isn’t terrible important. By this point, I think most people understand that George Lucas is not a particularly good storyteller. Star Wars is and always has been a throwback to the paper-thin adventure stories of Lucas’ childhood. The difference is, of course, the significant world-building that surrounds this universe. The grounded reality of this world that is on-screen as Luke and Han run around shooting Stormtroopers. There are no depictions of general oppression, no images that even hint at a totalitarian state. This begs the question: why is life under the Empire so horrible for the common galactic citizen?
Oh, right, because they blow up planets if they don’t submit to the whims of the Emperor. Forgot about that for a sec. Still, I’m at a loss about the motivation question. What’s the endgame? Obviously, the Empire in possession of a functional Death Star is bad news. Let’s say they’re successful in destroying the Rebels. Now they’re unopposed, in full control of the galaxy’s infrastructure and the Emperor is the unquestioned ruler of everyone and everything in known space. If the Emperor is just Space Hitler, he would at least have a vision. Had Germany won the war, there was at least a plan, right? An unthinkable, nightmare of a world order, but it was clear what Hitler’s intentions were. From what I see on screen here, we’re just supposed to take for granted that the Emperor has similar motives, because at no point are the consequences of an Empire victory stated clearly. It would just be bad. Considering the next film is all about the Empire striking back in the wake of losing their Death Star, I guess we’ll see if the Empire has an actual goal they’re working toward.