Monday, May 28, 2007

Fear and Loathing on Naboo, Part One

It goes without saying that some people are way too invested in Star Wars. Anyone who didn't understand this basic fact was probably a bit shocked by the massive worldwide phenomenon that was the first film in the prequel trilogy, 1999's The Phantom Menace. Although the hard and brittle core of Star Wars fandom is essentially the same crew that has always celebrated fantasy and science-fiction properties like Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, the cult of the Force has spread a bit wider that of than any other comparable nerd totem. Everyone who has ever loved Star Wars - and there were many millions of them - came out in force for The Phantom Menace.

And, as is also widely known, the vast majority of the hard-core recoiled in horror when they actually saw the movie. The reaction was far more extreme than anything Hollywood had ever seen before. Considering the shaky quality control of beloved franchises such as Star Trek, Batman and Superman, the true-blue fans had never reacted so harshly to a bad sequel. The hyperbolic refrain of "George Lucas has raped my childhood!" was heard and echoed across comic book shops, office water-coolers and internet chat-rooms across the globe. (But, of course, they still bought tickets and lined up in droves.)

Star Wars is just a movie. A good movie, a movie that may have done more harm than good to the business and art of moviemaking, a movie that may excel at evoking particularly fond childhood memories in the minds of many, a movie whose numerous charms far outweigh its few serious flaws - but still just a movie. I remain convinced that the vast majority of fans who deride Episodes I, II and III are all, at least to a degree, in thrall to exalted memories of the original trilogy in such a way that they simply could not rationally judge the new movies for what they were on their own merits. They would have been happy with nothing less than an exacting stylistic homage to Episodes IV through VI - essentially they wanted Han Solo and Chewbacca, and anything that deviated slightly from their impossibly high standards of nostalgic bliss was going to be doomed from the start. The endless reams of indulgent fan-fiction masquerading as novels, the video games, and the comics are dedicated to nothing more than perpetuating a blissful stasis wherein Star Wars remains a steadfast bulwark against any kind of dynamic change, leastwise the dynamic change that entails growing up and away from the fleeting childhood pleasures of familiar intellectual properties. Art and nostalgia are warring impulses, and for Star Wars to retain even its limited dignity as a work of art, the tendency towards nostalgic inertia must be actively suppressed.

The worst hypocrisy, to me, was the endless recitation of the new movies' objective flaws - as if the original Star Wars films didn't have more than their fair share of wooden acting, cutesy characters and contrived plot points. Chewbacca was a giant teddy bear, Yoda was a muppet, and R2D2 was seriously annoying - go back, watch the original movies, and tell me that you don't want to punch the droids in the face. I just can't get too upset over Jar Jar Binks.

The worst thing that ever happened to Star Wars was that the fans took it so damn seriously. On their face value, the movies are great fun, dazzling spectacle and melodrama with just enough thematic meat on its bones to fuel a thickly allusive but occasionally corny storyline. Certainly, Lucas' debt to Joseph Campbell's pop-mythography has been dissected to exhaustion, but it is a mistake to read the movies' debt to myth and legend as anything other than plain dramatic horse-sense. Almost all popular stories - or, at least, popular stories with any lasting resonance - have their roots in older traditions. Lucas knew how to tap into familiar myths (or, steal from public domain) in order to give his stories more of this kind of resonance, not to make any deep philosophical statements. There's nothing much new under the sun, as they say, and even if Star Wars was more bald-faced than most in its appropriations from myth, any stories with lasting power are going to carry echoes of the past.

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