Politics & Policy

Star Wars Demystified

Kylo Ren menaces our heroes in The Force Awakens
Myth is in global crisis in Star Wars and Arabian Nights.

Everyone knows the Star Wars series peaked with that confrontation in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) between Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and the villain, Darth Vader (played on screen by David Prowse, but voiced by James Earl Jones).

The “Luke, I am your father” revelation resonated because it expressed how George Lucas, like his movie-brat peers (Coppola, Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma) struggled with Sixties generational ambivalence. A father–son antagonism resounds through all their films as a reflection of Vietnam-era student protests and the privilege of those draft-dodging filmmaker progeny. Even Lucas, in his escapist outer-space mode, iterated the era’s unease, culminating in Luke’s fear and symbolic castration.

It’s seldom realized that the movie brats’ films are essentially conservative, politically speaking. Yet, in the new millennium, filmgoers’ superficial political awareness makes them nostalgic for Star Wars to maintain the gullibility of their youth. Longing for innocence is all that the insipidness of the latest sequel, The Force Awakens, signifies. When director J. J. Abrams re-stages that primal moment, he does it for brand recognition, but so unimaginatively that it feels hackneyed. Even though it’s meant to be painful for rabid Star Wars fanatics, it lacks mythological significance. Star Wars fans are not required to think metaphorically, so any Oedipal meaning is lost (although there is something of millennial ingratitude in the new filial confrontation), just as the original scene’s impact was ignored in subsequent sequels.

The new characters in The Force Awakens are banal. John Boyega’s black superhero, Finn, updates and restyles Han Solo’s jockish heroism — a cultural evolution that evokes Obama (“I was taken from a family I’ll never know”) for global commercialism. Boyega is appealing-enough to surpass the series’ previous racial tokens, Billy Dee Williams and Samuel L. Jackson, but he is subordinate to the new gallantry of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, who embodies the female empowerment denied to Princess (now General) Leia. Rey “leans in” when she grips the Skywalker light saber, so that feminists can rejoice at the Disney Corporation’s calculated political correctness (although Rey’s competence with weaponry contradicts liberals’ convenient attitudes toward gun control.)

RELATED: Star Wars: Revenge of the Social-Justice Warriors

By now we all should know that there’s nothing of adult interest in Star Wars. Even when it premiered back in 1977, the sci-fi premise and comic-book characters were eclipsed artistically by the visionary spirituality of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Yet the continued prominence of Star Wars signifies something that is politically serious, if not dreadful: The great renaissance of American filmmaking during the 1970s and its regeneration of film culture (when movies were seen as a vital means of approaching and understanding contemporary experience) were doomed by Star Wars’ pseudo-imaginative, non-campy rehash of escapist junk. Now, the rebooted, politically empty The Force Awakens suggests a boot stuck in the rear of film culture’s flabby remains.

The Force Awakens is a bread-and-circuses carnival that is intended to keep millennial audiences docile.

The Force Awakens is a bread-and-circuses carnival (disguised as “The Rapture,” a young videomaker told me) that is intended to keep millennial audiences docile. Maybe that explains the film’s unavoidable sell and both the media’s and the public’s desperate genuflection. Love of Star Wars is not love of cinema, just consumerist habit. The Star Wars Generation — that unfortunate rabble primed to see these films at the precise moment they were becoming culturally responsive — are not necessarily the audience the movie brats deserved; they’re spawn of Baby Boomer affluence and narcissism. Star Wars turned their natural curiosity and wonder into self-satisfaction, artificially dependent on media and merchandising (a tragedy also evident in Apple and Pixar evangelism).

TV-show runner J. J. Abrams brings his game-changing banality to the Star Wars franchise. He follows the template as originated by Lucas and appeals to adolescent thralldom, keeping the brand recognizable. The Force Awakens is paced better than Star Wars’ other dismal episodes, yet it’s even more impersonal. There’s no visual or spiritual excitement, as there was even in a cynical sci-fi product like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Abrams is making product to salute the cultural and economic status quo. With Star Wars, product has not only taken the place of art; it has replaced myth.

*      *      *

“Arabian Nights”

When scholar Joseph Campbell hopped on the bandwagon, selling Star Wars’ sci-fi archetypes, he distorted mythology and anthropology. But since then (after 9/11) Western cinema’s narrative drive can seem to have capitulated. In the three-part Arabian Nights (The Restless One, The Desolate One, The Enchanted One), director Miguel Gomes surrenders to Western culture’s depreciation. His trilogy is an art-movie Star Wars retelling of Portugal’s recent economic crisis through the peculiar template of Scheherazade narrating various tales about the European Union.

#related#In this six-hour-plus gallimaufry, Gomes mixes documentary, fantasy, period stories, and personal confession (on Portuguese and Brazilian history) rather than organizing perspectives into a coherent storyline. His critique of capitalism has found favor with critics (who mistake the trilogy for García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude), while the films dispel and frustrate viewers’ curiosity about politics, history, sex, folklore, and mythology. Looking to the Orient, Gomes expresses the West’s lack of confidence in its own culture. At one point, Scheherazade and her father discuss the significance of narrative.

Father: Where are stories born?

Scheherazade: They spring from the wishes and fears of man.

Father: And what is their purpose?

Scheherazade: To help us survive. To bridge the time of the dead with the time of those to come.

It’s a cultural catastrophe that the Star Wars phenomenon, and the worldwide herd-mentality response to it, never raises this dialectic. Meanwhile, Gomes offers an aggravating proposition: Does contemporary Europe conform to Islamic providence? The trilogy is undisciplined cinema but timely politics.

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