Well I saw Star Wars.
I saw it Christmas Eve, in Omaha, with my parents, my sister and my girlfriend. The theater was mostly empty; the tickets inexplicably cost $4.75.
There’s no reason for this to be a review of the movie, even if that’s what it became. By the time I saw The Force Awakens, the reviews had been out for a while and the fear of spoilers was dissipating, as anyone who truly really cared would’ve already seen it. I feel as though, given the hype, the backlash, this level of interest—affectionate memories of a long-cooled romance—warrants a blog post.
There aren’t any spoilers in here. There’s nothing you don’t already know.
Don’t get me wrong; I was 11 in 1997, and man, did I love Star Wars. I saw it on one of those big curved movie house screens in a worn, red velvet chair, in Omaha with my mom and my sister, and the tickets probably, predictably, cost less than five bucks. I also saw it at sleepovers at my friends’ houses. I saw it as I laid belly-first on the carpet playing with Star Wars toys in the basement. I’ve read a number of Star Wars novels. I read Shadows of the Empire a couple of times. (Side note: Damn, I used to re-read books! Why did that era of my life have to coincide with the era of reading utterly terrible books?)
I saw the Phantom Menace on opening night at midnight. I dutifully saw the other two prequels. One of them I even saw twice in theaters. I think that’s the only prequel I saw twice. I think they were worse than the other Star Warses, but I can’t be sure. I was in high school, and then college.
Hating the prequels doesn’t make you a better Star Wars fan, but knowing and being capable of arguing their biggest flaw (I’ll spare you) puts you in a certain company of Star Wars fans.
And believe me I know. I know that even the first trilogy are not great movies. Pick your exhaust port and fire away: they’re ripped off of other movies; the acting is bad and the script is worse; there’s only three female characters with lines. These are all true. Also true is the one that’s been made clear with the run-up to The Force Awakens (and also Mel Brooks): their true legacy isn’t filmmaking but merchandising. When a movie takes aim at 13-year-olds and aspires to be a franchise at the expense of actually being a good movie (looking at you, Marvel Expanding Universe), Star Wars is at least partially at fault. And man has that ever been made transparent.
With the full force of American capitalism behind it, The Force Awakens had already made a billion dollars at the box office before we saw it, to say nothing of the toys that were already out, the branded Uggs boots, the Star Wars wrapping paper that my friends were using.
I asked those friends, as they wrapped gifts, if they thought the real legacy of Star Wars was all the bullshit, and they shrugged and said “Probably, but whatever, we like the bullshit.”
They’re right of course: Spectacle is fun, and wrapping paper has to have something on it. I went back to their house for a Harry-Potter-themed Christmas party a week later and had a blast.
I had talked about skipping all the new Star Warses, because it seemed like a cynical cash-in, and all the prequels sucked, and “they” can’t just slap Star Wars on a movie and make me see it.
But if the prequels were already cynical cash-ins, then so were the toys that I loved, and the bed sheets I would’ve loved if I had them, and the t-shirts and the wrapping paper and so on. Cynical cash-ins can be affecting and eye-opening even if some part of me wants to exclude them from “ART” (a distinction that no one actually cares about, especially when I’m the one making it). One of my favorite albums is called Loaded as in “Loaded with hits,” and I want my hypothetical first dance with my hypothetical wife at our hypothetical wedding to be from it. You can tear up over a Hallmark card.
Last night my friend Sam said that capitalism is all about commodifying that which hadn’t yet been commodified—in the context of Airbnb, your personal skills; in the context of Uber, having a clean car. It’s a little queasy but you have to eat, so you go to the grocery store. We need myths; we need stories; we need something shared. So it’s sold.
But we all knew all of this already.
The only thing that was more cynical about the new films was me. My sister had been a big Star Wars fan too, and so, I think, was my mom, or at least she knew a lot about it from being a mom. I didn’t really have a statement to make other than probably “I’m so hardcore, I’ll skip Star Wars and imply that everyone else is a sucker” which impresses absolutely nobody worth impressing.
And even if it is a rewarmed experience, whatever. My family saw Les Mis–the movie based on a musical based on a book–over Christmas a couple of years ago. We eat comfort food and put up mostly the same ornaments, many of which were indifferently mass-produced and only have meaning because they’ve been rewarmed by us for so many years, because mass-produced or handcrafted or handed down, that’s how meaning is attached to things.
So we went. And had fun.
And say what you want, but Star Wars is a singular triumph of design and really sleek storytelling. It doesn’t take much of an Andy Warhol detachment to admit that deploying these things gracefully is a skill.
This is of course why new Star Wars movies are destined to always underwhelm: 1. Movies have picked up on that, and science fiction/space fantasies always have, at least, cool design. 2. The original trilogy had the advantage of hinting at a much larger universe that seemed to always have existed and was full of mystery and revelation. The prequels and new ones have to be tested against a pre-existing trilogy of movies as well as every Star Wars fan’s own personal expectations. Any new revelation isn’t greeted as elucidating a universe we want to learn more of; it’s tested our expectations. If it fails to meet our expectations, it’s heresy; if it meets our expectations, it can hardly be called revelation, can it?
But then, I thought this movie was fine. It’s not any worse than the original trilogy. There’s not really any new memorable designs and there’s more obvious fan service and winks, but I imagine 11 year olds seeing it now love it, and are going to re-watch it way more than the comparatively slow moving Empire Strikes Back (which people say is the best one).
Because isn’t that the real problem with new Star Wars? That, just like Luke and Anakin, you’re too old? You don’t need Star Wars like you did. You don’t need a bunch of toys to play with on the floor. Your sheets don’t need droids on them, (but if you want them to, that’s easily done).
That’s okay. You’re okay. Star Wars is okay. The movie world has been remade in its image, and now it’s being remade in the image of its own legacy. It’s ouroboros-y, but probably as well-done as you could hope for.
You can argue about them, I guess; they’re what a cultural mainstream is for. And by the numbers, Star Wars is objectively “important” as a cultural phenomenon. “Important” as a personal phenomenon was always going to vary.
At any rate it looks I’ve talked myself out of feeling strongly either way, but to be a good media person you had to have some opinion on Star Wars. Because I published this in 2016, and there’s not really good takeaway or even a point, to all of this, I remain a bad media person.