We All Live in the Star Wars Universe
A long time ago, in an America far, far away, a low-budget space opera called “Star Wars” was released. It was May of 1977, and I had just arrived in Washington to start work after my first year of law school. The line outside the Uptown Theater on Connecticut Avenue stretched around the corner and a block or two up into the swanky neighborhood of Cleveland Park. Most of us knew next to nothing about the film, except that it had something to do with sci-fi. We stood and waited because everyone else was standing and waiting. What we knew, we knew mostly by word of mouth. The film was unevenly reviewed, when it was reviewed at all, and even director George Lucas expected a flop.
That was then, this is now. “The Force Awakens,” the seventh film in the series, had its world premiere Monday night in Los Angeles, and opens everywhere on the planet on Thursday. Things are getting a little delirious.
In those days we didn’t have fans planning to get married on premiere night in front of the TCL Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, or a viral satirical video featuring “Darth Trump.” Certainly the film’s distributors weren’t inviting ridicule by selling branded Star Wars fruit -- a novelty I somehow doubt that even the most inveterate fanboys will mount on the shelf with their other collectibles. There’s even a Google Chrome extension designed to block spoilers about the movie.
And of course there’s controversy. Goodness, is there controversy. As with so many debates these days, you can hardly get a word in edgewise unless you’re an expert.
Consider, for example, that deliciously weird Internet contretemps over whether an Imperial stormtrooper could be black. 1 They have to be white, say the critics, because they’re all clones of Jango Fett, and should all therefore look like him. That criticism is racist, say the critics of the critics. And then there are the uber-fans who follow the Star Wars Expanded Universe. They point out that the stormtroopers-can’t-be-black folks don’t know what they’re talking about: After the Empire arose, the clone troopers were decommissioned. 2
The new film was directed by J.J. Abrams, who also helms “Star Trek,” and therefore now stewards the two most beloved science-fiction franchises of our era. 3 At first, Star Wars aficionados worried that Abrams would somehow destroy the franchise. Now they can hardly wait. Early reactions are ... well ... delirious. (Link is spoiler-free.)
Star Wars fans fall into multiple categories. There are casual fans, who will see “The Force Awakens” because it’s an event. 4 There are camp followers, who’ve seen all the films but have little interest in the larger imaginative project. There are the nitpickers, who wonder why Obi-Wan in the original (now retitled “Episode IV: A New Hope”) doesn’t remember R2D2 and C3PO, even though, as established in the prequel trilogy, he’d been through extended adventures with them just two decades earlier. There are the detail mavens, who point out that Princess Leia’s mother was an elected queen, and was no longer queen at the time of Leia’s birth, meaning that Leia isn’t a princess. There are those uber-fans, who fire back that the whole thing is explained nicely in what is known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe -- the network of novels, animated television shows and video games that has filled in a wealth of detail, albeit at times awkwardly. And then there are the absolute experts, who point out that in 2014, the entire Expanded Universe was declared noncanonical, meaning that all those gotcha types are back in business. But the declaration has excited enmity among the uber-fans, who insist --
Is your head throbbing yet?
What remains remarkable is the ability of the franchise to unite all these fan types in a single excited moment. It’s become commonplace to assert that Star Wars captures something unique about the American psyche, and I’m sure there’s something to this. (I’ve asserted it myself for decades.) But this is a bit oversimple. Lucas has said that he was influenced by the work of Joseph Campbell, in whose well-known heroic cycle the hero leaves home and goes somewhere to learn. Temptation is present at such moments. (The Dark Side!) What makes the hero the hero is the ability in the end to resist the temptation, and then to return home and set things right.
We respond instinctively to that image because the constant search for heroes is the necessary concomitant of our constant discovery of villains. The villains are always larger than life, so powerful that they seem certain to triumph. We root for the plucky individualist who must do battle with the indefatigable forces of the empire. And no matter how many times it’s beaten down, the evil empire keeps coming back.
In short, we slip easily into the Star Wars universe. It’s a comfortable place, familiar to us even before we arrive. Yes, there’s a sense in which the plot line is always the same, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The constantly replaying of the story of the villain’s overthrow touches a strange, deep, slightly repulsive human need. As Umberto Eco has put it, we should “recognize ourselves as beings who need an enemy.” That first time I saw the original, back in 1977, the entire theater hissed when Darth Vader strode onto the screen. We didn’t know who he was (or what a cultural icon he would become), but we could tell that he was the bad guy. Yet when he escaped the destruction of the Death Star at the end of the movie, we were delighted. We wanted our villain, like our hero, to make his return.
So let the uber-fans go on arguing over whether Greedo shot first (which he didn’t, it was always Han, and it was justified self-defense). Let the nitpickers ask why Obi-Wan, in the original, addresses Darth Vader as “Darth,” as if it’s his first name. What will make “The Force Awakens” yet another blockbuster will be the sheer fun of the thing -- along with its familiarity. The empire is rising again, the forces of good have to stop it, and the plucky heroes must once more go reluctantly to war.
Bring it on.
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That debate in turn has led to earnest discussions in the news media about racial and gender tropes in the franchise, and, predictably, critics have attacked the media for raising the subject of race.
It’s also true that the entire Expanded Universe has been, in a sense, decommissioned. I'll get to that.
Not that Star Wars always held so exalted a status among science-fiction lovers. As Michael Kaminski reminds us in “The Secret History of Star Wars,” many hardcore sci-fi fans considered the original film an insult to the genre.
True, they won’t all see it when they want to.
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