Why Star Wars really does kinda matter.

Anthony Lane on SWIII

The general opinion of Revenge of the Sith seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones.” True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion.

I honestly think I’ll enjoy the movie. But I’m there for different reasons, and I’m not carrying a grudge against Lucas like so many uppity folk seem to be. That’s not to say I didn’t giggle at Lane’s review.

He makes some interesting comments about the puritanical, “fascist” undercarriage of the film, and honestly I think he’s barking up the wrong tree.

One complaint goes like so:

Did Lucas learn nothing from Alien and Blade Runner — the suggestion that other times and places might be no less rusted and septic than ours, and that the creation of a disinfected galaxy, where even the storm troopers wear bright-white outfits, looks not so much fantastical as dated? What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence.

This is just ignorant. If anything, those movies were inspired by Lucas’ idea that science fiction worldscapes should feel used and like a hodgepodge of real stuff from different designs and eras just like the real world. (They were also inspired by French sci-fi comics, especialy “Metal Hurlant,” which inspired the “Heavy Metal” magazine in the US) but those movies weren’t up to the same stuff Lucas was in Star Wars. His first SW film was a sincere (i.e. not outwardly ironic) combination of Buck Rogers, dogfight movies, Japanese samurai/buddy flicks, and homebrew mythmaking. The ‘used future’ idea that Lane mentions was a major reason for a lot of the design decisions in the episodes 4-6 (as proven in old films from the 60’s showing Lucas discussing the idea with Murch and others — see the extras disc for the new THX 1138 release).

Star Wars’ original agenda wasn’t to cast a shadow of interpretation over current events, but to look backward and try to construct something that did all the stuff going on in Lucas’ head — basically to cram all his favorite stuff into a movie that felt like the serials he loved as a kid. He’d already done dystopian SF (see THX 1138) and it’s still devastating, bleak stuff, complete with the ‘blue’ stuff Lane wants more of. So it’s not like Lucas never had that a thought in his head about making that kind of film. It’s just that Star Wars is something that, holding to its heritage, isn’t an “adult” film series (… although the new movies put in a twist, more on that in a bit).

In fact, THX 1138 provides some interesting clues to the new SW movies. The sleek sameness of design that Lane derides in the new movies mirrors, to an extent, the clinical white halls of the totalitarian THX world (as well as the white and gray sameness of the Imperial interiors in the first SW movies). Personally, I think the design is telling us something — that the supposedly utopian galaxy that gets upset in episodes 1-3 isn’t as perfect as it seems. And we know this, right? The Jedi are portrayed as benevolently arrogant, assuming that they know everything and are superior to those around them. Heroic, yes, but arrogant. And it’s their arrogance that is their undoing — the films make the point time and again that the real bad guys are overlooked because it’s assumed that if you’re Jedi, you’re uncorruptable.

In fact, I would love to actually ask Lucas — “do you think everything that Yoda says really *is* wise?” Maybe I’m giving him too much credit (now that I’m swinging back from my previous opinion, which was that Lucas was an airbag), but I suspect that when Yoda pronounces that you have to abandon the ones you love, it’s a pseudo-wise and simplistic bit of dogma that helps drive Anakin toward doom.

All that self righteousness is the lynchpin for the baddies. The ‘terrible puritan dream’ isn’t Lucas’ dream — it’s his nightmare. Everything from Padme’s excusing Anakin’s genocidal slaughter of sand people to Obi Wan’s overlooking his glaring flaws in order to believe that he’s the lucky guy who gets to teach the ‘chosen one’ — that’s pretty interesting stuff, to me. It’s exposing shades of morality, weird sticky gray areas, that movie-SF usually doesn’t touch. And that’s why people are having a hard time even noticing it, methinks.

Then there’s the whole train wreck between the major factions, and how they’re really part of a larger plan of domination. It’s a big loud object lesson in getting bitten from lying down with snakes, and the kind of political sophistication that you never see in SF films, only the novels (Asimov, et al). Even the simple conflicts in the Star Trek films and Babylon 5 are dumbed down compared to what’s happening in Star Wars.

What I’m getting at is that while the first movies weren’t commentary on our current society so much as throwback exercises celebrating pure hero-adventure, the new ones are much more like Blade Runner than Lane seems to realize.

I’m not huge Star Wars apologist. In fact, it’s not something I’ve always gone out of my way to appreciate… for many years it was like Disney cartoons or Big Wheels for me, just a relic from my childhood and adolescence. But the more I see about Lucas and his background with Zoetrope, his ideas about film (love them or hate them, if you count how many things have changed because of ILM, they’re the most influential ideas about film since Eisenstein), my respect has definitely grown. Even though I think a lot of it’s harebrained or silly, it’s still powerful.

And Star Wars itself — is it Shakespeare? Um. No. It’s not Asimov either. But it does tackle some things that other SF films haven’t, that I’m aware of, and in spite of the wooden dialogue and acting and the hamfisted stuff scattered throughout. And it’s all happening with enough action and comic relief to keep the kids happy.

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at andrewhinton.com.