How much worse can the sci-fi franchise get? With Disney set to roll out a new installment, we're about to find out
Temporarily turning even Sandy’s aftermath into an also-ran all over the Twitterverse, the news earlier this week that Disney had acquired George Lucas’s entertainment empire for some $4 billion—including the right to make more Star Wars movies, with the first post-Lucas installment set to roll out in 2015—seems to have left fans about evenly divided between feeling stoked at the prospect (how can more Star Wars be bad?) and dismayed at Papa George’s sellout to the Dark Side. “Get your childhoods ready,” one negativist tweeted. “They’re about to get pissed on again.”
Since I don’t have a dog in this fight—not my childhood, kiddo, and we all know Disney will eat everything one day—it surprised me to notice I wasn’t totally indifferent. An as yet not-quite-formulated regret was creeping in, despite my basic allergy to Lucas and the Millenium Falcon he rode in on. While I’ve never bought into the “Star Wars killed the movies” rap that some of my crustier colleagues like to peddle, the whole franchise’s appeal has never exactly caught me up in its fever.
I didn’t even see the original until months after it had conquered the world, when it showed up paired with Roger Vadim’s Barbarella at a second-run movie palace in New York’s East Village. Already a convert to the Force, the high-school pal who dragged me there insisted that we had to sit through Star Wars first, knowing that otherwise I’d bail on him as soon as Barbarella (which I did want to see) was over. Since then, he’s raised two kids to adulthood on a steady diet of Star Wars mania—the movies, the tchochkes, the works—and no doubt they’ll pass the enthusiasm on to the next generation when their turn comes. Luckily, as a non-parent, I don’t have a dog in that fight, either.
Needless to say, given how I pay the mortgage, being allergic to Lucas doesn’t mean I haven’t had to think and write plenty about Star Wars-the-phenomenon over the decades. Anything that meaningful to so many people is worth analyzing, after all, especially the stuff fans themselves don’t spend much time spelunking around in and angrily reject as irrelevant to the series’s pleasures when some naysayer brings it up. Around ten years ago, when my friend Glenn Kenny asked me to contribute to his anthology A Galaxy Not So Far Away: Writers and Artists on 25 Years of Star Wars, I decided to make myself popular by crapping all over the series’s pretty damned undemocratic ideological underpinnings—something the second trilogy only accentuated by revealing that the Force depended on bloodlines, not merit or true-heartedness. The title Glenn chose for my essay, “Jedi Über Alles,” should give you an idea of how I exult in making friends and influencing people.
Aesthetically, like most of my peers, I prefer the initial trilogy’s clunky pop ingenuousness to the second one’s CGI overkill, bloated storytelling, and ever murkier mythologizing. All in all, though, it wouldn’t matter to me if all six Star Wars movies got wiped off the face of the earth tomorrow. Which means that, logically speaking, it shouldn’t matter to me what Disney does with the franchise either, right?
Um, yes and no. I think one reason for the deep bond fans feel with Star Wars is the awareness that the whole stupid, nutty legend all came out of one man’s head. Those tin-eared character names, goofball non-human sidekicks—Jar Jar Binks (boo) no less than Chewbacca (yay)—and inane narrative compulsions are all homely testimonials to an authorship that stayed idiosyncratic and personal even when Lucas hired other hands to direct four out of the six installments. Unless James Fenimore Cooper counts, the only real comparison may be to L. Frank Baum, another clod whose private crotchets hit mysterious paydirt.
Integrity may seem like a lunatic concept to apply to a multibillion-dollar franchise that created the template for modern movie merchandising. But so far as having an only begetter goes, Star Wars retained its integrity for 35 years. The Bond franchise it wasn’t; even at their worst, the movies never felt calculated or anonymous, and Lucas was seldom more hapless than when he did try to cater instead of just spawning. The Disney sequels may be able to mimic his blueprint, but they won’t be able to mimic his trademark gaucheries, neo-Victorian inhibitions and hangups, and peculiar notions of profundity—the stuff that assures us it’s still his vision we’re watching. Even (or especially) from my perspective, a depersonalized Star Wars is no Star Wars at all, which doesn’t mean the franchise’s future iterations won’t sell gazillions of tickets. I just wonder whether they’ll inspire anything like the same affection.
True, you never know. L. Frank Baum got displaced as the author of The Wizard of Oz decades ago by Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Yip Harburg, Victor Fleming, et. al., and now the movie—not the Oz books—is the pop-culture fetish object. Disney itself has gone through multiple metamorphoses since you-know-who kicked the bucket, and I really wouldn’t want to be the one to tell a nine-year-old that Pocahontas and The Princess and The Frog betray Walt’s memory by not espousing his racism (something Lucas, too, is guilty of, though in more oblique and possibly unconscious form.) It’s just that, in my case, Star Wars movies bereft of their weird pipeline to the jumble of banality and unaware perversity floating around in Papa George’s head—and it may be that his genius is in refusing to distinguish between the two—are going to be Stars Wars movies minus the only thing that ever interested me about them.
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