When did the force leave you?

Salon staffers explain why they left that distant "Star Wars" galaxy far, far behind.

Published May 18, 2005 8:01PM (EDT)

The first moment Yoda showed up in the "Star Wars" films, my reaction was a lot like Luke Skywalker's -- incredulity mixed with a healthy dose of irritation. Idiosyncratic syntax he has, yes? Many platitudes he spouts, hmmmm? And voice of Grover, ha! Forget Jar Jar Binks. Forget, even, the Ewoks. With the arrival of the diminutive green-skinned one, the series went from mythology to "Muppet Show."

I wanted to be onboard. I was a fan of the first "Star Wars." I've always had a weakness for sword fights and blowing stuff up. I adored the feisty heroine with a Cinnabon do. I loved, in my "I was a teenage honor-society dork" way, how the themes of war, family, jealousy and the hero's quest played out like a Shakespeare story in space. And I appreciated the way Harrison Ford's Han Solo could whip my youthful libido to a theretofore-unimagined pitch. "Star Wars": smart and hot!

And then Luke had to go off to flex his force.

At the urging of the dead, yet still opinionated, Obi-Wan, the ancient, intergalactically revered Yoda takes the young Jedi under his wing -- or whatever those appendages are -- for an inevitable boy-becomes-man story arc. He instructs Luke in harnessing "the force," warns him of the seductive, easy allure of "the dark side," and makes him give him piggyback rides. It's a regimen straight out of Neverland Ranch. No wonder Luke cuts out early and hightails it back to his friends.

Yoda, with his blatantly latex body and Frank Oz voice, never assumed the scrappy humanity that even R2-D2 and C-3PO did. It wasn't just those retractable ears either, but the whole annoying personality. You'd think that after nearly a thousand years as a teacher, Yoda would have some seriously righteous wisdom to impart -- or a least a better grip on sentence structure. Instead he solemnly intones, "Do or do not, there is no try." I'd heard better motivational lines in gym class.

I got the whole weird little space-troll premise. Yoda is supposed to be 800 years old, deeply evolved, and living on a planet with no decent skin-care products. Luke initially dismisses him as just a freaky chatterbox because he doesn't yet possess the wisdom to recognize him as the legendary warrior maker he is. Greatness sometimes appears in a humble, perhaps absurd, guise. Gee, you don't say. I understood an allegory when I saw one. And I still knew -- Jedi master, my ass -- that was Miss Piggy. And moi was not impressed.

-- Mary Elizabeth Williams

Resistible force
I can't say I was ever faithful to the force.

Millions of people, including millions of science-fiction-loving kids, fell in love with "Star Wars" on its original release in 1977. I wasn't one of them. An 18-year-old bookworm who'd weaned on Heinlein and Asimov, feasted on Zelazny and Herbert, and graduated to Le Guin and Dick, I watched "Star Wars" with a sinking heart, because I knew that it would set back the cause of "real" science fiction for decades.

The problem wasn't that "Star Wars" was in itself a bad movie; it was made with love and care, it told a decent story, it passed a couple of hours entertainingly. There was nothing shameful in itself about the way George Lucas built his saga from the spare parts of a thousand serials. But in resurrecting the old Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, E.E. "Doc" Smith tradition of space opera, with its stereotypical characters, its potboiler plots and its pseudotechnology, Lucas completely bypassed the previous 20 years' worth of evolution in science-fiction writing and moviemaking.

Until "Star Wars" came along, you could fool yourself into a sort of progressive vision of science-fiction history, with TV and movie milestones like "Star Trek" and "2001" marking the progress from a mire of galaxy-saving princesses and heavy-breathing heavies toward a more grown-up universe, one in which the creators of science fiction tested new visions of human and technological possibility in the laboratory of the imagination. With the triumph of Luke and Leia and Darth, we had to face the cruel truth: For most people, space opera was, and would remain, the public face of science fiction -- and the stuff we cared about, having, for a brief spell in the late '60s and early '70s, seized the spotlight, would slink off once more to the cool margins.

Like most of my science-fiction-loving friends, I got over it, eventually, and even found some room in my heart for "The Empire Strikes Back," which suggested deeper ambitions for the "Star Wars" saga -- ambitions that, alas, each subsequent installment has betrayed. Today my perspective is more forgiving. The history of science fiction, as of anything else, isn't so linear; progress happens all the time, just not across the board. There's room enough on the planet for both "Revenge of the Sith" and "A Scanner Darkly."

But, you know, really, only one of them has a right to be called science fiction!

-- Scott Rosenberg

I lost it freshman year
I had never been that enthusiastic about "Star Wars" but understood the appeal of the original trilogy. My freshman year of college, I fell in love with a fellow sci-fi fan -- and fell out with "Star Wars" soon after. He took me to "The Phantom Menace" on opening weekend. He saw the opening of an epic; I saw just another Hollywood action flick. We had our first real argument that night, sitting in the dorm hallway, one of those long, ugly fights that reveals a chasm. We misunderstood each other and grew angry at the misunderstandings. I liked to explain myself with analogies to my previous experiences, and he accused me of telling long stories with no point. I wonder how he feels about George Lucas now.

-- Sumana Harihareswara

Cold-hand Luke
"Star Wars" has never lost its appeal for me, unless you count the time -- in 1986, when I was 12 and rewatching the trilogy -- that I realized that I hated Luke. My back tensed when he'd whine about how bored he was on Tatooine, or when he'd pipe up with some high-voiced braggadocio about how he "used to bull's-eye womp rats ... back home." I thought it was creepy how he looked at Leia in the first movie, given that she'd turn out to be his sister, and I didn't think he was really warm enough with the Ewoks after all they did for him. Also, he totally took Yoda for granted.

Now, it never occurred to me that any of my complaints might have had to do with Mark Hamill's wooden acting, or with the fact that George Lucas can't write dialogue to save his ass, or that he might have made teeny-tiny plot missteps within the narrative of his masterpiece. It was that I genuinely had issues with Luke Skywalker, the man.

I understood -- even at 12 -- that Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were actors in these movies. I was very savvy about Hollywood as a youngster; a charter subscriber to Premiere, I was a classic-movie addict and devoured every book about old Hollywood I could get my hands on. I even knew that Fisher was Debbie Reynolds' daughter, and I'd seen Alec Guinness in "Kind Hearts and Coronets." I also knew that the voice of "Yoda" was also the voice of "Grover."

But none of that film-business sophistication helped me to understand that "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" were not absolute gospel-truth stories that happened somewhere long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. The universe in which "Star Wars" took place was for me as real as Narnia, as Zuckerman's farm (home of Wilbur, Charlotte and Templeton), as the Hundred Acre Wood. It was one of my personal foundation myths.

I was never a "Star Wars" geek, exactly. Couldn't tell you the names of the drafts of the scripts or how many parsecs to a light-year or whatever. I just knew the story -- like I knew the story of the American Revolution -- backward and forward. In truth, I knew it much better than I ever knew the story of the American Revolution. Maybe it was the authority of that scrolling historical prologue that lent the thing credibility, but in my young mind -- never mind what I rationally knew about filmmaking -- "Star Wars" wasn't something that had been shot and sound-mixed and written and rewritten. It had merely happened and been faithfully recorded by an agile cameraman with a good seat on the Millennium Falcon. Tatooine, Dantooine, the Dagobah system, Alderaan, Hoth, Cloud City, Endor. Mos Eisley, the Death Star trash compactor: They were all real places where the story of three people, two droids and a Wookie played out over and over and over again.

When I was a senior in college and the films got re-released on the big screen with gussied-up special effects, I went with a bunch of friends on the "Star Wars" opening night -- a geeky thing to do, yes, but we had so much fun. It was simply revisiting one of the oldest stories in my life, actually, a childhood home of sorts.

The last two movies? Well, I don't care so much about them. They've been fun, in their way. Who doesn't like badass flexible Yoda? But they have about as much to do with "Star Wars" as Demi Moore has to do with Hester Prynne in the 1995 film that was "freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne."

Look, I would love it if this new "Star Wars" movie turned out to be great. I would love to see some shadow of the real story -- the true story -- up on that screen. But if I don't, how disappointed will I be? Not at all. I've never been a fan of historical fiction.

-- Rebecca Traister

Lando the free
The first time one of the neighborhood kids called me an asshole, I didn't know what it meant, but I thought it must be something like that big monster in the asteroid from "The Empire Strikes Back." I was too young to see the movies during their original theatrical release. My childhood coincided more with the second "Star Wars" wave. I watched the "Ewoks" and "Droids" Saturday-morning cartoons and had the second Ewoks movie, "Battle for Endor," taped off TV (the one with Wilford Brimley, where Cindel's whole family dies in the first scene).

I was a junior in high school when the original trilogy was re-released in theaters and sparked a new round of "Star Wars" fever. I would describe myself as a casually avid fan. I had seen the movies dozens of times, but I didn't own copies of them. I owned a life-size cutout of Princess Leia, but someone had to correct my pronunciation of "Han Solo" (I was saying it "Hans Solo"). But it wasn't just me. A vintage Lando Calrissian action figure was the unofficial school newspaper mascot that year. It was as much about identifying with a cultural phenomenon as it was about the movies.

When I first heard that "The Phantom Menace" was the subtitle for Episode I, I thought it was so incredibly lame that it couldn't be true. But it was. Still, I saw it the day it opened and it was as bland as I had expected it to be. I had much higher hopes for the second movie. Hoping that the second trilogy would mirror the first, I was looking forward to a dark and challenging second chapter. I wanted another "Empire." In my vision of Episode II, Anakin Skywalker would become Darth Vader by the end, leaving the final installment to chronicle the collapse of a whole interplanetary civilization. My disappointment in the second film broke my spirit. It was 143 minutes of gaudy visual effects, George Lucas' infamously god-awful dialogue, and pathetically limp love scenes between Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen. By the end, I was wincing everytime someone opened his or her mouth.

I'll pay my $10.50 to see "Revenge of the Sith" in a theater, more out of nostalgia than anything else. I don't think "Revenge of the Sith" will overcome the suckiness of Episodes I and II, but hidden away survives a lingering hope that I'll be wrong.

-- Robin Lisle

For kids and geeks only
I'm touched by your loyalty, "Star Wars" fans. Really I am. No, I'm totally lying. Mystified and a little horrified might be more like it. The Lucas fantasy franchise never lost me because it never had me, even for a second.

I was in the 10th grade when I saw the original "Star Wars" film -- I'm sorry, but I refuse to call it "Episode XVIIV: Return of the Attack of the Snood," or whatever it's now supposed to be called -- at the UC Theater in Berkeley, Calif. Even at the time, I went out of a sense of professional duty. I wrote about movies and rock music for the high school paper, and my buddy Craig Barron, like me a fan of classic horror and sci-fi, was all excited about it. (Craig wound up working for George Lucas on later movies in the series. He now runs a visual-effects shop called Matte World Digital and has credits on close to a hundred films.)

Craig explained to me what a special-effects achievement this movie was, and of course it was made by a local guy who had shot the underground sci-fi classic "THX 1138" -- the title refers to a Berkeley phone number, and much of the movie was shot in the tunnel between Oakland and Alameda. I got all that, but what I saw on the screen was a dopey, minor attempt to rejuvenate the "Flash Gordon" space operas that kids of the '40s and '50s had grown up watching. There was no subtlety, not nearly enough creepy darkness, and a lot of lame humor, along with a girl whose hair looked like cinnamon buns and some big guy in a rented Sasquatch costume. OK, it was kind of campy -- but not nearly campy enough.

I probably went over to another friend's house that night, drank some imported beer his ex-communist dad bought for us, played albums by Patti Smith and Television, and declaimed about how this overly hyped piece of crap wasn't half as good as "The Hidden Fortress," the Kurosawa film it was supposedly based on, let alone the difficult art films we had recently gotten into, like Ingmar Bergman's "Serpent's Egg" (released the same year as "Star Wars") or Luis Buñuel's "Belle de Jour."

Was I a completely obnoxious little cappuccino-swilling snob, raised in a bubble of pseudo-bohemian sophistication? You bet your ass. I've grown and matured a lot since then (for one thing, I now understand that "The Serpent's Egg" is one of Bergman's worst films). But let me tell you what I wasn't -- I wasn't a little kid. And as far as I can tell, the only two categories of people with a good excuse for liking "Star Wars" are Cinefantastique-reading geeks like my friend Craig, who can appreciate the movie as the end product of an impressive technological process, and little kids.

I mean, when I was 6 or 8 or 10 years old, I loved all kinds of dumb kid culture too. I thought "Doctor Strange" was a profound comic book. I couldn't imagine anything better than Sean Connery in "Diamonds Are Forever," or the later "Planet of the Apes" sequels. I still have a fondness for those movies, crappy as they are, because some part of me was shaped by James Bond's bogus suavity, and by the portentous social analogies of those "Apes" movies. (I'm too scared to ever rewatch a movie I once proclaimed my all-time favorite, a 1972 crime caper flick called "Snow Job," starring Olympic skiing champion Jean-Claude Killy.)

So for those of you who expended third-grade recess in earnest arguments about the "Star Wars" characters -- could the horrible rumor about Luke's hidden relationship to Lord Vader possibly be true? -- I may not get it, but I'm in no position to judge. Look, I'm exaggerating my position to make a point here; I've seen all the "Star Wars" films and was able to sustain some vague interest through the first three. But I'm sorry, there's no there there, and there never was.

Lucas probably thinks his crypto-fascist mythology, not just ripped off from Tolkien, Wagner and countless comic-book authors but then boiled down to its stupidest essence, is in some way liberal or optimistic. (We keep hearing about how the new movie is some kind of anti-Bush parable. Wake me when the furor fades.) Forget it. Lucas drove Hollywood moviemaking down the path toward ever bigger, ever emptier spectacle. His inflation of childish myth to blimped-out proportions embodies the refusal to grow up -- the refusal to face the darkness in our history, the emptiness of our rhetoric -- that marks America at its worst.

-- Andrew O'Hehir

Were you abandoned by the force? Did you turn to the dark side? Or did you hang in there even in the face of Jar Jar Binks? Send us your stories here.

By Salon Staff

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