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The dark side of Star Wars

The franchise's troubling place in our culture has little to do with the movies themselves.

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I don't know how to put this politely, so I'll just come out and say it: Fuck Star Wars.

I have a fantasy where I leap into the cockpit of an X-Wing and fire proton torpedoes at everything Star Wars-related. All of it. The movies. The books. The podcasts. Jar Jar Binks plush dolls. Hayden Christensen's boring face on cereal boxes. Plastic lightsabers that 40-year-old men are wont to wield. I'd finally rid the world of gratuitous "Slave Leia" golden bikinis and R2D2-shaped garbage cans. While the Disney Corporation tails me in a TIE fighter, I'd take aim at the blueprints for the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Chicago, shredding the plans into a thousand little pieces while Han Solo shouts, "Great shot, kid! That was one in a million!"

This could come off as an overreaction to the massive planet-consuming hype attached to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But lately Star Wars itself is like the Force: it surrounds us and binds us. In the 2015 media-infotainment panopticon, daily life practically comes with a John Williams score endlessly swelling in the background.

The airwaves are littered with so many Star Wars commercials that the date December 18 feels solidified in my brain like Han Solo frozen in carbonite. And . . . well, you saw The Force Awakens trailer, didn't you? Of course you did. It has felt like half the world has been analyzing every detail like the Warren Commission examining this generation's Zapruder film. Some have treated the trailer's release as a religious experience, with J.J. Abrams presiding as a kind of prophet holding the keys to the next book of holy writ. A Facebook friend described being in rapturous tears by the end of the three-minute teaser, especially after seeing the money shot: Harrison Ford in his old Han Solo pajamas speaking fondly to the guy in the Sasquatch suit.

Everyone from Lyft drivers to random strangers has asked, "Do you have tickets to see The Force Awakens?" And then inevitably, "Why don't you have tickets to The Force Awakens yet?"

Every possible product has some kind of Star Wars marketing tie-in. Star Wars Duck Tape, Star Wars breakfast cereal, Star Wars rolling luggage. Lightsaber chopsticks. Chewbacca Coffee-mate creamer. Cover Girl "Dark Apprentice" mascara. A toaster that burns a Darth Vader-helmet-shaped spot on your bread. It's enough to make Mel Brooks's Spaceballs seem prescient. Pottery Barn is selling a $4,000 bed shaped like the fucking Millennium Falcon. In September, the Lords of Star Wars Marketing orchestrated something called "the Global Toy Unboxing," a vaguely ominous-sounding title for an event in which new Star Wars toys were unveiled during an 18-hour live stream in advance of their retail releases on "Force Friday." People in 15 cities in 12 countries spent two-thirds of an entire day watching a commercial where action figures were exhibited with a reverence as if they'd been unearthed from the recently discovered tomb of some ancient Egyptian pharaoh.

Online media has been dry-humping the franchise like it's an overeager high school kid on prom night. Every piece of Star Wars news, no matter how inane, gets breathlessly reported. The new lightsaber is what shape? And wait—where's Mark Hamill?! Oh God, is Luke back??? Major media outlets recently got suckered by a fake campaign to boycott The Force Awakens for being "antiwhite." Cultural commentators tripped over each other to defend Star Wars for having black Stormtroopers even as the protest was revealed to have been devised by two middling racist Twitter trolls.

What brand hasn't attached itself to the new Star Wars film? - MARK ROBERT MILAN/GETTY IMAGES
  • Mark Robert Milan/Getty Images
  • What brand hasn't attached itself to the new Star Wars film?

Beyond squabbles about the race of pretend plastic soldiers lies a bigger question: Shouldn't we all be embarrassed about the infinite amount of attention, time, and money devoted to this dopey fictional sci-fi universe? (I ask this with the full knowledge that I am devoting further attention and time to the franchise.)

Have you rewatched these movies recently? They're fine at best. Mostly they're really infantile and stupid. Looking past the stilted acting and flat dialogue, you begin to wonder: Did I really take seriously a frog-faced Muppet's pseudo philosophy about "Do, there is no try"? Yoda, one could reason, is just victim blaming, maintaining people are totally responsible for their own failures. "Trust your feelings"? That's the last thing Americans need to do more of. And not to launch into all the narrative incongruities, but why is there a second Death Star in Return of the Jedi? It's like George Lucas was so busy making Ewok treehouses, he forgot to come up with a new overly obvious symbol of militarized evil for the heroes to destroy. Just throw another giant laser-shooting moon in there!

But hey, at least the first trilogy's got some chintzy B-movie charm and a semicompelling love triangle between the three lead actors, not to mention a transcendent, dryly humorous performance from Harrison Ford as the roguish space pilot. The prequels, everyone seems to agree, are a pile of CGI-enhanced horseshit—a hundred tedious conversations about intergalactic diplomacy mixed with a central romance more robotic than C3PO and Jake Lloyd screaming "Weee!" while Jar Jar is a-sayin' a-somethin' brain dead.

Still, the least distressing thing about Star Wars is the movies themselves. Star Wars is fine for what it is—a series of reasonably entertaining sci-fi films. Lucas self-consciously modeled them after the Saturday afternoon serials of the 1940s. The Greatest Generation would drop off their children at the movie theater so Bobby and Sally could watch pulpy low-budget films starring Flash Gordon or the Lone Ranger, some cartoons, and then call it a day.

The problem isn't Star Wars as cinema. The troubling thing is what Star Wars's Cloud City-high place in our culture says about us. We're the ones who've given Lucas's franchise of magic swords and spaceships and talking puppets enough cachet that it's earned a Jabba the Hut-size museum dedicated to this "narrative art"—and without Chicago's populace laughing the idea out of existence. Soon our lakefront cultural centers filled with ancient artifacts and studies of astronomy and aquatic wildlife will be neighbors with one exhibiting Boba Fett's fucking jet pack. Bobby and Sally grew up and moved on to more adult things: fine art, literature, theater, popular culture meant to challenge instead of coddle.

We haven't. We're a generation of Peter Pans who can't let go of childhood obsessions. Over the last few decades, even when Star Wars movies weren't being made, the same childlike sugar rush that fuels them has grown ever more omnipresent in our media. Movies based on Marvel Comics—which like Star Wars is also owned by Disney—dominate the box office (five Marvel titles are due out in 2016), and they're slowly getting a bigger foothold in television as well: ABC's Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Netflix's Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Video games, while growing in technical sophistication, are still largely grounded in the mentality of teenage boys who spend all day sipping energy drinks and thinking about cartoons, guns, and sports.

I don't know why we even bother branding anything "young adult" fiction anymore with all the 30-year-olds lining up for the new Hunger Games or Divergent movies. Even the "sophisticated" stuff—The Walking Dead, The Dark KnightGame of Thrones—are little more than adolescent fever dreams dressed up as adult. Scenes of sex and violence and the addition of moody antiheroes can't hide that fact that the material is still crowded with zombies, outer space, King Arthur-esque fairy tales, and crime fighters dressed in spandex.

Attend one of a growing number of comic book conventions and you find that it all feels like a cult-y cheerleading section for conspicuous consumption of whatever movie/TV show/video game is being sold to them. Actor Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty in the Abrams-directed Star Trek movies, briefly bit the geeky hand that feeds him by writing an essay on his blog this summer describing what happened when this self-infantilizing "nerd culture" conquered the universe. 

"This extended adolescence has been cannily co-opted by market forces, who have identified this relatively new demographic as an incredibly lucrative wellspring of consumerist potential," Pegg observed. "Suddenly, here was an entire generation crying out for an evolved version of the things they were consuming as children. This demographic is now well and truly serviced in all facets of entertainment and the first and second childhoods have merged into a mainstream phenomenon."

Self-infantilizing "nerd culture" has conquered the universe. - JESSE GRANT/GETTY IMAGES FOR DISNEY
  • Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney
  • Self-infantilizing "nerd culture" has conquered the universe.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with a little fantasy and escapism in our cultural diet. We all deserve a break from life. But there must be balance in the Force. As you're reading this, legions of lightsaber-toting fans are lined up at movie theaters across the country—some have been camped out for weeks—in anticipation of the Friday opening of The Force Awakens. Yet I'm betting many of them couldn't be bothered to walk to the polling place down the street to vote.

Cultural critic George Packer's astute book The Unwinding traces the decline of America's social contract as our progressive institutions—unions, public schools, local businesses—have receded into the twilight as Wall Street and big money continue to fill up the vacuum. The date Packer pegs as the beginning of this decay: 1978. The year after George Lucas's blockbuster became a cultural phenomenon.

Our societal problems cannot all be pinned on Star Wars, but while we've been busy cheering on Jedi knights battling the Empire we let in the real evil: unjust and imperialist wars, climate change, the Wall Street d-bags who fostered the recession of 2008, subprime mortgages, predatory lending, Dick Cheney, skyrocketing income inequality, Fox News, the mass incarceration state, the loss of civil liberties for the sake of security, the rising police state that disproportionately murders young black men, indiscriminate spying by the NSA. These are forces that don't wear black capes and shoot lightning from their hands, but they are our Darth Vaders.

And then there's Disney—an emperor in mouse's clothing. After buying the Star Wars intellectual property for an ungodly amount from the creatively exhausted Lucas, the company shifted the shameless selling of the franchise into light speed. The Force Awakens is only the beginning—Disney is planning on releasing a new movie every year until every ounce of joy in the originals has been thoroughly milked for profit. They've even broken ground on new Star Wars areas in their already-sprawling theme parks in Anaheim and Orlando. Jean Baudillard would be infinitely amused. In Simulacra and Simulation, the French postmodern theorist called the original Disney theme park "a space of the regeneration of the imaginary as waste-treatment plants are elsewhere, and even here. Everywhere today one must recycle waste and the dreams, the phantasms, the historical, fairylike, legendary imaginary of children and adults is a waste product, the first great toxic excrement of a hyperreal civilization."

Ultimately, Baudillard concluded, Disneyland doesn't let you be a child; it hides the fact that you are a child. So does a certain gazillion-dollar sci-fi franchise I know.

If that sounds like pretentious twaddle, just listen to Obi-Wan Kenobi himself. Sir Alec Guinness said he "shriveled" every time someone brought up the Star Wars movies, calling them modest entertainments whose acolytes have lost themselves "in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities."

For those headed to a theater near you to queue up for the latest entry: May the Farce be with you. v


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Director: J.J. Abrams

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