December 29, 2009

Star Wars: Pop Culture Herpes?

Spike, the basic cable network that specializes in car chases and crashes, mixed martial arts, ninja and armchair jock reality shows, wrestling, and all-ages tits and ass (i.e., what if Maxim magazine was videotaped and broadcast 20 hours a day), ran Star Wars movies all around the Christmas holiday, including all the sequels, prequels, and special editions. With heavy commercial interruption, of course. Having first seen Star Wars (screw the Episode IV nomenclature nonsense) at the impressionable age of ten or so, and probably dozens of times since, there are certain scenes, lines and images that fire up the memory circuits like an old-school Bally pinball machine. There was probably a point in the early eighties when I could have broken down parts of Star Wars like Kevin Costner's character in JFK reviewing the Zapruder film. "See how the lightsaber pops out of frame here, and then comes back in to catch Obi-Wan across the shoulder? Back and to the left. Back and to the left."

Thirty-odd years later, and what I once considered to be sacred script and verse is so weaved into the fabric of our popular culture that the series goes beyond ubiquity into overexposed and deeply irritating, which probably suits George Lucas just fine. Another Family Guy parody? Sure. More Robot Chicken parodies? No problem. New cartoons, video games, fanfic disguised as serious scifi lit, crappy toys, Lego building sets, re-released Blu-Ray DVDs, Halloween costumes, video games based on Lego building sets, new Cartoon Network-based video games, new Cartoon Network cartoons based on previously existing video games, and soon new Lego cartoons on Cartoon Network based on video games adapted from fan fic. The possibilities are endless for the gang up at Skywalker Ranch. Baby boomer nostalgia is serious business.

Sure, sure, George Lucas raped my childhood. Yadda-yadda-yadda. It's not really that, per se. Merchandising happens. It's more of a question to me of trying to think of another person on the planet who completely squandered the Mount Everest-sized amount of loyalty and good will thrown their way like George Lucas did. Maybe George W. after 9/11. After that I'm drawing a blank. What do you push out there, years after you establish a built-in fan base that makes the collective Trekkies look like a Fresno chapter of the Scrappy Do fan club? Jar Jar Binks. A jive-talking, pimp-stepping, frog/iguanodon mix, with zero redeeming features. I mean, you got a pass for the Ewoks in Jedi when it came out, although you seriously didn't deserve it. Upon recent viewing on Spike, the noble savage teddy bears are simply face-plantingly bad. I'd rather watch the horror show that is the Star Wars Holiday Special, with Carrie Fisher screeching her way through the Life Day song on perpetual loop than watch the Ewoks destroy galactic heavy tank armor with sling shots and cuteness.

Fine, George, you wanted to make the little kids connect with the series, and keep the generational money buffet stocked into perpetuity. The Ewoks were a means to an end. But you couldn't leave well enough alone. I had almost forgotten about certain "modifications" made in the "special editions." Greedo shot first. Fine. Sticking in layered-in digital effects, like a Sarlacc beak that looks like a Super Mario Brothers flower, to promote your Industrial Light & Magic capabilities for further projects. Superfluous and unnecessary, but whatever. But digitally inserting Hayden Christensen into the semi-final scene as the redeemed Force-ghost Anakin Skywalker, instead of the character actor Sebastian Shaw who minutes earlier played the dying Darth Vader? Utterly and pathetically retarded. It's ham-fisted, shameless and stubborn to try to link the prequels twenty years after the fact.

I'll spare the time and effort trying to slam the prequels in too much detail.  They're mostly harmless, and I'll admit to enjoying Episode III for the most part, but they're chock full of expository and stilted dialogue and wooden readings, with weird bureaucratic meanderings (The Simpsons nailed this), and heaps and heaps of unnecessary CGI.  The bar was set unbelievably and admittedly unrealistically high for some reason, probably due to the huge gap in time between the original trilogy and the prequels, but Lucas definitely focused on form over function, providing a pretty snoozer and not much else.   And that's where the real disappointment lies.

The reason Star Wars was so compelling was not that it was technologically superior to other films of the same time.   That helped the overall enjoyment of the film, tremendously.  But it ultimately came down to whether you believed in the characters and actually cared what happened to them.   And in Star Wars, and to a slightly lesser extent in Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, you could.  Luke Skywalker was never as compelling in the later films as he was in Star Wars.  In the first movie, he was a wide-eyed innocent who had a destiny to discover, a completely new universe to explore, and a transformative phase to believe in a higher power and train accordingly.  It's a clear narrative structure for a major coming-of-age experience, and the third act is all about his ascension into responsibility and manhood (although the accompaying sexual awakening with sis Leia still reeks as creepy).  The next two movies for Luke are just set-ups for big fight scenes with Vader, i.e., Dad.   Sure Han Solo is cooler, but, most pre-teen and teenagers, and specifically pre-teen and teenage Star Wars fans, got the subtext on Luke all right.  Get out and do something with your life.  Expand your horizons, bro.

And young kids never needed Ewoks, or Jar-Jar, or baby Anakin, or any of the other cutesy Lucas crap.  My five year old son, like probably millions of other five year old boys (and numerous girls) since the late seventies, loves R2-D2.  Draws him constantly with crayons.   Constantly asks if Artoo is going to be okay in the firefight, and why C-3PO understands the beeps and squeaks.   The little robot connects with him, just like WALL-E does.  Neither Artoo or WALL-E speaks, and there's probably something telling about that.  Kids at that age are trying to find a voice.   They are trying to determine the best way to tell a story, the best way to ask for things, and the best way to communicate with adults and other little kids.   WALL-E and Artoo have adventures, relationships, and setbacks.  Without words or speeches.   And they're metal, boxy, and ugly in some ways.  They're not superficially cloying and cute, like the Ewoks.  Children don't self-identify with cute and loveable.  Adults think they do, and prepare media influences accordingly, but they don't.

And that's where Lucas failed.  And continues to fail miserably.  The good will and loyalty squandered was not substantially based on the sets and dialogue and music and special effects.  Taken as individual components, they resonate and entertain in their own ways, but they leave no deep meaning.  The underlying subtext and narrative built the foundation to appreciate the characters, sets, dialogue, music and special effects even more.  Lucas took the most superficial characteristics of the original series and monetized and merchandised them, which is well within his right, but in doing that also alienated an audience that fell in love with the non-superficial characteristics.   Not sure if he cares one whit at this point, but legacy is important.  Destroying a legacy might be worse than never really having had one in the first place....

1 comment:

  1. Very astute. Totally agree with the R2/Wall-E/Ewok thing.