Once bitten, twice shy. Near the end of the 20th century, I caught a transatlantic flight just to see a film on the first day of release. It was called The Phantom Menace, and it was not a good film. Some years later I was coincidentally in Cannes on the day they premiered Revenge of the Sith. I arrived too late to see Natalie Portman going in, but afterwards I did catch Hayden Christensen and George Lucas hanging around outside. The crowd swooned, cheered and waved desperately at handsome young Hayden. George waved back. Revenge of the Sith was a better film, but the bubble had burst by then. There was no urgency when I eventually sauntered to the local cinema to watch it.
For weeks after The Phantom Menace, I wandered around New York wearing a variety of suitably themed t-shirts, engaging in conversation with total strangers about how excellent the movie was. I really believed it was a good film, and so did they. The disproof only came after I had bought the DVD, played it, put it on the shelf, and stared at the box many times, trying to will myself to watch it again. I doubt I ever will. Ever since that time, I felt a sadness about the saga. A great story had been diminished because the storyteller had continued to tell it, after he should have stopped.
Though it is anathema to the business of science fiction and fantasy, the best stories end when their creator has the courage to admit that continuing them would be a disservice to the audience. Stories should end with a bang, or a pie in the face, or a kiss on the lips, or a wild crescendo, or a door slammed shut. Like a passionate love affair, you may fondly remember the good times, but those emotions are heightened because your lover walked out on you, never to return. When a great story ends, you should feel its absence, whilst knowing it cannot return. A great story should not be allowed to fade to dust, strung out and slowly abandoned by a once-admiring audience that loses their interest.
And yet, people seem very excited by the prospect of a new Star Wars film. As Disney is behind it, I expect the movie will give audiences what they want. There will be familiar old faces, and bright young things, cool robots, and natty costumes and stunning special effects. Being the marketing geniuses they are, Disney will find a way to hook people and ensure they come back for me. But the problem with giving people what they want, is that people do not really want what they want. As the artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid have shown, if you paint the paintings that market research tells you to paint, the results are terrible. On the other hand, if you think you really want something, you can probably persuade yourself it was good, even after you should have realized how awful it was. In that sense, art confuses infatuation with love in the same way we all do.
The more I learn about the new Star Wars film, the more I wonder why its story needs to be told, except for the obvious fact that Disney and everyone else involved intends to make huge profits from the venture. Do they have a story to tell? Or are they telling the same story again?
The film title, The Force Awakens, demonstrates the moviemakers have studied what audiences like. So many movie titles include words like ‘rising’ or ‘dawn’ that if an extraterrestrial race is watching us from afar, they must assume we humans are obsessed with our daybreak rituals. I associate mornings with alarm clocks, wanting more sleep, and being late for work. Heck knows what kind of bright-eyed people get surveyed about the choice of movie titles. Do they choose to watch a film about war after leaping from their beds, bursting into a Doris Day song, and skipping to the cinema, all whilst still wearing their pajamas?
So far we know the film features a new bunch of baddies, who are much like the old baddies, and live on a planet-sized planet with a big gun inside it, much like some moon-sized space stations from previous films. Some of the planets are icy, whilst others are sandy, because the filmmakers find it impossible to imagine a weird new kind of planet which has ice somewhere on its surface, and sand somewhere else. A plucky ‘resistance’ movement is going to stop the firing of the baddies’ gun, or something equally horrific, much like their forebears, the ‘rebels’. One of the baddies wears a black helmet, wields a sword, and feels empathy for an earlier helmet-wearing sword-wielder. As he carries a sword, a goodie will also carry a sword and fight the baddie in a duel. The goodie is happy to fight a duel like this, even though it indicates a poor grasp of the essentials of combat, which is to defeat the enemy without risking your life in the process. The goodie would consider it terribly unsporting to kill the baddie by shooting him with a ray gun, or firing a missile at him, or dropping an atom bomb or an anvil on his head (only cowards kill their enemies like that). Presumably the baddie carries his sword because he shares that aspect of the goodie’s moral code, even though he is a baddie. At least one good person will die, to demonstrate how serious the story is. Mostly the universe revolves around pretty humans, but aliens, robots, dogs, dog-aliens, and robot dogs will briefly appear as comic stooges and/or mysterious others. Somehow, I am left with the feeling of déjà vu.
The trouble with making a sequel to Star Wars is that the original was not a very original story to begin with. Basically it was a rehash of themes from World War 2, plus some magic, and minus the part where Stalin sacrificed 20 million Soviets on the Eastern Front, then received Poland and East Germany as his reward. Or rather, Star Wars was a rehash of themes from World War 2 movies, which usually involve a few brave soldiers parachuting (or jumping to light speed) behind enemy lines and then stealing/exploding something really important to the Nazis. The Guns of the Navarone, Saving Private Ryan, U-571, The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds… the point is to take a complicated conflict involving huge numbers of people with diverse and selfish interests and to turn it into a story where a small group committed to doing the right thing are fighting overwhelming odds and a very large group committed to doing the wrong thing. And so it was with the original Star Wars, where even the title tells us the whole galaxy is engaged in a prolonged and desperate military struggle, but the victory was won by a boy, a criminal, an old man, a princess, two robots, and their upright-walking semi-talking dog.
The World War 2 parallels go on and on. The Empire is described as the ‘New Order’. They are opposed by a Rebel Alliance, not by a Rebel Axis. The rebels seek to end the Emperor’s ‘ten thousand years of peace’, in comparison to overthrowing the Führer’s tausendjähriges Reich (thousand-year realm). The political leaders of the Allied forces come from aristocratic families, whilst its soldiers are backwoods farmboys from places like Arkansas or Tatooine. Officers in the Empire’s military wear the same gray as Nazi officers wore, and the stormtroopers are… well, they are stormtroopers. The dogfight above the Death Star is a replay of the Battle of Britain. The Death Star represents the technological advance of the Nazi V-weapons. (The Death Star could also represent a nuclear bomb, but it would complicate the moral analogy to observe WW2’s goodies were the ones who used WMDs.)
As with World War 2, the basic dynamic of Star Wars is that good liberal democrats will suffer a lot, but they will eventually overcome the militaristic fascist tyrants who want to oppress them. And if the good liberal democrats ever felt the need to ally themselves to a bunch of militaristic communist tyrants, then that would spoil the story, so let us avoid all mention of that.
At the end of Return of the Jedi, the audience was led to believe that the Allies had won. Fireworks were launched. Men drank and women kissed. Saddam Hussein-like statues of Emperor Palpatine were spontaneously toppled by the people. Or maybe not. Some of that may have been propaganda, stage managed for the cameras long after the war was over. Original accounts only mention Ewoks dancing to music played on a xylophone made from stormtrooper helmets. But in the end, we all knew the fascists were defeated. They had made a bit of a comeback after losing their first Death Star, but they could never survive the loss of their Führer. However, it seems we were all wrong. Hence we need a new episode in the Star Wars saga, which if it followed historical convention might have been called ‘The Continuity War’ or ‘The Thirty Years War’.
Following WW2, the Cold War lasted 40 years. There was a realignment of power that led to relative peace for most, prosperity for a minority. However, in the Star Wars universe, the rebels seemingly need to resist the fascists for another three decades. Like Leon Trotsky’s permanent revolution, the resistance believe there can be no peace until utopia is delivered everywhere, for all. Enemies cannot be contained, nor negotiated with. There is no possibility for the equivalent of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, or the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which would allow enemies to co-exist without further bloodshed. They have abandoned the hope of a cessation to fighting, and do not engage in the messy compromises needed to deliver peace amongst real people with genuine differences. The resistance will keep on revolting, and will never say die until their enemies are completely wiped out – or turned to their side.
As much as I loved Star Wars, a story of perpetual war is not one I embrace. I can see why it would appeal to some people; even when real fascists fell, some still wanted to beat them over and over. When necessary, some invent new fascists to fight. This happens in both fiction and reality. Woken from his long sleep, Captain America fights the continuing Nazi program of Hydra. From the 70’s to the 90’s, the Red Army Faction also claimed to fight German Nazis, though their members were born after WW2 had ended. The Red Army Faction justified murder, robbery and kidnap by saying it was part of an ongoing struggle against imperialism.
Stories often appeal to the child inside us. Those infatuated with a cause, and disinclined to deal with messy realities, may prefer the childish story of a never-ending struggle between pure good and pure evil. In the real world, those who have peace may seek war, but those who have war mostly seek peace. Only the latter are wise. War stirs emotion, which is why it is suited to storytelling. However, war is not a solution for ennui.
Ultimately I liked Star Wars because I was kid when it came out, and that is how it should be. There was a war, it was fought, and it was won. The story had a happy ending. In contrast, a story of an endless war is not one fit for adults or children. Children have the advantage, because they will watch the new film with fresh eyes, and with little concern for the films that went before. The rest of us should consider ourselves less fortunate. Adults will see a story that has been extended, but also made more superficial. After war comes peace, or else the war must lose its meaning.
Peace is a messy business, involving compromise. After war, helmets and uniforms are removed, and people have to find a way to live next to their neighbors, and get along with their work colleagues, whoever they may be. Puritans fear the peace that comes after the cessation of hostilities, even if their enemies were thoroughly vanquished. But puritans never develop beyond the reasoning of adolescents, and so they treat every clash of wills like a teenager treats love and war. If young new fans want to discover a stirring space story where a family lineage fights a perpetual struggle for good against evil, I hope they enjoy the new Star Wars film. But as an old fan of Star Wars, I think this film is not for me. Time moves on, and so should stories. If warriors die of old age before they find peace, they probably enjoyed fighting too much.