The Triumph of the Force (Over George Lucas)
By now everyone is well aware of the supremacy of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” both at the box office and in the hearts of many moviegoers. However, the reaction from franchise founder George Lucas has been rather muted. Many have attributed his ambivalence towards both his decision to sell the franchise and to the new movies that will be produced from it as a kind of “sour grapes” response. The fact that many audience members have been calling for the franchise to be taken out of his hands ever since the advent of the prequel trilogy must surely be a part of that, however I think that’s really only a minor part of the story. I submit that George Lucas is understandably dismayed by the way that he seems to have inadvertantly created something akin to a religion.
I’ve been trying to unpack this since seeing the film myself. It’s not a perfect film (if there even exists such a thing). It is certainly a fun time, however my own emotional response to it was all out of proportion to what was happening on the screen. This was something from my childhood lovingly renewed, dripping with nostalgia while also containing exciting and wonderful new elements added in, and it fairly throttled my heart. I wept to feel so young again, despite the fact that I felt an old fool at the same time. This is not a rational response to what I saw on the screen. In fact, my emotions were barely connected to what was happening in the film. Rather, it was the result of 38 years of this mythology seeping into the culture all around me, of hearing these stories reflected back to me from people I cared about in my life, of years of discussion, remixing, and fandom on the internet – and all this despite the fact that after “Revenge of the Sith” I largely lost faith in the whole enterprise.
In fact, losing and regaining faith is really what my emotions were about while sitting in that theater. I know I’m not alone in this – I’ve heard similar things reported by a lot of other people. And even for those who don’t feel it as keenly, the overwhelming public embrace of the story and mythology and even of the media hype surrounding this particular film speaks of something that has grown beyond itself. I am tempted at this juncture to admonish you: “Search your feelings- you know it to be true.”
As Lucas himself stated, he never got to “see” Star Wars, to have that experience of sitting in the darkened theater and let it wash over him. To him it was always just a story, a movie, a fun diversion for us and an enjoyable way to make some money for him. At its core, that is still all it is. However, he was in the right place, at the right time, with the right story, to tap into a profound public need for mythology and heroism and transendence. He and the team he surrounded himself with did excellent work and created something that had an impact on the culture much more profound than it probably should have.
That impact has certainly been exploited. Star Wars revolutionized not just blockbuster cinema, but also the marketing and merchandising of popular culture in general. Sitting in that dark theater, letting our emotions get away from us, it’s easy to forget that Star Wars is an entire industry unto itself worth billions of dollars. There are hordes of artists, writers, designers, managers, factory workers and sales associates all working to churn out not just movies but books, television shows, and an avalanche of merchandise, which an even larger horde of consumers laps up. Lucas certainly can’t forget it. He’s been right there watching the franchise gradually take over a huge chunk of our culture as surely as the Galactic Empire mercilessly swept into Echo Base on Hoth. He’s been the primary beneficiary of all of this fervor, and I can’t help but imagine that it must have given him pause at some point – probably around the time of the prequels, when faithful fans began to averr that he no longer understood his own creation.
Though the comparison is largely unfair, I think that Lucas may look at “Star Wars” in the way that Leni Riefenstahl looks at “Triumph of the Will”: a professional project that had ramifications far beyond the author’s intention, becoming a propaganda piece that helped launch a huge cultural movement. Though Lucas’ vision was much more positive, the way it has colonized the collective consciousness is still worth being a little wary of. So I suppose I can sympathise with him if he’s befuddled or even a little bit horrified by it all. He must surely be shaking his head at the tears that I and others shed in darkened theaters. That’s the essences of faith, really: if you don’t have it, then you’ll never understand.