What We Talk About When We Talk about Star Wars

This blog post might be subtitled “The Pretentious Ass Strikes Back.” Here’s a story we tell in my family. In 1977, Cynthia Ann Benson, an undergraduate at Georgia State University, has signed up for a class on film theory and criticism, with some nervousness about whether it will take the pleasure out of going to the movies. On the first day of class, the instructor -- Jack Creech -- is late, and a group of students are gathered outside the classroom. This guy -- you know the one -- another undergraduate student  is standing around making assertions about gender, race, and technology in the recently released Star Wars movie to anyone who will listen and to many who would probably rather not be listening. She goes off after class and writes a letter to her best friend describing “this pretentious ass pontificating about the social significance of Star Wars” as summing up everything that made her fearful of cinema studies.  It took me several years to overcome that unfortunate first impression and get her to go out on a date with me. We’ve now been married for almost 35 years.

So, it was some ironic glee that I accepted the invitation of the media relations folks at USC to be put on a list of experts who could talk to the media about Star Wars. I found myself doing some dozen or more interviews with reporters all over the world in the week leading up to the release of A Force Awakens, filling them in about the impact which the Star Wars franchise has had over the past few decades.


If you have a low threshold for pretentious asses pontificating about the social significance of Star Wars, you may want to skip this post. If you are worried about spoilers, the first chunk will be spoiler free and I will give very clear signals when you should stop reading.

In the years, in between, much has happened. One thing my wife and I had in common was that we were not impressed with the first trailers we saw for the original Star Wars. I recall rolling my eyes and laughing it off the screen. In fairness, the original trailers were singularly bad, lacking John William’s music, and using a hooky pitch that we had felt science fiction cinema had overcome by that point.

Keep in mind that there were also trailers at this particular show for more serious science fiction movies such as Logan’s Run and Damnation Alley. (Okay, time has not been kind to these particular films).  I was a young reporter for the campus newspaper at the time. I was offered the chance to interview three unknown actors -- Carrie Fischer, Mark Hamill, and someone named Harrison Ford -- and I turned it down. Some other classmate got to take what turned out to be a really plum assignment. By the time I saw Star Wars, for the first time, there was enormous press and I was pumped, but bad first impressions all the way around.

Cynthia and I would see every subsequent Star Wars film together, on opening day, with the latest one being no exception. We were dating by the time Empire opened, we were married by the time Jedi opened, and we had a son by the time we saw Phantom Menace. In fact, we had an adolescent son given the long wait between and we had practiced some miserable child abuse, because we had forbidden him to watch the Star Wars films on a small screen and they had not released them on the big screen in more than a decade. We did take him to see the digitally “enhanced” versions (he has never seen Star Wars in its original format). And this go around we huddled, as fifty-somethings, under umbrellas in the rain, waiting with all of the undergraduates, to see A Force Awakens for the first time. One of the reasons that I do not think Star Wars has been over-hyped, though God knows Disney and the media have tried, is that so many people have stories like this one, where this saga has become central to the ways they tell their family and personal history. More on this point in a minute.

Along the way, other things linked me with Star Wars. I curated a screening of Star Wars fan films at the Art Institute of Chicago; I wrote a chapter about Star Wars and its troubled relationship with its fans for Convergence Culture; I appeared as a witness for the prosecution in the documentary, The People Vs. George Lucas; and I ended up getting hired by the University of Southern California  (where Lucas was a film student) and teaching sometimes in a building where Lucas’s name is carved in marble over the entrance. So, Star Wars has, hell yeah, been an important aspect of my life since the late 1970s. And though I was nervous after my disappointment with Phantom Menace and its sequels, I went into this one with a new hope, sorry couldn’t resist, about the future of the franchise. For me, the best news about Disney buying and revitalize the franchise was that George Lucas was going to have nothing to do with the new films.

Don’t get me wrong. I will always value Lucas for giving birth to the Star Wars mythos. Lucas, like L. Frank Baum before him, set out to create an American Fairy Tale and he pulled it off with flying colors. We can make a number of claims about the origins of Star Wars. Joseph Campbell, the mytholographer, would credit Lucas with tapping into the “monomyth,” his model for the core themes and narrative elements of global mythology, and updating it for the 20th century. If Lucas did not intentionally tap “the Hero’s Journey,” he may have been the last writer in Hollywood not to have done so, since Campbell’s model, especially after Star Wars' success, has been encoded into many of the core texts for training screenwriters and remains the template for most of the big budget blockbusters released each year. Lucas was inspired in part by his own childhood, watching serials at Saturday morning matinees, and especially by Flash Gordon, which he had intended to remake, but failed to get the rights to do so. So, he created an original story in the spirit of those classic serials, and crammed it with as many pulp genre elements as he possibly could. He also raided countless other films from around the world, including The Hidden Fortress and Battleship Yamamoto (Japan) and Dam Busters (UK), cutting together key sequences as a means of pre visualizing his movie (as Bob Rehak has pointed out). And out of this primordial soup of borrowed elements emerged what has become the most popular film franchise of all times.

Of course, Lucas did not get there without some real collaborations -- with Marcia Lucas (his wife, the film’s editor, and what many believe to be the one person who could tell him no), the classic SF writer Leigh Brackett, the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and of course, the composer John Williams, each of whom played key roles in shaping the core DNA of the Star Wars universe, as did many others (auteur theory be damned). And yes, USC's Cinema School deserves some credit: Lucas was one of the original "movie brats," the first filmmakers in America to come out of film school. They had absorbed many classic films -- including The Searchers upon  which one of the original film's most emotionally compelling moments was based -- and they knew how to think about the full range of cinematic techniques. Above all, they knew how to communicate with the various technical collaborators and create an audio-visual style that was intensified compared to any previous films to come out of Hollywood. For more of my thoughts on Star Wars' impact on contemporary Hollywood, check out this piece. 

Lucas made what turned out to be a key move when he rejected a higher salary of the film in favor of greater control over and more profit from the unfolding of Star Wars as a media franchise. From the start, Lucas saw the ancillary materials as a vital aspect of how he would build up this fictional universe, just as from the start he understood this as something which could unfold across multiple installments. I don’t believe, as is sometimes claimed, that he knew the exact shape of that narrative from the start. I doubt he would have constructed Luke, Leia, and Han as a romantic triangle in that first film, if he knew at the time that Luke and Leia were siblings. But the development of the extended mythology of Star Wars represents a major breakthrough in the emergence of today’s transmedia entertainment. Here's a good piece tracing some of the contributions that the extensions have made to the Star Wars saga. 

From the start, Star Wars was conceived not so much as a story about the dysfunctional Skywalker family as it was a world with many movable parts that can be explored through a variety of different media -- comics, novels, games, toys, animated series, radio dramas, etc. By the second and all subsequent films, we are given glimpses of different corners of the Star Wars universe on screen precisely so that material can be mined and developed through these other platforms. And these other creative developments sustained audience engagement across the long years when there were no new Star Wars films on the big screen and the original versions were not even available for VHS or DVD release.

And of course, the other thing that sustained Star Wars through the years was the intense fan activity it attracted from the get-go. If you trace the history of media fandom, Star Wars ranks alongside Star Trek and Harry Potter as perhaps the most influential fandoms. There’s so much one could say here about the role of SW fandom in the development of fan fiction, fan music, fan cinema, fan vidding, cosplay, role play, and model-building. But, as I wrote in Convergence Culture and testified to in the People vs. George Lucas, Lucas had, from the start, a contradictory relationship with his fan base. His personal mythology relies heavily on stories of his experiences as a Super 8 filmmaker, but he was openly hostile to most other forms of fan production, and his company has modeled a series of different strategies by which studios might bring fans more fully under their control through the years. 

The mainstream media has tended to read Lucas’s comments about the new film as positive. I read a bit more subtext behind them. Read them again in light of the history of animosity between Lucas and his fans: “I think the fans are going to love it. It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” How we read this comment depends on whether Lucas wants the same things as his fans want and it is pretty well established by this point that they were opposed on almost every development around Star Wars 1-3.  

Moving Lucas’s hands off the reigns of the Star Wars empire is what needed to take place for the revitalization of the franchise we’ve seen in recent months. Ironically, the best way to return Star Wars to its core was to put someone else in charge. And in many ways, Disney, scary thought though it was when it was first announced, was probably the best studio to take control. There are plenty of bad things you can  say (and probably have said) about the Disney corporation. It’s record for fan relations is no better than Lucas’s, but they have made some decisive steps to turn this around in recent years, including sustained outreach to adult fans, rather than basing everything on an appeal to “children of all ages” or writing off the adult fans the way Lucas did implicitly and explicitly around The Phantom Menace. By the early sound era, Walt Disney had created the Mickey Mouse clubs, organizations at movie theaters across the country, which encouraged audience engagement and participation with its properties. These organizations would provide the template for the later Mickey Mouse Club television series. The creation of Disneyland as a theme park and as a television series helped to lay the foundations for transmedia entertainment, and the company has been in the forefront ever since in exploring how to extend and deepen stories across media.

In many ways, the plans for the new Star Wars franchise, with stand-alone films about individual characters sandwiched between contributions to the larger unfolding saga, comes straight out of the playbook that Disney has developed around the extended Marvel universe. All of this makes sense to me.

Putting J.J. Abrams in charge of the new film sent a mixed message. As a Star Trek fan, I did not like what has ultimately happened to the big screen reboot of Star Trek: I had mixed responses to the first film (in which I had an unrecognizable cameo role that is included in the dvd extras -- look for the shadowy figure of the Klingon on watch) and HATED the second (another story for another day, but mostly having to do with his total lack of understanding of the core character relations and themes that make Star Trek into a distinctive SF franchise.) So, after Phantom Menace and after Into the Darkness, there were good reasons to be twitchy heading into this film, even though otherwise, there were plenty of great elements already visible in the trailers to set my fanboy heart at ease.

So, what did I think about the film?




It took me probably a good ten to fifteen minutes into the film before I could start to breathe in a normal fashion as the realization set in that this film met the first criteria for being the flagship for a major media franchise: It doesn’t suck. And by the time, Han and Chewbacca show up on screen, I realized that I was loving it. I have still only seen it once, so I am going to avoid making too many grand interpretive claims here, but I will say that the film did what it needed to do to set Star Wars on the right path for the next decade or so.  Here’s some of the things I think it accomplished:

The Force Awakens Revitalizes, but does not reboot, Star Wars. This goes back to the J. J. Abrams issue. I had no objection to Abrams recasting the leads on Star Trek, but I did not think he needed to spend the entire first film setting up an elaborate time paradox in order to explain why and how he did so. I also felt like if he was going to call these characters Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc., he needed to respect some core aspects of their personalities. It is one thing to provide a new interpretation of those characters, as happens whenever a new actor tackles Hamlet, say, but another to fundamentally shift who they are, and by the second film, he was showing a total disregard for those characters. If you can swap out Spock for Kirk in Wrath of Khan, and have it make no difference in terms of how the story plays out, you are not grounding your storytelling in the characters.

This time around, Abrams does show obvious respect and affection for the original characters, both big and small. Clearly, he reminded us of how central Hans Solo has been to the spirit of Star Wars, but there were also great moments featuring Chewbacca who has always been a personal favorite (the scene with the nurse was a highpoint of the film for me), and there are so many minor Star Wars characters hidden like Easter Eggs in the background of various scenes, suggesting a fully populated universe which continues on from the elements we valued from the original trilogy. This looked and sounded like Star Wars.

Lucas with Phantom Menace and Abrams with Star Trek had made a big deal out of needing to throw out the past in order to appeal to a younger generation . But this time, my generation of fans were not sacrificed to pave the way for the younger ones. That scene with Han and Leia, talking to each other about their mature relationship, and their troubles as parents, was directed straight at all of us who had led adult lives while still maintaining a fascination with this franchise. Our mastery over the mythology was valued, even if they did streamline much of the extended mythology built up through the transmedia through the years, and the film returns to classic themes that have made the Star Wars films work as a shared mythology. Some have argued that the film spends too much time looking backwards, not enough time looking forward, but when you compare it with the Star Trek reboot, it is clear that Abrams made a different set of choices this go-around (or was forced to accept them, given how much Disney had running on this one!).

A Force Awakens paves the way for the next phase of the story. There are a whole new cast of characters, each born of the archetypes of the original (literally or not -- in some cases it remains to be seen), but each representing new energy and interests. Rey is the female protagonist that Star Wars fans have wanted for decades. Ironically, one of my claims when talking about Star Wars in that GSU hallway so many decades ago was that Princess Leia did transform the vocabulary of the female sidekick in SF adventure stories -- she does pick up a blaster and proves a better shot than Han, she does deliver some withering one-liners which cut Luke down to size, and she does exercise some power over the rebellion forces. But, today, I think we would say that the roles offered to women in Star Wars are limited. I assume many of you have seen the recut of all of the lines across the original trilogy delivered by women other than Lea.

Rey ranks alongside Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road), as the archetype for the next generation female action hero. Lucas always saw the young boys as the true audience for Star Wars and had deep ambivalences about its appeal to women, so it is great to see women of all ages get the protagonist they deserve. I am outraged by suggestions that Rey is a Mary Sue character -- certainly no more so than Luke himself -- and it is not “political correctness” to think that we can have a broader range of characters front and center in these kinds of stories. It is also not “political correctness” to protest when the studio released a set of action figures which features all of the boy characters and does not include the chief protagonist. 

They get enormous credit for making a blockbuster where the white male is at best the third most important character, but come on, for all of the progress this film makes, it really still doesn’t have a clue of how central women have always been to the fan community around this franchise, or why many of us would want both our sons and our daughters growing up with admiration and respect for Rey’s mad chops and self-confidence.

I would argue that the film is still struggling with its racial politics -- Finn spends far too much of the film in a state of utter terror and ends up coming pretty damn close to being another dead black guy in an action movie by the final credits. I know he overcomes his fears to be there for Rey, but come on, he doesnt need to hold her hands, but we also do not need to diminish him in order to make her look stronger.

Poe doesn’t spend enough time on screen -- he’s got some real potential, but I need to get to know him better. I fell under the charms of Maz Kantana who is not a puppet like Yoda, not too cute like the Ewoks, not a cartoon character like Jar Jar Binks, but really does show the expressive capacities at the hands of contemporary CGI artists in creating alien characters. (I will note that this last is a split decision in my household: my wife and son think I am crazy). BB8 is legitimately cute without being cloyingly so and without relying on racist stereotypes.  And as for Kylo Ren, we have someone as compelling as Darth Maul who is allowed to last for more than one sequel, and someone who shows what a good actor  (and frankly a better director) could have done with the Anakin Skywalker storyline. I don’t love everything about him -- the temper tantrums seemed to come from a different movie and one that I do not like at all. But, the emotional core here provides strong fundamentals that can sustain the series moving forward.  

The casting was across the board brilliant, including a deep back bench of performers who still haven’t shown everything they can do with these parts. I left the theater wanting to know more about all of these characters and above all, wanting to know what happens next (the true test of any serialized entertainment).

The Force Awakens was fun. That surely has to be the top criteria for evaluating a Star Wars movie. It is not going to provide overt social commentary -- if you want that, go see Spotlight or any of a dozen other films released this Oscar season, with varying degrees of quality and impact. 2015 will go down as the year when Hollywood rediscovered its liberal core -- as if the entire industry went back and binge watched the complete works of Elia Kazan and Stanley Kramer. But Star Wars has cool action  sequences, great character moments, witty one-liners, everything that felt so fresh when the original film hit the screen in 1977. The actors look like they are having a good time, even Ford, and the characters clearly like each other. There are enough mythic themes to make us care what is getting blown up next, which is more than can be said for many other big budget movies of the past year.

So, is this the best film ever made? Certainly not. As a Star Wars fan, there's a lot to nit-pick and a few things that contradict core mythology: how exactly was Finn able to get Luke's light saber to work for him? (Keep in mind it was previously --even in this film -- suggested those light sabers need to be keyed to specific individuals.) What exactly did Han think Ryo was about to do? What nonsense about the maps!)  

Is it the best Star Wars film ever made? I am seeing fans debate whether it is the second or third best Star Wars film -- the dust needs to settle and we need to dig around in the new elements before any of us can know -- but I’ve seen few assert that it is the best.

Is it a worthy addition to a classic series that has sustained audience interest across multiple generations? Absolutely. It cleared the bad taste out of our mouths, and it paves the way for what promises to be a long run of Star Wars stories into the future. Keep in mind that there was a new Oz book released each year at Christmas time for the better part of the 20th century, a transmedia franchise which was valued by generation after generation.

I want to see Star Wars films that center on characters who are not named Skywalker. I want to see films which provide back story for Han and Chewie, that explore different corners of the Star Wars extended universe, that draw on different mixes of genre elements,  that push the story backward and forward in time. I want to see what happens to the new characters introduced in this film. And it sounds like I will get my chance.

  More-over, this film is certain to generate new kinds of fan responses.  I’ve written here often about the amazing work being done by the Harry Potter Alliance and Imagine Better in using popular mythology to inspire a new generation of young activists. (We write extensively about those efforts in our forthcoming book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism). Andrew Slack, the co-founder of that group, has moved onto a new campaign which uses the Star Wars saga to call attention  to the role of dark money in American politics. He’s asked me to serve on the Jedi Council, advising him on these efforts. Here’s an example of the early press coverage of these efforts and below, you can watch a video which explains about the Jedi pledge you can take to help fight to help reform today’s broken campaign finances system. So, yeah, social significance after all!

Your friendly neighborhood pretentious ass signing off for 2015. See you next year.