Long Read: Forty-two years with the Force

This essay will not be spoiler-free.

A long time ago … and the galaxy might as well be far, far, away because I’m not a quantum particle and so my consciousness is stuck for ever on a swath of spacetime that moves inexorably in one direction only … it was the opening day of a move called Star Wars. Memorial Day, 1977 — and just as with all the other world-shaking events such as the Kennedy Assassination or Pearl Harbor — I’ll never forget where I was that day.

The entire Washington Science Fiction Association, a collection of nerds, social misfits, outcasts and other such geniuses, had completely taken over the Uptown Theater, one of the few real movie theaters not yet transformed into a shopping mall tube. Expectations were high. The movie began and the cheering and clapping (and the occasional boo, as when the script didn’t seem to know what a parsec was) hardly stopped. We loved it, and went on to see it ten, twenty, a hundred times, but even then we knew we had been present at the birth of a new era.

Phrases from the movie entered the language quickly. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” and “Let the Wookie win” were on everyone’s lips and still are. Arguably, more lines from this film are in common use today than lines from Hamlet. Though the movie was really a recreation of serials from decades back which in turn derived from swashbuckling space opera of the 1930s, a lot about the film was new. It had a strong female character. It had wisecracks. In any age where Japanese culture was starting to invade, its plot was a clever re-imagining of Kurosawa’s film Hidden Fortress — take that, Mr. Throne of Blood! It had a cool quasi-religious new-age semi-Zen theory of everything.

And its subversion of all we knew actually started with the very first words. A long time ago is not how science fiction stories are supposed to begin. They are supposed to be A very long time from now.… You see, Star Wars was saying that science fiction is mythology. In a world where there is no commonly held religious worldview, science fiction was the source of our myths. Starships and alien princesses were our Jungian collective unconscious.

Thus it was that a low-budget film — one in which, I must remind you, Darth Vader was never intended to be Luke’s father and in which Han Solo was mean enough to shoot first — actually changed how the entire world seems almost everything.

As a composer who had hit an appalling composer’s block, was living in Washington and wholly dependent on income from ghost-writing fake nineteenth century symphonies for a humming millionaire, I too was about to experience total change. Within a week or so of watching this film, I had sold a science fiction story to a small magazine in Boston.

Just four years later, I was sitting at the Hugo Awards Ceremony, having been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for “Best New Writer.” A few feet away was Gary Kurtz, the producer of The Empire Strikes Back, who was also being nominated for a Hugo. We both won.

So, I’ve lived with these movies a long time.

There was a rumor (after the success of Empire) that this would be part of a gargantuan ennealogy. (I was going to say nonology, which is an amusing nonce word, but the pedant in me rebelled.) But it did not happen. Not the way we all thought, anyway. And yet, on Saturday, I bestirred myself and went to the Emprivé Cinema in Bangkok to see what was billed as the ninth and final installment of the trilogy of trilogies.

I am forty-two years older now. My musician’s block broke and I ended up having to juggle a music and a writing career. I left America and returned to my “roots” — if you could call it that since I actually left Thailand at the age of six months.

The theater in Bangkok is the polar opposite of the Uptown. Sofas with blankets and back-leaning controls and footrests, a reception area with a buffet spread, obsequious staff instead of gangly school kids … all for less than the cost of a nacho-stained hard fold-down seat in Los Angeles. But movie theaters here have to do something to rouse Bangkok audiences from Netflix. Sound is more vibrant, colors are more striking, and every scene of the movie is packed with more stuff than one could have dreamed possible in 1977.

I’m now going to review the entire thing. I’ll start at the beginning — the real beginning, guys, because it is really important to understand that sequels and prequels were furthest from people’s minds — let alone global phenomena.

So. For many of us, it’s really just the first two films that are classic in an absolute sense. And the first film — I still hate the title A New Hope because this film is actually just Star Wars, no sequels, no prequels — is the only one that can be considered as a completed arc of a film in its own right). By now, everyone knows that on a deep level it’s a deconstruction of Hidden Fortress. From the sharp-tongued princess to the two funny sidekicks to the final attack run, the parallelism is a little bit tongue in cheek but it’s an early salvo in what would become a wholesale invasion of Asia into the world of American pop culture.

We loved this film because of the adventure but also because it didn’t take itself seriously. It wasn’t people looking at popular culture and trying to exploit it — it was popular culture in the process of being born. The most beautiful thing about it for science fiction lovers was seeing things we had imagined from geekish childhoods steeped in worlds of imagination. Double sunsets, hyper-jumps, and sweeping through the galaxy while wearing a karate uniform, and evil that actually looks evil.

If you asked almost any real fan, they will tend to tell you Empire is their favorite. It has the great Leigh Brackett — a legendary writer from the “Golden Age” on the screenplay as well as Lawrence Kasdan, as steeped in “Hollywoodness” as Brackett was in the science fiction aesthetic. Irvin Kershner, a surprising directorial choice, brought genuine character development to the film. What surprised everyone, after the sunny tone of the first film, was there was darkness here.

Many people assume that Darth Vader’s theme was always there, but actually that key-bending marche militaire starts in Empire. John Williams so defines the nature of Vader that we hear the theme in our minds even when he appears in the first film with different music — the leitmotivic equivalent of retconning.

Darkness was in Luke himself as well — because he never had the sunny, innocent smile again — due, I’m told, to a car crash and surgery that slightly altered his face. Unfortunate as the accident may have been, it lent our perception of Mark Hamill more depth. Lost in the dazzlement at a huge effects scene being shot entirely against a white snow background was the fact that Luke’s mauling by a wampa was probably something to do with explaining why he looked a little different.

With the prospect of sequels — perhaps many — retrofitting began in earnest. Darth Vader became Luke’s father, meaning that Alec Guinness’s narration in Star Wars would have to undergo a bit of “tweaking”. Oh! and that incipient love triangle between Han, Luke and Leia — obviously all that had to be retconned wholesale. But no one minded. In fact, this kind of wild, improvisatory backstory on the fly was a lot of fun.

If there was an inkling of a Zen agenda in Star Wars, Yoda as a diminutive grand master made it front and center. The “father” revelation became another iconic moment. The Joseph Campbell, et all, bits were much appreciated as well — the quest in which the hero must ultimately defeat his shadow-self reminded us that everyone in Hollywood has Hero with a Thousand Faces and Golden Bough and Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious on their shelf somewhere — even if just to skim through for ideas.

The weaknesses of Empire really only stem from its being the middle of a trilogy — always the hardest to get a handle on, like a middle sibling. And while everyone complains about Boba Fett’s truncated role, mostly it was because the toy was so cool-looking and everyone assumed it would be a major role.

Now, I must say that after raving about Empire, I found that Return (or Revenge as we had known it for ages before they chickened out for a more innocuous title) was a tad annoying — everyone had gone over to the Toy Side of the Force. The Ewoks were irritating and, to the anthropologist in me, even a little racist. (Not against mini-teddies, but against real-life stone age cultures that survive today.) But okay. It’s a guilty pleasure.

The controversy over the “real face” of Darth Vader was fueled mostly by David Prowse’s disgruntlement. This guy really wanted to take off the mask and show people what he really looked like, only to have someone else’s face being substituted at the end.

Of course, tinkering with the faces of force ghosts continued, because just when we thought it was safe to go back in the water, the prequel trilogy happened.

Now, for those weaned on the first three films, the prequels were pretty meh. For one thing, none of them had the delicate touch of the first film or even the first two sequels. They laid it on with a heavy hand; they were portentous; they were self-consciously big; they didn’t have witty dialogue; and they were seriously handicapped by having a future already preordained by the existing trilogy.

And bloated. George Lucas is indeed a genius in many ways, but creating an entire science fiction universe with consistency and logic is not one of those ways. He is not Herbert and he is not Asimov — though Dune permeates Tatooine and Coruscant is clearly Trantor.

The series was always about a lot of cool things, not about how those cool things worked. We didn’t care about the logic in the 1970s. We had long forgiven the Kessel Run parsec gaffe, and yet somehow getting all the pieces to fit seemed to matter a lot; an elaborate “just kidding” excuse was found to somehow shoehorn the slip-up into a veneer of science. Why bother? There’s virtually no science in Star Wars anyway. It’s all actually magic with a gloss of technospeak.

The magic was not served well when the technospeak veered from the plausible. Midichlorians were a feature of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. Now it must be said that this series isn’t really science fiction at all — it’s basically a religious allegory using the tropes of fantasy and science fiction — a sort of American Narnia. Now, to first say that the Force is an energy that surrounds everything in the universe, and then to say that it’s a bunch of one-celled intelligent organisms, is not the same as saying light is both a wave and a particle. It’s more like translating religious incantations into plain English and realizing that they are mumbo jumbo.

So, having this great need for some kind of plausibility that is not supported by the kind of depth of knowledge that could create such plausibility is one of the problems of the prequel trilogy.

The first trilogy (well, maybe not Return) was created by grownups who remembered what it was like to be a child, for an audience of adults who remembered what it was like to be a child. It spoke directly to our remember of the sense of wonder we felt when reading those books, comics, watching those serials.

It seemed as though the prequel trilogy was created by grownups who had started to forget what it was like to be a child, for an audience of children. Or rather, an audience of what they thought children are like. Except they themselves had forgotten.

Phantom Menace, with its midichlorians, its wooden acting and with the misbegotten Jar Jar Binks, was in some ways grimace-worthy. But it had redemptive moments. The Ben-Hur like “chariot race” was so much fun that one did feel like a child again. The costumes and effects were so grand and so gorgeous that they pretty much overwhelmed what thin story there was, but they were still great. I have to admit that I only saw it in the theater a couple of times.

The next two films really did feel to me like one long film. It’s blasphemy, I know, but I didn’t even see the third one in the theater. The journey the characters take is already known, so what could have made the films more watchable would have been character development, aided by decent, intense acting. Hayden Christiansen was good looking. But to mutate credibly from the likeable Jake to the most hated monster in the galaxy is a task for a master actor.

If midichlorians and Jar Jar were the blight of Phantom, the dreary politics were the bane of the whole trilogy. In science fiction, there can be a lot of politics — people exerting control over planets, backstabbing, devising clever plots — but the politics of the prequel trilogy is just … not inventive enough to play out against a galactic backdrop. Machiavellian planet-grabbings abound in SF novels and can be enthralling. Here they are about as interesting as a school board meeting.

The next two films led me very far from the childlike sense of wonder, into a labyrinth of stunning imagery and silly names, into attempt after attempt to chronicle Anakin’s journey into the heart of darkness. He was certainly scripted into doing things that would have been unheard of in the first trilogy — like performing the Jedi equivalent of a school shooting. But somehow, it was a bit too cartooony to feel evil. The council of Jedi masters resembled a geriatric edition of the original 1960s Legion of Superheroes. And Count Dooku, aka Dracula? Gimme a break.

It boiled down to a conflict between two contradictory lines of evolution. On the one hand, the prequels wanted to look at more grownup themes — mass murder, politics and “science”. On the other, as I’ve mentioned, they were also trying to cash in on the toys in a big way and conscious of the youth of the audience in a way that was not true of the original series (until Return.)

This contradiction showed up most clearly in the prequels’ handling of war. Death was used sparingly in the original trilogy — well, Alderan, but when one blows up a planet, that’s all very well but we’re not identifying with any characters — but here were talking wars with vast numbers of entities presumably having to be bumped off. Solving this ethical problem of having children’s movies with lots of people dying was through the liberal use of mechanical armies — rows and rows and rows of burly droids and clanking machines — which could be chopped up, sliced, diced and discarded without bloodshed.

The inner child is not easily deceived. And real children usually know when they’re being talked down to. So this was an uneasy balancing act for both audiences. And yet.…

It turned out that we adults with our jealously guarded inner child, our self-important blandishments about our sense of wonder … we were wrong about one thing. We might have seen through some of the crasser elements of this — but kids did go for it. It did speak to them. A whole new gang joined the club in droves. Star Wars became a multi-gen phenomenon. That would be the very best reason for waiting so long — our kids had grown up and now both we and our children could bond over something we loved.

Soon there would be a bunch of characters who, while not endowed with the ability to wisecrack in the face of certain death as in the first trilogy, would be the coolest ever action figures. Did we really care about Darth Maul’s character arc? No, but he looked cool. And when he flashed that double saber to the quasi-religious choral epic invocation (composed by John Williams using a Sanskrit text) who could not feel a thrill? A thrill relived each time you took the action figure out of the box?

I really think that in the end it was the toys that saved the prequel trilogy.

Then came another trilogy … or in a sense, a pentalogy, with two more movies tendrilling into the joints between trilogies. The two side movies were about as contrasting as you could get: Rogue One, in which one knew from the nature of the plot that none of the protagonists would survive it, had a hard-edged inexorability and an uncompromising quality that was very attractive to the people like me, who had had to take the prequel trilogy with a grain of salt. For me the greatest experience of all was to see Peter Cushing being resurrected through the miracle of twenty-first century film technology.

Solo, on the other hand was pure compromise. It almost seemed to have been made by Disney. Which, of course, it was. Nevertheless, it was a perfectly acceptable swashbuckler and should be enjoyed as just that. It wasn’t bad, just bleh. I admit that I enjoyed it tremendously, though that is not a popular opinion. On the other hand, I watched it on Netflix.

The sequel trilogy was the thing on which the whole thing hung. Another generation, almost, had gone by. We had had decades of nitpicking — purists fighting against Lucas’s endless penchant for reconforming the video, softening Han’s personality, enlarging Tatooine and filling it with CGI, dumping an alien CGI Jabba the Hutt into the first film and so on. (Before he appeared in Return of the Jedi, Jabba had not been imagined as a gigantic jelly on springs.) Fans had plenty of controversy, but with the new trilogy, controversy reigned supreme.

Let’s start with the concept of mirroring. There seems to have been a clear desire to have the prequel trilogy run in a parallel structure to the original. And this “rhyming” can be seen very clearly. There are actually shot for shot echoes that thematically tie the two trilogies today, suggesting a more sophisticated overview that might be thought.

Thus, fans believed that mirroring would occur in the third trilogy as well and there was definitely reason to start noticing it in The Force Awakens. Even the poster, which was obviously inspired by the original, fed into this idea. And so yes, we have a younger crowd of rebellious misfits — and a very Luke Skywalker-ish female character — a heroine with mysterious origins wearing a not dissimilar outfit — a rakish pilot — a desert and so on. Plus the fansābisu appearances of the old guard — while the audience in Thailand didn’t applaud when I saw the film (at an unadvertised preview a day before even most Americans) I can imagine the audience at the Uptown clapping wildly each time a venerable figure from the past emerged.

Would the Force Awakens also awaken our childlike sense of wonder? We were all hoping against hope — like a dumped lover who can’t let go. And J.J. Abrams is a master of nostalgia, so yes, every button was pushed, and then some. Sure, it was manipulative but we all loved it. Unremarked on were the midichlorians, and politics was rarely mentioned. Echoing the generationalism of the three trilogies, this trilogy featured offspring — Kylo Ren mainly — torn between darkness and light. There’s a super-weapon. It was in effect a re-imagining of the first film, grittier than the CGI-laden prequel trilogy, with cameos by everyone we had loved in the 1977. What was there to not like about The Force Awakens?

Well — Snoke didn’t have the gleeful drama-queen villainousness of the Emperor. Kylo didn’t have the sheer charisma of Darth Vader as a villain. However, he made up for that in complexity. In a few short scenes, Kylo Ren managed to go through all the emotional depth and inner conflict that young Anakin had not managed in interminable sequences. And though we loved Han, we all secretly hoped that would be no last minute softening of Kylo’s will — because inner darkness needed to be real for the film to work.

Now, Leia was a strong woman character in the first film. Now she’s a general, so her strength clearly continues. Yet she’s also a woman of the 1970s — she gets rescued, wears a skimpy sex-slave costume in Return — whereas Rey is a woman of the twenty-teens — she can everything a man can do — more efficiently and without breaking a sweat. Everyone fell in love with Rey and praised the film’s political correctness, as well.

All of us sexagenarians felt a surge of returned youth. And couldn’t wait for The Last Jedi.

Which turned out to be the most controversial — and misunderstood — of all the films. It deflected expectations, seemed to ignore canon, made us hate our heroes. But I would argue that it is one of the more interesting films in the sequence precisely because it doesn’t do anything we expect.

Everyone found something to dislike in The Last Jedi, so perhaps I should take about some of its positives. At the heart of this film, which, like Empire and Attack, has as its main driving force the training of a young apprentice — whether towards the light or the dark — there is a cave of mirrors, and Rey must come face to face with herself. With this scene as anchor, we realize that the mirror structure of the three trilogies is intact.

There are nuances in Rey’s relationship with Kylo Ren that genuinely cause us to have ambiguous feelings. As for Luke’s story arc — don’t get the average fan talking, you’ll get an earful! Mark Hamill himself was rumored to be wildly bitching about it.

And everyone has superpowers not even hinted at in previous films. The final confrontation with essentially a “virtual” Luke battling the entire forces of evil is a quantitative and qualitative leap in “superpower index” — much like the end of David Lynch’s Dune where the annoying little girl dumps the ocean of one planet into another planet through the sheer force of her mind.

The sense of having lost our moorings, that anything can happen that can upset the entire applecart of the Lucasverse, is actually the strongest feature of this film and I’m not upset that the penultimate movie should be one that deliberately stirs up strong feelings. And yeah, it is heresy, but I kind of liked it.

This dichotomy made the radical course correction of Skywalker both disappointing and welcomed as the inevitable, logical, and fitting conclusion of the epic. Fansābisu was deployed in so many permutations that that question was never who would appear next, but how they were going to shoehorn it in. It’s only been three days since I’ve seen this thing but I have to say that I found the first few minutes a little soporific, waking up with a start to the sight of the slightly queaseworthy resurrection of General Leia.

Bleating and cackling, Palpatine soon put paid to the spectre of the spineless Snoke. In its haste to reverse engineer all of The Last Jedi’s false leads, exposition was breathless. If you blinked, you missed how Palpatine had really been manipulating everything all the time from the beginning. A few seconds of retconning and the whole ennealogy set to rights!

And as many loose ends as possible tied up, the expository lumps sticking out like undissolved nodules of instant coffee. We were worried about unstated incestuous subtexts between Leia and Luke? Rey and Ren are free to kiss, though by the unwritten rules of boy’s adventure stories, one of the pair must immediately drop dead — well, dematerialize and become one with the Force — so the other can remain a Lone Warrior. In the now expected unexpected twist, it’s the girl who goes on living.

The big bad battle scene at the end has more destroyers, x-wings, tie fighters and random space vehicles that one can imagine sharing a single screen. Boy, is it epic! Yeah, and there’s even a long Lord of the Rings style “envoi” as we say farewell to all the survivors and see what will become of them. Mercifully it’s a much shorter coda than the one in Rings.

Loose end I most wish was tied? The little boy with the broom at the end of Last Jedi. I was imagining a whole big adventure for him. And least? I really do not want to know how Anakin’s immaculate conception was achieved, and couldn’t care less about the Whills.

I could have said a lot more about something that has, after all, consumed more than four decades of my life on earth. We’re living in a kind of cornucopia of Warsie product now. I haven’t watched Mandalorian — forgot to pay my VPN bill — and I catch the animated episodes on plane journeys from time to time. This deluge is not going to slow down.

And yet —

Was there ever a moment as thrillingly doom-laden as “That’s no moon!” Was there ever a villain so self-confidently misguided as Peter Cushing grating out the line “Evacuate? In our moment of triuph? I think you oveRRRestimate their chances!”? We’ve had a lot of “bad feelings about this” — but were any of them quite as disturbing as the first time? And was there ever a comeback like “I love you!” — “I know.” —? Did anyone ever answer the question “Who’s your daddy?” more terrifyingly than Darth Vader?

I find your lack of faith disturbing.

The memory of the Uptown is as vivid now as it was then. The excitement. The collective, quasi-religious awe generated in our army of the nerdy. The moment lives for ever. After forty-two years, one truth remains: The Force will be with you always.

(Photo courtesy of Lucasfilms and Disney)


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