Home > Culture, Film, History, Politics > Star Wars: The Product/Text Saga of American Capitalist Fantasy

Star Wars: The Product/Text Saga of American Capitalist Fantasy

Since there are no rocks left for anyone to hide under at this point, much of the world is surely aware by now that the seventh installment in the gobsmackingly popular space opera adventure saga of Star Wars, entitled The Force Awakens, opens this coming Friday. Like movie geeks across the globe, I’ll be seeing it and certainly reviewing it here. However, there is much to say by way of introduction about Star Wars and its place in our popular culture that may be useful to record prior to viewing and reviewing the film itself. This is partially to focus critical faculties more directly on the content of The Force Awakens as a film of its own, and partially to situate it in a prefatory manner as part of both a larger cinematic narrative saga as well as a prime product of American consumer capitalism.

Born a year after the release of The Empire Strikes Back, I was a smidgeon too young for the so-called Original Trilogy the first time around, and entirely too old and culturally-savvy for the tonally ambitious but ultimately highly flawed Prequel Trilogy upon its millenial release. I won’t pretend that Star Wars has given me much more than a handful of hours of entertainment throughout my lifetime. It certainly is not a cultural touchstone for me in the way that, say, The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was. But like a lot of popular cultural products of great popularity built on mythological foundations, there is much to write about when it comes to Star Wars.

Broadly a good vs. evil parable about a band of ragged freedom-fighting rebels struggling against a monolithic empire of oppressive SW-THE-FORCE-AWAKENSspace Nazis, George Lucas’ Original Trilogy evokes the defining mid-century struggle of World War II but is not built from direct references to it. Rather, Star Wars is a heady pastiche of USC film school nerd Lucas’ cinematic and literary influences, from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai warriors (the Jedi) and bickering travelling companions (the droids R2D2 and C-3PO) to the sci-fi desert planet and drug trade of Frank Herbert’s Dune (Tatooine and “spice” smuggler Han Solo) to the touchstones of WWII films that suffused the 1950s and ’60s (the Space Reich of the Empire, the final trench flight attack on the Deathstar, adapted from The Dam Busters).

Even with the mediated separation of this web of cinematic homages, a reasonably adult vision of a conflict marked by atrocities remains consistent throughout Lucas’ films. Mythic hero Luke Skywalker witnesses his poor hapless aunt and uncle, the only family he has ever known, reduced to gruesomely smoking skeletons by Imperial Stormtroopers, who also massacre Jawa scavengers; Princess Leia watches as her own adoptive planet, Alderaan, is vaporized by the Deathstar; Han is tortured in Empire, and Leia is enslaved as a sexualized object by the vile Jabba the Hutt in The Return of the Jedi. Droids are discriminated against in spaceport town bars, limbs are bloodily removed by lightsabers. For a supposed light, fun fantasy, Star Wars is full of horrors that mirror those of our world’s history.

But, in the Original Trilogy at least, this realism does not transfer to a nuanced depiction of good and evil. Star Wars is a cinematic text which provides broad hints of the nature of societies but does not ground the intergalactic conflict at its core in any forces endemic in those societies. Good and evil are not complete absolutes here; Luke’s Force training and vision-questing with Yoda on Dagobah involve him struggling with negative emotions that lead to the “dark side” of the Force that has ensnared Darth Vader, his erstwhile father whom he helps to redeem in the final struggle. But the struggle between good and evil is a matter of feelings, as is everything to do with the Force. “Trust your feelings”, Luke is told, a clear tell that the quasi-mysticism of the Jedi is reducible to little more than New Age, post-hippie feel-good self-help and improvement. As pulp playgrounds for Freudian psychoanalysis, the Star Wars movies may not have equals in our contemporary culture (Harry Potter, with its obsessiveness about phallic wands, comes close, mind you).

This high-flown mystical nonsense carries a great romantic pull for many in a secularized global culture disconnected from the processes of political power and domination of an elite that is equal parts Jedi and Empire but quite different from either, given capitalist greed’s intermittent hold on the motivations of the films’ characters. Whatever else might be said about it, Lucas’ much-maligned (but still commercially successful) Prequel Trilogy sought to widen and demystify the Star Wars Universe as well as to ground the titular wars of his first three films in something resembling a political reality.

In his clumsy, heavy-handed way, Lucas did impart a tale of good democratic intentions subverted by a sinister dictatorial coup and of an angry, confused but not heartless young man making the wrong choices and stumbling into darkness. It’s not a matter of much debate that he did not do any of this very well. But by introducing scientific proofs to the Force (the dreaded midi-chlorians) and depicting Darth Vader’s tragic fall in awkward and diminishing strokes (dislike of sand, “romantic” slaughter of Tuskens, “Noooo!!!”), Lucas shrank his creation’s scope instead of expanding it. The Force, like the Catholic faith, was revealed to rely on great reserve of ineffable mystery to keep it vital. The Prequel Trilogy, while it may have been a hit with children as Lucas claimed, was a disillusioning experience for the franchise’s original fans, and bands of apostates roamed internet discussion board and comments sections like medieval flagellants, denouncing the transgressions of their Holy Film Father. But as corporate entertainment giant Disney well understood, Star Wars, creatively bruised but still as lucrative and valuable a product as ever, was not a franchise to be left fallow. But a fresh vision, or perhaps a retro-fitted, remixed one, was needed.

There may be no better filmmaker in contemporary American cinema for this task than J.J. Abrams. A smart and effective narrative filmmaker with a developed sense of non-specific visual style and fannish bonafides, Abrams excels at reconstituting and re-combining recognizable and nostalgically appreciated elements of the genre films of his youth (the late 1970s and early 1980s) into viscerally and emotionally satisfying filmic mixtapes of sorts. Films like Super 8 or his Star Trek reboot are not terribly original per se, but run discernable tropes of, respectively, early star-wars-1-vaderSpielberg classics (Close Encounters of the Third Kind in particular) and, well, Star Wars itself through contemporaneously fashionable structure of sturdy humour, CG spectacle, and brusque action and suspense.

The latter instance of Star Trek is especially instructive. Even before it was announced that Disney had bought the Star Wars rights and was planning new films, Abrams was boldly treating its rival space franchise as an audition to take over the continuing adventures in a galaxy far, far away. I’ve written about what this interwoven choice of style, philosophy, and thematics has meant to Star Trek, as classically square as any socially-conscious sci-fi product in existence and wildly different from the breezy, quasi-mystical cool of Star Wars that Abrams, who has openly stated his preference of lightsabers to phasers set to stun, decided to evoke. Trek fans have, in some circles at least, openly revolted against Abrams’ take on their beloved fictional universe, his attempt (largely successful, for what it’s worth) at making it as hip and appealing to a mass audience as Star Wars.

It’s worth recalling the shape that the Star Trek property was in before Abrams took the reins for the new films, mind you. Its final, little-loved television iteration (Enterprise) was off the air, ending a near-two-decade run of consecutive programs, and the recent Next Generation films had petered out commercially and were judged to be creatively moribund. An injection of new ideas and energy was acknowledged to be necessary, but it’s more debatable whether Abrams’ “destroy the village in order to save it” approach was quite as necessary. Retconning away the entirety of the previously-established Trek canon with a time-travel paradox certainly freed up his films (and the forthcoming Star Trek Beyond, to be directed by Justin Lin in his stead) to blaze a different path, but not merely the storytelling content but the rhythms, motions, and themes of Abrams’ Star Trek took on a Jedi-esque character as well, quite contrary to the established flow of the series.

Whatever one might think of what Abrams did with Star Trek (or with its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, a kind of elaborated cover version of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), the template suggests his approach to The Force Awakens, which many critics and preview audiences have already seen and some have noted mashes up key features and tropes of the beloved Original Trilogy in a contemporary actioned-up package (not that action sequences are out of the franchise norm; it is Star Wars, after all). This return to the familiar was always going to be welcome after the aforementioned 1999-2005 prequels, which strove for the unfamiliar but were overall poorly executed and often woefully out of touch with changing audience tastes (they also suffered badly in comparison with contemporary speculative franchises like The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and Harry Potter, all of which stole their lunch money quite thoroughly).

One effect of the Prequel Trilogy on the new sequel trilogy was to simultaneously raise and lower expectations. Despite the mess of hype and cascade of corporate tie-ins, Abrams truly has only to make The Force Awakens a competent entertainment without obvious, glaring flaws to convince most that Star Wars is “back” (not that it ever really went away, despite a ten-year absence in the big-screen new release arena). Anything more than that will likely be greeted as a transcendent instant classic. Of course, enormous box office receipts are basically assured either way, and the only pecuniary disappointment will be if the film doesn’t break every grossing record on the books. Film buffs and fanboys/girls may have more stringent aesthetic expectations, parsing each character, narrative, and visual choice that Abrams makes for its implications in the wider lore and into political ramifications beyond.

This concurrent low-level artistic pressure and complete lack of commercial uncertainty in the case of The Force Awakens speaks to the curious and singular position occupied by Star Wars in our popular culture. Its ubiquity and general level of recognition seems hugely disproportionate to its aesthetic quality even while its groundbreaking commodification from its earliest days in the public sphere is precisely appropriate to our order of irresistible consumer capitalism. Star Wars, above all, draws ravenously from cultural texts across the spectrum (including, most cannibalistically, itself) in the crafting of a product ideally positioned to make maximal amounts of money. Star Wars is American capitalism writ largest, text as product, product as text. The Force will always be with us, as long as we’re willing to pay for it.

Categories: Culture, Film, History, Politics
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  1. December 21, 2015 at 8:39 pm
  2. June 9, 2016 at 8:53 pm

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