The Force Will Always Be with Us

How 'Star Wars' Supplanted Religion, Mutated the Species, and Changed the Movies

Endless regression: By the time of Star Wars's 1987 and 1997 anniversary reissues, the horizontal comradeship of the initial craze had been transmuted into the premature nostalgia that is fueling the current hysteria. The audience for The Phantom Menace is not 10 but 30. For Star Wars not only resurrected the entire sci-fi fantasy genre and reconfigured modern warfare, it created a new cinematic paradigm. For studios, Star Warsseemed the ultimate moneymaking machine, one to be emulated into eternity. For impressionable viewers, Lucas produced an experience so intense, provided a worldview so participatory, and created a narrative so totally awesome that, however craved, the effect can never be equaled.

The sense of a spurious reality is the theme of the season's sci-fi sleeper. Indeed, back in 1977, Frank Allnutt praised Star Wars in terms suggestive of The Matrix. Rather than believing that the movie allowed audiences to relive childhood fantasies (per Lucas), Allnutt thought Star Wars did the opposite. "Perhaps the youth of today, especially, see the world they are living in as artificial, a fantasy, if you will, and really want to find reality. Star Wars gives them a glimpse of reality— a hope for something more meaningful than the fantasy of everyday life so many people are living."

On the other hand, The Matrix might be an allegory for the Star Wars world. The Phantom Menace is 95 percent digitally realized. Lucas has compared this technology, pioneered by his Industrial Light and Magic, to the invention of sound or color. His new movie is essentially an animated cartoon fashioned from photographic material— not just backdrops and stunt-doubles, but entire worlds and characters are computer-generated.

As the spectacularly alienated aerial battle that ended Star Wars predicted video and computer games to come (not to mention the sanitized air war of Desert Storm), so The Phantom Menace demonstrates the history of the future— literally. Years ago, Siegfried Kracauer linked the development of historicist thinking to the mid-19th-century rise of photography: "The world has become a photographable present and the photographed present has been entirely eternalized." History was the attempt to "photograph time" and photography was memory made material.

But, infinitely malleable, digital imaging does not share photography's indexical relationship to the real— it doesn't produce a document (admissible as evidence) but rather a fiction. Will this mastery over the photographic record inspire a new historicism or inspire a continually "improved" past? It is telling that where politics made it impossible for the National Air and Space Museum to present a factual show marking the 50th anniversary of the Bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the same museum subsequently mounted a wildly successful, wholly fictional exhibit called Star Wars: The Magic of Myth.

Purists screamed when Casablanca was colorized but Star Woids were thrilled when Lucas digitally added Jabba the Hutt to the Star Wars reissue. Few were disturbed when he improved Han Solo's character by changing a scene so that villainous Greedo fired on the good guy first, rather than vice versa. Rewritten history or only a movie? For some, the Star Wars saga is already the essential past. Where Time hailed Star Wars as a "subliminal history of movies," filmmaker (and Star Woid) Kevin Smith remembers encountering classical mythology in school and assuming that the Greeks had ripped off Lucas. And recently, Newsweek reversed another chronology. No longer did Lucas illustrate the ideas of Joseph Campbell: "In The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth," according to one commentator, "Campbell interprets the universal appeal of Star Wars."

The future revises the past. George Lucas owns the monomyth. Were Campbell still alive he might find himself sued for copyright infringement. As Star Wars ended with a scene cribbed from Triumph of the Will, so the tumult around The Phantom Menace suggests a slogan associated with that vision of totality. One people, one entertainment regime, one movie.

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