The Force Will Always Be with Us

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

Leave it to George Lucas to schedule the millennium to promote his new movie. For millions, the second coming of Star Wars is a cosmic event of equal historical significance.

Opening (as if you didn't know) next Wednesday at 2500-plus North American theaters, Star Wars: Episode I— The Phantom Menace is an event that brings together religion, entertainment, business, technology, weaponry, and publicity— the most powerful aspects of American culture— in one brain-dissolving package. The true believers— the children of Star Wars— have been awaiting this moment for nearly two decades.

The hype, which took off last fall when fans began paying full admission to witness the two-minute Phantom Menace trailer, has long since reached warp speed; the rapture has nothing on this baby. The costumed ticket lines are almost two weeks old. The New York Post, owned (like distributor 20th Century Fox) by Rupert Murdoch, has been running a daily Phantom Menace countdown for a month. If anything in showbiz was ever a sure thing, this is it. Even so, the notoriously reclusive Lucas has been apublicist's dream, flacking The Phantom Menace on TV, granting interviews, and furnishing "exclusive" pictures of Planet Naboo and the lovable Gungan called Jar Jar Binks to half the glossies on the newsstand.

Jeff Crosby

Some believe that Lucas's self-financed $120 million production will make back its budget during its first week, en route to an eventual billion— and that's just box office. Merchandisers predict The Phantom Menace will sell a billion dollars' worth of licensed toys. Pepsi has already paid Lucas twice as much for a sponsorship deal that includes a custom-made, four-armed digital huckster hobbit called Marfalump and 24 collectible soda cans.

No one doubts that this still-unseen attraction is destined to sink Titanic, just as Star Wars swamped Jaws 22 years ago. Even the old "Star Wars" missile-defense scheme has been revived in scaled-down fashion to be operational by 2005— to coincide with the culmination of Lucas's second trilogy. (It is only a matter of moments before politicians begin to refer to Russia, China, or Slobodan Milosevic as the Phantom Menace.) Why is this blockbuster different from all other blockbusters? The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Jaws inspired repeat viewings, spawned sequels, and revitalized genres. Star Wars, however, was always something more.

Star Wars would establish a franchise, but back in May 1977, Variety was too awestruck to consider the bottom line: "Like a breath of fresh air, Star Wars sweeps away the cynicism that has in recent years obscured the concepts of valor, dedication and honor. Make no mistake— this is by no means a 'children's film'. . . . This is the kind of film in which an audience, first entertained, can later walk out feeling good all over."

What is overdetermined now was spontaneous then. Lucas's geeky pulpfest caught the movie studios, the toy stores, and the media by surprise. As late as Christmas 1977, a month after Star Wars topped Jaws, theater owners were still fighting to keep it on their screens. Not since Chaplinitis swept America in 1915 had cinema inspired so heady a craze. Perhaps we can date the decline of mere movies to that moment. A year after The Rocky Horror Picture Show began building its fanatical midnight following, Star Wars established a cult on an unprecedented scale. Francis Ford Coppola wasn't entirely kidding when, according to Lucas, he suggested his onetime protégé turn Star Wars into a religion: "With religion, you really have power."

Coppola needn't have worried. Established faiths were already on the case. Lucas's creation was celebrated by Christian Century and The Lutheran. In The Force of Star Wars, an original Bible Voice paperback published while the movie was still in first release, a born-again former Disney publicist with the Dickensian name Frank Allnutt compared the plucky crew of the Millennium Falcon to the early Christian true believers. Allnutt expressed his belief that Star Wars presaged another imminent "invasion from outer space"— namely, the triumphant return of Jesus Christ to Earth.

The Star Wars resurrection has been heralded by hundreds of Web sites, some submitting the Lucas text to scriptural exegesis and Talmudic interpretation. Lucas recently described Star Wars as a sort of drive-in McChristianity, "taking all [sic] the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct." Obi-Wan Kenobi may not yet be recognized as Lord Krishna's avatar, but I have seen a Darth Vader action figure incorporated into a voodoo altar— just as it was fetishized in the bedrooms of 10 million American kids.

Star Wars may not have inspired the first sci-fi church (L. Ron Hubbard was already in business). Nor was it the first movie to bring divine revelation to the screen (although it did render DeMille's Ten Commandments obsolete). But, unlike any previous religion, Star Wars used late-20th-century technology to bypass church, state, and parental authority in mass-marketing its vision. But what was George Lucas's burning bush?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (is there any writing on the subject that can resist this cliche?), lived a little boy without TV: me. I remember the day that, after much lobbying, my dad brought home a boxy Emerson and installed it in a living-room bookcase. I even more vividly recall my pleasure as a five-year-old in the Wednesday night telecast of Disneyland and enormous satisfaction in the innocent belief that right then sets were blasting on all over America. Every kid in the country was watching Tinkerbell shake her booty around Cinderella's castle and, what was more, we were all watching it at the exact same instant— the feeling that Benedict Anderson would eventually characterize as the "deep horizontal comradeship" of an "imagined community."

When Disneyland began to televise the adventures of Davy Crockett, every kid on my block had a coonskin cap and could chant "The Ballad of Davy Crockett"— and not just on my block. The boomers entered the marketplace. A generation recognized itself in the greatest merchandising bonanza of the age. The child George Lucas was watching TV then too. Thus, as prophesied by Uncle Walt, Star Wars was a religion founded on the imaginary community of Disneyland and the cash-cow collectibility of Davy Crockett.

A man with a mission, Lucas would explain that whereas he made American Graffiti (the movie that effectively ended the '60s when it was released during the summer of 1973) for 16-year-olds, Star Wars was created for a younger audience. The filmmaker was addressing those 10-year-olds who— in his opinion— had been deprived of their mass cultural birthright. As Lucas remembered, western movies had been the great repository of mythic narrative and moral value when he and we were growing up post­World War II. Cowboys and Indians, every night on TV and every week at the movies, taught us right from wrong, good guys from bad. But somehow the genre failed to survive the tumult of the Vietnam era— as did many thousands of little western devotees. Lucas took it upon himself "to make a film for young people that would move forward the values and the logical thinking that our society has passed down for generations."

Star Wars was not just a seamless blend of Walt Disney and Leni Riefenstahl, The Searchers and 2001, The Wizard of Oz and World War II. Lucas had not only studied Akira Kurosawa but Carlos Castaneda and even Joseph Campbell's 1949 pop Jungian treatise on the monomyth, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Moreover Star Wars had politics. Clancy Sigal soon noted in The Spectator that Lucas had synthesized "the most imaginatively compelling aspects of the Vietnam-era culture: the technical achievements of scientific hardware (from NASA space probes to helicopter gunships used in search-and-destroy operations) and the ascendancy of mushy mysticism." Star Wars was an antitechnological technological wonder— an ultra-authoritarian presentation with an antiauthoritarian message.

Sigal cited Star Trek as Star Wars's precursor: "a substitute classroom-church for millions of American kids." But I was in grad school when Star Wars opened and, as Fox dumped a bunch of invites at Columbia, managed to be present when the sacred text first scrolled upon the screen. For me, Star Wars was a New Wave nightmare— sanctimonious and soulless, a jet-propelled smile button with a raucous blitzkrieg ending. But what did I know? As the lights rose I was amazed to see the middle-aged face of my department chairman redder than usual and creased with childlike delight. (I'd be less surprised six years later when President Ronald Reagan appropriated the movie for his own political agenda.)

So I thought Star Wars was a bore— but so what? I was hardly the target. A movie about teenage heroism in an adult universe, Star Wars created a pop-cultural generational divide comparable to the chasm that had split the nation with the arrival of Elvis Presley 21 years before. (In a convenient bit of Jungian synchronicity, the King OD'd the summer of Star Wars's release— never to be introduced on planet Vegas by a blast from the cornball migraine-maker that was John Williams's instantly disco-ized theme.) Just as few born before 1938 would ever truly believe in the "magic" of rock and roll, those born after 1968 experienced a force that their elders could barely imagine. Call these mutants the Star Woids. There is not one person that I've asked between the ages of 25 and 30 who doesn't have some powerful Star Wars association. An artist remembers leaving the movie house and hallucinating Darth Vader in the streets. A writer who has no memory of the movie recalls organizing the neighborhood kids in a Star Wars pageant.

When I surveyed my college students on the occasion of the 20th-anniversary rerelease, their responses were scarcely less cosmic. "The Empire Strikes Back was the first event in my life," one wrote. "My brother remembers the exact time and the position of the sun when he first saw Star Wars," another maintained. If some couldn't bring to mind the first time they saw the movie, it was because they felt they'd always known it. One found it more powerful than Catholic school. Another described his grade-school trauma— being asked the "horrifying question: 'You really haven't seen any Star Wars movies?' " A boy from South America recounted a similar moment of truth. "When I raised my hand telling I had not yet seen Star Wars, my friend looked at me sideways and whispered, 'Freak.' " As one Russian student described the heroic risks that his family took to see Star Wars in Odessa, a Caribbean girl remembered recognizing that this movie was the "symbol of America" and a Pakistani boy, brought to the U.S. at eight, knew then that knowledge of Star Wars was "required if I was to be Americanized."

Was there a choice? In the half dozen years between the opening of Star Wars and Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech, kids wore Star Wars sweatshirts, carried Star Wars lunchboxes to schools where they wrote with Star Wars pencils in Star Wars notebooks, lobbied for Star Wars light sabers, role-played Star Wars and played Star Wars videos, read Star Wars books, listened to Star Wars records, attended Star Wars birthday parties, donned Star Wars Halloween costumes, and, each night, brushed with Star Wars toothbrushes and slept in Star Wars pajamas, between Star Wars sheets, to dream Star Wars dreams.

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 Wars seemed 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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