The death star

The death star

The fourth of May…May the fourth…may the fourth be with you. Sounds like a catchphrase; and indeed it is – the catchphrase to cement the ubiquity of an already bloated phenomenon. May the forth is, apparently, Star Wars Day, which, like Christmas and Mother’s Day, isn’t really a day at all, just an arbitrary date to sell stuff. Or a chance to post stuff on social media.

Which is needlessly cruel, maybe – but Star Wars, released officially on May 25 1977, which means it has been held in near mystical terms for 40 years. It may have killed intelligent cinema (William Friedkin likened it to junk food, Robert Atman suggested it played to the lowest common denominator), but post-70s Hollywood history has suggested that Star Wars triumphed. It set the template for all others to follow; it made cowards of studios, regressed film-making and re-established central casting.

All the above should come as no surprise, of course. Since the first movie released in 1977, the Star Wars franchise has become something of a cultural (read: marketing) phenomenon.

Without delving to deeply into the backstory, known to fanboys the world over, let’s jut say that from relatively small beginnings, the Star Wars franchise has developed into a behemoth of Empire proportions, changing cinema as it went. But not for the good. Star Wars destroyed cinema; a scorched earth policy that sowed salt into fields of creativity.

It all began in the 1970s, which, as any cineast will no doubt tell you, was cinema’s second golden age. The seventies (more accurately, roughly from 1967-1980) was the period when filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Paul Scharder and others flourished, armed with an education in cinema and a desire to make challenging, adult films, often with personal or political themes, and employing actors that would never have cut it earlier times.

George Lucas was one such 70s along with his Indiana Jones buddy Steven Spielberg.

For Lucas, ejected form his role on developing Apocalypse Now, Star Wars started off as a personal project. His hero is called Luke, after all, while his mentor, Francis Ford Coppola habitually referred to him as “kid”, an epithet Han Solo reserves for Luke in the first movie. But more than that, the original trilogy (actually parts 4-6) has its roots in the counterculture, and the ecologically-minded southern California of the 1960s (witness Princess Leia’s renaissance fair get-up or Yoda’s zen-like musings).

Lucas has said that in his original movies the Emperor was modelled on Richard Nixon. If this is true, then the climax of the Return of the Jedi, which sees the might of the technologically-advanced, defoliating Empire brought down by a guerrilla army of jungle-dwelling Ewoks armed with makeshift weapons, is equated with the American defeat in Vietnam. Or, looking at it another way, according to Dale Pollock in his book Skywalking, the Empire stands in to the studio system that sought to thwart Lucas wherever it could, with the likes of the Emperor and Darth Vader standing-in for impassive studio executives.

It is the personal, then, that forms the germ of Star Wars. So far, so 1970s. But, like the chap in the song that got the foreman’s job at last, George Lucas is now calling the Hollywood shots these days. He has become the Emperor. But back when the original movie went into production in 1976, the year America tried to lift itself after the psychological blow of Watergate, Lucas (Luke) was on a different path; to pass on those pre-Vietnam values to audiences and to put the awe back into cinema.

In the first instance, he failed, and the unease with which the original trilogy accommodates both its suspicion and admiration for whizz-bang technology sees it hark back to an older era of the cold war (“Where were you in ’62?” asked the tagline of Lucas’s 1973 breakthrough, American Graffiti), and anticipate its heating-up in the 1980s (it was no surprise that Ronald Regan’s Strategic Defence Initiative was nicknamed “Star Wars”, while his small-guy heart-over-head heroes are nothing if not proto-Reganites).

As for the second ambition, American cinema has never recovered from the initial impact of Lucas’ vision of filmmaking. Lucas, and he had an ally in Steven Spielberg, wanted to put the wonder back into movies, jettison complexity. Films were to be immersive, all about feeling. One thing about US cinema in the 1970s was that it exploded genre. Cowboys, gumshoes and gangsters were all killed-off by deconstruction. None of that for Lucas, who wanted no hint of irony in his work. The child-like wonder he envisioned for audiences instead made them infantile. Very soon, Ronald Reagan, a child of the movies, would be in the White House. Complexity wasn’t an issue any more, in films or foreign policy.

Robert Altman, a cinematic maverick whose directorial career stalled in the wake of Star Wars and the era of the event movie, rudely called such films “trailer park cinema.” As stories became simpler, and studios no longer investing in potentially risky talent and projects, franchises and sequels became the norm, with producer Lucas and director Spielberg at the vanguard of big-budget spectacles that asked nothing of the audience except to sit back and enjoy the ride. Likewise, by casting WASP-y actors in key roles, Lucas turned back to a former era. The matinee idol was back in fashion. All this cumulated in the Lucas-Spielberg Indiana Jones collaborations.

When Lucas returned to directing after a 22-year gap to direct the charmless Phantom Menace, the first a bloodless trilogy of prequels, his return was compared with those of Terrence Malik and Stanley Kubrick, two lauded filmmakers with similar absences from the big screen. But, an awful lot of pixilated water had flown under many a CGI bridge by then, and it was Lucas who was best equipped for the new age. Maybe he prepared the ground too well; the special effects were now in control, with actors, little more than props.

Star Wars looms large over the blockbuster, in every special effect and subordinate leading actor. Every corporate shill who moves form the arthouse to the multiplex still claims they have smuggled a personal vision into the slam-bang action, just as Lucas did.

The original Star Wars trilogy contained enough quality (and merchandising potential) to entice studios to follow their lead. But those qualities died long ago, just as Lucas-the-idealist has been replaced by Lucas-the-mogul. The wheels of marketing tell us that these films are still a big deal (never underestimate the power of marketing to create a kind of collective amnesia – Back to the Future 2, anyone?), and in the internet age we continue to feel that they are still a vital part of our lives.

When the original Star Wars emerged in 1977, it seemed to come from nowhere, and it touched millions. The latter-day additions to the franchise are just one of the countless millions. Just another action flick. They are their own imitator.