On the Theme of Star Wars

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has opened. Initial indications are that it’s what we suspected it would be: a JJ Abrams film.  In other words – to put it somewhat bluntly – a festival of glorious visual storytelling without, in fact, much of a story underneath to tell. This does not surprise me, since ‘Made by JJ Abrams’ is exactly what the label said on the can. I will hold off further critical comment on the specifics until I’ve actually seen the film. But I have some comment on the generalities.

Abrams isn’t alone in being a modern, high-profile 2010s director whose creative output is synonymous with ‘style over substance’.   I’d argue that from the 1990s – from Quentin Tarantino,  in fact –  directors of my generation (Gen X) have  focused largely on recreating the look and feel of films they liked. Without, it feels, understanding how the underlying stories worked, and particularly how they were structured in terms of theme rather than mere plot or even drama.

The films of the 1970s-80s, in other words, aren’t just about what happen – or even how much you care about what happens – but about a deep sense that things in this filmic universe happen for a reason.

While there have been some startling moments (George Lucas’ prequel trilogy and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus among them) where 1970s-80s directors, making films in the 2000s-10s,  have fallen prey to the same problems as younger directors – on the whole those directors weren’t just trying to make spectacle or to echo previous films. They were  quite serious about the nature of film as art; they were attempting to ‘say something’, not just repeat and remix.

George Lucas was definitely saying something with Star Wars in 1977. But – exactly because that film has been so successful – it might not be obvious to audiences today what that was.

Lucas’ first movie was THX-1138 (1971), which itself was an extension of a film school short piece. It’s a very bleak dystopia modeled somewhat on both 1984 and Brave New World; a nominally capitalist (though with overtones of the USSR) dystopia where workers have completely lost their personal identity to a production-oriented space age society that controls their every thought with computers and mandatory drug. (A ‘drug offense’ in this society is refusing to take your medication). The hero, after his individuality is awakened by forbidden love, escapes the underground city in a tense vehicle chase. At the last moment, when it seems all is lost,  capitalism itself proves the system’s undoing: a ‘cost to recover asset’ counter clicks over on a computer board somewhere, and the robot police are called off. THX-1138 escapes to the surface, seeing a sunrise for the first time.

THX-1138 didn’t do very well commercially. His second movie, American Graffiti (1973), was a complete reversal: an intimate, semi-autobiographical nostalgia portrait of small-town Americana in 1962. A group of high school leavers and street racing fans hang out, race, and sort out their personal lives and futures in that liminal moment between childhood and adulthood; between the America of the 1950s and the one yet to be born after the 1960s. American Graffiti touched a nerve somewhere in the zeitgeist; it sold really well, kick-started Harrison Ford’s career, and allowed Lucas the space to work on his dream project, an adaptation of the space-themed comic books he’d loved (he owned a comic store and – a little like Tarantino, later, with film – was a huge fan). He wanted to do a straight adaptation of Flash Gordon, but couldn’t get the rights, so painstakingly created his own.

There was a nostalgic component to this dream – and to his next successful project, the revival of ‘Saturday afternoon serials’ with Indiana Jones. But I think he wasn’t just doing this for nostalgia, but from the sense that something important to humanity had been genuinely lost. What Lucas was after was nothing less than a new mythology for the space age. And I believe that – like most of the idealistic media students of his generation – he wanted that mythology not for its own sake, but as a machine to generate social and spiritual change.

Lucas wasn’t alone in this quest. The 1970s was a philosophical decade. There were huge debates on campus and off about the future of society. There was a sense that American – and by extension all modern, Western – culture was deeply flawed and in crisis. A popular source of blame was the technocratic elite of the military-scientific-corporate-educational establishment – the faceless ‘organization men’ in suits who had created terrifying space-based weapons of mass destruction, and huge centralised computers which were feared as a cold, depersonalising force.

Alongside this deep fear of technology, there was a surge of counterculture interest in both the ‘hippie’ interests of extra-sensory perception (ESP),  psychedelics and consciousness expansion, and a new thing being called ‘personal computing’ which promised to help turn the tide of technological centralisation.

Within the rationalist technological establishment, there were already defectors; people arguing that the soul or spirit might really exist, that telepathy and telekinesis might exist, could be studied and developed. Hal Puthoff and Dean Radin, for instance, became vocal advocates for a new generation of parapsychology with their pioneering ‘remote viewing’ research (a whole another subject, but it’s important to remember that ESP – and both hope and fear around its potential weaponisation – was a huge factor in the intellectual life of the 1970s, and directly inspired Star Wars’ ‘force’).

There were also technologists arguing that although centralisation was a big problem, technology could be tamed, that it didn’t have to strip our identity away and reduce us to numbers. The machine could work for us. Stewart Brand, for example, promoted the concept of technology as a liberating, mind-expanding tool for political decentralisation with his ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ (and later the pioneering online service, ‘The WELL’). Ted Nelson’s ‘Computer Lib / Dream Machines’ (1974) also advocated the concept of ‘hypertext’ for personal thought liberation. Both of these ideas would go on to deeply influence the 1990s World Wide Web.

In Star Wars, while the Empire has vast, faceless, centralised technology, the robots and X-Wings represent technology ‘repurposed’ by individuals – themselves empowered by a wider, more spiritual, more creative  worldview – for subversion of the wider system.  This concept of ‘turning the Empire’s tools against it’ shows up throughout the 70s and 80s – for example, it’s a central theme and preoccupation of the rock music movement.

from Jefferson Starship’s ‘Blows Against the Empire (1970)

You know – a starship circlin in the sky – it ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be buildin it up in the air even since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty

to Roger Waters’ ‘The Tide Is Turning’  (1987).

I’m not saying that the battle is won
But on Saturday night all those kids in the sun
Wrested technology’s sword from the hand of the war lords

So all these threads were in academia and the youth and counterculture of the 1970s, and Lucas wove them with his love for 1930s Flash Gordon comics and movie serials to create a story. But not just a story. I would argue that Star Wars resonates so deeply because it is a story about stories – a story about the conflict between reason and myth. This wasn’t an accident. Lucas, like other media students of his generation, was consciously trying to ‘overthrow the Empire from within’.

The fundamental theme of Star Wars is a cold world of empty ‘rationality’ overthrown by primal, mythic intuitive creativity. And a key element of that creative ‘force’ Lucas was trying to summon is storytelling itself: the will to believe, the drive to make myth.

To that end, the universe of Star Wars is consciously constructed from found media. The very texture of the galaxy is built from preexisting components of cinema. C3PO is a gender-swapped Maria from Metropolis, the very first science fiction movie. From westerns come the sands and Mexican-themed cantinas of Tattooine. From the samurai films of Kurosawa, the empire and the robed swordfighting monks. World War II films, with the Nazis as the machinelike villains, hold the whole construct together. NASA footage and the groundbreaking space visuals pioneered by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ lend a sharp, super-scientific visual feel. The TIE fighters take some of their shape from satellite solar panels, and R2-D2’s dome reflects the design of Telstar, the first TV satellite. Even Luke’s lightsaber handle is a flashbulb grip. That’s why Star Wars feels at once exciting and exotic yet also familiar, lived-in, like we already know how its universe works – because we do.

Star Wars’ prime conflict, of rationality vs intuition, is not new. It’s the same theme as Kubrick told in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But where Kubrick’s gaze was icy and abstract, reducing astronauts exploring the universe to to space monkeys pounding on an alien black box they could never understand, Lucas (with the help of his close scriptwriting friends) gave his new mythology a warm, beating human heart of friendship. We could learn to understand ourselves and the universe, it suggested. We might come through this okay. This was a radical concept for the 1970s, which was majoring on either grim  dystopia, or ‘back to the land’ mysticism right then.

Star Wars came along at just the right time when American society, troubled by Vietnam and Watergate, and frightened by the rise of space technology and computer processing. was ready to hear ‘believe’. Believe in yourself, believe that you are more than a machine, believe in a more spiritual, a more natural, a wider world than you’ve been taught. But you don’t need to abandon technological society entirely. Take charge of it; believe that the machine can be your tool and your friend; that the robot can work for you and help you hack the system. ‘Machines of loving grace’ as Richard Brautigan wrote in 1967.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that Star Wars’ release coincided with the home computer ‘trinity of 1977’: Apple II, TRS-80, Commodore PET. They both were products of the same rebel technoculture.

‘The Jedi are extinct’, mocks Grand Moff Tarkin. ‘Their fire has gone out of the universe’.  The Empire – at least in that first movie – is a sort of heat-death of technological culture, where machines have replaced emotions – literally, for Darth Vader, with his body driven by machine implants. Ben Kenobi, on the contrary tells Luke: ‘Reach out with your feelings’ To succeed – as in 2001 – Luke, as an authentic human, must turn off his computer and trust to instinct. But even at that point, the droid R2-D2 –  though he can’t possibly understand the ways of the Force – remains Luke’s friend.

Everything in the plot of that first Star Wars is in service of this twin theme of intuition/creativity and a warm reappraisal of technology. So it wasn’t just a fun story. It was a deeply felt and deeply thought manifesto about the relation of man, machine and art.

It was also, incidentally, a perfect weapon for selling lots and lots of toys. But they would never have sold without the instinctive love for the movie that came from a young human being responding, at a core emotional level, to its deep thematic structure.

Could we make a movie that resonates like Star Wars, today? I think so. But, so far, we haven’t. And we won’t get there just by copying the surface detail of the stories of our childhood. We need to first sit down and ask ourselves why those stories work; what deep questions they ask, what fears they confront, and what hope they offer. And ask ourselves if those questions, fears and hopes are the same as they were for our parents’ generation.

I’m pretty sure they aren’t, because we’re in a different cultural moment. To give one example: when we have young, rebellious, self-made Internet billionaires telling us to ‘do what you love’ but nevertheless building giant central machines of control and surveillance….  on which we happily share cat pictures, until we make one ‘Like’ too many and ….  we’re not in the 70s anymore. We’re now facing a sort of weird fusion of Empire and Rebellion, of hyper-individualism for some and conformity for most, that’s still oppressive. A world where we rolled back ‘big government’, but got drones, climate change, and the Donald Trump. A world literally drowning in myth but parched for truth. A galaxy where Luke Skywalker won – but it all still got worse.

And that – and far more importantly, how we fix that – is the blockbuster story we need to tell ourselves right now.