There are no spoilers for the new film here.
Every decade gets the Star Wars film it deserves. This observation should be placed alongside folk wisdom like “There are no second acts in American lives” (Fitzgerald) and “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” (Dylan). The many listicle-led sites that want you to click on their rankings of the seven Star Wars films are sidestepping the point. One should see Star Wars films less as compendiums of capricious choices and more as products of their time. We’ve seen enough people blaming George Lucas for enough problems; let’s widen our net a bit.
When people lionize the first Star Wars, for example by refusing to use its later-grafted subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope, they are, advertently or otherwise, partly celebrating the funky, feathered-haired, catch-as-catch-can 1970s. We often hear that Star Wars, more than any other film, upended the Hollywood Renaissance and turned Hollywood to a more Manichean, myth-believing blockbuster model, and that’s not wrong, but it tends to elide the degree to which Star Wars was indeed what Jonathan Kirshner calls a “seventies film.” The spirit of pastiche of old forms (jidai-geki, Flash Gordon, et cetera) was very much a 1970s hallmark, as were the antiestablishment themes (granted, Luke vs. the Empire was more family-friendly than, say, Travis Bickle vs. New York). Lucas said that all the work he’d done on Apocalypse Now “kind of poured into” Star Wars, and even as the finished product is new and mythical and John Williams-scored, still, the messy disorder of the Cantina Band, the trash compactor, and the jagged barbs shared between Leia, Han, and Luke feel of a piece with the era of disco, punk rock, iron-on T-shirts, and all the rest of it. If some people feel we can never again have 1977’s Star Wars, maybe that’s mostly because we can never again have the 1970s – for good and for bad.
Viewing all of the original trilogy together, it’s possible to trace the cultural change from the 1970s to the 1980s. In a way, we might wonder if Lucas’ films were a reflector or a motivator. Way too many political cartoonists made the connection between Reagan’s election and the Empire Striking Back, but it’s also true that the slicker, more conservative 1980s were reflected in the slick, more formally elegant filmmaking that began with The Empire Strikes Back and improved with Return of the Jedi. The Forest Moon of Endor, filmed in the wilds of Marin County, suited the 1980s almost too perfectly: surely these hirsute teddy bears from Northern California would provide crucial support for a rebirth of freedom. The 1980s were the time to surrender to brands becoming part of life, and by the time of Episode VI the actual text (the story) felt overwhelmed by the extra-textual products – the dolls, the T-shirts, the memorabilia and paraphernalia. The Cold War felt a little colder, a little more good-vs.-evil, when Reagan became President and dubbed the Soviets the “Evil Empire,” and in case anyone missed the frame of reference, two years later he named his nuclear-missile-destroying space lasers “Star Wars” (the technicians called it the Strategic Defense Initiative). Maybe we could beat the Russians the way Luke, Han and Leia beat the Empire; sure enough, it seemed to work. And beyond the narratives, one can feel Lucas’ fealty to technology. Thanks to him, Star Wars was the first film to use robot-controlled cameras. To make Empire, he built his own effects house which became the industry leader. The 1980s’ love affair with new technology and special effects – even in non-cinematic contexts – was abetted by the country’s love affair with Jedis. 1970s America deserved funky-fresh Star Wars; 1980s America deserved slicker, marketing- and happy-ending-oriented Return of the Jedi.
By the late 1990s, America had changed again, from the suburbs back to the city (enter: the city-planet), and from personal-computer love to lionization of tech wizards. In a sense, George Lucas was his own founder of Netscape or Amazon, trusted to use hundreds of millions of dollars to artfully deploy technology. As you may recall, a lot of these businesses found that their reach exceeded their grasp. But Lucas had accumulated Bill Gates-like capital, and like Gates in the face of Google in 1999 or so, Lucas had the power to say “Shut up, I got this,” even though everyone knew that the prequels were no equals. As it turned out – and this is where Star Wars looks more like influencer than influenced – the 2000s became the shut-up-I-got-this decade, after a horrendous September morning that many compared to an action blockbuster. President Bush told America shut-up-I-got-this even though invading Iraq didn’t exactly help nail the guy who planned 9/11. Vice President Cheney decided to embrace Jon Stewart’s endless barbs, and arranged for “The Imperial March” to play when he approached podiums. By the time of Revenge of the Sith, by summer 2005, the fact of the Sith’s hegemony was just kind of annoying. Shut up with Darth Cheney, already, audiences said; we got it. But if Cheney, the real power of the White House for eight years, was given too long a leash by his George, Vader was probably given too long of one by his George, allowing his origin story to run the franchise into something like mediocrity. As Episode III finally left theaters, Hurricane Katrina touched land in Louisiana, ending the hard power of both reigns, even if the after-effects would linger.
Partly because of the bad decisions of people like Lucas and Bush, the culture’s relationship to technology began to transform, explained nowhere as well as in Henry Jenkins’ “Participatory Culture.” Tumblrs with names like “Revenge of the Fans” seemed almost direct rebukes to Lucas even if they have nothing to do with Star Wars. And with so many unheard, untrained voices coming to the fore on blogs and places like Twitter, traditionalists found fewer places to hide. Fans and diversity both meant more in every succeeding year, right up through 2014, when a photo hit the internet that showed an early “table read” of the new Star Wars; the internet briefly freaked out that there were far too few women in the new film’s cast. Lo and behold, days later, Disney announced the casting of Gwendolyn Christie and Lupita N’yongo. Did I say Disney? With Disney’s announcement of a Star Wars Land to be placed in the heart of Disneyland, conglomeration and the family-friendliness of a certain neutered violence reach their natural state for 2015. Certainly, the new Star Wars feels right for the Obama era, and the further adventures of Rey and Finn – Episodes VIII and IX are scheduled for 2017 and 2018 – feel right to round out what may well become the Obama-Clinton decade. But on a more general level, The Force Awakens seems appropriate to an era that wants tech and organic food, diversity and old-fashioned thrills, reboots, old boots, and new boots. If something like Attack of the Clones felt as hermetically sealed as a screen-saver, then The Force Awakens is as open-ended as any episode of Lost (cf. the director’s pedigree), allowing fans to fill in the details themselves. And they surrrrrrrre do.
We can’t really complain. We get the Star Wars films we deserve.