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A New Hope

The Phantom Menace betrays one generation, enchants another.

Alan A. Stone

The day after The Phantom Menace opened, a former student sent me an urgent e-mail: "Saw the new Star Wars, sucks like a big Hoover, Lucas has betrayed my whole generation." Not being a member of his generation I could not entirely fathom this baleful judgment. The word "betrayed" particularly baffled me. Could Lucas really have the kind of power and influence that word implied? For my student’s generation–charter members of the Star Wars cult–he can and does.

Star Wars is by a wide margin the number one film in polls of British movie-goers. And all over the world, as the thirty-ish maitre d’ of a fashionable restaurant in Paris proudly told me, it is also "our cult." The young French physician with whom I was dining agreed. A precocious seven-year-old in 1977 when the first Star Wars came out, he and all his friends, like many of their contemporaries all over the world, thought it was impossible to see it often enough. They collected Star Wars action figures, bought light sabers, reenacted the Jedi duels–and they all wanted to be Darth Vader, the mysterious villain. The French doctor can still recite much of the dialogue and remembering characters like Han Solo, Princess Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Obi-Wan Kenobi brings a nostalgic smile to his face. He and the maitre d’ agreed that the John Williams score was "fantastique."

The story of the Star Wars cultists is not unlike that of Konrad Lorenz and his ducklings. Lorenz, famous for his observations of animal behavior, discovered that ducklings had a "critical period" after they were born to become attached to their mother. Lorenz found that if the mother was removed from the nest and he honked at the ducklings during that critical period they became attached to him and followed after him just as if he were their duck mother. Honking and Star Wars have the power to imprint (Lorenz’s term) only during a critical period. For ducklings it’s the hours after their birth. For humans it’s what Freud called the latency age between years six and twelve. This is not to say that humans of all ages will not appreciate Star Wars, but it helps if, as the New Age psychologists say, you are in touch with the child in yourself. The generation that became cultists were "honked at" during this critical period in their actual childhood.

And parents could feel comfortable with their children’s membership in the cult of Star Wars. Lucas avoided sex (we are told that Carrie Fisher’s breasts were taped down in the first episode to minimize the erotic potential), there is no dirty language, there are honorable heroes and heroines with you-take-your-pick Biblical or mythological overtones, and the good guys win. Even the violence was strategically sanitized. Lucas waged wars and destroyed whole planets without a drop of blood. Star Wars was the safest cult your child could join. Its mysticism was a kind of New Age psychology.

Lucas had discovered the formula for exciting and intriguing children without frightening or harming them. Walt Disney’s Snow White gave my whole generation of American children nightmares. On that score Star Wars was much more wholesome. Like many fairy tales, Snow White is built on the child’s own darkest fantasies–being poisoned by a bad mother–and is therefore psychologically real and frightening. Star Wars is an adventure story about children growing up to conquer the world. Although it has an Oedipal plot, unlike the original, it ends happily. Darth Vader the father and Luke Skywalker the son are reconciled and Luke avoids incest with his sister, Princess Leia. Star Wars lifts the child out of himself and into another galaxy instead of setting off psychic implosions.

Star Wars was more than a film experience for my student’s generation; it became a part of their lives–it created the feelings of shared exaltation and moral adventure that are the sine qua non of a cult. When I suggested to the French physician that Lucas was his generation’s Wagner, he said, "Yes! Why not? He is better, no?"

Better in the sense that Wagner is elitist and exclusive, the triumph of art over everyman, while Lucas is open to anyone on the planet. The first three episodes of Star Wars are each in the top ten, all-time highest grossing American movies. Lucas’s old wine in new bottles mythology had something for everyone and the promise of Valhalla for all. Movie critics, particularly those of an older generation, find it difficult, if not impossible, to accept Lucas’s achievement. Serious film scholars either ignore or dismiss his Star Wars movies. The Oxford History of World Cinema devotes more space to the cult of John Cassavetes than to George Lucas. Pauline Kael, who had a weakness for high class trash, did not include Lucas in that category. She described Star Wars as an "epic without a dream" and her scalpel cut deep: "Lucas has got the tone of bad movies down pat." About Star Wars: "Leaping comic book hedonism." About The Empire Strikes Back: "Yoda looks like a wonton and talks like a fortune cookie." About Return of the Jedi: "A jokey pastiche of the Arthurian Legends." Harrison Ford, who put the star power in Star Wars, apparently agreed with Kael’s judgment about the tone; he reportedly told Lucas, "You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it."

Star Wars is nonetheless the ultimate demonstration of the power of the film medium. In the United States it changed the rhetoric of politics. Jimmy Carter had sermonized about the American malaise. Star Wars showed us that indomitable white males could conquer a galaxy, and Ronald Reagan, the actor-president, eagerly appropriated its spirit and name. Guilt about the Vietnam War was over, good and evil were back in their proper place, and America, like the Jedi knights, would get rid of the evil empire. But Star Wars was not just for white Americans. It crossed national borders, cut through race and class lines, and created a new world mythology making it the uncontested giant of twentieth-century popular culture. Unlike Pauline Kael, the great mass of humanity saw the dream in the epic.

Star Wars (along with Jaws) changed the business of movie-making around the world. Lucas was the Werner Von Braun of movies. He launched the era of the blockbuster film, perfected computerized special effects, brought back the so-called genre films that still dominate the world market, and influenced Spielberg and other important directors. Although serious film critics dismissed him as a Philistine, he had the power to betray a whole generation of his devotees. How had he failed them in The Phantom Menace?

The early critics of The Phantom Menace said he had sold out for the almighty dollar. The Star Wars trilogy made over a billion dollars franchising toys and games; The Phantom Menace was packed with "cutesy" characters and creatures who would make collectible action figures. The negative reviews emphasized these commercial tie-ins, the greed of the Lucas enterprise, and a bottom-line mentality that had overwhelmed the project of filmmaking. Lucas and those fortunate enough to be associated with him reportedly made enough money to build their own space-station even before the prequel opened. The Pepsi deal alone was said to be in the billions. The people who put up that kind of money are targeting the pre-teen market–children who command and control their parents’ purchasing power. Lucas conceded that The Phantom Menace was a children’s film meant for the Saturday matinee crowd.

Before I had seen the film I therefore speculated that my student and his whole generation had simply outgrown Star Wars, or at least Episode One–The Phantom Menace. The urgent e-mail writer was after all no longer a Saturday matinee child or an unsophisticated filmgoer. He had reviewed films for his college newspaper. He is one of those X, Y, or Z generations (whatever they now call the under-30 crowd) with encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth-century popular culture and a wonderful capacity to be highly ironic about youthful enthusiasms while remaining genuinely attached to them. Star Wars is the high point of that shared golden nostalgia, which members of this generation remember now as they experienced it then. It was Proust who made those memories of the childhood taste of madeleines so unforgettable. But I don’t recall his ever claiming that the madeleines tasted just as good after he had grown up. Certainly when I first tried them as an adult I wondered what Marcel’s fuss was all about. Lucas, I supposed, like the French grandmothers, might still be using the same recipes; the problem was that the X-Y-Z generation had developed a more sophisticated palate.

Although there is some truth in this line of thinking, it turns out that Lucas’s betrayal is neither as simple nor as innocent as I originally supposed.

The Phantom Menace is the first of three planned prequels to the Star Wars trilogy. If it had been the first episode to appear, I very much doubt that Lucas would have created a cult. The original Star Wars was a concoction of images edited like a Ping-Pong game as scenes shifted back and forth from sound stages to Death Valley and Tunisia, from real actors to Muppets and special effects. The editing made a virtue out of this necessity. The film moved at breakneck speed. Serious film critics found it too hectic, but the Academy was impressed: it awarded Lucas and his wife, Marcia, who worked on the project with him, the Oscar for editing.

In the twenty-plus years since then, special effects have improved enormously and LucasFilm is the leading edge. People who understand the technology assure me that the digitized computer images in The Phantom Menace are extraordinary. They emphasize that what is really special is the way Lucas has blended the disparate elements into coherent moving images. This achievement is the limitation of The Phantom Menace. The film has the feel of a comic book come to life and the actors are reduced to cartoon characters. The Phantom Menace seems to have been put through the film equivalent of a food processor and the homogenized result is much blander than its predecessors.

Moreover, Lucas has altered the ingredients of his successful recipe. Gone is the Han Solo character, the all-too-human, wise-cracking hero played so effortlessly by Harrison Ford, who improvised many of his own lines rather than trying to act Lucas’s script. In the original trilogy he seemed to be winking at the grown-ups in the audience, giving a satirical edge to the comic book moments. Solo and his love interest, the feisty Princess Leia, built the psychological bridge between adult earthlings and Star Wars creatures of that other galaxy. Unfortunately, Liam Neeson (as Qui-Gon Jinn) and Ewan McGregor (as Obi-Wan Kenobi) do as they are told, and both of these superb actors give Lucas the wooden performances he asked from them. The Phantom Menace has very little to offer adults.

The fanatics who camped out before the premiere to be the first to see the new film apparently had more fun waiting in line than watching the movie. They played Star Wars trivia games. They all knew who the actor was inside "Chewie," the Wookie who was Han Solo’s co-pilot. It was a gathering of the cult and they hoped to learn how Darth Vader turned to the Dark Side. That deformed remnant of a man in the black space armor with the deep basso voice of James Earl Jones is up there with Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula as the all-time ogres of film. Millions of children have imitated that voice and its artificial respirator breathing. Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi have become archetypes whose fame will outlive the great actors, Jones and Alec Guinness, who played them. Fans hoped to learn how Darth Vader had been so terribly injured, why Obi-Wan Kenobi became a hermit, who Luke and Leia’s mother was, and how the evil Empire got started. Few of these questions get answered; The Phantom Menace, just as Lucas said, is for children.

What has made my student and many other cultists of his generation feel betrayed is the new ingredient in Lucas’s recipe: aliens who, unlike any of the previous exotic life forms, suggest racist stereotypes. The evil henchmen in this story seem to be Fu Manchu style Asians, and the primitive Gungan people who live under the sea suggest old Hollywood stereotypes of African-Americans. A particular controversy has arisen around the Gungan character of Jar Jar Binks, who has been described as a science fiction version of Stepnfetchit. Lucas is outraged by this reaction; he claims that critics found it on the Internet somewhere and seized on it to disparage his film. He also says it’s in the eye of the beholders who have converted his orange amphibians into degrading stereotypes. He may be right, but I must report that I went into the film knowing nothing about the controversy and yet as soon as I saw Jar Jar Binks I knew why my student, an African-American, felt betrayed. Jar Jar Binks, like all fun-loving Gungans, is child-like, spontaneous, has bad table manners, good instincts, and he and all his kind have natural rhythm. The movie ends with a victory celebration in which the Gungans come parading down the boulevard doing their version of "Dark Town Strutters Ball." The critical accusations are not made of whole cloth. Indeed, inside the elaborate costume of Jar Jar Binks is a black actor.

Whatever racist mote the observer has in his eye it would have been impossible to find such stereotypes in Lucas’s earlier films. Pauline Kael thought there might be male chauvinism in the first Star Wars and complained that no one had thought of giving the "Force" to Princess Leia. But in fact Lucas seems to have done just that: in the final episode, The Return of the Jedi, we learn that she is Luke’s twin sister and the Force is with her too. And in the same film Lucas gave us the Ewoks, a primitive people of the forest. They play the same kind of role as the Gungans, joining the battle against the evil Empire, but one cannot imagine the Ewoks as anything but lovable teddy bears. Lucas created a science fiction universe that escaped the gravitational field of dark side stereotypes–until The Phantom Menace. How could Lucas have allowed this Gungan betrayal? He didn’t do it for the money and he and the people at LucasFilm are certainly not consciously racist. It is difficult not to believe that the Gungans came floating up out of Lucas’s unconscious–a stereotype he had long ago suppressed.

A would-be filmmaker told me that Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch is surrounded by a large fence and that a security patrol polices it 24 hours a day. The chief task of the security force is to pick up unwanted screenplays that desperate authors throw over the fence in the hope that Lucas or his people will read them. The security force’s task is to collect and date them and make a written record so that they can be appropriately disposed of by lawyers who attest that not one word has been read by LucasFilm and that the screenplays therefore could not have been plagiarized.

This whole story may be apocryphal, but it suggests the kind of defensive paranoia that afflicts the extremely rich and famous. Although Lucas has recently been pushing The Phantom Menace all over the tube (from Rosie O’Donnell to Charlie Rose), he usually lives a reclusive life in Northern California. When people are isolated from the outside world, they turn inwards, and are most apt to experience the "return of the repressed" in their fantasy lives. Fantasy is the workshop of the artist and, after all, Lucas’s creative imagination feeds on old Hollywood films, cartoons, and serials that are filled with stereotypes. Still, it is difficult to understand why none of the many people involved in the production noticed that their emperor had no clothes.

By the time I saw the film the Star Wars fanatics had had their fill and the audiences had begun to thin down; although it was an evening showing of The Phantom Menace, the audience was mostly families with young children. The kids were oohing, aahing, and cheering. I doubt that any of them left the theater feeling disappointed or betrayed.

And that seems to be the bottom line: despite all the critics and controversies, youngsters love The Phantom Menace, and they adore Jar Jar Binks. He and Darth Maul (a prototype Darth Vader) are the most popular action figures, with the king of the Gungans being an acceptable consolation prize if the others run out. Darth Maul has a great name (Lucas is awesome with names) but he doesn’t speak a line. His popularity with six-year-olds is as baffling to me as that of Barney. And the popularity of The Phantom Menace is undeniable; on July 19 it passed E.T. and was still making a million dollars a day at the box office. It may never pass Titanic, the all-time leader, but it is creeping up on second place–the original Star Wars.

For a better understanding I consulted my grandchildren. The 12-year-old was blasé. It was okay, not worth talking about. But the two nine-year-olds independently concluded that The Phantom Menace is the greatest and Jar Jar Binks is their favorite. The more voluble informed me that he has already seen The Phantom Menace three times. He knows the soundtrack, the names of all the minor characters, and cannot wait to get his hands on the whole collection of action figures. The democracy of the box office indicates that most of his contemporaries feel the same way. Is this a bad thing? Are all those children being indoctrinated with racist stereotypes?

I mentioned this concern to my voluble grandson. Surprisingly he knew all about the controversy and thought it was all "crazy." He paid Jar Jar Binks the ultimate compliment: "cool." Perhaps it is a mistake to trust my grandson’s judgment on this, but he is a different generation than either my student or myself. Kids in his generation have posters of Michael Jordan on their bedroom walls, not Larry Bird. They stick their tongues out when they shoot baskets, wear Air Jordans, and dream of being as good as Michael or as big as Shaq. They may be the first generation of white Americans who are not saddled with negative racial stereotypes. When Jar Jar Binks comes strutting into The Phantom Menace they see their favorite Muppet, or Barney, not Stepnfetchit. Apparently African-American children love Jar Jar Binks just as much.

The Phantom Menace may suck like a big Hoover and Lucas may have betrayed his cult generation but he seems to know what children like. The star and center of the film, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) is appropriately enough a nine-year-old boy. He is the young Darth Vader and among other things a version of Jesus Christ–a creature of the Force with no father. I do not know whether children get this cryptic reference but they all certainly respond to this hero–a child like themselves. Although he belongs "long ago in some distant galaxy," he is a paradigm seen everywhere: the child showing his adult parents how to work the computer and move around the Internet to purchase Dad’s airline tickets. The psychological power of this experience is that the child is in control, gets immediate reinforcement, and develops a sense of mastery. I am quite sure that Lucas and his friends understand this far better than any child psychologist. Their Anakin Skywalker is the master of video games and the spaceship controls are his computer panel. He is a better pilot than any adult in the film.

Although my voluble grandson assured me that he most certainly understands that the beguiling Anakin Skywalker of The Phantom Menace will grow up, marry Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), and turn into Darth Vader, I wasn’t convinced he got all that any more than the parthenogenesis reference to Jesus. Indeed let us hope the Force is with this generation and that they never "get" the racist stereotypes. That could be the new dream in the Star Wars epic.

Originally published in the October/November 1999 issue of Boston Review



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