A long time ago, when everyone else was taking day trips to a galaxy far, far away, I decided to stay put on our drab little planet. For months I ignored the elation of those who returned home babbling about the marvels they had witnessed. Eventually my resistance weakened: late in the summer of 1977, I decided to see Star Wars after all. By that stage it wasn’t easy. Cultists were making multiple return visits, and tickets were scarce. But I managed to buy one for a late-night session in a London cinema, where the mood of contagious excitement erupted every few minutes into whoops and cheers. I was only there, I sternly told myself, out of cultural curiosity.
Two hours later I stumbled back into the empty streets, my head reeling as I hummed the fanfare by John Williams – a march through space scored for blaring trumpets and thunderous drums – that introduced a wild, unstoppable ride, a rollercoaster of giddy delights. Star Wars deserved its terse, bold title: here was a cosmic carnival, a flaring light show that was violent but mercifully harmless.
I sampled other worlds, peopled by creatures belonging to no known species, and I watched a blue planet like our own blow up in a re-enactment of the big bang. I also had a preview of our cybernetic future. Individuals were redefined as digital wraiths, whose data could be loaded on to a disc and disgorged from a machine as flickery holograms. Upsetting traditional hierarchies, two metallic servants – the polished, prissy butler C-3PO and his squat companion R2-D2, apparently a dustbin with a brain – bossily managed the affairs of their accident-prone masters. I liked this pair so much that I even bought a poster of them, which I pinned up in my college rooms in Oxford, discreetly out of sight of the student to whom I was teaching English literature.
My enthusiasm faded soon enough, and I binned the poster. I wasn’t tempted to see the sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, when they appeared early in the 1980s; by the time the writer and director George Lucas added The Phantom Menace and two more prequels to the series between 1999 and 2006, I had made up my mind that only teenagers obsessed by gadgetry went to the cinema, so I left them to it. From then on, my attitude resembled that of Natalie Portman, who remembers shrugging indifferently when she was offered a role in the first prequel: “I was like, Star what?”
Portman, however, overcame her disdain and accepted the job, and I gradually caught up on DVD with the five episodes I’d missed. Now, with the series due to resume when The Force Awakens is released next month, I’m obliged to admit that Star Wars is inescapable. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis recently called it “a cradle-to-grave entertainment experience”, which is literally true. Soon after their emergence from the womb, toddlers can be togged out in romper suits that announce “I am a Jedi”, or fitted with bibs on which Yoda, resembling a wizened green embryo, deploys his usual back-to-front syntax to demand “Feed me you must”.
At the other end of life, a Texan cancer patient called Daniel Fleetwood, who in September was given two months to live, campaigned online to be given an early viewing of The Force Awakens, pleading that he was unlikely to survive until its opening date; the movie’s director, JJ Abrams, granted his wish early in November, and Fleetwood died shortly afterwards. Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon can whizz through wormholes to emerge in galaxies on the far side of the universe: I hope that the film eases Fleetwood’s journey to his final destination, wherever it may be.
Appearing in instalments throughout the decades, Star Wars has aged with us, and as proof of its longevity the three principal actors from the first film – goofy, toothy Mark Hamill, sassy Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford with his sly sideways grin – will return in wrinklier, more grizzled form in The Force Awakens. The series also narrates the history of the times we have lived through: not only abstruse science fiction, it is political journalism in coded form.
Over the course of the six films (not in chronological order), a libertarian republic transforms itself into a predatory global empire, much as the United States has done during the last half century. “We’d like to avoid imperial entanglements,” says Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi: he is repeating a point first made by George Washington, who in his presidential farewell advised the new country to remain isolated. America kept to itself until 1945, but during the cold war it began to behave like a global bully. In 1983 Ronald Reagan deflected attention from its military conceit and commercial rapacity by calling the USSR an “evil empire”, a phrase borrowed from the synopsis of past events at the start of Star Wars. Reagan’s plan for an aerial shield of missile deployment platforms had similar origins: it was nicknamed Star Wars because it would supposedly transform nuclear combat into a pyrotechnical blitz to be played out far above us.
When the USSR fell apart, the focus shifted. The Star Wars prequels – especially Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, made after 9/11 – warn about the curtailment of liberties in fortified, permanently embattled America. Democracy can’t be bothered to put up a fight: Ewan McGregor, playing Obi-Wan Kenobi when young, remarks that the senators are only interested in serving the interests of those who fund their campaigns – a comment that glances at Washington DC, not the far-flung planet of Coruscant. The sepulchral emperor, who, as embodied by Ian McDiarmid, has skin like desiccated parchment and teeth that are lichen-crusted tombstones, almost quotes George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld when he explains that “security and continuing stability” are his regime’s imperatives. As for The Phantom Menace, the title might serve as a caption for the vial of imaginary anthrax held up by Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003 during his speech to rally support for the invasion of Iraq.
Star Wars begins by declaring Princess Leia’s determination “to restore freedom to the galaxy”, though it’s never clear just what all those twinkling stars need to be freed from – and when we do get a hint, the explanation is dismayingly banal. For citizens of the galactic republic as for supporters of the Republican party, the sticking point is the iniquity of taxation. Turmoil resumes in The Phantom Menace because “trade routes to outlying star systems” are being taxed by “the greedy trade federation”. A treaty has to be signed by the commerce guild and the corporate alliance, which are supported by the banking clan (whose representative is a cadaver with a clerical collar) and the techno union (which sends a metal leviathan to the negotiations). Until Lucasfilm’s sale to Disney in 2012, Star Wars was distributed by 20th Century Fox, so it’s tempting to cast Rupert Murdoch as the baleful megalomaniac emperor, keen to extend his piratical brand of capitalism into all markets. Although the Jedi master played by Samuel L Jackson insists that “We are peacekeepers, not soldiers”, he unsheathes his lightsaber to keep the airwaves open for the dissemination of American entertainment.
The idea of the Force, central to the fuzzy theology of Star Wars, is disturbingly ambiguous. The Jedi think of it as spiritual energy, but the word also means power, which is colder and more brutal. Star Wars catches both America’s light and dark sides, its naive optimism and its crass, domineering pursuit of profit. Whether we think it good or evil, all of us have been colonised by this empire of images.
Now that CGI effects have become so ingeniously deceptive, it’s odd to remember the astonishment that Star Wars provoked in 1977. We may be more sophisticated today, but what remains eye-opening about the first three films in the series is the variety of custom-made environments through which they range – arid Tatooine, gaseous Bespin with its city in the clouds, or jungly Endor – and the virtual zoo of so-called “lifeforms” they place on display.
Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia are featureless archetypes: a surfer dude, a cowboy, and a generic female who promptly strips to a tacky gold bikini. The true characters are monsters and mutants, like the jazz quartet of praying mantises we glimpse at Mos Eisley’s cantina, the four-eyed Annoo-dats, the feathery four-armed Besalisks, and such gruesomely idiosyncratic freaks as the toad-faced lecher Jabba the Hutt, Watto the junk-dealing bluebottle, and the reptilian changeling Zam Wesell, who is a slinky woman on the outside and a lizard under the skin. In this cosmos, humankind is an endangered species.
“Which Stars Wars creature are you?” asks one of the epic’s marketing websites. It’s a question that many people seem to address to themselves. Nominating their religion in the 2001 census, almost 400,000 UK citizens claimed to be Jedis. Some were joking, but not all: the church of Jediism has 200,000 adherents around the world, and in 2009 when one of its founders was asked to leave a supermarket in Wales because his cloak and hood looked sinister to other shoppers, he claimed to be a victim of religious bigotry. These days, admission to the chivalric order is easier than it was for Luke, who had to undergo a course of martial and mental training before his induction: all it takes is a credit card. Tesco sells children’s Jedi robes made of polyester, “ideal for parties and pretend play”, which can be accessorised with lightsaber that are stubby battery-operated torches.
Other options are available for those with less monastic tastes. In an episode of Friends, Ross badgered Rachel to have sex with him while dressed – or rather undressed – in Leia’s tawdry bikini (which was recently auctioned off to a Star Wars fetishist for $96,000). On festive occasions gay men have been known to armour themselves as imperial stormtroopers, exchanging black leather for white thermoplastic polymer. In a parodic Spanish film called Love Wars, two of these clones canoodle in a hideaway on the Death Star, though their glassy vizors make snogging awkward.
Last month a shaggy, hulking Chewbacca was arrested in Ukraine while campaigning for a candidate in a local election; he was fined a minimal amount for some petty infraction, but claimed he couldn’t pay because his bank didn’t have a branch on earth. Also in Ukraine, a bronze statue of Lenin in the grounds of an Odessa factory was recently given a makeover as Darth Vader, with a uniform specially sculpted from a titanium alloy. Unlike Lenin, the demonic lord performs a public service, which guarantees him a devoted following: his samurai helmet conceals a free Wi-Fi hot spot. In Sweden late last month, another Darth Vader set out on a less benevolent mission. A young man with racist grudges donned a black mask before stabbing to death a student and a teacher at a local school. Before the attack he told them “I am your father”, as if Darth Vader were unveiling the secret of their shameful origins to Luke and Leia.
Oddly enough, the figures in Star Wars that seem closest to human habits and concerns are not creatures at all, but contraptions. At the start of the first film, we are introduced to this remote galaxy by the droid C-3PO and the astromech R2-D2, partners as mismatched yet as inseparable as Laurel and Hardy or the Two Ronnies. They may be machines with product labels, not names, but they are touchingly personified – C-3PO by his angular gait, his prissy concern for protocol, his showy linguistic virtuosity, and his queasy fear of flying, R2-D2 by his geeky introversion and his autistic vocal repertory of beeps and burps.
Between them they point to the forking path of post-human evolution. With luck, we might develop into effortlessly superior, gold-plated intellectuals like C-3PO, who is expert at over six million forms of communication: Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, promises we will be “better off” when we have the benefit of “an artificial brain”. Or will we turn out to be unsocialised nerds, clever with instruction manuals but inarticulate? R2-D2 is probably closer to the truth: he resembles the anonymous adolescents – umbilically linked to computer terminals in their solitary bedrooms, tubby in shape because they eat only junk food – who have adopted Star Wars as their all-knowing bible.
Mistaken for a divinity by the teddy bears called Ewoks, C-3PO bleats in embarrassment that his coding does not permit him to impersonate a deity. Nevertheless he sniffs at creatures made of mere flesh and blood, and when Luke is lost in a blizzard on an arctic planet he remarks “He’s quite clever, you know – for a human.” In a humbler moment, C-3PO salutes Anakin Skywalker, who first screwed his bits and pieces together, as “the maker”: this is his personal version of the creator who in Genesis moulds mankind out of red clay and breathes a spirit into him. On several occasions C-3PO is dismantled, and one of the most arresting scenes in the series comes in The Empire Strikes Back when Chewbacca – variously described as a fuzzball, a mophead and a walking carpet – silently contemplates the droid’s severed head, puzzles over how it fits together with his discarded limbs, and painstakingly reassembles him.
Here is an encounter between ape and angel, at the beginning and end of the our long, halting evolutionary march. It’s a little like Hamlet brooding over the skull of Yorick: man is, as Hamlet says, “a piece of work”, and it might be wise to see ourselves as engines not organisms, kept going by circuitry rather than nerves and arteries. When Darth Vader chops off Luke’s hand, it is soon replaced by a prosthetic handle clad in artificial skin. Thanks to biomedical technology, all of us are undergoing a redesign, and Star Wars prompts us to think about whether that means we have outgrown humanity.
Revenge of the Sith concludes by balancing the bodily past against the mechanical future. Padmé, played by Natalie Portman, gives birth to the twins fathered by Anakin, who will grow up to be Luke and Leia. Fussed over by a robotic midwife in a gleaming obstetric ward, she still has to deliver the infants in the customary, agonising way, and she dies in doing so. Simultaneously, as two separate climaxes are intercut, we watch Anakin being hacked to pieces by Obi-Wan, then charred by a volcanic river that singes his corpse. But a team of Frankensteinian doctors metallise the segments of his corpse and install a wheezing respirator in his chest. With the remains of his carbonised head encased in a sleek black helmet, he rises again as Darth Vader.
Nature fails in one case, science performs a diabolical miracle in the other. Having struggled out of the swamp where the gastropod slugs slurp and gnaw on the planet of Dagobah, we are no longer animals; our next metamorphosis may demonstrate what Obi-Wan means when he says that Darth Vader is “more machine than man”.
Genetic replication brings its own terrors. Armies of faceless, mindless clone troopers, modified to make them both automatically obedient and ruthless, maraud through the later films. Obi-Wan worries that droids might have the capacity to scheme and strategise, and muses that “If they could think, there’d be none of us here, would there?” Star Wars forums online have made this into a talking point, and many commentators answer Obi-Wan’s question by calling him stupid, conservative and condescending. Droids, the messages in one forum assert, are sentient, intelligent, and should not be snubbed; someone else suggests that C-3PO, for all his effete fussing, might be James Cameron’s Terminator in disguise, poised to eliminate the inferior race of “biologicals”. After all, the software pioneer Elon Musk warned in a recent tweet that “We need to be super careful about AI – potentially more dangerous than nukes”. “Who is to say,” as Yoda puts it, for once not jumbling the syntax, “what the future holds?”
Technical progress is alarming: hence the emotional appeal of regression. “Now is the time to return to childhood,” sighed the critic Pauline Kael, who, when she saw Star Wars in 1977 described the film as the equivalent of “taking a pack of kids to the circus”.
Kael had a point about the endearing but exhausting childishness of Star Wars. The other films of its period were grim parables of psychological deviancy, social malaise and political paranoia, set in America’s hellish, festering cities – Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Robert Altman’s Nashville, Alan J Pakula’s The Parallax View, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Lucas had previously made American Graffiti, a pastoral idyll about adolescents amusing themselves in a small Californian town; it ends with a fearful preview of the grown-up future – one character will be killed in a car crash, another will go missing in Vietnam, a third will suffer the fate worse than death by migrating to Canada. Star Wars dodges such outcomes by reverting to infancy and regaling immature audiences with what Kael called its “comic-book hedonism”.
Lucas came to resent such patronising accounts of his work, and preferred the acclaim of interpreters like the pop mythographer Joseph Campbell, who thought that Star Wars gratified the human “need for spiritual adventure” and identified its characters as Jungian archetypes: Lucas’s namesake Luke is the young hero on a journey towards maturity, Obi-Wan is the elderly mentor who arms him for the fray, and Darth Vader represents modern atheism, a black void whose appearance implies, in Campbell’s words, that “the world is run by economics and politics, which have nothing to do with the spiritual life”. Flattered by such puffery, Lucas offered to redeem a secular century. “It came to me,” he said, “that there really was no modern use of mythology”, which suggests that he had missed out on Eliot’s The Waste Land, Joyce’s Ulysses and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex; he declared that his purpose in Star Wars was “to set standards” and to fill an aching emptiness by “telling us about our values”, as the sacred narratives of religion used to do.
Hence the allegorical ambition of the prequels, in which Anakin is hailed as a saviour, “the chosen one” as Obi-Wan calls him in a pious whisper. The messiah may have walked on water, but the nine-year-old Anakin gives notice of his divine descent by winning a demolition derby in a turbo-driven podracer that he has cobbled together from spare parts. When the adult Anakin surrenders to the dark side of the Force, Hayden Christensen tries to make his torment manifest by furrowing his eyebrows, but his posthumous transformation into Darth Vader is entrusted to surgical technicians. Lucas changes Christ into Satan by rewiring and reprogramming the manikin who acts out the idea.
At first, the languages Lucas invented for his new worlds were a kind of burbling baby talk. Hence his Wookiees and Ewoks, or the gloriously nonsensical names of characters like Grand Moff Tarkin and Wedge Antilles. In the prequels, the neologisms turn ponderous. When he locates the droid foundries in Attack of the Clones on a red, craggy planet called Geonosis, Lucas attempts a metaphysical pun: compressing Genesis, gnosis and geology, the made-up word chokes on its own indigestible etymologies. For Revenge of the Sith, in which the titular dynasty consolidates its power, he strains to make up a word that would exude the sulphurous essence of evil. A monosyllable that starts with a hiss but ends with a lisp hardly has the desired rumble of malevolence; if you unscramble the anagram, “Sith” sounds better as “shit”. Beelzebub and Mephistopheles remain unchallenged as names for our eternal adversary.
Lucas may have blathered about quests and initiatic trials, but he knew that Star Wars was actually an excuse for boys to exercise their motorised toys. The series increasingly concentrates on chases, races and aeronautical dogfights in which spacecraft are zapped by pilots with well-oiled trigger fingers, as if the films were rehearsals for the video games spun off from them. In The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo voluntarily navigates his way through an asteroid field, dodging debris while C-3PO, in a tizz as usual, calculates that his chances of survival are 3,720 to 1. Return of the Jedi stages a version of the Ben-Hur chariot race in a forest of sequoias; in The Phantom Menace, Anakin steers his way to victory in a futuristic F1 tournament, zooming through desert crevasses and tunnels of rock as his competitors crash and burn around him, and in Attack of the Clones he won’t bestir himself to rescue Obi-Wan until he finds a vehicle with a proper cockpit and the right speed capabilities. What matters in Star Wars is velocity, not profundity.
According to Wall Street estimates, the Star Wars franchise, boosted by video games and licensed merchandise, is now worth upwards of $30bn (£19.7bn). Amazon has a million and a half items tagged to the series for sale, while almost 900,000 are listed on eBay. Industrial Light and Magic, the name Lucas gave to the special effects company he founded in 1975, sums up his lucrative wizardry: the light is emitted by diodes, the magic is a computerised simulacrum, and industrialisation mass-markets that visual voodoo and converts it into cash.
Film writer David Thomson, who pays a barbed tribute to Lucas’s “great talent for making money”, describes Star Wars as “the beginning of one of the great American movie empires”. More than imperial, Star Wars is cosmological: it has dilated to fill up what Lucasfilm calls an “expanded universe”. Out in hyperspace, room has been found for an infinitude of supplementary tales. The television series Star Wars Rebels extends across 370 centuries rather than the measly two generations covered by the films. A calendar has been invented for those uncharted aeons, which starts 13m years before the first film and conscientiously fills in the blanks as if recording actual events; a Babel of spurious languages, each with its own squiggly alphabet, has been devised for creatures like the Ithorians (who have two mouths) and the Twi’leks (who speak by signalling with the tips of their tails). Such mad elaboration makes the Bible’s six days of creation sound like a lazy afternoon.
A new company set up by Disney polices this “Expanded Universe content”, correcting errant subplots and ensuring that fan fiction does not trespass on the main narrative. Lucas himself checks the consistency of new storylines by consulting the Star Wars Encyclopedia, but he sometimes has trouble regulating what happens on a plurality of ever more distant planets: in such an expansive universe, even God finds it hard to be omniscient. In outlying galaxies, wars frequently break out between over-zealous innovators and fans who protect an orthodox version of events. There was predictable outrage when Chewbacca was killed off in a tangential novel. Chuck Wendig has recently published another such spinoff, which contains a gay soldier called Sinjir Rath Velus; when readers objected that the sexual dissident was not “children-friendly”, Wendig answered back by re-enacting the battle in the first film, hurling insults like the warheads Luke fires from his X-wing fighter. “You’re not the Rebel Alliance, you’re not the good guys,” he ranted. “You’re the fucking Empire, man. You’re the shitty, oppressive, totalitarian Empire.” The expanded universe here contracts to the size of a padded cell.
“I find your lack of faith disturbing,” snarls Darth Vader when an imperial officer accuses him of sorcery. What disturbs me is our excess of faith, a credulity that venerates Star Wars as a gospel, a testament, a map of the heavens. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin and Padmé pause while smooching to discuss the self-sufficiency of the realm they inhabit. “Anything is possible,” says Anakin: he is paraphrasing Lucas, who once remarked that “It wasn’t until we created digital cinema that I could allow my imagination to run wild”. “We live in a real world,” Padmé replies, “come back to it.” She has evidently forgotten that her body consists of pixels not molecules, and that the exotic landscape behind her was sketched by computers and overlaid on a green screen. That’s the paradox and the predicament of Star Wars: those who live inside the fantasy, whether they’re actors or fans, prefer their shared hallucination to the unelastic, downtrodden world of fact.
With less than four weeks to go, The Force Awakens is awaited as expectantly as if it were the second coming. But the promised awakening began last September, when on “Force Friday” a shiny array of new merchandise – apparel, Lego cruisers, cuddly toys, and an app-enabled droid shaped like a soccer ball – went on sale in Disney stores. It remains to be seen whether the new film will take us on an astral excursion or send us on a shopping trip. We pine for the consolation of religion, but in its absence allow ourselves to be bamboozled by technology and browbeaten by consumerism. Star Wars is irresistible because it caters to every aspect of our moral frailty.
The Force Awakens opens in UK cinemas on 17 December
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