Matthew D’Ancona, the dishonest right-wing journalist, says that the Star Wars narrative is a myth, or mythos, or legend, or whatever, for our time. Although this sounds like the kind of drivel which is always said about anything which looks remotely like fantasy, and although the source is almost guaranteed to generate bullshit, let us not dismiss this instantly. Let us examine it for a moment, and then dismiss it instantly.
A myth is a way of accounting for the mysteries of the world. Usually it is in some way actionable — either as a warning, or as an example to be followed, although usually not completely literally. It is never completely banal or meaningless.
So, assuming that Star Wars is a myth, what does it constitute? Well, there are heroes and villains. This is not like the Iliad, where there are no such simple differences. Instead, the heroes are impossibly good, although occasionally outfitted with clunky minor negative qualities in an unsuccessful attempt to stop them from being saccharine. The villains, meanwhile, have all the tropes of evil apart from one — namely, motivation. The villains are evil for the sheer joy of being evil, a collection of Saurons obsessed with power for its own sake. This does not really provide us with any example for acting in the real world — instead, what it does is to confirm the propaganda mythos of the Western imperialist states, most particularly the United States, under which everybody except “us” is evil, and it is not necessary to comprehend evil because they must simply be blown up.
The universe is exciting, but in a wholly innocent way; it is there to be explored, but (except when the evil Empire is involved, when menace is always present) there are no consequences arising from this exploration. There is little to be learned from this exploration. Rather, what must be learned is a simple series of techniques (somehow not available to everyone) by which one may use the “Force”, along with a few talismans like “light sabers”, to become invincible. Of course this “Force” may be used for evil, and that is what the Empire is doing, so therefore by conquering the Empire one is also purifying the basic nature of the universe.
All this sounds childish — in the most precise sense; it is the fantasic response of a bullied eleven-year-old boy to his objective circumstances; if only I had a gang to join, if only I weren’t picked on, if only Dad understood me more, if only Mom were a little more indulgent, if only I didn’t have to go to school, hey, look at that pretty frog sitting on that log! It is no accident that the original Star Wars was consciously aimed at prepubescent children (though with a few nods to older people so that their parents — and the reviewers — could sit through it) and that is why the central characters are so young, and consciously presented as even younger than the ages of their actors. And that is why so much of the second trilogy (which is the first trilogy in the narrative — like some Soviet technology, Star Wars is crude but far from simple) also features children. (However, the second trilogy is much more sexualised, not because this is integral to the plot but because of cultural changes among Western youth over thirty years.)
An important point here is that the story being told in the original Star Wars was very much a Cold War narrative. The story being told to the U.S. public was that a gigantic and loathesome Soviet Union had nearly taken over the world, and that the United States stood as a lone and feeble paladin against this vast, expanding monster. It was a crock of shit borrowed by Harry Truman’s spooks and thugs from the Second World War narrative developed by the Roosevelt administration (and even then it was deeply flawed). It was intended to scare the people into obeying their leaders, and it succeeded and the result was the Miltown-tranquillized 1950s, and this is the period to which Spielberg and Lucas were referring, a time of placid, unthinking obedience and confidence in one’s own rectitude.
As such, then, Star Wars is not a myth or an epic. It is an appealing but false story told to children to make them docile and perhaps educate them to comply with their parents’ commands. It is, thus, a fairy-tale.
This is not to condemn it. Fairy stories are not necessarily degraded or despicable. However, they have their limitations.
One of the most positive things about the original Star Wars, a feature which to some extent survived in the sequel but gradually disappeared over time, was that the backstory was told only through brief and casual allusion. The point about a fairy story is that you have to suspend disbelief except in certain crucial cases where elements are introduced to generate plausibility. If the story is of such a kind as to make the child ask “But why did that happen? Why did she do that? What did he want?” then the story is failing. (This, by the way, is different from a slightly young child asking “Why?”, where this word is code for “I’m bored and want to change the subject”.) There is nearly nothing of this in the original Star Wars because the action is carried along at speed with minimal explanation and therefore minimal demand for plausibility, and above all, minimal opportunity to ask why something is happening. More to the point, the gaps in the plot are plugged with references to a backstory in which one may assume that someone out there is in charge without being expected to ask who, or to what end.
Unfortunately, this backstory came to dominate the narrative. Just as while the Galactic Emperor was simply a flicker in the distance he was a genuinely scary figure, but shrank into pathetic pretense when he appeared in the flesh, so the crass, ill-conceived bricolage of the story of how the bad guys overthrew the Old Republic detracted from the fairy-story without providing any genuine mythology to take its place. Clumsy Oedipal imagery didn’t help much, and the ghastly racism entailed in the treatment of aliens like the Ewoks and Jar-Jar showed how little real taste Lucas, and to some extent even Spielberg, really possessed when they were not guided by masters like Eisenstein (whose genius in Alexandr Nevski Spielberg plagiarised to create his storm troopers). The problem is that when Lucas was working within a childish framework his project functioned well; outside that framework, the attempt to turn fairy-story into myth failed.
Moreover, when adults, who should have discriminatory capacity, are told that they, too, should believe in fairy stories, there is something wrong. It is perhaps no accident that Star Wars appeared at the beginning of the neoliberal era, when the whole of society began to rely, ideologically, on complete claptrap instead of partial claptrap. It is certainly no accident that Ronald Reagan immediately took up Star Wars imagery for his campaign to remilitarise and depoliticise American society, in his “Evil Empire” speech, going full circle back to the roots of the movie in Truman-style politics.
This is the basic problem. The most recent Star Wars work is, in a technical sense, simply a collage of imagery from the earlier Star Wars movies. There are vaguely interesting ideas — part of the story is set on a planet littered with the wreckage of the previous war, for instance — but none is developed, nor are they related to the action in the way that the fragmented backstory was in the first Star Wars. For no apparent reason, the current bad guys (who are allegedly a sort of fascist movement) have adopted all the trappings of the previous bad guys, the Sith regalia, the storm trooper armour, and even Darth Vader’s silly shuttlecraft.
There is no backstory here, or none worthy of the name; just unmotivated evil which must be fought against. It is the triumph of stupid authority; do what we tell you, fight against the enemy, although without having to make any obvious sacrifice yourself (but respect those mercenaries who are paid to sacrifice themselves on your behalf). We have seen this in the various wars launched by NATO countries against demonised enemies from the Taliban to the Islamic State, and the fascist tropes of the most recent enemy are similar to the Islamofascist tropes used to justify the invasion of the Middle East in pursuit of oil.
This introduction to a fresh trilogy has nothing fresh about it — except for one thing; it is no longer intended for children. Or, to be precise, in the modern American visual culture, it is no longer possible to discriminate between works intended for children and those intended for adults. (The most popular movies in America, and some of the most popular in the world, are based on comic strips for teenagers, and it is solemnly pretended that these pitiful pretexts for garish computer-generated special effects are serious, message-laden narratives.) The central characters in this work are young adults in their late teens or early twenties — immature, of course, but not dependent on others and not willing to learn from anything except their Jedi and Sith masters. The heroine is sexy, the hero is hunky, the villain is rather reminiscent of a youthful, callower version of Snape in the Harry Potter movies. There are vague sexual tensions between the three, never properly explored, of course. So the narrative is no longer a fairy-story — or else it is a fairy-story for what passes for grown-ups in the modern world.
And this is the problem: the narrative is not a narrative for grown-ups. It is a child’s story, a battle between a good which has no merit and an evil which has no credibility, with evil bound to lose because it is supposed to in the comic-books, and with no real plausible representation of the world at all, not even the distorted and symbolic representation of a child’s vision. The logical contradictions and farcically inept emotional manipulation are not excused by any merits on any other level, nor can you write it off by saying that this is not intended for grown-ups. It is the triumph of the people whom Hunter S Thompson rightly defined, in his depiction of the Clinton years, as the New Dumb.
Perhaps the coming of a fresh Clinton provides the perfect background to this horridly ill-conceived, clumsy, brutalising and wretchedly unimaginative movie.