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Star Wars and Story

There is something about the pending arrival of The Force Awakens that I find to be deeply unsettling. As December 18th approaches, that feeling in my gut grows and those nagging voices in my head hound me as I fall asleep. Now, I converted to Star Wars when I was six years old, and have been a devout follower since. I’ve attended Celebrations and multiple Fridays at Comic-Con, yet something haunts me about this latest installment of the franchise.

empire-strikes-back-03At first I thought it was Lucas’s lack of creative involvement. But let’s face it, while George Lucas is a masterful storyteller; some of his greatest decisions as a filmmaker where to employ talented individuals to help him bring his vision to life. When we look at one of the greatest films ever made – The Empire Strike Back – Lucas brought on Irving Kershner to direct, and Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan to convert his story to screenplay. Lucas is still involved in this project as a creative consultant, and maybe this film will not fall victim to the same snags that prequel trilogy did with an oversaturation of Lucas’s involvement.

Then I considered that maybe my fear was that the new Star Wars film, wouldn’t feel like a Star Wars film. Any true Star Wars aficionado experienced culture shock when watching the prequel trilogy, resulting from an over-exposure to CGI. JJ Abrams has maintained that he will remain true to the practical effects used in the original films. Based on Abrams earlier films, we know that he is no stranger to preserving the integral magic of cinema with astonishing, practical effects.

Maybe my disappointment rested with the issue of “cannon”. Surely, this new film could not exist within the realm of the expanded Universe which has grown exponentially in the past three decades? However, the Expanded Star Wars Universe is in fact, expansive; and there are many contradictory story lines already within. One of the best examples of this was when the origins of Boba Fett were “rewritten”, after the revelation in Episode II that he was in fact, merely an imperfect clone. I made peace with that blasphemous information (though I still maintain that Fett’s original origin story is the better of the two) and I imagine that I will learn to make peace with future revelations, no matter how harmful.

It was then that I began to realize what my real concerns were. There have long been oligarchies of gatekeepers who controlled the media; and by which controlled the social narrative. But in the last few years, we have seen greater level of media assimilation than seems like it can be a good thing, and the Disney Empire seems to be the central player here. Now, I am not “hating” on Disney, if you think that I am then you are merely skimming this article instead of reading it. I simply point to Disney, because in the last few years the accounting department at Disney has skillfully managed to acquire both Lucas Films and Marvel. I do not hate Disney, but I am skeptical of the social trend to consolidate popular fiction into the control of a very few select people. While Joseph Campbell has reminded us countless times that all stories share the same basic roots; I do not think that this means all stories need to share the same select storytellers.

103012-star-wars111Maybe it’s just the free-market capitalist in me that cannot shake the notion of competition. Competition exists throughout nature. If we try to sum up Darwinism in a single term, we are hard pressed to use anything other than competition. All biological creatures compete to survive; the fittest individuals are empowered by their own genetic superiority to maintain sustainability of a species. In the United States, we are so enamored with the concept of competition in the marketplace that the government actively seeks to protect this spirit. Part of the dual mission of the Federal Trade Commission commits the agency to “promoting competition” in the marketplace. If competition ensures that suppliers bring their best of products to the marketplace, than does it not seem logical that it would help studios bring their best products to the cinema space?

Growing up, both the stories told by Stan Lee and the stories told by George Lucas, helped shaped the way I saw the world and understood my place in it. Both storytellers, and many others, helped me to interpret and create my own social narrative. But I find it slightly disconcerting to think that in the world today, these stories are told from the same objective view point. In an enlightened society where we encourage free-thinkers to not only question society but challenge it; should we not be as concerned with what the narrative is as with whom is delivering it?

Maybe competition is the wrong word. Maybe a more accurate description can be found with a word that millennials are no stranger to, and that is diversity. In the writings of philosopher John Stuart Mill, he heralded the importance of diversity of thought. Mill believed that no one solely possesses the Truth, but through dialogue and the diversification of ideas, we collectively have the opportunity to discover more of the Truth. Socially we understand the benefits of diverse experience and perspective; this is why so many hiring managers and college admissions departments promote the concept. Yet why are so many artists and storytellers reluctant to acknowledge that through supporting the perpetual consolidation of media, we not only threaten our pursuit of Truth, but we subject ourselves to a form of tyranny. Not a political tyranny and not a physical tyranny, but a kind which I find more disturbing, a tyranny of the mind.

The narrative is of paramount collective responsibility. We have seen times in history where utter disaster has resultedHAN SOLO from a miscommunication of the narrative. The most obvious example is the middle ages, when the communication of the narrative was limited to such a select group of people. Is it possible that the consolidations which we witness now could play a role in subjecting future generations? Or maybe sterilizing our social dialogues? Maybe even diluting our social values and redefining our civic responsibilities? Who can possibly know?

That brings us back to Star Wars. I do find it ironic that a story about breaking the shackles of tyranny in the name of galactic liberty is the impetus for this discussion. I also find it ironic, that since inception, Star Wars was created in a spirit contrary to these very social concerns I discuss. Lucas has repeatedly stated that he felt he was part of a generation who grew up without Myth, and thus was inspired to create some. And so he created a myth which filled the void in the narrative and inspired a new generation of dreamers and adventures. Lucas has also mentioned that the “studio types”, the very people who now control the destiny of his vision, never truly “understood” what Star Wars was really about. I attribute that to be one of the reasons why five of the six original films were produced outside the studio system, and instead bankrolled by their creator.

This attempt at Star Wars feels like it is more about a cheap way to make a quick buck, than actually telling a story. The merchandising alone – which seems to exceed all films in the in the franchise prior combined – is almost dizzying. Walking into the grocery store the other day, I quit counting the “exclusive” Star Wars food products after I ran out of digits. But it doesn’t stop there; now there is Star Wars make-up from CoverGirl, Star Wars shoes from every major line, Star Wars subway sandwiches, and even specially created Star Wars laptop computers from Hewitt-Packard.

I do wonder if the Disney hand pulling the strings could possibly have negative consequences on the story. With the recent release of Age of Ulton, internet fanboys have had some harsh words to say regarding the studios decision to remove certain scenes from the film to appeal to a wide audience. I pray the same thing does not happen to Star Wars. However, based upon what I can gather from the trailer, it seems the producers of the new films have made a conscious effort to revise the Star Wars timeline post Return of the Jedi. There are not mentions of integral characters such as Mara Jade, Grand Admiral Thrawn, or the Emperor Clones. Not only is there no indication that Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin Solo will appear in the film, but there is no evidence to even suggest that Han and Leia have been living happily ever after since the destruction of the Second Death Star. The studio’s misunderstanding of the property; combined with their desire to water-down Star Wars and release dozens of films in a James Bond inspired fashion has me doubting they truly understand the Force. It seems to compromise the integrity of Star Wars.

StarWarsFor decades, studios have been buying the rights to intellectual property, this is nothing new. But this is Star Wars, and this one really hits close to the chest. I do not know what to expect in the new film. Star Wars has changed, and I doubt that these new additions to the series will maintain the timelessness of the originals. I know that despite my own uncertainty and desire to maintain all that once was; I will yet again find myself on December 17th, wearing my Darth Vader’s mask in line for another midnight premiere. While I know I will leave the theater entertained, as can be expected with any corporate blockbuster, it saddens me to think that I will not be transformed. Of course, what if you are not an aspiring Jedi Padawan? What if you are one of the many popcorn-flick-enthusiasts out there? Or maybe you are one of the many high-school cheerleaders I knew who considers Chewbacca “the Golden Retriever who flies airplanes”? Then I am sure you can expect to fall asleep satisfied on December 18th, whisked away to your dreams on the wings of an X-wing fighter.

For me, Star Wars, in its re imagined form, will not be the Star Wars of the past. It will be something different, something dampened, something corporate, and I guess I just need to learn to live with that fact.