Star Wars, star wares
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe
Chris Taylor, London: Head of Zeus, 2015
In 1977, like millions of other prepubescents, I trooped excitedly along to a cinema to see the first instalment of Star Wars. I was twelve, anxious about acne, fond of sci-fi comics, and sick with ruthless fantasies about remaking a boringly bourgeois universe. In short, I was an ideal audient—and from the moment the score began and the famous words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” started to scroll I was transfixed.
We saw a lurid cosmos studded with desert, ice and jungle planets, and traversed by menaced princesses, mysterious exiles, farm-boys who find greatness, wanderers who are redeemed, peculiar animals, and automata with personalities, all harried by a lethal tyranny with a supreme weapon—the ensemble made realer by (then) impressive special effects and attention to detail, like layering dust on uniforms. It may have been lurid, but it felt like a “used universe”, lived-in and even oddly familiar—an impression aided by the archetypal characters and the saga-like sweep of the story.
I was at the upper age limit for the audience, and I never watched the succeeding films until years later, when I watched them all in chronological sequence as a cinematic curiosity. I was never ‘destined’ (to use a central Star Wars concept) to become an obsessive like many who feature in Chris Taylor’s book, who amass (but never unwrap) action dolls and make droids out of dustbins, and eviscerate the oeuvre in search of (absent) hidden meanings. But Star Wars nevertheless deserves attention as an oblique insight into the modern West, the way it sees itself and sometimes really is. How Star Wars Conquered the Universe is welcome as a comprehensive insight into the messy way big films are conceived—and with what blend of inspiration, improvisation, intensity, determination, compromise, error, and luck they are finally ejected into the void.
The business journalist-cum-fanboy author has conscientiously included a great deal of information about financing. This belongs in the story, because there would never have been any Star Wars had there not been highly lucrative Star Wares. But merchandising is always going to be less entertaining than such minutiae as that in early scripts “The Force” was “The Bogan”, and Luke Skywalker delightedly dined on “bum-bum extract”.
Few fans will see the films as mere money-making enterprises—even if they agree with Alec Guinness about the dialogue, find the gnomic gnome Yoda plain tiresome, or loathe (as everyone seems to) the jive-talking, prat-falling Jar Jar Binks. For millions, mostly Westerners, mostly male, Star Wars is more poetic than toyetic—fairytale, monomyth, interstellar Iliad, Christian allegory, cowboy story, anti-authoritarian fable, demolition derby in space, simple son et lumière, or some combination of several of these. It is also part of millions of childhood memories. Even now, Star Wars imagery and dialogue crop up constantly in popular culture, whether as in-jokes or straightforward hommage. Externally adult men manufacture styrofoam stormtroopers and plywood Millennium Falcons, check canonical detail on Wookieepedia, chat to themselves on RebelForce Radio or Jedi News UK, form legions of the like-minded, and cluster at conventions where they ‘learn’ about the morphology of midi-chlorians, the larvahood traumas of Jabba the Hutt, or how long it would take to mop the Death Star. They are looking forward in impatient agony to Disney’s issuance of The Force Awakens in December—then two further films at two-yearly intervals.
In a crass 2008 comment, George Lucas—called “The Creator” by fanboys—said he was the Father of the Star Wars movie world, the licensing company the Son, and fans the Holy Ghost. Taylor likewise lets himself get swept up in quasi-Christian fervour:
And so it came to pass that [a Lucasfilm executive] allowed herself to be photographed and tweeted next to an Artoo.
In this world, the socially maladroit can sometimes be saints:
Those Dungeons & Dragons players who switched to playing Star Wars would be like the Irish monks who saved civilization by copying ancient scrolls through the Dark Ages.
This is clearly misplaced, but although the films are shallow and at times ridiculous, they are intrinsically small-c conservative, celebrating masculinity, martial values, heroism, chivalry and filial loyalty. The good guys may be republicans, but they are oddly respectful of royal bloodlines and prerogatives, and the traditions of different planets. Lucas always had predictably left-wing politics, but from boyhood in Modesto, CA he had also drenched himself in folk-tale derived sci-fi, in which the mores and sometimes even the modes of medieval Europe were projected into far futurity. These things were not lost on sneerers who execrated the Eurocentrism, and compared the famous medal-giving ceremony at the end of the first film with Triumph of the Will—sci-fa rather than sci-fi.
Taylor claims that
Every culture around the planet, whether embattled or entitled, sees itself as the Rebel Alliance.
This is hyperbole, and indeed his assessment of cultural impact is confined to post-Christian countries—except Turkey, where a Darth Vader dress-alike led a couple of marches through Istanbul, and Japan and South Korea, where people purchase studio-pleasing quantities of plastic figures.
Even in countries where the films have become memes, there is little evidence that they have had any significant influence. Reagan is often said to have used the phrase “evil empire” in a nod to the films, but this is denied by his chief speechwriter, The ‘Star Wars’ films are intrinsically small-c conservative, celebrating masculinity, martial values, heroism, chivalry and filial loyaltywho points out gently that in fact there were unpleasant empires (real ones) prior to 1977. NASA may have transmitted the film’s theme music to a space-shuttle, but the shuttle would have been out there anyway—and NASA scientists apparently prefer Star Trek. First Worlders may all have seen Star Wars, but even as we gape at immemorial archetypes lightsabering it out, we have become much more corpulent and conformist than we were in 1977 (which itself has begun to look like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). If Star Wars really has “conquered the universe”, it has done very little with it.
But pabulum though the films are, at their heart there is still a sprinkling of stardust—something more than just the geeky imaginings of George Lucas, or the wish-fulfillment of over-comfortable kidults. Overarching everything else, the films offer a kind of window into the West, an Apollonian civilization still radiating energy outwards even as it bulges into a gigantic ball of gas. Chris Taylor’s assiduity in telling his tale will undoubtedly help perpetuate a valuable franchise—and maybe also that priceless outlook.
This review first appeared in Quadrapheme, and is reproduced with permission