death of a star wars fan
It’s taken me almost thirty five years to get this point. I am no longer a Star Wars fan. There. I said it.
This is not about growing up. Rather, this is about disillusionment. It’s about losing a relationship. Now, you may ask, “How could a grown man have a serious relationship with a kids’ movie?” That’s the crucial question, isn’t it? And the answer is what this post is about.
If you really want to understand the psyche of the average Star Wars nut, you have to back to the summer of 1977. For decades, there had been science fiction films. In fact, historians often claim that one of the first hit films, A Trip to the Moon, was science fiction. But Star Wars was one of the first science fiction films to transport the viewer, especially younger viewers, completely into the world of the film.
I’d seen other science fiction films. Fun, but patently constructed. You could see the strings holding the rocket ship, more Mystery Science Theater than cinema magic. Even films that were more technically advanced, like 2001, evoked more of a laboratory feel than a flesh and blood reality.
Star Wars was different. There was a grungy reality to it, and for good reason. Lucas went farther than any film maker in producing an alternate reality on film. He filmed in exotic locations and pushed the staff to invent new special effects. No CGI here. All effects had to be made from real, three dimensional objects.
But that’s not enough to make a nut. Star Wars had its effect on young kids because it combined a straight up action tale with some more edgy materials. The most famous example is that the good guys had to team up with someone who was a bad guy. But there’s a bit more. The movie depicts torture and bodily mutilations. Most young kids in the 1970s had never, ever seen a film that successfully melded the Saturday afternoon cowboy theme with more frank topics.
But aside from the film itself, there was the power of merchandising. Star Wars was the first film to successfully combine a blockbuster and toy distribution to an extraordinary degree. The effect on kids was that you could re-enact the film endlessly. And if you know kids, toys become a focal point of their imaginations. It’s not hard to see how the one-two punch of great film and massive two distribution could breed the Star Wars fans.
But still, 1977 could have been the end of it. There were other movies that spawned toys and fans. I have a vague memory of Planet of the Apes merchandise. I’m sure there were others. And Star Wars could have been relegated to the same fate – a movie fad, along with E.T. and others.
The Empire Strikes Back was what probably made the Star Wars fan psychosis possible. Star Wars was innovative and fun, but Empire was actually a good film. It is visually stunning and has some of the most memorable dialogue in film history.
This excellence shouldn’t be surprising once you learn about the film’s production. Lucas hired a well known director of dramatic film, Irvin Kershner, and two outstanding script writers, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Brackett was an accomplished science fiction writer. She also wrote the Big Sleep and other well known films of the 1950s and 1960s. Kasdan wrote Grand Canyon.
This Hollywood all-star team created a film that added much needed depth and maturity to the Star Wars world. The films were tied together by family drama, razor sharp dialogue, and fun characters, like Yoda.
This deeper Star Wars world just invited geeky young kids to indulge in all kinds of speculation. It also acted as a gateway into deeper nerdery. If Vader was indeed Luke’s father, then what other gems would be revealed in the novels and comic books? Star Wars was no longer a film, it was a universe with an unusually compelling story.
You could say that 1983-1999 was a golden age of Star Wars fandom. This period is often ignored, but it was crucial in ways that sane people may not appreciate. For about 16 years, Star Wars fans could justifiably be proud of the franchise. You had one innovative film, one great dramatic film, and a decent action flick to wrap it all up. And the merchandising kept rolling along. All was good at the Skywalker Ranch.
Sure, there were naysayers. But, overall, the achievement of the original series was becoming obvious. Lucas’ block buster model became the norm in Hollywood. Copycat films failed. Even professional film critics began listing Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back among the very best movies ever.
The result is that Star Wars fans felt a pride that’s probably not absent in a lot of types extreme fandom. Spider-Man may not be great literature, but Star Wars was actually great film. For sixteen years, super fans could just marinate in the penumbra of geeky goodness. Nerd pride ruled.
As well now know, The Phantom Menace was the beginning of the end. I won’t belittle the obvious, but there’s good laughs to be had in Red Letter’s epic deconstruction of the film. By itself, a horrid sequel isn’t so bad. Most of us enjoy the Matrix, even if a lot of us don’t care for Matrix Reloaded or Matrix Revolutions. How many of us would curtail our admiration of The Godfather because of Godfather III? We’re all adults, barely, and we can accept that sequels are frequently bad.
The Phantom Menace undermined Star Wars fandom because it eroded the internal coherence of the original Star War experience. The original trilogy was a simple, coherent world in a great special effects package. The plot of The Phantom Menace reframed so many original plot points in new ways that it made the original film less pleasurable to remember. And remember, the pleasure of the original films is the psychological foundation of the fan experience. Without the pleasure, there’s no point in indulging in the fan fiction, the merchandise, and the fan culture.
The most egregious example is probably the way the Force is treated in the original films and The Phantom Menace. Originally, the Force was simple – a mystic force that some enlightened folks could manipulate. No more explanation, the fans were left to fantasize. In The Phantom Menace, people can use the Force because they’ve been infected with bacteria. Original Force: mystic spirit. New Force: cooties.
The sane people will ask – “can’t you ignore the new film and just enjoy the old one?” Here’s where the group psychology comes in. The extreme fan identity was based on internalizing the world of the films and soaking up everything. Extreme fans challenge each other to trivia contests and ask deep ethical questions using the Star Wars films as examples. All of these activities depend on having a reliable and non-stupid stock of characters, events, and ideas, as expressed in the original films. Once The Phantom Menace came out, fans instinctively soaked up the new material and tried to combine it with the old materials. Since the new stuff was bad and there was so much of it, it debased the collective memory of the original films.
So what? That’s the question a sane person would ask. Remember, being an extreme fan is akin to belonging to a religion. You need the original to be pure and good for the whole thing to be a functional basis for your belief system. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work.
Let me give you an example from my own background. In Christian religion, there is the belief that Jesus was killed and rose from the dead. It’s a powerful idea that inspires a lot of deep thinking about the meaning of life. Now, imagine, that it was later revealed that Jesus was not actually dead. He just had a tummy ache and went to the cave to sleep it off. Furthermore, his followers gave him some Pepto Bismol. That’s what the Phantom Menace did, it just messed with the original mythology too much.
But still, I think Star Wars fandom may have survived intact. There’s a lot of TV series that survived lame seasons and even tinkering with the show’s original mythology. The final step was when Lucas started to undermine the original source material itself.
You may ask: “Who cares if Han shot first? You’re a tenured professor, fer cryin’ out loud. Grow up.” Once again, that’s what a mature individual would ask. We’re talking about nuttery here. We’re talking about people who derive enormous pleasure from obsessing over the unpublished background material to a thirty year old science fiction film.
By altering the original film, Lucas attacked the mythology that sustained 22 years of obsession. And these alterations, while often small, had a cumulative effect. The clean, sharp look of the movie became cluttered. The tension between characters was gone. The emotional level of the film was dropped from middle school to preschool. Casual viewers probably don’t notice much, but you definitely notice if you had watched the movie dozens of times.
To complete the insult, George Lucas insisted that the new edition was what he had always intended and that he had no desire to make the original version available. This is like the Pope saying, “Look, Jesus was never meant to rise from the dead. I always knew he just had a tummy ache. That original Gospel you guys have is just wrong. We’ll never produce it again and you have to buy the new Gospel with scratch and sniff stickers.”
I realized I was a dead Star Wars fan a few weeks ago. I saw a poster for The Phantom Menace in 3D. I didn’t get angry or upset, nor did I mention it to any of my geek buddies. Instead, I just didn’t care. I didn’t even realize that I didn’t care until someone mentioned the movie. The pop culture that used to excite me gets less attention than a broken traffic light.
I’m grateful for George Lucas. He made growing up in the 1970s a lot of fun. I had a lot of special moments with my friends watching the movies and arguing about them. I still think he deserves a lot of respect as a director, Star Wars and American Graffiti are good. But the bottom line is the erosion of the mythology has made it hard for long term fans to sustain enthusiasm in the same way that a Tolkein enthusiast can. Doesn’t mean that I won’t indulge in pop culture. It means that I won’t be at another re-release of a Star Wars film, but I will be at the Hunger Games, eager to plunge into its world.