Pop Technology

How Star Wars changed the world.

That Star Wars should turn out to be a kind of cultural touchstone for many people is likely to be mysterious to the many people for whom it is not a cultural touchstone. It’s tempting to assume that its appeal, like the appeal of most popular entertainment, is simply a function of how old you were when you were first exposed to it. Fourteen seems to be the age of prime vulnerability for these things–a time of life when the clay is soft enough to take an impression and firm enough to retain it. If you were 14 when the Beatles flourished, you are probably a Beatles fan for life. If you were 14 when Star Trek was on television, you are (God help you) probably a Trekkie.

No doubt some of the success of the re-released Star Wars is therefore owed to people born circa 1963. But they can’t take all the credit. This is a movie that, although it had been available on videotape for years, grossed $36.2 million the weekend it was re-released. To put those dollars in perspective, Jerry Maguire, the second-highest-grossing movie that weekend, took in $5.6 million. Gridlock’d, the former No. 1, made $2.2 million. Star Wars did better its first weekend in re-release than Mission: Impossible–and it recouped its production costs long, long ago.

Things this profitable require explanation. here is the big screen/little screen thesis: Videotape is inadequate for a movie like Star Wars, which is famous for its epic scale and special effects, so that even people who know the story by heart are happy to plunk down $6 or $7 to get the full 70 mm experience. This seems the weakest explanation. The movie has been buffed up a bit–a remixed soundtrack, some new computer-generated images, and so forth. But as pure big-screen experience, it still feels light-years behind a contemporary state-of-the-art spectacular like Independence Day. The quaintness of the movie is probably more appealing than the new–and, to someone who hadn’t seen the film in 20 years, practically imperceptible–special effects.
       The second answer, and the one preferred by the film’s creator, George Lucas, is the myth-and-archetype explanation–timeless themes, classic characters, basic elements of universal human nature, etc. This argument probably needs to be parsed into two elements. The original Star Wars spun off two more movies (the third of which, The Return of the Jedi, actually out-performed the original at the box office), a line of books (many of them best sellers), and a number of other licensed products, to the total tune of something like $4.3 billion. This is, in other words, a story that occupies a substantial amount of turf in the popular culture. Everyone in America knows “May the force be with you” and what a Wookiee is, just as everyone knows “Yabba dabba doo!” and what a Flintstone is.

W hether this translates into myth, any more than The Flintstones translates into myth, is another matter. Star Wars is stuffed with “mythemes”–the atomic elements, so to speak, of mythic material. The movie reminds you of dozens of stories you already know, and it thus cashes in–brilliantly, it must be said–on the secret formula of all art, which is: If it worked once, it will again. But most of the elements didn’t come out of The Golden Bough. They came out of all the other successful pseudo-mythical contrivances of American popular culture–Westerns, Flash Gordon, The Godfather, and so on. The basic template seems to be an amalgam of The Wizard of Oz and Happy Days: The relationship between Luke (Mark Hamill) and Han (Harrison Ford) is just the relationship between Richie and the Fonz; the Wookiee is cloned directly from the Cowardly Lion; and the scene in which C-3PO is dismembered by the Sand People is completely appropriated from the scene in which the Scarecrow is dismembered by flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. It is true that The Wizard is a story implanted deep in the memory banks of the viewing public–but it is a stretch to call Star Wars’ appeal atavistic.      The third explanation for the success of the Star Wars re-release is just that they marketed the hell out of it. In February in the entertainment business, the land lies fallow. The big Christmas movies have mostly played out their pre-Oscar runs; the television season is already old; football is finished, basketball is still midseason, and baseball is two months off. It is not a bad time to promote a product. The Star Wars re-release got play in almost every conceivable outlet. And when you start seeing, even before the movie opens, detailed press accounts of the process by which the new computer-generated images were designed and inserted into the picture, you know that the publicity wheels have already been turning on this one for a very long time.

Still, the key to a successful entertainment phenomenon usually isn’t the what or the how. It’s the when. Before everything else that was significant about them, the Beatles were what came along after Elvis. Their differences from Elvis (more literate and lovable, less slick and racially ambiguous) were what made their similarities with Elvis (purveyors of courtship music for teen-agers, a scandal to grown-ups) work.
       The Star Wars Elvis was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie that combined cult attraction with intellectual pretension. 2001 is a science-fiction movie that takes science extremely seriously. Its message is that the advanced technological future–what we now call the age of digitalization–will transform the human race into a new, probably soulless species, just as apes once became humans by the invention of the tool. Computers in particular–the famous HAL, whose acronym is IBM one letter removed–are represented as the models of what this superior being will have to be like. It was all in keeping with the general pop imagery of computer technology: automation, a brave-new-world technocracy, white guys in white coats–a universe without affect and with some sort of cosmic inevitability about it.

S tar Wars changed all that. It was spoofy and pop rather than gnomic and portentous (or, indeed, “mythic,” which is what popular entertainment becomes when people have made too much money from it). And it associated technology with fun and adventure. The movie didn’t just suggest that people who fly around in spaceships will be just as swashbuckling, funny, romantic, and–in a word–human as ever. It was itself an advertisement, through its special-effects wizardry, for the new unthreatening entertainment. The movie coincided with a complete makeover in the late 1970s of the imagery of advanced technology, the most notable examples of which were the emergence of the video game and the famous IBM advertisements for the PC that featured Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. Computers aren’t soul-destroying weapons of technocratic efficiency, these images said. They’re interactive and fun; anyone can use them (even the Tramp); and they should be associated not with the idea of labor, but with the idea of play. The computer is the toy that will keep us human.      The digital age that has now arrived is almost exactly in the image that Star Wars prophesied, so that celebrating the movie is a way of honoring its prescience. (If the digital age seemed soulless and technocratic, we would probably be watching a re-released 2001.) Computers got into people’s homes when they stopped being thought of as needlessly expensive and vaguely inhuman ways to balance your checkbook, and started being sold as devices for your kids to play “educational” games on. And a computer network devised on the grim old Cold War technological rationale–as a Defense Department scheme–has become a play land for ordinary citizens with modems. High tech is now associated with creativity, democracy, and spending more time with your kids. It is because we had Star Wars that we have SLATE.

Of course, it is because we had Star Wars that the movies changed, and not for the better. In making the digital world fun, we somehow made fun merely digital. In the biggest Hollywood movies, screen actors have become tiny figurines–droids, almost–manipulated in front of colossal computer-generated spaceships, fireballs, tornadoes, and volcanic eruptions. The sensual essence of the movies used to be the human face; now it’s just light and sound. The real world has become a blue screen, and the human being is a prop. In last summer’s blockbuster Twister, the amazing virtual noise of the amazing virtual tornadoes was so deafening that there were long stretches in which, although the characters were apparently shouting at one another at the top of their lungs, no dialogue was audible. If you listened very carefully, though, you realized that there actually was no dialogue; the actors were obviously aware that their voices were not going to be heard. So they were just repeating the same line over and over in every tornado scene. “Come on!” they kept yelling. “Let’s get out of here!” The impulse was understandable. But where were they going to go?