New Movies — From the February 2016 issue

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In December, on the eve of Pearl Harbor Day, President Obama spoke to the nation from the Oval Office about the attack in San Bernardino, California, that left fourteen people dead. “The terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase,” the president said. The married couple responsible for the attack, he told the camera, “had gone down the dark path of radicalization, embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West.” They were “part of a cult of death,” which he contrasted with America’s “belief in human dignity.” In the battle against the Islamic State’s deadly ideology, the president had no doubt that America would prevail.

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

After his speech, Obama zoomed off to the Kennedy Center to celebrate the artistic achievements of, among others, George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars series. Carrie Fisher appeared in holograph form, beamed to the proceedings from the little droid R2-D2, just as she had as Princess Leia way back in 1977, when the first film was released. A phalanx of Stormtroopers danced their way through the ceremony as the gathered luminaries praised Lucas, who accepted his award by reminding everyone that the “bright side of the Force is love, the dark side is hate.” He implored the audience, “Stick to the bright side.”

During his time in office, Obama has never missed the Kennedy Center Honors. By attending this year just after appearing on television to quell the nation’s fears, he was emphasizing America’s commitment to the arts and to the human dignity they affirm. If that human dignity could be hitched to a movie franchise that has brought in billions of dollars from all over the world, and to the imminent premiere of its seventh and latest installment — STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS — so much the better for everyone concerned. In this official setting, Star Wars showed that the unparalleled appeal of the American system is bound up with the projection of images that combine innocence with firepower.

It was firepower that at least one commentator, speaking from the dark side, had on his mind as the twin manias for gun violence and Star Wars commingled last autumn. “I think I’ll wait till Star Wars is less a threat scenario,” Erick Erickson, the conservative blogger and radio host, mused on his blog. He was not willing, he said, to see The Force Awakens on the day it opened because he had “no confidence in this administration to keep us all safe.” Acting on some combination of hysteria and wish fulfillment, he took his anger out on the December 5 edition of the New York Times, which featured a front-page editorial calling for gun control. Erickson shot the newspaper full of holes with the weapon he would be prohibited from taking to the movie, then tweeted a photo of his handiwork with a request that his followers do the same.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that Star Wars is used for such fearmongering. Disney’s purchase of the franchise from George Lucas in 2012, for $4 billion, led to an explosion of merchandising options that underscored the way in which Star Wars, America’s secular, taxable religion, is proselytized from one generation to the next, a form of what Manohla Dargis, a film critic for the New York Times, has called “cradle-to-grave entertainment.”

A series of Walmart ads called “A New Generation Awakens,” which was shown before trailers, depicts parents and grandparents explaining the Force and all it entails to youngsters with the aid of Star Wars toys. A creepy TV commercial for HP’s expensive printer ink features a father directing and photographing his son and daughter as they reenact the Darth Vader–Luke Skywalker lightsaber duel from The Empire Strikes Back for his camera. He prints the pictures and sends them to his own father, proving to this elder that he has done right. In the thirty-nine years of its existence, Star Wars has gone from nerdy obsession to full-fledged lifestyle brand. Just as the movies are cradle-to-grave entertainments, the brand offers cause-and-cure tie-ins. Ample Hills Dark Side and Light Side ice cream may cause tooth decay, but Oral-B and Crest’s Star Wars toothpastes and toothbrushes will fight it off.

From the beginning, even before the films were available for home viewing, it was Lucas’s intention to extend the Star Wars experience beyond the theater. The toys became the talismanic figurines of a new faith, totems used to tell the story again and again, with no need for a holy book. (One fan theory postulates that the faraway galaxy in which the Star Wars movies are set has dispensed with reading.) When the first film came out, J. G. Ballard, the novelist, identified its inspiration in the “iconography of mass merchandising.” The postapocalyptic movie Reign of Fire, from 2002, showed adults reenacting the Darth–Luke duel for children in a candlelit church, the conflict sacralized in the waning days of humanity.

Ballard sought a “weird, unintentional parable of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam” in the first of the movies — with the Empire standing in for the United States and the Rebel Alliance for the Vietcong — but he could not quite find one. Ronald Reagan had less difficulty identifying American power with Lucas’s twentieth-century pop Nibelungenlied. Although Lucas objected, Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, an antiballistic-missile system, came to be known as the Star Wars Defense Initiative. Soon after Reagan announced the SDI, in 1983, he applied the term “Evil Empire” to the Soviet Union. The mutability of the Force, which allows it to work for both the dark side and the bright, lends itself to a binary worldview that is readily deployable in geopolitical conflict, even in a time when America is the only empire left. In a postimperial era, it’s easy enough for any faction to see themselves as rebels and their enemies as the Sith.

If Star Wars addressed children as consumers, its message of “a new hope” set amid a Freudian power struggle also relieved parental neglect by dramatizing it. For the latchkey kids of the post-Vietnam era, seeing the films with their mothers and fathers provided a central moment of bonding in a world that lacked in children’s movies and attachment parenting. The kids who first played with Star Wars toys used their miniature Darth Vaders and Luke Skywalkers as a form of developmental therapy. Whether they have grown up or not, those first viewers have aged, like the actors in the original three movies. As Anthony Daniels, who plays C-3PO, the ageless golden droid, told the Daily Mirror, “What is funny is C-3PO looks the same — Harrison, Carrie, and Mark, not so much . . . Poor Mark. He was a young, lovely looking lad when he was first Luke Skywalker and now . . . well . . . ”

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