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.
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 . . . ”
It must be strange to zip around the universe and keep bumping into your family. With The Force Awakens, the conflict, and the interbreeding between Empire and Rebellion, now extend to a third generation, even if Darth Vader is only a burnt skeleton kept around for inspiration. (If the children of the Clintons and the Bushes marry, this could be the kind of future we’re looking at.) The young protagonists being inducted into Star Wars history are reluctant to pursue good or evil — they are more nuanced than their predecessors. With their help, the story has been retrofitted to update it for a post-Twilight, post–Hunger Games world. Like the children in the Walmart ad, they must be taught how to live in the dualistic Star Wars universe.
The film, which is directed by J. J. Abrams, opens with flamethrower-armed Stormtroopers incinerating a village on a desert planet. The scene gestures at the Vietnam allegory that Ballard was looking for in the first episode while also suggesting Iraq, today’s version of a never-ending war. One of the Stormtroopers deserts his unit after the rampage. His introduction is ultra-cinematic: before we get to see his face, he is distinguished from the other fighters only by the red blood streaked across his white helmet. This self-emancipated Stormtrooper — played, in a shrewd casting decision, by John Boyega, a British-Nigerian actor — chooses to call himself Finn; the name of Mark Twain’s white protagonist is suggested by the first two letters of the designation the Empire assigned to him, F-N. (Maybe the characters can read, after all.)
The Empire, now known as the First Order, is no respecter of intergalactic rights. Poe (Oscar Isaac), another new character with a literary name, is a Resistance fighter pilot who gets initiated into the universe of the movies through torture. As all-American in his attitude as any World War II flying ace, Poe mocks the black mask of his lead torturer, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), which is worn, it seems, in emulation of Darth Vader, Ren’s grandfather, not because he needs it to breathe. By the time Rey (Daisy Ridley), the plucky desert scavenger who gives the series a shot of new girl power, takes her turn in the torture chair, we learn that a young woman can use the Force to stop torture as easily as waving off the dentist.
The film’s political resonances are as mutable — and as muddled — as those of its predecessors. The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well. As the film’s Lawrence of Arabia–Seven Samurai–Triumph of the Will images (dunes, forests, rallies) coalesce, The Force Awakens moves toward a predictable but glorious last scene, which culminates in a monumental image: the bearded, time-battered face of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. He looks ready for Mount Rushmore (and remarkably like Slavoj Žižek). Whatever has happened to Hamill in the years since Return of the Jedi came out, in 1983, he wears the ravages of our shared history on his face.