A couple of months ago, Rob (CmdrTaco) Malda and I were trading e-mail about "Star Wars: Phantom Menace." He gracelessly reminded me that even though he?d seen "Star Wars" 100 times or so, he hadn?t seen it in a movie theater when it first came out (he would have been in diapers) and I had.
Alas, this is so. And given the insane commercial and media hype surrounding "Phantom Menace," I?m the lucky one. (This isn?t a review - I haven?t seen the movie yet.)
The original "Star Wars" came as something of a shock when it appeared two decades ago. It was promoted, of course, but before the age of Mega Hype it was possible to discover a great movie, rather than have one rammed down your throat and into every other orifice.
And the original "Star Wars" was discovered by transfixed nerds and movie lovers. It was a weird movie, half fairy tale and half comic book, yet a very human and accessible one. It proved an instant smash with almost everyone, ordinary ticket buyers along with the non-normal. It celebrated science fiction, technology and heroic oddballs all at once.
A pre -Web movie, fans had fewer ways of spreading the word, but the raves got around. The movie?s genuine stars were technology, animation, imagination and special effects. But in other ways, it was a very old story: the young man or woman called to a great adventure, one in which his community?s survival was at stake. He battles the forces without, but first has to conquer the ones within.
For eons, in various forms from Hercules and the Trojan war to "High Noon" to Batman, this idea has been an elemental myth in virtually every culture. Do we have what it takes to confront evil when it arises and threatens us and the people we love? Will we do the right thing, and comport ourselves with honor and dignity?
The power of myth permeated the original "Star Wars", and not by accident. George Lucas credited the late mythologist Joseph Campbell as a major inspiration for characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and even invited Campbell, an academic and writer, to a special screening to view the "Stars Wars" trilogy at Lucas? Skywalker ranch in California.
The journalist Bill Moyers was there at the screening, too, and later recalled that Campbell "reveled in the ancient themes and motifs of mythology unfolding on the wide screen in powerful, contemporary images." Campbell, Moyers remembered, especially exulted aloud in the fact that Lucas had put an up-to-date spin on the timeless hero/quest.
"And what is that?" asked Moyers.
"It?s what Goethe said in Faust but which Lucas has dressed in modern idiom - the message that technology is not going to save us. Our computers, our tools, our machines are not enough. We have to rely on our intuition, our true being."
Campbell also loved the Darth Vader character - the dark and evil man in the mask - as a staple of mythology dating back to ancient wall scribblings.
"Darth Vader," he told Moyers in a later interview, "has not developed his own humanity. He?s a robot. He?s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system. This is the threat to our lives that we all face today. Is the system going to flatten you out and deny your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system so that you are not compulsively serving it?"
Re-reading this interview in "Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth," I couldn?t help thinking that twenty years later, that Lucas has lost touch with the spirit of his own creation.
Vader would now be out on the network in the employ of some giant corporation, or maybe a gargantuan tel-com, directing the Hype machine and pushing around the competition. Bill Gates doesn?t make it as a truly menacing figure who wants to hurt people, but the mammoth corporatism he has come to embody is creepy enough. It invokes empire, and hovers above us all like some giant spaceship, just waiting to plop down and squash us. And it definitely evokes a system that denies humanity.
Mostly, what I recall about the first Star Wars was the almost spine-tingling sense of simplicity, menace and drama.
There was the first appearance of Lord Vader, the ironic and deflating presence of Harrison Ford?s Han Solo (who, along with R2D2, kept the movie from getting too pompous or heavy-handed), and that curiously emotional moment when Ben Kenobi says to Luke: "Turn off your computer, turn off your machine and do it yourself, follow your feelings, trust your feelings."
And when he did, it worked. Luke rode a crippled, defenseless machine into a Death Star to save the world, and in the end, rose above all the machinery to get the job done. The dozen or so times that I saw the movie, that moment always brought the loudest applause.
If the original "Star Wars" invoked the power of myth, Phantom Menace invokes the power of hype. Lucas has shamelessly sold his soul, thus that of his movie, to magazine editors, TV producers, toy-makers, pizza and fried-chicken purveyors, and the massive corporations cranking out toys, books, calendars and videos. There?s almost no piece of Lucas?s story that he wasn?t happy to peddle to the highest bidder. One can only imagine how many - unlike the original figures -- were created with marketing tie-ins in mind. On May 3, Toys "R" Us sold 1.25 million units of "Phantom" products. According to Entertainment Weekly, tie-ins from the movie will probably represent the biggest event in the history of the toy business.
This week, Pepsi-affiliated Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken began a months- long, TV-saturated, cross-promotional campaign. Each restaurant will be turned into one of the planets in the movie. Each will have its own toys "that can?t be found anywhere else." KFC gets the Jar Jar Binks Squirter, Taco Bell the Anakin Skywalker Transforming Bank, and Pepsi itself is offering four separate commemorative soda cans. There are rumors that Yoda himself will soon be on the tube, guzzling pop.
Is that Lucas message, the point of one of the great creative works in all of popular culture? Get as much as you can? Embrace the bigness and squeeze it for every last nickel?
Yuk. This kind of hype isn?t just about making a few bucks. It?s about manipulating children in the name of greed and influence. It?s about ego and cash. This round, we?re not allowed to discover a great work; we?re nearly beaten to death with it, and it?s calculatedly cute, most profitable and commercial manifestations.
The cacophony is demeaning to Lucas and to his film and insulting to his audience. It?s hard to know which would be worse: if "Phantom Menace" is a great movie defiled by Lucas and his marketing tie-ins or, if it?s a crummy movie lost in the cloud of hype.
Every big movie arrives in a cloud of tie-ins, toy promotions and fast-food marketing schemes these days. Lucas can?t be blamed for that. But if any producer every claimed that his movies were not like all the others, it?s Lucas. The gross commercialism of the pre-Phantom Menace campaign has gone way beyond the usual hard sell, especially given that he has worked to studiously to invoke the image of the pure, independent, anti-Hollywood producer, holed up in his far-from-LA compound in the interest of art and integrity.
Lucas himself has graced the cover of Wired and even corrupted Popular Mechanics (which refers to "film genius" George Lucas) and the films? various stars have fanned out to be photographed for the covers of Time, Newsweek, Premiere, and Vanity Fair. This doesn?t count the barrage of TV appearances ("60 Minutes", et al) scheduled to be unleashed this week.
And for good measure, he?s turned a chunk of the Web into a giant, teeming fanzine and Star Wars shopping mart. X-Files and Buffy sites are crammed with adoring fans too, but they aren?t droid like. They can also be independent, creative and original - their members sometimes writing original episodes when their programs are in hiatus, sometimes even breaking news the producers don?t want to get out. But many of the Star Wars sites are simply worshipful, the movie a faith rather than an imaginative amusement.
Contrast the irony of the man who loudly prohibits any form of advertising in or around his movie in theaters with the one behind money-grubbing sales outlets like the Amazon.com Star Wars Store. The one behind the "paper-engineered" Pit or Battle droid display that can be ordered with the purchase of any of the scores of "Star Wars" titles, calendars, toddler books, paper-action figures and other paraphernalia being sold in chains and books stores.
Lucas himself seems tired of his humble origins, eager to shed his geeky roots, to come in from his self-imposed cold and join the pantheon of mainstream, big-time Hollywood producers. In his interviews, he?s gone to great pains to cast himself as a normal (read: non-geek) guy, sitting at his California breakfast table, appearing in most of his interviews in a plaid shirt, talking about his kids, his digital backlot and his past life as a Hollywood rebel.
Seems like he?s embracing some myth off-screen, too. These days Lucas seems as much of a rebel as Bill Gates, and even more greedy.
The truth is, director James Cameron of "Titanic" (probably not as nice a guy, by most accounts) showed a lot more courage and rebelliousness in the making of his movie. He actually risked forgoing his share of the profits in order to go over budget to make the kind of movie he wanted. "Titanic," was plenty hyped, but Cameron knew to stay away from Pizza Hut, and avoided Lucas? holier-than-thou posture.
Is hype without limit or shame or any shred of dignity? Isn?t there some boundary between a lot of bucks and every buck? Nobody needs that much money, and the avalanche of toys and tie-ins has already obscured the power of myth that suffused the original "Star Wars," no matter how good "Phantom Menace" is or isn?t. We should have been prepared by the end of the trilogy: remember those revolting Ewoks?
"Star Wars" was a breathtakingly original idea in its day, but for all the intergalactic battles, the original movie stayed refreshingly grounded. Ford?s Han Solo was constantly smirking at all the chatter about the Force, Princess Leiea was stuck with that awful hair, and the Empire?s white plastic foot soldiers were profoundly cartoony. The movie never forgot that it was a simple story at heart - high stakes, good guys versus bad guys, the real weapons being good hearts and plenty of guts.
Reeling under the deluge of magazine covers last week - the final straw for me was Vogue?s "exclusive" spread on "Star Wars Couture," complete with the outfits Natalie Portman wears around the Planet Naboo -- I told my family last week that I was considering skipping the movie. A protest against hype. My wife and daughter laughed.
They?re right, of course. I?ll go, eventually. But I?m glad I did get to see "Star Wars" the first time around, in a very different context.
It?s probably just as well that Joseph Campbell died before "Phantom Menace" appeared. It?s hard to believe he?d feel the same way that he did about the original: "?the movie communicates. It is in a language that talks to young people, and that?s what counts. It asks, Are you going to be a person of heart and humanity - because that?s where the life is, from the heart - or are you going to do whatever seems to be required of you by what might be called ?intentional power?"?
"Phantom Menace raises a different set of issues. Here?s Pepsi?s pitchman Hal Oates: "If you mail one of the Yoda cans back to us," he says on TV, "you?ll get a special collector?s check worth $20 - or you can hold onto the can for the future."
The next generation deserved better. Lucas has proven to be yet another sell-out and spin-meister, his hypocritical posturing collapsing under the weight of Toys ?R Us royalties and inter-galactic pizza.