There’s a scene in The Empire Strikes Back that epitomizes what’s wrong with cinema (and comics) today.
Han Solo and company have fled in the Millennium Falcon, and they head into an asteroid field. It’s a conventional sci-fi asteroid field, with the asteroids so close together that they’re an obstacle to navigation. In real life, asteroids packed this densely would have collided long ago, but that’s not the problem I want to discuss. Han and crew hide the ship inside a cavern on an asteroid. Later, Han realizes something, and they flee. “This is no cave,” says Han, and they fly out past two rows of teeth just before they can chomp down. As the Falcon flies away, the worm’s head reaches out from the hole in the asteroid, but misses the fleeing ship.
Riiiight. And how is this worm living on this asteroid again?
That’s what you’d ask, unless the person proposing this worm wasn’t a young child, whom you might want to encourage… and whom you’d trust would figure out how to be more disciplined in his or her ideas before he or she started writing professionally.
The asteroid doesn’t seem to have any air or heat. And there’s no other life on the asteroid that we can see, which means the worm has no food source.
You could pretty much stop there, but my particular brain can’t help but wonder about other stuff. Like how this worm evolved on a lifeless asteroid, or how it got there if it didn’t. We even see Han and others with little masks on, suggesting there’s little or no atmosphere on the asteroid / inside the worm. But they’re no decompression, nor do they suffer from the cold of outer space. Also, the worm must have had its mouth open the entire time — which might make sense if it evolved to trap its prey this way. But why does it keep its mouth open, even after being shot and showing signs of pain, until the Millennium Falcon is streaking away, and only then shut its mouth too slowly to prevent its prey from leaving? The answer is obviously that this provides the maximum melodrama, and that’s the worm’s only real function. You’re not supposed to think about it. Obviously, no one working on the movie did.
But like I said, you could pretty much stop at “it’s a giant space worm.”
The space worm might as well be a fire-breathing dragon. Or a squid. Or a giant human being made of ice. It could be anything. None of these creatures would have any less reason to be there than the space worm.
In fact, the Star Wars movies are filled with this kind of thing. The monsters of Return of the Jedi work the same way. What is the Rancor Monster? It’s just a giant monster Jabba the Hut keeps for his own amusement. Nothing further is given, nor required. That same movie also has the Sarlacc Pit, a giant beast of unknown anatomy whose mouth is a toothed and tentacled pit in the desert. How in the world did it get there? Or evolve? Doesn’t matter. It’s cool.
(All three of these monsters also threaten to eat and digest the main characters, and Luke has to hide inside a creature for warmth, early in The Empire Strikes Back. Perhaps it’s no wonder some kids raised on this material grew up to download vore. But I digress.)
The same preference for cool visuals and melodrama goes back to the first Star Wars movie, in which the Death Star can destroy planets because that’s cool. No physics need apply. It’s said to be the size of a moon, yet in practice it’s remarkably small. Despite that it’s under construction, its trash compactor is inexplicably filled with water (an expensive resource in space) and somehow has a monster in it (because it, like the space worm, is another way of adding melodrama). And of course, the Death Star was built with a “fire here to blow everything up” shaft.
This same disregard for logic, in favor of wild entertainment, is epitomized in the lightsaber. Yes, a sword made out of light is a cool idea, and it looks cool in the movies. But how does it work? What stops the light from extending outward from the hilt forever? The lightsaber doesn’t make sense, and it’s not actually important to the story, but it’s included because it looks cool. The lightsaber is to visuals what the space worm is to plot.
There certainly should be a cultural place for melodrama that looks cool. Star Wars owes a lot to sci-fi serials, which were all about adventure and certainly didn’t bother to think about physics or evolution or alien societies. Everything was subordinated to melodramatic entertainment, to cool but disposable ideas and visuals. The original Star Wars trilogy does an excellent job of distilling these values into a new and epic whole, and that’s really all it sets out to do. And that’s fine.
But as the distillation of the spirit of the sci-fi serial, we shouldn’t ignore that Star Wars also distills its inspirations’ faults. There can be a thin line between ignoring logic to tell an entertaining story and codifying this into a narrative that’s actually hostile to thinking. A lot of those old serials had muscle-bound protagonists who triumphed over vastly superior technology almost by sheer force of will, while scientists were depicted as ineffectual or morally weak. Some stories simply implied that knowledge and goodness were two different things, while others implied a more anti-intellectual message: that those with scientific knowledge were not to be trusted and that all you needed was a kind of idealized version of middle-class American values, which would invariably win out as if by magic. This tension runs through much of Star Wars’s inspirations. And this too Star Wars distilled… into the Force.
The Force isn’t about the mind. It’s about shutting the mind off. It’s the mystical embodiment of the pulp adventurer’s force of will, now given a sort of metaphysical reality. The movie’s hero is a country bumpkin, thrust by destiny into the high-stakes, technological international-as-interplanetary milieu of the Empire and its rebellion. His strength comes not from any real talent, nor any real skill, but rather his belief in himself. He’s the embodiment of what would become America’s cult of self-esteem, in which belief in yourself is all-important, you can be anything you want to be regardless of hard work or training, and visualizing the life you want somehow causes the universe to fulfill your wishes. With our comparatively primitive planes, thousands of hours can be required for flight certification, but Luke Skywalker skips this step. He achieves victory when he compounds his lack of training with shutting off his instruments and trusting his instincts instead. (You know, precisely what they tell real pilots never to do, because it gets them killed.) Sure, Luke trains with Yoda in the sequel, but it’s more like zen meditation than anything resembling actual knowledge or education. The ancestors of Star Wars might have flirted with anti-intellectualism, but Star Wars codifies this into an anti-intellectual manifesto.
And this can’t be ignored, when we’re talking about space worms and lightsabers. The movies don’t simply place melodrama and cool visuals over logic. They aren’t simply unconcerned, in a childlike way, with whether an idea makes any sense. They are hostile to asking such questions, which they position as the kind of big-city, snooty attitude of those who look down on young Skywalker — and, we may guess, on George Lucas. Only an elitist would bother to think about a space worm’s evolution, the movie suggests, and the only acceptable response the movie leaves to us is to talk about how cool the worm is, or in what was. If Star Wars has any message at all, it’s that thinking is a self-destructive endeavor. The movie, space worm included, demonstrates the same approach that caused its Luke Skywalker to succeed. You certainly can’t say the film doesn’t have the confidence of its convictions.
Speaking personally, I love those old sci-fi serials, and I delighted to the Star Wars movies as a kid. I still remember my Empire Strikes Back blanket. My brother and I liked the toys. My brother’s favorite was Chewbacca, and whenever our dog got mad, he’d go into my brother’s room, root for his Chewbacca figure, and chew it up. He’d leave all the other figures alone. My brother would be terribly upset, and my parents replaced so many Chewbacca figures that they kept extras on hand. Because my father worked for the American Film Institute, I even got to see the L.A. premiere of Return of the Jedi as a kid. I wouldn’t call myself a Star Wars fan today, but Star Wars fans are great — my own goddaughter is one. So I’m no Star Wars hater. Heck, I’m an American male; Star Wars is in my DNA.
But stuff like the space worm is what made parents roll their eyes at the Star Wars movies, back in the day. As a kid, you tell your parents they don’t understand, but that usually means they just don’t appreciate how cool or fun you find something. Usually, there’s not really anything to understand, except another aesthetic mode or style, which is rarely superior or inferior to previous ones. But you know what? You grow up. And when you grow up, it becomes okay to say you enjoy something, or that it’s got cool visuals or characters, or even that it changed your life, but that it’s also imperfect… or even that it’s actually pretty dumb, when you think about it.
Many film historians regard the 1970s as a kind of Golden Age of Hollywood cinema. The big-budget spectacles and musicals of the 1960s had failed to sustain box-office revenues, in the wake of television, and Hollywood contracted. Hollywood’s 1970s output is often characterized by a willingness to confront viewers and their values, stemming from late 1960s movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Easy Rider, and Midnight Cowboy. Detective stories got grittier and more realistic in movies like The French Connection, Dirty Harry, and Chinatown. The quality of Hollywood’s writing arguably reached a peak never seen before or since, with excellently written movies with a social conscience, like Dog Day Afternoon and Network. American cinema seemed to be merging, or at least growing closer to, European cinema.
And then came Star Wars.
Hits generate imitators. It’s amazing to think of how many sci-fi franchises were either created or revived in the wake of Star Wars, including Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and even the 1978 Superman. Star Wars also changed how we think about merchandising, which has since become such an important part of franchises. Indeed, the dominance of franchises — in which every Hollywood movie seems to be a sequel or a remake — owes something to Star Wars.
But perhaps the most severe influence of Star Wars was that it demonstrated good writing wasn’t important. Star Wars eschewed everything that was thoughtful and challenging about 1970s cinema. You could say that Star Wars brought back something of the spectacle, a loose genre that hadn’t really thrived since the 1960s. Those older spectacles, often historical epics, certainly weren’t up to the par of the well-written 1970s movies, but they weren’t contemptuous of good writing either. Star Wars didn’t so much bring back the spectacle so much as it solidified the anti-intellectual spectacle, in which cool visuals like lightsabers could make not only for good movie posters but for action figures and bubble-gum cards and backpacks and blankets… and in which melodramatic excitement, wrapped in a mildly interesting idea, no longer had to courtesy to logic or plot.
When we talk about how movies seem to be nothing but big-budget spectacles, focused on franchises, that’s a trajectory that goes back to Star Wars. But the same can be said about the fact that these big-budget Hollywood spectacles are typically remarkably dumb, to the point that simply having a mildly different setting or character or visual style is praised. Special effects have improved to the extent that the glitzy perfection of movie after movie staggers the eyes, yet their scripts rarely show many signs of having been adequately rewritten, much less the kind of thorough examination of narrative options and philosophical implications that tends to characterize good writing.
True, the preferred genres have changed — these glitzy cinematic offerings are now more likely to be super-hero stories than sci-fi. But wasn’t Luke Skywalker a super-hero, who discovered his super-powers and defeated the super-villain’s inexplicable device? And if we’re honest, how many of our cinematic super-heroes are anti-intellectual know-nothings, who triumph despite tremendous odds (and often the laws of physics) due primarily not to planning or training but to a belief in themselves?
Of course, it’s not only movies. These same trends have filtered down to comic books, as they ape their cinematic adaptations by striving for glitzy melodrama, for publicity-stirring events, for tentpole crossovers, and for licensing rights, at the expense of storytelling or even internal logic.
Nor are the movies in question only super-heroes. The Transformers movies also fit the bill. So too do the rebooted Star Trek movies, which feel as if every turn of the plot has been infused with the maximal melodrama, whether it makes sense or advances the plot or not, in order to create a sense of a breakneck pace. When Kirk and Scotty teleport onto the Enterprise in the first reboot film, Scotty’s stuck inside tubes of goo, and Kirk must rush to save him. These tubes have never been seen before, and they serve no obvious function. Logically, it’s more likely that someone teleporting blindly onto a ship would wind up inside a solid object than encased in a fluid. The rush to save Scotty doesn’t advance the plot in any way, but it’s one more sugar rush in a movie determined to deliver as many as possible as quickly as possible.
It’s a space worm. It doesn’t need to justify itself, nor make sense. It only needs to excite. And we’re so habituated to this worm that almost no one — not even the so-called adults — points it out anymore. And when someone dares to do so, too often they’re seen as elitist for insisting that a giant worm shouldn’t be floating around in outer space without a reason. The day will soon come when characters in a skyscraper will realize the skyscraper is alive and trying to eat them, all with almost no explanation — and when some objects that this doesn’t make sense, they’ll be accused of ignoring the fact that someone mentioned in passing that the building was an alien, or was hungry, and that only a killjoy would demand more.
It’s apt, then, that J. J. Abrams, who directed the first two Trek reboot films, has been tapped to direct Star Wars Episode VII. Abrams admits he preferred Star Wars to Star Trek, and his Trek shows it. I suspect he’ll do a great job on Star Wars. As someone who fondly remembers his childhood Empire Strikes Back blanket, I’m not immune to the joy of seeing the original trilogy’s cast back together. I’ll not only go see Episode VII, but I’m looking forward to it.
There’s a place for Star Wars. There’s a place for glitzy science fantasy, as there is for emotionally satisfying parables about the power of believing in yourself. The fact that I’m old enough and wise enough to realize the troubling implications of such a story doesn’t mean such stories shouldn’t exist. If there’s one franchise that deserves to a pass for being glitzy melodrama, it’s the franchise that started the trend.
But as anything gains influence, that influence distorts the original, echoing certain aspects but not others, until the original’s energetic novelty becomes a dim cultural echo, dissolved into ubiquity like a signal dissipating into space.
The problem, you see, isn’t really Star Wars. It’s not lightsabers. It’s not even that space worm. The problem is that, as the dominant culture embraces glitzy melodrama and becomes increasingly hostile to it requiring examination, those space worms have reproduced. They’re in everything now.