Boba Fett lunchboxes make Isaac Asimov's ghost cry.
This week, George Lucas will release all six Star Wars films on Blu-ray, an event that fans are anticipating with a mix of excitement and abject dread. As with every big Star Wars rerelease, the director has made some changes, most of which — hell, all of which — add little to the story. The general attitude toward Lucas' tinkering may be best summed up by a newly expressive Darth Vader himself: "Nooooo!" But Lucas' constant updates and fans' heated responses only solidify the Star Wars franchise's status as the holy text of science fiction — arguably the most popular, profitable, and debated series in the history of the genre, if not in the entire history of cinema. Does Star Wars really deserve that mantle? The early films revolutionized science fiction with realistic effects and grandiose storytelling, yet its influence has proved both positive and negative. Here are five ways Star Wars has hurt, rather than helped, science fiction.
1. Star Wars ushered in a new era of ludicrous merchandising.
Before Star Wars, movie tie-ins consisted of one or two toys and possibly a lunchbox — maybe a T-shirt if it was a real blockbuster. But practically every single character and every single ship in the Star Wars movies, no matter how obscure or peripheral, has been converted into lucrative product. (If Lucas could have figured out a way to make a life-size action figure of the Force itself, I'm sure someone would be asking a couple hundred for it on eBay.) The massive profitability of Lucas's toys has had a pernicious influence on genre filmmaking; tie-ins have become increasingly central to movies, to the point where scripts are reverse-engineered from existing toy lines. And usually it's not even the right merchandise: you can buy a Willrow Hood action figure, but you can't even get a DVD of the original theatrical cut of Star Wars anymore.
2. It traded social commentary for grandiose mythmaking.
At a time when the Vietnam War was blazing and the country was fracturing into mainstream and counterculture, another long-standing franchise, Star Trek, used science fiction as a tool for exploring the collision of cultures and Americans' responsibilities to themselves and to other nations. In 1973, Silent Running set an urgent ecological parable in outer space, with Bruce Dern saving Earth's last wildlife. Filmmakers were using the idea of galaxies far, far away to tell stories much closer to home.
With his adherence to Joseph Campbell's writings on mythology, Lucas shifted those concerns and essentially erased science fiction's potential for social commentary. The Star Wars films are timeless to a fault, largely uninterested in casting any sort of critical eye on our own world. There are hints of Cold War politics in Star Wars, but the matter is dropped almost before it's even introduced. And Revenge of the Sith tries to drum up some subtext about democracy versus fascism, but even in 2005, during the Iraq War and innumerable terror alerts, it was so utterly disconnected from post-9/11 America that it came across as blustery pretension. Today, horror movies in general and zombies in particular have become the more efficient tools for exploring racism, consumerism, AIDS, social networking and pretty much any other contemporary issue. Science fiction, however, largely ignores the times, too often content to gaze at the stars and ponder escape.
3. Lucas's obsessive tinkering started a trend.
The upcoming Blu-rays aren't the first time Lucas has tinkered with his movies. When he re-released the original trilogy to theaters in 1997, he added deleted scenes and background action of questionable narrative relevance. In Lucas' wake, several directors retouched their greatest films — most notoriously Steven Spielberg, who notoriously redacted E.T. for its DVD debut in 2002. It's debatable whether Lucas can be blamed for the overabundance of completely unnecessary deleted scenes, alternate endings, and director's cuts during the DVD age, but he definitely pushed the limits of a director's authority (and not in a good way). As the man himself told Congress in 1988, "People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians."
4. Star Wars upped the ante on special effects for their own sake.
Explaining this year's poorly reviewed yet enormously lucrative summer movie line-up, Walt Disney Animation Studios chief Andy Hendrickson stated that spectacle was more important than story, citing the studio's own Alice in Wonderland as a prime example. Hendrickson's way of thinking has its roots in the effects extravaganzas of the Star Wars franchise, which emphasized realistic space battles and alien landscapes. Of course, the first two films — and arguably the third — made story a crucial part of that spectacle. Twenty years later, however, the second batch of films were glutted with CGI backdrops and creatures that looked like Thomas Kinkade painting the final frontier on the side of a van. Deployed without restraint, the effects became unimpressive, not to mention simply distracting and annoying.
5. Star Wars was like an invasive species, destroying the biodiversity of sci-fi and bringing in a monoculture.
Star Wars inspired countless knockoffs during the 1970s and 1980s, few of which enjoyed even a fraction of its profits, popularity, or cultural cachet. Viewers saw the movie over and over, as if ticket stubs bestowed bragging rights. Even thirty-four years later, while it's not the only sci-fi franchise in the discussion, it's by far the most dominant, a branding juggernaut that has taught viewers to define themselves by their nerdish devotion — to go deep into a single film or franchise, to argue over whether Han Solo or Greedo shot first or why Boba Fett's feet weren't singed by his jetpack. Star Wars didn't encourage fans to consume a wider diet of science fiction. It made them eat the same meal over and over.
Lucas himself has not escaped this compulsion. Once a promising, eclectic director who made the dystopian sci-fi standalone THX-1138 and the Altman-for-teens ensemble piece American Graffiti, he stopped directing altogether after the success of Star Wars. Instead, he produced other filmmakers' movies (we owe him for Raiders of the Lost Ark and a handful of late Kurosawas) and closed himself off inside the Star Wars universe. Even when he returned to the director's chair in 1999, it was not to tell new stories, but to flesh out (and diminish) old ones. He needs a new project. Maybe we all do.