Friday, 22 January 2016 22:22

The Empire Strikes Again

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in Films
The Empire Strikes Again

Star Wars is a simple story, simply told. Good versus evil, light versus darkness and freedom versus tyranny — it’s the narrative of the US struggle to preserve democracy and civilisation in a world beset by “evil” and “evildoers.” That’s hardly a surprise, given that films and political propaganda have long walked hand in hand — if ever a medium was suited to propaganda it is cinema. And if ever an industry could be credited with creating an alternate reality so pervasive it has managed to convince generations of US citizens and others around the world that up is down, black is white and left is right, that industry is Hollywood.

George Lucas — creator of a franchise which has churned out seven films since 1977 — is, along with Steven Spielberg, a child of the reaction to the counter-culture of the ’60s and early ’70s in the US. Though both products of that decade in which culture and the arts, particularly cinema, was at the forefront of resistance to the US military-industrial complex, Lucas and Spielberg came to prominence in the mid-1970s with films which rather than attack or question the Establishment instead embraced its role as both protector and arbiter of the nation’s morals. The curtain began to come down on the most culturally vital and exciting and cerebral period of US cinema, responsible for producing such classics as Bonnie and Clyde, MASH, The Last Detail, The French Connection, The Wild Bunch, Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now, with Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975 followed in 1977 by Lucas’s Star Wars. The former frightened the US. The latter made it feel good about itself again.

Both films spawned the high-concept blockbuster, inviting audiences to feel rather than to think and allowing them to suspend disbelief and escape reality instead of sharing the experience of confronting it via stories in which alienated characters expressed the angst, frustration, anger and disaffection which they themselves were experiencing in their own lives, thus inducing a sense of solidarity. It was the era of the anti-hero, main characters for whom the system and conformity were the enemy. They ploughed their own furrow, regardless of the consequences.

The questioning of authority and its received truths reflected a country whose young and not so young were hungry for radical change. The war in Vietnam, Watergate and the black civil-rights and nationalist movements had shaken up US society and, with it, its culture and cultural references. But by the mid-’70s, with the end of the Vietnam war and with the counter-culture running out of steam, the time had arrived to box up all that alienation, anger and rebelliousness and allow the mythology of the American dream and democracy to reassert its dominance.

In his peerless history of this vital period of US cinema Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, cultural critic Peter Biskind comments that beyond its impact on film marketing and merchandising, Star Wars had a profound effect on the culture. “It benefited from the retrenchment of the Carter years, the march to the centre that followed the end of the Vietnam war,” he notes. This march to the centre became a march to the right under Ronald Reagan, manifested in Hollywood as artistic and cultural stagnation. Directors such as Spielberg and Lucas became less concerned with story and character and more focused on spectacle. Bigger, louder and richer was the mantra as two-dimensional characters and plot lines that your average 10-year-old, with a set of crayons and an imagination, could come up with predominated.

As Biskind says, “Lucas knew that genres and cinematic conventions depend on consensus, the web of shared assumptions that had been sundered in the ’60s.“He was recreating and reaffirming these values and Star Wars, with its Manichean moral fundamentalism, its white hats and black hats, restored the lustre to threadbare values like heroism and individualism.”

In this latest Star Wars film The Force Awakens, directed by JJ Abrams, Lucas makes do with a writing credit after selling the franchise to Disney in 2012 for £2,5 billion. That kind of money will buy you a lot of light sabres. For all the hype surrounding its release and the rave reviews it has garnered, this instalment of the long-running and inordinately successful franchise is so embarrassingly and toe-curlingly cliched it’s impossible to walk out afterwards without limping. Disney and Abrams have reached back in time in order to refresh the franchise, with the return of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and the old iconic favourites Chewbacca and R2D2. For Star Wars buffs there’s even the return of Han Solo’s iconic spaceship the Millennium Falcon.
The film’s antagonist — its Darth Vader — is Kylo Ren, played by Vladimir Putin... sorry, Adam Driver.

With this character lies the one interesting twist in the narrative but it’s only “interesting” relative to the rest of the plot. We’re not talking Roman Polanski and Chinatown here. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is not the battle of good versus evil it portrays but the fact that Harrison Ford was reportedly paid 76 times more than British newcomer Daisy Ridley to star in it. The 73-year-old’s financial package comprised an upfront fee in the region of £13.7 million plus 0.5 per cent of the film’s gross earnings, projected to reach a whopping £1.3bn.It is proof that the story of the US is not good versus evil or light versus darkness at all. It is the story of the super rich versus everybody else.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star.

Read 627 times Last modified on Friday, 22 January 2016 22:41
John Wight

John Wight writes for the Morning Star.