How America became obsessed with Star Wars and other childish things
I am an adult. Adults have different taste in art and entertainment than children.
Star Wars? Meh.
Like millions of kids, I loved the original Star Wars (now known as A New Hope) when it was released in 1977. The same with The Empire Strikes Back three years later. Both fired my imagination and inspired countless hours of daydreaming and play.
But after that, I lost interest quickly. Part of it had to do with the fact that the third film, Return of the Jedi, is inferior to its predecessors. More significantly, Jedi was released when I was 13 years old, and the teenage me found the menagerie of Jim Henson aliens and dancing teddy bears (aka Ewoks) pretty ridiculous — a little like something out of the old Muppets sketch Pigs in Space.
As I got older, the luster of the formerly perfect first two films began to fade. Wooden dialogue, cardboard acting, hokey humor, and a grade-school Manichean/Gnostic metaphysics in which characters choose between darkness and light, bodies are dismissed as "crude matter," and dead friends and teachers stand around glowing and offering portentous advice — none of that bothered the 7-year-old me. But now it began to seem silly, childish.
So I never really expected to like The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, or Revenge of the Sith — because by the time they started to appear, in 1999, I was an adult, and adults have different taste in art and entertainment than children.
And that brings me to The Force Awakens and this bizarre moment America finds itself in.
I haven't seen the new Star Wars movie yet. I'm sure I will at some point, but I'm in no rush. I expect it to be a perfectly enjoyable and mindless 135 minutes — above all, because it will be a delight to experience it with my own 13-year-old son, who has already seen the movie and loved it.
But I hope my son will be somewhat less excited about Episode VIII when it appears in May 2017, and even less so about Episode IX, which is planned for release in 2019. Why do I have this hope? Because by then he will be 17 years old, nearly an adult, and it's appropriate for adults to outgrow the fantasies of their youth.
But there's no guarantee of that. Especially today.
Mass-market movies — both within the United States and, increasingly, around the globe — aim to satisfy tween tastes. As one of the first summer blockbusters, the original Star Wars pioneered this approach to profit-seeking: Aim entertainment at 10-year-olds from families with enough disposable income to afford a movie ticket, and you have a decent shot of making a killing right now and sowing the seeds of future fortunes by establishing a lucrative franchise. First come the sequels (and prequels). Then come the reboots. And the offshoots. And the toys. All of which appeal not only to the 10-year-olds running around at the time the latest movie is released, but also to all those who saw an earlier iteration of the franchise when they were 10.
Forty years into this marketing strategy, and with globalized social media pushing it to new levels of cultural saturation, Hollywood is poised to make more money than ever with an endless parade of nostalgia-fueled spectacles aimed at children and the child-like cinematic tastes of their parents.
There are many bigger problems in the world. Bad, or at least pre-adolescent, taste isn't anywhere close to the worst of them. And there's even an upside of sorts. At a time when the country and the world often feel like they're pulling apart into rival ideological, religious, racial, and ethnic factions, a blockbuster movie release can seemingly do more than anything else to pull us together.
Over the past week, my Facebook feed has been filled with talk of The Force Awakens, with just about everyone sharing reactions to the movie, from Ivy League professors to middle-American stay-at-home moms, from pious social conservatives to irreverent secular liberals, from kids my son's age to Baby Boomers who were adults when the original Star Wars was released. Class and race don't matter, and neither does age, faith, gender, or politics. Everyone is in on the fun. On this, and perhaps on this alone, we're still one, big, unified nation, able to share in and enjoy a powerful collective experience.
Still, I can't help but wonder about what it all means for the fate of more adult forms of art. Television drama and (oddly) musical theater seem to be thriving. But serious film? Music? Literature? Painting? Dance? The dwindling few who care about these finer arts can't help but worry about what will become of them in a world in which ever-greater resources and larger audiences are diverted to Hollywood extravaganzas expertly crafted to appeal to the greatest number on such a middling level.
Beyond questions of art and commerce lie even broader issues of human flourishing and whether it's likely to be fostered in a culture that so lavishly valorizes and rewards pre-adolescent tastes while treating the exploration of deeper, harder human themes as off limits in popular art. A movie jam-packed with stunning visual and audio effects that gives audiences a precisely calibrated mix of thrills, surprises, and satisfactions can be great fun. But it will never be more than a mere diversion, an easy distraction, empty calories.
Maybe that's fine. After working hard all week, perhaps a movie that encourages a regression back to an earlier, simpler stage of life is just what America needs. But please, let's be honest about it. The Star Wars saga has never been more than a comic book serial projected onto a movie screen. They've been kids' movies from the start. All that's changed is our capacity to recognize it.