Monday, May 3, 1999

'Star Wars' revisited: May the bores be with you

by Ian Abrams
Guest Opinion

"The Phantom Menace," George Lucas' new Star Wars movie, isn't even out yet, and I'm already a little tired of it.

I don't mind that it's going to be loud. Loud doesn't bother me. I don't mind that it's going to be big and dumb. I like big, dumb movies. I liked "Titanic," and you don't get much bigger and dumber than that. I think what bothers me is, it looks as though this "Star Wars" is going to be loud, big, dumb and serious. That's a lethal combination.

It was not ever thus. The first "Star Wars" was loud, big, dumb and . . .fun.

When it opened in 1977, I saw it eight times, twice on opening day. But when "The Empire Strikes Back" hit, I only saw it twice. "Return of the Jedi"? Once, at a bargain matinee, a month after it opened.

What changed between No. 1 and No. 3 (OK, to be technically accurate, No. 4 and No. 6)? For one thing, I got six years older. But the movies changed, too.

"Star Wars" had the mythic stuff, but mostly what it had was explosions and buzzing anthropomorphic robots and interesting if off-the-rack characters and a whole flock of plastic aliens and a monsoon of clunky popcorn dialogue ("I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board."), and how often do you get to see Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing and James Earl Jones all hamming it up in the same movie? Like I said, it was fun.

But by the time the second "Star Wars" came out, the fun was in retreat. Where the first film was about characters rattling around in a universe that came complete with its own mythology, the second film seemed to be more about a mythology that happened to have a universe and some characters. By the third film, the overall tone had grown as self-consciously Wagner-ian as John Williams' score - appropriate for a series that was getting to feel like the Ring Cycle with blasters.

What happened, I think, was that a lot of people who saw the first movie eight times stopped thinking of it as purely entertainment. After a while, the manufactured mythos of The Force seeped in to the point where it felt like something worth serious discussion instead of just enjoying and forgetting.

At first, the discussion was in fanzines, privately published, photocopied and circulated, and in panels at science fiction conventions, and in a legion of suburban basements. For the last decade or so, it's been happening on the Net: an infinite regression of threads on an infinite number of newsgroups, endlessly debating the tiniest details of the sacred texts.

A lot of people, in short, started taking "Star Wars". . .seriously. And one of them was George Lucas. After the first (OK, OK, the fourth) film, he was no longer just making fun, dopey movies. He was continuing a self-created tradition, reinforcing a mass-market legend, keeping alive ancient lore dating back to the half-remembered antiquity of the Carter administration. And the movies had a heaviness of spirit completely out of proportion to their actual content.

If you're willing to take this stuff seriously, it works. But if you aren't . . .

A colleague of mine sums it up: "I don't like being preached at by Muppets."

I haven't seen "The Phantom Menace" yet. My bet is, it'll be loud, big, dumb, irony-free, and very serious. Of course I'll go - I've got a 12-year-old daughter, and, besides, I don't want to be the only person in North America who hasn't seen it. But I'm not excited.

On the other hand, "Indiana Jones IV" is supposed to be coming in two years. That's worth getting excited about.

Ian Abrams directs the program in Dramatic Writing at Drexel University.