Star Wars and the Death of Art
I was nine years old when I went to the theater with my Mom to see Star Wars. After the opening crawl that explained the current state of affairs, we saw Princess Leia's tiny ship attempting to escape a massive Imperial Star Destroyer. Once the Storm Troopers forced their way on board her ship, we heard the iconic sound of Darth Vader's breathing for the first time as he stepped into a passage littered with fallen Troopers and Rebel soldiers. In less than five minutes, the audience had experienced goosebumps resulting from the fanfare and anticipation preceding the movie and the best special effects ever offered on a big screen.
The Star Wars saga would go on to provide multiple moments that became ingrained in American entertainment culture. The death of Ben Kenobi, Luke's teacher, before Luke's training was complete. The destruction of the Death Star. Luke's defeat in his first battle against Vader, and his discovery that Vader was his father. The march of the ominous AT-ATs across the frozen surface of Hoth. Luke's training with Yoda, which ends before it is completed. The destruction of the Death Star. The death of Vader and, apparently, of Emperor Palpatine. We then go backwards, with the prequels. The death of Qui-Gon, before Obi Wan's training is complete. The discovery of the mysterious paternity of Anakin. The spectacular duel between Anakin and Obi Wan on Mustafar. The equally thrilling battle between Yoda and Palpatine in the Senate chamber. Then we leap ahead to the last three installments. We meet Rey, a force-sensitive woman of unknown parentage. She trains with Luke, but leaves before her training is complete. The Rebels execute a nearly impossible mission to destroy the Death..... er, sorry, the Starkiller Base.
You feeling me yet?
Don't get me wrong. There is a lot of fun in Star Wars. The visuals are terrific. C3PO is a classic example of a character providing comedic relief. Chewbacca is a really interesting combination of trusty sidekick and faithful dog. Even the prequels, which I thought were dreadful, had some entertaining moments. In the midst of whatever it was Hayden Christensen was doing and the walking, talking embodiment of the word "annoying" that was Jar Jar Binks, we got to see Yoda kick butt. We got to sit on pins and needles waiting to see if Mace Windu was going to drop a "m----- f-----" on someone. And we got Anakin v Obi Wan and Yoda v Palpatine, two of my favorite scenes in the entire series of movies.
But hidden beneath all this spectacular scenery lurked some incredibly "safe", and I'd say "lazy" plot dynamics. Consider this - three of the nine movies culminated in the destruction of the Death Star (Starkiller Base was just Death Star #3). Anakin, Luke, and Rey all had mystery and surprises involved in their respective paternities. We saw students of the Force constantly forced into action prior to their training being completed. The general plot structures repeat. Part 1 - hero destroys mega weapon, people are happy. Part 2 - evil bounces back, what will happen next? Part 3 - The Big Bad (thank you Buffy!) is the focus (Palpatine "wins" in episode 3, but comes up well short in 6 and 9). It is the "rinse, wash, repeat" approach to plotting. It's safe. It's effective. It's entertaining. But it's not "art".
Look at me, being all high brow! I suppose that characterization is fair to some extent. My real concern is that the emphasis on formula (necessary for commercial success) threatens creativity. History is littered with a multitude of "starving artists" in every field who were unappreciated until long after their death. These are the artists who changed their games. They created works that did more than simply entertain. These works remain with us, they change us, they make us ask ourselves hard questions or put us in closer touch with our humanity. Artists need to eat. They need a roof overhead. They also need time to produce their art. So commercial viability becomes the driving force behind their work. The indie publishing world is full of formula writers who "write to market". They approach their art much like an engineer. Before they begin writing, they make a deep assessment of the market. They identify "must have" tropes for their genre. The basics of their plots, their cover art, and even the blurbs they use to describe their book are drawn from other commercially successful books in that genre. The degree of calculation involved smothers the creative instinct. The effort to publish something bold, moving, and outside the box is simply not worth the risk. Again, I get it. Star Wars is a forty-four ounce fountain soda that most everyone will enjoy. But my tears at the end of Field of Dreams, and the adrenaline rush I experienced watching Wind In His Hair atop the plateau declaring his eternal friendship for John Dunbar, are the products of art. And for me, art is entertaining.