Are you not entertained? Let me think about that for a moment before giving a thumbs up or down. There are times, as I’m trawling the net, that I wonder when exactly entertainment, in itself, became less important. I also wonder where the idea came from that people are so easily influenced as to follow everything they see in a story. These two ideas are quite distinct but have surprising links between them. When Star Wars went off the rails with the Prequels, I find it hard not to see the clear desire for them to be more than merely entertainment playing a major role in the crash. Why would the Prequels need to be anything more in the first place? In part due to that narrow notion and delusions of influence as to how far people follow a story.
It might be said that there is a cultural plague of seriousness, it may be said to have started after 11 September 2001, but it was around before then too, the events of that day just granted it sharper focus and latitude. The problem is Star Wars, to the core of its being, is entertainment. It is not constructed to withstand the kind of scrutiny that comes with making serious claims – that’s where the now infamous Clerks Death Star contractors riff gets started, but without the customer put-down that those contractors knew what they getting into. Equally it isn’t really concerned with the horrific realities of life in a totalitarian society. Contrary to what its critics may claim, neither of these is a bad thing!
As I’ve gotten older, more and more I’m seeking stories that are primarily entertaining. I’m seeking something that allows me to get away from the world for a while. There is this idea that escapism is wrong, or that people who seek it are lacking in some way. I would argue the contrary, once you know how the world works and the limits of your ability to actually change it, escapism is great, escapism via stories is especially great as it lacks the negative penalties attached to other forms. Yet over the last decade or so there has been this shift towards a greater brutality in fantasy / SF stories, as if the increase renders the story more mature. This is the book / film equivalent of mature comics just having loads of gore, sex and swearing – it may lay claim to being so but mature it ain’t!
Star Wars is brilliant escapist entertainment, yet the world it takes you to is not one of fluffy rainbows but moon-sized planet-killers, lethal laserblades and a whole lot more that is decidedly dubious – if you but look at it. The skill of the films is that they move fast, the story whips you along so you don’t have either the time or the inclination to notice just how dark and fracked up the world you’ve been dropped into is. At the same time it operates on a key assumption – that the viewer knows exactly how badly screwed up reality is. It assumes the viewer is smart enough to follow a fast story, has their own life experience and does not rely on any one source of information totally.
Why does this matter? Because, in the case of the prequels and some expanded universe stories, I do get this sense that it is thought people do indeed learn all they need to know about life from Star Wars! It’s a staggering conceit but not that surprising when you factor the use, or rather abuse of the social sciences. In order to lay claim to the science tag, things like sociology and psychology and media studies need to be able to categorize people and then predict outlook and actions from the category mix. The problem I have here is frequently people cannot be so put into a set of neat, easily identified boxes.
This problem gets worse when you add fictional narratives because people will tend to respond differently to something fictional. The real has an indefinable edge of difference, an extra sense of weight and gravity that fiction, no matter how well put together, cannot match. Nor should it seek to. Yet, the attitude has arisen that if a person expresses X view on topic Y with regard to story Z, they will also apply that in real life! On what, if anything, is this arrogant extrapolation based? I love reading Judge Dredd stories but I’d never want to live under the legal system it depicts. No, the appeal of Judge Dredd is the appeal of the perfect cop, the always-right, hard-but-fair authority figure who actually does lead by example. Utter fiction? Oh yes!
The final step of this process is to conclude people are utterly passive receivers incapable of critically engaging with what they watch, read and listen to. Therefore, to ensure people do not get the wrong idea, steps must be taken to educate them! The assumption that, in seeking some escapist fun for a few hours, I will shut off my brain, forget about my life and all I’ve learnt in it and just settle into a sponge state is immensely arrogant and insulting in equal measure! Yet it is pervasive. It comes up when you have the destruction of the Death Star having to be justified because it had a crew of one million people, which is fine until you start considering the planetary populations it had annihilated and those to which it would have done so, permitting it to continue would have seen the deaths of billions. And then out comes the notion that you are a monster because you’ve just said it’s OK to kill one million people! Hello, fictional story? No one died! That aside, where is the idea gotten that this single specific instance is generally transferable? It’s a quick, lazy and downright bad form of reasoning.
Cue the Prequels, where instead of just aiming to show us the story of the Clone Wars and how Anakin Skywalker screwed up royally, Lucas decides he has to try to do some grand epic that shows how civilization is corrupted into totalitarianism. For any story, that would be a tall order in itself but for Star Wars? It’s the ultimate negative anti-entertainment story going. It then adds to its burden by having Anakin as a cute kid, then a forbidden love story – has to be in the running for worst romance ever – then heaping haze upon haze because ambiguity is so grown-up, don’t you know? The result is the Prequels’ story is going in several contradictory directions at once, so no surprise that it rips itself apart into an incoherent mess. Lurking in the shadows is the idea it has to be more, it can’t be merely entertaining, people have to learn something from this! My response to that is if you want to learn stuff via film you watch Schindler’s List or 12 Years A Slave, you certainly do not watch U-571!
Ah, but how will I know war is wrong or that things are not always what they seem to be? The answers here are simple – from other reading, of history books, of study, of reading newspapers, of living! Plus anyone who watched the first film would have seen numerous pilots get immolated over the Death Star. If you still think war is cool after that then clearly you’re an idiot!
Star Wars needs to regain its sense of confidence in people’s ability to think, to not simply be passive, but to be critically engaged, to contrast what they see on-screen with their own life experience, but also accept people don’t want something heavy for 2-3 hours. That’s available elsewhere and done much better! It is a fine balance, but the most entertaining film can never be divorced from the world that influenced its making, it just allows the viewer to forget about the most negative elements for a time. But, most importantly, there needs to be a confidence that there’s nothing mere about being entertaining! That being entertaining is an entirely valid and respectable aim for a film. If Episode VII can achieve such a restoration, all manner of people may find themselves won over by it, including me!