Why I Can't Stand Star Wars Anymore

Posted by Whit Barringer , Wednesday, July 06, 2011 4:26 PM

Originally posted here, on my tumblr onedivinemachine.tumblr.com.

I'm a fairly pretty big nerd. I love to play video games, especially RPGs (I have a $1/hr of gameplay standard - otherwise I usually feel like I don't get my money's worth). I love Magic: The Gathering so much I've had to swear it off, and it's all I can do to keep myself from buying a new booster pack every time I pass by the "impulse buy" isle at Walmart. I like to play complicated, two- or three-hour long board games with my friends. I'm a big history nerd (it's kind of my thing). And as a child growing up in AMERICA, I grew up on and loved Star Wars Episodes IV-VI.

My fascination with the original Star Wars trilogy was more than just a love for the funny robots, the big furry monster, and the cool superpowers. I remember sitting in front of the TV one summer with a blue legal notepad and writing down things to watch for in a list on the left ("R2 Beeps," "Lightsabers," "Laser Blasts") and leaving space on the right to write down tally marks for however many times those things happened/appeared throughout each movie. It was incredibly nerdy and incredibly pointless, but I enjoyed the films enough to watch them as many times as it took to fill out my little form. I went back to school before I could really get started, but I remembered thinking I was going to be pretty cool if I could cite all of my statistics to my friends (how weird my perceptions of cool were).

I saw the entire prequel trilogy in theaters, and I had posters of Ewan McGregor and the Battle of Geonosis on my bedroom wall. I didn't like the prequel trilogy nearly as much as the originals, and I did outright dislike the third movie. Even so, I did honestly like Attack of the Clones and all of its huge battles. It was a mixed bag, but I took it for what it was and went on with my life.

My falling out of love with Star Wars really (and oddly) began in earnest with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I went and saw it with my mom opening weekend, and was utterly incensed at how inane it all was. I wasn't even upset about the ultimate supernatural force behind the plot (after God, uh, eggs, and Jesus in the first three, aliens didn't really phase me). The plot was insane, Harrison Ford was really old, Cate Blanchett's accent was atrocious, and Shia LaBoeuf swung from tree-to-tree with monkeys. The movie was so terrible, so cynical, such a pandering mess, that I couldn't get any enjoyment from it.

Once I saw the cynicism, I couldn't un-see it in Lucas's work. From the pandering of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, to the evidence that the putting the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi was a marketing decision (because cute toys sell better), to the complete disregard for continuity among the movies out of laziness, my dislike for Star Wars grew out of my disgust with George Lucas. Everything he had touched was tainted (except for Jurassic Park - that bun was almost out of the oven by the time Lucas got his grubby hands all over it).

Then I saw the devastating RedLetterMedia reviews of Episodes I, II, and III. Talk about exposing the rotting, hollow center to a series gilt in pretty CGI.  After watching these, it confirmed what I had already suspected: these movies don't make sense; they are artistically bankrupt; they disrupt the mythology, look, feel, and message of the series; and, oh yeah, they don't make any sense.

Even after all of this, I could still hear about Star Wars without cringing, and I still referenced it very occasionally in conversation. Hearing someone talk about George Lucas would annoy me, but somewhere in my heart was the little girl with her notepad, her eyes glued to the original trilogy, enjoying every scene, every minute.

Then I snapped.

I was reading an io9 review for God's War by Kameron Hurley with the headline "The heroine of 'God's War' makes Han Solo look like a boy scout." I understand that blogs run on clicks, and for io9, a nerdy sci-fi blog, putting a name like Han Solo in the title is cash money. But besides the tiniest similarities, Han Solo and Nyx, the main character of God's War (which I bought and have been reading), are absolutely nothing alike. The situation is completely different. Her status is completely different. Her behavior is completely different. The politics of the world she is in are different, and have helped make her character different, and so on. This is apples and oranges stuff.

In addition to the comparison being completely inaccurate, no matter the qualification, comparing Nyx to Han Solo in the first place is boring. Again, I know how blogs work, and contrast is a legitimate way to frame something readers don't know about. But are we so unimaginative that Han Solo, who, in retrospect, was a pretty tame idea of a rogue with gray morals, is the only archetype people can understand? Why are we still using Star Wars, when so many great sci-fi films have come out before and since that fill out archetypes much better? Is it because we credit Star Wars with the invention of the archetypes? Because even that's not quite the whole story, though it may get close.  The review wouldn't have annoyed me even half as much if the reviewer had mentioned even one other cultural item. But it's as if drawing the throwaway comparison between Nyx and Han Solo was enough, the work done. And really, it was - the whole point was to get some extra clicks. I admit, I clicked for that very reason.

What bothers me about this isn't that Star Wars still has cultural currency. By all rights, it should still have purchase, because it changed a lot in cinema. It's not that it doesn't deserve its dues. It's that, to paraphrase Patton Oswalt in his recent Wired editorial, we simultaneously live in a culture that places special importance on creativity and originality, but also in a culture that places pride in planting a flag on something that has come before. Geek culture is a snake eating its own tail.*  Geek culture is masturbatory. Geek culture is fiercely territorial for things it claims but does not create. It depends on a wide and (sometimes) deep library for its cultural references, and it depends on the same library to understand it. It is self-referential, self-important, and self-congratulatory, and it isn't concerned with creation that does not include recycling bits of other people's work.

The io9 review, as benign as it really is, flipped my switch from "tolerate and sometimes participate in" to "loathe and cringe at the sight or sound of" Star Wars and large swaths of geek culture in general. The idea that something that has been proven, through analysis and the words of its creator, to be creatively bankrupt in dozens of ways and can still command the respect that it does, even knowing what we know, makes geeks, nerds, "enthusiasts", and whoever else falls into that category, stubborn and sheltered. The switch io9 flipped (again, it's still very benign) has changed how I see the references to Star Wars or to The Legend of Zelda or to Batman. It's all part of the same recycle and reuse that fuels entire industries which run on nostalgia and fear of disappointment in the new.

This isn't a hipster argument. This isn't about the mainstream making nostalgia and obscurity into commodities. This really isn't even an argument, as I'm trying to express, not convince. The point I am trying to get to is that I am of the opinion that Star Wars (among myriad other geeky icons), as stunted in growth, commercial in sensibility, nostalgically revered, and crassly cynical as it is, has infiltrated and modified our cultural assumptions for the worse. We are constantly comparing apples to oranges to Star Wars or to some other famous tidbit, when the degrees of relation are so distant they can't even be considered to exist in the same plane.

Walker Percy once used the analogy of the postcard experience. People travel to see the postcards image of sights and landmarks. But what they don't realize is that the trip is never going to be fulfilling, because they are going to see exactly what they and millions of others have seen before. Going to the Grand Canyon and standing at the railing, looking down at millions of years of formations, isn't experiencing something new and personal - it's experiencing 1/n^nth of the full experience. Going off the beaten path gets you closer to the 1/1 experience, and gives you the chance to be fulfilled by your adventures. Star Wars is a 1/n^nth experience. It saturates our current pop culture, being the go-to for references, archetypes, etc., so much that it makes people lazy, expecting or desiring nothing better. Those movies are everywhere. When I finally started to notice, I couldn't help but feel nauseated and unfulfilled.

I understand my opinion is largely impractical. There really hasn't been in a time in history when the present isn't scouring the past for inspiration, if not outright recycling, and I am not under the illusion to the contrary. I am also aware that I am just as much a participant in the nostalgia machines and nothing-new industries, and that I am just as responsible as the next human being for giving people like George Lucas my time, devotion, and cash - making this a self-indictment and not just an opinion. I also do not begrudge anyone for loving this culture and claiming it as their own. It simply isn't for me, and everything I've expressed here applies to how I see the culture and isn't an attempt to interpret anyone else's experience. But maybe, just maybe, I can break some of the cycle by refusing to keep participating in what I see as the mindless repetition, the knee-jerk references, and the tired cliches of Star Wars that have seeped into our culture.

But likely not.

*I do disagree with Patton that Star Wars was ever uncool or not mainstream (have you seen those box office numbers?) and that one group can own or even has the right to own any part of pop culture. People are territorial about all sorts of things, but that doesn't mean they have any right to it.

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