“Star Wars” occupies a fairly unique place in our culture: it may be the only thing in pop culture that almost all of us generally like.
While it’s impossible for anything to be truly universal — there’s always going to be the odd person who has never seen any of the movies — “Star Wars” I think serves as the collective cultural touchstone for us. It’s the one thing that kinda gives us all a good feeling when we think about it. That phenomenon crosses pretty much every boundary — age, political affiliation, other general interests don’t matter. We all are pretty much just into “Star Wars.” It’s like some kind of safe space for us as a society. “Star Wars” is home. It’s a part of us and it will never let us down even while it’s constantly doing just that.
It also makes us crazy.
In the current moment you can make an easy punchline out of the hardcore fans of DC Comics that insist on defending to the death the absolutely awful “Batman V Superman” and “Justice League,” but something similar happens with all of us every time a new “Star Wars” movie comes out.
Take the Prequel Trilogy. It may be tough to remember now, but when each of the prequels was released the sentiment toward them was generally positive. “The Phantom Menace” was the worst-reviewed of the three and it still made almost a billion dollars worldwide. Its two sequels were far better reviewed, if not quite as financially successful.
Which is hilarious! The “Star Wars” prequels are about as inept as big-budget blockbusters are capable of being, but we all just kind of collectively rolled with them for at least a while. It wasn’t until there was a couple of years’ distance from 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” that opinion among fans really turned toward the idea that the prequels are largely not good
When I used to reflect on my own periods of denial regarding the prequels I would assume I’d been that way because I was such a hardcore fan. I’ve been an obsessive “Star Wars” fan since I was a little kid, a fandom that endured for decades even though there hasn’t, in my judgment, been a good “Star Wars” movie released in my lifetime (I was born in 1987). That fact has been the cause of all sorts of weird neurotic behavior in me personally — to the point where not long ago I felt I had to write a column explaining how it was finally time to for me and “Star Wars” to break up because this whole thing has worn me down.
Even when I wrote that ludicrous piece I didn’t fully understand why I felt that way. It wasn’t really just about the movies being bad, or the bald-faced corporate cynicism of Disney trying to craft the most “Star Wars” movie ever using some kind of mathematical formula. It’s also about the way we all interact with the franchise.
It’s not just the hardcore fans who get weird about “Star Wars” — or, I should say, when it comes to “Star Wars” we all act like like hardcore fans. For us it’s like some kind of monolith that can never truly be bad even though it mostly is bad. It’s as though our brains collectively stop working when a new movie comes out and we all turn into the DC fanboys we like to make fun of the rest of the year.
I’ve often told my story of the release of “Attack of the Clones,” in which I bought tickets for three separate shows on opening day — and even though I hated the movie I was too afraid of compromising my fandom to express anything other than delight as I sat through that trash fire over and over again. Everyone I knew agreed that it was good, sparing me having to defending it at least. Though that movie didn’t get overwhelmingly positive reviews, it did come in at 66 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
When “Revenge of the Sith” came around in 2005 I was intent on not being taken for a ride again. I was going to be completely honest about my opinion, whether it be good or bad. I was hopeful, because the thing had gotten an 79 percent fresh rating on RT. But then I didn’t like the movie, because it’s horrendous, and I had no problem saying so to my friends as the credits rolled.
They, on the other hand, loved it.
So it’s not just me. “Star Wars” somehow messes with us so effectively that even the worst modern blockbusters can get positive reviews and responses from the crowd if they’ve got “Star Wars” in the title.
I don’t think public opinion ever really turned on “Revenge of the Sith” the way it did with the other prequels. I occasionally have people my own age or older who will defend it to me, and it’s not unusual to see it ahead of “Return of the Jedi” on lists ranking all the “Star Wars” movies even today. Which is really something, because that movie is an affront to cinema on a bunch of levels. Thus, perhaps, is out rabid need to maintain good feelings about the franchise — we have to believe there’s been some good ones in modern times.
History repeated itself again with “The Force Awakens,” which I think gave me my clearest view of the phenomenon to date. My first viewing came at the world premiere, the first of Disney’s now-annual soirees in which they shut down Hollywood Boulevard in order to stick a block-long party tent in the street so attendees could get literally drunk on the new “Star Wars” movie.
I was….confused after we watched it. I stood in the party tent drinking and talking it over with about a dozen different people, and we all felt pretty much the same way: “That was probably good, right? I think?”
“The Force Awakens” being a movie that holds up not even a little bit under scrutiny, we picked it apart while comforting ourselves with the idea that we did all like the new cast well enough that even if we weren’t head over heels for this movie we could at least view it as a decent enough foundation for the future. Still, the mood never elevated beyond lukewarm — there was little in the way of excitement that evening.
I was amazed, then, to wake up the next morning to see those same people tweet glowingly about the movie, and write exuberant reviews. “Star Wars” is back, baby! They did it! They made a great “Star Wars” movie. I was confused again.
Two years later, people still act like they need to defend the honor of that movie to the death. I remain confused about it, even as I finally start to fully grasp how culturally in the bag we are for this series. I watched “The Force Awakens” again this week for what it probably the eighth or ninth time, and I still managed to find new things I don’t like about it. But my best friend, who is usually smarter than I am, to this day claims it’s “delightful” and we get in arguments about it every two weeks.
I think maybe at this point liking “Star Wars” is such a subconsciously exhausting endeavor that we’ve simply given up on worrying about whether these movies are actually good. Things may be improving somewhat — even though last year’s “Rogue One” got very positive reviews, people seemed more willing to complain about it or outright dislike it. The standard unbridled enthusiasm wasn’t there, and neither was the general reflexive compulsion to defend it when it would be criticized. I don’t think we have a capacity for apathy toward “Star Wars,” though. If we ever stop feeling incredibly generous toward the franchise it’ll be because we all decide to hate the thing. It’ll be a complete heel turn, not a gradual change.
It’ll be interesting to see what the response to “The Last Jedi” will be like now that we’ve settled into the Disney era a bit. Has everyone calmed down? Probably not. Even I haven’t, not really. Even though I publicly broke up with “Star Wars” I’ll probably be sitting in my seat hyperventilating as I wait for it to start next week. We need to believe each new “Star Wars” movie is good, even if it isn’t.
And, in that same vein, it’s no wonder that we can be 34 years removed from the last good “Star Wars” movie and still have somebody like Laura Dern, who is a far better actor than this franchise has demonstrated in modern times it deserves, sit on stage at a press conference and gush about how special it is to be a part of the franchise. Everybody is just happy to be here. We’ll be 20 years of annual hyper-processed corporate formula movies deep and an 80-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis will be on a stage somewhere talking about what an honor it is to be part of such a special series.
Because they, like me and everyone else, will never truly be able to get over that decades-old feeling that “Star Wars” is a part of who we are.