Monday, 21 September 2015

This is the droid you're looking for...

I say with pride that I am a nerd. I'm also an older nerd who fell in love with the original Star Wars and spent most of my life hoping to see more from the grimy counter universe to Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry's creation may have been more intellectually sound but Star Wars was more emotional. It was bleaker and filled with as much moral ambiguity as it was filled with space junk.

Star Wars was perhaps the first science fiction movie (or, at least, the first I saw ) to introduce a note of grunge which later became commonplace. Star Wars dropped its heroes into a trash compactor in which the technology of an advanced civilization was being reduced to garbage. Where Star Trek want us to feel slavish to our technological future, Star Wars reminded us of the hubris of technology. Hard to believe given the revolution in marketing it spawned but Star Wars even seemed to have an anti-consumerist message. What other film could make us want to indulge in religious asceticism quite like that involved in becoming a Jedi? What other film before or since made young boys lust after a old hunk of junk quite like we lusted after the Millenium Falcon? What other film taught that mastery of skill was more powerful than the material wealth of an empire?

When George Lucas revived the franchise with his prequel trilogy, fans were excited and then confused as he produced three films which rejected the grime for a CGI process that gave everything a slightly unreal sheen. I always remember feeling a great sense of disappointment when I saw the Naboo royal cruiser land half an hour into Episode One. Slick like the Blackbird spy plane and entirely reflective, it just didn't fit into the Star Wars universe I knew and loved. Worst of all, Lucas produced in Jar Jar Binks a character straight from a corporate toy department. In looks, voice, and manner, Jar Jar was annoying but what irritated most of all was the sense that the films were merely a vehicle for marketing.

When Disney bought the franchise (itself a horrible word), they promised a return to the original aesthetic. So far, they seem to have made wise decisions. The films are being made on real sets, with practical special effects replacing the green screens. Whilst hiring J.J. Abrams for the first sequel appears a safe choice, hiring Garath Edwards shows ambition for the future. The opening shot of the first trailer is also promising. It was a ruined Star Destroyer and this certainly feels like the Star Wars world, where ruin and spectacle sit side by side. It remains to be seen if the shining chromium seen elsewhere in the trailer is a minor part of the aesthetic but, in my eyes, if felt too Battlestar Galactica to be truly Tattooine.

It might sound fanboyish to pick out something so meaningless as the shininess of a character's armour but there's something else going on with the relaunch of Star Wars that makes me wary. We are still a couple of months from the premier of The Force Awakens and already the market is saturated with gleaming merchandise. Lucas (and Spielberg) were never above profiting through merchandising but this is something different. This is merchandising done by the kings of the industry. This is merchandising on the Disney scale.

Slowly it begins to dawn that the beloved films of childhood have become something else. They are claws buried so deep in our collective consciousness that we have no way of resisting their pull. They have now be harnessed to the most powerful marketing machine on the planet and we're about to be dragged over some rough terrain. I wonder how we'll all feel about Star Wars after five or ten years and maybe as many sequels because, apparently, there will be a new Star Wars movie appearing in cinemas every summer (or winter). Disney have seen the success of Marvel and found an even more potent mythology to leverage. I know I'm in a minority but I feel jaded before this has all begun. Marvel's universe never particularly excited me but it has certainly diminished with repeat visits. With a few exceptions, such as the Branagh helmed Thor (2011), I've looked on the Marvel films with increasingly indifference. Stan Lee's work reminds me of the excited imagination of an over-stimulated schoolboy, with the world of Valhalla existing side by side with the genetic freakery of Hulk and the mad science of Spiderman. I remain baffled by the excitement of fanboys who claim that the Toxic Nosewrangler never wore spats or that Ostritchman would never have formed an alliance with Shazzam Fiddlesticks. I'm left wanting to scream: NONE OF THIS MAKES SENSE!

Insofar as I've never much of a Marvel fan (Netflix's excellent Daredevil being another recent exception), the plundering of that mythos hasn't really troubled me. Star Wars is a different matter. I fear that the sheer joy those films gave me as a child will be used to manipulate me as an adult; turning the latent anti-consumerist message of the originals into a total assault on the wallet. The BB-8 droid toy is already this year's most wanted (and pointless) toy. I doubt if it will be the last.

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