I first saw Star Wars on Beta. (Those of you born after 1985 are scratching your heads right now wondering what that is.) It was a bad, commercial-laden dub off the local TV station: the picture quality was dreadful, the sound was worse and the story was interrupted every five minutes to try and sell me pantyhose and dish detergent. Regardless, my young self was completely transfixed. Set aside the sheer whiz-bang factor of cool spaceships zipping around shooting lasers at each other; for a quiet, lonely kid who grew up looking at the stars and dreaming, Star Wars was that dream given shape – the idea that from the humblest beginnings could arise an adventure to span the galaxy. Star Wars and its every subtle quirk – characters with a half-second of screen time, unusual inflections on innocuous line readings – burned itself into the zeitgeist and became an instant allegory for our own troubled history. “May the Force be with you” was more than a secret sign between members of an exclusive cult; it evolved into a universal greeting of peace and goodwill.
Thirty-five years later, our post-Star Wars world is a far more cynical time, when the wide-eyed eagerness displayed by young Luke Skywalker is seen more as tragic naïveté than an admirable sense of hope and optimism. Thus, the enormous anticipation afforded to the prequel trilogy could not help but lead to an equally enormous letdown, a sense that despite all the ingredients being there, the recipe wasn’t gelling. One can waste gigabytes citing all the familiar criticisms: poor acting, dodgy writing, wooden characters, Jar Jar Binks. But it seems to me, as someone who admittedly experienced the same disappointment as The Phantom Menace unspooled, that what was missing from the equation was us. We didn’t have the same optimism, and we weren’t looking at the stars the way we used to.
It’s no surprise, then, that the newest iteration of Star Wars would fail to penetrate that jaded shell, erected by decades of frustration with the failures of our leaders, our increasing obsession with the banal, and a realignment of our values – towards the shallow, the material and the increasingly out of reach. How could even the most masterfully crafted Star Wars film compete against that? The clearest indicator of our cynicism, for me, was that in the months leading up to the release of Episode I in 1999, buzz centered largely not on the question of whether it would capture our imaginations and spark a cultural phenomenon the way the first movie did, but whether it would outgross Titanic – ironic in that Star Wars has always been a victim of its own success, and to examine it only in financial terms, as we seem to do with everything these days, is to miss its fundamental meaning.
Star Wars represented something that has gone somewhat astray amidst the background noise of our modern discourse, and deserves to be brought back in full vigor. That connection with the old stories, with the passions that have driven us since we first stood erect, and the myths we have handed down across generations almost as genetic souvenirs of what matters most to us about our collective human experience. It has endured, because it is the best of who we are and who we have ever been. Star Wars stokes the hunger to set out upon a journey and to emerge triumphantly at its end, not as a wealthier or more famous man, but simply a better one. To become more than what we are. That is what we are truly wishing each other when we say “May the Force be with you” – may your spirit be emboldened by the force it needs to achieve its greatest potential. Not a bad sentiment to express on May the Fourth – and something worth keeping in mind all year round.