The Dark Side

Posted: March 25, 2017 in Uncategorized
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SWHSOr, how I learned to put my foot down and hate Star Wars

I wasn’t around yet when Star Wars premiered in 1977. My introduction to the franchise (and I will refer to it as a franchise, not a ‘saga’) did, however, come at a very young age. It was, I am certain, prior to my fourth birthday, as it was my enthusiasm for the original movie when I viewed it at my uncle’s house that led to me receiving the trilogy on VHS when I turned four. From that young age, I was hooked on the series. It was, as I would later muse, a bit like being initiated into a cult.

But- business first.

In the early 90’s, Lucasfilm was, rather than developing new films based on its popular Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties, developing merchandising tie-ins. It began innocently enough: West End Games adapted the Star Wars setting into a roleplaying game, modifying the D6-based game mechanics of their (very fun) Ghostbusters RPG. Lucasfilm’s wholly-owned subsidiary game studio LucasArts was in its early years adept at creating original properties like Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, but as time progressed, they increasingly became known for their output of Star Wars titles (when the studio died, that’s about all they were making). Toy licensing agreements with Kenner, who had manufactured action figures for the original films’ release, were renewed. New novels in an “expanded universe”, so called because it expanded from the central stories and settings of the films, began to be published in the early 1990’s.

I became a fan of Star Wars in this environment. I had loved Star Wars when I initially received the movies on video cassette, but things began to kick into high gear with one particular commercial for Kenner’s resurrected toyline (which, for some reason, saw fit to buff out Luke so that he looked like a more like a blonde Sylvester Stallone than Mark Hammill). This one advertised Boba Fett. I had no idea who that was at the time, having not even known what a bounty hunter was in spite of it being a recurring subplot in the films, but hey- the last time I had seen the films, I was four, and much more interested in “space planes” and “light up swords” as I called them. But Boba Fett was strangely familiar and looked cool. Therefore, I had to have the action figure. It became the first of many in the collection I would build over the years, and more troubling, the first occurrence of “I don’t know what it is, but I gotta have it!”.

My parents seemed nonplussed. I suppose it might have been a relief for them, for me to have an interest in Star Wars. It was something they had at least seen and understood- I think my mom was in her Senior year of High School when the original film premiered- as opposed to the Saturday Morning cartoons and comic book heroes that I developed a deep interest in for about a month before losing interest and moving onto the next fad. I began to get back into watching the films, this time much more aware of the finer points of what was going on in them. I started reading Star Wars novels, playing Star Wars computer games, and in addition, rumblings began to stir of Special Editions of Star Wars, that were going to look better and have all new computer-generated special effects! (Yes, we actually got excited about CGI, back when our main exposure to it was its superlative use in Jurassic Park and Terminator 2.)

To my youthful, special-effects addled mind, I was living in a dream.

The Special Editions represent, in hindsight, something we see more now than ever before: a nostalgia boom, marketing new or repackaged or remade products with the promise that it’ll stir those warm and fuzzy feelings you had seeing the film for the first time as a child, or that it’s something you remember from when you were a child and can share with your own children. It is not surprising that George Lucas would milk nostalgia for Star Wars; after all, his first hit film, American Graffiti, was playing on the nostalgia that young adults in the early 1970’s had for carefree days of drag racing and rock and roll radio, away from the horrors of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Lucas may have been stupid or careless about many things, but he recognized a good business plan when he saw one.

So, on the morning that the Special Edition of Star Wars premiered (we never called it A New Hope when I was a kid, and no one referred to the films by episode until the prequels came), I dragged my dad to the movie theater and I made damn sure we were there early. I was sure that there would be a line around the block, and I didn’t want it to be sold out. Of course, being an obsessed child with no concept of the fact that Star Wars was NOT hugely popular anymore, I ended up dragging my poor father to the movie theater an hour before the theater opened, and there was no one but us in line.

To begin chanting a thematic mantra of this essay: Mom, Dad: I am so sorry.

The really funny thing? After that initial morning in the theater with the however many minutes of original footage, I didn’t end up seeing the other two Special Editions in theaters. I meant to, but other things came up. That didn’t stop me from getting as many of the Taco Bell toys as I could or collecting every magazine and trading card of the the films that I could get. However, this was only one step in the long game that Lucasfilm was playing. The re-release of the Star Wars filmed served to build up hype for the prequels that he was developing. Or perhaps more realistically, scribbling on a legal pad in the bathroom.

I don’t think that we had ever seen a Hollywood hype machine on the level that we saw in the lead-up to The Phantom Menace’s release in 1999 was something we hadn’t seen before, and if we had, this was the first time I was aware. That Panzer column of hype would be surpassed in the years to come, but let’s not undersell it: people were paying full price for a movie ticket to the long-forgotten Brad Pitt vehicle Meet Joe Black and leaving the theater once the Star Wars trailer had played. I had perhaps overestimated the interest when the Special Editions came out, but when I arrived at the theater after school on May 19th, that vision of lines around the block had come to fruition. I had a newly-bought Obi-Wan action figure in my pocket the whole day and waved it around at nothing in particular as I stood in line. We got into the theater and the movie began, and I began a journey toward becoming an unreasonable Star Wars fanboy.

Following the release of The Phantom Menace, there were new Star Wars-related products and entertainment available on a monthly basis. In particular, LucasArts kicked the production of Star Wars games into high gear, to the detriment of their original titles. You had plenty of food on the buffet table, so to speak, and no, most of them weren’t great. While Star Wars Episode I: Racer on the N64 is pretty fondly remembered by some of my generation, I think I always found it to be, for lack of a better term, janky. Maybe, being a PlayStation guy I had been exposed to better and deeper racing games like Gran Turismo (or even more interesting futuristic racers like Jet Moto). I can’t say for certain. But as time went on you definitely began to detect a feeling of laziness from the output of Lucas’ brands. They knew you’d buy it because you’re an idiot fanboy and it’s branded with Star Wars. Come and get it, it’s feedin’ time!

I didn’t know at the time that anyone was critical of the film. I was in 5th Grade, about to enter 6th. I didn’t read movie reviews in the paper or watch Siskel and Ebert. However, I think that something was amiss from the fact that I was more interested in collecting the merchandise than I was with watching the film. I had loads of action figures to add to my existing Star Wars collection, along with a couple of plastic light sabers and even that stupid Jedi communicator thing. But I probably only saw the movie twice in theaters, and maybe once or twice more, sporadically, once it came out on VHS. I had even watched the Special Editions enough to wear my Return of the Jedi tape out, but The Phantom Menace I never had a big urge to watch again.

It’s no surprise, then, that Disney purchased Star Wars along with the rest of Lucasfilm’s properties. They have similar long term goals accomplished by starting brand recognition early in people’s lives. A child grows up with that brand, becomes “hooked” on it, so to speak, and passes their interest in it on to the next generation. Now, passing culture down from one generation to another is fine, and anthropologically, that’s precisely what is supposed to happen. But in the modern world, popular culture is mixed up with marketing and merchandising. A small number of people stands to profit enormously from you passing your nostalgic memories of a privately owned intellectual property onto your children.

Companies like Disney thrive on being “family friendly” yet using ethically questionable methods in which to sell their products. Mark Twain once said that it is easier to fool someone than to convince them they are being fooled, and I believe this is in full play here- either that, or parents are so desperate for family friendly entertainment that doesn’t bore them to death that they’re willing to put up with buying their kids some toys. Not being a parent yet, I can’t truthfully make a statement, one way or the other. Ask me in ten years.

There is, of course, always the hope that someone will see beyond the smoke and mirrors and understand that they’re being manipulated. When I was in High School, one of my English teachers related a story that was about his son or nephew or some such junior relative. As the story goes, they were buying ice cream, and the younger noticed one in the shape of Shrek. Brand recognition kicking in, he demanded that particular head on a stick. My teacher tried to encourage the child otherwise, but his mind was made up, and the child was given the ice cream. He opened it. He began to eat. The lifeless gumball eyes of Shrek staring up at him, he felt that taste of betrayal, the flavor of what marketing slapping an image on a shoddy product tastes like. That’s what it’s all about. Quality doesn’t matter. What matters is maximizing profit through brand recognition.

To get on my soapbox here for a second (as if I haven’t been on one for the past several paragraphs): I think marketing anything to children is on a shaky ethical foundation to begin with. Kids aren’t likely to know about marketing, they aren’t likely to know they’re being sold to, and don’t make their own income. Children are probably not going to understand the value of things in any meaningful way (don’t believe me? Wait until they panic the first time they have to pay their own auto insurance bill). I would not count on a child to know that the five dollar action figure was made for a fraction of what it costs their parent.

So essentially, these companies are marketing to children in order to get their parents’ money. Disney, its subsidiaries, and so many others bank on this. They expect children to needle their parents for something, and parents, whether for fear of disappointing their children or just to get them to stop asking, to relent and pay the money for whatever product it is the child is begging for. I think it also plants the kernel of an idea that advertisers are to be trusted implicitly. Why ask a trusted friend for advice when the answers are right there, waiting to be sold to you?

With the way popular media operates, with cinematic universes and the enthusiast press providing press at negligible cost to the IP holder, it has even become a strangely circular exercise. Let’s say a new hypothetical Star Wars film comes out. There will be a concurrent marketing blitz with television commercials, web ads, store and movie theater displays and standees, the works. The merchandise and film will work both ways: someone might see a toy they like or someone wearing a t-shirt of the film* and that might spur an interest in the film; while coming from the other direction, someone that’s enjoyed the film will be more inclined to buy merchandise of it. They have even tied it into how we identify ourselves. You’re not a TRUE fan unless you’ve double-dipped on multiple editions of the Blu-Ray and own every tchotchke known to man.

At one point, I had that mentality. I wanted to own all that Star Wars stuff. I had two Boba Fett helmets, one to wear (which I never did outside of my bedroom) and one to keep in the box. I had action figures. I had a couple of shelves worth of Star Wars novels. I had games. Shirts. I had a lot. I know some are probably reading that with envy for my 24 year old self, and if you feel that way…I’m sorry. Most of the books went unread. Most of the toys just sat on shelves. The momentary happiness I got when I bought them was always short-lived.

I am more than pleased to be rid of them.

Let me conclude and summarize: I have no problem with the Star Wars films as films. They’re often good and sometimes great films. But, the franchise, the fandom, the sheer early childhood brainwashing power of it all- I’m uncomfortable with it, the way it exists and we accept it uncritically. I hold a grudge against Lucasfilm for exploiting my enthusiasm for its films to sell me products when I wasn’t even earning my own money, and it disturbs me that Disney is going to continue the same cycle. It bothers me that we share this enthusiasm with our children when we should know better that we’re being marketed and sold to. Fandom on this level is creepy and cult like, and it bothers me seeing Star Wars everywhere. Maybe marketing isn’t an ugly enough term. It’s more than that; it’s exploitation. So, parents, future parents, aunts and uncles, let me get on my soapbox for a moment. This is less a Helen Lovejoy “think of the children!” moment than a call to think. Star Wars and similar franchises are all too happy to start selling merchandise to you and your children from cradle to grave. It might be prudent to learn when to say no. What is the value of plastic toys you never play with, plastic statuettes that you never look at, books you never read, just because it’s branded with the emblem of something you like? Please, give it some thought before you buy something else branded with the Star Wars logo. Maybe give a new intellectual property a chance. They’re just movies, and owning every piece of merchandise doesn’t make the movies any better.


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