Let The Wookiee Win Week 3: Full Carbonite Jacket February 1, 2010

The following is the third part of a seven part column I am doing for The Peak at SFU. You can read the other ones by clicking the title tag at the left of this post. It’s about Star Wars and how important it is to the world. Why yes I am in university, thank you for asking. Yes, I have kissed a girl before, too.

I feel a little like Milton, trying to justify the ways of Lucas and instead portraying some sort of bumbling God in denim button-ups. Which is to say in trying to portray sombody I like quite a bit, it comes off like he has wronged me in some way. This is not totally the case. While Lucas may have found himself at odds with the standards of his audience and good filmmaking, his mastery of contradictory human nature is, at it’s worst, better than most. This is excellently illustrated with his attitudes towards war and conflict, and is brilliant in the near omission of it’s significance.

In the history of film and television, the most memorable depictions of war are often the ones that run counter to traditional perceptions of military conflict as a glorious and honorable act. Post-Vietnam, these diminutive portrayals became the norm, with Stanley Kubrick nearly creating a career out of taking the piss out of hawks. Now, in an age of guerilla warfare and military excursions with all the popular support of tuberculosis, war has an all too uncomfortable way of getting put to the back burner, forgotten until it boils over. Star Wars raises stakes by not being contrary at all, and instead slapping us with the wet noodle of reality.

Released just eight months later, The Deer Hunter brought the terror of Vietnam to the home front while Star Wars gave the casualties of war all the gravity of a trip to Wal-Mart in heavy traffic. That is to say distressing, but in no way impossible to ignore. Star Wars is almost prophetic in how it’s characters react to prolonged military struggles with marked indifference, ahead of it’s time in describing the numbing of society to matters of foreign war that would define the rest of the Cold War and beyond.

Luke Skywalker’s Aunt and Uncle get killed? He shrugs it off and gets to work bringing down the Empire. Darth Vader blows Alderaan into a million pieces? Ben Kenobi puts his fingers to his temple and Leia is a little upset. She gets over it. Millions killed when the Death Star is blown up not once but twice? No tears for dead Imperials. The death of serial Force-choker Darth Vader is met with the most emotion (and little at that) in a prosaic relationship climax that evokes one of the most horrifying hypocrisies within human capacity; war becomes statistical and distant one moment, tragic and personal when convenient. We could write this off as bad acting, but the consistency of the chilled reaction to mortality forces us to consider it a directorial mandate.

In this the canon is not nearly reconciled. The Star Wars universe waxes between having the foot soldiers of the Empire nee Republic and Rebellion act as foreign policy meatsacks just a little more often than it creates fictions around distinguished veterans. The Jedi are exceptional, the ruling class, so we care about them. The average soldier is less than a volunteer, a clone built for the express purpose of being an expendable unit of a shrewd Machiavel who can shoot lightning out of his fingers. Making the average Stormtrooper a clone of Jango Fett and not a draftee of unjust regime was an embarrassingly fit metaphor for our attitudes towards military personnel.

The primary films disregard Stormtroopers, Republic troops and Ewoks as little more than bullet sponges. Genndy Tartakovsky’s outstanding Clone Wars vignettes straddle the line between the extremes, the clones taking on varying degrees of expertise, but ultimately being the silent, soulless vessels the series more than demands. Recently, as the series takes pains to gain the Sesame Street crowd, they’ve softened this stance to include fairly generous concern for the lives of the average trooper from the Jedi leadership, but at this point it seems token.

Star Wars puts a mirror up to our collective unconscious considering matters military, and the reflection is less than favorable. The nameless, faceless Ewoks and Stormtroopers fight battles a long long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, far away enough that to ignore it is a matter of turning off the (space) television. When it does view war through a compassionate lens, the moments are sparse enough to be arresting, and rarely involve central characters.

Consider this: the single most evocative explication of military loss in the entire series is seven seconds long. Through the frenetic cuts of the final battle on Endor, between Han Solo being suave and R2-D2 being mutely hilarious, Lucas cuts to a lone Ewok running to the front. In the grass is the body of a fallen comrade, a motionless ball of fur on the ground. He stops in his tracks and falls to his knees, cradling his head in his hand with grief. The war is screaming in his brain and there isn’t a title actor around to hear it.

Sometimes Star Wars hits a little close to home. Sometimes we need it to.

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