The original Star Wars movie famously takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way,” but the reality is a tad more down to earth. That first film, retroactively rechristened A New Hope by George Lucas, was released in May of 1977 and quickly became the cornerstone of a movie-toys-videogame-you-name-it empire that “conquered the universe,” as Chris Taylor puts it in his encyclopedic history. Certainly, it forever changed how movies get financed, fortunes get made, and how Americans talk about politics and culture.
But screw all the special-effects glitz, hyperdrive fantasia, Force choking, and high-tech weaponry. The Star Wars phenomenon is best understood through the lense of baby boomer solipsism. The vast moral distance traveled between A New Hope, 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, and today’s The Force Awakens isn’t to be measured in light years, parsecs, or even Trogan meters.
That’s because Star Wars is really about the path from the smug sense of moral superiority baby boomers oozed in the mid-1970s to the undeniable self-realization that they themselves were people who sanctioned indiscriminate bombings, torture, invasion, and destruction in the name of nation building, liberating oppressed peoples, and waging the Global War on Terrorism. To George Lucas’s immense credit, the Star Wars movies unflinchingly document the journey from youthful arrogance and moral certitude to middle-aged humility and self-recrimination. It turns out that the Woodstock Generation didn’t make it back to the garden. No, they ended up running the show at Abu Ghraib.
Immediately before he made Star Wars, Lucas made 1973’s American Graffiti, which followed the exploits of a group of graduating high school seniors in 1962, driving the main drive in Modesto, California, Lucas’s hometown. It’s all there: sock hops, malt shops, comically unthreatening gangs, drive-in restaurants, repressed sexuality, and the barely visible but ominous threat of Vietnam (spoiler alert: in the film’s final moments, we learn one of the main characters is reported missing in action circa 1965). Featuring a handful of future stars (Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, and Harrison Ford among them), American Graffiti spoke loudly and directly to so-called leading-edge baby boomers born between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s.
In its original theatrical release, the film became one of the top grossing movies in history, pulling in over $55 million on a budget of a little over $1 million (in nominal dollars). Like the musical Grease, which had hit Broadway in 1971 and would eventually become a massive hit movie, and the retro doo-wop band Sha Na Na, American Graffiti expressed the baby boomers’ self-indulgent remembrance for their barely completed childhoods. After Graffiti came Happy Days (starring Howard), Laverne & Shirley (starring Williams), The Lords of Flatbush, and all manner of schlocky remembrance of things in the very recent past.
The boomers weren’t only the biggest generation in American history, they were the most self-absorbed and self-congratulatory. As Lucas’s frequent collaborator, Steven Speilberg, said while promoting his 1998 World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, “It was as simple as this: The century either was going to produce the baby boomers or it was not going to produce the baby boomers.” Only a baby boomer could reduce World War II to a footnote in the history of a cohort not yet born.
On the heels of American Graffiti’s success, Lucas wanted to pay tribute to Flash Gordon, the hero of old movie serials that he had grown up watching on TV. Unable to secure the rights, he settled on creating Star Wars, a space opera that unfolds as a simplistic tale of black-and-white morality and generational parricide. Luke Skywalker and the young rebels are good and the Empire, lead by Luke’s father Darth Vader, are evil. Young/good triumphs over old/evil. Period, end of story. That’s pretty much a history of the 1960s too, at least as told by what was once known as the younger generation. What eventually became known as the Greatest Generation was routinely castigated by its offspring as reactionary, bigoted, hate-mongers who fought against racial equality at home and the freedom of long-suffering peasants in Vietnam and elsewhere abroad.
Which is what makes the second set of Star Wars movies, released between 1999 and 2005, so incredibly fascinating. While taking place 30 years before the original movies, the second trilogy offers an unmistakably poisonous commentary on contemporary American events, including numerous promiscuous military interventions by Bill Clinton (the first boomer president), the repressive response to the 9/11 attacks, and the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. The last of the second trilogy in particular, Revenge of the Sith, details how a republic transmogrifies into an empire (“with thunderous applause”), one that is capable of destroying whole planets in the name of security and order.
“You were the Chosen One!,” cries out Obi-Wan Kenobi to his protege Anakin Skywalker as he becomes the evil Darth Vader, “It was said you would destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to the force, not leave it in darkness!”
No one would confuse George Lucas with a deep thinker (his filmography includes such neutron bombs as Howard the Duck, Labyrinth, and Willow), but he has managed what is arguably the most ruthless and withering appraisal of the baby boom generation from young rebels to imperial overlords. The first six Star Wars movies document in imaginative form how antiwar activists became the cryptkeepers of Abu Ghraib, how hippies who called bullshit on LBJ and Richard Nixon staffed a Bush administration that sanctioned waterboarding and an Obama administration that generated a “kill list” not subject to any sort of due process.
Even more impressive, in 2012 Lucas and his eponymous film company relinquished ownership and creative control over the franchise. The Force Awakens, directed by Gen-Xer J.J. Abrams, has opened to universally strong notices, and, in the summary of Rotten Tomatoes, “successfully recalls the series’ former glory while injecting it with renewed energy.”
As aging boomers such as Hillary Clinton (aged 68), Donald Trump (69), and Jeb Bush (62) desperately try to become the next president, Lucas has abdicated his throne and graciously allowed younger generations to take control of his prized possession, the most beloved and valuable property in the history of popular culture. Which is to say that he not only shone a glaring light on the trajectory of leading-edge baby boomers from liberationists to oppressors, he has provided an example of graciousness and generosity that is every bit the equal of his filmic legacy. A reverse King Lear, Lucas has disbursed his fortune before his death but has left us richer in insight and wisdom than we deserve to be.