A Livable Galaxy Far Far Away

In his review of Revenge of the Sith, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane writes:

“After all, the Lucasian universe is drained of all reference to bodily functions. Nobody ingests or excretes. Language remains unblue. Smoking and cursing are out of bounds, as is drunkenness, although personally I wouldn’t go near the place without a hip flask. Did Lucas learn nothing from “Alien” and “Blade Runner”—from the suggestion that other times and places might be no less rusted and septic than ours, and that the creation of a disinfected galaxy, where even the storm troopers wear bright-white outfits, looks not so much fantastical as dated? What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence.”

Lane wrote a much more sympathetic review of the latest movie, but there’s still a hint of the “disinfected galaxy” and “terrible puritan dream” complaint there. In fact, I’d say this is one of the things that Lucas set up so brilliantly in the blueprint of A New Hope: that a populated interplanetary world is a terrible, terrible place. There are deserts and swamps and ice globes, and these are more or less the only places to live. You survive in dive bars, or in caves, or in floating palaces, or by farming ore or sand or whatever Owen Lars has Luke doing on Tattoine. If you take a wrong step, you might get swallowed and digested by a Sarlacc. I mean, what’s disinfected about Jabba the freaking Hutt? I’m reminded of Stephen Crane:

One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb. The conceit of man was explained by this storm to be the very engine of life. One was a coxcomb not to die in it. However, the Swede found a saloon.

It’s telling that when Luke and the gang finally arrive at the Rebel headquarters, we only get a brief shot of the forest world they’ve occupied. That’s not what Lucas wanted to show. The jungle in Endor, the most beautiful of the planets we visit in the original trilogy, is modeled after Vietnam. We spend quality time inside of a Jawa dump truck. Even on the Death Star, he wants to show us the trash compacter. Kashyyyk, the Wookie Planet home to Chewbacca, seemed to be okay because treehouses, but Wookies smell terrible.

Or, you have the sterile, aseptic mechanicalism of Death Stars and the intermediary places like Cloud City. It makes sense that the Empire would be a desirable option when the alternate option is a weekly sand-people cane-beating. So long as you don’t challenge them, the Empire deviously presents itself as the kind of order that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere in this galaxy.

  • (FWIW: the main thing I remember about the dreadful Attack of the Clones is when Anakin finds his mother in a Tusken village, full of tee-pees, campfires, etc. Are the sand-people supposed to be the native inhabitants, like Indians. Do they raise children in some kind of civilized way? Are they trying to take back a territory that’s rightfully theirs?)

When I lived in College Park, Maryland, I was always delighted to see the signs that welcomed you to the city: “A Livable Community.” No need to double-down on its virtues – “livable,” it’s the most purely functional of descriptors. What was odd about College Park is that it doesn’t fit the values of “livable” as its mostly described: it’s difficult if not impossible to walk or bike anywhere because of the constant traffic flow and tiny sandwalks. It’s livable in the most basic and blandest possible sense, and that’s very much the virtue of a place like Tatooine.

But unlike the George Lucas who had just come off THX-1138 and American Graffiti, J.J. Abrams has always been more into grand vistas of epic, natural beauty. There are Aztec-ians ruins in his galaxy which rest on a palatial lake, and a final battle takes place where it might be cool to go cross-country skiing. And at the end, we find out that SPOILER SPOILER lives on a beautiful SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER, which does seem a bit more like prime real estate than Dagobah. But Abrams does get one aspect right where the prequels failed brutally: shit breaks down a lot. That’s the through-line of American Graffiti to the original trilogy, where Lucas was interested in monster cars and the kind of seemingly pathetic but weirdly inspirational guys who drive them like John Milner and Han Solo (Who you calling scruffy looking?) Those movies were inspired by the then-clunky approach to American car manufacturing, while it’s telling that the prequels came out after the Japanese had the bright idea of making cars that don’t break down a lot. Abrams revises that spirit in The Force Awakens, at least in part – the wonder of the earlier scenes relies on lonely Rey living in the hulking carcass of an AT-AT walker, left over from some unmentioned battle. This seems right: it’s hard enough to land those suckers on a desert planet, and I doubt that Jakku has the kind of civic infrastructure to provide for some kind of reasonable salvaging budget.

And yet, what worked about those early movies was that despite the Wookie scat, we all would want to live there. This is why the first three movies work, and modern epics not filmed in New Zealand could learn a bit from this – its physical trappings are messy, dangerous, foul, and wonderful.

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