(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
Several days after the November election, my wife and I watched A New Hope. We’d seen it hundreds of times, of course, and knew it like the back of our hands. But previous screenings had been far more casual in recent years. We played Star Wars in the background while cooking or vacuuming, rattling off quotes in perfect time and coasting on its familiarity. Then as the shock and disbelief of Trump’s election sunk in, we turned to cinematic comfort food for a little respite: turning off the lights, popping some popcorn, and really looking at the movie for the first time in a long while.
When it was over, my wife turned to me and said, “You know what? I think we can fight this.”
Star Wars has been criticized more than once for its seeming simplicity and fairy-tale ethos. Skeptics hit it hard on those fronts when it first opened, and its flaws remain in effect 40 years later. (I’m always puzzled by people’s anger at the bad dialogue in the prequels when groaners like “flying through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy!” passed without comment back in the day.) The story’s straightforward nature, however, was always a feature not a bug.
It works on a primal level – the same level triggered in an entirely different way by Trump’s vile triumph – and as such becomes a perfect tonic whenever rage and despair creep in. The cues come largely from the emotional rather than the intellectual: led by John Williams’ music and couched in the evergreen resonance of “once upon a time.” Trump plays his odious games by engendering deep, often irrational reactions among followers and supporters alike. It’s only right, perhaps, that a more positive message delivered to the fight-or-flight parts of our brain could counter it so effectively.
Nostalgia plays a part, to be sure, but Star Wars is Star Wars for a reason, and at times like this, we’re reminded why we all fell in love with it in the first place. Gen Xers remember seeing it in the theaters, and millennials speak with fondness about discovering it on video, but adults at the time felt the pull as well. America was reeling when it arrived: struggling with the fallout of Watergate and Vietnam, mired in a feckless and impotent presidency, and experiencing an undeniable cinematic golden age… which nevertheless emphasized darkness over light time and time again.
A New Hope changed all of that. Like its heroes, it seemingly came out of nowhere, a forgotten little science fiction film dumped unceremoniously into theaters and left to rot. Then, against all odds, it became The One You Had to See, and though preceded on that front by Jaws (and followed by more imitators than can readily be counted), nothing ever felt the same.
Some of that stems from its unique take on the Hero’s Journey, which gives its age-old lessons a sense of freshness. Cloaking it in high-tech pyrotechnics allowed Lucas to dust off the old mythic tropes and carve out a permanent place in our imagination. Its task was simple and yet profound: get its audience to believe in the impossible. Remind them that the good guys can win sometimes, that long odds sometimes pan out, and that fighting for what you believe holds merit regardless of the outcome. It stated that boldly and without hesitation during one of the most cynical periods in our history, and reaped cultural immortality as a reward.
Now, in the midst of another dark period in our history, its durability becomes a life boat for troubled times. Beneath the clunky dialogue, the creaky acting, and the obvious stereotypes, its magic shines brighter than ever: waiting for the moment when we needed it, and stepping in as if it had never left. I’ve referred to movies like this as a spiritual armory, and few hold so much potential to make people believe that good can prevail if we don’t give up.
Which brings us to Rogue One, released in the post-election scrum of 2016 and available on Blu-ray this week. It’s already earned a reputation as an ideal double feature with A New Hope… owing largely to the fact that it ends at almost the same moment A New Hope begins. Viewing them in one sitting doesn’t require the investment that tackling the entire saga does. More importantly, Rogue One also managed the extraordinary feat of placing A New Hope in a new and refreshing light.
Certainly, it enhances the desperation to the rebels’ efforts to stop the Empire’s ultimate weapon. For most of the running time, the Rebellion gravitates between disorganized rabbit punches and total collapse, as its leaders vainly attempt to organize and the rank-and-file soldiers slowly surrender to fanaticism or despair. It fits the mood of the time perfectly: darker, more brutal, and for the first time coming from a voice that was most definitively not Lucas’s (either directly or by inference).
And yet by doing so, it actually enhances and deepens what Lucas expressed in A New Hope: revealing how much worse things were before Luke and his friends arrived on the scene and how much more of a fantastic, impossible victory their destruction of the Death Star represented. Those long odds look even longer as Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her friends lay the groundwork that makes A New Hope possible, and though uncelebrated, their efforts are no less vital in pulling the galaxy back from the brink.
That doesn’t invalidate the heroics of A New Hope or render them less plausible. On the contrary, it certifies them by showing how much loss the rebels suffered before their hard-earned win. It emphasizes the necessity of sacrifice for victory, and celebrates the anonymous, forgotten fighters who put it all on the line before that Skywalker kid even got up to bat. As a prequel, it’s revelatory. As a means of connecting the zeitgeist of 2017 to that of 1977, it becomes a minor miracle.
In a curious wrinkle of fate, we lost Carrie Fisher just a few weeks after Rogue One opened. Initially, her death felt like a final kick in the teeth after a miserable year: the universe trying to snuff out some last bit of light that might have kept us going. But no one really dies in the Star Wars universe, and – uncanny valley aside – Leia’s strange, off-kilter appearance before the closing credits helped feed a quickly blossoming symbol of anti-Trump protests.
That’s the power that Star Wars holds, a power undimmed after 40 years and clearly digging in for the long haul. For all his flaws as a filmmaker, Lucas built his galaxy far, far away to last. We may not have fully appreciated that before now, but its presence is no less welcome for it: when the things worth fighting for come into sharp relief… and a little hope can help us put up our dukes when the Empire comes calling.