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Summer 2005 | Volume 28, Number 2 | Books & Film

After the Jedi

Reflections on Films That Captivate the Culture

The first weekend in June 2005, “Star Wars: Episode Three — Revenge of the Sith,” the final episode in film history’s most successful franchise, fell from the #1 box office spot after reigning for only two weeks. While director George Lucas may not make ’em like he used to, no one can deny that the success of his “Star Wars” prequels reflects the profound impact that the original trilogy, released from 1977–1983, made on his early audiences

You’re fired! A Jedi apprentice (Hayden Christensen) turns against his mentor (Ewan McGregor) in “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.”

That first trilogy is one of few cinematic stories that can claim to have “defined a generation.” It became what is arguably the most prominent and influential cultural event of its time, affecting pop-culture participants right down to their vocabulary. (Even our national leaders have been known to employ “Star Wars” terminology, and Billy Graham’s last crusade sermon examined the “parable” of Anakin Skywalker’s fall.) Further, Lucas’ special effects were standard-setting, prompting a revolution in how films are made, and his storytelling inventively merged mythological archetypes and religious inquiry with the excitement of classic swashbucklers and westerns.

But the trilogy also connected with audiences because of its emphasis on spirituality. As the Vietnam War limped to an end, leaving our nation disillusioned with authority and seeking new moral focus, “Star Wars” offered us a simple, compelling vision. Principled rebels struck back against the impersonal, oppressive, cruel Empire. But their declaration of independence focused on the power of humility, self-control, community, and democracy, something more substantial than the self-indulgent rebellion of so many ’60s films. “The Force” became a symbol for the invisible realities of spiritual warfare, leading heroes into “a larger world” of good versus evil.

In the mid-to-late ’80s, John Hughes populated the cultural imagination with a motley crew of high school miscreants who rebelled against insensitive teachers and neglectful parents (“Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”). These stories reflected a cultural reaction against prevalent problems, but they didn’t have the transforming effect of “Star Wars” and the generation-defining films of the ’60s and ’70s (“The Godfather” series, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Graduate,” and “Easy Rider.”)

At the end of the ’90s, “American Beauty,” “Fight Club,” and, above all, “The Matrix,” attempted to illustrate how our society embraces unhealthy and deceptive values and priorities. Each was groundbreaking in its own way, but the attempts to offer profoundly rewarding visions fell short. “The Matrix” resounded with echoes of Christian truth, but its jumble of other religious ideas made for a confusing tapestry, ultimately concluding that salvation comes from within us — not from God.

When “The Lord of the Rings” arrived in 2001, it surpassed the ’90s films by focusing on relationships more than on special effects. And it mirrored Christian principles: power corrupts, but humble service redeems; fellowship is more rewarding than self-absorption; we are not ultimately able to save the world on our own, but need the intervention of “another will at work.”

It is far too early to tell what the defining films of this generation will be. But here are some recent candidates:

“War of the Worlds.” When the alien tripods open fire on a New Jersey neighborhood in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi nightmare, it’s easy to forget that we’re watching a century-old story by H.G. Wells. We feel painfully familiar emotions when we see deadbeat dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), horror-stricken and speechless, running for his life, covered head to toe with the ashes of those incinerated by a terrorist attack. We saw similar images live from New York just a few years ago.

Sure, “War of the Worlds” is science fiction. But, despite its anticlimax, it transcends genre conventions and resonates with us as a reflection of our own wounded state, in which we newly appreciate the fragility of our civilization, and wrestle with questions of how to respond to violence. (Of course, the victims in “Worlds” are middle-class Americans. How would our interpretations be different if the film had shown aliens inflicting mass casualties in a Middle Eastern context?)

Spielberg isn’t the only one exploring this thematic territory. Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” tells a tale of terrorism, offering a hero who resists the allure of violent retaliation, choosing the hard road of justice over vengeance. It remains to be seen if Nolan’s vision, or Spielberg’s, will stand as a lasting, influential illustration of and for our times.

“Garden State.” Zach Braff wrote, directed, and starred in this stylish, thoughtful, critically acclaimed film about young adults fed up with being pharmaceutically shielded from painful realities. Images such as a hamster Habitrail running throughout a house, a character who walks around in a suit of armor, and a girl in a helmet reinforce this sense of an insulated existence. While the film’s climax lacks dramatic punch, Braff’s story appeals to young people longing for an authentic, visceral engagement with life and suffering.

“Napoleon Dynamite.” Really? Yes. Few films have impacted pop culture’s vocabulary as quickly and thoroughly as this story about small-town Idaho. It may be that John Heder’s film suggests a perspective that has been missing from most other youth-culture movies. It affirms the importance of simple, faithful friendship, the value of each quirky person, and the hope that anyone can fulfill unlikely dreams.

Most impressively, Heder achieves this without making a scapegoat out of authority — or anyone, for that matter. Heder’s losers are portrayed with generous affection. In Napoleon’s world, everyone has a peculiar value, and everyone — even the “bad guy” — receives a gesture of grace. Wouldn’t that be a good world to live in?

— BY Jeffrey Overstreet, film critic and Response staff writer

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