The Consumer Republic: Myth And Menace

The Star Wars faith demands continual acts of devotion, be it the purchase of action figures or Web site exegeses.
Is there anyone who lives on an island so remote or in an isolation so total that he doesn’t know what happens on May 19? This week, the nation is holding its collective breath in anticipation of a telecommunications meltdown at 3 p.m. on May 12, when advance tickets for Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace go on sale via telephone and the Internet. And you’ve been wasting your time worrying about Y2K.
Of course, eventually everyone can–and, some insist, will–see the latest installment of the Star Wars saga. But among the faithful, the biggest blessing goes to the “first born,” the elite who spend weeks camping on the sidewalk to see the movie on its opening day. Employers have been warned: The hallways of the workplace will be as empty as the dust bowl five years into the great drought, as millions of consumers–far more than will fit into 3,000 theaters–take a self-declared holiday in the movie’s honor. This compulsion appears doubly odd when one considers that, far from disappearing, The Phantom Menace will be available to watch as long as there exists a technology to display moving images.
Nevertheless, junkets of Jedi junkies are expected from Europe, where the film is not scheduled to open until June. Even now, in the proliferating Star Wars temples and shrines on the Internet, self-selected priests are reading the entrails of George Lucas interviews in hopes of divining the meaning of the Clone Wars–and that doesn’t even happen until Episode 2.
The reasons for Star Wars’ grip on the mass imagination are both obvious and much noted: First, there are the peculiar talents of our control-freak Homer, Lucas himself, whose bottomless capacity to conjure an alternative world is unique this side of a schizophrenia ward. In an information age, his Star Wars universe is dense with the obsessive details info cults adore. Lucas’ films bring formidable concreteness to the archetypes and narratives they unironically borrow from: Westerns, war movies, swashbucklers and the like. Which, in turn, borrow from myths as old as human storytelling itself.
Running through the movies is the battle between good and evil, a theme that mesmerizes a society which, it is often said, has lost the ability to distinguish between the two. Perhaps the public loves Star Wars so much because, within its self-referential world, the difference between the light side and the dark side is clear.
The Phantom Menace and the two prequels to come promise more plunder from the Joseph Campbell handbook. Judging from limited information and lots of fevered speculation, the trilogy is a cross between King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and The Fall of the Roman Republic. Plus, it’s larded with plenty of patented Star Wars Zen for dummies. The movies ask the eternal question, Why do people choose evil?–which has been an audience grabber since Genesis.
There remains the largely unspoken possibility that the film, for all its mythic resonances, could turn out to be a bust. Yet, Godzilla notwithstanding, it seems unlikely this great juggernaut of licensed toys, fast-food promos and audience adoration could be halted by anything as inconsequential as a thumbs-down movie. Citizen Kane is a movie. The Star Wars saga–on one level nothing more than a Saturday-matinee serial on blockbuster steroids–has become an act of devotion.
In its massive impact, The Phantom Menace demonstrates a basic truth about the entertainment economy: It’s not about consumables. To the contrary, its most important and successful products cannot be consumed–at least not in the word’s original sense of “to destroy or expend by use, use up.”
As shown by the re-release of the original trilogy two years ago, the Star Wars faith demands continual, repeated acts of devotion, be it the purchase of action figures or Web site exegeses. This says a lot about why “entertainment” is encroaching on more and more sectors of the marketplace. When it works, it’s like a perpetual-marketing machine. People can have enough things, but hunger for meaning is insatiable.
Speaking of myths and meaning, in the fifth century B.C., the Greek sculptor Pheidias fashioned a huge statue of Zeus seated on his throne for the temple at Olympia. It was so vast it was said that if Zeus stood up, his head would crash through the roof. With every fold of his robe sheathed in gold, this towering god was counted among the wonders of the world. All who saw it were struck dumb by its awesome majesty.
The Star Wars phenomenon is our gold-clad Zeus. One can try to explain it, but ultimately, one can only behold its mysterious power and stand in awe before the estimated $2-4 billion to be spent in its honor. It’s the idol fit for veneration in a consumer-driven age.