STAR WARS ON TRIAL--The Blog Tour Charges Star Wars with Dumbing Down Science Fiction

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CriticalBlast.com prosecutes the charge of STAR WARS dumbing down science fiction with the STAR WARS ON TRIAL BLOG TOUR

The charge is "STAR WARS has dumbed down the perception of science fiction in the popular imagination." Jeff Ritter of CriticalBlast.com represents the Prosecution. 

The very notion of STAR WARS being somehow responsible for “dumbing down” modern science fiction seems preposterous. Of course, the notion is not entirely objective—how does one quantify merit or mediocrity in art, which by its very nature is subjective? How does one quantify the tangible effect of a film from 1977, that wasn’t expected to do much business itself, has had on movies, television, video games, novels, graphic  arts, American and even global pop culture more than 30 years later? I’m sure somebody with a better mind for statistical analysis could find numbers to crunch in this regard, but I find it to be less of a matter of arithmetic and more of a matter of personal taste. Since I can only speak for myself, allow me to take you on a little flashback to the halcyon days of my youth.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Space was the final frontier. My earliest memories of science fiction were an LP recording of SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS and reruns of STAR TREK. In hindsight, Santa was much more believable than the Martians he conquered, and the adventures of Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock were terrific…but over my wee head and slow…excruciatingly slow, at that age. I was four years old in 1977 when Star Wars first hit the screen. I remember it better from the near-marathon replays they ran of it in the early days of cable television. At one point my mother forbade my brother and I from watching it again. That was fine; we’d go play with our ever expanding assortment of STAR WARS action figures (because boys don’t play with dolls), space ships, and play sets, especially the 8th wonder of the world for a child of the late 1970s: the triple-decker Death Star play set with the working trash compactor in the sublevel! When THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came out, my brother and I were barely old enough to sit still through an entire movie. It’s been well over 30 years since that day, but I can still picture my brother’s face, eyebrows nearly leaping off of his forehead, jaw unhinged, probably a mirror image of the awe in my own face at that moment when the dreaded Dark Lord of the Sith uttered one of the most famous lined in history. “I…am your father!” What just happened? Darth Vader is Luke Skywalkers’s pop? But that means…we’ve been playing all wrong! We love our Dad! Luke’s old man just cut his own son’s hand clean off (there seemed to be a lot of lopped off limbs in the original trilogy). If I was old enough to know the phrase commonly abbreviated on the Internet today as “WTF?” I probably would have mouthed it silently, hoping that my parents didn’t see it. Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father. This revelation changed our very world.

Fast forward back to the present, past RETURN OF THE JEDI, two BATTLESTAR GALACTICA programs, a slew of STAR TREK spinoffs, ALIEN and PREDATOR and TERMINATOR franchises, the mighty Marvel Movie Universe with the mega-popular AVENGERS and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films, any number of Japanese animated features and just barely past one of the more scientifically accurate science fiction flicks in THE MARTIAN, and arrive at the this very moment. Tell me that STAR WARS has dumbed down the public perception of science fiction and I should reply, “You have two heads and one of them sounds like Greg Proops from WHO’S LINE IS IT ANYWAY?!”

I should. I can’t.

George Lucas struck gold in 1977. With the help of Lawrence Kasdan and Irvin Kershner, Lucas produced an even bigger vein of the precious metal in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980. Many fans of the franchise proclaim Episode 5 to be the best of the bunch. It’s a good romp, with near Luke nearly dying in the frozen wastes of Hoth, Leia romancing Han and Luke both, Han getting double-crossed by his old pal Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett—one of the most popular characters in the mythos—is introduced, and Vader reveals he’s Luke’s father. That’s all jammed into an action-packed couple of hours. That’s also as good as it gets, and perhaps it’s not even as good as you think.

I can take STAR WARS at face value. George Lucas has always claimed that it was the middle chapter of a much larger story, and I have no choice but to take him at his word. Episode 4, as it would come to be known once the other episodes were made, is the only one in the bunch with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It can stand alone. Once it went berserk at the box office, Twentieth Century Fox almost certainly had dollar signs in their eyes. It wasn’t long before Lucas and his little troop of relative nobodies (Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were certainly somebodies) were back at it for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. As that 7 year old in the movie theater for EMPIRE, I was in awe of the grandeur of Cloud City, the puppetry (Muppetry?) of Yoda, and the coolness of the bounty hunters, especially Boba Fett. As a forty-two year old film, theatre and concert critic, I am in awe that people still let their love of something from 38 years ago hold such a grip on them that they’ll forgive the cinematic atrocities inflicted on them and the science fiction genre at large. What’s more, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m guilty of it too.

If EMPIRE had been release in 2010, I’d have seen it coming. Leia plants a sloppy smooch on Luke while he’s recovering on Hoth and then starts giving the bedroom eyes to Han while he tries to do some repairs on the hobbled Falcon. Han, great friend to Luke that he is, lets her get away with that. A long time ago in that far away galaxy “bros before hoes” obviously did not exist. Boba Fett’s legendary Mandalorian armor is a great achievement in costume design, spawning a cottage industry of DIY cosplayers who have put together some incredibly cool variations on the theme. Boba Fett, the character, is grossly overrated. He’s got maybe three speaking lines in two movies. As a bounty hunter, don’t you usually have to go find and apprehend your quarry and then turn him in to the authorities to collect your bounty? Jabba the Hutt puts the bounty on Solo’s head but Vader is the one who catches Solo. After torturing him and turning him into a nice wall art sculpture he hands him over to Fett, who really didn’t do a damn thing to earn the bounty. He’s an intergalactic UPS driver! Jabba should have tipped him his 15% gratuity and sent him on his merry way, or joined the current growing crusade against tipping and encouraged Fett to find a new line of work and wired the funds to Vader instead. The great revelations in Episode 5 are really that Leia is too busy worrying about her hormones to run the Rebellion, Han is not your friend, Lando is the coolest pimp in the universe and Boba Fett is the laziest bounty hunter ever.

RETURN OF THE JEDI is where the wheels come completely off of this crazy train. The gang rescues Han from Jabba, killing off Boba Fett in the process in just about the most inglorious way possible, completely with belching sand monster. Way to take care of your high-interest assets, George! As the heroes get reorganized the Empire is building a new Death Star, and Vader’s boss is on-site to oversee matters since he appears to be going soft on this punk Skywalker who cost the Empire Sith knows how much money on the first battle station. The heroes hatch a plan to bring down the new Death Star’s shields, which are controlled offsite (clearly the Empire’s Information Technology Department was not involved in the decision making) on the nearby forest moon of Endor. It was originally going to be Kashyyyk, Chewbacca’s home world, but why do that when Lucas can hire as many little people actors as he can find to play sentient teddy bears instead? The kids will love it! The kids who loved Star Wars were now teenagers and wanted as little to do with the skittish little bear people as possible. While the cubbies venerated C-3PO as their god, Luke and Leia powwow about their childhood. Leia recalls her mother as being very beautiful but very sad (more on that later). Luke never knew her, but he knows, through the Force and some not so subtle hints by chronic liar Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ghost, that Leia is his sister. Leia shrugs off the revelation, saying, “Yeah, somehow I’ve always known.” Maybe because when you kissed Luke on Hoth you started hearing “Dueling Banjoes” playing in your head? These two are like the Griswolds’ in-laws in NATIONAL LAMPOON’s VACATION. More importantly, they’re just gross. When Han finds out does he say, “Oh man, you two are sick!” Nope, he just smiles and thinks, “Sweet, more for me, and now I don’t have to kill him.” He would have too, if it came to it. Han is not a nice man. He shot Greedo in cold blood.

I used to think Sir Alec Guinness was quite the royal jerk for his horrible attitude when anyone tried to engage him about Star Wars. The man was a master thespian. He is absolutely incredible in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. I’m sure his agent lost a bet or something to get him involved in the first place, but after the success of Episode IV it was probably just a matter of dollars versus hours. He’d show up on the set, do his lines perfectly because he was a knighted actor and that’s how they roll, and then be off to perform in works that mere much more interesting to him, such as A HANDFUL OF DUST or A PASSAGE TO INDIA. He loathed the intensity of STAR WARS’ popularity, particular with youthful viewers, but he was pragmatic enough to know that the royalties allowed him to live his twilight years in whatever manner he saw fit. The first of the controversial prequels was released just over a year before Sir Alec passed away. I doubt he bothered to see it. In hindsight I wish I hadn’t either.

I was 26 when STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE (or Episode 1) arrived. My friends and I were and still are mostly avowed geeks, still interested in comic books, video games, and still pretty much okay with STAR WARS, give or take the Ewoks. My brother and I went to a midnight showing of the first new STAR WARS movie since 1983, eager to see what was in store. What did we know of the STAR WARS universe prior to the events of Episode IV? I’d read many of the novels, many of which were not very good, and the Marvel comics, which were a mixed bag at best, and had picked up bits and pieces. Han was likely an Imperial deserter who had saved the life of an enslaved Wookie. Chewbacca’s people were big on paying “life debts,” whereby Chewie would stick with Han until the ledger was balanced. Presumably Han’s tendencies to criminal activity provided ample opportunity to pay that debt, but the Wookie stuck with him anyway. Being a criminal would quite likely be a better life than that of a slave. Luke was living with Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen when we met him, and we knew his father would become Vader, so surely Anakin would factor in. We knew that Samuel L. Jackson was in the cast so I already envisioned a scene where he’d turn to a young Obi Wan, played by Ewan McGregor who does a reasonably decent impression of Sir Alec, and say, “Here we go…the Lightsaber! When you absolutely positively got to kill ever motherf***er in the room, accept no substitutes!”

Instead, we got kid Vader letting people call him “Annie” like he’s that galaxy’s version of Johnny Cash’s A BOY NAMED SUE. He also built C-3PO—go figure. We got Greg Proops doing play-by-play for one of the longest throwaway scenes in cinematic history. We got the talented Liam Neeson fighting the same internal struggle as an actor that Sir Alec did, namely, “How did I end up reading bad dialogue to a tennis ball glued to a pole? What the Hell is my motivation?” We got Samuel L. Jackson imitating Mr. Spock. We got Republic Battledroids who talk like cartoon chipmunks playing goofball soldiers. We got Darth Maul, the coolest-looking character since Boba Fett, going out exactly like Randall Tex Cobb did in the Rutger Hauer cult classic BLIND FURY, but not before ending Liam Neeson’s misery by killing off his character, Qui-Gon Jinn. Worst of all, we got Jar Jar Binks. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true. I’m a pretty roguish fellow myself. I enjoy crass humor. I appreciate absurdity. I don’t take offense easily. As I sat through this tedious bore of a film, feeling the nostalgic love I felt for the original films draining away, I found myself getting increasingly offended. George Lucas, who had invited his filmmaker friends like Stephen Spielberg and Ron Howard to view the film before it was released, had completely insulted not only my intelligence but several Earthly cultures! Jar Jar was not only an imbecile; he was loosely a Rastafarian imbecile. The devious Trade Federation was controlled by a race of aliens who all spoke in bad “Engrish” or English with a thick Asian accent. In fact every race in this film spoke some sort of bad English dialect. Watto, the junk collector, whom Annie and his mother were enslaved to, spoke with an accent that seemed to offend several ethnic groups—he was accused of being Anti-Jew and/or Anti-Semitic by respected journalists while others claimed he was Jewish, pointing out his hooked nose and Hasidic headwear. His accent could be described as Arabic or perhaps Latino, but either way it underscored the point: Lucas had become lazy. In the original trilogy, Chewbacca, the Jawas, the Tusken Raiders, the Ewoks, most of the aliens in the Mos Eisley Cantina and Jabba’s Palace, and that weird little dude who co-piloted the Millennium Falcon with Lando (why he wasn’t on the Endor team while Han and Chewie piloted their own ship I still cannot fathom) were all either subtitled or speaking in gibberish and humans filled in the missing information with their dialogue. In Episode 1, the only character you can’t understand is R2-D2, and the only person who would have laughed at the terrible use of English accents is Archie Bunker.

As I left that show I knew I was disappointed, but it was still STAR WARS, and some part of me was still willing to accept it despite its shortcomings. Then ATTACK OF THE CLONES came out. These titles were getting really dumb now. The clones were actually a relatively minor piece of this story. The only things you really can take away from this are that Annie grows up to be a racist who murders Sand People (a racist term in and of itself) out of anger, which, being an emotion, is highly frowned upon by the Vulcans (oops, I meant Jedi); that Christopher Lee was horribly typecast to play evil characters ad nauseam, and that few things can kill a movie worse than bad cast chemistry. Hayden “Annie” Christensen and Natalie “Padmé  Amidala” Portman had none. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Their rapport was a perfect vacuum, the way outer space used to be before the science nerds of Earth filled it all with “dark matter.” REVENGE OF THE SITH finally brought this farce to an end, featuring a droid with a bad cough, Annie murdering Jedi children, Amidala still not caring one bit who her beau murders, Obi-Wan dismembering his protégé and the Emperor doing a “live action role play” performance with Annie’s torso and stumps as a send up to the old FRANKENSTEIN creature features that Lucas had grown up with. At the very end, Amidala gives birth to Vader’s twins and very quickly dies while the twins are separated and handed off to Bail Organa of Alderaan and Owen and Beru Lars, Annie’s step-aunt and uncle on Tatooine (the emotionless Jedi obviously had a firm grasp of twin sibling psychology), C-3PO’s memory get erased but not R2-D2’s, and the first Death Star is already further along than the second one will ever get, though it only becomes operational just in time for late teens Luke to destroy it. I have to assume that the Rebellion had nothing on the Imperial Electrical Workers Union Strike, but hey, I wasn’t there.

The prequels made huge money, but put storytelling in film back to the dark ages. There were plot holes you could pilot a Super Star Destroyer through. There were even plot holes in the original trilogy after the fact because of careless dialogue that Lucas didn’t fix in post production. Remember how Leia said her mother was very beautiful but very sad? She was very dead before Leia could even open her own eyelids! And don’t give any of that “She knew through the Force!” malarkey—she didn’t even know she could use the Force until well after Luke told her they were related. No, Epsiodes I, II and III were stellar train wrecks. None of George Lucas’ friends had the stones, levitated by the Force or otherwise, to say, “George, God bless you, man, I love you. You’re my brother from another mother. But this is really not good filmmaking. How ‘bout you let Quentin Tarantino, Marty Scorsese, or Ridley Scott take a crack at reshooting this bad boy, hmm?” I’d have settled for Luc Besson, who I think is a far better writer and producer than director. George was a pioneer of special effects and sound production. His work and that of his technical companies, Industrial Light and Magic (special effects, now owned by Disney with the Lucasfilm acquisition) and THX (sound) has had a lasting impact on movies, and for that George Lucas is owed a debt of gratitude. The impact he’s had on film production will be felt for generations to come. Sadly, so too will his impact on storytelling.

Simon Pegg, who plays USS Enterprise Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott in the revamped STAR TREK cinematic universe, was quoted earlier this year in an interview with RADIO TIMES stating, “Before STAR WARS, the films that were box office hits were THE GODFATHER, TAXI DRIVER, BONNIE AND CLYDE, and THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed.” He was taken to task by the STAR WARS apologists who cried, “Poppycock! Pegg is wrong on several fronts! First of all he’s obviously a Trekkie, so what’s he know about Star Wars? Next, he’s British, and C., who ever heard of THE FRENCH CONNECTION? What is that? Porn? It must be if a guy name Pegg thinks it’s good.” I hang my head in shame for those poor fools. What the estimable Mr. Pegg said was taken out of context. He was lamenting the demise of the late 60s/early 70s aesthetic in filmmaking, the stark, edgy style of Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Arthur Penn and Francis Ford Coppola in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the guys responsible for the films he’d used as examples of his cinematic ideal. THE FRENCH CONNECTION, incidentally, is amazing. Style trends come and go, and Mr. Pegg isn’t too far off. For the most part, Hollywood doesn’t make smart, gritty, anti-hero movies like those anymore, at least not that often. Sure, every now and then Scorsese puts out another classic, or guy like Dan Gilroy goes retro with a neo-noir like NIGHTCRAWLER that gets it right. No, Hollywood generally learned the lesson of George Lucas: keep the action going, blow stuff up big, and nobody will remember the plot holes except for the critics. Nobody likes the critics. Trust me, we know.

“Objection!” I hear you say. “This is all well and good, if a little over-the-top, but all you’ve really proved is that Lucas dumbed down his own creation and Hollywood isn't what it used to be. How does that extend to science fiction on the whole?” Very well, let’s talk about that. The Disney movie TRON began development in 1976, before STAR WARS debuted. It didn’t get released until 1982, closer to the release of RETURN OF THE JEDI than EMPIRE, so it’s conceivable that people might think it was influenced by STAR WARS. The special effects likely were to some degree, though they were not designed by Industrial Light and Magic. The story of TRON probably survived in its basic original form despite the general populace catching STAR WARS fever during production. TRON: LEGACY, on the other hand, came out in 2010 and was almost a scene for scene recreation of STAR WARS, hidden under a thin veneer of TRON trappings. Go back and look—hot shot kid doesn’t listen to his elder, ends up inside a computer world with his dad, now a weird old man who saves his kid from a bar fight. They have a heart to heart on their way to rescuing a girl, and at one point the kid even mans the guns to take out his group’s pursuers, paraphrasing “I got one!” while his old man paraphrases, “Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!”

Not enough for you? How about Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY? An orphan kid (Peter “Star Lord” Quill) brings down a big cosmic despot (Ronan the Accuser) with the help of a couple of scoundrel space buddies (Rocket and Groot) and a princess (Gamora, adopted daughter of Thanos, King of Whatever He Damn Well Pleases). I guess Drax fits in somewhere too, maybe Lando? Yeah, you’re right, maybe not. Frankly, director James Gunn tells a better story with a more unlikely group of characters than Lucas did with his own motley crew, but the parallels between GUARDIANS and STAR WARS are undeniable. Even so, I loved GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. It reminded me of how I felt about STAR WARS until Lucas started worrying more about Happy Meals and Lego Blocks and any other thing he could possibly slap a STAR WARS logo on.

Still not quite enough evidence? Fine. Let’s talk about FIREFLY. I hear you mumbling; “Tread carefully,” from the galleries. Hey, I absolutely love FIREFLY. Film and televisoin creator Joss Whedon’s shortest series, through no fault of his own, might arguably be his most beloved.  The Browncoats, the legions of fans of this show that Fox Netowrk honchos didn’t think enough of before they cancelled it midway through the first season, have been trying for over a decade now (even I’m surprised it’s been that long) to get the show resurrected, and most of the cast and crew have repeatedly gone on the record as being ready, willing and able to jump back into their roles on short notice. If you’ve never seen FIREFLY, and certainly many have not as 14 episodes from back in 2002/2003 were easy to miss and the SERENITY theatrical follow-up didn’t reach too many folks who weren’t already fanatics of the show, is pretty easy to describe: it’s a western set in outer space. It’s not a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away. It’s our galaxy, and it’s only a few hundred years in our future, where China has become so pervasive that even English speaking folks swear in Chinese. The show mostly revolves around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, who, as you probably could have guessed, is based on the Han Solo archetype. As portrayed by Nathan Fillion, Reynolds is a scruffily handsome, military-trained outlaw with a moral compass that gets him into some interesting situations. He’s fiercely protective of his ship and the crew, who if slightly less archetypical at least represent traits from Han’s cohorts. Wash has the piloting chops, Zoe is his sister-in-arms, the man they call Jayne (which is better than Annie, at least) is Chewie’s temper, and Inara is his Leia. Kaylee is probably Luke in some weird way, the optimistic one still unbroken by the past war and the current roguish lifestyle. Again, it’s enjoyable in ways STAR WARS, especially the prequels are not. Joss Whedon might be the best in the business right now at writing witty banter. Does the show even occur to Whedon if he’d never laid eyes on STAR WARS? Does the western theme--a somewhat hard sell to both studios and audiences alike these days--work without being married to the STAR WARS elements so commonplace in science fiction cinema? Does Fox wish they'd have hit the "do over" button as they did when Seth MacFarlane's FAMILY GUY found a new lease on life in Comedy Central reruns? Speculation is inadmissible, so I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but for me the answers to those rhetorical questions are no, no and yes. 

I confess that my modern American life style leaves little room for pleasure reading these days. I’ve finished two books in the last year, I think. My tastes tend to run more towards classic literature, pure fantasy, historical fiction, and mystery more than modern science fiction. I think if you stop by your local Barnes and Noble you’ll find fantasy books outnumbers science fiction by a wide margin, especially if you include the Young Adult and Horror genres under that larger umbrella. It’s in the visual media—television and movies—where science fiction shines. Why is that? It’s typically easier to show somebody a scientific concept than to explain it. Why does a curveball curve? Why did the Earth’s rotation and relative position in the space at that moment in its orbit around the Sun affect the outcome of the Cincinnati Bengals’ game-winning field goal attempt against the Seattle Seahawks, according to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson? It’s all science, but if I try to explain it to you you’ll probably just be more confused. A visual aid would help, like a YouTube video or an episode of MYTHBUSTERS. Good science fiction works best when there are actual scientific concepts woven into it. The silence of space in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, the possibility of a true close encounter with extraterrestrials in Robert Zemeckis’ CONTACT. the cellular reaction of the human body to radiation as seen in SPIDER-MAN or THE HULK are all examples of fiction made better throug hreasoanbly simple science. The STAR TREK movies are typically steeped in science by their very nature. All STAR WARS could muster was the concept of hyperspace, force fields and parsecs. The apologists would explain that Lucas used the term “parsec” correctly, but many more argue against it. It’s a unit of distance, not of time. You can look that up. Lucas himself blames Han Solo for the confusion, trying to demonstrate that Han will say whatever comes to mind to reel in his mark. The topic was eventually explained by science fiction writer and STAR WARS novelist Kevin J. Anderson as the Millennium Falcon being fast enough to escape treacherous gravity traps around black holes that would claim inferior ships, or to quote the Waylon Jennings-penned theme of the DUKES OF HAZZARD, Han’s ship was capable of “straightening the curves, yeah, and flattening the hills” of space travel. Did you pick any of that up in 1977? Me neither, I always just assumed that parsecs meant something different in the STAR WARS universe than it does in the real world. 

There are still some books out there in the science fiction genre that seem to have plenty to say on unique and original concepts. Carl Sagan’s novel CONTACT, which Robert Zemeckis adapted for his film, should be read by anyone interested in outer space. I’ve not personally read Iain M. Banks but his works get mostly glowing reviews. I have read Douglas Adams, whose absurdness is a delight to me. There are multitudes of other series and standalone novels, many of them unfettered by dierect tie-ins to popular franchises that likely don't mimic the STAR WARS story structure. Within the Star Wars Expanded Universe, or the novels, video games, comics and other non-film-related works that are no longer considered canonical since Disney bought the universe from Lucas, there were some very good novels—Timothy’ Zahn’s THRAWN TRILOGY springs to mind, as does Michael A. Stackpole’sperhaps underrated work on the X-WING series featuring Rogue Squadron. K.W. Jeter’s THE BOUNTY HUNTER WARS series was a colossal let down as Boba Fett ran off at the mouth like Marvel’s Deadpool character. When I peruse the shelves at the bookstore, I see a lot of sword and sorcery. I see some science fiction here and there but I usually pick it up, judge it uninteresting by the bland cover and the back cover blurb that basically rehashes plots points from STAR WARS while informing me that the volume in my hand is book 5 of a sweeping saga that couldn’t possibly needed to be that long. Some authors feel they have to take 5,000 pages to get their point across. It’s bad enough that I’m taking more than 5,000 words to get my point across here. Some publishers believe everything needs to be a series. Heaven forbid you be allowed to kill off your hero in the classic hero myth sense. STAR WARS isn’t to blame for bad publishing habits, but they can’t claim complete innocence either. George Lucas put some serious cool factor on a lot of half-baked story elements and now we, the audience, have come to expect it. That may be why I haven’t given Iain M. Banks' novels a try yet. Maybe I’m apprehensive about digging into his large CULTURE series of novels because I’m afraid they’ll be too much like STAR WARS. From what I’ve read about them, I’m probably wrong in that assumption--it may be the best series to counter the STAR WARS programming in my generation’s head about what science fiction should be. Maybe I just wonder if it's worth spending my money on when I have shelves packed with books I've never read already, including HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS. I'm a film critic, not a book critic--I prefer to watch the films first so I can enjoy them on their own merits, because the books are almost always better, especially in the case of Michael Crichton. After RISING SUN, I just can't stand to read the book first.

While television shows like FIREFLY, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, STARGATE and various incarnations of STAR TREK have proven popular, and movie franchises like THE TERMINATOR, THE MATRIX, ALIENS, PREDATOR, and Marvel’s THE AVENGERS and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY have raked in tons of cash, none of them can claim to be devoid of STAR WARS’ influence. Even STAR TREK, its predecessor in the genre by 11 years, has eschewed the slow burn of stoic scientific exploration and basically ignored the Prime Directive, the central tenant of non-interference with the species and races they encounter that governed the original series, in favor of impossibly ridiculous ships piloted by an angry Eric Bana or a good actor in Benedict Cumberbatch doing a dry and occasionally wry rehash of Ricardo Montalbán’s Khan Noonien Singh character. As a critic, I suppose I should be harsher on these films. I probably tend to forgive too much out of nostalgia for my childhood memories, of being 10 years old and careening down the street on my bicycle at breakneck speeds pretending I was Luke Skywalker in the Death Star trench, being targeted by Darth Vader behind me (played by my father coming home from work in our Gremlin, don’t start on me about the car) with John Williams’ masterful score roaring in my head. STAR WARS, despite its many Sarlaac-like tentacles that reach into every possible avenue of merchandising, isn’t all bad. It’s just not very good for the intellectual integrity of the genre.

Now STAR WARS is out of George Lucas’ hands, and Disney has entrusted it to J.J. Abrams, who has made a career out of having better ideas than execution. He was responsible for the reboot of the STAR TREK cinematic franchise, and now he gets the chance to do the same with STAR WARS. I’m afraid that when it comes to dumbing down science fiction in popular imagination, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

(Want to see the rest of the charges against STAR WARS, and see them prosecuted and defended? Visit Smart Pop Books for each blow-by-blow!)