Originally created 01/30/97

`Star Wars' - there is no escape



"There is no escape. Don't make me destroy you."

Thus the evil Darth Vader threatened our young hero, Luke Skywalker, in the climax of "The Empire Strikes Back." Luke, being our hero as well as being "strong with the Force," proved Vader wrong. He escaped.

You were not so lucky.

In the 20 years since "Star Wars" first burst onto the screen, direct from a galaxy far, far away, you have been pursued relentlessly by this country's first great marketing phenomenon. In toy stores. On television sitcoms. In your very homes.

In our media-generated landscape, this can now happen to anything: Power Rangers. "Seinfeld." O.J. Simpson.

But these will surely pass when their 15 minutes of fame tick by. R2-D2 has been beeping and chirping for two decades.

And even though the marketing volume has been turned up lately in advance of the capital-T Trilogy's enhanced re-release, the Force has always been with you.

It was understandable in 1980 when "Is Darth Vader really Luke's father?" became as big a question as "Who shot J.R.?" And in 1983, when Yoda answered in his twisted syntax: "Your father he is."

But in 1997?

Consider the evidence: The "Jedi mind trick" turns up in the hip movies "Swingers" and in "Mallrats." Ross on TV's "Friends" reveals his feelings for Princess Leia. The Bloodhound Gang's song "Fire Water Burn" speaks fondly of Han Solo and his wookiee Chewbacca.

Darth Vader action figures invaded the 1996 Christmas lists of children who were born six or more years after the last "Star Wars" movie was made. (Odds are preadolescent boys won't be asking for "Independence Day" toys 20 years from today.)

Even John Williams' scores have become the national anthem for triumph (the main title theme, which has a cameo in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") and evil (Vader's theme, whose chilling bars you might hum to yourself when your boss approaches).

It seems Yoda was right: The Force is everywhere. But fear not. This is the good side of the Force.

"Star Wars" is the American myth painted in laser light. It is a better guardian of American virtues and values than any monument in Washington. The Trilogy may be a simple, at times even silly story. But it is America's story.

It is the story of a young boy who longs to follow in his father's footsteps. Of his disappointment when he learns that his father is - to put it tactfully - not perfect.

It is the story of redemption. Of how that young boy finds nobility in his father, and draws it out - after smacking him around with a laser sword. Space-age family values.

It is the story of how, in the end, good triumphs over evil - usually with a blinding explosion.

It has friendship, loyalty and compassion. It has bravery, honor and sacrifice. It has robots.

Dedicated academics can check out myth-expert Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" for more proof. (Luke joins heroes from antiquity on the cover of some editions.) Even the Smithsonian is planning an exhibition on the social meaning of "Star Wars."

But real Americans already know the truth.

President Reagan knew what he was doing when he cast the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire in a 1982 speech to the British House of Commons. America (with the West's help) was Luke Skywalker. The Russians were a nation of storm troopers.

"Star Wars" is the American story told in an American way. George Lucas, the force behind the Force, is fond of saying that a special effect is just a special effect - and that it's nothing without a story. But his "Special Editions" are all about better special effects.

And why not? America is a country of style and substance. We scowl at image-is-everything personalities like Dennis Rodman, Howard Stern and Madonna. But we watch.

"Star Wars" doesn't have sexually explicit lyrics or bathroom jokes. It is an unstoppable media monster you can feel good about watching. You can feel good about your children watching it. And unlike most "safe" movies, the kids will want to watch.

It's not enough to simply tell the truth anymore. The truth needs a lightsaber-wielding ally to slash through the white noise of American culture.

Maybe "Star Wars" is its champion.