Christmas arrives a week early this year. Disciples spanning three generations will converge on cinemas from Bombay to Boston to witness the seventh instalment of this planet’s favourite space saga. If a two-minute trailer can ignite the sort of fervour we saw this week – the faithful beheld mysterious images that foretold the Good News, and they were pleased – we can only wonder what forces Star Wars will awaken when the film reaches our screens.
After 38 years of trying and failing, the world is finally learning to count to ten. Well, nine.
As Eddie Izzard observed in the most perfect five minutes of stand-up comedy, the unfolding of Star Wars confronted school pupils with a troubling idea: that their very first lesson in basic mathematics was a sham. Even the most certain of certainties – that the first number is the number ‘one’ – was pulverised beneath a new Hollywood logic that cared little for the textbook. Hence the significance of this December: the world’s understanding of what happens between zero and ten is about to enjoy truth and reconciliation, a moment of healing.
Some will insist that episodes 1, 2 and 3 – the prequels – were an expensive waste of time that not even Nathalie Portman could redeem, but none of that matters now. All argument is consumed by celebration. Our world has been waiting for one thing only: to discover how 7, 8 and 9 will finish the job that 4, 5 and 6 started. What is the fate of our universe to be, will good triumph over evil – boy, could we use some of that now – and will Han Solo finally hang up his boots and settle in for a well-earned retirement with Princess Leia?
Star Wars never entered the critics’ pantheon; sci-fi rarely does. But the film expanded endlessly into our collective imagination. Four decades after one of the great film entrances, Darth Vader still grips us in his terror, somewhere around the Adam’s apple. The ‘Force’ still works as a metaphor for every human’s freedom to direct natural talent to lighter or darker purpose; Tony Blair, take note. The most sophisticated sci-fi weaponry found its way into our homes, illuminating kitchens around the world. And then you have those opening seconds. Composed in 1933, the fanfare of Twentieth Century Fox didn’t find its true calling until 1977 when it opened the first page of a story from a galaxy far, far away and made way for the most exhilarating theme in film history.
These enduring pleasures and the universe of meaning behind them relied upon copious volumes of brick, cement and popcorn. The size of its screen, the darkness of its theatre and the volume of its sound work together to cast cinema’s magic spell. When I first met Darth Vader at the age of seven, his shiny black carapace marched towards my face through a haze of laser-smoke, occupying not only my field of vision but also my entire moral landscape (for a couple of hours at least). I sat beside Luke as he blew up the Death Star.
If I’d first seen Star Wars on television, I would have experienced a great film but no more. It was cinema, its dimensions and its rituals, that delivered the magic. But does the size of the screen still matter today? Have our eyes and imagination already adapted to a smaller scale? Is the silver screen to become the preserve of blockbusters and animation, commercially viable for family outings but little else? And perhaps most significantly: are any of these questions of any interest to any person below the age of 20? Either way, the aesthetic concerns of an art form will not settle these matters but rather the pan-oceanic tsunami of our digital revolution and the social and cultural upheaval it brings with it. Our deepening enslavement to our own private mobile screens is, I suspect, the real story and a troubling one.
The critic and historian, David Thomson, appears resigned to the end of cinema as we know it. In his “love letter to a lost love”, The Big Screen, Thomson says, “Theatrical performance of movie is a sentimental stronghold, and we know it will pass away. If you look at the remaining buildings where movies still play, and at their forlorn attempt to be glamorous while asking twelve dollars or more for a ticket, it is a wonder how long the natural transmission of new movies to our television set or by the Internet has been delayed.”
Today we are blessed to be living through a golden age of box-set television where HBO has set a new and lofty benchmark but on a smaller screen; our enjoyment of The Wire would not have been magnified by a larger format. This latest challenge to cinema is ironic: the outstanding series of the last decade are playing cinema at its own game only better, slowing down the pace to develop characters, context and texture. No surprise that our greatest actors have joined in.
Can cinema respond? The screen and its size remain unique to its proposition, as does the experience of sharing intense emotion with a group of strangers. Generations of film-makers entered their trade with precisely this format in mind – it’s their natural canvas – and why should that change so long as cinemas remain economically viable? None of the works of our great directors, not even the most intimate human stories, are undiminished by a smaller screen. As viewers we want to be overwhelmed by the actors before us; as voyeurs we want to see things up close. Size does matter.
I never became a Star Wars freak. But this December I hope to see mothers and fathers repeating the ritual that changed my life a long time ago in a cinema far, far away, taking their sons and daughters to a room made dark, the better to see the stars above them.