Mass Consumerism: The Real Phantom Menace

by Terry Watada

Editor’s note: While Terry is on his summer hiatus, we decided to look back on his nearly thirty years of writing about and for the Japanese Canadian community and by extension the Asian Canadian community.  We will be reprinting some his columns until his return.

I don’t mean to get off on a rant here (apologies to Dennis Miller) but what is all this furore over Star Wars: The Phantom Menace?  I mean it’s been hyped more than the second coming of Christ!  After all, it’s just a movie, light projected on a screen (yeah I know, a mega screen).  Nothing is real, Jar Jar Binks (I found this character excruciatingly annoying; others found it racist) is played by an actor.  Qui-Gon didn’t die (I know, Jedi never really die); Liam Neeson is doing quite well I’m sure.  And why is this Jedi master named after a Chinese healing art (though misspelled, the origin is obvious)?

The entire Star Wars series is an obvious ripoff of Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress which features R2D2 and C3PO-like characters, a princess and Toshio Mifune as the princess’s protector (in Star Wars it took two heroes to take Mifune’s place: Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill).  Lucas has admitted to the plagiarism and did make up for it by producing Kurosawa’s last films including Ran (I know, a film based on Shakespeare’s King Lear — at least, Kurosawa used it as a literary device and not just to make money).

What really gets me is that this “homage” to Kurosawa is so bad.  The Hidden Fortress is not my favourite Kurosawa movie but it does feature all the trademarks of his masterpieces.  In his latest incarnation, Lucas steals the Kagemusha theme.  He tries to duplicate Kurosawa’s battle scenes (something Kurosawa did with style and grandeur using real people, Lucas does it with computers, a magic trick) but fails miserably.  Who can get excited about battle droids?  He then clothes his actors in stylized Japanese uniforms, court kimono and robes.  Darth Maul, the Sith Lord, looks like something out of kabuki theatre.  All the major characters speak in this pseudo-Bushido style originating in the first series when Obi Wan spoke those immortal words: “Let go Luke.  Use the Force…”  Too bad Luke didn’t crash using the Force.  That, at least, would’ve been funny.

Star Wars is the biggest ripoff of Kurosawa since Clint Eastwood successfully did and Bruce Willis badly tried and the public loves it.

Now I admit to having a family who wanted to see the movie.  How could I say no?  So I picked the Victoria Day Weekend, a weekend many Torontonians choose to go away to open the cottage.  It was rainy.  The Leafs were playing at the “Hanger”.  And the theatre was in a distant suburb.  My strategy worked.  We waited in a line with only five people in front of us.  We sat in the fifth row to get the maximum effect (too close as it happened since my son got sick on the onslaught of dizzying action and junk food).

The theatre was full but not until the lights went down and the annoying THX symbol boomed onto the screen.  Why is everything so loud in a theatre these days?  We were satisfied with the movie despite its shortcomings; it did everything it was expected to do.  Upon reconsideration, I decided I am taken aback not so much by the movie but by the mass consumerism and its effects created by the movie.

I hope the fans will realize one day that Star Wars is not a religious experience.  One exuberant fan actually believed Obi-Wan was saying, “May the Lord be with you.”  Lucas doesn’t help when he has Anakin Skywalker’s mother claim there was no father in birthing her son.  She apparently just became pregnant one day and that was that.  Give me a break.  This is supposed to be science fiction.  At least make the mother an hermaphrodite if you want to keep the fatherless scenario.  So if Anakin is Christ then is Darth Vader the Antichrist?  I get it George.

Then there’s all the by-products and the resulting mania: the toys which were sold out at the Walmart stores in the first ten minutes (fortunately, the employees were able to restock the shelves for the lineups still outside).  Then there’s all the plastic junk (destined for the broken-toy pile at home no doubt) available at KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut when buying their grease-laden products.  The Star Wars Pepsi cans, the Jar Jar Binks artificial lunch packs, the clothes, sports equipment, the toilet paper — what is Lucas doing, competing with the International Monetary Fund?

The kicker of course is that the Phantom Menace is not doing as well as expected.  Having beat every movie ever made for its opening-day proceeds, it failed to beat the Lost World’s weekend take.  Can this mean that it doesn’t have the legs to beat Titanic’s intake of over one billion dollars?  Will it be a failure if it doesn’t make the expected cash?  Who cares?  The Phantom Menace and more importantly George Lucas will make more money than the GNP of most small countries.  I had to laugh when a Jumbo Video clerk bemoaned the fact that Lucas (and Spielberg) isn’t interested in releasing the DVD versions of the movies.  “Doesn’t he know how much money he could make?” he blurted out in astonishment.  Yeah, what a fool.

I wonder what the master Kurosawa would have said in his prime about all the hype, money and excessive fan reaction.  May the farce be with you, perhaps.

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