The title of A.D. Jameson’s new book comes from a crucial scene in the original “Star Wars” movie: When a cocky admiral rejects Darth Vader’s warnings about the Force and scoffs at his “sad devotion to that ancient religion,” Vader walks calmly toward the man, puts him in a nasty, hands-free chokehold and says, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
In Jameson’s case, these words are meant to admonish critics who belittle the “Star Wars” effect on American cinema. The author not only affirms the value of his beloved sci-fi, superhero and adventure films, but he celebrates their virtual chokehold on our collective viewing experience.
A self-described geek, Jameson aligns himself with enlightened critics who view the 1970s as a crucial turning point in American cinema. The same decade that spawned gritty, realist films like “The Godfather,” “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” also ushered in the era of the blockbuster, thanks to “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” However, Jameson takes issue with the claim that these box office hits were a departure from the more critically acclaimed films of the era. “Star Wars,” he contends, is actually a stepbrother of the realist genre. He explains how director George Lucas intentionally broke with the “shiny and sleek” sci-fi films of the past, opting instead for a “scuffed and dirty” look to the movie’s outfits, droids and even spaceships. (Hence Luke Skywalker’s initial reaction to the Millennium Falcon: “What a piece of junk!”)
On this front, Jameson is persuasive. Even as one marvels at the moon-size Death Star or the play of lightsabers, the movie’s heroes are a bunch of everyday misfits in shabby clothing, not unlike the other ’70s protagonists whom critics so admire. The ragtag crew even ends up — most unheroically — in a trash compactor that nearly crushes them to death. The seminal feat of “Star Wars,” Jameson argues, is just how ordinary it makes outer space seem: the way Lucas successfully “renders the remarkable mundane.”
Such realism is the pillar of the geek’s immersive experience. Jameson calls it “world-building,” or the creation of a supernatural realm with understandable laws, orderly concepts, languages and a backstory that fans can pore over, memorize and — of course — reenact. If that portrayal brings to mind stereotypes about costume play, “Doctor Who” and Dungeons & Dragons, Jameson doesn’t mind. He owns up to a childhood of being picked on and the sanctuary he found in the “Geek Dorm” at college. His personal story adds a lighter touch to the book’s wonkiness, and it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm as he describes how his favorite characters colonized a world that once ridiculed them.
Unfortunately, when Jameson turns to the evolution of comic-book superheroes (from Batman to X-Men), including their ups, downs and crossovers under various directors, the book begins to stall — just as it does later when it details the numerous reference guides, games and other auxiliaries through which fantasy worlds grow ever-deeper roots. With so much fetishizing, Jameson’s work soon embodies the very dilemma he raises about a nerdy culture gone mainstream: how to appeal to both “entrenched” fans and non-geeks alike?
In this regard, faithful adherents of sci-fi, adventure and superhero franchises often find themselves at odds with studios more loyal to profits and larger audiences. Jameson cites “Transformers” and “The Lord of the Rings” as examples of bad stewardship and loathsome compromise, and he sides with disgruntled hard-core fans who claim that the “Star Wars” prequels are nothing short of sacrilege. Those latter-day films, he writes, turned the “grandiloquent and operatic” series into a franchise that’s “cartoonish and absurd, and more squarely aimed at kids.”
By then, Jameson is spoiling for a fight. Although he concedes the damage that geek culture suffers from being mainlined, he can’t give up his quarrel with critics who label his favorite genre “childish” and “unserious.” Even sympathetic readers will notice Jameson losing some of his earlier finesse, almost starting to rant. Here, the author might do well to remember the Rebel Alliance. Its struggle with the dark side is less about absolute victory — and more about a prolonged battle of ideals. In the same way, geeks should forget about slaying their critics for good and instead have faith that their culture will carry a force all its own.
Jonathan Liebson teaches writing, literature and culture at the New School and New York University. His recent work appears in the Texas Observer and the Chicago Review of Books.
By A.D. Jameson
Farrar Straus Giroux. 304 pp. $26