“Whosa are yousa?”
In my experience, two things are required in any discussion of the juggernaut that is Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The first is a brief recollection of one’s personal history with the franchise, with bonus points if the author can claim to have seen the original during its first theatrical run. The second is a superfluous and hopelessly uncritical sideswipe of those Star Wars movies the fandom has deemed unworthy: possibly Return of the Jedi, probably Revenge of the Sith and Attack of the Clones, definitely The Phantom Menace. I’m something of a traditionalist at heart, so I’ll start by confirming that whatever movies you already dislike are very very bad, and then get on with the juicy personal details.
I don’t know when I watched my first Star Wars movie. I can confidently say it was at least three years ago. My birthdate would indicate I didn’t manage to catch any of the original trilogy in theatre, but as for the prequel trilogy I genuinely can’t recall if I saw them in a theatre or not. I remember trying to playact at some sort of Star Wars story with my friend Blake, but his narrative instincts were all over the map—plus of the two of us I was the only one who could do flips on the trampoline, so fight scenes gradually shifted from deliberate back and forth stick-crossing to me frantically backflipping around and occasionally hitting him in the leg as I whizzed by, which he got tired of pretty quick. I know I played Star Wars: Rogue Squadron on the GameCube, and I think I got in a bit of time in on Star Wars Episode 1: Racer, but the only Star Wars game I remember with any amount of detail is Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II,1 and even that I only remember in vague, pointillist details that probably aren’t even correct.2 I’ve never read a Star Wars book, comic, or graphic novel. I’ve not sought out the Christmas special, the despecialized original trilogy, or any other extra-filmic markers of “true fandom.” However, I did once have a copy of The Phantom Menace on VHS, which I watched multiple times a day for several weeks until I could (and did) recite the entire movie as I watched it (and, occasionally, as I brushed my teeth, waited for my mom to pay for groceries, ate dinner, etc.). I don’t remember my feelings about it, only that I watched it without end.
You may be rightly asking who cares, in which case I agree: with most other movies the above little biographical tidbits would be, as presented, more or less beside the point. What makes Star Wars unique, though, is that in this instance these tidbits, and in particular the tidbit re: Episode I, can and have disqualified my opinion on anything Star Wars in countless social circles. On first glance this may not seem that surprising—we casually write people off all the time for much less—but what is so odd is that it is precisely my appreciation for Star Wars that makes me unable to talk about Star Wars. That is, given that I like Episodes I, IV–VI, and bits of II and III in isolation, anything I may say about any future entries, be they main saga entries like The Force Awakens or anthology films like the upcoming Rogue One, is to be taken with a grain of salt. Or, to put it most plainly and confusingly, I like too many Star Wars movies to be a Star Wars fan.
This paradoxical requirement—you must reject Star Wars to truly let Star Wars into your heart—is strangely absent in other legacy franchises. Think Rocky, Terminator, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Alien, or basically anything that now-30something guys can force their kids into. All have some general consensus around which entries are good, which are mediocre, and which are bombs, but I’ve yet to see someone’s intellect or character besmirched for liking Jurassic Park III. Nor have I seen Sam Worthington’s appearance in Terminator Salvation follow him for the rest of his life, haunting him with the ghosts of all the childhoods he murdered. But to endorse the Star Wars prequels with less than a mountain of caveats, or to have made the mistake of starring in The Phantom Menace: these are marks that don’t wash off easy.3 The magnitude of social upheaval that Star Wars can cause puts it in a realm beyond that of most movies. I would argue it fits more properly in the category of religion.
Now, I want to be very clear about my goals and my terms here, because in discussing both Star Wars and religion I’m essentially mixing two powder-kegs together: this will not be an anti-religious essay; nor will it be anti-Star Wars. And when I say “religion,” I am referring primarily to the major, organized, Abrahamic religions of the West, namely Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, with particular emphasis on Christianity simply because of my experience with it. And when I say that I believe Star Wars is a religion, I don’t mean to imply that Star Wars is exactly the same thing as any particular religion, only that, in certain key areas, both Star Wars and religion behave in similar ways.
Blind we are, if creation of this clone army we could not see.
The functional parallels between these religions are many. For starters, both Star Wars and traditional religion have a similar sort of ubiquity and scale: one can quibble about differences of degree,4 but once we’re considering billions of dollars in revenue annually5 we’re well into “ungodly sums of money” territory, far beyond those few numbers that human beings can actually understand in any meaningful way. And culturally, knowledge of the Star Wars canon rivals that of most churches. I don’t wish to throw anyone under the bus here, so I’ll speak only from my own experience: in a lightning round I’d probably be quicker to remember who Luke Skywalker’s father is than Jesus’ (Earthly) father. And summoning up which Roman prefect gave the order for Jesus to be crucified takes about as much effort as remembering which of Han Solo’s former friends betrays him on Cloud City. There are reasons for this, of course, not least that for pure entertainment value Star Wars has most ancient holy books beat. But to debate the precise mechanisms by which a cultural force gains its prominence doesn’t discount the prominence itself—however Star Wars managed to get where it is, it’s there now.
And the massive size of all these followings all centre around source texts that are, relative to the following as a whole, quite small. The Catholic church counts over one billion members, and yet its holy book fits in one volume.6 Ditto Islam’s one billion plus membership, based around a Quran that’s a little shorter than the Christian New Testament.7 The Jewish scriptures, similarly, are able to be lifted quite comfortably with one good arm. Star Wars, and all its one billion plus followers, is all primarily built around seven films8 that could quite easily if not for licensing issues be bundled together in an approximately holy-book-sized boxset, which set could be cracked open and gone through in a couple days if one were motivated.9
The knee-jerk of many may be to feel frustrated by this characterization—“Is this ignoramus really trying to say my entire religion is built on nothing,” &c.—and to point out that any religious following is more than the sum of its source texts. Those texts must be interpreted; the real beauty of the scriptures is found in community; there are other texts, not considered primary, that are still important to many followers; there’s a value and/or function to religious tradition as well as source texts. All of this is true, but of course it’s also the point. In all these followings, Star Wars included, the time any individual follower spends with the actual source texts is dwarfed by the time spent in the more general community or tradition, be that tradition worship songs, cosplaying, church soup and bun lunches, writing fanfic, fasting, prayer, or arguing belligerently on the Internet. That is, in all these religions, a relatively limited set of source texts expands to become something like a lifestyle, or worldview.
And the worldviews among these religions share similarities as well. Though the specifics of the dramatic turns vary, between the Abrahamic religions there is agreement on the broad metaphysical arc: Creation, Fall, Redemption, The End. That is, in the beginning, God/Allah/YHWH created all that is, and it was good. But then, through plot points I won’t even attempt to specify because I’ve opened enough worm cans already, the world (including us) falls from this good state. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all put our present situation after this Fall. There may be some debate over whether or not the Redemption stage has come, whether we wait for it or work toward it ourselves, or some other quibble, but, in broad strokes, the sense in all three religions is that our current state is that of pining for some halcyon state before the Fall that—historically, metaphorically, symbolically—we no longer enjoy, but which we trust will return in even greater glory in the future. It really doesn’t take much rejiggering—just swap Lucas for Lucifer—and you more or less have the arc of Star Wars fandom.
But greater than these or any of the numerous other potential parallels is the way, hinted at before, that Star Wars and most religions are defined as much or more by what they reject than by what they embrace or worship. That is, to accept God or Allah or YHWH is not necessarily to be Christian or Muslim or Jewish. By and large it is also required that a proponent of one of these gods must reject the other two, plus the thousands of others on this planet. Moreover it’s quite likely that within one’s own religion, one will be required to reject certain heretical beliefs or practices (e.g. universalism, infant baptism, CGI) that, though seemingly plausible as a part of the larger belief system, have nevertheless been found to be in damnèd error.
From my point of view the Jedi are evil.
I promised a moment ago that this would not be a primarily anti-religious essay, so I should point out that there are benefits to Star Wars’ quasi-religious function, and that one could quite reasonably consider it a net positive depending on which social functions one values. The primary benefit is one of unity: Star Wars is a known cultural property around which people from various faiths, socioeconomic backgrounds, and racial groups can gather.10 A good case in point is my bus ride the morning after I saw The Force Awakens. Being on something of a Star Wars high, I absentmindedly started whistling “Binary Sunset,” which you may recall hearing while Luke stares off into the suns of Tatooine, as well as approx. every five minutes in The Force Awakens when J. J. Abrams is contractually obliged to remind you that you are nostalgic. Since I’m the weak silent type, once I noticed I was whistling I immediately stopped and became embarrassed. But instead of the sideways glances I normally get when I draw attention to myself, the girl across from me just smiled and said “I’m seeing it this weekend.” We shared a few more awkward eye contacts over the rest of our commute, and nothing came of it. Still, this momentary connection was entirely due to Star Wars’ cultural ubiquity, which is quite impressive when you consider what it normally takes to get me to talk to strangers. And unlike most of my social interactions, I looked back on this one with a total lack of cynicism or self-doubt: I knew top to toe that this girl and I were entirely on the same side—excited about Star Wars. I cannot pretend that this isn’t at least a bit nice.11
Unfortunately, as the more sociologically inclined readers may have suspected, this broadly assumed social cohesion has its downsides, namely that in-groups seldom exist without an out-group. This is especially problematic in situations like Star Wars, where the consensus on exactly which films constitute Lucasian heresy is so strong that it is no longer even consciously considered. It is assumed, somewhere in the most primitive segment of our brainstem, that any properly functioning human must feel the same way—Creation, Fall, Hope of Redemption—and that therefore anyone who doesn’t must be in some way defective. Possible targets for the brand of heretic include Lucas himself, along with anyone who likes or even hesitates to impugn the prequels. This branding process is so swift and effective that many fans spend about half their time buffing up their original trilogy orthodoxy simply to avoid the charge of heresy, and the other half trying to deflect that charge onto somebody else. The practical upshot of this for me was that I grew up (or am growing up) in or with a Star Wars fandom defined primarily by fear, anger, and hate; and the mythic archetypes I received weren’t swashbuckling space cowboys or wise green frog-Jedi, not heart-of-gold buffoons or mercurial and overly-ambitious prodigies. Instead I received blueprints for how to organize or join online lynch mobs to hunt down a former idol, smear his name at every opportunity whether relevant or not (even after he’s essentially out of the picture), focus nigh exclusively on weeding out heresy over and above meditating on the beautiful, casually write off the sincerely held opinions of anyone even a tinge heretical, blindly ascribe to caustic and legalistic frameworks that explain “Exactly Why the Prequels Suck,” and generally just bitch and moan until such a time as I get just exactly what I want, right now, with nothing challenging or unexpected or different.
Which is all as much as to say that, like religion, Star Wars seems prone to rabid, small-c conservatism, and not in the good way. Such conservatism is not necessarily unique to either following, nor is it inherent in them. But it is worthwhile to consider these tendencies frankly, so we can best be on the lookout for their fallout: vehement opposition to the new or challenging, careless flogging of overly simplistic judgments, and a sanctimonious self-assurance as to who, exactly, is on the side of right. Which brings me to The Force Awakens.
We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I met you I was but a learner. Now I am the master.
Which is, I should say as quickly as possible, a good movie by most every objective criterion. Its characters are cleanly wrought, with lucid motivations and thoroughly functional conflicts. Its action is, with a few exceptions, kinetic without being nonsensical. And every technical consideration—lighting, effects work, sound mixing—is, as you would expect for 200 million dollars, exemplary. Moreover, The Force Awakens addresses its audience to a T, and has been doing so since long before release. All the way back in 2013, producer Kathleen Kennedy assured fans that there would be an emphasis on location shooting and practical effects, two areas typically seen as lacking in the CGI- and green-screen-heavy prequels. And some months before release, director J. J. Abrams mentioned that he wanted to put the bones of Jar Jar Binks in the background of a shot, thus killing off one of the franchise’s most despised characters.12 The tie-in game, Star Wars Battlefront, has no material from the prequels whatsoever, and has no plans to include it. In short, The Force Awakens sold itself by assuring Star Wars fans that it hates the prequels as much as they do. Or, more pointedly, Star Wars reassured its fans by hating Star Wars as much as they do. And it does: Awakens brings back very little material from the prequels, while characters, vehicles, score, setting (though with different names), in-jokes, family dynamics, and plot points from the original trilogy pop up constantly throughout.
Yet despite all of the above serving to make The Force Awakens more effective, I would argue it also makes it about the least interesting Star Wars entry yet. Despite having met many who quite liked the film, I’ve yet to hear a single person testify to even a single surprising moment in it. The plot (an evil empire has built a planet-sized weapon capable of blowing up planets with a single blast, and now our heroes must mount a coordinated attack, with one group taking out its shields while another attacks its one weak point), the characters (a cute droid; a seeming orphan on a desert planet who pines for a better life; a too-cocky anti/hero, always pining for a good blaster, who gradually shifts from basic self-interest to altruism, mostly because of a girl; the original too-cocky anti/hero always pining for a good blaster who gradually shifts from basic self-interest to altruism, mainly because of a girl; and then yet another cocky pilot who ends up getting sidelined for most of the movie but not before getting a few Solo-isms in first), the character dynamics (someone being someone’s father, the strict general and the Sith lord vying for control of the empire), the settings (a desert planet, a forest planet, a snowy planet, a planet-sized gun, a cantina) are all lifted wholesale from the original trilogy and, with the bare minimum of rejiggering, just plopped right down into a “new” movie. This by no means makes The Force Awakens a bad movie—those things that worked before still work—but it does render it somewhat unnecessary.
There are two likely responses to that criticism. The first is that Awakens, like all movies, wasn’t made in a vacuum, and as such there was more going on in its creation than the vague ideal of “making a good movie.” First and foremost, Awakens was a course-correction from the prequels. Its purpose is not merely to tell a good story, but to reassure fans that, sorry for the delay, Star Wars is back. At this, the argument goes, Awakens succeeded brilliantly. This may be so. Having read and listened to quite a few reviews, I’ve now heard “Star Wars is back” enough for several lifetimes, so it does seem to have caught on. But my issue with this argument is twofold. Firstly, I don’t see how Awakens had any more establishing work to do than A New Hope did in 1977. A New Hope had to establish the entire Star Wars universe to a crowd that knew nothing of it, and managed to feel fresh doing so. In contrast, Awakens didn’t have to do much “establishing” beyond ignoring the prequels or subtly undermining them, and I don’t see why it couldn’t have done this while also telling a new story.13 My second concern is more quixotic, but: imagine it is five, maybe ten years from now, and Star Wars has been firmly established as “back.” What purpose does Awakens serve then? Might its endless recycling of prior material feel less reverent than boring once we’ve all gotten over our constant concern over the continued integrity of our nostalgia? Or is this longevity argument simply not an active concern any more? Is Star Wars now a living property of constantly evolving canon, rather than a collection of independent and self-contained works of art? The former is definitely in vogue, most obviously in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I must say that, on top of being tiring, it lends the individual stories a certain disposability.
“I don’t believe it.”
“That, is why you fail.”
A more viable rebuttal might be to point out that I’m clearly ill-suited to have any opinion on Star Wars at all. This is an extreme position, but one not without some merit. As mentioned at the outset, my experience with Star Wars does differ from that of the prototypical Star Wars fan. And I do genuinely lack many preferences and obsessions that have come to define nerds of all walks of life. To wit, “world building,” the act of building an elaborately interconnected system of lore that sits behind a story, I’ve never managed to bring myself to read, watch, listen to, or care about in any way.14 Ditto the incessant need to connect movies with “Easter eggs,” which I either miss and feel left out, or notice and wonder why the entire movie has ground to a halt just to remind me that yes, I’ve seen another movie from the same franchise.15 And though I’ve felt otherwise in the past, I’m now increasingly unable to buy into or care much about the grand metanarratives behind e.g. the fortunes of my favourite electronics manufacturers, the just-shy-of-Sisyphean lengths to which canonical artist x went to create his works, or, in this case, the marketing gymnastics of a multibillion dollar film franchise. So the question of how and why Disney acted to preserve the franchise is mercilessly uninteresting to me.16 But probably most damningly un-nerdy of all is my rapidly diminishing tolerance for the one-sided editorials, virulent comment boards, and nitpicky pass/fail thinkpieces that make up much of online nerddom. I recognize that piling onto articles like “Star Wars Co-Star Slams The Phantom Menace In Epic Tirade,” debating whether or not “This Fan Theory About Jar Jar Binks Will” actually “Blow Your Mind,” or ranking the possible theories as to Rey’s parentage are genuinely enjoyable pastimes for many people, but I can’t for the life of me feel the same way.
All this invites a reasonable question: why should I, who tend not to like many things that define nerdism, dictate what goes on in a property made specifically by nerds and for nerds? Seeing as I’m squarely to the side of the target demo, my opinion should be, to a certain degree, of secondary importance, much like an atheist might discount a Christian’s opinion on how best to pray. My issues with this argument are several. Firstly, the notion that Disney put $200 million into The Force Awakens—plus $4 billion for the franchise itself—simply because they were fans of the universe is more than a little suspect. I would guess the bonkers amount of money they stood to make had something to do with it as well.17 Moreover just because I don’t represent the core of the fandom doesn’t mean that the choices made by Disney, or by the fandom itself, don’t impact me, any more than my not being Catholic implies that the Pope’s decisions don’t impact me. But more problematic than either of these is that if we disqualify the opinions of people who don’t already like what we like, or who have a different history with a franchise than we do, what this amounts to in practice is the exclusion of anyone who might ever disagree with us. This in turn leaves us with a bunch of groups, each isolated from every other, not communicating: everyone with a valid opinion (i.e. everyone in one’s own group) already agrees with the group, and everyone who disagrees doesn’t have a valid opinion anyways (because they’re outside one’s own group). It makes everyone Balkanized and isolated and less understanding, essentially.
And so despite my own nerdic insufficiency, I’m stuck feeling that my opinion isn’t worthless, and that, my love for the Star Wars movies notwithstanding, there are definite problems within its following, problems that impact me despite my quasi-outsider status, and insiders too whether they’re consciously aware of it or not. I’m not suggesting any sort of massive upheaval in the pop culture landscape, but perhaps merely a slight pumping of the brakes, a couple degree turn of the wheel, and maybe a little less focus on the rearview.
“I’ll not leave you here. I’ve got to save you.”
“You already have”
There are no doubt many who would argue this shift has already happened, and that The Force Awakens is chiefly to blame. Nearly every time I’ve brought up the familiarity of Awakens, or every time I’ve heard it brought up, several people have tripped over themselves to assure me or the complainant that this was due to Awakens’ foundational nature, that Star Wars is back, and that now that it is and we’re in a new era of positivity and hope, future entries can focus on expanding the universe in newer, more challenging, or more ambitious directions. To return to our religious metaphor: Episode VII is our Christ-child, entering into a fallen world and pointing the way to redemption. So I of all people shouldn’t be complaining about The Force Awakens, because it has managed to shift the Star Wars conversation away from the very negativity that I’ve just spent thousands of words complaining about. But this is a tenuous argument at best: the prequels still warrant a snide remark in the lead of Star Wars stories so unrelated Luke Skywalker wouldn’t kiss them. And even if the fans’ rancour has died down momentarily, there’s something inherently false about a mob of people whose current lack of pitchforks is mostly due to the fact they’ve just been given two hours and fifteen minutes of exactly what they asked for.
It’s also worth questioning the assumption that, now that the series has been revived, it will branch off in new and surprising directions. Though far from the most derivative of studios, Disney doesn’t have the strongest of track records when it comes to shaking things up. Post-acquisition, Pixar suddenly had plans for several tie-ins to established properties.18 And Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has had exactly one half-surprise in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but has other than that done not much else groundbreaking. Financially, I don’t see how future entries in the Star Wars franchise have any less incentive to conservatism than these other Disney properties, or indeed than The Force Awakens itself. Plus, though obviously this is rather speculative, future planned entries don’t yet show many signs of breaking the current mould. Two are direct sequels to Awakens, while the other three are a semi-prequel to episode IV, the story of young Han Solo, and the story of young Boba Fett. That is, every currently planned Star Wars movie has ties either to the original trilogy, or to the hyperreverent reboot of the original trilogy.
This is wavering dangerously close to hypocrisy, as I’m being approximately as dire and one-sided as I’ve been criticizing others for. So I want to dial the rhetoric back a bit: there is certainly room for innovation and new ideas in the Star Wars universe, and it may actually happen. Rian Johnson, who will be writing Episodes VIII and IX and directing VIII, is fabulously talented. The same goes for Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who have made a career mining freshness, originality, and substance out of ideas that have no business being fresh, original, or substantive. And even when Disney’s studios aren’t breaking new ground, their output is seldom outright bad. For the most part it’s good, enjoyable, fun, and many other things that people rightly seek out in movies.
But what I am saying is that, for my own admittedly odd tastes, the prevailing winds don’t currently seem too hopeful: while I enjoyed The Force Awakens a fair bit on first watch, my appreciation diminished significantly on the second, replaced with the realization that I’m just plain less turned on by a Star Wars that does the obvious thing perfectly, or that kowtows to fan concerns—even concerns I may share—than a Star Wars that tries something peculiar and unexpected and doesn’t quite stick the landing but still has a clear and present heart and an admirable ambition. Which is to say that, in being exactly what we asked for and still insufficient, The Force Awakens, its New Hope reverence be damned, helped me realize just how much I appreciate Lucas’ prequels. For me, then, Awakens’ role is more bizarro-Christ-child: instead of being the unexpected saviour we hate, who refuses to live within our preconceptions and thus upends them, it is exactly what we asked for, extremely likeable, and fulfills our preconceptions completely—yet the still-gnawing hunger for more shows those preconceptions to be false.
That went negative again, for which I apologize. My thesis is not that we should be sad about Star Wars. It is that, assuming we as an audience have any influence at all on the output of such a large franchise, our deification of the nostalgic impulse will only encourage more and more derivative feature-length adverts for our own fandom. Whereas if we work to appreciate risk, even and especially risks that don’t pay off, we could just end up with a few Star Wars movies as weird and unexpected as the original. Then again, we already had a few of those, and we pretty much crucified them.
Multiply subtitled entries with various combinations of colons, en dashes, and Roman numerals being something of a mainstay of the franchise. If these examples aren’t overwhelming enough, consider that the sequel to Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II was not Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces III, but rather Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. It’s not hard to see why Disney took the immediate step of ignoring the labyrinthine “universe” that surrounded the franchise and substituting its own.↩
Two details, to be exact. 1) Put every skill point into force destruction, and 2) don’t bother with any blaster other than the Wookiee bowcaster.↩
For those unaware, Jake Lloyd, the young Anakin of The Phantom Menace, has faced frequent bullying and virulent media attention since his ten year old self made the mistake of not saying “yippee” to the Star Wars fandom’s precise specifications.↩
And would, to be fair, have some good reason for doing so.↩
Not including merch↩
Protestant Bibles are even smaller.↩
Plus possibly certain portions of the Jewish scriptures, but still.↩
Though really more like two and a half.↩
Excepting certain scenes in the prequels.↩
Plus there is the eternal refrain of comic book fans, blockbuster aficionados, and nerddoms the world over, that these grand narratives serve as 21st century myths, through which we can examine our cultural obsessions, ethics, neuroses, &c. Though usually taken a bit too far—and often transparently self-serving—this argument is more than just Disney’s marketing megamachine. Pop culture archetypes have actual value.↩
Where exactly he wanted to put these bones is anyone’s guess. None of the planets on display makes much sense. Then again, it’s likely this was never a serious consideration, and only mentioned for marketing reasons.↩
In fact, Awakens’ primary mode of action—“remember how you like this?”—assumes that most of the establishing work has already been done.↩
If this world building is included as an unskippable part of the work itself, it generally strikes me as an overlong symptom of a minutiae fetish.↩
Cf. The Force Awakens’ holo chess, practice droid, trash compactor joke, and just about every scene with C3PO but most especially the one with the red arm, which I’m led to believe is actually an absurdly blunt tie in to a comic book that hasn’t even been released yet.↩
Except insofar as it materially impacts the end product that I experience.↩
Pixar was acquired in 2006. Accounting for a four year lag time from a project’s inception to its release, the effects of Disney’s acquisition could reasonably be expected around 2010, which is around when Pixar started releasing more tie-ins. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and at any rate correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it might be noteworthy as a part of a larger pattern.↩