Last month I participated in an online roundtable discussion of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) on ‘Confessions of an Aca-Fan’ (the official weblog of Professor Henry Jenkins). Other participants included Dr William Proctor (who convened the roundtable), Dr Rebecca Harrison, Dr Suzanne Scott, Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico, and Professor Will Brooker. The first instalment can be found here.
Professor Jenkins introduced the roundtable as follows:
Over the weekend, Warwick Davis, noted for his performances in various Lucas-directed films, weighed in on current controversies around The Last Jedi: “It’s a piece of entertainment, it’s not about making political statements. It’s just there for people to enjoy. You go in there and are supposed to lose yourself in the world the director has created. Star Wars has always been a great example of that – it’s pure escapism and you can forget the 21st century for a couple of hours. That was George Lucas’s philosophy with Star Wars– to make a fun adventure.” This is characteristic of a Hollywood move which seeks to distance itself from politics and thus absolve itself from critical discussion: “Get a life! It’s only a television series.” The reality is that Star Wars has always been about politics — if nothing else, Lucas’s choice to base the stormtroopers on, well, stormtroopers or to tap the aesthetics of Triumph of the Willfor the final moments of A New Hopemeans that he was tapping certain political narratives to give the story much of its punch.
So, the question is not whether one group or another is “politicizing” Star Warsbut whether what kind of politics seems “natural” within the context of a Hollywood blockbuster franchise and whose politics seems intrusive, whose politics gets read as, well, “political.” The discussions around The Last Jedi allow us to take certain soundings about where our culture is at in terms of embracing an ethos of diversity and inclusion, in terms of rethinking old genre formulas to encompass people whose stories have not been told in that term before.
This is an important part of the story of The Last Jedi‘s reception, but it is ONLY one part of the story. There are also questions about how we define notions of quality in a transmedia era — and what notions of quality are appropriate when factoring in somewhat different and still emerging narrative expectations, ie. what information needs to be contained in the film, what we may legitimately access from other sources, what expectations we have about closure or plot development as the unified Hero’s Journey narrative whichStar Wars helped to popularize in Hollywood gives way to what Jeff Gomez has called “the collective journey” structure.
And there are also issues around how fandom gets represented in the media, how we break through what is often a monolithic conception of Star Wars fans in the hand of journalists, and how we deal with a legacy of gender politics which still breaks fandom down into male and female binaries despite efforts towards greater fluidity.
The resulting exchange is lively and thoughtful. I don’t necessarily agree with every perspective represented — I am personally pretty enthusiastic about The Last Jedi(not necessarily as the best of all possible Star War Movies but as a step forward for the franchise) — but I have learned something from all of the participants here.
There are moments of tension in the discussion, but the participants are able to work through their disagreements with some degree of mutual respect and with some openness to each other’s arguments. You will get four installments of this discussion. And the discussion will continue further as, coming soon, we launch a new podcast, How Do You Like It So Far?, which I am developing with Colin MacClay from the Annenberg Innovation Lab and which will take up The Last Jedi as our first extended case study. Watch for more soon.
This post contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). If you haven’t yet seen the film, and would prefer to watch it with fresh eyes, stop reading now. As my final post of 2016, I wanted to write about something that allowed me to reflect on the year as a whole. Please note: I don’t mean to undermine anyone else’s opinion about Rogue One with this review. There are many valid understandings of what ‘good’ cinema (and good feminism) entails, and I firmly believe conflicting opinions about this subject can and should exist.
The internet is in general agreement that 2016 has been the worst year ever. It was a year that saw a seemingly never-ending stream of human suffering, war, political strife, and celebrity deaths. On social media and the news, it often seemed like there was nothing but fear, hate, and darkness in the world.
Enter Rogue One, a film Variety called ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’. The first standalone film in Disney’s planned sequence of Star Wars tie-ins, Rogue One tells the story of the team of rebels who stole the plans to the first Death Star, revealing a small, key weakness in its construction and enabling Luke Skywalker destroy the doomsday weapon in the very first Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope, 1977). The team is led by reluctant hero Jyn Erso (played by British actress Felicity Jones), the daughter of the scientist responsible for inserting the key weakness into the Death Star, and for notifying the Rebel Alliance of its existence.
I wrote a bit about Rogue One when the first trailer was released, and I went to see it on December 15th, the day it opened in the UK. Because I’m currently working on an academic article that explores whether or not the Star Wars franchise can be said to have a feminist agenda, I approached the film in two minds: on the one hand as an academic, and on the other as a life-long Star Wars fan. I came away from it in two minds as well. A part of me loved it, and wholeheartedly agreed with the many reviews that hail it as a victory not just for feminism, but also for diversity and subversive politics in mainstream entertainment. Another part of me remained unconvinced, and even disappointed with what I saw as a series of missed opportunities. A third and final part of me, shaken by yesterday’s news that Carrie Fisher (writer, mental health activist, and the actress who portrayed Princess Leia) had died, continues to cast about for a way to tie these conflicting emotions and opinions together.
So, here it goes.
To understand why I felt the way I did about Rogue One, it’s necessary to give a bit of background about the film’s place in the franchise. In the Star Wars universe, the films have always been the firmest decider of what is ‘canon’, and tend to be the part of the franchise that will reach the widest audience. Since Disney acquired Star Wars in 2012 there have been signs that this could change, but the films have played a large part in establishing audience faith in the franchise, and in setting the mould for what Star Wars will look like in the future.
2015’s The Force Awakens broke box office records by being doggedly faithful to the things fans loved most about the films from the 1970s and ’80s. Rogue One represented Disney’s first attempt to take Star Wars in a truly new direction, and establish a series of stories and properties that fit within the Star Wars universe, but that weren’t limited by the Skywalker narrative that dominates the central films. If The Force Awakens was Disney’s opportunity to show me it could make a Star Wars movie, Rogue One was its opportunity to show me that Star Wars could do something different while still feeling like Star Wars. (Side note: for those interested in the concept, Bioware’s 2003 video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic did a damn good job of using a familiar universe to tell new and interesting stories in new and interesting ways.)
TL;DR: Rogue One had a lot to do in just 133 minutes. And as a Star Wars fan I’m very happy with the way it did so. I found the experience visually and emotionally arresting, and thought the story was well-written, unexpectedly bold, and did a good job of balancing its enormous cast of central characters. Would I buy an extended version that takes the time to flesh out some of the characters more thoroughly? In a heartbeat, but I also felt that the film gave me more than enough subtle characterisations to help me understand and relate to each of its key characters from the get-go. The film was also chock full of references to (and cameos from) the original film trilogy, keeping my inner fan very entertained.
From a political perspective, I also admired the way the film depicted the Rebel Alliance as a collection of determined, action-oriented people who also happen to be largely made up of the marginalised in our own Western society: people of colour, women, the elderly. When Cassian Andor (played by Mexican actor Diego Luna) tells Jyn that ‘not all of us get to choose to rebel’ [not an exact quote, please do correct me], for me the implications were unmistakeable. It was a message straight to to all those out there who are fortunate enough to be able to ignore racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that are still widespread in our culture: you may think you’re an ally, but make sure you understand what that means. Not everyone has the luxury of leaving a situation when things get bad. Jyn Erso may be a relatively privileged white woman, but she gives her mind, heart, and body to the rebel cause, even when it is no longer strictly necessary. She also knows when to move aside and give other people the chance to step up. Ultimately, she shares the same fate as the rest of her team, dying on Scarif after successfully transmitting the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance.
This was exactly the message I needed at the end of 2016. It was a year that left many of us feeling helpless and hopeless, and Rogue One delivered a powerful message in response, from the marginalised, outnumbered, and outgunned members of the Rebel Alliance. ‘Welcome to the real rebellion,’ it seemed to say. ‘We’ve been fighting here for decades. Now that you finally understand what it feels like, and what we’re fighting for, here’s what you can do about it’. It was a call to fight terrorism (from left and right), totalitarianism, and discrimination, even when that fight is ultimately doomed.
So far, so good. This reading is the one most reviews have taken in the aftermath of Rogue One, and if we only look at the story itself I think this reading is a good one. For ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’, though, I feel obligated to dig a bit deeper than that. I’ll start by explaining why I don’t really agree with the people who think Rogue One is a feminist film.
Rogue One needed to prove to me that it could be a different kind of Star Wars movie, which it did very admirably, but Disney and Lucasfilm still haven’t convinced me that they aren’t the evil Empire in this scenario. They seem to insist on maintaining the stats quo because it’s the safe bet and it’s ‘what sells’—even when the message audiences are buying directly contradicts that idea. The Rebel Alliance—clearly the good guy in Rogue One, despite some new grey areas—is racially diverse, but the film’s protagonist is white, as is the leader of the rebellion (Mon Mothma). The titular ‘Rogue One’ team may be led by a woman, but the ratio of men to women in the film (± 7.7:1) is bad even by Hollywood standards. And though Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy prides herself on the gender parity of her executive team, she has essentially stated that the Star Wars franchise is not willing to be the one to break the gender bias in big-budget directing.
As Cassian makes so explicit, it’s not enough to pay lip service to rebellion. We need to get our hands dirty, and this is something Star Wars the franchise still seems unlikely to do. This is evidenced not only by Disney’s haste to distance itself from the political implications of the film, but also in Rogue One’s overwhelming lack of gender parity in both cast and crew, and even in its CGI recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin (originally played by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994) and a young Princess Leia. This last point is relatively minor, but as a fan of Peter Cushing from his work with Hammer Horror, I found it surprisingly ghoulish. I remain unconvinced by John Knoll’s argument that a CGI clone is somehow equivalent to a new actor performing in tribute.
[W]hile you will forever be remembered loitering in star-infested landscapes, existing endlessly in imaginations and onscreen, I putter noisily in that infamous closet of celebrity—expanding, wrinkling, stooping, and far too often, stupid with age. Here we are enacting our very own Dorian Gray configuration. You: smooth, certain, and straight-backed, forever condemned to the vast, enviable prison of intergalactic adventure. Me: struggling more and more with post-galactic stress disorder, bearing your scars, graying your eternally dark, ridiculous hair.
Here Leia appears in Rogue One, then, as young and sure as ever. The audience is not even allowed to remember the Carrie Fisher of the past. Instead, we are given another version of the eternally young Princess. We haven’t even begun to untangle the ethical issues raised by digitally resurrecting the deceased for profit—even with the permission of their estate.
What about feminism, then? Rogue One makes a few feminist choices in terms of narrative, but on an industry level it could have been pushed much further. To be honest, I’m baffled as to why Disney is even playing it safe. Like The Force Awakens before it, Rogue One was both lauded as feminist by mainstream media and decried as ‘Social Justice propaganda’ by so-called mens rights activists (MRA). Both perspectives would seem to indicate that Rogue One is indeed feminist. It features a female protagonist, and women seem to fill all kinds of roles throughout the film, from diplomat to pilot to rebel insurgent. In a way, Rogue One is very much a story of how sacrifice knows no boundaries—be it gender, race, or class. At a young age Jyn watches her mother die in a largely symbolic gesture, trying to stop Director Orson Krennic from forcing her husband, herself, and her young daughter to serve the Empire. By the end of the film, we have come full circle, and it is Jyn who gives up her life for a lost cause. Neither Jyn nor her mother are expected to be particularly useful or relevant against the Empire, but each builds on the sacrifices of the other in the slow battle towards freedom. In this, Jyn becomes a proud successor to Princess (later General) Leia Organa, who strangles her oppressor with the very chains he used to bind her in Return of the Jedi (1983). She refuses to give up, and when there seems to be no hope, she makes her own.
In 2016, however, an empowering story is not enough.
Rogue One could have taken the opportunity, with its first ‘original’ Star Wars movie, to go all the way. It could have given us a film that showed us how Hollywood films should be, not just in terms of racial and gender diversity on-screen, but in the way it navigated the industry. It took a bold chance, but it could have taken a much bolder one. Give us a cast and crew with gender parity, that includes people of all ages and economic backgrounds, and that is racially diverse. If any franchise had the money and the opportunity to do this, it was Star Wars. I won’t even go into how this film spectacularly failed to subvert the franchise’s serial obsession with heterosexuality. As a guaranteed blockbuster, but also as a relatively safe ‘spinoff’ film, now was the time to take the big risks.
What Rogue One would be called if it was left up to the people currently having a meltdown in the Daily Mail comments section pic.twitter.com/tAQHxkPMbd
As MRA website Return of Kings concluded after actually viewing the film, ‘Rogue One shows that Hollywood is listening to our complaints about feminism in films’. The rest of the review echoes many of the things I found so disappointing, and the fact that they were able to come to this conclusion shows just how much further Disney should have gone. As a film, I don’t think Rogue One was particularly feminist, or even particularly rebellious. As Michelle Goldberg’s aptly titled article on Slate argues, 2016 was also ‘the year the feminist bubble burst […] People who are committed to gender equality will try to salvage what they can of the last 40 years of progress. They’ll try to maintain their morale, but living in total opposition to the zeitgeist is hard.’ The odds are still firmly against equality. And Star Wars still has a long way to go.
Rogue One was the movie I needed this year, both because it reminded me of all the things that still need to be done, and because its story showed us where we can start. It reminded me that we need to keep hoping and fighting. We need to do something—anything. This is also the lesson that I will take from Carrie Fisher’s story. One of her many quotes that’s currently making the rounds of the internet feels especially relevant in the light of this review:
Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.
At the time she was speaking about mental illness, but Carrie Fisher was outspoken about social justice as well. So was the Star Wars character she embodied: General Leia Organa. Both Fisher and Jyn Erso show us that suffering, loss, and even death need not be the end. They inspire us to follow their example, and to take up the fight that they have been forced to abandon.
Last week, the first teaser trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit the internet. If you somehow managed to miss it, you can watch it below. ScreenRant also has a great breakdown of the trailer here, as does io9 here, if you aren’t in a place where you can watch YouTube videos.
Scheduled for release in December, Rogue One is set just before the events of A New Hope (1977), the very first Star Wars film. Fittingly, the plot for Rogue One is taken straight from A New Hope’s opening crawl:
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
How exactly? Well, unlike the previous seven films, Rogue Onewill not follow the legacy of the Skywalker family. In fact, neither Rogue One or the other planned standalone films will cross over with the regular, episode-based saga at all. This sets them somewhat apart from the films in the Marvel universe, which tends to liberally sprinkle in the cameos. The tone of Rogue One is allegedly darker and morally grey, the genre is more ‘grand heist’ or ‘war movie’ than ‘space opera’, and the story is more personal. Basically, Rogue One is about some of the bit players in the bigger, more epic story the films in the main canon portray.
We’re a long way from the Mos Eisley cantina…there’s nary an alien or monster to be seen in the teaser trailer. There’s not a sign of Jedi, Sith, lightsabers, space battles, dogfights, or any of the other staples I’ve come to expect from Star Wars. Except for Mon Mothma, not a single familiar face appears, though I’ll be shocked if we don’t see at least a glimpse of Vader in the final product.
For Petty, then, while the Rogue One might still be a Star Wars film from an aesthetic perspective, and in the sense than it is set in the same universe, it takes a new approach to the franchise’s tone, genre, and central themes. Personally, I’m not sure whether this is the case, though admittedly I come to the new Star Wars films from a different perspective than many viewers: as a long-time, and rather highly involved fan. I have seen the Star Wars universe take numerous different forms, both inside and outside of ‘canon’ (a contested term these days) and have participated in creating some of them myself.
Jared Petty may well be in the same situation (possibly minus the Earl Grey), and I’m sure he doesn’t mean to make any kind of value judgement here. Quite the opposite – he seems very positive about the possibilities Rogue One signals, precisely because of its apparent willingness to go in untested directions. Towards the end of his review, however, he makes a noteworthy statement that echoes what a lot of people, including Kathleen Kennedy, have been saying about Disney’s plans for future standalone Star Wars films:
If it works, Rogue One will open the door for other kinds of tales to be told in the Star Wars galaxy: scary stories, exploration epics, true romances, maybe even more comedic and deeper dramatic experiments.
While true, from a certain point of view, Petty’s statement is basically still predicated on the assumption that the Star Wars films are the only real Star Wars stories. While this may be a valid assumption, given that the films are all most people know of the franchise, many of the official Star Wars comics, television shows, and (before they were redacted from Star Wars canon) the material of the Expanded Universe have played with genre and tone, and have explored the world from the perspective of minor characters. These stories may not be ‘canon’, but they have made an impact on many past and current fans. One example childhood me remembers with particular fondness is Tales from Jabba’s Palace (1995), part of a series of short story anthologies that focused on minor characters from the original Star Wars trilogy.
The Rogue One teaser itself already contains a number of references to obscure fan favourites from the original trilogy, like Mon Mothma or the Gonk droid. This suggests that the film, like The Force Awakens, will do its best not to alienate its hardcore fanbase. In addition to downplaying the stories told off the big screen, however, the idea that Rogue One will be a completely new type of Star Wars story ignores the ways in which the film’s entire approach to the Star Wars galaxy has actually been replicated many times over in fan culture.
By this I’m not at all trying to say that the Star Wars franchise needs to pander to the fan community’s every whim, or that it must stick to any kind of canon. I am simply intrigued by the way that now, more than ever before, the most prominent parts of Star Wars ‘canon’ are coming to resemble the fan creations it has been inspiring for many, many years.
Story from the perspective of a minor, unnamed, or practically nonexistent character in the original film trilogy? Check. Darker, more adult overtones? Check. Fills in gaps and stories hinted at by ‘canonical’ stories? Check. Wild genre shifts? Check. Strong female lead? Check. Fandom has done it all many times over. If people thought that The Force Awakens was essentially fan fiction, what will they make of Rogue One? It’s likely that most won’t even be aware of the similarities it bears to fan-led productions. Others might make the familiar move of classifying it as homage or transformative fiction, rather than fanfic.
In part, this shift into what is essentially ‘professional’ fan fiction no doubt comes simply because many of the people now working for Lucasfilm and Disney were themselves massive fans of Star Wars – both as children and as adults. They were always fans in the commonly understood sense of the word, but now they are also professionals. Hollywood, and Star Wars in particular, are getting very good at mining both fan culture and independent film for creative talent. This was also evident in the appointment of relative newcomer Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) to direct Rogue One.
In general, Lucasfilm has treated its fanbase in a welcoming and encouraging way. This is of course not without ulterior motives, restrictions, and gender biases, as Henry Jenkins already pointed out many years ago. In any case, the people who once wrote the fanfic now regularly write the ‘real’ thing.
So who decides what is a ‘real’ Star Wars story, and what is not? Technically, that job falls to Pablo Hidalgo, who works as part of Lucasfilm Story Group to make sure each new story fits together coherently with the others. Hidalgo, himself a founding member of the Star Wars Fanboy Association, answers the question of what makes something canon in less than 130 characters:
When you ask ‘is it canon?’ The answer means ‘do other storytellers need to take it into account?’ That’s all the answer means.
I would argue that Disney most certainly needs to take the huge body of stories that already exist into account. We’ve already seen how mild fan blowback about the elimination of the Expanded Universe stories from canon has threatened to spill over into the ‘real world’. Disney seems highly sensitive to the fact that fan opinion matters, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect them to cater to this group however they are able. What’s more, I think that is exactly what they are doing as they construct these spinoff stories, though perhaps not in the way we expected. I am incredibly interested in the extent to which Rogue One will come to resemble a piece of fan art, and there may well be follow-up posts to this effect. It is an exiting time to be a fan, and an especially exciting time to be a Star Wars fan.
I will also be closely following the ways in which Disney capitalises on the fan community to inspire, create, and market both this and future spinoff films. Things are off to an intriguing start, as it was recently announced that Gareth Edwards, Rogue One co-producer John Swartz, and executive producer John Knoll will be judges for this year’s Star Wars Fan Film Awards. Who knows – a winner of this year’s award may even, in a few years’ time, see his name (the winners are almost always male) in the credits of a canonical Star Wars film. In the wake of the Rogue One trailer, several professional artists (some working for various Star Wars properties) also tweeted fan renditions of the film to fellow fans – but also, inevitably, to customers.
What follows is part two of a spoiler-free discussion of The Force Awakens (the new Star Wars movie), and its cultural context in science fiction, fandom, and nostalgia culture. You can find part one right here.
Last week I started my breakdown of The Force Awakens with the disclaimer that I am a long-time Star Wars fan. I looked at arguments that this most recent film is unoriginal, that it is powered by nostalgia rather than innovation, and I supplied a few counterarguments to these claims. Do we always have to see nostalgia as bad, and originality (assuming originalityeven exists) as good?
In his latest book, Remaking History (2016), Jerome de Groot talks about the role of historical fictions in the cultural imaginary. ‘It is necessary’, he argues, ‘to look on novels, or films, or plays, or games, or TV series, not as poor versions of history, nor within a binary wherein they are the margins of a centrifugal culture, nor as parasites on “proper” historical knowledge and practice, but as establishing historical modes of awareness, engagement, narrarivization, and comprehension’ (p. 6). For me Star Wars, with all its nostalgia, and its fetishisation of various historical aesthetics, very much fits into this discussion about how we represent and engage with the past – and by analogy, how we build the future. Speaking specifically about Westerns, De Groot suggests that they ‘are not myths at all, but complex historiographical entities enabling the unpicking of foundational stories and histories’ (p. 61). Star Wars may not be a full-blown Space Western, but it too contains these inherent possibilities. The real question is, who is actually allowed to do the unpicking of our stories and histories? Who is the ‘we’ in this scenario?
This brings me to another question that The Force Awakens hasraised.
Is The Force Awakens essentially fan fiction?
A short answer to this question is yes. Another, even shorter answer is no. Both answers are correct.
Like many of us, J.J. Abrams is a long-time fan of Star Wars. It’s shaped him as a creator, it’s been referenced in his previous work, and (ironically) influenced his work on Star Trek. The chance to actually make an official Star Wars movie must have seemed like a dream come true, and Abrams’ love of the series comes through in every frame, and every piece of referential symbolism and imagery. The fact remains, though, that Abrams is an industry professional as well as a fan. His devotion to other stories and worlds is generally read as a point of inspiration and homage, rather than an insular fantasy.
Not even Abrams can escape the scorn levelled at fan culture in general, though. The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard applauds Disney for its choice of Abrams, a ‘highly expert, professional superfan’, to helm The Force Awakens. She points out that returning the reigns to franchise creator George Lucas would only have resulted in more fan disappointment. Problematically, though, she goes on to characterise fans as parasites, bullies, and spoiled children:
The Disney deal looks set, then, to go down as the moment when ownership of cultural properties officially passed from creators to consumers. Those people raised on video games and talkboards are no longer prepared to tolerate the concept that fictional worlds exist only within the imagination of one person. In fact, they are indignant at being denied the keys. Like cross toddlers dodging bedtime, they will have their stories.
This is simply an unfair and inaccurate depiction of fan communities, in a long history of unfair and inaccurate depictions. Recent media coverage of ‘Cumberbitches’, for example, has inevitably fixated on the intensity of fan devotion to actor Benedict Cumberbatch, characterising his followers as infantile, obsessed, and irrational. As Henry Jenkins and others have pointed out, female fans are especially at a disadvantage in terms of how they are represented in popular (or academic) media.
But it’s important to remember that Star Wars fans can be found in all genders, cultures, and walks of life (though who they root for may differ). Star Wars fans want more Star Wars, yes, but most also want good Star Wars, and are perfectly capable of fulfilling their own need to engage with the narrative gaps and opportunities the franchise creates. It didn’t take long at all for truly fantastic fan art based on The Force Awakens to begin rolling in, and excellent fan-made films, short stories, and communities have been making the rounds since before there was an internet.
Is The Force Awakens culturally lazy, or even dangerous?
Like any major franchise, particularly in the adventure genre, The Force Awakens has its downfalls – though for the moment it has escaped some of the homogenising tendencies of blockbuster cinema. It does definitely still represent that specific brand of cultural imperialism that Hollywood is known for, but politically it sides with the left-wing branch of populism rather than its right-wing counterpart. It’s not particularly deep in the film school kind of way that some fans seem to expect, but neither is it as unimaginative and derivative as some critics would have you think.
As I argued last week, The Force Awakens simply takes both the visual pastiche that characterised the original Star Wars and the subsequent culture of pastiche that has since sprung up around the franchise, and combines them into one big, tongue-in-cheek mashup.
Although its portrayal of the fight between good and evil is unpleasantly conservative, The Force Awakens is part of a greater story arc, and the series has the potential to nuance this portrayal in later films. Many equal (and greater) films suffer from the same, lazy good/evil binary, and occasionally this can even serve an important purpose. Consider the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, Django Unchained, or even Nolan’s Batman films, each of which seem to care relatively little about their villains’ personal motivations for being evil (‘being bad is just so much fun!’), and yet still manage to tell important and compelling stories, with equally important and compelling political agendas. Fury Road has been heralded as a feminist masterpiece (though not everyone agrees), and for Jerome de Groot Django Unchained presents ‘an aesthetic of the past that does not ignore the horrors of the past and that, through excess, might achieve a better communication of the grimness of events than can be achieved by a discourse – costume drama – that is somehow now a compromised mode’ (Remaking History, p. 179).
Even if subverting this conservative good/evil binary is not at the top of Disney’s current agenda, The Force Awakens and its sequels have the potential to shift other Hollywood trends in a positive direction. The film’s balance of gender representation easily blows past all the earlier Star Wars movies, and its racial diversification is almost as solid – though naturally the fact that almost all the main characters speak Western variants of English is one of those problems science fiction and fantasy have been running into for ages. The film even leaves space for multiple sexual identities, and one of the franchise’s new official novels features an openly gay character. These are representations we’ve only ever really had in Star Wars fan fiction, never in the franchise itself. While it could (and should) be argued that this is also part of the Disney’s new marketing strategy, I just can’t see it as a bad thing.
The nostalgic, historical aesthetic of Star Wars (‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’) only serves to increase the impact of such representation. If this is what the past looks like, what’s so bad about building the future on it?
If anything, my reservations about The Force Awakens are still largely personal. At the risk of mixing traditionally rival fan cultures, I’m reminded of that episode of Star Trek: TNG where Captain Picard lives a whole lifetime in the span of 25 minutes. He comes back to the Enterprise, and suddenly all the people he knew and loved, and all the experiences he had, are nothing more than a memory. It feels strange to live in a world where the 50-odd years of EU history following the original trilogy have suddenly ceased to be, and where my favouriteStar Wars characters don’t (yet) exist.
I reserve the right to change my opinion about The Force Awakens. So please, leave a comment disagreeing with me. I am very interested in discussing this with you. As I think about The Force Awakens more – as I watch the Blu-Ray release in April, the original trilogy spin-off Rogue One (2016), and the next official sequel, Episode VIII (2017) – I may well come to feel very differently about it all. But for the moment I’m quite content, both as a fan and as a critic. And that’s an achievement that should be applauded no matter how ‘produced’, nostalgic, fan-driven or unoriginal it may be.
What follows is part one of a spoiler-free discussion of The Force Awakens (the new Star Wars movie), and its cultural context in science fiction, fandom, and nostalgia culture. You can find part two here.
I, like millions of other people, went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens over the winter holidays. Twice. The first time I enjoyed it. The second time I enjoyed it even more, despite lingering reservations.
So…is it a good movie or not? Despite the film’s 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, debate among critics has taken some interesting turns.
I should preface my own discussion of this film by clarifying that I am a long-time Star Wars fan. The first Star Wars film I saw was in 1998 (or late ’97?), when I watched the special edition re-release of The Empire Strikes Back on VHS. I was mesmerised. I devoured the other two films in the series and hungrily went looking for more. When I exhausted my own search I made up new Star Wars stories with my Barbies (because girls don’t have action figures). I found friends who also loved Star Wars, and who introduced me to the Expanded Universe of books, video games, and other licensed stories. Once I had immersed myself in those, I started writing my own fan fiction, and helping to edit the fiction others had posted on message boards.
The disappointingly written prequel trilogy dimmed my enthusiasm for the films, but I remained interested in the universe. Through writing about Star Wars I discovered I really liked writing in general, as well as picking stories apart. I joined other fiction message boards, and started writing about other things. I studied literature and popular culture, and discovered on re-watching the films with my partner that I still appreciated Star Wars, albeit in a very different way.
As I sat in the cinema at midnight on December 16th, then, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was excited by what I had seen in the trailers and heard through the rumour mill. Additionally, almost anything would top my experience of the prequels – though seeing The Phantom Menace for the first time in 1999 was undeniably powerful, for all its flaws. On the other hand I was aware that, if I did enjoy the film, that enjoyment would likely be the result of a carefully calculated effort on behalf of J.J. Abrams and the Disney corporation, who have designed and balanced The Force Awakens to maximise popular appeal, and minimise the chances offending any of its target groups.
And this is essentially what The Force Awakens does. It is a safe movie. It takes very few narrative risks (though it does take a few), and the story, though entertaining, is largely predictable – especially for a Star Wars fan. It is also an exceptionallywell-marketed film, in a climate where marketing wasn’t even strictly necessary.
The Force Awakens is capable of entertaining (or at least, entertaining me) despite these things because it is an excellent remix, and this is where the critical conversation gets very interesting. In the interest of getting right down to brass tacks, I’d like to unpack a few common criticisms of the film, and situate my own reflections of Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens among them. This is not meant to be an apologist analysis of the film, but many of the current critiques of the film have been problematic in their own right.
Is The Force Awakens unoriginal?
One of the most common accusations levelled at The Force Awakens is that it is simply an unoriginal rehashing of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope (1977).
While I can certainly see the validity of these claims, I also feel that they overestimate how original previous films in the franchise are. For me (and for many others), Star Wars has always been about remix: using the same plots, character archetypes, and settings to re-tell our oldest stories [EDIT: check out Mike Kilmo’s starwarsringtheory.com for a great analysis of the Star Wars franchise as a revival of an ancient literary form called ‘ring composition’]. Writing for Kotaku about the way the marketing campaign for The Force Awakens ‘weaponises’ nostalgia, Dan Golding points out the following:
Partly, what made the original Star Wars so great was George Lucas’ voracious borrowing of visual style. Other directors were doing it at the time, too—Martin Scorsese, for example, peppered films like Taxi Driver with allusions to French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism—but with Lucas, it wasn’t about being clever, or making a point. He just loved style, and took it from where he found it.
Remix is central to twenty-first-century art and culture. Just because Lucas primarily drew his visuals from other films (rather than other Star Wars films) does not, in my opinion, make him a more original auteur. To argue that ‘George Lucas dramatized complex adult ideas for kids. J.J. Abrams has made a children’s film for adults’ primarily because it imitates, as Stephen Dalton over at Hollywood Reporter does, is to assign more high-cultural value to Star Wars than it deserves. Nostalgia for the old Star Wars films (which is at play in many of these reviews) is precisely what Disney and J.J. Abrams are playing with and remixing.
On top of that, the very idea that a film needs to ‘say something’ or present a clear overarching moral or metaphor is a very ‘literary’ approach to cinema. Surely by virtue of existing all films ‘say something’? Perhaps with its character-heavy narrative, remixed plot, and intensely nostalgic visuals, The Force Awakens simply isn’t saying what some people want it to say.
This brings us to our next question.
Is The Force Awakens nostalgic?
Well…yes. It’s certainly not an ironic film – at least, not in that cynical, postmodern way that we’re all so used to. Again, however, this is an accusation that’s been levelled at pretty much all of the Star Wars films at one point or another.
If I had to place The Force Awakens in a critical movement, I might opt for metamodernism or New Sincerity. Just as Luke Turner writes of the metamodern, The Force Awakens seems to exhibit and invite ‘a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp.’
‘The metamodern generation’, writes Turner, ‘understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other’. Of course, this could be claimed of virtually all art, but it still feels like an apt description of our times.
When practicing sincere irony, nostalgia is a powerful tool, and The Force Awakens relies heavily on the aesthetics of the past. As Golding points out, it does so in a way that may actually be a bit more conscientious about the historical associations of those aesthetics than the original Star Wars films were. Golding continues by describing the function of nostalgia in the franchise:
There’s this old story about how when the first Star Wars came out, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg saw the words “A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” and turned to his cinema-going companion and said: “Oh thank god, I don’t have to worry about it.”
That’s actually not too far away from what The Force Awakens is doing right now. It’s telling us we don’t have to worry about it anymore. The Jedi, the Dark Side, they’re real. It’s true—all of it.
The past (and our nostalgia for it) represents a safe space, where we need not be afraid or challenged.
Moving from this assumption, Dennis Danvers argues the following:
Screen science fiction has largely become a nostalgic genre, typically dealing in antique, even reactionary futures, like the intergalactic civilization of Star Trek, as real as the old west of Gunsmoke. Star Wars is simply Parzival with space ships. Lukas understood that the future plays out and opted for long ago and far away from the get go. Some screen worlds are built purely of style, often lifted from Gibson’s early work, like The Matrix, which boldly muddles an sf premise dating back to the late sixties without pausing to explain why there are so many bullets in virtual reality other than they look so cool in slo-mo.
The nostalgia of the Star Wars franchise (and of Hollywood by association) has been linked to the increased nostalgia of science fiction more generally, and even accused of contributing to the death of the genre.
[T]here are a few major obvious problems with blaming Star Wars for cheapening the genre. First, you have to argue a counter-factual that’s impossible to prove: you have to believe that the New Wave would have gone on forever, books would have stayed weird and personal and experimental into the Reagan era. And that some other project wouldn’t have jumpstarted our interest in big-budget VFX spectaculars […] Meanwhile, if we’re being honest, there were perhaps one or two really notable “brainy” science fiction films per year before 1977. And after 1977? There were perhaps one or two really notable “brainy” science fiction films per year — it’s just that they were just surrounded by a lot more big-budget splodefests.
Though Newitz defends Star Wars as a work of science fiction, she doesn’t really deny that nostalgia has ‘cheapened’ the genre more generally. In a much more negative vein, Noah Berlatsky argues that popular science fiction has stopped caring about the future altogether:
Tomorrow isn’t a potential where things might be better, or even different; it’s just a place to rearrange the robots on a Titanic that never sinks. Progress has conquered the present so thoroughly it doesn’t even need to push forward anymore. In pop sci-fi, we’re all always already picking up the shiny new old lightsaber; there is no other future, and no other dream.
I find this view of Hollywood nostalgia problematic. Surely there’s a more productive way to approach what The Force Awakens is doing with its nostalgic return to the narratives and visual styles of other Hollywood productions, and its extensive self-reference. It does, after all, need to appeal to a hugely diverse and increasingly multicultural audience. It can afford to be a little weird (and it is, in places), but global audiences are too used to genre conventions to allow much experimentation in the way of form or narrative. In targeting the highbrow audience, Star Wars would cut out the far larger popular audience.
It feels increasingly difficult to say anything ‘new’ without acknowledging the extent to which it is still (always already) built on the old. To a certain extent, nostalgia is all we have. Art generally only becomes truly great or influential in retrospect. I would argue that The Force Awakens is also aware of this fact, but it knows how to lay all the groundwork for retrospective greatness. It both creates nostalgia, and creates the possibility of future nostalgia.
Finally, as well as being wrong, the argument that science fiction rarely explores new ideas fails to take into account the extent to which ‘new’ ideas, worlds, and frontiers are frequently built on old ideologies and assumptions. Perhaps the most we can ask of Star Wars is that it slip a few new tricks and quirks into its classic formula, and use its marketing power to push the rest of Hollywood in a positive direction along with it.
But I’ll talk a bit about that more next week, where I get into two more criticisms of The Force Awakens. These relate primarily to its fan communities and lack of cultural subversion.
For my PhD research into monster mashups, I’ve ended up reading a lot of things with cheesy titles. Jane Slayre, Wuthering Bites, Grave Expectations, Mr Darcy, Vampyre – I could list them all day. Compared to these, Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer isn’t too bad, but it’s got the same gleeful level of camp and (ir)reverence for classic stories as the rest on the list. As one might expect, Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer follows the exploits of our favourite wooden boy, and takes place in the world of Carlo Collodi’sThe Adventures of Pinocchio (1883). When a pack of the undead disturb Geppetto’s workshop, Pinocchio discovers that his nose doubles perfectly as a vampire stake. All he has to do is tell a lie.
Not only does this premise make for some great one-liners, but it also makes a surprising amount of sense. Of course Pinocchio would make an amazing vampire hunter, just as it makes perfect sense that even the zombie apocalypse can’t stop class struggle in Pride and Prejudice, or that Jane Eyre‘s Bertha Rochester is a werewolf. I’m constantly amazed at the ease with which the supernatural can be injected into classic stories, and I always have to wonder whether this is primarily due to the skill of the contemporary remixer, the willingness of present-day readers to accept genre bending, or the underlying fantasticality of the classics themselves.
This is one reason why it’s tricky to analyse mashups in terms of how ‘comedic’ or ‘serious’ they are. The collected edition of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer has a nice little foreword by comic book writer Mike Carey, who seems to appreciate the peculiar blend of humour and sincerity that mashups like this tend to exhibit:
On one level, this is a preposterous piss-take. Of course it is. Pinocchio kills vampires, and he uses his famously adjustable nose as a stake, which means (spoiler alert) all he’s got to do to make a kill is tell a really big lie […] it’s when Jensen and Higgins start to take the story seriously – and to question its premises – that it grows wings. (p. v-vi)
The entire premise of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer is a joke, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do serious things along the way. Or that traditionally ‘silly’ things like monster or genre fiction are less culturally valuable than literary or artistic fiction. As a culture we still tend to look at drama and realist fiction as somehow better than humour and the fantastic, but it’s a preconception that’s now changing, albeit ever-so-slowly.
Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer is illustrated in beautiful black and white – a bold choice for a comic marketed primarily to teenagers, as my edition clearly states, but also a choice that works well with the source material. This is especially true of the storybook ‘flashback’ pages, which are more stylised than the rest of the comic, and have a lovely woodcut feel to them. Pinocchio‘s monochromatic images give it an old-timey quality, and make it seem more like a visualised fairy tale than a run-of-the-mill superhero comic. The visual sombreness also helps to counterbalance the (very, very sad) jokes throughout, and keeps the characters from becoming too garish.
With comic books (or graphic novels, if you will), I often find the distinction between ‘adult’ and ‘young adult’ material to be pretty arbitrary. Most often it’s the sex that earns imprints like Vertigo the ‘Suggested for Mature Readers’ warning, but officially adult comics definitely aren’t the only works dealing with ‘adult themes’, however we define that term. There’s not a lot of sex in Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer (beyond the mandatory love interest and occasional innuendo), but violence and gore abounds. This includes one particular scene that reminds me of another text I just looked at for my research, Wolfcop (2014). Let’s just say both involve skin-tearing and leave it at that.
Pinocchio gets away with all this a bit easier because the gore is in black and white like the rest of the comic, but it’s not afraid to embrace the gruesome hyperbole that traditionally characterises both vampire stories and fairy tales. It also alludes to its film and literary heritage whenever it can. Quotes from the Collodi version are peppered throughout the text. There was a fun moment in the middle of the narrative when, during a long carriage ride, Cricket offers to help pass the time with some music. He gets as far as ‘When you wish upon…’ before the surly driver interrupts him with a stern ‘No singing’. The moment served both to recall how indebted our knowledge of the Pinocchio fairy tale is to the 1940 Disney version, and to humorously highlight the differences between that version of the story and this one. There’s even a visual echo of another monster mashup, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), in the troupe from the Grand Puppet Theater.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it makes a particularly poignant nod to the original Collodi fairy tale that really highlights how differently we approach both fantasy and storytelling today.
In the end Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer is a lot of fun, and it uses that fun both to reintroduce us to a classic story, and to forge new connections with other stories. I would definitely recommend it to fans of vampire fiction, as well as to most fairy tale fans. If you love both, then you’ll be able to fully appreciate its weird and wonderful way of remixing this story of a magical puppet who wanted to be a real boy.
And if all else fails, there are ‘rabbits of ill portent’ to entertain you: