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 exceptionally well-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.
This is simply not true. As Annalee Newitz astutely argues in her self-labelled rant:
[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.