- ‘It’s just us now’: nostalgia and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Certainly Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Abrams US 2015) appears simply to wallow in nostalgia, to merely mimic Star Wars (Lucas US 1977, later re-christened Episode IV: A New Hope). We find in it another desert planet; another force-using, orphaned protagonist; another Death Star. Information crucial to the fate of seemingly everything is once again hidden inside a droid, planets are destroyed in demonstrations of force, and weird creatures mingle in a bar. Structurally and thematically, audiences are treated to a hero’s (or, rather, heroine’s) journey, which culminates in the death of a potential mentor or even father-figure.
Certainly J.J. Abrams and Disney Lucasfilm had found themselves in a tough spot with regard to the marketability of the franchise. The prequels (1999–2005) disappointed many fans of the original trilogy even as they introduced a new generation of fans to the Star Wars universe. Thus The Force Awakens had to somehow recapture the older generation of fans – many of whom were now bringing their children and grandchildren to theatres – while still maintaining the younger one, and create a means by which to draw in even more fans by way of this film as well as the endless sequels and spin-offs the world can now expect in perpetuity. That The Force Awakens plays to the past of the franchise even as it tries to look forward should not therefore be surprising. The film’s very first line, ‘This will begin to set things right’ – a sentence that has garnered much attention for what it metatextually suggests about the state of Star Wars in December 2015, as in the title of J.D. Connor’s Los Angeles Review of Books essay ‘Making Things Right: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens’ – attests to the complex terrain The Force Awakens had to navigate. Nonetheless, as this discussion suggests, the allegiance that the most recent instalment in the Star Wars saga – a cinematic event which, until a few years ago, was nearly unthinkable – demonstrates to the past, and the manner in which it re-deploys familiar conventions, cannot be understood only in the context of this single [End Page 479] film. Whatever we gain as critics from analysis of The Force Awakens remains limited until we consider it in the context of the franchise from which it was born and for which it provides a new hope.
In the context of The Force Awakens as a discrete and coherent object of interpretation, the critic (and fan for that matter) might easily ignore that the film is framed by two deaths. The second death, which begins the film’s final act, and to which I will turn below, seems the more important one. It certainly carries more emotional weight for fans of the franchise. The absence of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the prequel films – or even a character remotely like Han Solo – is part and parcel of those films’ failure with fans who grew up with the original trilogy as their touchstone for the franchise. His return, again unthinkable until very recently when Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 for US$4 billion, promised the return of a certain swagger, a certain irreverence, a certain humour to a franchise that had become mired in the sheer boringness of the monk-like Jedi and the retconned origins of one of American cinema’s great villains as little orphan Ani (Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen).
As important as Han’s death is, however, it’s the earlier death, which perhaps barely registers for even the most hardcore fans, that signals something important for the franchise known as Star Wars: the disposal of nostalgia.
Few fans, of whatever degree, could have been familiar with Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) before he utters the first words of the franchise reboot, the aforementioned ‘This will begin to set things right’. Indeed, even Wookiepedia, probably the most comprehensive source of publicly available Star Wars information, offers little helpful, specific information about who he is or about his place in the Star Wars universe...