Christmas is now almost upon us (or has been, if you’re late reading this), and I’m determined to experience some cheer and thought for my fellow man and woman, despite some of the horrors occurring elsewhere in the world. Sometimes, part of that approach can involve a little bit of escapism as well. You know, a good book or a film, transporting you to a world so well realised and self contained, for two hours you can forget. That was essentially the idea director, producer and writer George Lucas had in the mid ‘70s and the end result, of course, was his third film, Star Wars. A more escapist fantasy you would have struggled to find in 1977, when science fiction and fantasy fiction were not fashionable cinema draws, which may explain its huge success. After all, science fiction and fantasy comic books and novels had been selling huge quantities for years, but no one had had the guts to give a comic-book style fantasy film the time and money to make those ideas work on the big screen. Odd exceptions had dented the usual industry reserve about the science fiction and fantasy genres (2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes both came out in 1968 and were both imaginative and cerebral. However, that year’s Barbarella, a comic-book style film done on the cheap, was perhaps more typical of what was expected and was often what we got, whatever its charms).
So, if the success of the new Star Wars film is partially due to nostalgia, and the love of a long standing fan base, it’s worth noting that Star Wars and its success was reliant on nostalgia from the beginning. 1977 audiences would have correctly recognised Star Wars as a deliberate reworking of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the ‘30s, but George Lucas made Star Wars more than just a vintage sci-fi pastiche. The original film practically remakes Korusawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress and owes much in its content and structure to Joseph Campbell’s book Hero with a Thousand Faces, evoking every adventure archetype we’ve seen since storytelling began. Add spaghetti westerns, World War II dogfights and Ken Adam’s designs for various Bond villain bases to the mix and Star Wars was a mongrel mix of nostalgic influence from the very beginning.
My main concern about the new film, The Force Awakens, isn’t obviously related to nostalgia, but may still be rooted in it. My childhood love of the series may be the source of my adult argument. The argument I have is that this story (in what is now episode 7 of the saga) didn’t really need telling, but I’m hoping to be proved wrong, or specifically be shown a new story that was worth telling. We’ve been here before, of course, with the much maligned prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). Lucas had included an intriguing and inventive back story to his saga, as far back as the 1976 publication of the original novelisation (ghost written by the prolific Alan Dean Foster). “The old Republic was the Republic of legend”, wrote Foster, “no need to note where it was or whence it came, only to know that…it was the Republic”. He then detailed the protection of the mystical Jedi knights, who served the senate, the betrayal of a senator called Palpatine, whose Machiavellian pursuit of power led to his eventual election as Emperor. It was a grand, epic history, to serve this new fictitious universe. Did we need three films about it? That’s debatable, and while I know the films charted the fall of Anakin Skywalker and rise of Darth Vader, we could argue that the prequels failed to give either story its best showing.
Perhaps one well written preface and various expository dialogue was all we needed in the end, as the original trilogy gives us the memorable characters, action and strong narratives that the prequels tend to lack. The reality of showing us (instead of allowing us to use our imaginations) was a big let down in the prequels; none of it was as marvellous, grand and epic as the stories promised. Bogged down with concerns over trade federations, charmless robot armies and stiff political exchanges, the prequels floundered in their own self importance. Flash Gordon this wasn’t; more like Question Time, which for a fantasy adventure saga, isn’t such a good thing. The Phantom Menace looked great, for sure, but was it as great as Foster’s preface promised, all those years ago? Additionally, Star Wars was starting to look tired and uninspired, like a cynical marketing exercise. When the glorious masterpieces that are The Lord of the Rings films were released, Star Wars looked inconsequential and shallow in comparison, not the immersive fantasy world experience the Peter Jackson directed Rings films were. Two different entities, of course, and Tolkien’s Rings trilogy had been another nostalgic influence on Star Wars in the first place. Star Wars needed to get back to being Star Wars; not necessarily with the depth and grandeur of Tolkien, but rather back to the swashbuckling panache of the originals. To reclaim its rightful place in the general public’s affections, alongside the likes of Rings and Harry Potter. As director J.J . Abrams had helmed the last two Star Trek films, and invigorated that franchise, his choice as the new Star Wars director seemed a good portent.
Am I glad to see Star Wars back on the big screen? Yes, I am. But I ceased being a fan a long time ago, in the way I was when I was a kid or a teenager. The prequels admittedly sullied my memory and enjoyment of those originals. Now, with reports that this is perhaps the best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi, in 1983, the bar has been raised very high. The Force may be strong in this one, but can it defeat the memory of the inferior prequels? Disney didn’t pay $4bn for Lucasfilm so they can dwell on the past; of course they want new product. But as I’ve said, I hope these are strong new stories, worth telling. The film is currently delivering commercially, but I’ll tell you what I think of it later.
To paraphrase Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original film, “…they’re taking an awful risk here, this’d better work”.
I have a good feeling about this.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened at British cinemas on 18 December.