Star Wars and the Power of Nostalgia
Nostalgia is a very powerful force. It drives us, surrounds us, binds us. Wait. No. That's another force. Let's start again.
Nostalgia is a power that exists as romanticized remnants of our past, pieces of memories clinging passionately to our emotional reserves, controlling our dreams, wishes and the way we inhabit our present. Nostalgia can connect us to our ancestors in religious ritual or bring us to tears as we walk down the streets of our youth. It also can seduce us into a dangerous point of complacency and prevent us from moving forward. Nostalgia exists in the parts of our mind that remain slave to the heart, craving a dream-like innocence.
Philosopher Albert Camus said, "Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being."
It is this very human connection that can drive and influence the popularity and production of pop culture, even bringing music and fashion back into vogue after years of retirement. And, it is this power of nostalgia that has made Star Wars: The Force Awakens the mega hit that it is has become.
On Dec. 18, Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened to record box office sales after Disney, in typical fashion, created a fully-saturated, oppressive merchandise marketplace. From Star Wars Lego to Cover Girl's Dark Side Mascara, nothing was seemingly left untouched. The film's shadow became so big that even Santa Claus felt upstaged during his big day, as parents reported that their children were watching for flying Wookiees rather than reindeer.
The force certainly did awaken. And, to fully understand and appreciate why and how that happened, we need to go backward in time.
The Star Wars franchise began in 1977 with Star Wars: A New Hope. Filmmaker George Lucas grew up loving television, cars and comic books, and sought to recreate this joy in his films. This is particularly evident in his first big hit American Graffiti (1973), which celebrates 1950s youth culture. In fact, Star Wars, itself, was first produced as a comic book. That series was published by Marvel Entertainment beginning in early 1977 as a marketing tie-in for the upcoming Star Wars film. (Thompson and Bordwell, p. 524).
In their book Film History, historians Kirsten Thompson and David Bordwell wrote, "Star Wars offered chivalric myth for 1970s teens, a quest romance in which young heroes could find adventure, pure love and sacred cause." Later they add, "Lucas believed he was spinning a simple tale grounded in basic human values." Those values and that sacred cause were often labeled as "New Age." (Thompson and Bordwell, p. 523)
Star Wars: A New Hope was an attempt to revive something innocent and universal that had been lost when the Hollywood Production Code was finally dropped in 1968, and film subjects began to venture into more challenging realms in terms of violence, sexuality, and horror. Lucas, a film-savvy, young storyteller, was driven by a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era, the innocence of childhood and the purity of human experience.
The whole narrative, in fact, begins as an exercise in mythic nostalgia. "A long, long time ago..."
As Thompson and Bordwell remark, Lucas was trying "to recover [his] boyhood pleasure in movies" and "to recreate the uncomplicated fun of space opera." Even the visuals contained nostalgic elements. Thompson and Bordwell write:
In making Star Wars, Lucas pulled together the most exciting portions of several air battles from Hollywood combat pictures, storyboarded the compiled sequence, and then shot his space dogfights to match older footage. (Thompson and Bordwell, p. 523)
And the concept worked; the film's sensibility held great appeal. Since their release, the three original Star Wars episodes combined have grossed over 1 billion at the domestic box office. Nostalgia, in a way, put Star Wars on the pop culture map.
Nearly two decades later, the second set of films was released. The prequels generated excitement, and brought in 1.2 billion dollars to date. However, they were ultimately not nearly as popular. The three films were plagued with multiple, complicated plot twists, poor acting, and large amounts of exposition. And then, of course, there was Jar Jar Binks.
But more importantly for this discussion, a sense of belonging or a sense of nostalgia for a time long, long ago was not the focus or drive. Unlike the originals, which felt like an adventure that could end anywhere. The prequels had a goal. They had to answer one important question: How did Annakin become Darth Vader?
In the process of getting to that answer, the nostalgic romance woven into the original three films was buried. The prequels rush through their stories in short segments, cutting from sequence to sequence. The films are packed and detailed, containing interesting new characters and ships, epic battles scenes, and complicated politics. However, the stories rarely slow down long enough to let a character, or a viewer, breathe. Nobody stands poignantly in the sands of Tatooine, under in the light of three moons, contemplating the future.
Granted, these prequels were partially a product of their time. They were released in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and were competing for box office realty in a market that was drunk on CGI technology. Shots were shorter; scenes were cut faster, and computers were used at every turn. Lucas enjoyed this new technology and even remade his original films with updated CGI imagery - some of which worked, and some which didn't.
That being said, the three prequels served their purpose. Fans got the needed back story and were not left ungratified when, in the final scenes of Revenge of the Sith (2005), Darth Vader rises up in his full costume as smoke swirls around his head. "Lord Vader, Can you hear me?" asks the Emperor. And, in the voice of the recognizable James Earl Jones, Vader responds, "Yes, my master." Here, and in following end sequences, the prequels hit a moment of emotional nostalgia that sends a shuddered excitement down the spine. It took a lot of talking and fancy film transitions to get there; but we got there.
Jump forward to 2015, The Walt Disney Company now owns Lucas Films, Inc. and has promised a third trilogy, along with a few standalone stories. To date, The Star Wars: The Force Awakens has grossed $863,148,249 at the domestic box office, making it one of the top grossing films of all time. Interestingly, if you adjust for inflation, Star Wars: A New Hope is still at No. 1 according to some charts.[i]
So what was it that made the new film so palpable? The answer was expressed by one viewer's response, "When I saw the Millennium Falcon for the first time, my eyes leaked water."
Unlike the prequels, The Force Awakens capitalizes on the viewer's deep nostalgic connection to the franchise and its mythic universe. The production does this in both overt and subtle ways, creating a brilliant dance with its audience. Lucas himself used a similar concept with the original three, in that he was attempting to "recover his boyhood pleasures." However, The Force Awakens isn't working to connect viewers to the specific bygone cultural era of Lucas' childhood. The new film's "long, long time ago" is defined by the viewer's own experience with the first six films and the virginal joys of experiencing them.
The more overt nostalgic elements are found in scenic details and props, including the Millennium Falcon, the blasters, the Skywalker light saber, and the derelict ships laying in the sands of Jakku. It also is found in the presence of characters like C-3PO and R2-D2, Han Solo, Princess Leia and, of course, Luke Skywalker. The story methodically introduces these beloved figures throughout the narrative so as not to lump all the nostalgic candy into one place. In the opening we meet storm troopers and then Han Solo and Chewbacca. As the story plays out, we are reintroduced to C-3PO and Princess Leia and then finally, at the very end, R2-D2 and Luke. It's a nice steady nostalgic drip.
And the movie enjoys these movements, slowing down the pace of action to savor each introduction, which allows fans to drink deep from the cup of their own Star Wars memories.
But the film did not stop its "walk down memory lane" with props, sets and characters. The narrative itself frequently rehashes portions of the past six films. Just as Lucas was said to have compiled fight sequences from old combat pictures, The Force Awakens seems to be compiled from pieces of the older Star Wars films.
"I've got a bad feeling about this."[ii]
Many of the major moments were adaptations from the older films. For example, when Rey is standing with Maz Kanata after discovering the light saber, Maz explains the power of the force. "It flows through us and binds us... " Time slows down and the shots go back and forth between close-ups of the small nonhuman creature and the young adult. It parallels the scene from The Empire Strikes Back (1980) in which Yoda explains the same mystical premise to Luke. Interestingly, in this case, the two figures are female with a crone passing on wisdom to a maiden. But that's another discussion.
The sequence is familiar, despite the gender difference.
Many other similar parallels exist. For example, the destruction of the Starkiller Base is reminiscent of the Death Star's destruction in A New Hope. In both cases, the precision flying of X-Wings and B-Wings is needed to hit the target. Another example? At the beginning of the The Force Awakens, a determined little BB-8 droid, carrying an important resistance message, rolls across a desert planet in search of its owner. This is similar to R2-D2's quest at the beginning of A New Hope.
Another one? In the final battle, Kylo Ren is left for dead after a light saber battle, as the land surges from inside and breaks apart. At the last moment, his master arrives just in time to save his student and transport him to safety. We've seen this in Return of the Sith.
And it goes on from major sequences, like those above, to minor moments, such as the Imperial ships passing in front of a planet or Han asking if the Starkiller base has a trash compactor. Even the unstable characterization of Kylo Ren is based on a misguided nostalgic-like yearning for his grandfather's dark glory. The movie winks, nods, and treats the viewer like an in-the-know guest at an exclusive party.
A striking thematic example of this nostalgic-based adaptation happens during Hans death scene. During his mission on the StarKiller Base, Han confronts Kylo Ren. Chewie, Finn and Rey notice this confrontation from across a room that is defined by a constructed metal space. Rey, unable to get to them, must watch Kylo Ren kill Han. The scene parallels the one in which Luke watches Darth Vader kill Obi Wan in the Death Star or the scene in which Obi Wan watches Darth Maul kill Qui-Gon Jinn on Naboo. In all three cases, the child witnesses the surrogate father's murder. This is a thematic element often present in the typical male coming-of-age story, and is paralleled visually and narratively in the stories of these pre-Jedi heroes (Luke, Obi Wan, Rey).[iii]
The narrative and thematic parallels, along with the presentation of familiar elements, create a film that is comfortable and feels like a big high-five. Of course, it probably isn't surprising that one of the members of the film's writing team was Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on both the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
While the film banked on this nostalgia (and was handsomely paid out for doing so), there were certainly some new elements. The Nazi references were far more pronounced than in the past, with the First Order's speech scene eerily similar to images from Leni Reinfenstahl's 1935 propaganda film Triumph of the Will and other images from the Nuremberg Rallies. And, the introduction of the silver female Storm Trooper, Captain Phasma, recalls the robot in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Those two particular notes are also nods to the past, if not nostalgic in the purest sense.
Race and gender are newly treated. The film's two main characters are Finn, a black man who manages to escape his Storm Trooper enslavement, and Rey, a white woman who was languishing on a sandy planet waiting for her family.[iv] While the two seem to be developing a romantic interest, it never plays out. However, near the end, Finn lies unconscious on a platform. Rey leans over to kiss him. We are momentarily caught in what looks like a Snow White story, in which Finn could wake up from "love's true kiss." Hey, this is a Disney movie, isn't it?
Well, that never manifested. But R2-D2 does wake up, and "water leaked from our eyes."
Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been criticized for being a "mediocre" movie with little redeeming cultural value. However, the value of any cultural product is always subjective. Are its elements a rehash of what's been done? Yes. It rides solidly on the waves nostalgia, manipulating our love of Star Wars for its own applause. The film is charlatan, in that way. And its methods are cheap.
But like an 8 mm home movie, The Force Awakens is only worthless if you don't allow it to take you on that journey back in time - to your childhood attempt to use mind control on a teacher or "force" choke the annoying kid popping bubbles on the bus. The film takes us back to a time when we first saw the Star Wars crawl and heard the theme song with eager anticipation of going on its mythical journey. Is there no cultural meaning or value in that?
If there wasn't, the kodak moment wouldn't be a thing and wedding videographers would be out of business.
Nostalgia is a force. It drive us. It surrounds us. It binds us. It is a romantic force that connects mind to heart, allowing us to find peace and meaning in our present through our memories. It is the creator of stories that become legend and myth. And, at the same time, it fuels the continued recycling of pop culture through remakes, adaptations, and reboots. X-Files, anyone? Nostalgia was the driving force behind the birth of the very first Star Wars trilogy beginning in 1977, and that very force awoke in 2015 to create a new one.
As they say: May "the Force" Be With You.
[i] Inflation adjustments are typically based on tickets sold. In some adjusted charts, Gone With the Wind (1939) still ranks at the top.
[ii] This is phrase said in every Star Wars movie, which can be used as a nice seek-and-find game for the uninitiated Star Wars fan.
[iii] The film operates with a male coming of age structure despite the presence of Rey. The narrative resists converting into a traditional female coming of age story. While this is an interesting point, it is beyond the discussion of this particular essay.
[iv] Race and gender politics within the Star Wars franchise offer another important point of discussion, however they are also beyond this article's subject matter. The choices made in The Force Awakens are certainly worth noting and observing as they play out in the next two films of the new trilogy.
Book Sources: Thompson, Kirsten and Bordwell, David. Film History. McGraw Hill: New York. 2003.