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'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Is the Last Great Monument of the Baby Boomers

The latest installment in the Star Wars franchise is more than just a movie, it's a nostalgia trip meant to be consumed by generations of fans primed to love it. But what about the non-fans?
December 22, 2015, 5:30pm

Illustration by Meaghan Garvey

I've spent the better part of 20 years being alienated by Star Wars. I don't say that out loud, of course. I mostly keep it to myself. My Skywalker aversion isn't borne out of some pretentious stand against escapist fiction, or bone-deep hatred of the movies. It's just a sense that I missed out. This series makes people feel things. It helps them find their sense of wonder. It transports them. They're having fun. It'd be nice to join them.

As a kid, I constantly made an effort to do this—since I couldn't grasp football, it seemed culturally expected of me to like Star Wars. I felt obligated to pretend. I asked for the toys at Christmas. I saw the movies with friends and relatives, over and over and over, and quoted lines, and had favorite scenes and characters, and generally whooped and hollered to get in on that warm communal experience everybody else in the world seemed to be having. But I felt nothing. I couldn't do it. And I was ashamed of myself. Part of the American character was in these movies, a universally agreed-upon definition of fun, and I was looking at it through a foggy window.

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Maybe it was a problem of demographics. I was raised by a Gen X-er and babysat by two grandparents born on the cusp of WWII. I missed the whole boomer experience. I barely even had secondhand exposure to it. And the original Star Wars trilogy is decidedly a baby-boomer creation. That galaxy far far away has easily grokkable reference points for a generation who had internalized the B-movies, the Saturday afternoon serials, the kitschy old sci-fi stories about brave journeys in space. They deeply shared the movie's vocabulary, to the point that it was almost like they were seeing their own childhoods projected on the screen. The movies were essentially the high-concept science fiction of Lucas's THX 1138, combined with the headrush of nostalgia offered by American Graffiti.

That helped make it an instantly revered object: a classic, trope-packed adventure story with awe-inspiring special effects. And it came out in 1977, when someone born in 1959 was at that age where your brain expects life-defining moments to happen. That's what made it an event, a cultural touchstone that defied all your criticism. Look over here, at how much fun we're having. This is how we run away from all the world's problems.

It's more than a movie and it's more than pop culture. It's part of America. It's one of our exports. People know about Star Wars who don't watch movies or own televisions or participate in the culture at all. And that's what's fascinating about the series even if you're totally alienated by it. Monoculture events are a boomer thing. They were propelled by a homogenous population and a homogenous media.

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In 1977 you could get the whole country's attention. But the internet has compartmentalized culture and turned it into a bottomless rabbit hole of niches. You can't count on anybody having a similar cultural background. So there aren't many boomer monoculture events like Star Wars left. After The Force Awakens, and boomers start to hit that age when people start to die for no reason, those events will mostly be eulogies for boomer icons. Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, they'll all die, it'll seem to happen all at once. There will be stragglers—Chevy Chase will live to be 109 somehow, just to punish us—but mostly they'll be off the radar in 20 years.

That's how I approach The Force Awakens. That's how I make myself interested in it. It might be the last great hurrah of boomer nostalgia. And long term, way long term, a thousand years long term, it's one of the only relics of 20th-century culture that will actually survive. (And it will survive for a long time; after next year's Rogue One the plan is to come out with a new Star Wars film every year until people get tired of it.)

So if you're on the outside of one of our last cultural behemoths, just trying not to be a buzzkill, applauding to be nice, looking for something to hold on to, will you find anything at The Force Awakens?

Let me put in this way: Watching this movie is like going to an outdoor festival and wandering by a classic rock act you're not there to see. You scan the audience a little, you soak in the ambiance. You won't see Cheap Trick again, but you still appreciate that this is a rare experience. You fidget for a few songs. Then they play "Surrender," and you find goosebumps going up and down your arms despite your best efforts.

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The Force Awakens is two hours of J.J. Abrams trying to make a whole Cheap Trick concert out of that "Surrender" moment. It's an undeniable thrill seeing Harrison Ford arrive on screen. Experiencing all the old iconography deployed with such enormity and elegance is objectively wonderful. The joy is all in nostalgic recognition: Here's something I recognize, and there's something else I recognize, and look how well they're doing it, and they're self-aware about all of it, isn't that nice? I never thought all these people would live long enough to be here now. It all seems so important all of a sudden. The crowd is into it, that song doesn't really wear thin, and the whole thing is pure validation.

Abrams is damn good at this. He's taken not just a sentimental object, or even a sentimental song, but a whole sentimental universe, and largely managed to avoid pissing anybody off. There were a thousand ways to drive this movie off a bridge, and he's managed to avoid each one.

But how did he do it? He did it by having all the personality of a market research analyst. The Force Awakens plays like it was made by a thousand focus groups that were all asked what their dream sequel to Return of the Jedi would be. It's callback after callback after callback in the service of what adds up to a remake of A New Hope.

As fun as that is, it's just nostalgia in a shiny studio production package. There is not one idiosyncratic moment to be found in it, and it's so busy not letting anybody down that it never pauses to breathe. It's always moving. And so it lacks the rickety humanity of the movies that came before. The Force Awakens succeeds in hitting all the marks everyone wants it to hit, in the right sequence. But in hitting those marks, it becomes merely an incredible facsimile of Star Wars, one far more accurate than anything Lucas could make.

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The problem is that it's overly reverential. In pursuit of making a Star Wars film that will be instantly canonized instead of chewed up and thrown away like the last three, Abrams depends wholly on previously established beats. In any given action scene, if you replace John Williams's score with different music, and the lightsabers and X-wings with different weapons, you'd be left with a boilerplate sci-fi battle.

That's not to say I didn't have a nice time at the theater. There were tons of little kids applauding when they saw the characters they recognized. People left grinning ear to ear. I saw 50 year-old men with tears in their eyes. They had all escaped reality, which is what Star Wars is for. People got to be kids again. It's nice to see so much of a country shut up and go to the carnival at the same time.

I don't really share in that nostalgia. The ship sailed on me feeling the way others feel. I don't have the luxury of getting attached. And this movie is so desperate to make the Star Wars of an idealized childhood memory that it feels like it's managing the Star Wars estate instead of creating something new. In the process, it traps the original series in amber.

On the way home I kept thinking of the difference between the prequels and the sequel. The prequels were Paul McCartney losing his mind and making "Temporary Secretary." It was a failure, but it was an authentic failure all his own, and that's kind of wonderful. The Force Awakens felt like Jeff Lynne producing the 1996 Beatles song "Real Love." All the Beatles were on it (John Lennon from beyond the grave), and great care was taken to ensure it had every single thing a Beatles song should have. But the performative aspect of its creation takes something away from it—it had nothing to say, and no identity of its own.

That's what the next two Star Wars directors would be well served to avoid. They need to run away from the suffocating burden of legacy and create something that holds up under its own weight. But the odds will be against them: It's so much easier to shut up and play the hits.

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