Entertainment

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Is the Nostalgia Bomb You've Been Waiting For

The newest Star Wars movie channels America's deepest longings and updates them with characters who look more like us.

by David Perry
Dec 18 2015, 1:06pm

All photos courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Originality is overrated. The entire history of Western literature depends on great authors adapting well-known plots, characters, and scenarios into stories at once comfortable and new. Today, we might call that fan fiction, if done by amateurs, and perhaps adaptation, when published by pros. But "fan fiction," taken expansively, should be a badge authors can wear with pride. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Boccaccio, and everyone who ever wrote about King Arthur all made their mark by taking stories their readers already knew, and tweaking them to make them more relevant, aesthetically innovative, or otherwise newly interesting. A good piece of fan fiction evokes both nostalgia for the story you already know, while taking you to place you've never been.

As a two-year-long blitz of nostalgia-based marketing for Star Wars: The Force Awakens finally reaches the end, it's time to ask—has American pop culture reached peak fan-fictionalization? Over the weekend, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Yers, and millennials alike, will all be heading to the theater hoping to recapture a lost experience of childlike wonder. Most of us weren't even going to the movies in 1977 (I was five. More on that in a minute), but still, somehow, we imagine that Star Wars has a kind of meaning for us that probably no other movie franchise could have. The marketing campaign for the film fed on that nostalgia for an imaginary past; and it worked.

As I waited for popcorn last night at a suburban Chicagoland theater, neither the young men clad in Stormtrooper onesies nor the teenagers practically vibrating with excitement as they babbled about how Star Wars episode IV was the coolest thing ever, had been alive when the first three movies came out. Still, they came to the theater, nostalgic and hoping for something that might speak to them.

Comics and superhero movies have always operated like this, updating and reimagining as the decades spill by, changing character's races, pasts, and romantic entanglements as needed. In 2015, though, I've been struck by the way the blockbuster science-fiction movies (and other retro dramas like Creed) have adopted the fan-fiction playbook. Invoke nostalgia, then add a twist to grab a new audience. Take a beloved, or at least familiar, set of tropes, stories, characters, and scenarios, then say what if? What if the hero looked like me? What if the good guys fought each other? What if the bad guys and good guys teamed up? What if the sexual dynamics changed? Fan fiction spurs innovation, plausible or implausible, that reflects the interests of contemporary authors and audience as they play with the cultural products of the past. When Han Solo looks into the camera and says that all the legends are true, he sets us on our way through the power of nostalgia, but these new movies only succeed if they take us somewhere we haven't been.

Harrison Ford's reappearance as Han Solo caused moviegoers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to clap and cheer. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Picture

The other two big sci-fi hits of 2015, in their own ways, follow the same pattern. Mad Max: Fury Road grabs nostalgia with its car chases and funky costumes, but makes Imperator Furiosa, a disabled woman, the true hero and center of the film, rather than focusing on Max Rockatansky. Max is the point-of-view character, instead, who helps us witness Furiosa's greatness. Both gender swapping and the diverting of emphasis from the titular character to a more interesting side character are both common fan fiction approaches. At the same time, the movie isn't too newfangled. Every car was real, not CGI . People did real, dangerous, stunts. The storyline is incredibly simple—the heroes go from point A to point B, to point A again. And yet, the movie was breathtaking, arguably the most exciting blockbuster of the year.

Jurassic World went the other way, alas. I can imagine the writers' meeting in which a bunch of people who loved the franchise proposed their own fan-fiction twist—wouldn't it be cool to make a movie just like Jurassic Park, but this time the heroes get to fight alongside the Velociraptors? That was actually pretty cool. Unfortunately, while Jurassic Park was indeed innovative about gender—Dr. Ellie Sattler was smart, tough, and wore stomping bootsJurassic World embraced its inner bro. Chris Pratt, fresh off his Star-Lord adventures, got to play cool, brash, sexist, and always right. He was paired with the disastrous Claire in her white clothes, high heels, and her penchant to lie on the ground as the big battle raged. The movie invoked nostalgia with little winks at the audience—the discovery of the old park and its Jeeps, a techie in a "throwback" Jurassic Park T-shirt, and other moments where it broke the fourth wall, reminding us all that we were watching a film. Such winks may get laughs (I laughed at the T-shirt), but it ruins the spectacle. It reminds us that the monsters are computer-generated. The fan-fictionalization of the Jurassic Park series resulted in a shallow, callow, film.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens does much better. Despite early criticisms of the film for just being a rehash of Episode IV, and yes, scene after scene deliberately parallels the first Star Wars in unsubtle ways, the difference matters. Not the plot—the new movie takes place 20 years after the death of the Emperor, but a new galaxy-spanning fascist force, the First Order, has risen to take its place and challenge the new Republic and the Resistance—but who gets to enact those throwback scenes. Our heroes have changed. We're led into the action by a fierce female scavenger named Rey and a black ex-Stormtrooper.

John Boyega, as Finn the former Stormtrooper, is great, but this movie belongs to Rey (Daisy Ridley), and it's about time. Princess/General Leia was and is awesome, but she never got to do much of the fun stuff—fly the Millennium Falcon, fight the big bad guy, or have the plot center around her character development. Without revealing too much, while Episodes IV–VI were Luke's bildungsroman (and the first three were Anakin's, with the tragic fall prefigured), this next set of movies belongs to Rey. Representation matters. Fan-fictionalization places these new heroes in a familiar set of stories and environments, then lets the newness hold our attention.

I saw the first Star Wars as a child. I was four when the movie came out in 1977. I saw it in the theater the next year, around the same time I saw the first Superman movie. I was living in Bloomington, Indiana, then quite a small town, with a big half-wooded backyard that had everything I needed—a dry stream bed, a bridge, and a clubhouse. Down the road, my friend had a pond and a real stream, as well as more acreage. Sticks could become lightsabers, the dry bed the rough planet Tatooine, trees an X-wing, and the clubhouse my Millennium Falcon. In kindergarten, we'd pool our action figures and build giant Death Stars out of blocks, seamlessly transitioning in and out of arguments and massive collaborative enterprises of collective fantasy. I recall those years now through the haze of nostalgia. I know I can't return to that state; I know I probably wouldn't want to. But I yearn. Every time the John Williams fanfare blares, even when watching those terrible prequels, I'm instantly ready to return to those days.

In the introduction to The Future of Nostalgia, cultural critic Svetlana Boym explores the history of "nostalgia." It was coined in 1688 as a medical term that described a disease of "afflicted imagination," one so severe that it could incapacitate the body, rendering a person useless to society. By 1800 or so, though, proponents of Romanticism had adopted the concept to describe something more benign, yet equally complex. Nostalgia, for the Romantics, criticized the present while using the past to describe what a better world might look like some day in the future. Nostalgia positions the present as lost in a dissatisfied middle. Reacting to the ruthlessly scientific principles of the Enlightenment and the changing world of the Industrial Revolution, romantic thinkers mourned "for the impossibility of a mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; [nostalgia] could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the edenic unity of time and space before entry into history." In other words, "once upon a time" or even "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens today in theaters nationwide.