To say that Star Wars has become a religion of sorts is an understatement. No movie franchise has galvanized this much decades-spanning hero worship, attention, geekery, and dare I say it, pontification than its filmography and expanded universe.
Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers had a field day in the ‘80s with the tragic father and son fallout between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader (“I am your father!”). Later on, a prequel was instated, targeting the techie generation — glossier, CGI-infested and hard-edged, bent on demystifying what fans had come to know about the Star Wars mythos. How the Empire was formed. How Darth Vader turned to the dark side. The beginnings of the Force. And this annoying little cretin called Jar Jar Binks.
While the prequel excited a new generation (I remember the thunder and bluster of The Phantom Menace’s New York premiere), it exacerbated an older one, eliciting mixed if not negative reactions from long-time fans; what Ross Douthat from The New York Times calls “a trade war tedium… whose existence [we] intend to conceal from [our] children for as long as possible.”
Thankfully, Star Wars: The Force Awakens awakens new promise for a new “future of the past.” In the hands of J.J. Abrams, the franchise aims to return to its roots, rectifying those carcinogenic red herrings that ran amok in the prequel. The director, who is also the visionary behind the TV series Lost, posits a restoration of real, tactile environments, tighter and more fleshed-out narratives, and characters not generated by green screen. Where Lucas 2.0 got carried away like a kid in the Apple Store, Abrams 1.0 promises post-acceptance and some degree of restraint.
“Even in the beginning,” shares production designer Rick Carter in Time magazine, “J.J. would say ‘I don’t want it to be like the prequels, because I don’t want it to be all cluttered and about senate embargos and all sorts of middle-aged kinds of concerns.’” It’s not so much ageism on Abrams’ part, or an assault on Lucas’ handiwork; rather, it’s a fan embracing the essence of Lucas 1.0, a sort of little dog that could, while having to mature and hold his own against a generation constantly stimulated by a new, new gold standard. Think Lord of the Rings, The Avengers movie franchise, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Now, I am not downplaying Lucas; nor the extent to which the franchise turns to its mythos as its trans-generational gasoline — the relationships, the rivalries, even the romances that form against the backdrop of insurgency and civil unrest in a galaxy far, far away. The trailer alone lets whispers do the screaming. “There are stories about what happened,” says Rey in a voice over to which an aged Han Solo replies, “It’s true. All of it.” But part of its mystique and irreverence, too, lies in the politics that bubble beneath its surface — that is, if the subject is treated with judiciousness and restraint. At its core, politics is the Sturm und Drang propelling each new chapter — an intensified review of the individual(s) vis-à-vis the state. (You can see it in the opening crawl, which always outlines the political struggle at hand.)
It’s easy to make comparisons between Star Wars and the olden days of Rome in which an old republic suffers from political unrest. Amid the rubble, someone like an Emperor/Senator Palpatine can manipulate an unassuming idealist like Senator/Queen Amidala to jumpstart a new world order, worsened by the lethargy of a rotten bureaucracy — an occurrence that can’t be reconciled with voracious attempts by separatists for conflict resolution. Thus the forming of a rebel alliance, which drives the original trilogy.
On whether the newest crop of Star Wars films will portray the galactic politics in more detail and depth than the previous trilogies, Douthat says, “Perhaps a strong political element would be welcome, but it should be a politics well-suited to a world being depicted in the way that George R. R. Martin’s feuding houses are suited to Westeros.” Like dragons and white walkers, it’s the kind of politics that’s never in your face, but gnashing along in the background.
So what exactly is “well-suited politics” for the Star Wars mythos? Certainly not what Star Wars fans and J.J. Abrams himself lamented about in the prequel. Clunky storytelling. Trade embargos. Jar Jar Binks. Etc. The way I see it — and perhaps the many who lean on the side of authenticity rather than synthetic idealism see it — is a “well-suited politics” that relies on the purity of visual-cum-narrative and the restoration of a simple johakyu (or beginning-middle-end). A Star Wars hinged on ambivalent yet always idealistic abstractions rather than the political nuts and bolts of institutional decay.
Douthat continues, “Give me First Citizen Leia Solo’s difficult relationship with her resentful, ambitious daughter; give me an ex-lover’s conflict between Leia and Han. Tell me who has power, in other words, and how they intend to keep it, and who wants to take it (back). The rest of politics, the advanced aspects, (the technocracy) belong in another story, another galaxy, and a different genre altogether.” Think of Star Wars as a multilateral agreement between several parties, all wanting one thing — justice. And another thing: fun (which George Lucas seemingly forgot in the prequels).
On the flipside, Lev Grossman in Time magazine writes, “It’s entirely possible to read Star Wars as a movie about white men fighting to regain their rightful position as rulers of the universe.” Let’s not forget the strides that feminism and racism has taken in their subjects’ emancipation from servility and being relegated to the sidelines. Recall the flesh outline that Princess Leia was once subjected to by donning that gold bikini and buns on her head. Now, we see a fully clothed Gwendoline Christie as Phasma, Star Wars’ first female villain who bears the weight of her convictions, rather than baring a fantasy figure for a dominantly male audience.
The challenge of Star Wars for a new generation is not so much reinvention but restoration (which galvanizes even the young). Where everything’s become moot and academic, and everyone’s seen everything, a little subtlety and good ol’ fashioned storytelling can go a long way. “Just let it in,” ends the trailer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. See? There’s even wisdom there.