Even before returning to our screens with The Force Awakens in 2015, Star Wars was an inescapable phenomenon. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hadn’t heard the name Luke Skywalker, and “Star Wars vs. Star Trek” was (and still is) the bread-and-butter of any sci-fi nerd debate.
Star Wars invented lightsabers and death stars, Princess Leia’s iconic hairstyle and Yoda’s green ears, Chewbacca’s roar and Darth Vader’s wheeze, and it’s firmly woven itself into the popular culture. Even when Star Wars films weren’t being released on a yearly basis, you would see kids dressed up as Darth Vader or Yoda for Halloween, and it’s the kind of film fans re-watch throughout their life, from childhood to adulthood. It’s the source of many a hotly debated topic – “wait, you actually like the prequels?!”, “Who shot first?”, “Does Han know that parsecs are a unit of distance and not time?”.
Being so pervasive in popular culture, Star Wars has become incredibly familiar. We all know the sound of a lightsaber when we hear it (check out this blog for a more “detailed analysis” of the various tones of the weapon); we know about the Force and the Dark Side, and we’ve seen many an epic battle between the X-Wings and the TIE fighters.
These are the things that make Star Wars what it is, but in some ways, this familiarity is what’s holding Star Wars back.
One of the most exciting things about science fiction is that it introduces new technology, lifeforms, and concepts that we don’t see in the world around us. It transports us to a future where humans have spread across galaxies and encountered new life, and where good battles evil against the backdrop of the stars. It shows us something new and unusual, and if it’s really good, it blows our minds a little and makes us wonder how someone imagined something so futuristic and far-fetched.
And I think this is where, when I watched The Last Jedi, I could see Star Wars slipping up. Rather than feeling like we’re watching something new and innovative, the fact that the narrative, setting and technology are so heavily ingrained into popular culture means that we get the feeling we’ve seen it all before.
The Force Awakens was a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed, and which was accompanied by a hefty helping of nostalgia. There was something special about seeing that opening crawl on a big screen, and seeing Leia, and Han and Chewie again. And I think that this feeling of nostalgia, mixed with the small tweaks the writers made to the classic Star Wars narrative, the conscious efforts they made towards diversity, are what made this film so well received.
Making a whole series of films like this, however, is harder. The Last Jedi, in my opinion, was good, but certainly not great. It was enjoyable and there were some good aspects, but it wasn’t groundbreaking. Now that the nostalgia of seeing Star Wars on the big screen again has worn off, we’re left part-way through a story that feels and looks awfully familiar. The reason I think Rogue One was so interesting is because it re-invented Star Wars a little. In fact, with almost no lightsabers to be seen, and a darker feel to usual, it barely felt like a Star Wars film at all.
So it is possible to create a Star Wars film that makes it feel new again, but at the expense of some of the Star Wars identity. If these movies are to be true to Star Wars, they’re going to follow familiar themes and feature familiar technologies, crafts, and dilemmas. Star Wars has such a strong brand, that anyone trying to re-imagine it has very little room to maneuver.
While nostalgia can make fans happy for a while, unfortunately it’s not enough to make a film great. For that, a film to do something new – which is easier said than done with an established franchise like Star Wars.
We can’t swap out lightsabers for some new weapon (lighthammers? Lightaxes? Lightmaces?), or cut out the space battles in favour of diplomatic debates. And as much as we can see some small changes that make The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi a little different to their predecessors, these may never be novel enough to match the same hype that we feel around The Empire Strikes Back. It can probably never be quite like that first time.
I’m not saying that the new Star Wars films are bad, or that they’re not worth making. I’m so glad that we’re seeing a more diverse, more socially conscious Star Wars, and I’m glad that the movies are being brought to a new audience. I love the characters of Rey and Finn, and I still get a thrill when I see that opening crawl. But I am saying that as someone who became a fan of Star Wars for the original series, I can’t expect to experience the same level of excitement and novelty again.
But maybe someone else will. Maybe there are people out there who are too young to have seen the original movies, or who just never connected with them before now, and they’re out there experiencing the excitement of Star Wars for the first time. Maybe there are people out there who are feeling unrivaled excitement because now, there’s a Star Wars character who looks more like they do.
So, who am I to complain? I might not feel like we need a Marvel universe-esque barrage of new Star Wars films, and I might prefer The Empire Strikes Back, but the world doesn’t need any more bitter fans. So maybe I should let go of my complaints that Star Wars can never be the same again, and that “the original trilogy was better” (and I’m sure we all remember that the originals were never by any means perfect), and just sit back and enjoy the films for what they are.