Star Wars Fans Know Nostalgia Well. It’s Time to Build a Future – WIRED


It’s time the Star Wars franchise hyperspace jumped into the future.

Lucasfilm Ltd.

The warning isright there on the label: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. That’s how Jedi say “once upon a time;” whenStar Warscame out in 1977, those luminous blue words signified that audiences were about to see a bit of a throwback, hearkening to 1930s adventure serials, pulp fiction, Westerns, and samurai movies. It wasn’t just style. The plot of that firstStar Warsmovie was turbid with nostalgia—Ben Kenobi had fought in something reverentially called the Clone Wars. The lightsaber was an elegant weapon from a more civilized age. All the tech was broken, beat up. Things in the galaxy used to be better.

Nostalgia has animated the spirit of Star Wars movies (and books and cartoons and Lego sets and videogames and and and) for four decades. Now it might end the whole trip. Star Wars remembers its past so well that it may have forgotten to build a future.

Because of a linguistic quirk—barely a pun (and my standards are low)—May 4 is an unofficial Star Wars Day. May the Fourth Be With You! I’vearguedthat the ironic (or at least self-conscious) silliness behind that shtick belies something more serious. A belief system is emerging here, if you dig around for it. Nearly five years ago, whenStar Wars: The Force Awakenscame out, I wrote that Star Wars had become aforever franchise, a full-fledged parallel universe with the potential to expand backward, forward, and sideways. Now, though, with plans for future moviesstill uncertainand the newDisney+ Star Wars seriesset well before the latest trilogy, I’m thinking maybe I was wrong. Put it this way: Can you imagine a Star Wars movie set in the timelineafterthe upcoming Episode IX,The Rise of Skywalker?

I can do it for Marvel. Even after the finality ofAvengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Universe looks ready to move on to something new. Comics have long been good at that, anyway—the trick of anillusion of change, ofneverending second acts. Star Wars, though?The Last Jeditried to put away the black masks, the spectral space wizards, the hot Jedi-on-Sith action. Fans, some of them, pushed back. They wanted to feel the way they felt in 1977. Episode IX looks like it wants to be a counter-revolution.

It’s a toss-up as to which ongoing story universe galvanizes the most toxic strain of revanchism. Most fandoms are mostly great, to be clear. But the DC movies have a Manichean Übermenschen audience segment that insists anyone with power would obviously run right out and kill people. Marvel’s adherents include relentless foes of diversity. And Star Wars has its Grand High Inquisitors, rooting out any hint of what they perceive as invidious Mary Sue-ism wherever it pokes a poorly fabricated eyeball above the waterline.

People read in those conflicts exactly what you’d predict from their priors. Anyone from Democratic Socialists to white nationalists can see themselves in the Rebellion, and their opponents as an evil Empire.

Star Wars fandom, though, has started to seemextra special. The most noxious elements find support in its source texts. As Dan Golding lays out in his new bookStar Wars After Lucas, nostalgia is at the core of Star Wars’ appeal, but nostalgia for what, exactly, is hard to suss out. One of the hallmarks of politics in the galaxy far, far away is how murky it is. The politics are politics-free. Jedi fight for justice. A Senate did … things? An Emperor runs a militarized state that is Bad, and there’s a scrappy band of Rebels who are Good. The Imperial fleet fields things called Death Stars that blow up planets. But really, it’s only the back alleys of the canon that explain what’s so dark about the Dark Side. The cartoonStar Wars: Rebelsdepicts the Empire stealing planetary resources to support its war machine. InRogue Onethe Empire nukes a city.Soloportrays apparently pointless, sadistic Imperial warmaking;Last Jediintroduces the galaxy’s one-percenter profiteer class. But those are all new.

People read in those conflicts exactly what you’d predict from their priors. Anyone from Democratic Socialists to white nationalists can see themselves in the Rebellion, and their opponents as an evil Empire.

That’s why thepolitics of nostalgiaare so pernicious. To a certain chunk of society, the old days seem great. But that version of reality almost certainly isn’t true, and it definitely wasn’t great for everyone.Star Warswasn’t even writer-director George Lucas’ first drag race down memory lane; his first popular film,American Graffiti, revisited a seemingly simpler 1950s (muchsimpler if you were white, male, straight, middle-class, etc.) when many of his contemporaries were using movies to deconstruct the relatively complicated 1970s. The First Order and the Resistance both have the same pitch:Make the Galaxy Great Again.

In some ways, this sentimentality play is also a basic value proposition of Disney, Star Wars’ owner. The company does a brisk business in fairy tales, “traditional” family entertainment, and lately big-ticket live-action (or photorealistic, at least) remakes of popular cartoons from the back catalog. The promise of Star Wars, of Disney overall, is Good Old Days, newly rendered with state-of-the-art VFX. Sepia tones and golden lighting have never looked better.

BeforeForce Awakenscame out, I asked Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy about this. “In many respects our biggest challenge was, how do we make this feel contemporary and new, and yet respectful of what came before,” she said. “It’s like going to see a band you really love. You want to hear their new stuff, but you’d be disappointed if they didn’t play any of the old songs.”

“So the hits bring them in?” I asked.

“And then you move into the new stuff, and if it’s really, really good, you’re feeling pretty excited that you got to hear it,” Kennedy said.

That makes sense. Star Wars stories have delved into some new corners of that universe, and there’s value (especially on the weekend Peter Mayhew, the original Chewbacca, dies) in remembering fondly a few decades of Star Wars.

But it also feels like the band I love is stuck releasing remastered classics. Every “new” Star Wars story strip-mines the instants between old stories. The new season of the (excellent) cartoonClone Warswill take place, I guess, betweenAttack of the Clonesand the (also excellent) cartoonStar Wars: Rebels. The new live-action showThe Mandalorianlooks pretty cool, and takes place afterReturn of the Jedibut beforeForce Awakens. Time is closing in like the walls of a trash compactor. Episode IX—which promises,in its trailer, wistful gazes at the medal Princess Leia gave Luke and Han inNew Hope, the wreckage of a Death Star, and possibly a revived Emperor Palpatine—looks like the end of days. Clouded, the future is.

So let’s observe this May Fourth by considering not only the past but also the future. Face forward, True Believers! No more origin stories. No more walking the old path. Demand, instead, progress, forward motion, and a look at the wider universe. The story only ends if we let it.

The Old Days never leave us; they hover, blue-ghost-like, at the edges of our vision. But new characters bring new life to the stories we love. No one will ever recreate the feeling of sitting on their parent’s lap in the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, watchingA New Hopein the summer of ’77. They don’t need to. That feeling doesn’t go away when the story that inspired it maps new terrain. I promise you: We can feel evenbetter.


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