“I feel the conflict within you.” – Luke Skywalker
Spoilers for The Force Awakens to follow.
The Star Wars saga is nothing if not the persistent struggle between the Light and Dark, good and evil, right and wrong. These are notions we can all relate to, which we all know is part of why Star Wars is such a phenomenon. But watching The Force Awakens, I was confronted with a new conflict: my needs/wants as a fan and my rejection of fan ownership.
I’ve long fought against the notion that any property or character ever “belongs” to the fans, but never more so than Star Wars. A while back, when the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney happened, I wrote this “thank you” letter to George Lucas for IGN:
“I’ve often read of your desire to achieve financial independence to retire and focus on other things, including experimental films, and I just want to say that I’m enormously happy that everything you’ve worked for – everything that Star Wars has afforded you – has finally arrived.
I work on the Internet, which I’m sure you know hasn’t always been home to the nicest of ‘fans.’ They often forget that the only reason they’re so passionate about Star Wars in the first place is because of what you accomplished. But I want you to know that your unwavering vision for Star Wars and your resistance to let the fans take ownership of it has reminded me that art, no matter how commercially viable or successful, always, always, always goes back to the creator’s vision. It is a practice that I’ve taken great pride in trying to bring to any work I do, whether it be fiction or otherwise.”
It goes back to something my dad said when I was a teenager that has never left me: we were in the car, listening to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged, and there’s a moment in “Pennyroyal Tea” where Kurt Cobain mixes up lyrics and instead of saying the line “Sit and drink pennyroyal tea,” he flips it with the following line (“I’m anemic royalty”) and winds up with a mash-up of both: “I’m anem-ennyroyal tea.”
I remember chuckling and, being a thirteen year old that wanted to prove how invested and observant I was, pointed this moment out to my father, saying that Kurt messed up. What he said in response will never leave me: “How can he screw it up when he’s the one that wrote the song?”
And that’s the mentality I’ve held ever since, particularly when it comes to Star Wars. I’ve always defended the Special Editions, for example, not because I personally think all of the changes are great, but because it’s the creator that’s making them. It’s his vision, fans be damned, and that is what I respect and why I can swallow that Jabba scene in A New Hope even though it’s silly and superfluous.
But where this really holds true as it relates to The Force Awakens is the prequel trilogy. I’m a staunch prequel defender; this isn’t news to anyone. I recognize their flaws, but they do something that The Force Awakens was terrified to do: something different. They expanded the Star Wars universe by showing us the political climate, introducing an alternative view of the Force, questioning the nobility of the Jedi, and introducing different genres to the tapestry — hints of noir, war documentary, political thriller, and melodramatic romance all make their way into the prequel trilogy. Execution is another discussion — I objectively recognize that not all of these things are successful — but it’s the attempt that I appreciate more than anything. The fact that George Lucas could have easily made something like The Force Awakens but didn’t is grounds enough for enormous respect.
Of The Force Awakens, Lucas is quoted as saying: “I think the fans are going to love it. It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” This is what breaks my heart and fills me with conflict like Luke confronting the Emperor. He’s right. The Force Awakens has all the tentpoles of what one would consider “classic” Star Wars.
It uses A New Hope as a clear template for its plot to give a sense of familiarity and comfort while introducing new characters and the continuance of the Skywalker saga. And, as a fan, I love that. It’s what I’ve been waiting for, it’s half of what occupies my brain at any given moment on any given day. And it’s for this reason I’m 100% invested in what Disney is doing; I read all of the comics, I read all of the novels, and lord knows I’ll be at all of the movies multiple times.
But it’s hard for me to look at The Force Awakens as anything more than a new, high budget version of what the Expanded Universe had been doing for years. Taking the conceit of what Lucas created and expounding upon it, giving fans “the same but different” over and over again. To me, Star Wars is George Lucas and without him it’s just another riff on the scale.
While I genuinely did enjoy The Force Awakens and I’ll be waiting with baited breath for Episode VIII, it’s my hope that those who found the new film to be a little too safe or a little too familiar will at least reconsider the ambition and intention of the prequels. Lucas’ willingness to — knowingly — take fan expectations and set them aside to pursue his own vision, sink or swim.