One of the most striking things about the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is how old the film sometimes feels. Part of the oldness is because the story itself feels more like a remake of A New Hope than a genuine reboot of a storied franchise. The plot feels familiar, as do most the characters. A poor scavenger on a desert world discovers previously unknown force abilities. A planet-destroying space station figures prominently in the film’s climax. A masked and hooded dark figure serves as the dominant villain and serves a far-off master of whom we know virtually nothing.
Even specific lines call us back to the first Star Wars movie, as when we can overhear storm troopers saying that “they split up” while looking for our heroes aboard a new death star. There is also much in Abrams’ technique that calls to mind the older stories, most notably the side-swipe transitions that are used frequently throughout the film. Based on the reviews, however, this is what most fans wanted (myself included) so you can hardly fault director JJ Abrams for making those choices. That he could make a rejiggered A New Hope and create a fantastic adventure of a film is a testament to his strengths as a director.
But there is more about this film that is old than just the story, characters, and film-making techniques (like the side-swipe) used by the director. In fact, if we focus too much on those points we run the risk of missing the most important way in which the new Star Wars film is actually very old.
If you look at most of the successful sci-fi and fantasy franchises in recent years you’ll begin to notice a theme. Whether it is Game of Thrones, Battlestar: Galactica, or even something like the Marvel series, our science fiction and fantasy today has become far more focused on familiar questions of politics and religion, racism and policy. Game of Thrones is a tale of political intrigue that, much of the time, would be just as at home in a John Le Carre novel as it is in George RR Martin’s world of Westeros.
Likewise Battlestar: Galactica is obsessed with questions of public policy, politics, and religion. The divide between monotheists and polytheists is one of the show’s most important and many of the most intriguing storylines concern what happens when friends become political enemies due to circumstances outside their control. That particular question comes up repeatedly throughout the series.
In these stories, we learn about the world and our characters via the means of familiar tropes—jockeying for power in the political sphere or trying to understand how public issues shape and transform individual relationships. These stories are all asking different versions of the same question: If people in another world were just like us, what would happen? So Battlestar gives us wars between monotheists and polytheists, Games of Thrones gives us backstabbing and never-ending family feuds as various nobles fight for power.
Star Wars, rather like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia has been at its best when it ignores or sidelines many of these sorts of policy questions and debates. What this series thrives on doing, instead, is transporting us into a different world. Star Wars, in contrast to the other stories mentioned above, is asking “what if there is another world totally different from ours and we could go there?”
Both questions can be interesting, of course. That’s why both Battlestar and Star Wars manage to be so fun and interesting. It’s a strength of the Marvel series as well. It’s fascinating to imagine how a world where people behave just like us would handle super heroes. That, after all, is one of the main questions that Jessica Jones asks of us—if mind control is possible, how should our legal system deal with it? Some of the most interesting moments of the series come when the heroes are trying to figure out how the legal system ought to deal with David Tennant’s remarkable Kilgrave.
But the flip side to this approach is that it can have a deadening effect on our imaginations as well. When we first meet Gaius Baltar he’s a genius scientist in an imagined world doing cutting-edge research. The places you could take a character like that are basically endless. What things are possible in this new world anyway? That he turns out to be little than a hopelessly self-absorbed womanizer whose genius makes up for his lack of any other notable skill doesn’t necessarily make him a boring character, but it does make him a familiar one.
By ignoring these political and social questions, stories like Star Wars can tap into a wholly separate set of narrative possibilities. Tolkien’s Aragorn is a different sort of king not only because we don’t know much about his policies as king, but because Tolkien develops him in entirely different directions.
At its best, this approach is doing something similar to what Chesterton does in his writing. The English journalist once said that while the rationalist wishes to cram the heavens into his head, the romantic seeks only to get his head into the heavens. There is a forgetfulness about Star Wars and stories like it that explain much of its appeal. Game of Thrones can tell an exciting and unexpected story, but at its end we nearly always find ourselves wincing at the horrors of Martin’s world which, quite often, mirror or even exaggerate the horrors of our own world.
Star Wars is not nearly that self-aware. Sometimes that can be a vice, of course, as when the series so often became a parody of itself during the regrettable prequels. But it is also the forgetfulness that explains why the series elicits such a strong, positive, and deeply nostalgic response from its many, many admirers. The magic of Star Wars is that it invites us into another world where we forget for a time about politics and intrigue and religious wars and are instead invited to simply enjoy the wonder of creation, to see creation as something strange and other, as something that we do not expect or know in any sort of comprehensive way.
What is particularly striking about Star Wars, of course, is that it is trading in the sort of nostalgic dreaming that we more commonly associate with fantasy while operating in a world that looks very like that of standard science fiction. This, perhaps, explains why it enjoys a broader fan base than that of the much more explicitly fantastical stories by Tolkien and Lewis.
In any case, the new Star Wars movie works well precisely because it is not new. It is the oldness of the story and specifically the fact that Abrams is only asking us to imagine ourselves in another world that makes it so charming and fun. In a world where the bleak realism of George RR Martin, Philip Pullman, and Jessica Jones is ascendant it’s no surprise that we’d find The Force Awakens to be a refreshing change of pace.