The triumphant return to Star Wars, the opening crawl, like every preceding Star Wars film, plants us in the thick of space catastrophe. Against John Williams’ colossal orchestral opening, we are dropped into a galaxy far, far away—some three decades following the aftermath of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi: Luke Skywalker’s triumphant victory over the dark side, the tragic death of Darth Vader, and the collapse of the Empire. Curiously absent in the prologue is any mention of the film’s true protagonists, Rey (Daisy Ridley), a desert scavenger with a mysterious past, and Finn (Johnny Boyega), an ex-stormtrooper who’s desperate to escape his future in the First Order. Antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the former student of Luke Skywalker who fell to the dark side, is also absent from the crawl. That the very first words of the film are “Luke Skywalker” summarizes what many critics have claimed is wrong with the film: that The Force Awakens remixes and regurgitates the original Star Wars trilogy.
Christopher Orr, writing for the Atlantic, calls the film “less sequel than remix [...] ensnared in its own nostalgia.” Andrew O’Hehir writes for Salon: “[Abrams and co.] barely even pretend to advance the story of the initial trilogy; they rewind it and repeat it, with [...] the same action set-pieces, narrative dilemmas and hidden connections.” The allusions to A New Hope, the original Star Wars film released in 1977, are heavy handed. Structurally, you can replace Rey and Finn’s journey to deliver the map to Luke Skywalker to the Resistance, with Luke and Han Solo’s journey to deliver the Death Star plans to the Rebellion; Kylo Ren with Darth Vader; and the First Order with the Empire. The Force Awakens even recreates famous shots from A New Hope like the Empire’s starship flying over the camera (now a First Order starship), or chemical sunsets over Luke’s desert wasteland (now Rey’s desert wasteland). There’s a new Death Star too, called Starkiller Base.
And yet, Orr’s description of the film as “ensnared in its own nostalgia” doesn’t really begin to account for the degree to which the film is obsessed with the franchise’s past. Neither does this ‘nostalgia’ explain exactly what Disney, the proud new owner of Star Wars, is working towards within the franchise’s longer-term goals. ‘Nostalgia’ implies a reference to a particular set of qualities relevant to A New Hope—or, more broadly, the original trilogy—or even more broadly, the experience of watching Star Wars in the late ‘70s. Implicit though is a sentimentality directed towards the past, whether that’s the far, far-away past of Darth Vader’s Empire, or the more literal past watching A New Hope as a kid for the first time in 1978.
But The Force Awakens produces moments that confuse exactly which ‘past’ it’s referring to and what even reproducing a franchise’s ‘past’ might look like. Take, for example, the way The Force Awakens plays with humor. In the opening scene of the film, Kylo Ren storms the desert planet Jakku in search of the map to Skywalker. Apprehending the beaten and bloody Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Kylo Ren begins his interrogation. “So who talks first? You talk first? I talk first?” Poe yammers in an inexplicably New York accent. “It’s just very hard to understand you with all the...” Poe gestures to Ren’s mask before he’s forcefully silenced. The audience guffaws. It’s a funny moment, but the humor is strikingly different from that utilized by George Lucas in the original trilogy.
There’s a moment, towards the end of A New Hope, when Luke and Han Solo dress up as Stormtroopers in order to infiltrate the Death Star and rescue Princess Leia. After shooting through a room of Stormtroopers, Han Solo radios to command center from the main computer to contain the situation:
“What happened?” an Empire cronie responds.
“Had a slight weapons malfunction, but, uh, everything’s perfectly alright now,” Han Solo stammers. “How are you?”.
The cronie asks for his operating number. Han Solo shoots the computer.
The original trilogy exercises a form of humor that often looks like slapstick, but always plays with the qualities of the characters themselves. Han Solo is just as brash as a hero as he is a smuggler; he approaches every situation with the same charisma and underhanded charm, and it’s funny to see that played out in situations where we wouldn’t expect it. However, in The Force Awakens, we laugh at the Poe’s joke about Kylo Ren’s mask because of the thousands of images, parodies, and cultural quips that have been made about masks, Vader, and the fact that villains wear them. There isn’t even a specific directionality in this joke; The Force Awakens simply takes advantage of the viewer’s likely-to-be-held knowledge that a relationship between masks and villains merely exists.
Abrams plays this humor out again towards the end of the film: Han Solo and Finn make their covert mission to lower Starkiller Base’s shields. Finn, at this point, has lied about his schematic knowledge of the base in order to convince the Resistance to authorize the mission and thus execute his own: rescuing Rey. Han Solo, incredulous when he discovers this, slams Finn into a wall:
“People are counting on us. The galaxy is counting on us,” Solo grits through his teeth.
Finn looks up, enlightened at his revelation: “We’ll use the force!”
“That’s not how the force works!”
Another big guffaw. Han Solo’s remark is funny because we know how the force works. It’s been drilled into our heads over the past thirty-eight years in films, TV, magazines, videogames, conversations—literally everywhere—and it definitely can’t bring down the shields of Starkiller Base. The Force Awakens is not just about referencing A New Hope, or even the original trilogy. It’s about exploiting the cultural appendages that have superseded the films themselves.
Alan Dean Foster’s 1978 Star Wars spin-off novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, is considered by many to be the first piece of Star Wars content exterior to the original trilogy. Since then, external bodies of Star Wars content have emerged to form what is known today as the Star Wars Expanded Universe—commonly referred to as the ‘EU.’ Books, TV shows, comics, toys, history, analysis, any and all fictional content officially certified by Lucas Licensing (a Lucasfilm subsidiary responsible for licensing and merchandising), the Star Wars EU stretches from 36,000 years before Episode I: The Phantom Menace to 136 years after Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
EU content is separated into canon and non-canon. Canon, according to Lucas Licensing editor Sue Rostoni, in a 2001 issue of Star Wars Gamer, “refers to an authoritative list of [content] that the Lucas Licensing editors consider an authentic part of the official Star Wars history.” Non-canon content, while still part of the EU, exists in a separate imaginary. The goal, as she notes, “is to present a continuous and unified history of the Star Wars galaxy, insofar as that history does not conflict with, or undermine the meaning of Mr. Lucas’s Star Wars saga of films and screenplays.”
The EU is incomprehensibly vast; and after nearly four decades of generating countless worlds, characters, and stories, it has found a flourishing space online. Look towards Reddit, a website that hosts specialized and community maintained forums called ‘subreddits,’ and find everything from /r/StarWarsSpeculation, for fan theories on upcoming books and films, to /r/YourStarWars, where users create new Star Wars characters and role play in the comment section. Qu1nlan is a mod of the /r/StarWars—a general Star Wars subreddit that with over four hundred thousand regular subscribers, makes it one of the largest on the web. He tells me in an email: “I grew up on Star Wars EU material far more than I grew up on the movies.” For fans like Qu1nlan, places like /r/StarWars provide the space for intimate engagement with EU material; debates about the Empire’s history, its politics, the ethics of Han Solo’s smuggling racket.
Beyond commercial gains, the great success of the EU is its fuzzy, intangible allure. “It’s really the EU that makes the Star Wars universe what it is, if you ask me,” says Qu1nlan. “That’s where it gets the breadth, the depth, and the emotion that the movies were never quite able to tell in two hours.” More important than the toys, novels, TV shows, Lego sets, and video games, the most valuable piece of merchandise the Star Wars EU generates is affect.
That is, until Disney threw it all into the trash compactor.
On April 25 2014, two years after it was bought by Disney for just over $4 billion, Lucasfilm announced on its official website: “In order to give maximum creative freedom to the filmmakers and also preserve an element of surprise and discovery for the audience, Star Wars Episodes VII-IX will not tell the same story told in the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe.” This announcement is known today as the canon wipe; a move orchestrated by Disney that divorces nearly all Expanded Universe content created until April 25 2014 from the official Star Wars canon. Like a Jedi mind trick, a thirty-year-old war chest of information was erased with the wave of a corporate hand.
Fury in the Star Wars community, as one can imagine, ensued.
“No matter which side you were/are on, this was a huge ordeal,” SimplTrixAndNonsense, another mod of /r/StarWars, tells me. “All hell broke loose,” adds Qu1nlan. “People [...] were heartbroken over what in many people’s lives, including my own, was a lifetime of hard work and dedication that was just kind of thrown away by Disney disrespectfully.” The opinions among Star Wars fans were polarized—on one hand, fans like Qu1nlan felt betrayed by the franchise they loved. Conversely, new fans felt welcomed to a franchise they felt would be inaccessible otherwise. According to Qu1nlan, “It was kind of this big culture clash between the new people and the really old nerds, with the two sides fundamentally not understanding each other.”
From the perspective of The Force Awakens, it’s strange that a film so obsessed with its cultural appendages and the past that produced them would simultaneously betray it all. There’s merit to the idea that Disney executed the canon wipe because making a new film within the bounds of the EU would have been nearly impossible. “[It] would have likely have been a die-hards only set of films.” says Yunners, another mod of /r/StarWars. “At least newcomers could enjoy the saga without needing to ask a torrent of questions. ‘Who was this Thrawn guy? Why is Luke married? Where did all these new Jedi come from?’” Starting with a clean slate unbeholden to the Lucasfilm’s framework makes Disney’s process of branding their mark on the franchise undoubtedly easier.
A clean slate is also important considering the general consensus felt towards the franchise after Lucas’s disastrous set of 1999-2005 prequels. It’s best not to think of The Force Awakens as a sequel, or even a reboot for that matter—but rather an act of reclamation. Reclaiming Star Wars, for Disney, relies on appealing not simply to the characters or plot structure of A New Hope, but to the larger set of affective experiences and memories felt by millions when they watched Luke Skywalker and his rag-tag group of friends stand up to the dark side—and win. Critics have agreed: “I was delighted to be once again transported to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—specifically, to May 25, 1977, when my 10-year-old self saw Star Wars on opening day and had my mind forever blown,” Christopher Orr writes in his Atlantic review.
It’s a kind of nostalgia that excludes the fans who poured their souls into the Extended Universe Disney wiped from existence.
A new extended universe is on the horizon; shortly after the canon wipe, Disney announced Star Wars Legends—the new moniker for the now Disney-approved expanded universe. Already, Disney has released several novels: Heir to the Empire, The Han Solo Adventures, and The Lando Calrissian Adventures. A new war chest of content is already on the way.
Opinions are shifting too. “It’s calmed down now,” Qu1nlan tells me about the current state of canon wipe fury. “There’s still hurt going around, but the new movie did assuage many concerns for some people.” Disney’s hope is that new bonds will form. That new fans will feel towards Disney what the old guard feels towards the Expanded Universe: underneath the officially licensed books, DVDs, videogames, and comics, that warm fuzzy fondness of discovering and maintaining a galaxy far, far away from one’s own—of finding one’s own essential Star Wars-ness of Star Wars.
It’s another Jedi mind trick; and just like the Stormtroopers who, in A New Hope, watched Obi-Wan Kenobi wave his hands and send them away, we too fall hypnotized:
This is not the Star Wars you’re looking for, Disney whispers.
It looks like it just might have worked.
WILL TAVLIN B’17 is a little short for a Stormtrooper.