(Or, Why The Force Awakens is more like Revenge of the Sith than A New Hope. And also like a Marmite sandwich)
In 2005, while working as arts editor for the Scotsman, I discovered that one of our feature writers, Emma Cowing, had never seen any of the Star Wars films – because, as she put it, “I’d rather spend two hours 11 minutes of my life alphabetising my sock drawer”.
Revenge of the Sith was about to be released in cinemas, so I asked Emma to watch the whole saga in episode order, from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi, and write about the experience. Her verdict – in a piece headlined ‘Which one’s Darth Vader again?’ – was that Revenge of the Sith was “by far the best film in the series… brilliantly acted, amazingly shot, the true heart of the story in every sense”. And – brace yourselves, fanboys – she thought Chewbacca was “100 times more annoying than Jar Jar Binks”.
“This, ultimately, is the series’s problem,” Emma concluded. “If you watch Episodes I -III first, your heart belongs to these three movies and their main protagonists. Luke? Leia? Han Solo? Who cares? I didn’t, and though I watched on through Ewoks, Han and Leia’s love affair and Jabba the Hutt with a detached interest, I was forever thinking of the wee boy Ani who grew up to become the man behind that big black mask, and the beautiful young senator he had once loved. By the end of Return of the Jedi, the only character’s fate I was interested in was Darth Vader’s.”
I asked Emma to write the piece partly because I thought it would be funny (she is a very funny writer), partly because I was curious to know what an objective view of the entire Star Wars series might look like. At that point, the prequels had been ripped apart online for six years by people who had grown up obsessed with the original trilogy and mostly loathed the new films, at least in part, because they were so different – in look (all that CGI) and in tone (deathly serious with occasional lurches into slapstick). By the time Revenge of the Sith came along I felt a bit sorry for George Lucas, who seemed like a man increasingly desperate to placate all those ungrateful bastards. Much has been written in recent weeks about how much The Force Awakens resembles the original trilogy – to the point where it actually lifts whole chunks of its plot from all three films. But in many ways the Star Wars film it most resembles is Revenge of the Sith, in the sense that both are self-conscious, sometimes shameless exercises in trying to give hardcore fans of the original trilogy what they so desperately want.
Revenge of the Sith was a sweet shop of nostalgic fan treats, significantly more so than the other two prequels. It had Darth Vader masked and the Emperor unmasked, a whole planet of wookiees (which, as any self-respecting geek knows, was originally going to appear in Return of the Jedi), that spaceship from Star Wars’ very first scene back in 1977, Yoda arriving on Dagobah (in the deleted scenes, at least), and fleeting glimpses of the Death Star, Alderaan, Moff Tarkin, Mon Mothma, Captain Antilles, and – purely as a sop to fans – the Millennium Falcon. The film’s title was a knowing nod to a name temporarily given to Return of the Jedi. And its teaser trailer opened with footage from the first Star Wars, back in 1977.
The Force Awakens, meanwhile, gives us a bigger Death Star (and, cheekily, a scene in which a character points out that it’s basically a bigger Death Star), lots of planets that look just like the ones in the original trilogy even if they have different names, on which remarkably similar things happen, and fleeting glimpses of minor Return of the Jedi characters Nien Numb and Admiral Ackbar – whose appearances serve no obvious purpose other than to allow fans to go ‘oh look, there’s Admiral Ackbar and Nien Numb.’ (Or, if you’re slightly less of a geek, ‘the one that looks like a shrimp and the one that looks like a fish’.) Plus, obviously, there’s Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and, for about five seconds, Mark Hamill. The film’s entire marketing campaign was an exercise in what one writer described as weaponised nostalgia.
It certainly makes you ponder the true meaning of George Lucas’s first response to the Force Awakens. “I think the fans are going to love it. It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” Reading this, I once again felt sorry for George Lucas. If Revenge of the Sith didn’t make them happy, he must have wondered, what in the world would? And now he knows. A Star Wars movie made by somebody who wasn’t him, who rejected all of his ideas for its plot, which has had rave reviews and, at time of writing, is about to become the most successful film of all time. What a kick in the teeth.
Perhaps he’ll be cheered (if he can be bothered to read them) by some recent articles that have attempted to restore the reputation of Lucas’s second trilogy – whose arguments, if you’re short on time, are neatly summed up in a piece headlined There is no way Star Wars The Force Awakens will be as good as the prequels (New Statesman, only you could be so bold.) It’s unsurprising that these should turn up now, and not just because the media were looking for a fresh angle. If you saw – and loved – The Phantom Menace as an impressionable child, you are now in your late twenties, old enough to be an established film writer. And having seen the film around the same time that you first saw the original trilogy, you are more able to see the flaws in both. Expect a lengthy essay any day now arguing that Jar Jar Binks’s amphibian Buster Keaton was a clever continuation of the original trilogy’s playful appropriation of key moments in cinema history, from Metropolis to The Hidden Fortress. (But not from me, a 43-year-old unshakeable loyalist to the original trilogy.)
I quite liked some parts of the prequels, particularly Attack of the Clones, which felt like the most original and surprising of the three films, with its detective drama subplot, political skulduggery and that jaw-dropping Yoda vs Christopher Lee stand-off. Admittedly this could be partly because, after the Phantom Menace, my expectations were considerably lower, but Attack of the Clones includes what has become one of my favourite scenes in all the Star Wars movies – the one in which Count Dooku tells Obi Wan the truth about what is going on while pretending he has nothing to do with it.
It is a marvellous moment of emotional manipulation that sums up the whole character. Dooku keeps his options open throughout, betraying his co-conspirator, Palpatine, while not offering Obi Wan quite enough information to identify him. When it becomes apparent that Obi Wan is not someone he can recruit as an ally (and, presumably, kill off later) he blithely dismisses him – “It may be difficult to secure your release” – returning to whatever plan A was.
I am aware, though, that the person who likes this scene is the grown-up me. I am watching Dooku and seeing Keyser Soze or Francis Urquhart (if Christopher Lee hadn’t been available, Kevin Spacey would have made a fine substitute). I want to believe that Star Wars can fit with my adult viewing habits. And then something happens that jars – or Jar Jars – with this, and I shudder, particularly during Revenge of the Sith, a film that ends with a man murdering children and a woman dying in childbirth and yet – as if attempting to compensate – makes its robots talk like play-acting toddlers (a decision that prompted one irritated fan to create a ‘mature edition’ of the film).
I have a completely different relationship with the original trilogy – if anything, I flinched when it became a bit too grown-up. Princess Leia in a bikini? Eeew. If you saw Return of the Jedi as a 12 or 13-year-old boy, this was probably your sexual awakening. I was nine and I found it excruciating, like stumbling on your parents in their underwear. And I am mostly forgiving of the films’ flaws, because it didn’t occur to me at the time that films had flaws. It was years, for example, before I spotted the planet-sized plot hole in The Empire Strikes Back, whereby Luke can train to be a Jedi – a process that seems to take weeks, possibly months – in the same time it takes for Han and Leia to fly from Hoth to Bespin, which cannot be more than 48 hours.
I had to double check what age I must have been when I discovered Star Wars. I know I was nine because I first saw A New Hope on someone else’s videotape (it was released on video in 1982) a few months before Return of the Jedi was released in cinemas (in May 1983). But my memory of everything except the film itself is fuzzy – probably because that memory overwrote everything else. I don’t remember whose tape it was, except that they were friends of my parents and we were staying there overnight. I don’t remember where they lived, or what their house looked like. But I remember I watched the film at least twice, possibly three times, cross-legged in front of their television, and that I was devastated when we had to leave because I wanted to stay and watch it again and again.
My parents didn’t have a video player, so for a long time Star Wars existed only in my fevered imagination. Watching The Force Awakens a couple of weeks ago, after years of picturing it in my head, I was right back in the spring of 1983, when I saw Return of the Jedi in the cinema. I hadn’t seen The Empire Strikes Back yet, so what I experienced was a film that was very much like what I remembered (a desert planet, a Death Star, most of the same characters) but a hundred times bigger and louder. It was a strange feeling – exciting but also disorientating, satisfying but also anticlimactic. How could it compete with the movie in my head, a movie already one step removed from the one I actually saw a year earlier?
Watching The Force Awakens was similarly disorientating, due to the sheer number of echoes of things I’d seen before. It’s a feeling probably best summed up by the scene in which the film’s wise old man character walks out on to a narrow walkway in a Death Star-like base to face a figure in a black mask armed with a lightsaber. The death of Han Solo was, presumably, intended to be shocking, but can anyone not have seen it coming with a set-up like that?
Repeating motifs are, of course, part of the fabric of Star Wars, and The Force Awakens is at its best when those motifs playfully rewrite what we’ve seen before, rather than just copy it. I like that the Luke Skywalker role is now female (Luke Skywalker himself having turned into Yoda, an old wizard in exile). I particularly enjoyed the subtle hint of a burgeoning romance between Finn and Poe Dameron (a man in a stormtrooper costume rescuing a prisoner… now where might that storyline be going? Your call, Rian Johnson). And I liked the younger characters’ cocky ignorance about the older generation’s adventures, which is sometimes funny – like Finn blundering into a heavily guarded enemy base with no plan other than using the force; Han (furious): “That’s not how it works!” – and sometimes tragic, like Kylo Ren worshipping Darth Vader for all the wrong reasons. In retrospect, Han Solo’s death scene has extra resonance because Han Solo, of all people, must have anticipated how this one would turn out. He was there, after all, when Vader killed Ben Kenobi.
But if you know all this – if you obsess over all this – is it possible to be at all objective about any new film in the series? In the year leading up to The Force Awakens’ release I became completely hooked on Star Wars again, watching the trailers on repeat, gobbling up every new piece of information. It sounded like exactly the film I wanted to see – the film “for the fans” that George Lucas seems a little snarky about – and yet, when I ask myself why I was so excited about The Force Awakens, and Star Wars in general, I am never exactly sure. Why these films, and not all the smarter, deeper, richer films I’ve seen in the years since?
It is, simply enough, because Star Wars just caught me at the most impressionable age, the precise moment when the real world was beginning to feel small and a galaxy far, far away seemed like where I wanted to be. My love of Star Wars is not rational, intellectual, critical, it is emotional, instinctive, like the love of a reassuring smell or taste from my childhood. I love it the way I love Corn Flakes, Marmite sandwiches or white chocolate – foods I know I should probably leave behind but always return to when I need comfort. This was even clearer to me after going to see The Force Awakens with my wife, who is five years younger than me, and my 13-year-old daughter. Both of them enjoyed it, but not like a Marmite sandwich. For my wife, Star Wars was just part of the 1980s furniture, like Indiana Jones and Back to the Future, a staple of Christmas TV. For my daughter, Star Wars is a thing she watched with her dad a lot from around the age of four, fun but not life-changing. Instead she was hooked, when she reached the most impressionable age, by another story about a youngster who discovers they have special powers, a more complicated family history than they’d realised, and a chance to train to be something special – Harry Potter.
It’s been fascinating, watching the debate over The Force Awakens evolve since its release, and seeing how conflicted some older fans are. Sometimes getting what you want can be worse than not getting what you want. Yes, we mostly love The Force Awakens, but now, once again, we have to ask ourselves why, and why we haven’t moved on from stuff like this. If we’re honest we feel a little cheated, not because it’s unlike the Star Wars we loved, like The Phantom Menace was, but because it’s exactly like it. And in watching Star Wars with fresh eyes, as grown-ups, we can’t help noticing that these are just movies –movies that (sorry fellow geeks) become more silly and implausible the more you scrutinise them (just like most other blockbuster movies, then). Ironically, what fans now seem to want most of all is for Episode VIII to be nothing like what they’ve seen before. But if it is, that will probably be a disappointment too.