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How much of what makes Star Wars work is nostalgia?

Contributed by
Dec 13, 2017

It’s right there, in the first image anyone ever saw from Star Wars: A title card that says “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

A long time ago.

There has always been, from the beginning, something backwards facing about the saga started by George Lucas and currently overseen by Kathleen Kennedy. It was retro from the jump. It was designed to feel worn, vintage, lived in — a stark shift from the immaculate, shiny sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey. And on the eve of the tenth official Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, I find myself pondering just how much of what makes Star Wars go is nostalgia.

Of course, nostalgia’s not a bad thing. Hell, sometimes it’s an amazing thing. It tickles the familiarity cortex in such a way that reminds us of who we were the first time we were exposed to something. It makes us feel young and hopeful. As such, it’s the mother of all marketing tools: The first notes of John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme in the Jurassic World trailers propelled that flick to a billion dollars. That first glance of the shimmery Lucasfilm logo sends chills down the spine — well, my spine, at any rate. Even though there’s little consensus about when, exactly, America was previously great for everyone, making America great “again” was clearly an effective campaign slogan.

The Star Wars Universe, as we know it, is a very myopic one. For the most part, Rogue One and Star Wars Rebels not withstanding, it is entirely about the Skywalker Family. The original trilogy is about the redemption of a villain, Darth Vader, by his son, Luke. The prequel trilogy is about Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace. And from what one can tell by looking at the Last Jedi trailers — and the fact that it’s called The Last Jedi — Episodes VII through IX are the final act in the Skywalker Saga. A family we have been following for more than 40 years.

(Yes, I understand and appreciate that Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron play key roles in this new trilogy, but Star Wars is the most insular galactic drama ever. I mean, the Big Bad is Luke Skywalker’s nephew.)

The two standalone “a Star Wars Story” films are, in essence, flashbacks: Rogue One illuminates a section of previously established continuity, and that young Han Solo movie... well, yeah, it’s about young Han Solo. Star Wars Rebels similarly slots between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.

There is, to mangle a phrase, little new under the twin suns.

Nostalgia tastes great, the same way that French fries or funnel cake tastes great. It feels good. But it burns hot and fast, and when its gone, you’re still left wanting more.

Now, no one knows what Rian Johnson is cooking up for his recently announced trilogy — perhaps not even Johnson, who said at a Last Jedi press conference that he’s “in the very, very beginning phases of trying to think about it,” so he doesn't "know yet." All the official Lucasfilm announcements of the project said was that it would “introduce new characters from a corner of the galaxy that Star Wars lore has never before explored.”

And Star Wars is in desperate need of the new. At some point, the nostalgia won’t work. And rather than continuing to back-fill continuity gaps that, let’s be honest, no one really needed filling in, Star Wars needs to chart a course forward. Are the alpha and omega of this franchise really the Skywalker clan?

Is this universe really this small?

Maybe the answer to that question is: Yes.

Every story has to be about something. For Lucas, this story was about the Rise and Fall (and Maybe Rise Again) of the Skywalker Family. It’s how he engineered it from the start. And he couldn’t possibly have imagined, back in 1977, the hunger for Star Wars ad infinitum. Maybe the reason the current architects of Star Wars keep playing in the past is because there is no way forward.

Sometimes, a story needs to end.

But there’s no way this story can end, not with Disney paying $4 billion for Lucasfilm and expecting the goose to keep laying golden eggs.

So... since there all but has to be more “episodes” beyond J.J. Abrams’ Episode IX, will the next Star Wars story move beyond nostalgia? Do you think it should? Let us know in the comments.

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