Passing the Baton

Episode 12: The Force has Awoken: Star Wars Special Edition

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Will Brooker

 I went into Star Wars with an attitude like Han Solo’s: cynical, jaded, an impress-me air. I came out more like Luke Skywalker: invigorated, thrilled, wide-eyed from my vision of a new world. I say Star Wars. I mean Star Wars; just Star Wars, with no Roman numerals or subtitles before and after. This was 1977. I was seven.

That I’d become so jaded about a film that was almost new shows how quickly and completely it had already saturated popular culture. Its icons already seemed over-familiar, and perversely, stubbornly – I was that kind of kid –I resisted it, even while I tried to guess its plot and characters from the bits and pieces I knew. The gold robot was called See-Through so you must be able to see through his armour to the wires inside. The lady with the skimpy white dress was what I thought of as ‘rude’, grown-up, too old for me to look at or think about – something like the dancing girls on Top of the Pops or the jokes on Kenny Everett. My parents told me there were duels with light swords. I imagined the illustration from my Treasure Island picture book, but with pirates holding weapons that had light bulbs at the hilt. I was doing a kind of fan studies. People perform the same kind of detection now, making educated guesses from glimpses of forthcoming films.

I must have gone grudgingly to see Star Wars. I don’t know when exactly it won me over, but by the time I came out, I was a convert – and not just for the evening, but for at least the next six years of my life. Star Wars became part of my mythology, alongside westerns, knights and Robin Hood. I drew pictures of the characters, collected the figures, built dioramas and bases, and played endless games that explored and expanded the narrative universe. In between episodes, I predicted what might happen next, and wrote stories and comics based on my speculations. As a young teenager I even shot a Super-8 film, an affectionate parody of the first Star Wars movie. In the film, I wear a white sheet and black-painted margarine tubs on my ears: a baby-faced Princess Leia.

I watched the movies as many times as I could, of course, which was far more difficult then than it would be now. Video cassettes cost £70 to buy, and even a film as popular as Star Wars was rarely rescreened in cinemas. I took a notepad in with me, and scribbled down observations and sketches, wanting to get all the details right. When the first movie was finally shown on TV, I held a cassette recorder up to the screen and taped the soundtrack. The cassette has ‘DO NOT THINK OF ERASING’ written on it with felt pen. With hindsight, you could say Star Wars inspired me to study film. I’ve rarely analysed anything so closely since (except perhaps Star Wars itself, for a BFI monograph in 2009).

I used to dream of Star Wars sequels, and wake up wishing they were real. But time passed, and the rumour of nine movies faded. By the time I was in my late teens Star Wars was a fond memory, a treasured myth from my past that seemed destined to stay there. I began studying film, formally, on a degree course. We watched Pudovkin, Deren, Hitchcock, Hawks – the kind of movies Lucas had studied twenty years earlier. We didn’t watch any Star Wars movies at university.

I re-entered the universe through Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire books in my early 20s, while working part-time towards a Film MA, and enjoyed the nostalgic revisit, like a reunion with childhood friends who were still mostly the same, but rewardingly a little different. In the mid-1990s, prompted by the expanded universe that was filling the gaps Lucas had left, I even wrote an academic chapter about Star Wars; about the way fans were still playing with the universe, twelve years after the official texts had ended.

And then came the announcement I longed for when I was thirteen: they were making a new trilogy. I have a diary from that year, with lists of speculation much like the guesses I made in 1977: we would see ‘Lady Vader’, Luke’s mother, and the title of the new film would be ‘Enter The Dark Lord’. Embarrassingly incorrect, but I wasn’t alone: by this point, fans were making and sharing their lists online. Trailers were released. I studied them closely, of course, and picked them apart. I wrote a piece for an internet forum proclaiming that this movie would be better than The Empire Strikes Back.

When Star Wars was first released, I was still at junior school. I was in the final year of my PhD now, in Cardiff. Meanwhile in London, a little girl called Daisy Ridley was turning seven years old.

I wrote notes during my first viewing of The Phantom Menace. This time, I was reviewing it for a film website. My notes trace what a Star Wars character might call the end of hope, the rise of disillusionment. By the time Attack of the Clones was released, I was a doctor, a full-time lecturer, living in London but on a book tour for my second monograph, Using the Force, in Massachusetts. I was complimentary about Attack of the Clones in the afterword to that book’s second edition. I was optimistic about Revenge of the Sith, three years later, and enjoyed it in parts – though the parts I enjoyed most were the overlaps, at the very end, with the first Star Wars film, when it came closest to my original beloved object. In a way I think I enjoyed the fact that it was all over. Nothing worse could happen. It was wrapped up, finished.

And then came the new announcement. They were making another trilogy.

I was in my mid-40s now. Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were long gone; even Christopher Lee, who had played a villain in the prequels, had now died. Little Jake Lloyd, the young Anakin, was well into his twenties. One of my former students – about the age of Daisy Ridley – was now working on the first Star Wars sequel as assistant director. I wished her well, but avoided all the trailers. I told people I didn’t want to be spoiled. I think, rather, I didn’t want Star Wars to be spoiled. Or maybe I didn’t want something else spoiled; my childhood, my memories.

I went into Star Wars: The Force Awakens with an attitude like Han Solo’s: jaded, world-weary, hard to impress. I came out like Luke Skywalker – that is, the Luke Skywalker from the film’s final shot.han-solo-2015 I wasn’t reviewing this film, officially, but I took notes in my head, composed sentences, because by this point we had all become reviewers on social media, and I knew a lot of people, aware of my two books on Star Wars and my lifelong fandom, would be expecting me to make some kind of comment. While the movie was all about Finn, Rey and Poe, I was ready to announce publicly that it wasn’t for me anymore: I hoped the younger generation enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the mythos I’d grown up on. Then Han Solo and Chewbacca entered the proceedings, and suddenly it was for me – despite the occasional silliness and the obvious echoes, I had someone to connect with on-screen, and it took me right back, while also speaking to me where I was now. It was about that world-weariness, combined with warmth. It was an old friend who was rewardingly different, but still the same in some ways. Well, weren’t we all changed, by now; all so much older? The way Han behaved with Rey felt like me with my own students; the same sense of gruff pride and generational respect.

It would be melodramatic, though there might be some truth in it, to say that when Han was stabbed by his son, a part of me died. But literally, my surrogate was killed off at that moment. My role model plummeted out of view. I was left – apart from Leia, and the heartbreakingly bereft Chewbacca – with those endearing, energetic kids.

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And in the final shot, I found another point of connection. Luke Skywalker, once the kid himself – the Ricky Nelson figure, fresh-faced, naïve and frankly annoying to me as a young fan – was now bearded, isolated, craggy as his island home. The ambiguous ending has Rey handing him his old saber, but that’s not really the message I took from this movie. The Force Awakens is about the older generation passing the baton down to the younger. That’s how I feel now I see little girls – the age Daisy Ridley was at the time of The Phantom Menace – dressed as Rey. I had my time. I had my myths and my magic, my dressing-up games and my stories. I had six years of it bridging the 1970s and the 1980s, an intense period of fandom, and then I had decades after that to revisit, to reconsider, to reevaluate and write about the space operatic saga of my childhood. It’s their turn now, to revel in it, and perhaps in time to be disappointed and disillusioned by it, and then to rediscover it. And may the Force be with them.

Bio: Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University, UK: drwillbrooker@gmail.com