Confessions of a repeat Star Wars: The Force Awakens Viewer
So Star Wars: The Force Awakens has just passed $2Billion in sales, making it only the third film to surpass this figure, and even my own daughter is now into double figures in viewing the movie, so why are people so drawn to watch Star War films over and over again? BBC Writer Helen Macdonald – who’s also seen The Force Awakens six times so far – has just offered her explanation on this subject via the BBC Website.
It was Christmas 1977 and I was seven years old. Dad had got the family tickets to a screening of Star Wars at the Odeon in Leicester Square. I didn’t really know what I was going to see, but I knew it was a big deal. Star Wars mania was then in full swing. I remember light bulbs hanging from winter branches and a steakhouse with a tartan carpet, and the words STAR WARS on hoardings full of masked men and moons and spaceships. Dusk was falling as we queued to get in, and high above us flowed thousands of starlings. Back then they still roosted in central London. I was mesmerised by these sinuous strings of oily smoke moving through the darkening sky. And part of what Star Wars means to me now is still caught up in the memory of those flocks making patterns of astonishing beauty on their way to rest and safety. I loved the film, of course, though all the times I’ve seen it since have overwritten those first memories of it on screen. It was all a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.
I was never an obsessive fan, but still I found the later George Lucas movies thoroughly dispiriting. I put that down to having grown up, and gave up on Star Wars. But then I went to see The Force Awakens, JJ Abram’s reboot of the series, late last December, and I wept pretty much all the way through it. Proper sobs. And then I saw it again. And again. Every time, I left the cinema full of joy. I saw it sitting next to kids wearing Princess Leia costumes, and men older than me wearing Star Wars t-shirts with frayed collars and Rebel Alliance badges, and it wasn’t until the sixth viewing that I thought, wait. Hang on. Six times. Why do you love this film so much? I kept reading articles explaining that people only liked the film out of a sense of simple nostalgia. There was something of a sneer about how they said it. That dismissiveness, I thought, was interesting.
Of course The Force Awakens is nostalgic. It features original cast members and plot points from the 1977 movie. But it is also utterly true to the aesthetic of those early films. It is a memory of a 1970s dream of the future, set in the distant past. And it’s superbly old-school. Today’s battle-space technologies put pilots in boxes to control distant drones. On screen, X-wing pilots harry Tie fighters in dogfights straight out of the Battle of Britain. Controls in The Force Awakens are buttons and switches, not touchscreens. There are no mobile phones, and none of the panoptic apparatus of the modern surveillance state. While part of its hold over me is indeed down to nostalgia, there is nothing simple about it, and it is far from something to sneer at.
We think of nostalgia, so often, in a negative way – as escapism, a refusal to face up to present realities. But it is not necessarily so. Nostalgia can bring insights and new understandings. Every time I’ve watched The Force Awakens I’ve felt like a child again, wide-eyed and full of wonder. But at the same time, I’ve also been a woman in her 40s, thinking very hard about the difference between me now and me then, the world now and the world then. Nostalgia shows you just how much the world has changed. And this is one of the reasons the film thrills me. It takes a familiar world from my childhood and fills it with things I wish had been there back then.
Look at the diversity of its main protagonists – British actor Daisy Ridley as Rey, the self-reliant desert loner with more power than she knows, who isn’t ever defined by or confined by her gender, British-Nigerian actor John Boyega as Finn, the stormtrooper whose moral defection from the First Order sets everything in motion, and Guatemalan-American actor Oscar Isaac as X-wing pilot Poe Dameron. One of the loveliest things I’ve recently seen on Twitter was a report of two boys under 12 on a bus arguing over who got to play Rey and who had to be the film’s male villain Kylo Ren. Got to. Had to be. The world we live in is different from that of 40 years ago. We can reject the old, tired stories we’ve been told about who we’re supposed to be. And that makes me very glad.
More and more, The Force Awakens seems to me a meditation on how we consume stories and how they shape us. We can identify with its new characters because they too see the events of the first Star Wars films as tales from long ago. I think of the scene where Rey speeds past the vast wreck of an imperial starcruiser buried deep in sand. Her character lives inside a collapsed Imperial AT-AT walker, keeps a homemade doll dressed as a Rebel pilot, has fashioned a mask out of stormtrooper helmet parts. These new characters are as alive to the archaeology of nostalgia as any of us.
But there is something else the nostalgia of this film feeds into which is very modern – internet fandom. Fan-created Force Awakens material is all over the web, and to me, this work – the cartoons, the art, the stories, the internet memes and carefully plotted transformative fan fictions – is as much a part of this film as anything Disney can create. For every Chewbacca pencil case or R2D2 mug there’s a Tumblr gif of Kylo Ren and General Hux sniping at each other or flirting. Fan fiction is a fascinating phenomenon – works, mostly on the internet, that tell new stories about existing characters. Though many feature slow-burn romances or steamy sex scenes, others detail the everyday minutiae of newly-imagined lives. Consumption and creation blur in this rich new ecosystem.
It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that what fan fiction writers do is analogous to what Rey does on her desert planet. Scavenging bits of old technology from crashed ships, she makes her life out of the literal wreckage of stories from the earlier films. Like her, fans salvage things that aren’t quite theirs – pictures, snatches of dialogue, glances, subtexts, repurposing them and making them work in new ways. Slash fiction, for example – stories about romantic attraction between male characters – have been a mainstay of fan fiction since its earliest days.
One internet site alone features thousands of stories about one particular pairing christened Stormpilot, spurred by a scene late in the film where hotshot resistance pilot Poe Dameron gives ex-stormtrooper Finn a smouldering stare before biting his own lip. So popular is this pairing that it’s spilled out from the internet and led to broadsheet articles and frenzied speculation that Disney could make one of the lead characters gay in this continuing series. I hope this happens. Billion-dollar film franchises haven’t given people gay heroes to identify with before. But if it’s too risky for Disney to countenance, those stories are being written anyway. This is about who gets to have a voice, who gets to speak, who gets to be represented. Most fan fiction writers are young, most are women, many identify as queer – voices generally erased from mainstream culture.
Just as people sneer at nostalgia, they sneer at fan fiction. It’s emotionally immature, they say. It’s not well written. It’s soppy. This criticism seems, at heart, to rest on an assumption that the people who write it aren’t the right sort of people to have any claim on these stories. This is criticism as boundary policing. It’s fine to make derivative works if you have sufficient cultural capital. The wonderful Dickensian on BBC One would be fan fiction in any other medium. There’s a depressing tendency to see people investing their energies in the lives of fictional characters as somehow sad. But I’m awed by the sheer creative exuberance of fanwork, the way it incorporates different lives, different viewpoints, different ways of living and loving and being into the constrained narratives of mainstream movies. The starlings that fly through my earliest memories of Star Wars remind me of just what its new fans are doing now – multitudes making beautiful and moving shapes and forms out of our human need to feel part of a community, to find our way home.