When I left the cinema on that May evening in 1983 after seeing Return of the Jedi for the 3rd time it somehow seemed clear: the Era of Star Wars was over. A tragic melancholy filled my mood as I didn’t want it to happen. When I entered the cinema on that May evening in 1999 to see The Phantom Menace I was happy I had said my ‘goodbyes’ 16 years earlier … even when it had just been a ‘Goodbye Original Trilogy’ in the end.
Your focus determines your reality
The Force Awakens is a nostalgia trip for many and most movie-critics reviewed the film essentially against the criterion whether it lived up to that aim. Although initially the popular press resoundingly answered that with a ‘yes’, in later weeks more scrutiny was applied and the initial rosy views wore off. The Force Awakens is a great film, but not very original in any particular way. Both of these responses however come from that nostalgia addiction. Because this is what nostalgia does with you: first you fall in love with that former love again … but then the feeling creeps up to you that it can never be the same again. So off you go longing for that next nostalgic moment.
The response I just described is what you typically see among those who were nostalgic for a ‘Original Trilogy revival’, many of whom were already disappointed terribly once when their nostalgia-bubble burst in the very first few minutes of The Phantom Menace. When George Lucas set out to make the Prequel Trilogy he had no intention to serve the fans a plate of warmed-up microwaved Star Wars from some bygone age. He wanted to go to a place closer to what he had been envisioning all those years.
J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy played a risky game with this group of disenfranchised Star Wars aficionados but it seems to have paid off because they understood very well how nostalgia works. So they put Episode VII into the market as ‘doing everything the old way’ while leaving just enough of ‘but it is totally different’. They banked on disenfranchised ‘Original Trilogy’ fans to be unable to contain their appreciation and enthusiasm for what seemed a nostalgia-dish upon first viewing. They equally took into account that if the first warm feelings would wear off after a couple of viewings, these fans would be glued back to the franchise and their ego’s would prevent them from acknowledging weeks later that in fact Sequel Star Wars is different from Original Trilogy Star Wars.
The best illustration of that denial is the response you widely see to the ‘CGI cat that has come out of the sack’. Although The Force Awakens contains more effect-shots than either The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones and less miniatures than any of the Prequel films this no longer is a problem as ‘digital and practical effects mesh so much better in The Force Awakens‘… yeah, that is what 10 extra years of technological innovation typically do. Only very grudgingly will you hear people admit that as a result The Force Awakens looks as if it was entirely shot on Earth … oh wait, it was. The only non-Earth-like planet we see in the film is blown up within 20 seconds and … looks like Coruscant even though it isn’t.
This is how nostalgia works if it is exquisitely played upon by expert-players, which Kennedy and Abrams really are. It allows you to go on bathing yourself in that warm glow of nostalgia for as long as you don’t see it for what it is now … and then it feeds your hunger for the next bath. The ‘Original Trilogy generation’, of which I am one, should have collectively said ‘goodbye’ to their childhood Star Wars in 1983. That would have allowed them to also collectively engage with and enjoy the Prequel Trilogy as that unexpected gift of returning, yet different, Star Wars that it was. Unfortunately however, plenty of them didn’t and hence fell out with the franchise when it turned out Lucas was not working to please them, but to create his own.
Prequel Trilogy Nostalgia
It is interesting to compare the nostalgic reception of The Force Awakens by ‘stuck’ Original Trilogy fans that the response among Prequel Trilogy fans. There you find debates whether the pod-racer flags at Maz Kanata’s castle are enough of a tribute, whether the fact that you can’t fight on Prequel world in the new Battle Front is an offense against Prequel fans, whether the lack of plans for more Prequel Era comics is a sign of worse things to come. Many of the Prequel Trilogy generation are as deeply wrapped in nostalgia as those Original Trilogy fans were in 1999. The main difference is that during the marketing campaign for The Force Awakens they were told time and again that there would be no Prequel Trilogy ‘feel’ to the film as all signs were pointing backwards. This too put many of the Prequel Trilogy generation on the defence.
The typical response to The Force Awakens I saw among ‘stubborn’ Prequel fans was one of ‘well it surely isn’t as creative and epic as the Prequels, but it isn’t to bad either’. Abrams and Kennedy had no intention to please the Prequel Trilogy fans, but unlike George Lucas 16 years earlier, they made this absolutely clear from day 1. Prequel Trilogy aficionado’s weren’t overcome by anger at their nostalgia-bubble bursting in the opening shots of The Force Awakens, they had that grown used to that feeling already from the start of the marketing campaign. As a result, again, nostalgia could do its work albeit in the right direction this time. Ticket sales indicate that the Prequel Trilogy fans also went for the multiple viewings of The Force Awakens. Even now, a good one-and-a-half months after the film’s premiere it still regularly sells-out the London BFI Imax.
Kennedy and Abrams must have realized how this works. It is when you are going to meet that childhood love and a few days prior to the meet-up you hear they are with someone else now. After you have digested that, the actual meeting takes places nevertheless because your ego doesn’t look kindly on openly admitting you were hoping for something else. Yet after the meeting you are at peace with the state of affairs even when you might still think the two of you together wouldn’t have been bad either. That is of course conditional upon you being able to ‘say goodbye’ to that childhood love and to open yourself to what different opportunities now lie ahead.
‘Goodbye Prequel Trilogy’
The Original Trilogy fans have now had two chances at saying ‘goodbye’ to their childhood trilogy. Many failed to do so prior to the opening of The Phantom Menace and were filled with vitriol. For more than a decade they behaved as party-poopers that use every opportunity to tell everyone their ‘ex is just a total disappointment’ … objectively! Mates … if there were any objectivity in that assessment you wouldn’t have needed to harass everyone with it for 16 years. Own it: you felt rejected … that was all. I think Kennedy and Abrams successfully got most of those back on board even though these same fans will realize in quiet moments alone that Sequel Trilogy Star Wars is as different from Original Trilogy Star Wars, as Prequel Trilogy Star Wars was.
Prequel Trilogy fans now also have to say ‘goodbye’ to their beloved childhood trilogy. This is especially important as I expect that also in Star Wars: Rebels we will see events unfold this season that will finalize a few storylines that are connecting the Prequels with the Originals. Either this or next season we will see the ‘end’ of Ahsoka’s storyline through the Prequel and Original trilogy era. Whether she survives or not isn’t so much the question. Even when she survives, the focus will shift towards her impact on the Sequel Era. The same will be true for Darth Maul, but of course also for Rebels’ Ghost Crew itself.
Dave Filoni is excellent at sowing things together, whether it was connecting The Phantom Menace to The Clone Wars through Maul, or connecting the Prequels to A New Hope through Ahsoka, Rex, Maul and Anakin/Vader. I would not be surprised to see Rebels cast a shadow forward to The Force Awakens and the Sequel Trilogy. I would also not be surprised to see Star Wars: Rogue One doing the same. But by the time Episode VIII arrives I think all Star Wars fans, no matter of which generation, should be well advised to have arrived in the Sequel Era and to have stopped living in the past. Maybe then we can finally start discussing the Sequel Trilogy films not with regards to our nostalgic cravings, but rather with respect to what they are; a new era of Star Wars different from the two previous ones.