Monday, January 4, 2016

"Chewie, we're home": on Star Wars and nostalgia

Just after Christmas I had a piece in the Canberra Times, "Welcome back, Star Wars crew". I was talking about the new franchise film, and the power of nostalgia. A sample:
"Chewie, we're home." So proclaims Han Solo in the new Star Wars blockbuster, currently making the Kessel Run to franchise billions (Official Star Wars apples, anyone?). 
In ancient Greek, the homecoming was nostos, and the nostoi were men like Odysseus: agonised by longing for home. It is also the root of our modern word, nostalgia, which is like homesickness for the past. 
I recently saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my oldest friend, and it was an exercise in nostalgia. His wife and young daughters were cool to the franchise, and only I was able to comprehend the full Proustian measure of the evening: our childhood on the screen, updated and upsized, but otherwise left in all its kitschy glory. 
As an action film, The Force Awakens is exemplary popcorn stuff. Gorgeous visuals, perfect casting, and pacing that refuses to let you stop and think – all the hallmarks of a J. J. Abrams behemoth. But it is also a play of very familiar tropes, which work precisely because they are safe: characters and plotting that give the same old layer cake a dusting of the new. 
Like Abrams' Star Trek series, this film knowingly nods to its predecessor, providing fans with the requisite number of in-jokes and Easter eggs. This is not a criticism, but a recognition: the film thrills, but does not shock.

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