"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.
This is not to say the original Star Wars films were pure originals. It is absurd to call Abrams derivative, since the George Lucas universe is itself derived from earlier cinematic and mythic precedents. It is pulp, packed with the stock of Joseph Campbell, Kurosawa, war cinema, and more.
All art works involve influence, but Star Wars owes a huge debt to its precursors. And, again, this is no slur: as entertainment, it succeeds brilliantly. The point is that Abrams' new movie is a comfortable reworking of films that were themselves comfortable reworkings.
But this search for lost things is also uncomfortable. Watching the new Star Wars, I was keenly conscious of my own childhood, and its distance. I cannot regain whatever simple wonder I enjoyed, watching Luke sulk on Tatooine, or slice Stormtroopers. I've a glimpse of it; a reminder of older astonishment or joy. Yet this is an adult pleasure. I am revelling, not simply in the film, but in the way the story and cast present me with an idealised view of what was (and who I was). And this always contains some pain, because the only reason I enjoy it is because I am no longer it. For the most part, children don't need nostalgia.
Interestingly, this prompts me to want more Star Wars. Until the next blockbuster, the most instantaneously gratifying way to dine on ashes with no unpleasant aftertaste is to keep eating: revisit the original films on disc or streaming video. Or read the comics or novels. Or play the console games. Or buy the figurines. Or eat the official grapes with Yoda on the packet.
I've avoided all of these so far, but the impulse itself is intriguing. Nostalgia requires novelty to keep from transforming into bona fide, ongoing discomfort or dejection.
This is relevant, as the nostalgia industry is enormous. The franchises now hoping to profit from my children – Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Marvel and DC superheroes, Lego, perhaps soon Ghostbusters – were all popular when I was their age. There are many reasons for their resurgence, from improved CGI to the increased need for nuance-light products that will sell well in any language. There is much matzo to be made from repackaged youth, and many young parents will find themselves drawn to familiar worlds and faces.
The problem is not mass amusement – humankind cannot bear very much reality, and we each have our distractions. In some cases, they also prompt reflection: on gender or class, freedom or enslavement, mission and mania. This thoughtfulness can extend, not only to the plots and characters, but also to the conditions that give rise to them.
Why is The Force Awakens' female lead, Rey, missing from toy sets? Given the ubiquity of the toys, how is writing corrupted by merchandising? How important is the conceit of plucky rebellion to the modern United States, in which protesting African Americans are assaulted? And so on.
The problem is that the nostalgia industry invites thoughtlessness. Its model of increasing investment is stoner Odysseus: not screaming for distant Ithaca or sailing home to brutal responsibility, but staying with the nymph Calypso while she dopes him with song.
Not really the stuff of adventure.
Damon Young is a Melbourne philosopher and author. His forthcoming book is The Art of Reading (Melbourne University Press).
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