Episode VII and the Perils of Nostalgia

So, as you may have heard, there are some new movies coming out, about wars that take place among certain stars. And they are direct sequels to a trilogy that came out some time ago, dealing with some of the same characters and situations (including said intra-celestial police actions). In fact, most of them, pretty much. And technically, I guess they're sequels to another trilogy of movies dealing with the same subject matter, but chances are pretty good those films won't get referenced quite so much, if at all.

The project, if you haven't guessed already, is J.J. Abrams' sequel to Hot Dog... The Movie George Lucas' Star Wars saga, the first in what will almost certainly be a flood tide of new movies set in that universe. It's been in development for a while, but surprisingly few details have leaked out... and weirdly enough, there doesn't seem to be a huge groundswell of anticipation or speculation about the project, compared with the buildup to the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace back in 1997-99. Maybe it's due to burnout from the prequels, which no one (or at least nobody over the age of nine) seemed to like much. Maybe it's also because, unlike the '80s and much of the '90s, the franchise didn't go almost completely dark after the movies left the theaters, with only a trickle of books, comics, and games to keep the faithful going. (If you were born between the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983 and the publication of the first Zahn novel in 1991, you've probably never known a time when Star Wars wasn't on your radar.) And maybe it's generational: Growing up in the '80s, Star Wars was really the only big fantasy/SF/space thing going, apart from Star Trek, and that was always more of a niche thing that nerds and your chemistry teacher liked. Hell, back then even Disney couldn't sell animated features to kids. But today there's a wealth of megafranchises based on books, comics, games, other movies and TV shows, even friggin' toys, and unlike the many challengers to Lucas' throne back in the day, most of them are going strong, with sequels, spinoffs, and reboots galore. Abrams proved his blockbuster mettle working on two of them, Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, both based loosely on TV shows your grandparents might have seen. Come to think of it, your grandparents probably also saw the Star Wars movies too, likely so your parents could get both them and you out of the house during a long visit.

And that's the thing. If you're a certain age, and you managed to stay out of the house, you may now have little Star Wars fans of your own. There's a good reason why Disney purchased Lucas' space opera — it's one of the few proven cross-generational hits in existence, one that will still be around when other artifacts of Baby Boom and Generation X nostalgia have faded. Bond hangs up his Walther and tux, superheroes come and go, Indiana Jones retreats to his front porch to scowl at the neighbor kids blasting "War Pigs," the Transformers go the way of Detroit, Gandalf and the Bagginses hop the 3:40 to Valinor, the Enterprise warps back into syndication, but Star Wars remains cinematic gold. Even Jar Jar, Little Annie, and a couple of Ewok TV movies couldn't devalue its currency. And now that the uberfans like Abrams are in charge, it's likely that the movies will be closer in tone to the series' gold standard — the original trilogy, or at least, the Muppet-free ones, Star Wars and Empire. (Sorry, I just can't bring myself to say "A New Hope." It sounds like something Massengill would have sold in the '70s.)

In fact, it sounds a lot like the "new Star Wars" movie that everybody wanted back in the '90s — Luke and Han and Leia and their kids, with the Empire beaten but not vanquished, and the odd trip to Tatooine aboard the Millennium Falcon. Hell, it looks like there's even AT-ATs roaming around. So basically, it's an Expanded Universe story, circa 1993, though presumably it won't be quite as convoluted or baffling, and hopefully won't have centaurs or magical crystals or clones with dumb-sounding names. It will be, in effect, a two-hour-plus exercise in fan service, though in this case the potential audience is so mindblowingly huge that "fandom" is an abstract concept.

And that kind of bugs me. Say what you will about the prequels, but one of the things that makes them interesting — not "underrated" or "secretly great," mind you — is that they are anti-nostalgic. They don't make a huge effort to recreate the look or feel of the original films, especially in Menace, which in its best moments evokes the lush environments and shiny rocketships of an Alex Raymond Flash Gordon comic strip more than a Star Wars movie. Sure, we got to see the secret origins of Darth Vader and the Empire. We also got to see Tatooine back in the day, as well as Yoda and Obi-Wan, and lightsabers aplenty. But really, those don't amount to a big part of the prequels. Most of the time is spent on previously unseen worlds like Coruscant and Naboo. There isn't a whole lot of space combat, or guys in suits; the Millennium Falcon shows up once, maybe, but if you blinked during that one shot, you'd never know it. The most interesting character in the prequels is Qui-Gon Jinn, who was never mentioned at all in the original movies. Where the original movies tended to take place in sere, barren landscapes or endless Doctor Who-style corridors, the prequels have a distinctly cosmopolitan atmosphere, with exotic creatures and cultures. This was enough to trigger a fanboy hissyfit among purists, but it does give the later movies a sense of context: This diversity and weirdness was what was lost when the Republic became the Empire. If it had been portrayed with something a little more substantial than obnoxious frog men, Ren Faire planets, and unnecessary Wookiee cameos, it would feel almost tragic.

Abrams is a huge fan of the original movies — hell, he tried his best to reshape the first Star Trek movie in their image, with mixed results — so I'm guessing that we will not see Liam Neeson or Ewan MacGregor showing up as ghosts. Or references to midichlorians. Or lots of scenes involving the Senate. Or Naboo. Or Supreme Chancellor Binks. All of these are probably good things. But unlike Lucas, Abrams probably won't try to do anything different. We'll probably get, at best, a pretty entertaining movie that hopefully won't delve too deeply into the affairs of geriatric space heroes, but we won't get anything that takes any risks with the material. We will probably see TIE Fighters and X-Wings, we'll see lightsaber battles, we'll see star fleets jetting into hyperspace, we'll probably see that damn cantina. That's what the Mouse wants, it's what the fans want, and it's what the filmmakers want. But something may have been lost permanently when the movies ceased to be the sole property of an experimental filmmaker-turned-eccentric billionaire from San Francisco, and became another corporate franchise.

I have a bad feeling about this.