The Millennium Falcon, the Magic Kingdom, and the Problem of Smooth Surfaces
We may see Luke and Leia in their 50s. We may meet Leia and Han’s child. Disney’s purchase of LucasFilms and the announcement that J.J. Abrams will be directing the next Star Wars episode have led to many to make predictions about what we will find in these yet-to-be-created movies. This speculation is fueled by the fierce love that so many feel for the original three films which were released in 1977, 1980, and 1983. Thinking about the future of this series is an occasion for millions to long once again for the opportunity to fight with light sabers. It is also an occasion to think about that time, 35 years ago, when so many people fell in love with this story, and to think about what has changed since then.
I came to Star Wars late. I’m really not sure how I managed to avoid these films for almost three decades of my life. I had been dating my boyfriend for a year when he discovered my secret. It was New Years Eve. We were sitting next to each other when a friend asked, “Have you ever seen Star Wars?” I had to answer truthfully, and face confusion and horror from the man I loved. I’ve always known the broad strokes: Vader is the bad guy; Luke, Leia, Yoda are good guys. Vader is Luke’s dad. Things happen in space. But for a long time I had listened to friends and acquaintances talk about Boba Fett or ewoks and tried to hide my ignorance.
By the time we watched the movies together, my boyfriend had become my fiancé, so I came to Star Wars with the eyes of an adult, paying close attention because I was seeing something that had been important in shaping the man I was going to marry. I noticed lots of things I would have noticed as a kid—Leia is an ass-kicker, Han is so roguish, Luke looks really cool in a cloak. But I also noticed how the technology we imagined is far more visceral than what we managed to create. The movies claim to take place a long time ago, but it’s impossible to see people flying through space, men who are half-man and half-machine and swords made of laser without reading this world as a vision of the future. We have seen the future that could only be imagined when those movies were made. Technology has changed so much since then and so have our ideas about how machines should look. I don’t think Disney can recapture that feeling of romantic and complicated looking machines, because our expectations have altered.
The Millennium Falcon is referred to as a “bucket of bolts”. It has visible bolts and Han and Chewey repair it with rough tools. The Millennium Falcon, and even the Death Star, aren’t smooth. On the inside, they have blinking buttons people have to push. From the outside, they are a complicated series of planes. There is an xkcd cartoon where one character laments the failure of reality to live up to science fiction. He says, “I want my flying car.” A second character retorts, “You’re complaining to me using a phone on which you buy and read books, and which you were using to play a 3D shooter until I interrupted you with what would be a video call if I were wearing a shirt.”
Rather than exploring in our own personal flying machines, we have miniaturized the world, beamed it into space and then sent it back down to our palms. But to me, the biggest divergence between where we have gone and where we imagined we would go is the sleekness of our machines. We touch the same pane of glass to buy plane tickets, call our mothers and order pizza. It all feels the same; it feels like nothing at all, a perfectly polished surface. Once we dreamt of traveling through the stars, moving at the speed of light, encased in a machine that rattled. Now, we all hold our breath in anticipation of the newest iphone. Gorilla Glass aesthetics have encased our imaginations.
Since we first watched Star Wars together, my fiancé has become my husband. Disney buying Lucasfilms has had a greater impact on our marriage than you might expect. It changed our plan for raising a hypothetical daughter. We had agreed that if we were to ever raise a girl she would not become an acolyte of the Disney Princesses. Friends who have daughters have laughed at this. “Try it,” they say. The first relative who gives her a Princesses backpack, try telling that well-meaning aunt that you’re censoring the Princesses. Try telling a five-year-old she can’t share her friends’ toys. Try to protect your child from yearning too deeply for an impossibly narrow waist and soprano voice. We held on to this plan for a girl who might never exist despite those warnings. But if Leia is joining Team Princess we have to relent. Since my husband himself owns a Leia doll, he could never prevent his daughter from doing the same.
Carrie Fisher was pressured like every movie star to present the world with an unattainable ideal of physical beauty. She was told to lose 10 pounds when she weighed only 105. Still, Leia seems a very different kind of princess. She also seems quite distant from Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow in The Avengers or Jessica Alba in the Fantastic Four. For me, the discovery that Luke and Leia were siblings was far less surprising than the discovery that they had pores. The actors in the original Star Wars movies look like people. They look like attractive people but they look like actual people you might meet in your actual life. This is a contrast to today’s action stars whose skin and bodies on screen so closely resemble the plastic figurines that will be sold to fans of the movies. We’ve gotten so much better at presenting the unattainable.
In both bodies and machines, this trajectory towards the smooth serves to limit access. Apple insists that to repair one of their devices you must be a genius, far from the more populist vision of Han Solo wielding a screwdriver. Whole libraries of text have been written about the quest for the unattainable Hollywood look. One recent and very affecting commentary about the difference between a real body and what pop culture now posits as a beautiful body is a series of photos by Dagmar Keller and Martin Wittwer. Pictures of models are laid across non-retouched people, so we see flesh complete with moles, hair, scars, and softness next to magazine gloss. The yearning for a flat surface is very popular and very costly. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, in 2011, Americans paid for 1,078,612 laser hair removal procedures and 1,110,464 chemical peels.
I hope that we get to see Leia, aged and now a queen. I hope the pores and wrinkles are in full view.
I also hope we get closer to Lucas’ original vision for the story. Star Wars lies the way all action movies lie—it claims war can have a happy ending, but that wasn’t the plan initially. In Lucas’ original plot, Han died, Leia was left struggling with new responsibilities and Luke went off at the end haunted and alone. Obviously, that wasn’t what we got. These movies have a messiness that I admire—machines have bolts, skin has imperfections, but violence in Star Wars is perfectly clean. A planet disappears in a puff of smoke. Leia, presumably this planet’s last surviving resident, looks sad for a moment; then promptly moves on. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s body doesn’t die; it disappears. Leia is put in chains and groped by a monster, but that groping isn’t shown on screen, only her reaction is visible—again merely momentary unhappiness. The texture of violence gets wiped away so a movie where millions of people die can have a happy ending and a scene of sexual slavery can become a symbol of eroticism to a generation. And billions of dollars of merchandise can be sold.
Robert Iger, Disney CEO, said about the purchase of Lucasfilms, “This transaction combines a world-class portfolio of content including Star Wars, one of the greatest family entertainment franchises of all time, with Disney’s unique and unparalleled creativity across multiple platforms, businesses, and markets to generate sustained growth and drive significant long-term value.” He mentions markets and franchises but not storytelling or characters. Of course, Disney’s goal will be to make money. And it’s likely they will not see depicting characters facing middle age, technology that now seems antiquated, and a more complicated view of war as the best way to make money. But I am now a Star Wars fan. I have gone from knowing only the broad strokes to caring about what happens in that galaxy far far away. So despite the odds, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
I’ll keep hoping that Disney—that incomprehensibly large corporate machine not often thought of as a site for creative courage –might tell a story set a long time ago that feels relevant to today, a time when America is engaged in multiple wars, a time when touch screens and plastic surgery abound. I’ll keep hoping they make a movie we might someday be excited to show our kids.