The World Is Ready for ‘Star Wars Episode VII’


Back in 1977, a new film named Star Wars: A New Hope burst onto the scene like a ship from hyperspace and changed pop culture forever. The film is one of those unexpected greats that came from out of nowhere and became a runaway success overnight, later going on to define a generation of moviegoers. A New Hope‘s successes have been largely attributed to George Lucas’ use of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth: it’s a timeless story of an orphaned farm boy from humble origins who goes on to rescue the princess, discover his past, acquire special powers and abilities, learn from his older mentor, and ultimately defeat the evil Empire.

However effective Lucas’ implementation of classical epic story telling tropes, it should not be forgotten that Star Wars, although a timeless tale, was also highly relevant to its time and to America, the nation that it was created in. The films’ heroes and protagonists, the rebels, are a ragtag group of plucky outcasts who fight back against the brutal and totalitarian Galactic Empire that seeks to control their lives. The villains are Imperialists who speak with British accents, dress a bit like Nazis, and have created a superweapon capable of destroying entire planets: a sci-fi analogue for Soviet nuclear capability. It is an all-American tale in which the heroes represent the United States’ own mythic self-image as a heroic underdog fighting against the overreaching hegemony of the British Empire, the brutal war machine of Nazi Germany, and the global existential threat of the Soviet Union. The rather vaguely named “Galactic Empire” is like all three of these rolled into one, a somewhat generic enemy for our protagonists to be pitted against.

The relief on Luke Skywalker’s face that comes immediately after firing the proton torpedoes down the exhaust port of the Death Star is akin to the relief of Americans and Westerners imagining the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union. Though this association may have been unconscious at first, it later became abundantly clear that the film’s narrative themes had a profound effect on pop culture and society at large, eventually leading President Ronald Reagan proposed Strategic Defense Initiative to be dubbed “Star Wars” by the media. The plan to protect the United States from Soviet missile attacks was an aggressive and proactive stance against what Reagan called the “Evil Empire”. Whether intentional or not, the original Star Wars trilogy captured the feeling of a nation fighting for its survival against a monolithic enemy and a world teetering on the edge of annihilation.

It’s safe to say that the laser swords and swashbuckling heroics made Star Wars a media juggernaut like no other, one that sold millions of action figures and lunchboxes and spawned dozens of cheesy space opera rip-offs. However, these allegories for our modern world and America’s identity as the underdog champion of individualism triumphing against faceless totalitarian domination are also a critical component to the success of Star Wars, and one of the reasons it has created more impact than other franchises like Flash Gordon, Blake’s 7 or Buck Rogers


The massive disappointment felt worldwide by fans of the original films after watching the prequel trilogy can also be attributed to underlying themes and overall style as much as the quality of the film’s themselves. When people turned up for the new Star Wars, they probably expected more charming rogues like Han Solo saving princesses from evil emperors and thrilling heroics in forgotten places at the edge of space. What they got instead was an operatic backdrop of a peaceful but corrupt republic seeing itself distorted into a totalitarian regime, with less of a used universe feel and instead more of a polished look of a civilization in its prime. The prequel trilogy feels like a different format, with the good guys being the ones who are established and organized, and the bad guys (the separatists) are the ones fighting from the outer rim. The most exciting parts of the newer trilogy come at the tail end, when the clones have finally turned on the Jedi and we see the beginnings of the rebellion against the new empire, with the few honest senators left, such as Bail Organa and Padme Amidala, running for their lives and having to hide away until they can regroup.

The prequel films still made a substantial amount of money, and sold a ton of merchandise – of course they did, they were Star Wars films — but they failed to capture the zeitgeist as brilliantly as the originals, and as a result they left many disappointed. In the end, it was the Wachoski brothers’ The Matrix that defined its generation on the big screen; furthermore, it was the new wave of cooler cyberpunk films that dominated the box office, rather than hokey old space operas. A new generation of mind-bending films such as The Matrix, Fight Club, The Truman Show as well less often remembered gems like Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, Existenz, and The Game captured the spirit of the time due to their dissatisfaction with industrial society and the boring, meaningless lives their protagonists in each film begin with. They also draw on postmodern philosophy to herald the new digital age and our cultural anxieties about cyberspace and mass media saturation. These seedy cyberpunk films stole the show whilst traditional sci-fi stories were relegated to goofy parodies like Men In Black, Galaxy Quest and The Fifth Element.

Star Wars was almost the sole survivor of the old guard of traditional space opera stories to remain financially successful at the time. (Star Trek was petering out at this point.) But instead of a tale of underdogs fighting against impossible odds, we were treated to ham-fisted love stories and the endless “space politics” that fans still like to complain about. With the prequel trilogy, Star Wars remained a big budget franchise, but it closed on a disappointing note, and space operas in general fell out of favour with mainstream audiences for a while.

Fast forward to 2015, and it appears that the prequel films were more prescient than they first appeared, although their thematic messages may have been premature. In the wake of 9/11, our own governments in the West have taken the fear of terrorism and used it to enact increasingly draconian security measures in the name of national defense. We have also seen the militarisation of police forces, in addition to massive breaches of personal privacy and civil liberties by the NSA and CIA. It is almost as if our own republic has fallen, edging closer to a tightly regulated police state in order to defeat an elusive enemy, though there has as yet been no grand declaration and no thunderous applause.

However, despite the warnings of conspiracy theorists, the world has in many ways changed for the better, and the early 21st century has seen rapidly accelerating social change on a scale never seen before. So far, it has been a great century for riots and insurgencies, with events like the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring taking center stage in the media and changing the way we see democracy. News channels everywhere are filled with images of riot police and protestors, of picket signs and megaphones. As silly as Star Wars may seem silly to adults, what with its lasers and starships, the new franchise may well become the next great sci-fi film trilogy, if the creators can tap into this very obvious undercurrent of rebellion and social upheaval. If the new show “Star Wars: Rebels” on Disney XD is anything to go by, then the tone of the franchise has most definitely moved away from senate meetings and towards stories of plucky rebels taking on the empire and defeating depersonalising fascism with individual heroism. The show’s characters are dropouts and runaways who use sabotage and even graffiti to fight the Empire. Perhaps this will be a mirror to some of the rebel spirit in our own world today.

From a purely entertainment perspective, it is worth noting that the return of Star Wars is well timed to land in the sweet spot to capitalise on recent film trends. With audiences growing tired of the endless gritty reboots of the ’00s, a host of new films are taking over, taking things in a more light-hearted and fun direction. What began with Marvel’s surprise hit Iron Man has grown into something hugely popular. Robert Downey Jr.’s cocky, irreverent Tony Stark set the tone for future Marvel films, which have since overtaken DC in terms of popularity and ticket sales.

Iron Man led to a shift in pop culture away from making things as realistic and complex as possible. The ’00s were defined by films like the Bourne series and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Films like those are also enraptured by new developments in CGI, in addition to a need to make everything from the X-Men to secret agents feel mature and realistic, and, of course, dark.

In the past few years, however, big blockbusters have become more colorful and playful, while traditional sci-fi storylines have started to be making a comeback. Star Trek has been rebooted to huge success, but the real surprise achievement is Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which came out of nowhere and got everyone talking (and, based on the popularity of its soundtrack, singing). Marvel’s multi-step plan for their upcoming films shows that they are clearly broadening their cinematic universe and bringing in a space opera angle. Other superhero films will have to follow suit and add a new angle in order to keep audiences interested, such as incorporating time travel elements like the recently released X-Men: Days of Future Past did. With the possible return of space opera as a viable alternative to yet more gritty origin stories, now is the time for the return of the granddaddy of them all to show the kids how it’s done: Star Wars.

Based on what we have seen so far, the new film looks set to undo the damages of the prequel trilogy. Though it won’t please every nit-picking fanboy, the signs are all there that we are in for something special. The film takes place back in the original trilogy era, several years after the story of our heroes Han, Luke and Leia. The rejection of over-reliance on CGI has finally come full circle, with JJ Abrams promising fans that there will be more physical props. Now that George Lucas has finally left the driver’s seat, we can expect to see a much fresher take on Star Wars, one that hopefully combines the best of the classic films with modern storytelling flair. The Force Awakens sounds similar to A New Hope and is a lot more Star Wars-y than The Phantom Menace. Witha new cast and a director who is arguably in his prime right now, the time has never been better for a rekindling of the franchise. Apparently, the new movie is so faithful to Star Wars it made Kevin Smith cry — so there’s that, too.

There is one more important aspect of the new film that could help change the destiny of pop culture, an often overlooked x-factor that science fiction has gotten right before: gender. Over the past decade we have seen a huge cultural shift in entertainment, with nerd culture going mainstream and more and more girls and women engaging in the science fiction and fantasy genres than ever before. The true fangirls will tell you they were there all along, but it’s hard not to notice this massive change in demographics as hugely popular franchises like Marvel, DC, Doctor Who, The Hobbit, Game of Thrones, and Harry Potter all share legions of fans, half if not more of whom are comprised of girls and women. Alongside this, there has been an increase in women playing video games. This new world of nerd culture has so far been somewhat underrepresented in the actual media it consumes so rabidly.

With the casting of Daisy Ridley as (hopefully) the main protagonist, the filmmakers stand to tap into this market, and hopefully create a seismic shift in popular science fiction that will have knock on effects to other franchises. A female equivalent of Luke Skywalker at the centre of the new trilogy would be a huge development along the lines of say, a female Doctor. Other great actresses such as Gwendoline Christy and Lupita Nyong’o are also signed on, which is a good indication that we are moving away from the almost entirely male cast of the previous films. If the team behind the new Star Wars play their cards right, we may have the next Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley in cinemas very soon.

The signs are strongly indicating that the new Star Wars will both herald and be the center of a new decade of space opera and fun movies that capture the imagination. Forget about the gritty realism of the past decade, and get ready for a decade of popcorn perfection that may well rival the ’80s in terms of sheer cheesiness and entertainment. The stars are aligned and the time is right. The world is ready for Star Wars Episode VII.

Paul Gibbins is an English Lit graduate who enjoys analyzing pop culture and science fiction to find what they say about who we are.


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