The Internet, at this point, is just a contest to see who can make the most “Star Wars” references.
Yes, the destruction of the Expanded Universe in one swift stroke prompted millions of fans to cry out in terror and then be suddenly silenced. But “The Force Awakens” was a fun, cheerful exercise in reminding us what we loved about the franchise after the disaster of the prequels. “Rogue One” looks promising. Things are looking up. We have new movies slated every year until 2019.
So maybe this is a good time to talk about the State of the “Star Wars.”
I love “Star Wars,” as anyone who has ever met me can tell within seconds. My apartment looks like I don’t realize that “Star Wars” isn’t real life. I go to the Celebrations. I may or may not be dressed as R2-D2 right now.
But I cannot help the tiniest fragment of doubt about the path forward. Let me try to express it.
The thing that bothered people about “The Force Awakens,” broadly speaking, was that it was a work of fan fiction. It was too close to the original trilogy. It was so full of call-backs and mirrored the beats of the original so specifically that half the people stalked out of the theater indignantly and threw down their tickets and said, “Dang it, if I wanted to watch a plucky band of rebels destroy another, larger death star by disabling a shield generator while a youngster from a desert planet (advised by a short wise 800+ year-old) fought a Skywalker family member, I would have just watched ‘Return of the Jedi’!” (The other half threw down their tickets and said, “What’s this GIRL doing here?”)
Part of this mirroring was intentional: It was meant to reassure us that people knew what we liked about “Star Wars” and that those were the things they planned to give us from now on. And reassure it did.
But part simply reflects the fact that J. J. Abrams’s imagination is what “Star Wars” made it. “Star Wars” references come through his pores and that’s how he imagines things.
I use that phrase on purpose: It’s one I picked up watching “Star Wars.” That sequence of words used to describe a creative process just occurs to me now because it’s been drilled into my head over hundreds of watches of the “Star Wars” trilogy. Those words occur in the commentary that precedes the films on the gold-box VHS editions. “He’d borrowed from Wizard of Oz or Kurosawa films,” Carrie Fisher explains, “he’s just steeped in film lore so it just . . . came through his pores, and that’s how he imagines things.” That phrase is the phrase that springs to mind instead of other phrases because I’m the kind of “Star Wars” maniac who watched the films so many times that I memorized not just the movies but the commentary too. And that passion shaped the default words and phrases that I pick when writing, just as it influences the images and phrases and even the random numbers someone like Abrams picks when making movies. Part of the similarity was a deliberate homage; part was simply what happens when you grow up dreaming inside someone else’s mind.
George Lucas never had to prove that he was making a “Star Wars” film. So he could make things up and put them there without worrying — is this Star Wars-y enough? Is this canon? He said on the commentary to the first film that some things he put there for plot movement or story reasons, and other things for his own personal interests or psychological eccentricities, and other things he put there out of whimsy.
Perhaps this went too far. (Darth Icky, anyone?) But he had a kind of freedom that new “Star Wars” stories seem to lack.
There’s a creative freedom that you surrender when you decide you’re going to live in someone else’s world. It’s about more than whether or not you call coffee “caf” and what the name is for the “windows” on space ships (transparisteel, apparently). It’s about what kind of stories get told.
One of the reasons I was so excited to live in this New Renaissance of “Star Wars” things is the idea that it would expand the parts of the universe we could explore. “Rogue One” seemed to confirm that idea. So do comic books and games and the “Rebels” series. In the course of telling a universal story from Joseph Campbell’s Instant Myth cookbook, Lucas created a world where we all wanted to spend time. And now we were free to play there and meet new people — not just Jedi but smugglers, not just Skywalkers but also LITERALLY ANYONE ELSE IN THE UNIVERSE, FOR GOSH SAKE, PLEASE.
I don’t want “Star Wars” to reach the point that the Spider-Man franchise has, where, as the joke goes, “If I have to see Uncle Ben die one more time, I’m going to murder him myself.”
But then I look at the plans for the “Star Wars” franchise and: They are literally making a “Young Han Solo” movie. Dang it, we already had a Young Han Solo movie. It was called “Star Wars.”
There’s nothing wrong with fan fiction. Some of the best stories I’ve ever read were written on the Internet for free with no expectation of any compensation, about characters the writers didn’t own or ever hope to own. And so many great works are, fundamentally, fan fiction. Frankenstein was just “a modern-day Prometheus” stealing metaphorical instead of literal fire from the gods. “Ulysses” is a Modern Alternate Universe version of the “Odyssey,” set in Dublin. “Apocalypse Now” is “Heart of Darkness” transported to the Vietnam War. “West Side Story”? “Romeo and Juliet,” New York City Gangs AU.
“Star Wars” has become a multi-generational, modern-day myth, a world where we want to tell our own stories. But it is also the specific dream of a kid from California named George who loved racing cars and the works of Kurosawa and Flash Gordon and “Wizard of Oz” and old World War II dogfights. It’s a space opera, but it’s one specific space opera. Just look at “Star Trek”: superficially similar, names so close you confuse them without meaning to, but a radically different vision of what the story and the stakes would look like. Different conflicts, different cast of characters, different central themes, never mind the Abrams-ing of both.
Someone once said of Lucas that if he hadn’t lucked into being a filmmaker he would have built this same world in his basement. I believe that. But what impact does it have that we are dreaming all our dreams in the mind of someone who (according to Fisher’s memoir) very seriously told her that she could not wear a bra to play Princess Leia, because, quote, ‘there’s no underwear in space’)?
Much of learning to write and learning to create and learning to — be, is playing around in the worlds created by other people’s imaginations.
But what happens if you don’t surface? What stories never get told? What are we losing if every movie in theaters is from the minds of a select few — J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien and George Lucas and Stan Lee?
Lucas wanted to tell a universal story and, in the process, created a world with myriad stories in it. It seems likely that the rest of the new trilogy is going to revolve around the Ongoing Soap Opera that is the Skywalker Family. (At a certain point, you think, there have to be OTHER people in this galaxy worth hearing about.) But — and the recent GLAAD campaign for more representation in “Star Wars” brought this home even more — this is just one story in just one galaxy.
I hoped that setting up imaginative shop here would be freeing, not limiting. The fact that we’ve already told so many stories in this world would open it up to show corners and worlds and protagonists we haven’t seen yet.
So, that being said, if you are reading this from inside the machine, please email me. I have a Star Wars romcom to pitch you.