[The author of this post has not seen “The Force Awakens," but this post contains possible spoilers. But what doesn’t these days? Still, reader beware.]
This weekend, the Force will awaken. X-Wings will soar. Lightsabers will clash. After three crushingly disappointing prequels, the world will get a “Star Wars” movie that actually looks, sounds, and feels like a “Star Wars” film.
That’s the light side.
The dark: You may have to watch Han Solo or Chewbacca or some character that you loved as a child (or adult) get slain by a new guy, Kylo-whats-his-face. To be honest, I’m not totally prepared to spend the holiday season mourning Han Solo.
And, in a way, we will all be culpable in his fate, because we can’t ever let a story end.
If you follow Internet speculation, Solo — smuggler, rogue, and pilot of the Millennium Falcon – is rumored to kick the bucket in this latest episode. This would not be without precedent. At the outset of each “Star Wars” story arc, an older character has bitten the dust. In the past though, these have always been individuals with whom the audience had only a fleeting relationship, such as graying Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), introduced to set the scene, impart wisdom, and then loan the movie some gravitas by dying.
Solo, however, is among the franchise’s best-loved heroes — warmer, shaggier and far more charismatic than the smarmy, unhip Luke Skywalker. But at 73, Harrison Ford is among the oldest original cast members and it’s possible that the actor doesn’t want to commit the better part of his next decade chasing intrigue in a galaxy far, far away. Regardless, his death – should it come — would be a major bummer.
I am not alone in dreading the Solo’s on-screen demise. The Internet is rife with fanboy anxiety over Solo’s fate. Most poignant: A Reddit discussion where the Wookiee-holy anguished over leaked box art from a “Force Awakens”-edition Lego Millennium Falcon. On the front of the package, Chewbacca and a new character, Rey, are seen piloting the spaceship. Solo’s figurine is listed only among the set’s contents, as if he’s no longer in charge of his own vessel. It does seem like a bad omen.
One underappreciated aspect of the original “Star Wars” trilogy was that the story ended. “Return of The Jedi,” the third installment in 1983, provided a concrete and final resolution to the series – the empire lost, the rebels won, the Ewoks sang “Yub Nub” and that was a wrap. Endings have since gone out of fashion, though. These days, a good franchise never dies, but returns eternally in reboots, rethinks, spinoffs and revivals. As media consumers, we seem to have outgrown a need for closure. Or maybe there’s just no incentive to provide it. We always want more. And by wanting more, we have created a bleak new reality in our genre fiction.
So long as our appetite remains, the galaxy can never truly be saved. It is always in peril. With each victory, a new and greater threat amasses over the horizon. Our childhood heroes are destined to struggle onward until they get old, run out of luck, or are conveniently written out of the script following an unsuccessful contract renegotiation. Han Solo may have to face the ultimate on screen, rather than simply live in our imaginations, where his fate can be paved over or simply ignored. You could argue that this is somehow a more “realistic” situation. After all, our loved ones do grow old and die. In films, these tragic touches inevitability add depth and emotional authenticity to our stories and help them to endure.
But, the thing is: “Star Wars” is not real. It’s a movie about space knights and faster-than-light travel. There is nothing realistic about it. And in this fantasy-oriented context, it is perhaps not out of line to accept “happily ever after” as an answer to “What happened next?”
You have to envy “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” superfans, since this doesn’t happen to them. Because those stories are based on preexisting literary works, there’s little chance the characters can be re-made into cinematic service. The worst fate that they can suffer is to be made a second or third time with a different cast and more current special effects.
“Star Wars” has no sole author. The films are the product of one man’s imagination (George Lucas), but also the labor of scads of writers, artists, and actors working across a variety of media. There’s accepted “canon,” but no core text to limit expansion. And even if you attributed sole authorship of the franchise to Lucas, it doesn’t matter anymore. He sold the whole galaxy to Disney, so he no longer has any say. Now we must acclimate to a new reality, where even in the realm of imagination, closure is only fleeting.
Of course, if “The Force Awakens” is a good movie – or better than the last three bad “Star Wars” movies — this would make Solo’s goodbye easier to swallow. After all, isn’t it better for Han Solo to die gloriously in a watchable film than for Indiana Jones (another staple ’80s hero played by Ford) to live on in a movie with aliens and Shia LaBeouf? I like to think so. Though, these days, death isn’t the obstacle that it once was, either. Fatigued with playing Ellen Ripley, Sigourney Weaver had her sci-fi heroine killed off in 1992’s “Alien 3.” Five years later, she was back on screen, cloned into existence for “Alien Resurrection.” Franchise finds a way. A young Han Solo spinoff flick is already in the works.
What will become of this latest set of heroes? Will our children or our children’s children live to watch Rey (Daisy Ridley) or Finn (John Boyega) croak on screen as a fourth trilogy series groans to life? Perhaps, by then, these tropes – X-wing duels, lightsaber battles – will seem exhausted of their possibility and excitement. We’ll all be too bored to carry on. At last, the opening crawl that greets each new film will finally creak to a halt and read “The End.”