Warning: minor spoilers ahead…
It took a bit of cajoling to get my 14-year-old niece to see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. A whole generation ago, I queued up, also aged 14, to see the very first film, Episode IV: A New Hope, with its groundbreaking special effects and full orchestral soundtrack.
For those of us who were teenagers or children when Star Wars first began, this new film was bound to be partly a nostalgia trip, with the three leading actors returning 40 years older. But would it also succeed in taking the story on into a future that we were interested enough to enter?
Many critics have commented on the plot similarities between Episodes VII and IV. The droid escaping with vital information, then rescued from scrap dealers, is both R2-D2 and BB-8. The talented young pilot tied to an unfulfilling job on a desert planet is both Luke and Rey. The secondary hero who abandons the rebel cause, only to return when he realises how much he’s needed, is both Solo and Finn. Starkiller Base is just another Death Star, destroyed this time almost with a flick of the wrist by the same little old X-wings.
So the film seems heavily weighted on the side of the past. The grief of the decades since the defeat of the Empire certainly burdens Han Solo, Leia Organa and (so we’re told) Luke Skywalker. Han has lost his youthful cockiness, replacing it with looks and gestures that say clearly ‘I’m past caring.’ The new characters struggle just as hard to leave old identities behind: Rey is held on Jakku by the empty hope that her family will return, and Finn is haunted by his stormtrooper upbringing. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren resists the call of the light by praying to a relic – Darth Vader’s melted helmet.
Even the film’s central non-living ‘character’, the Millennium Falcon, is heavy and cumbersome on her first outing, barely able to get off the ground. For me, though, the Falcon is the fulcrum on which the scales turn. This neglected piece of ‘garbage’ is an emblem of a mythical past, but, once unveiled, unshackled and soaring into space again, she remains the most beautiful starship in the galaxy, with the potential to carry forward an exciting reawakened hope.
My favourite new character, the wise seer Maz Kanata, is the one who voices the change of focus from past to future, telling Rey, ‘The belonging you seek is not behind you; it is ahead.’ The word ‘nostalgia’ means literally ‘home-sickness’. It’s tempting always to hark back to the well-loved homes of years gone by, but if the new trilogy is to capture our hearts in the long term, it needs to lead us to unfamiliar places that we can also call home.