Nostalgia and Familiarity

Leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I rewatched both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to try to get a sense for the trilogy as a whole. I also brushed up a bit on the critical and fan reactions, curious how Lucasfilm and Disney have responded to the feedback and continued to shape the narrative of the Star Wars film canon.

As many, many other people have already commented, I was interested in how making new Star Wars films is inevitably an exercise in controlled nostalgia. Many of us grew up watching the original films, and for people like me who have been fantasy/science fiction geeks since childhood, Star Wars influenced our games and stories and home videos and family cultures. We had a number of LEGO sets from the prequels trilogy, and my brothers and I spent countless hours retelling Star Wars stories and making up our own.

Fan responses to the new Disney Star Wars seem to divide along the twin fault lines of “too much like the originals” and “too different from the originals.” Force Awakens was criticized, rightly or wrongly, for being too derivative of A New Hope: a lonely orphan on a desert planet learns he/she has force powers, while a desperate Rebel agent secures crucial information (stored in a robot) for overthrowing the bad guys, and the final showdown is blowing up a big space station with the awful power to destroy other planets. Last Jedi on the other hand, was criticized, rightly or wrongly, for forging too much of its own path: Luke’s character arc seemed to reverse foundational cornerstones of the Jedi/Sith legend, the new developments in force powers went far beyond previous films, and the exploration of issues like intergalactic weapons dealing and slave trading was more serious than one had come to expect from the space opera series.

To be fair, nostalgia and familiarity were also a primary rubric I used for evaluating how much I enjoyed the new Star Wars. For me, Force Awakens was actually the perfect amount of nostalgia, grounding viewers firmly in the Star Wars tradition with X-wing fighters and light sabers but making very real changes to the universe: storm troopers are no longer faceless automatons, for instance, and the visible diversity among the main cast is a clear update from the ’70s and ’80s. On the other hand, Last Jedi didn’t feel particularly like a Star Wars film to me, with its extremely time-focused structure and its endless side plots, although I appreciated its ambition and attempt to open deeper questions. Rise of Skywalker, then, felt like a capitulation to nostalgia, literally resurrecting Emperor Palpatine and retreading the halls of the Death Star, delivering storytelling that is safe and satisfying but not challenging.

This balancing act seems to be present in all speculative fiction, or at least I find myself trying to walk it in my novels, whether they are high fantasy, portal fantasy, or alternate history. When describing worlds and magic that don’t exist, I want it to feel grounded and real enough for readers to enter into the illusion, but I also want it to be different enough to take readers beyond themselves and the stories they tell themselves about life. Too similar to what readers already know, and the story doesn’t feel like magic and discovery. Too different, and readers don’t know how to engage with or relate to the story. Somewhere in the middle, and readers will feel the comfort of familiarity but also the pull of the unknown at the same time.

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