In 1977, as an undergraduate physics student I had very little time to do much of anything outside of my studies. The May 25th, 1977 release of the original Star Wars movie coincided with the final exam schedule that Spring semester so perfectly that it seemed either that Hollywood was deliberately trying to sabotage the course outcomes of many college students or they were completely oblivious to who their audience would be; in charity, I suspect it was the latter rather than the former and that they were just setting the stage for a movie or sci-fi aficionado’s memorable summer. I remember this quite well as I went to see the movie at least 3 times over the course of that many weeks; and it played well into the summer that year.
Call this a review of the movie, if you like or call it what you will but, as a life-long Star Wars fan, this post serves as my reaction to this latest chapter in what has become the Star Wars series (it was never intended to turn into what it has become today).
One of the many lessons I’ve learned over the decades since those distant undergraduate days of 1977, is that some things in life should remain untouched as they were, as great memories; Star Wars is one of those things. That ship sailed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (metaphorically and, in some sense, quite literally for Star Wars). I’ve learned that attempts to “keep it going” or to “relive the experience” for many things or events in life never work out; its just never the same. We should learn from the memories, lessons in how to conduct ourselves with each other, that nothing is permanent with the one overarching truth that escapes many, that everything changes and nothing lasts forever.
Star Wars was a phenomenon of the times; it was more than just a cool, sci-fi movie. Science was cool with new science emerging all the time with great, new ideas; the Space Shuttle was in the design and testing phases; we just concluded a protracted, blood-soaked engagement in Vietnam; the last moon landing had occurred five years prior (Apollo 17); the nation was just recovering from the Nixon years (which officially ended in 1974 when he resigned); we were recovering from the tumult and aftermath of the Civil Rights movement; the precursor to the Internet was coming into its own with ARPANET expanding in 1981 with the NSF-funded Computer Science Network (CSNET), etc. Star Wars, later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope to retain chronological context with the new prequel episodes, was an outgrowth of that time in history; the cast of actors was as brilliant as it was unique with their personalities perfectly suited to their roles in what was to become an epic saga: Liam Neeson-as Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace and The Clone Wars (voice), Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Alec Guinness-the legendary Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original trilogy, among others. Each of the main characters were vibrant, alive and vital with the actors having those same qualities. With each new episode, starting with the original movie, regardless of the theme or the music score, there was always a positive quality, a hopeful, uplifting aura, a palpable sense for a bright future.
Over the decades since the original Stars Wars Phenomenon, and with each new episode, the cast of characters fulfilled a vital role in the success of the movie and in each subsequent episode. There was a timeless sense of hope, the sense that you are part of something much bigger than yourself, that there exists real altruism (the “Light” side of the Force), that good will ultimately triumph. From the original movie, and with each new episode, there was a consistency, a certain unbroken continuity or thread that was in play, a specific quality; each character was carefully cast for their role with a certain magic that made that character unique, special and not replaceable; moreover, there was the “magic of the force”, that there is this higher-power that those who follow a path less traveled will acquire and master. I can still hear “Luke, use the Force….”, the words of Alec Guinness as Obe-Wan. After each episode, you left the theater uplifted and hopeful, looking forward to the next. It is important to remember that these were the reasons we fell in love with Star Wars a long time ago. The qualities and reasons articulated above were completely absent in “The Force Awakens” and I feel sorry for the new generation of children and young adults who watched this movie, who probably clapped at the end, thought it was a good movie but have no idea what the original Star Wars phenomenon was about nor do they have any connection with it; this movie did a disservice to those people. Equally sad are the huge, record-setting box office sales for a film that could easily be described in two words: “total fail”. Not only were the afore described qualities completely absent, the movie, taken in its totality, was an affront and an insult to the memory and spirit of the original.
Much hype was made over the return of the original cast of characters, in particular Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher (now “General” Leia) and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker (they make you wait until the last scene to actually (re)-introduce his character). With or without such a strong historical context and connection to the original story, the demise of Han Solo was shameful by anyone’s standards for one of the original, principal characters. Who is “Ben”, the new dark Sith Lord? His identification was never made clear until Han referred to him in the first person as “my son” during a brief conversation wherein Ben proceeds to eliminate him with a treachery that would make Palpatine blush with envy. Ben was introduced as a de-facto new character, one that will surely be developed in future sequels (yikes!). That the original character of Han Solo should meet such an ignominious end, especially when Harrison Ford came back with such fanfare, was an offense to his memory! Han played such a pivotal role and was such a key member in the development of the saga, the trilogy’s success and the memories of countless fans, that to discard him as they did was obscene! Likewise for the planet-wide, physical destruction of the Galactic Senate and the seat of the Resistance! These whole aspects of the saga’s legacy are erased with the swath of a gigantic, new, red death ray! Millions of lives obliterated without any sorrow, demand for retribution or discussion among the survivors? This scene was just as bad as when Vulcan was summarily destroyed during Star Trek Into Darkness without nary an afterthought! That, in itself, was an abomination for another post.
Many segments of this film seemed as though they were pulled out of thin air and cobbled together with bits and pieces left over from previous episodes, perhaps to maintain continuity or out of a sense of completeness than for anything else. With the introduction of new characters and the perversion of existing characters (Luke Skywalker becomes this cowering recluse in hiding), it falls flat and fails simultaneously.
Lucas should have concluded the the saga with The Return of the Jedi. Since they didn’t and decided to continue the legacy with new actors and a series of “prequels”, the last such episode, Episode VI, The Clone Wars, should have been written and produced in such a way as to end it there. This reunion of sorts in The Force Awakens simply didn’t work; Han Solo is gone in a way that stains and disgraces his memory; Luke Skywalker is much older, having become a recluse in hiding, both running away from the character he used to be and running from the “First Order”; Rey, the new leading female role played by Daisey Ridley, is a non starter too; to her credit, she tries valiantly (and vainly) to make it work but simply can’t because she isn’t who the originals were, hence my opening comment that that some things in life should remain as they were, as great memories.
The movie left me sad, empty and ambivalent, something that none of the other episodes did. Many viewers and critics have raved about it I think more out of respect for George Lucas, the members of the original cast that played leading roles in this latest iteration, and the Star Wars legacy than for the substance of this film.
It is my hope that with the worldwide popularity, scope and extent of this film, a new-found interest and appreciation will be acquired for science and the STEM fields, specifically for astronomy. This is desperately needed as the world continues to spiral further and further into the darkness of ignorance and religious intolerance. What is needed today is the temperance of reason, borne of a new intellectual renaissance, not one that is compelled or coerced but inspired.
Recent discoveries by the Kepler Space Telescope are the fruits of a program of search and discovery to find our cosmic analog among the stars. Today’s astronomers, those who are at the forefront of research and discovery, searching for that special planet, that singular discovery that will change our perception of ourselves and our relationship with the cosmos forever in a profound and irreversible manner, were those first Star Wars fans of the 1970s. In a very real sense, this is the universe come full circle, looking back on itself in an act of conscious discovery. In a fitting close to this piece, let us take a look at a real-life Tatooine-like planetary system. Kepler-16 is a transiting circumbinary system, an early discovery by the orbiting Kepler Observatory and the first such system discovered. Kepler-16b is in orbit around Kepler-16B, a cool, M-class red dwarf star which, in turn, is in orbit around Kepler-16A, a K-class orange dwarf, somewhat smaller, cooler and less massive than our sun.
Apologies if this was a spoiler but some things in life are best left as they were-as great memories!