UDBHAV SETH | 13 DECEMBER, 2019
Like Poetry, it Rhymes: A Fan Journal of the Star Wars Generation
An explosion of inspiring fantasy and escapism
It comes to an end.
A saga of cinematic storytelling, spanning a gargantuan period of more than 40 years.
Mulled in the young mind of an experimental filmmaker in the 70s, fresh from his foray into offbeat sci-fi and looking to recapture the old magic of his childhood’s favourite serials Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, Star Wars was born.
And changed the world.
A cultural phenomenon like no other, the first film was released in 1977 and took the industry by storm.
It was a moment in US cinema upended by civil rights movements, war protests and political scandals. So the world needed a bit of hope. A bit of inspiration.
And Star Wars - with its mythological reworking of grand old wizards and young optimistic farmhands, and magical powers and the religious forces of good and evil - proved to be exactly what the world needed at exactly the right time.
An explosion of fantasy and escapism.
Fast forward to the 21st century when, after suffering two slumbers and two awakenings, the franchise finally draws to a close in December with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, putting a much awaited full stop to a story carried forward by three generations of tellers.
Revolutionising visual effects, music, sound and costume design all in one sweep, this series has spelled the character of blockbusters for as long as it has existed. And now it comes to an end.
And, if it wasn’t already obvious, I’m a fan. A big one.
Heartbreak will only be the first of the bazillion emotions that hit when the final credits sweep into frame, along with the rousing soundtrack by John Williams.
As a fan it pains me further to say that if a rosy picture of fandom had you fooled, let me burst the Death-Star sized bubble for you right away.
Star Wars fandom today is a war-torn battlefield of bloodlust and hate, racism and fear, misogyny, entitlement and anger all rolled into one - all bleak reminders, coincidentally, of Yoda’s characterisation of the Dark Side of the Force.
The fanbase grows perhaps, but the community is not what it once was. People have dived deep into the science of fandom, about how the joy of community and sharing and a common love can unite human beings across the globe at an extremely primal level that harkens back to the dawn.
When you throw a timeless story of mythology like Star Wars into the mix, you only exacerbate those feelings. But to a lethal fatal high.
Because in the eyes of many fans, the OG Star Wars, the only Star Wars deserving of respect, the only Star Wars bereft of any flaws or shortcomings and immaculate masterpieces of cinema, were the ones that lived and died in the 70s and 80s.
Everything after that? Steaming piles of garbage that should be tossed into the trash compactor and never looked back at again.
But criticism is only natural, in fact, the most productive part of art reception, right? And however they fared with fans, they must’ve been commercial successes? Especially when both revivals of the franchise, in 1999 (The Phantom Menace) and 2015 (The Force Awakens) were the highest grossing cinematic events of their years, hitting the billion dollar mark with throwaway ease?
Clearly people loved these movies and were not hesitant to shed their wallets at the theatre seats… right?
Perhaps George Lucas, the man behind this entire world, can shed a different light on this, from a Vanity Fair interview back in 2015 just months before Episode VII came out:
“You go to make a movie and all you do is get criticised, and people try to make decisions about what you’re going to do before you do it. And it’s not much fun. You can’t experiment. You have to do it a certain way. I don’t like that, I never did.”
Surely this is creative cowardice. Must be. How can you be daring enough to create art, and then shy away when the criticism starts rolling in?
So let’s turn to the fans. After all they’re the ones who consume these movies, so must have a vantage point untouched by fear of criticism to share their side of the story.
In fact, they did. In 1999.
All the fans who had grown up with the originals were ready. They were now older, being treated to a newer trilogy, and couldn’t wait to return to a world they had dreamed of throughout their childhood, created by a man they had loved.
And then Episode I came out. After nearly 2 decades of Star Wars hiatus.
And slogans filled the streets, outside malls, outside theatres…
“GEORGE LUCAS RAPED MY CHILDHOOD.”
And that was just the beginning.
Actors were panned, the movies were bashed, online portals became conduits for hate speech and verbal violence. Not just artistic decisions, but artists themselves were attacked for how stupid and dumb they could be to ‘ruin’ a franchise that had meant so much to so many.
The same thing happened in the 2010s. It’s happening again now.
The community simply doesn’t believe in critical discussions anymore. It doesn’t believe in level-headed analyses of the negatives and positives of a series that needs to evolve in order to be relevant.
What it believes in is bullying, intolerance and a rigid adherence to what they think Star Wars ought to be with no room for change.
Ever since The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980 and broke the mould of what Star Wars could be, straying from the light-hearted fun-filled action-adventure tone of the original to a more serious and sombre character study, with moral greyness, yet retaining a healthy dose of the fun that made the original great, fans have yearned for the original. They disliked this sequel for being too different.
The Phantom Menace was too political. Attack of the Clones was too sappy. Revenge of the Sith was too rushed. The Force Awakens was too similar to A New Hope - do something new! - and The Last Jedi was too different from The Force Awakens - stick to tradition!
There’s clearly a common thread running along all these criticisms.
The rose-tinted glasses shielding the original trilogy from any form of criticism became precisely the gaze directed at the newer entries in the series, which have somehow never been able to match up to the memory of a good time.
Because how can it? The collective nostalgia of an entire generation has distorted and elevated the original films to a stature of near-insurmountable perfection, and anything that fails to match up to that impossible standard is termed ‘not my Star Wars’. (Sound familiar?)
With that standard is unmet, the hate begins to flow from the Dark Side.
And evolves over the years into something too harsh to put in words.
Jake Lloyd, the actor who played a young Anakin Skywalker in Episode I, quit acting, got enrolled into a mental health institute, ‘hated his school life’ and called his childhood a ‘living hell’ because of the bullying and mocking he faced as a result of his ‘wooden’ performance in the film.
Ahmed Best, the actor portraying Jar Jar Binks, almost committed suicide because of the sheer venom in the backlash he received for his role - that single character became the fixation of all fans who derided the prequels, sparing nobody in their way to make their hate heard.
Kathleen Kennedy, Rian Johnson and JJ Abrams, the biggest faces of the new Star Wars era, have come under fire for being SJWs with a ‘corporate agenda’ out to inject underdeveloped female characters into the franchise in the name of women’s empowerment.
Petitions to fire them from the franchise and reboot everything from scratch, along with death threats levelled at the directors and writers for decisions that ‘destroyed’ their childhood’s beloved characters are still quite prevalent on forums.
Kelly Marie Tran has deleted her Instagram posts, openly citing the hate she received on the platform for portraying Rose Tico in The Last Jedi as being too harsh to maintain her mental health.
Any casual scroll through a YouTube video involving Star Wars will expose comment sections blowing up over critical arguments, which devolve quickly and steadily into name-calling and aggression, with several threads simply falling off because presumably one of the sides was too harassed to deal with online trolls and their violent speech.
George Lucas himself, perhaps the greatest casualty in this endeavour to create a property that ultimately was loved by millions, sold off his entire company to Disney for a whopping 4 billion dollars saying he felt too pressured to adhere to a fandom’s notion of what his creation should be.
This community no longer allows evolution. It no longer allows growth and change.
Being possessive of a piece of art that impacts you is nothing new, it’s only natural, and even beneficial as long as it encourages critical discussion. But when it drives an artist to literally escape the franchise they themselves once erected out of fear of fans, perhaps this suffocating resistance to change is exactly what needs to be tossed aside, like a lightsaber on Ahch-To.
The mytho-modern might, the very fuel that launched Star Wars into the stratosphere of cinematic popularity and has sustained it there, is also perhaps the best explanation for why this franchise generates such vitriol and hatred in its fanbase.
Creative decisions deserve to be questioned. They deserve to be panned and criticised and mocked. But in an age which seemingly prizes knee-jerk opinions thriving on polarisation above all else, where a balanced stance is sure to be drowned in a hailstorm of extremism, perhaps that age itself and its power needs questioning.
It is not a defence of art anymore. It is violence and harassment.
It is disheartening to see a fandom that once hailed the slogan ‘Star Wars is for everyone’ to evoke a feeling of friendship and love and acceptance of everyone, degrade into what it has become.
Its characters were representations of us, but were not us, because of their location in a galaxy far, far away - and that is why Star Wars became a symbol of inclusivity and unadulterated hopefulness in the 70s when it was most needed.
Many have already given up hope on Episode IX lifting the franchise from the apparent slump it’s in. And so does this fan hope to do as he sits down in an IMAX theatre on December 20, hoping this finale will at last bring together all camps of the fandom, to neglect their differences and dispel all hate, to a single united stand on what Star Wars means to them, and to generations of moviegoers.
So that they can take one last look.
At their friends…