Death Star in a Bottle: Or Worries About Shrinking Star Wars Back Down to Movies
SPOILER WARNING: This post contains general Star Wars VII plot and content spoilers. For the sake of the two or three people who want the freshest possible experience of the film, and haven’t yet seen it, the OT Editors encourage commenters to use the “spoiler” button in their comment editing boxes to black out specific statements revealing details about the movie’s story.
I’ve never been particularly reserved about my criticism of JJ Abrams. I believed then and believe now that he’s a pretty mediocre storyteller – who confuses little callbacks, rote copying, and shameless plagiarism with continuity, homage, and progression. So my gaze, when it came to The Force Awakens was always going to be critical.
Still…I wanted to hope.
A brief digression. It’s become really fashionable to be a Star Wars fan over the last year or so. It’s understandable, of course, it’s the biggest pop culture event of the last ten years…and while I feel like one of those awful hipster people, drinking an awful over-hopped IPA, dressed in ratty flannel, maybe stroking an absurd, unkept beard and oddly well coifed hair style when I complain about how every Johnny Come Lately loves Star Wars, I think putting a bit of context out there on my fandom is important.
Google my name. While my blogging activities are the primary “hits” under my “nob de plume”, you’ll notice that mixed within them are a number of…well, not to put too fine a point on it, but extremely nerdy links (most notably is “starship volumetrics“). More specifically: Star Wars and Star Trek were an indelible part of my adolescence.
I’ll avoid getting into the gruesome details of WHY, but in my teens when I had decided going to school really wasn’t for me, I spent a lot of time consuming Star Wars. RPG supplements, Star Wars Adventure Journals, the video games (X-wing, TIE Fighter, Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, etc.), and the Expanded Universe novels. It’s perhaps not an exaggeration to say that I learned to read and write beyond middle school English on a steady diet of Star Wars and Star Trek novels. (If my writing sometimes seems perhaps a bit overwrought, now you know who to blame – Tim Zahn, Mike Stackpole, and Peter David!)
And then came online communities. Suddenly there were all these fans I could get in touch with who shared my interests! And I could talk to them (well communicate with them at least) through the magic of the internet! I rarely do things in half-measures, but yes, as the google search might show you, I became heavily involved in editing Star Wars games, joined some roleplaying communities, and made a (minor) bit of notoriety for myself. If relatively little of this (and NONE of my terrible Mary-Sue-ish attempts to ape the style of Zahn and Stackpole) survives to cause too much embarassment today, then it’s only to the grace of whatever divinity exists in the universe (side note – if any of my former partners in crimes against the English language are reading this, don’t even THINK of dredging up those old stories. I keep a lot of archives, I guarantee I have enough material to ruin you).
All that is a tedious way of saying: I take my Star Wars Very Seriously, THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
Now…back to The Force Awakens – or rather the issues that it raises for me.
The lead up to the film, of course, caused a fair bit of consternation. There was a lot of gleeful cheering and, I suppose, a sort of fandom pecking order based denouncement of anyone who liked anything other than just the first three movies (non-special edition of course), as though the fact that DIsney wanted to start over on the overall Star Wars canon was also a rebuttal of novels and games and all the rest. It was unseemly, but it wasn’t worth engaging. (For a particularly noxious example of this preening, see: Lee Hutchinson at Ars Technica)
Still, moving forward from that, there was a bit of a concern that kept growing as details of The Force Awakens started to leak…And that was – Disney seemed inclined to dramatically prune the SCALE of the Star Wars setting.
The first indications came when we saw that the antagonists looked to be some sort of Empire spinoff, while the “good guys” were going to be a “Resistance”. This, in essence, seemed to have consigned the idea that the Rebel Alliance was fighting a grand war to reestablish the Galactic Republic to the dustbin.
We were later told (with some clarification) that the First Order was not just the Empire reborn, but rather akin to Nazis fleeing to Argentina after WW2, and later taking power in the corner of the world they fled to. This made sense. In fact it was a neat way to limit the scale of the events in the upcoming film WITHOUT needlessly shrinking the rest of the setting…
Here’s the thing – there’s a fundamental contradiction between building a large, sprawling shared universe and a storyline where your protagonists are the Most Important People In the Universe.
It’s a contradiction that Star Wars has navigated with varying degrees of success. In the Original Trilogy, we didn’t really have a sense of just how large the rest of the Galaxy was, only that the portions of it we were dealing with was a relatively small portion of it. All three movies actually did a relatively good job of balancing the fact that the events were taking place on the relative fringe of the known Galaxy but also that there was a larger world Out There. In ANH this was accomplished through the juxtaposition of just how fringe-worldy Tatooine was, and with the fact that while the villains Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarken were evil bad dudes with a moon sized battlestation, they were still part of a larger government that was run by an Emperor who was off screen.
The Prequel Trilogy tried to show us what the Rest of the Galaxy, particularly the Old Republic looked like. It didn’t particularly succeed, because, frankly, showing the operations and machinations of a galaxy spanning civilization’s government from the inside is BORING. It’s not the sort of drama that translates well into a movie series (even, if, say a TV series on the same premise might eventually be interesting). Epitomizing this problem was the entire plot thread in The Phantom Menace of trade disputes and a blockade.
So it was, perhaps, understandable that when creating The Force Awakens, the idea would be to go back to the part of the Galaxy that worked for the Original Trilogy – leave the politics and city spires of Coruscant (or Hosnian Prime or whatever else) somewhere else, focus on events transpiring on the Rim.
…which is all well and good, HOWEVER…
JJ Abrams is bad, even notoriously bad at understanding the scale of space.
We saw indications of this in his Star Trek movies. Examples include the 30 second trip to Vulcan, the fact that Vulcan itself had Hoth orbiting around it at a close enough distance that Spock could literally watch Vulcan implode from its surface, along with the fact that you can get from Earth to the Klingon homeworld in 20 minutes according to Into Darkness. So it’s a known problem…
…and it rears its head in The Force Awakens.
Simply put: The entirety of the Galaxy feels really, really small. Yes yes, we’re told there’s a Republic out there, but evidently it’s such a minor player that a single blast from the Death Sta…sorry, Starkiller Base can basically destroy its entire government and military, leaving only a tiny number of “sort of” government sanctioned resistance fighters left in the Outer Rim.
I suppose for the sake of dramatic tension this is necessary, but it really does make the whole Galaxy feel like it’s being fought over by a small number of people, with a handful of planets instead of thousands, even millions of star systems in a universe with a well populated galaxy.
And I understand the storytelling reason to do so if viewed JUST from the perspective of The Force Awakens. By knocking out the entirety of the Republic’s Starfleet (as is implied both in the film and the novelization) you leave (evidently) the movie’s protagonists to fight off the Big Bad…which is a mistake.
Yes, movies are the most visible portion of the franchise and box office revenues ARE important. But even if The Force Awakens breaks all possible box office records (Avatar I would imagine, is the goal) that would still be box office revenue of around ~$1.5 billion. For comparison purposes, the year that Disney acquired LucasFilm (which, let’s remember there were no Star Wars movies being released then), LFL had a total revenue of about $850 million, of which a cool $200 million was just consumer merchandise.
And let me put this out there: The most important non-film aspects of Star Wars concern the ability of fans to place themselves into the setting.
The best books, the best video games, hell even the best fan productions have one thing in common: They created room for fans to place themselves into the setting ALONG WITH the characters from the movies.
The cult following that Star Wars Galaxies inspired wasn’t because it was a particularly well designed MMORPG in terms of quest content or combat. It was because, uniquely at the time, it very much allowed immersion into the setting. You could be a smuggler, a cantina owner, heck even a dancer and you could work that into your gameplay experience. Despite the fact that The Old Republic was and is a vastly superior experience from a simple gameplay perspective, it still doesn’t have the same cult resonance that Galaxies had for a good number of players.
Corran Horn and Mara Jade are perhaps the most popular Legends characters because, in spite of any bits of Mary Sue-ness, they were fully equal to the movie characters. The setting had room for them as characters and as people because of its sheer size.
The most memorable video games didn’t involve playing characters from the movies. Instead they were about other people playing a part in the greater conflict around them. Whether this was as a pilot in X-wing and TIE Fighter, or as mercenary turned sort of Jedi Kyle Katarn in Dark Forces and Jedi Knight. Bioware of course gave us one of the most memorable forays into Star Wars by abandoning the time period near the movies entirely and took us thousands of years into the past. The enduring popularity of Knights of the Old Republic and its spinoff works (and the oblique references to it that keep showing up in even post-“Reset” works) speaks to the enduring appeal of the story told in that setting.
And based on the fact that Rogue One will be a spinoff featuring completely new characters as a war movie within the Star Wars setting, suggests, at least, that Disney understands that maintaining a relatively expansive universe will be a key part of maintaining Star Wars as a cultural Force.
Yet for now we’re still stuck in a bottle world. The Force Awakens gave hints of a wider world before smothering them to make the importance of the characters more central. But it’s clear, I think, from the reception of the movie, that the characters themselves can survive outside of the nostalgia crafted cradle that Abrams so meticulously created. And the rest of the franchise needs to follow suit.
Give us a new generation of Kyle Katarns and Revans. Show us how some of our old favorites might find life in this new Star Wars universe.