Nostalgia Is Not What You Want

This post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

It’s December, and you know what that means: Star Wars season. Every year we see a new rush of anticipation. What’s next for the Skywalker Saga? How are Rey, Finn and the gang? Will Jar Jar Binks ever make an appearance to redeem himself?

All of these are worthy questions for any fan of the franchise. But sometimes we can take it even further. What does it all mean? What are the connections and clues to find out? What mysteries can we solve? All this speculation is so commonplace today, in a post-Marvel Cinematic Universe world. Everything is connected to everything else. That’s what being a fan is all about.

So we scour the internet and check all the clues and make all the connections. It’s how these major media franchises have consolidated their dominance. There is a whole massive industry around reminding people of the previous movies in their franchises and cashing in on fan theories. It’s no coincidence that the rise of sci-fi and fantasy and other “nerdy media” has coincided with the rise of the Internet.

And so pop culture has become infinitely more complex and interconnected to rise alongside our expectations. Rey must be a Skywalker, see all the clues. Modern fandom, with all its bells and whistles, encourages this. It’s no coincidence JJ Abrams was chosen to helm both the recent relaunches of Star Wars and Star Trek. This kind of complex clue-baiting fanservice is his specialty.

It’s all designed for nostalgia. Using callbacks and clues to make you remember media from the past. To generate a fandom and manufacture a whole cultural phenomenon. All you need is the right amount of fanservice and you will be wildly successful. We see it now with the revivals of Ghostbusters and Full House and Jurassic Park and Independence Day and Twin Peaks and X-Files and Will and Grace and everything else. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.

But here’s the thing about nostalgia: memories change. We don’t actually remember what we think we do. Sometimes we create false memories. Sometimes we forget details and paper them over with our emotional state at the time. And sometimes our own memories are replaced by those of the cultural memes created by social media and our interactions with others.

There are smarter words than these to be said about the demise of the cultural metanarrative, and how its absence allows for millions of fractured misunderstandings. But it can simply be stated thus: It’s not the movie you remember. It’s your childhood memory of watching the movie.

In regards to Star Wars, this was especially evident when The Phantom Menace came out and reaction was… mixed, to say the least. I’ll never argue that the Star Wars prequels are some masterpieces of form and nuance and subtlety. But unlike the original trilogy, which are very formulaic, basic stories told well, they had an ambition for complex stories that fell completely flat in execution. We forget that, because our nostalgia for the old movies overrides their flaws.

Talk about Star Wars “getting political”: the prequel trilogy is a story about the failure of normal democratic institutions to check power on a tyrant, and how capitalists collude with state power to exploit natural resources and enslave entire planets for the creation of a neverending fascist war machine. How liberal institutions like the Jedi or the Senate become complicit when faced against bad faith actors like Sidious, who will lie about anything to gain power.

You could be forgiven for missing all this, when the movies themselves decided to focus on how sand gets everywhere. And those pesky midi-chlorians.

You ever hear about how much I hate sand? It’s not a story the Sith would ever tell you…

In the face of nostalgia, of the brilliantly constructed childhood memories of Star Wars, did The Phantom Menace even have a chance? Of course not. And especially when we saw a whiny kid, a terrible new character with an ear-piercing voice, and the worst sin of all: midi-chlorians.

Midi-chlorians have been derided and denounced by fans of all kinds. Culturally we have built so many memes around them. It ruins the movies, we say, it ruins the Force. It’s the epitome of a creator running unchecked, forcing his bad ideas on the world. By reducing the cosmic mystery of the Force into something biological and physical. The Force isn’t an energy field, it’s actually created by midi-chlorians? The backlash to this has been cited as precedent over and over again for the reason art and media shouldn’t go into unnecessary backstory. You might make the midi-chlorian mistake.

Except… there’s nothing in the movie itself to justify this kind of outrage. So forget everything you know, or thought you knew, about midi-chlorians. Forget all the memes and go back to the source. What are they? They are just beings that are attracted to beings with high propensity for the Force in the same way moths are attracted to light, or how elite athletes have higher levels of muscle density. It’s a biological process.

Despite common fan misconceptions, the midi-chlorians were never presented as “creating” the force, nor as simple indications that having more midi-chlorians makes you more powerful. It was just a name given to a biological process, in the same way we call happiness “serotonin”.

Midi-chlorians are similar enough to, and named after, human mitochondria. The “powerhouse of the cell” which quite literally provides our cells with life in ways we can’t describe. Mitochondria even have separate DNA from the rest of our bodies. We may as well call them mysterious beings in our cells which connect us to life and the universe. With a connection like this, it could make perfect sense for the Star Wars universe.

But the outrage about midi-chlorians isn’t about what was actually stated in the movie. It’s about the false idea that people think they remember from the movie. And that can make all the difference.

Now, their inclusion in the movie was an awkward and inelegant way to try to explain things, and certainly added nothing relevant to the story nor the world at large. In that sense, they are a bad plot point, but just that: a plot point. Mentioned once and never again. But from the point of view of a “fan”, it’s some cultural affront to what you hold dear, as if George Lucas himself had personally betrayed you and millions of others. As if the “fans” are the ones in control of the narrative.

And it’s not just midi-chlorians. Fans everywhere have been in an uproar for years about the end of Revenge of the Sith, when Padme dies at the end of a “broken heart”. That’s completely ridiculous. Except… did she? Is that what happens in the actual movie itself? Retrozap’s Joseph Tavino went viral a few years ago with his exhaustive analysis of the scene.

But once again: nowhere in the text of the movie, or its subtext, has anything to do with Padme dying of a broken heart. Fan outrage was manufactured once again, not by any poor storytelling decisions in the movie itself, but by a narrative about the movie that fans decided to tell. They wanted their nostalgia to be untouched, so invented a story that meant they no longer had to engage with what the art was saying.

Not even the Original Trilogy was immune to this. Fans have been rewriting Star Wars lore from the beginning. We all remember being in awe of the coolest character in Empire Strikes Back, right? Boba Fett.

Boba Fett sucks. He was a chump who died like a chump, who had a grand total of three lines of dialogue and did maybe one cool thing in Empire before being accidentally knocked over by a blind guy in handcuffs and eaten by a sarlacc.

But that’s not what happens, right? Boba Fett was cool! He had a cool design and ship! In complete defiance of anything that was shown onscreen, his legend grew and grew. The Expanded Universe capitalized on this popularity and turned him into an elite leader of a whole planet of Spartan-esque (Halo or 300, take your pick) elite warriors who can even beat Jedi in combat. The movies, even, built up this legend even more: Boba Fett became the center of the famous, mysterious Clone Wars.

Boba Fett sucks.

Nope. None of this is supported in the original text, or the established character and universe. The character was introduced in the Holiday Special, for crying out loud! The whole narrative of Boba Fett’s character came from the mind of fans telling stories about Star Wars, not from anything in the original work. He became a legend.

But that’s fine. It’s okay for things to be expanded, to take on lives of their own, to exceed their original potential. No work of fiction should be confined to its original ambitions. If nothing else, art exists in a constant balance with its real-world impact. It’s near-impossible for it to be in a vacuum. If Boba Fett is popular, of course they’ll put him in more media. There was real potential there. But honestly, he still sucks. In trying so hard to make Boba Fett cool, we turned him into a hypermasculine parody. It’s kind of embarrassing. We allowed Boba Fett’s legend to overtake anything else about him. And how can anything face up to the expectations of being a legend?

Which brings us finally to JJ Abrams’ new trilogy. The biggest criticism of The Force Awakens is that it was just a remake of the original, that it played it too safe — of course, Rogue One was much better and unique. But was it?

It could be argued that of the two, Rogue One is actually the remake. Using the same kind of reductionist logic lobbied at The Force Awakens, we can build a narrative: Rogue One is the story of a young child witnessing their family murdered by the Empire, who gets taken in by a Force mystic with ties to the Rebellion, witnesses the Death Star’s power of destruction, whose mentor sacrifices himself to save her. She teams up with a weird old mystic, a morally gray pilot, and a hairy guy, goes on an ill-advised rescue mission, and then convinces the Rebellion pilots to go on a suicide mission as the Death Star approaches. In fact, she’d have failed had her pilot friend not swooped in at the end of it and saved the mission. The only difference is that they die in the end.

Fans use this kind of reductionist logic all the time. But if you squint hard enough, any movie can be deemed a remake of any other movie. By casting superficial analyses like this, fans can so thoroughly miss the point of any work of art. If you insist with all your might, of course The Force Awakens is just a remake of A New Hope. Of course midi-chlorians created the Force, of course Padme died of a broken heart. This is the contortion of logic fans must perform, if they intend on controlling the narrative. They want to be satiated, comforted, safe in their fanservice.

When you commit so hard to making something fit into the box you already arbitrarily decided it would fit into, your ability to interpret art and society in itself, as free from outside influence as possible, is compromised.

All of this makes The Last Jedi’s commitment to radically reshifting everything so refreshing. It is not a movie “for the fans”, at all. Forget what you thought you knew. Just like Luke says about the Jedi Order, fans should not bind themselves to these old ideas and old thoughts. Wipe everything from your eyes and look clearly. The Legend Of Luke Skywalker, the great meme that has been spreading both in the fictional universe and our own real one, is a narrative that we created in our own minds, independent of evidence.

Fans can insist that “Luke would never do that”, but he did, and he absolutely would. He’s been struggling with the Dark Side from the very beginning, and even if you take offense to a great hero hiding out away from the universe as a hermit, he is merely following in the footsteps of Yoda and Obi-Wan as their pupils turned to evil, too. The cultural legend of Luke as an upstanding, pure moral hero is a pure fan creation. His whole arc in the film is about dealing in the truth, not our papered-over nostalgia of what we think we know.

Every single character individually struggles with this conflict, and the film itself too: what is it, if not a direct reaction to its own past as the heir to the largest cultural phenomenon in the world?

Even the questions that are raised by this sequel trilogy are uniformly snuffed. Who is Snoke? Where did the First Order come from? Who cares. The movie doesn’t care, and nor should we. The answer is in front of our noses all along, anyway. They came from the places fascists come from in real life: pretenders to glory, obsessed with their own sanitized image of a past, vowing, in some respect or another, to Make the Empire Great Again. As if it had ever been the way they imagined in the first place. A false memory, a meme, propped up by nostalgia instead of truth.

Some fans may be upset by that, but it was the only way forward, wasn’t it? No more theorizing, no more clues, no more mystery. No more boxes to put what we think we know in. There is only truth, and what you do with it. Nothing real could ever match up to the impossible infinity of imagination. And if you breathlessly anticipate your perfectly constructed fan theory, and inevitably the story doesn’t deliver, that’s not the story’s fault — it’s yours.

Kylo Ren’s mission to kill the past and destroy its failures is positioned directly opposite Rey’s mission to learn from the past’s lessons. But in the end, neither is the way forward. Success and failure, joy and pain, hope and fear, all must be passed on. And it is up to the next generation we pass on to figure out what that will look like.

If and when Rey forms the New Jedi Order, it will be something of a mix of old and new. So we must remember to see clearly into the past, take it for what it was, and pass its success and failures onto the future. It’s how we find our place in the world.

“Read them, have you?”

Nostalgia can give you so much. Being a fan means being part of a community, as engaged as you could ever want. But we need to be more than just a fan engaging with some piece of pop culture. These are the stories we will tell the future. The myths we pass down. Star Wars was around before many of us were born, and it will certainly be around for far longer than we live. If this Disney-Fox merger goes through, we might be on Episode 92 by the time the century ends. Star Wars will impact human history in ways no single real person ever could. Centuries from now, it will have an impact.

So if we are to find our place in the world, we must critically engage with those meaningful aspects of our culture. Simply waiting for nostalgia will never give that to us. It’s the only way we can grow, and it’s the whole point of telling stories. Art, music, film, religion, and yes, Star Wars, all revolve around this point.

So be a fan. Enjoy all the narratives you want. But don’t let yourself get suckered in by some expectation of what you think it should be. Your fandom should not be a straitjacket, a rigid Order, but a balance, a force ebbing and adding to your life. That’s what it means to grow up. To look forward, not just back. Knowledge must be used in clarity, for truth. Not to prop up old nostalgia.

Bad opinions about movies, worse opinions about politics.