Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
When Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens hits cinemas this week, it’ll be 38 years since the release of the film series’ first instalment, Episode IV: A New Hope. Despite the misleading chronology, this is in fact the seventh entry into the series, comprising the original trio of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and the highly contentious turn of the millennium prequels The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
Star Wars is the fifth most successful franchise in film history, inspiring numerous books, TV spinoffs and a merchandising behemoth. But beyond that, its subcultural impact is damn near immeasurable, infiltrating all corners of the globe and providing people with an alternate galaxy to escape into.
“It is just a movie, but you know when you see a tree that grows next to a pole, it grows around the pole and sort of eats it? Growing up with Star Wars, it’s so ingrained. You hear the music and you get goosebumps,” says local comedian Steele Saunders, presenter of Australia’s top ranked Star Wars podcast, Steele Wars.
The release of A New Hope preceded my birth by just over ten years. However, its impact was no less electrifying when I first viewed it midway through the 1990s. Henceforth, Star Wars cemented itself in my psyche – it didn’t just enter my logbook of favourite films, but it fuelled my imagination, opening my eyes to the wondrous possibilities of storytelling and cinema, and crucially expanded my empathetic connection with the world.
OK, sure Star Wars sits firmly in the sci-fi genre, and specifically takes place “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” It’s a place where obsequious droids are commonplace, and where talk of travelling between planets and moons garners little more than a nod; where certain individuals are possessed of an intangible force which, if poorly nourished, can lead them right into the hands of the evil Sith organisation; and where such grotesque and curiously shaped creatures as Ewoks, Gungans, Wampas, Jawas, Wookies, Mandalorians and Hutts roam.
Star Wars fans are known for displaying their affection by attending film screenings dressed up as characters or creatures from the film. “It is not that dissimilar to living vicariously through 18 dudes in little shorts that are kicking a dead pig around a field,” Saunders says. “People dress up in team colours and face paint, and if their team wins they couldn’t be happier, and if their team loses there’s tears. So it’s just living vicariously through different people – and I don’t think Harrison Ford’s going to piss on any shopfronts on Chapel Street anytime soon.”
Immersed in the playful intricacies of the filmic reality, it can be easy to forget that Star Wars is a human invention. Accordingly, the moral dilemmas faced in Star Wars closely mirror our own: it’s a tale of good and evil, corruption and fortitude, mind over matter, and familial solidarity. A racist emperor lording over a kratocratic organisation hellbent on establishing dominion over the universe, never mind the destruction – sound familiar?
This fundamental paradox – offering an escape into a completely fabricated world, while also edifying us on the world we live in – goes a long way to explaining the series’ ginormous cultural impact. For years people have devoted their lives to Star Wars, and will continue to do so regardless of whether the new film lives up to the original trio.
“All the ingredients are there for a great film,” Saunders says. “We’ve had two years to really think about, but we’ve had 32 years to wonder about it. Can the Disney Corporation, Lucasfilm and J.J. Abrams compete without imaginations?”
By now plenty of Star Wars fans have all but convinced themselves The Force Awakens – which is set approximately 30 years after the events of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – won’t simply surpass the lacklustre prequels, but will be a certifiably brilliant film. “There is a possibility that it will disappoint, but I can’t fathom it – which means that the burn will be pretty harsh,” Saunders says. “From the snippets they’ve given us and the players behind the scenes and on the camera, it is very hard to comprehend that it won’t be good. But therein lies the danger.”
Saunders has spent much of this year travelling the globe and attending various Star Wars events, from the San Diego Comic Con to an eight-minute preview screening at IMAX Sydney. However, he’ll be taking in a midnight premiere of The Force Awakens at Westfield Knox in Wantirna South. Immediately afterwards, the crowd will join him at a neighbouring pub for a live Steele Wars podcast.
“You’ve got 300 fans straight out of the film into a bar, it’s like a social experiment to find out what was the reaction,” he says. “It’s fascinating – to see if people love it or not straight off the cuff, and then how that reaction will change over time. I really wanted to find out that raw [opinion] and have that for the world to listen, before our opinion can be corrupted by reviews and YouTube analysis.”
Yes, let’s not forget Star Wars ultimately exists to entertain, which is why as soon as my local cinema released tickets for midnight sessions of The Force Awakens, my friends and I snapped them up. It’s a chance to go out and enjoy ourselves and feel a sense of community, and it’s occasions like this that remind us of our lucky lot in life.
BY AUGUSTUS WELBY