Star Wars Episode IX and the Limits of Nostalgia

The Star Wars: Episode IX casting announcement is like a nostalgia fire sale.

Carrie Fisher will return via archival footage in Star Wars: Episode IX next year, and fans everywhere are elated. Mark Hamill is back, too, which probably spoils the notion that Luke Skywalker will return as a shimmering Force ghost. Billy Dee Williams as the original Lando is in the mix, too. It looks like the Star Wars franchise is having a fire sale on nostalgia. But did Lucasfilm tip their hand too early?

When it comes to trumpetting Carrie Fisher’s return as General Leia via archival footage, Lucasfilm absolutely made the right call. If rumors started circulating that J.J. Abrams was using old footage of Fisher, the whole thing could have seemed creepy, so it makes sense they needed to get ahead of those potential rumors up front. But revealing Luke and Lando and having Abrams call the movie “a conclusion to the Skywalker saga” signals a subtle, but important change in Lucasfilm’s communication strategy with the fans. In short, the latest press release feels vaguely like damage control, insofar as the studio seems to be implicitly promising fans they will get everything they want in this movie.

It’s possible that revealing Luke and Lando this early is a response to Solo underperforming at the box office, or the trolls who hated The Last Jedi. Lucasfilm could have kept Star Wars fans guessing until December 20, 2019 about Luke and Lando, and if this was 2016, they certainly would have. The fact Lucasfilm did not keep all their sabacc cards close to their vests with all of this feels like they’re a little desperate. Or perhaps they’re just uncertain how much longer they can rely on nostalgia to sell movie tickets.

Before Solo, Lucasfilm’s approach to nostalgia was a little different. The Carrie Fisher CG-cameo in Rogue One was a secret, Yoda’s brief appearance in The Last Jedi was kept under wraps, and nobody knew Darth Maul would show up in Solo: A Star Wars Story, even after Ray Park himself was glimpsed on the red carpet. Does Lucasfilm think Solo would have done better at the box office had they made a big deal about Park reprising his role as Maul way before the movie came out? Maybe. After all, if #CloneWarsSaved proves anything, it’s that nostalgia for the prequel era exists, too.

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All four contemporary Star Wars movies are built on nostalgia for the brand itself to some extent, and most would argue that of the four, Solo is the most derivative and nostalgia-reliant. But Solo is not only almost completely lacking in any actors from the original trilogy, it’s structurally unlike any other Star Wars movie. In the absence of a classic trilogy actor Solo needed something buzzworthy to make people excited about it. Alden Ehrenreich’s old school no-Twitter approach wasn’t going to help, and sadly, the most buzz the movie got was because Lucasfilm fired its original directors and replaced them with Ron Howard, sparking endless speculation about the quality of the final product.

But Solo also loses nostalgia points because it is structurally and thematically different than other Star Wars movies. For one thing, the plot doesn’t lead to or feature a giant battle with two armies/fleets fighting it out. People could kind of tell this was true from the trailers, which made it look like it was going to be a big long chase scene, and that’s pretty accurate. Structurally, this is very odd and you could argue, almost avant garde. The point is, Solo is actually a weird movie and takes place mostly in locations hardcore fans either don’t care about or weren’t invested in prior to seeing the movie. To be clear, these are all reasons why Solo is interesting, but also reasons why people subliminally didn’t respond to it. If anything, it’s a minimalist film (by Star Wars standards), which for many, seems to be a violation of what the franchise is about. Despite its derivative elements (Han, Lando, the Falcon, the music), Solo is riskier than Rogue One and The Last Jedi, at least in terms of pleasing Star Wars fans who are ticking off boxes (lightsaber fights, X-Wings, the Force, etc). 

Meanwhile, though Rogue One had mostly unfamiliar characters, it connected with people prior to release, and that’s partially because of an onslaught of visual nostalgia. In interviews leading up to the release, Gareth Edward’s described the movie as a “period piece,” and the period he meant was the 1970s. From the recreation of the Death Star sets, to the Rebel Base on Yavin IV, the interiors of Leia’s blockade runner, and the return of James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader, Rogue One had immediate and identifiable nostalgia points. These things also served a purpose in the plot. We think of Rogue One as a risky standalone war movie, but it was deeply and identifiably nostalgic.

Many would tell you The Last Jedi rejects nostalgia thanks to Rian Johnson flipping the script on so many assumptions fans had about the Skywalker saga. But no one knew that before they went to the theater, and the popularity of the movie (despite crazy trolls yelling afterwards) proves one very important thing: people have strong opinions about Luke Skywalker, perhaps the definitive childhood hero of the 1980s. Even the debate around The Last Jedi is connected to nostalgia, so it surely played a role in its success.

Still, peddling Star Wars nostalgia in 2015 and 2016 was very different than it is in 2018. In 2015, Lucasfilm could dole it out a little at a time. Now, it seems like they’re worried they can’t. Before The Force Awakens came out, the second big trailer for the film famously sported Han Solo saying “Chewie, we’re home,” causing countless adults to burst into tears. The original concept of “nostalgia” (invented by 17th century Swiss doctor Johannes Hoefer) was connected to literal homesickness. It was only after a few centuries that we started to use the word to describe a time in the past as something we were longing for rather than a place that is far, far away.

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Obviously (or not, depending on your age) Star Wars has always subsisted on nostalgia. Even before people knew what it was, it seemed familiar. And that’s because George Lucas famously cribbed from a variety of old-school sources: ’30s Flash Gordon serials, Kurosawa films, a variety of fairy tales, folklore, and mythology. In 1977, what was most groundbreaking about Star Wars wasn’t the story, but the packaging. It was a fairytale that seemed real; a sci-fi adventure that felt corny without being embarrassing. Some unused marketing material for Star Wars would have even compared it to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, proving that from the very beginning, Lucas and his team knew this was a nostalgic product. Four decades later, Lucasfilm still knows they are peddling nostalgia. Only now, it’s for the thing itself.

Most people who get excited about familiar things in Star Wars movies aren’t nostalgic for the stuff Lucas cared about but rather for Star Wars stuff. Broadly, that means classic trilogy stuff, and more specifically, that means classic trilogy actors. If Lucasfilm had started promoting Episode IX and kept Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, and the archival Leia stuff secret, they could have run the risk of people losing interest. Prior to Solo’s poor turn at the box office, it would be easy to say that simply putting out a new movie with the words “Star Wars” on it was enough, but that’s clearly not true anymore. Lucasfilm felt like they needed to put all this stuff out there right away. They didn’t want to risk Mark Hamill giving cryptic answers on Twitter about the fate of Luke Skywalker, and that’s because they know the truth: Star Wars is most popular and economically safe when it’s not doing anything new.

There’s an avalanche of commentary out there in which fans and pundits proclaim that the richness of the fictional world of Star Wars is what makes it so interesting, and that the ability to explore all of that richness with new movies and projects is what makes it so exciting that Disney is taking the franchise in crazy new directions. Supposedly Rian Johnson’s trilogy will be all new characters and set in a totally different part of the galaxy. It will be very interesting to see how Disney/Lucasfilm markets those movies without nostalgia. Will they even try?

At least from a hype perspective, Star Wars movies still seem to rely on not only the legacy characters, but the faces of those specific actors, too (or in the case of Vader, that helmet). At some point, mark my words, someone will use “love letter to the fans” to describe Episode IX. Which, from a certain point of view, might be a good thing. But if Lucasfilm is using nostalgia to sell this movie, the implied message of the new casting announcement seems clear: Come get your old school Star Wars stuff while it lasts.

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