It would be something of a miracle if you’d got this far without realising the JJ Abrams-directed Star Wars film The Force Awakens (2015) is just around the corner, with opening night on 16 December in South Africa. Thousands of fans all over the world purchased tickets to midnight screenings some weeks ago.
Particularly interesting is how high expectations are for the seventh instalment in a franchise for which the most recent three films — The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), Revenge of the Sith (2005) — although hugely profitable, have been widely derided.
The prequel trilogy, and to a lesser extent the “enhanced” versions of the original trilogy (1997) are viewed as inferior by most casual observers and inspire astonishing levels of negative emotion in die-hard fans, eager to point out, in great detail, why they sucked.
Considering the immense disappointment associated with half of the films in the Star Wars canon, why then is there so much excitement and expectation for the next chapter in the franchise?
I cannot speak for all fans. Star Wars has such a broad appeal and has become so embedded in popular culture that no one individual can have any hope of representing Star Wars fandom in its entirety, but I can posit my own theory.
It is difficult to imagine a world without Star Wars; it is hard to communicate to students barely older than The Phantom Menace (1999) just how strange and risky Star Wars was back in the day. Science fiction was a fringe genre that, apart from 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968), had never been taken seriously.
Even 2001 was really only ever a cult film, and so different in tone that it could not be considered any kind of analogue for Star Wars.
Prior to Star Wars, the best known science fiction title in the international arena was the relatively short-lived but much loved television program Star Trek (1966-1969). Doctor Who (1963-) may win on longevity, but prior to the 2005 revamp, the British show never made the kind of international impact that Star Trek did.
The three seasons of Star Trek have continued in syndication throughout the world up until today. George Lucas has even named Star Trek as an influence when he was developing Star Wars.
But Star Trek and Star Wars are very different beasts.
Star Wars is firmly in the camp of space fantasy. It presents its “technology” with no regard for scientific accuracy. A light sabre, or laser sword, as it is described in The Phantom Menace, is an impossibility no matter how often Star Wars apologists try to argue otherwise — although a recent article on The Conversation cautiously suggests an alternative that may just be possible.
On the other hand, Star Trek employed scientific advisers to consult on the show and ensure that technology presented was at least theoretically possible.
(The obvious exception — the transporter used to beam crew to a new planet each week — was an economic decision, made to get avoid expensive visual effects shots of shuttles landing in new locations each episode.)
Of course what is much more important than representations of technology in either of the franchises is the thematic heart of the stories being told.
While Star Wars presented a simplistic but powerfully told tale of good vs evil, Star Trek portrayed a complex future where human culture had evolved such that terrestrial wars were finally eliminated.
Trek stories often revolved around the crew attempting to avoid fighting and find diplomatic solutions to their interstellar political conflicts.
There is no Doctor Spock — he was always “mister” — and a studious young Kirk is remembered in the episode Where No man Has Gone Before (1966) as “a stack of books with legs”.
Kirk was certainly never the rampant womaniser depicted in the recent films. Stories that involved Kirk and women tended to play on the idea of a captain who, though tempted by the allure of a “normal” life, must remain isolated from those around him and inevitably lonely.
JJ Abrams was also responsible for the recent reboot of Star Trek. In revamping that franchise, he drew less from the canon of Star Trek established in its various incarnations over more than four decades, than from the impressions of the series and characters as they exist in the imaginations of the general populace.
Abrams took a show that tackled serious social and political issues in a universe that was for the most part grounded in a realistic future and turned it into pure shoot-em-up space fantasy.
The original series presented a multi-ethnic crew living in a utopian future who attempted to avoid conflict when possible and respected all forms of life they encountered.
In Abrams version there is action and fighting aplenty, but his Kirk and Spock are caricatures of their originals. Neither the characters nor the situations they find themselves in ring true.
But it is for that very reason that I believe Abrams just may be the force (pun intended) that redeems Star Wars in the eyes of fans the world over.
The Abrams version of Star Trek set out give audiences the adventure that, in his words, the series promised but never delivered:
One of the things that grabbed me [about the Star Trek reboot]was the script, which had great characters in fast-paced, crazy situations. It felt like despite it being Star Trek — because I was not a huge fan to begin with — that it was a movie I wanted to see.
In many ways, the self-confessed Star Wars fan made two Star Trek films, Star Trek (2008) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), that serve as the perfect calling card for getting his dream job on Star Wars.
They are fast-paced rollercoaster rides, heavy on action and simplistic emotion while being very light on scientific accuracy or narrative logic. I am optimistic about the new Star Wars because I believe that it fits squarely in Abrams’ wheelhouse.
In any case, I and thousands like and unlike me will be at premiere screenings this week, hoping to be transported to a galaxy far far away, where hope and goodness must fight against evil but will always prevail.
Yes, it may be naïve, but it remains important and all too timely.
- Peter Allen is lecturer in film and television, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne
- This article was originally published on The Conversation