Andrew Rilstone, who writes more perceptively about Star Wars than just about anyone else alive, is counting down to the release of Episode 7. His most recent post in the series has a passage that really resonated with me:
When Luke handles the-lightsaber-that-was-his-fathers for the first time, we wanted to reach out, through the screen, and grab it, and keep it forever. Not the lightsaber itself. That moment.
It’s a feeling I’ve never had for anything else. I didn’t want to be a Jedi Knight, necessarily; or an X-Wing pilot; or even to be friends with Luke and Han. I just wanted to be there. On the other side of the screen. Inside.
“I just wanted to be there. On the other side of the screen. Inside.” Yes, yes, yes. This is why the RPG has been such a central part of my Star Wars fandom, and why I played X-Wing and TIE Fighter so much in the first two years of college that I threatened my academic future. Those were ways not to just watch Star Wars from the outside, but to go play in the universe.
In one of his old Star Wars essays*, Rilstone said of ANH that there was very little sense that the universe existed when the main players weren’t on screen. I got exactly the opposite reaction: more than any other speculative fiction I’d consumed to that point, the Star Wars movies implied that not only was there a whole universe of interesting things out there, almost all of the best stuff was off-screen: the Senate, the Jedi Knights, the Rebels’ first victory against the Empire that is mentioned in the ANH title crawl but never shown. And everything on screen was old and had a story. The asshole in the bar was wanted on 12 systems, the Y-Wings and AT-ATs had scorch marks from previous battles, and the Rebel base was in the ruins of a previous civilization, for crying out loud.
This is something that Tolkien nailed in LOTR: the sense that the current story was just the latest of many, many stories. Particularly in Fellowship, everywhere the characters go there are ruins and monuments and big chunks of history sticking out of the landscape. I think that’s a big part of why FOTR is my favorite among the movies: when the Fellowship is breaking near the seat of Ammon Hen, there are eroded and half-buried heads sticking out of the ground, in what looks like a mature forest. So this was a center of energy for a civilization that no longer exists, or at least no longer exists here. In his The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute calls that aesthetic effect a ‘time abyss’. LOTR is full of them. Star Wars, at least the old movies, has a lot for a sci-fi film. Contrast that with Star Trek where everything is new and shiny almost all the time (scenes on Vulcan in ST3 not so much, I guess).
I shared these thoughts with Mike and he responded (in a email with permission to quote):
Well, I can’t believe I never realised that. Of course, it’s what everyone (rightly) praises Tolkien for — but no-one seems to have spotted how amazingly true it is in Star Wars (the original film). It packs about as much off-screen-ness into two hours as it possible could, and that’s a big part of what makes it work. I think it was Lewis who said something like “The bones of the country show through” of LotR. That’s true in Star Wars, too.
Time for you to Echo Station 5-7 this. [Done! – ed.]
BTW, I was completely underwhelmed when I heard that some dude was making films of LotR. I had no desire to see them. Then one time I went to watch a completely different film, and trailer came on of some small boats making their way down-river and coming upon these vast, ancient, crumbling statues. That grabbed my imagination. Then the trailer said it was LotR, and I was in. Such brilliant trailing: instead of all the spectacular things they could have shown us (Barad-dur, the mines of Isengard, the balrog), they showed us the bones of the land.
* That essay is “I’m sure this is fascinating, but what did you think of The Phantom Menace“, which I believe is now only available in Rilstone’s book of his Star Wars-related writing, George and Joe and Jack and Bob (and Me). The specific quote is, “There is very little sense that the universe carries on working when the heroes are off stage.” But then later, in the essay, “Attack of the Cloned Reviews”, Rilstone says of The Dark Crystal, “the existence of all that off-screen data contributed to the illusion of reality which made the film so convincing.” I felt like that about Star Wars movies from the first moment – they were the first science fiction movies (or moving pictures of any kind) I’d seen that didn’t overtly look like movies. They looked more like things that had actually happened, and that was an immense part – for me, probably the key part – of their appeal.