How much can you know about Star Wars if you've never seen the films?

I have never seen a single episode of the space opera, and I've no idea why Luke is angry with Darth Vader

Fans young and old gather around the world to celebrate the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Video: Reuters

 

A confession: I have never seen a Star Wars film. I sat through none of the original trilogy, nor any of the more recent crop either.

I have stumbled over a few snippets here and there. I seem to remember playing a racing game on a Nintendo 64, which I believe was related to the first instalment of the latter trilogy, and I’ve seen Spaceballs, the parody version with Mel Brooks and John Candy. I didn’t get all the jokes, but I laughed anyway. That’s about as far as my relationship with Star Wars goes.

There is undoubtedly something a little odd about this. At a time when the easy accessibility and individualised curation of cultural product has supposedly made such global phenomena uncommon, the release of the new Star Wars film is a reminder of the hold Hollywood cinema still sometimes has on the popular imagination.

From my position on the outside of the world’s “most successful film merchandising franchise”, I can’t help but wonder: why do so many people care about some epic space opera? What were they doing on Skellig Michael? What is a Chewbacca?

These questions circle back in on themselves until I feel like a hideous outcast from decent society: ignorant, deprived, lost.

After staring blankly at a gigantic poster in my local cinema for quite some time, I decide to call a friend of mine who, although “more of a Trekkie” than a Lucas fanboy, is still quite knowledgeable about these kinds of things. He’s not the kind of lad to book tickets for the new film months ahead of release, but he’ll certainly go see it and he’ll tell me all about it in the pub afterwards. Almost in tears with thoughts of my social exclusion, I ask him for advice. He replies with some questions.

‘Do you know who Boba Fett is?’

I go so quiet he thinks the call got cut off. “Is he the sort of slug guy from The Phantom Menace?” I ask eventually. “The fat alien guy who looks like a mob boss?” He sighs.

‘Do you know Jar Jar Binks?’

My eyes light up. “Jar Jar Binks is the most hated character in the history of Star Wars,” I say, with all the confidence and authority of a Wikipedia article. “I think my brother had a little plastic figurine of him when we were kids. He got him in a Happy Meal in Athlone.”

Slowly, he establishes the limits of my knowledge. I’m familiar with the principal characters – Luke Skywalker, Yoda, Darth Vader, and so on – and I sort of have a grasp of their basic positions on the good/evil spectrum. (Thank you, Spaceballs and an episode of Family Guy I saw one time.) I am amazed to discover that Harrison Ford is reprising his role as Han Solo from the original films, a feat of anti-ageing technology that would seem to confirm that we are indeed living in a brave new world where fiction has become reality and four decades can be collapsed into nothing. The questions soon become more difficult.

‘What does the Empire want?’ 

I draw upon my undergraduate arts degree and answer calmly: “What all empires want: to dominate and exploit the hardworking people of the universe, and to profit from their labour.”

(Later that day, I sketch my editor a quick Marxist analysis of class relations and capitalist ethics of production in a galaxy far, far away, but I never hear back about it. Perhaps I’ll try the Guardian.)

The conversation takes a philosophical turn.

‘Is the Force good or evil?’ 

My understanding is that the Force is, in Nietzsche’s words, “beyond good and evil”. Like the ancient Taoist sign of the Yin-Yang, it is balance, quiescence, a dialectical unity. It’s all around us, waiting to be tapped into. The person who harnesses the Force can bend it to their own will, channelling its natural, neutral flow in a particular direction, which then might be described as good or evil based on the material consequences. I say it’s like a spiritual or metaphysical electricity, an eternal AC/DC of the soul. My friend sounds pleased with my progress. But just as I’m getting into a flow, he draws the call to a close. He’s got to get back to work, and anyway I’m sure the cinema’s security guard is looking at me funny.

My friend has one last question for me.

‘Why is Luke so angry with Darth Vader?'

I open my mouth, but all that comes out is a strange gurgling noise. I’m rooted cluelessly to the spot. Surely I know this? I hear a cruel peal of laughter on the other end of the line, and then a vindictive click.

I take one last, rueful look at the poster before walking up to the ticket desk and booking myself a front-row seat for December 17th.

In the meantime, much to learn I still have.

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