Second Opinion: ‘Star Wars’: the force awakens reflections on the passage of time

The ageing of cast members since the first ‘Star Wars’ film allow us compare and contrast our experiences over the same period

Carrie Fisher: her portrayal of Princess Leia reflects a victory over her struggles in real life. Photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuters

Carrie Fisher: her portrayal of Princess Leia reflects a victory over her struggles in real life. Photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuters

 

Sitting in the back row of a packed, expectant and good-natured cinema for Star Wars: the Force Awakens, I was struck by the number of contemporaries also attending with adult and teen children. They, like me, almost certainly had vivid memories of the “real” first Star Wars movie, released in 1977, when I was a student in first med. A histology practical took a severe hit as a good proportion of the class went to a matinee. Light-sabre battles with bicycle lamps in the darkened locker room were the order of the day for weeks after.

Back in contemporary times, before attending the cinema, I had been at an almost equally full house for one of our medical humanities seminars in Trinity College Dublin, a droll and learned overview on vampires in the European tradition.

Both events made me think about Bruno Bettelheim’s classic analysis of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. In German the title is Kinder Brauchen MärchenChildren Need Fairy Tales – and perhaps we need to recognise more openly that adults also need fairy tales, not only as entertainment but also to tease out dark and uncertain elements of human existence.

Indeed, the early history of vampirism, as one author astutely noted, shows that ghosts and encounters with the undead are not superstitious relics of a pre-modern past, or the Enlightenment’s other, but intimate companions of western modernity.

The impact of ageing on the stars of the original Star Wars was of interest to me as I watched the new take. Princess Leia was of a similar age to our group of medical students when Carrie Fisher played the role in 1977 and Harrison Ford a relatively youthful 35-year-old. Older actors are having a remarkable exposure and experience in the movie industry currently, with a notable concentration of older actors nominated for a range of awards, typified by Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda (with an average of 78) in Youth.

The difference in Star Wars is the reprise of roles 38 years later, casting an interesting light on not only their ageing but also a reflection on our own, comparing and contrasting the experiences, losses and gains of the intervening years.

From the perspective of comparative biology, it would appear that Wookies have a different ageing trajectory to humans: Chewbacca looked in remarkably good shape, limber in limb and no evidence of incipient alopecia. The lustrous shine and colour of his hair – assuming that regular dying would be too major a task to contemplate in his case – suggest a resistance to the oxidative stress that underlies our own grey tresses.

The increasingly grizzled and grey Harrison Ford ages gracefully, relying on cunning and subterfuge rather than acrobatics to avoid tight corners, reminiscent of PJ O’Rourke’s Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut.

The change was greatest for Fisher, particularly in a movie industry where female stardom is still obsessed with image and youthfulness. To portray Princess Leia in a positively matronly fashion was very brave, and reflected a victory over her struggles in real life with mental health, alcohol and drugs as outlined in her memoir, Wishful Drinking.

In some ways this served as an anchor of reality through a fourth wall in the movie, allowing a linkage to the trials and tribulations of life of us in our 50s watching the movie star who may equally not have retained our matinee idol looks.

And the movie? Smart and fun, with the Oedipal themes running through the movies reflected in how director JJ Abrams, an 11-year-old at the time of the first Star Wars, has both paid homage to, but also constructively disrupted, the inheritance and vision of George Lucas.

Those final few minutes, filmed on the magnificent Skellig Islands, are breath- taking. That early Christians founded a monastic settlement in such a bleak and magnificent setting is a reminder of the limitations of the intellect alone in man’s search for wider meaning, and resonates with a cinematic experience with roots in fable and myth.

A version of this article appeared as a BMJ Blog. Des O’Neill is a geriatrician and co-chair of the Medical and Health Humanities Initiative.

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