The Star Wars films are well-known for popularising the idea of a ‘used future’, where the spaceships, bases and other science-fictional paraphernalia don’t gleam with the factory-new sheen of glossy and optimistic futurity but are worn-down, grimy and broken. A New Hope wasn’t the first time this had been done – witness, for example, the wonderfully industrial modelwork of Gerry Anderson’s 1960s ‘Supermarionation’ series, Thunderbirds in particular – but after Star Wars, this visual style became the norm for science fiction, to the extent that today when an SF film does opt for gleaming perfection – such as in the 2009 Star Trek reboot – it comes across as unusual and consciously retro.
The grit and grime of the used future is seen as adding to verisimilitude – it makes the sets, models and computer imagery more familiar to our own experiences of the world. In a sense it removes a dimension of estrangement from the setting, but in return it gives every scratch, battle-scar or busted piece of instrumentation a back-story. It no longer seems to exist only for the story being told, but appears to have had an existence before-hand. In short, it gives us time-depth.
So far, so obvious.
But there’s another aspect to the idea of time-depth in the Star Wars films. It’s not just equipment, vehicles and buildings which are shown to be used, but the worlds themselves. They have long histories, evidenced by the presence of ruins – a used future (or long-long-ago past-future) in the longue-durée, if you like. In particular, the first film in each of the three trilogies – original, prequel and newly-minted sequel – prominently features what we might see as ‘archaeological’ or ‘historic’ sites.
In the first film, A New Hope, the Rebel base from which the climactic battle against the Death Star is launched is based in an ancient temple, based on the Mayan ruins at Tikal. The Special Edition makes this even more obvious by adding the instantly-recognisable pyramid-tops to establishing shots.
The first film of the prequel trilogy, The Phantom Menace, also launches the fight-back in the final act from tropical ruins, this time echoing Cambodian imagery such as Angkor Wat.
It’s no new observation to see familiar patterns reappearing from one Star Wars film to another, and from one trilogy to another. As George Lucas has put it, they ‘rhyme’. The ruins in Phantom Menace come at the same point in the story as those in A New Hope and in both cases they are the starting-point from which the film’s heroes begin the climactic final-act battle.
The Force Awakens also features ruins prominently – but there are some interesting differences in how. Firstly they are much more pervasive, coming at four different points in the film. At the beginning we are first introduced to the character of Rey as she lives and scavenges among the ruined hulks of vehicles from the original trilogy. The starship graveyard of Jakku is a very different kind of ruinous landscape to the ancient tropical stonework of its predecessors, but when ships are this big, ruins they most definitely are. Interestingly, despite at first glance being concerned with the mechanical and the material, these ruins share the religious associations evident in the ancient sites in A New Hope and The Phantom Menace. The structures are relics of the Empire founded and controlled by quasi-mystical Sith practitioners of the dark side of the Force. We don’t tend to think of it as a theocracy, but in a largely secular galaxy (cf. Han Solo in A New Hope) Vader and the Emperor are presented in explicitly religious tones: ‘I find your lack of faith disturbing…’ External to the story itself, these ruins are themselves the icons of the Star Wars cult: the Star Destroyer, the X-Wing Fighter, the AT-AT walker. Of the most recognisable large vehicles of the series, only the two Death Stars are absent – and looking at the art book that accompanies the movie, it’s clear that their presence was at least considered. Another thing that emerges strikingly from the art book is that this imagery was present from the very earliest ideas stages and remained present through all the other major changes. It’s hard not to read the obsession with salvage from the wreckage of the original trilogy as a meta-level comment on the perceived damage done to the legacy of those films by the widely-reviled prequels.
The second set of ruins in The Force Awakens is Maz’s cantina around the middle of the film. It’s hard to know how old this structure’s meant to be. It resembles Tikal a little, but its archaic-looking stonework, heraldic banners and hidden treasure-chest also recall a medieval castle – and it is sometimes called a castle in the film’s secondary literature – but it’s far from a ruin when we first visit it. Instead we see it reduced swiftly to ruins on-screen under the First Order’s attack, in scenes which consciously evoke the twenty-first century devastations of war and terrorism. In the rapid, total and gratuitous destruction of an evidently historic structure, might we also detect an element of Isis and its depredations towards ancient sites in the Middle East?
If the ruinous status of Maz’s cantina is equivocal and unstraightforward, the third historic site is even more so. The Force Awakens’ echoes of A New Hope are blindingly obvious and once again the final battle is launched from a historic location. In this case the Resistance X-Wings are housed at the British Second World War and Cold War air force base at RAF Greenham Common.
Little is seen of the structure here, but it evidently isn’t the ancient tropical site of A New Hope or The Phantom Menace. Nevertheless, there are visual echoes of both. The trapezoid shapes of the bunkers, the open hangar doors and the colour scheme echo the Yavin 4 temple, while the huge overgrown roots that surround them recall the swamp ruins of The Phantom Menace. Even if the base doesn’t seem to represent any kind of ruin on-screen, it is set up both narratively and visually to parallel these earlier examples. It may not appear as a historic site on-screen, but by filming in the remains of a Second World War air-force base it reminds us of the World War II air combat footage and movies that the space battles in Lucas’s original film were closely modelled on. Setting the Resistance base in the physical remains of this conflict is exactly the same trick as the spaceship graveyard on Jakku but shifted to a more ‘meta’, real-world level. It’s an obvious part of the movie’s obsession with nostalgia, the passing of time and examination of the place of the original Star Wars in the modern world.
In all three of these cases we have an approach to ruins and historic sites with both clear echoes of, but major differences from, the original and prequel trilogies. Rather than popping up for a single scene, they are completely ubiquitous: the only major setting for the film that doesn’t involve ruins is the First Order’s Starkiller Base. From the art book we know that this wasn’t always going to be the case – it was at one point intended that they would occupy the ruins of an old Rebel base alluded to in A New Hope – but by keeping the ruins out of this one setting, The Force Awakens maintains the other trilogies’ association of the historic with the heroes: they are the ones to claim, build on and inhabit the relics of the past, whereas the villains exist in an ever-new world of fresh-off-the-production-line technological weaponry. The Force Awakens’ material past isn’t just quantitatively different but qualitatively so. The ancient history of A New Hope and Phantom Menace has been abandoned for more recent history: battlefield and military sites; modern ruins created through violent nihilistic destruction.
A less immediately obvious difference – but one that’s perhaps more interesting – is how much people engage with these historical sites. In A New Hope and The Phantom Menace, the ruins are little more than local colour. They’re passive backgrounds which are barely commented on, if at all, and which people scarcely interact with. They suggest time-depth and back-story, but are incidental to the films they’re in. You could swap either location for almost anywhere else without making any significant difference to the respective movie. In contrast, the ruins of The Force Awakens are much more integral and active. We see them becoming (not just the ruining of Maz’s castle but the ‘completion’ of the ship graveyard of Jakku, where the crash of the last iconic ship – the TIE-fighter – happens on-screen) and being explored. Characters don’t just walk around them but inhabit and engage with them.
Rey exemplifies this. She’s an explorer of ruins and a scavenger of relics – it would be going too far to call her a proto-archaeologist, but she’s by far the nearest thing we’ve ever seen in Star Wars (unless we count Han Solo’s uncanny resemblance to the most famous bad archaeologist of them all. Probably Rey’s closest relationship in the film is with Han, and by the end she has taken on much of his role, flying the Falcon, hugging Leia and hanging out with Chewbacca. The campaign for Daisy Ridley as Indy starts here). Rey begins as someone who lives in a ruin, who has reclaimed and appropriated the wreckage of the past, but apparently without concerning herself too much with what they signify beyond their scrap or commodity value (see those Stormtrooper lenses she casually wears, like a kid unthinkingly wearing Nazi jackboots), but her whole arc revolves around her claiming one particular relic for herself, accepting it as having meaning and significance, and determining to explore that. From scavenger she becomes a student, and the final shot of the film is of her presenting her research proposal to a prospective supervisor.
Which brings us to the fourth prominent ruin of The Force Awakens: Luke’s island and the Jedi steps. In this film obsessed with ruins, repetition and the juxtaposition of old and new, everything comes together in these final scenes. Jakku gave us modern ruins on modern sets; Maz’s castle gave us an old structure brought to ruins before our eyes; the Resistance base gave us a historic site doubling for something modern. Luke’s hideaway, filmed at the long-abandoned monastery of Skellig Michael, finally gives us the genuinely ancient – a historic site both on-screen and off. Luke appears at the end of the film as a hermit, clearly paralleling Yoda from the original trilogy, but there are other versions of Luke alluded to throughout the film – Luke as hero, Luke as teacher, Luke as failure, and – when Han Solo gives his thoughts on where his friend went – Luke as archaeologist, gone off on an expedition to rediscover the first Jedi temple.
The Force Awakens, then, uses its ruins for far more than time-depth and local colour. If Lucas’s approach was anthropological, filching the historic and exotic to offer different flavours of set design to give an impression of a varied galaxy, then The Force Awakens is archaeological, using these settings to explore ideas of history, time, memory and the role of the past in the present. As in every aspect of the film, from its imagery and plot to its music, the ideas of the material past and the ruin are explored through varied repetition and juxtaposition, appearing in different forms each time before finally coming together into something that feels quintessential.