“Sorry About the Mess”: Star Wars and the Virtues of Garbage


I learned to love Star Wars through my Gen-X brother’s stories, his scuffed Kenner toys, and worn VHS tapes with the originals recorded off of HBO. I wasn’t there in ’77, ’80, or ’83, but I had a homemade Ewok costume in ’86.

I was an eager convert. I was there at midnight for the premier of the three prequels. Each time, I left questioning whether it had been amazing and I just missed it…or not. This time I simply wanted the film to be bearable.

Writing the next chapter of a saga can’t be easy. We forget that George Lucas first wrote a satisfyingly complete film—only later returning with sequel and prequel arcs. But Disney tasked J.J. Abrams to launch a new trilogy, with new characters, while bringing the je ne sais quoi of the Star Wars we know and love… all in one movie.

And yet “The Force Awakens” did this for me in the most elegant way possible. Playing with our memories, it revealed that Star Wars has always been about recognizing the beauty in the garbage around us.

Aesthetically, this theme had always been there. “A New Hope” is predicated on the charm buried within a trash can. Destiny depends on learning to embrace the warmth of a “walking carpet.” The journey is a ride on the “fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.” Lucas’s “used universe” was a narrative experiment in dumpster-diving.

But Episode VII goes all in to explore the virtues of mess. Despite the victories of “Return of the Jedi,” in “The Force Awakens,” the heroes of the golden age have tarnished legacies. [spoiler alert] Luke Skywalker comes back to us as both legend and loser. The casualty count continues to increase on Leia Organa’s watch; revolutionary leadership cannot outwit her penchant for lost causes. The renowned General Solo is again an infamous smuggler. And we are asked to gamble on him doing the right thing,

These are not the characters we want to be, but the ones we already are.

It will take a new generation to determine if these broken figurines are worth salvaging, while they try to pick up the pieces of their own lives.

Poe Dameron—the clean-cut ace pilot of the Resistance—finds himself shipwrecked on a desert planet twice in the first act of the film. The rogue Storm Trooper, Finn, did his time as a First Order sanitation worker. And the mysterious heroine, Rey, makes her living as, of all things, a scavenger. Through their eyes we see the muddle that nostalgia made us forget.

Thanks to centuries of storytelling—and two years of advertisements—we know we’ll see the new characters work through the mess to become heroes. Critics of the film will tell you that the plot crumbles under its allegiance to memory; that the story lacks the effortlessness of the original. But why would you expect a Star Wars film to be anything but forced? The magic was never in the narrative perfection, or even in the special effects, but in our willingness to let these movies help us work through our mess.

Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, and Daisy Ridley are the kids at summer camp with whom you instantly hit it off. There are favors and flirting and falling out. Yet most of all, there is a connection. Camp ends before you would like, but you leave hoping against hope that you will reunite and pick up where you left off.

“The Force Awakens” is the Star Wars I needed. It is the opening crawl whose words we scrutinized as if about to sign over our lives. It was hearing the excitement of a five year old whispering to everyone in the theater, “That’s Han Solo.”

When the lights fell dark, I, too, got to wondering, “What’s in there?”

Episode VII was not the Star Wars I remembered. Instead it was the moment of clarity you have when looking around your childhood bedroom…a little older and a little wiser.

This time I truly understood Yoda’s answer to Luke in “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Only what you take with you.”

By film’s end I knew I could bear a life of mess. And at the end of 2015, that was nothing short of amazing.

Richard Newton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. He studies scriptures in religion and culture, curates Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations on Religion, Culture, and Teaching; and hosts the podcast, Broadcast Seeding: Future food for Thought.