All Science-Fiction roads lead to time, a concept Star Wars is yet to grasp


'Time was something that largely happened to other people; he viewed it in the same way that people on the shore viewed the sea. It was big and it was out there, and sometimes it was an invigorating thing to dip a toe into, but you couldn't live in it all the time. Besides, it always made his skin wrinkle.'

― Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time


Terry Pratchett understood time, or, perhaps more accurately, the importance of time in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

At some point, you are going to bump into it. You just cannot 'do' Sci-Fi for any length of time without addressing it. Some wizard somewhere will be playing with it. Something will happen that needs to be reversed. Some evil doer will use it as a MacGuffin to kick things off. Pratchett's understanding of how important time is to his Fantasy Discworld was so acute that he gave it a set of characters devoted to time (The History Monks) and made it central to, from memory, at least two novels (Thief Of Time and Night Watch). He's not the only example from literature to make this leap either and those in need of a more distinct Science Fiction example can do no better than Joe Haldeman's masterpiece, The Forever War.

In a similar way, and without going into detail, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, which I have only recently caught up with, deals with time. Villeneuve, undoubtedly now one of the greatest working directors around (Arrival and Incendies are five-star films), is a storyteller who knows the value of tenderness, and he approaches time in this way. The story is fantastic, but it is his approach which makes Arrival a classic musing on time and language and many things in between. Villeneuve gets it. Time is to be respected; to be centralised and deconstructed and considered again and again.

As well as Arrival, I've recently caught up with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Star Wars has a curious relationship with time in so much as it is central to the series' construction, but simultaneously ignored in any meaningful way. It is becoming the wookie in the room.

Rogue One shows the problems this is causing the franchise in the most demonstrable way yet. For one, this is once again a rehash of the standard Star Wars plot about rebel elements within the rebels, eventually coming good and socking it to the empire. At this point, that's to be expected, though it doesn't make it welcome or even, at large points during the narrative, enjoyable.

The film - set before the first three Star Wars films and after the early-noughties prequels - has direct manifestations of the time conundrum as well, as Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher are resurrected as their younger selves, or at least sap-eyed, uncanny-valley approximations of the same. If Villeneuve is tenderness and Pratchett is awareness, Star Wars is a sledgehammer.

You can see why the producers are skirting the issue. It is easier to create a CGI solution to a time-based problem, or just to ignore it entirely, than it is to come up with an answer on the level of Star Trek (2009), to name another example. The establishment of narratives that both satisfy the requirements of time and create something new in that franchise, for all of its problems, should not be underestimated. The solution was complex and significant; it required a leap of faith from the audience and the studio, but we're talking about time here. No-one said it was going to be easy.

Star Wars next chance to move forwards (or backwards, or side-to-side) will come this December with a film now revealed as being called The Last Jedi. If the film actually sees the last of the Jedi then I'm a scruffy looking nerf-herder. At this points it looks like another time-related promise the franchise can't keep, anchoring it to an uncomfortable stasis which sees neither progress nor true retro enjoyment. The young Han Solo film has promising talent assembled around it, but would that it were so simple to go back that far, then Rogue One surely wouldn't have had to resurrect (at the time) one great and rely on another now departed for its emotional apex.

The sooner Star Wars confronts time head on, both on a contextual level, sorting out its own timeline and on a plotting level, admitting that time is an inevitability of Science Fiction, the more likeable, sustainable and aspirational the whole enterprise will become. In the meantime it is currently in danger of becoming a cultural spectre, drawing in audiences, yes, but creating a dissatisfying thematic Bermuda Triangle of prequels, sequels and reboots; a Dorian Gray painting of never-ageing disinterest, stuck only at the base levels of what is possible in Science Fiction. Not buying that argument? Read The Forever War and tell me that a plot that magnificently in touch with the vagrancies of passing decades wouldn't shake Star Wars up in the attractive and unpredictable ways it appears in desperate need of.



By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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