Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 21, 2015 by Veronica Zaretski - U of T News

The Internet is a blaze as fans around the world share their experience of Star Wars: The Force Awakens — the movie that’s already crushing box office records with $57 million in preview screenings.

And the University of Toronto’s experts – faculty and students — are among those waiting in line.

U of T News asked leading scholars of cinema, media and engineering to reflect on the Star Wars universe, from its politics to its futuristic technology — and the cultural impact of a series that has inspired imaginations across generations.

“George Lucas is extremely interested in politics, and you can tell when you look at the prequels,” Professor Emerita Anne Lancashire says. “Certainly in the first trilogy he made it very clear that he was an anti-war activist.”

Lancashire,  published five articles on the Star Wars films and sees a strong connection between pressing headlines in 2015 and the Star Wars narrative. “The dialogue in Star Wars is so explicit right from the start. In the first and the second trilogy, Yoda says early on: ‘Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.’ Who is suffering? In fact everyone is suffering.”

“I think that the first two trilogies have a theme that is really important right now,” says Lancashire. “For nations, the greatest enemy of democracy and freedom is fear. And everywhere these days most politicians work on people’s fears in order to do what they want and to get what they want.”

She also points out that she finds some of the portrayal of some of the female characters in Star Warsfrustrating. “I find Padme to be an extraordinarily frustrating character in the Revenge of the Sith,” she says. “I wanted a strong character that redeemed herself at the end and she was not that.”

Lancashire hopes to see more of the first trilogy in the upcoming films than the second trilogy. “People expect the familiar but they also expect you to vary the familiar,” she says. “If you really want to make a message work, you’ve really got to make it work emotionally, not just intellectually.”

Associate Professor Nicholas Sammond of Cinema Studies and the English department has tickets to see Star Wars on Christmas Eve. “I’m most looking forward to see what the audience does.”

Sammond, whose teaching includes courses in media and racial formation, points out the lack of diversity in previous Star Wars films.

“I’ve always been struck [with the lack of diversity] even in the films Lucas did before Star Wars, like American Graffiti. Lucas came out of  California’s Central Valley, which is an intensely Latino area and yet the world that he portrayed is completely white. He is tone deaf to things like Jar Jar Binks’ accent,” Sammond says.

“There are a couple of reasons why the new Star Wars film is more diverse,” he continues. “One reason is Disney. Disney has a great deal of investment in being non-controversial and appealing to the broadest sense of family. It has had its own set of criticisms that it worked very hard and somewhat clumsily to address in recent animations.”

“Part of the reason I think they can’t get it right is because we can’t agree on how to get it right when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexuality.”

But that motivation to address representation in film is commercially-driven, not altruistic, Sammond says. “The majority of the money that’s going to be made out of the film will be made internationally. And as the international market becomes more sensitive to issues of representations, Hollywood filmmakers are going to be more sensitive to issues of representation.”

“It always comes down to the bottom line, especially at this level of blockbuster filmmaking.”

Justin Morris, a PhD candidate in Cinema Studies says the first Star Wars film initially borrowed a number of storytelling and promotional techniques inherent to the Hollywood serial films of the 30s and 40s, and recycled them for a different audience.

He agrees with Lancashire that the second trilogy did not have the same impact as the first trilogy.

And the biggest mistakes in Lucas’ previous prequel trilogy? “Purposely filling in the imaginative gaps in the narrative,” he says.

Morris says that it will be important to see whether the producers of the films have recognized and mitigated “the entire franchise’s indebtedness to a particular brand of racist, colonial-orientalist adventure narrative.”

“It has been argued that this didn’t rear its head until the prequels, but giving the original films a pass points to a far more subtle and insidious tradition of tired racist characterizations, and I’m hopeful that the producers have recognized this in planning the new slate of films,” he says.

Associate Professor Parham Aarabi of the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering finds inspiration in the technological aspect of the Star Wars films.

“What I find interesting is that in our lifetime, probably in the next 5-10 years, we will see a dramatic impact on what artificial technology can do,” says Aarabi. “We’re starting to see it now with things like Siri and Google Now, but I think that’s just the beginning. Ten years from now we might see far beyond the science fiction of Star Wars or Star Trek.”

A big fan of both Star Wars and Star Trek franchises and the host of a Jedi Wars flying robotics competition in 2014, Aarabi looks forward to technologies seen in science fiction appearing in our world.

Medical technology in the science fiction realm particularly excites him. One example is the medical tricorder seen in Star Trek.

“I’ve been doing a lot of research with different hospitals, different doctors in creating apps and technologies that allow smartphones diagnose in understanding diseases. For example, we’ve looked at hand tremors, to see if there are indications that the tremor is due to Parkinson’s or due to alcohol withdrawal.”

Aarabi is also working with graduate student Wenzhi Guo on artificial intelligence research that might get us closer to one day talking with robots like the beloved Star Wars characters C-3PO and R2-D2.

His research focuses on teaching computers to create an artificial neural network, similar to how the brain functions, and then trying to teach it based on human advice.

“How do you teach artificial neural networks?” he asks. “That’s a matter of intense research. We’re trying to take human knowledge and advice about a certain domain, seeing what we know about that problem as humans and then provide this artificial brain that information as advice that a human would give,” he says.

“We’ve found that the system is able to learn that advice and go beyond what humans can classify. The human-given advice might be classified with 80 per cent accuracy, but the artificial brain learns with 90 per cent accuracy – a dramatic improvement. This artificial brain is learning things about cars that humans might not notice,” he says.

In preparation of the Star Wars film release, Aarabi and his students are taking over a section of a cinema theatre to watch the premier on Dec. 18.

And Guo will be taking a break from the intensive research to watch The Force Awakens. “I’m expecting a lot of surprises in the new movie, especially a new threat that’s been mentioned and new characters.

“My favourite Star Wars character is Yoda,” Guo says. “Even though he’s small, he is very intelligent and powerful.”