Absence, gigantism... Will Wiles falls into a big hole
Almost the first thing you see in the original Star Wars (1977) is Very Big Indeed: an Imperial Star Destroyer, one of those arrowhead-shaped ships that are so very ineffective at destroying other, smaller ships. But that’s nothing! It’s not long before we meet the Death Star, which is so big it can be mistaken for a small moon. But is it big enough? When the Empire rebuilds the Death Star in Return of the Jedi (1983), it’s even bigger. Either planet-kerploding technology isn’t subject to miniaturisation, or it’s a sign of the Empire’s decadence, and a military-industrial procurement system run amok.
In JJ Abrams’ new Star Wars instalment bigger is still better. Even the Death Star Plus looks like one of Vader’s stray golf balls against the Dark Side’s latest weapon, which sucks up stars and spits out multiple kerplosions.
Why this recurring gigantism? It must be related to all that space. Too much of it, so terribly empty. Ships hanging like splinters of precious metal in an ocean of night – that whole shtick was played out in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the start of the Star Wars franchise, George Lucas seems very concerned by the size of the cinema screen, and of space itself – eager that both are fully exploited. The real estate, in both cases, must be properly filled. You can even hear the difference in the score. Kubrick’s Ligeti versus Lucas’ John Williams. Less is more versus more is not enough.
Back on earth the same sort of horror vacui, horror of the empty space, applies to some desert countries, and demands the same solutions – always bigger
Back on earth the same sort of horror vacui, horror of the empty space, applies to some desert countries, and demands the same solutions – always bigger. No wonder Rem Koolhaas’s proposed convention centre for Dubai resembled the Death Star, and Jean Nouvel’s National Museum for Qatar has the air of Star Wars’ space ship junk yards.
However, solving one empty-space problem merely opens up another. An external void is swapped for an internal void. There are, of course, a lot of hangars, flight decks and engineering bays in a film series that is, in large part, about fighter pilots. And those are necessarily big. But there are also a lot of holes. The internal volumes of these giant bases are programmed with a great deal of nothing: gulfs, chasms, shafts. Often these are spanned by spindly bridges, making for dramatic showdown locations, and cliff-faces to climb or exciting canyons to fly through.
It’s an architecture of absences, and I have a theory about where it might come from. What’s the most exciting and best-known modern building in the US, circa 1977? Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center in New York, the Twin Towers. Very Big Objects, in the openness of a plaza – also, an implied canyon. Or is it an early postmodern influence? What is that notch at the prow of the Millennium Falcon, if not a split pediment?
I fell into a hole, Star Wars-wise. I was five years old when Return of the Jedi came out, and at university by the time the ‘special editions’ arrived in the cinemas. Star Wars toys were things friends’ older brothers had, and my first experience of the films was out of order, with interruptions, on TV at Christmas. They were a collection of scenes for me, but hugely memorable and entertaining scenes, partly thanks to all those impressive spaces. The imaginative mortar for those fragments was mystery: a sense of something larger that had yet to be revealed, a broader sense of mythology connecting the shards. Gosh, but the Abrams outing is entertaining, in the best tradition of the series. However I wish that JJ’s energetic imaginative had done more to fill in some of the holes in the universe. Who’s in charge? Where is everybody? Exactly how does any of this work? All the films trip from empty site to empty site: desert, swamp, icy waste, primeval forest. To give them credit, the ill-fated Lucas sequels tried to flesh out cities, government, trade and so on, but managed to make it all utterly enervating. Perhaps that’s what scared Abrams off. Star Wars continues to flee from emptiness.
Once you start spotting holes in Star Wars, it’s very hard to stop. The ‘trench run’ at the end of the first film speaks for itself. The pit of Sarlacc. Another pit-based worm that almost swallows the Millennium Falcon. The Big Bad of the Abrams film has a colossal echoing throne room for what appears to be nothing more than a hologram. He has a trench-like scar running down the side of his head, too. In one of the moments, Abrams toys with our expectations, the viewer is surprised to find that another character is not scarred. No scar! It’s an ironic hole.