For "Star Wars" Fans, Nostalgia Shapes Expectations

Dec. 15, 2015

In Jeff Greenberg’s “Social Psychology and the Cinema” class, students use movies to explore psychology. Here, he ruminates on how nostalgia for the original films might affect audiences’ expectations for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

“The arts are about understanding human beings,” says Jeff Greenberg. “Art is what people enjoy. Art is a part of what makes life worth living, and films certainly have things to say about why people behave the way they do.” He points out that people spend serious money on movies. Americans spent over ten billion dollars at the box office last year.

Greenberg is a professor of social psychology at the University of Arizona, and he’s not surprised that people can’t wait to see “The Force Awakens.”

In the late 1970s, kids “grew up on” the films, with themes that seemed tailor-made for a child’s psychological sensibilities.

“When you’re a little kid, what you identify with is heroism. You want to know what’s good and what’s bad and you want to be on the good side.” In that sense, Greenberg says, “Star Wars” is “very appealing to kids. It becomes a representation of the idea of good and evil, and the struggle for good to vanquish evil.”

“It’s fantasy representations of themes that relate to things that, psychologically, people struggle with in their daily lives, but they watch it on a bigger stage and with more action. There’s an appeal to that.”

And according to Greenberg, the reason kids who grew up on “Star Wars” remain emotionally invested in the franchise is twofold: it’s nostalgic, and most people are naturally inclined towards things that are familiar.

“Nostalgia is really about your life, and feeling connected to your past,” says Greenberg. For better or for worse, he says, that nostalgia manifests itself in the form of expectation: “Nostalgia has a very strong effect on expectations. We saw this when the three prequels came out. There was a lot of controversy and concern.”

Greenberg believes the prequels suffered from a lack of continuity. The original “Star Wars” films were “tongue-in-cheek space adventures,” so the prequels missed the mark by being “relentlessly somber.” Fans expected to see “humor and comradery,” and instead saw a jarringly earnest Liam Neeson. Hence the upset.

For “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Greenberg suspects fans will expect “some elements of familiarity and some things that are new… New characters mixed with old characters. Will there be continuity? It’s important that this new film builds on ‘Return of the Jedi’ very directly and in a compelling way.”

Greenberg believes knowing that J.J. Abrams—whose 2009 “Star Trek” movie was met with critical acclaim—directed “The Force Awakens” heightens expectations, too.

He’ll go see “The Force Awakens” when the crowds die down, but his son—a super-fan who carried a “Star Wars” lunchbox for years and waited online for presale tickets—won’t wait. He will be at the theater on opening night, and in good company.

“People are so invested in it being done right and in a way that resonates with an important part of their childhood. ‘Star Wars’ means a lot to people.”

UA researchers have been looking at the science behind the Star Wars movies all month long leading up to the movie release. Stories have included the Death Star’s design flawwhy we don’t have lightsabers, and how to build a real-life planetary explorer BB-8.

“The ‘Star Wars’ movies are a great way to get people involved in science and space. At UA, we are among the national leaders in astronomy—heading space exploration missions and detecting the origins of the universe—and in the top 25 research programs nationwide among public universities", said Kimberly Andrews Espy, Senior Vice President for Research at UA. “This is a great way to show that our research stretches to galaxies far, far away.”