Of course the world is doing nothing that interesting, besides a possible war in the Persian Gulf, immigration craziness in Europe congealing around the Cologne events, a State of the Union speech juxtaposed against the rise of our country’s first not-so-crypto fascist presidential candidate, and markets tanking from Shanghai to New York. So it’s the perfect time to massively overthink movies.
Yes, I went to see the new Star Wars, finally. This is a true phenomenon, amassing billions in ticket sales in a few days, with the embarrassment of George Lucas’s ungainly prequels all too easily forgotten (his comments about “white slavers” less so). Safe in the hands of Disney Corporation, the trilogy that Joseph Campbell once considered a new hope for the re-discovery of mythological power in everyday life has been hoisted up again like an Imperial battle flag.
Star Wars was very much a product of the ’70s, a time marked by downbeats like the deepening Cold War, the Arab oil embargoes, the dismal winding-down of the Vietnam misadventure, and the fall of Bretton Woods and the birth of neoliberal consensus, but also by an extreme and burgeoning technological hopefulness. That shows in the world of the original Star Wars; sure there is an Evil Empire, but even in the darkest times there is a sense of dynamism, magic and adventure afoot, and marvels of technology that are inconceivable to us merit as much attention and explanation as we would give to a cuisinart. But how does this world play with the spirit of our own very different times? Has the old myth come out with new things to say for our own 2015-vintage crises?
For certain, one can’t fault “The Force Awakens” on its special effects or atmosphere. Each planet and each scene is rendered with a loving realism combined with a stark surrealism that in places seems to draw on the old 1990’s computer game Myst. Every set-piece is meticulously constructed, and praise must go to J. J. Abrams for eschewing CGI wherever possible in favor of the texture and warmth of real-life scenery. This world is alive: monstrous machines purr with obscure energy or soar through landscapes littered with natural and technological debris of cyclopean scale; luminous beams of sheer destructive power surge through space or are suspended in midair; and whole planets explode in expertly constructed tableaus of terror.
But as far as actually being a film goes, it’s hard to come away from “The Force Awakens” feeling any new final frontiers (forgive the mixed metaphor) have been opened up at all. Instead, something about the whole production is studiously deceptive; perfectly executed, gorgeously rendered, yet multi-dimensionally unfulfilling. Probably the mildest way of putting the problem is that “The Force Awakens” features an awful lot of rehash; a less mild way would be to claim self-plagiarism run amok. As one watches, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that someone coldly analyzed a list of the most salient features of the original trilogy, right down to the camera angles and lighting, and then contrived mightily to stuff them all back into a new clown-car script with as little rearrangement or alteration as possible.
The list of rehashes goes on and on: we have the planet-destroying Death Star, again, only bigger, now planet-sized instead of moon-sized, as though making it bigger makes the idea novel again. Seriously, how many times will they try to build that thing? We have the climactic scenes of flea-like X-wing fighters somehow taking out this same planet-sized weapon, which just happens to have one supreme vulnerability–and again, how many times do they have to build in that One Supreme Weak Point, and leave it open to attack no less?
On to the characters. Masked villain, thoroughly Vader-esque down to the clothing style, weapon and voice, complete with later “I am your father/son” complications and a theme of skill with the Force by hereditary descent? Check. Evil Empire, smartly though incorrectly rebranded as the “First Order”, complete with similar iconography and identical uniforms? Check. Emperor or Emperor-substitute, though in this case it looks too much like Gollum and Ian McDiarmid was way better? Check. Rising of a new hero(ine) on an impoverished hot desert world from hardscrabble but mysterious beginnings? Check. Same catchphrases, ships and old jokes?
I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
This kind of abject dependence on past formulae in a saga that has become, for better or worse, a cultural institution–and that was also, in its time, something stunningly fresh and exciting–might not have unsettled Campbell, who spent his career in service to the ultra-reductionist idea that nearly all myths can be reduced to a single set of archetypal themes, laid out in a standard pattern called the “hero’s journey”. Yet even if it’s true that mythology constantly recycles old themes that are deeply woven in the human condition, a vibrant myth also breathes, explores new territory, and creates new visions. Instead, in the case of “Force Awakens”, seeing such lack of imagination manifested on such an inevitably vast popular-cultural canvas makes it hard to dismiss it as just a mediocre movie, say one so choked with nostalgia and old formulae that there is almost no room for anything surprising to sprout. If “Star Wars” has become one of the core myths of our civilization, then, its latest incarnation suggests that while the need for this myth has only grown stronger, the myth’s actual vibrancy and creativity has abandoned us; and the failure of a movie of mythic intentions must itself be… mythic.
Yet perhaps the most alarming aspect of “Force Awakens” may stem from what is arguably its only novel twist on the old myth. Put simply: didn’t we just destroy the Empire 20 years ago, with the end of “Return”? How is it that the near carbon-copy First Order could spring up so quickly from the ashes, and with such massive resources? How could our remedy in “Return” have turned out so inadequate? At the end of the first trilogy, the evil Emperor was killed. The Death Star was destroyed. Vader was restored to grace, and Luke finally arose as a wise and balanced master of the Force. It may not have been the best ending, but it looked about as happily ever after as you can get–the threads were tied together satisfyingly enough, with an arc of character development, spiritual progress, and an earnest victory over the evil of the machine.
But “Force Awakens” now implies that all these developments were short-lived, even futile–a mere 20 years after the events of “Return”, the Dark Side is already back on its feet, blowing up planets by the dozen. The Light Side, meanwhile, is unmasked as having no better remedy for such evil than perpetual warfare, and indeed seems to thrive on it.
This new perspective gives the impression not of transcendent wisdom or compassion winning out, as the original trilogy had it, but of a kind of sordid moral duopoly between the two sides of the Force, a 1984-like model with imperial powers, all innately ruthless, fighting endlessly and pointlessly over what is left of the universe. (Or perhaps: the original trilogy as WWI, and the “Force Awakens” as WWII.) Here, at least, is a vision all too resonant with our current times of rising intercultural strife and curtailed hopes. A kind of moral idealism in the earlier trilogy has been replaced, for the 2015 audiences, with a world where perpetual warfare and constant strife is accepted as the best that even the good guys can offer. But even if it is appropriate to our times, I can’t say this is a welcome change, and it is even stranger to see it applauded.
This is not to dismiss the efforts of the cast, which is uniformly excellent. Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, is a revelation; she smartly eludes all cliches, portraying Rey not as a stock “strong woman who can hang tough just like the guys” character, nor as a thinly veiled sex object, but as a genuinely vivid and vivacious personality filled with curiosity and drive. John Boyega portrays Finn with urgency and human warmth, and not a trace of guile or pretense. Harrison Ford approaches Han Solo, the role that launched him into the annals of superstardom, with the same old rascally wit we know, plus a nostalgia that is often more compelling than what the script actually gives him. The rest of the old cast is touching too, including Carrie Fisher as Leia and Mark Hamill’s brief but poignant appearance.
Yet even these excellent efforts don’t disguise the lack of a novel story or interpersonal chemistry. There are embers of real emotion in the reunion of Solo and Leia, at least. But even this is at once too superficial and laid on too thick. Rae, for all her appealing pluck, is kind of a blank; we meet her on her desert planet, and learn nothing about who she is or what motivates her (except for a couple of vague allusions to childhood trauma) before all hope of finding out is lost in the compulsive kinetics of the plot.
The same applies for the runaway storm trooper, Finn–we would like to know a little about who he is or why he, so uniquely, revolts and escapes from the Order, but nothing is forthcoming. Soon we are off racing through special effects land, carefully aping every tic and stutter of the original trilogy, inexorably pulled towards the encounter with Han Solo by a series of coincidences too contrived to be explained by anything but the force of Harrison Ford’s immense salary.
In a recent blog post, Jim Kunstler wrote of his deep weariness of space adventure movies. A number of other writers have also begun to question whether space is even still a valid setting or subject for new fiction, since a) it has been done to death and b) the dread of an impending civilizational backslide makes space stories seem absurdly utopian and out of touch. I consider this an over-reaction, but still invites the question of what our hunger for space stories is all about. Is it a Faustian thing, a heady craving for infinite expansion and boundless possibility? Or could it be a sign of a deep emptiness we feel but cannot articulate, leading to a nihilistic infatuation with the void? Do we retain a trace of old cosmology in the back of our heads, believing some form of divinity or grace awaits among the stars?
I would propose that our culture produces Star Wars (and similar sci-fi franchises) as a kind of antibody–a formula learned by challenge with a certain kind of existential stress. Just as our bodies must struggle against an infection before hopefully discovering the exact antibody that will bind to the attacking germ and destroy the infection, so the minds that make up a culture must struggle with the problems of life in their time and wait for someone to come up with an answer that makes those problems at least bearable.
In fact, given that “Force Awakens” is for the most part utterly imitative and emotionally empty, I’d submit that it makes more sense to interpret it as an antibody than as a new installment of an old myth. Just like an antibody, “Force Awakens” is a cultural summoning-up of a formula that once helped us to fight off a illness resembling what now are grips us, but adds little immunity to anything beyond that.
The question then becomes: what does the Star Wars antibody fight, and does it work now? I’d suggest that it fights (or fought) the fear of technological and economic impasse on the one hand, and on the other, the fear creeping spiritual death at the hands of faceless bureaucracy, amoral capitalism, and scientific materialism, and that today it works a lot less than we desperately want it to. The original Star Wars succeeded wildly because it combined the yearning for and conviction in the “technological sublime” that prevailed in the ’70s with a way, however fictive, of embracing the spiritual and symbolic urges of man that were just then under attack by those same technological advances. By postulating a great non-materialistic “Force” that permeates and connects all living things through all of time, and that is responsive to moral valences like goodness/light and evil/darkness, Star Wars gave modern man a way to have his cake and eat it too: to keep his mythic soul aflame and still go light-speed into the technological fantasy.
Of course, it is a bold move to take such phenomena as the Star Wars rehash-craze as a readout on the wider attitude of the country or world. A movie is nothing but a money-making enterprise, a warning voice seems to say; do not regard its popular success or artistic shortcomings as indicative of anything further. Yet while financial incentive is important, I believe that cannot alone account for the themes that are in peoples’ minds–both writers and moviegoers alike–and it cannot decide the response or the reception.
Movies, I instead believe, are like trial balloons that aim to illuminate the current preoccupations and needs of the populace–their psychological state. If a movie succeeds in hitting those needs, there is a great flash, a synchrony, as huge numbers of people go to watch it and reflect its light, adopt parts of it into their own personal mythos and are brought closer together in the process. If it fails, or finds a need too far ahead of its time, the reaction is deafening silence and obscurity. In our symbolic way, always oblique as most human activity is, we vote with our feet by filling the theaters, seeking relief for impressions that haunt us yet cannot be summoned consciously.
Of course, repetition is a good substitute for creativity only if the needs have not changed at all, if the illness we face is the same one as we fought off before. Said Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times in his review of “Force Awakens”, “One can envision Hollywood eventually turning out only two products: “Star Wars” movies and James Bond movies, each periodically “rebooted” for a new generation of customers by casting the latest new young stars in new costumes facing the same old perils and uttering the same old quips, with every other vestige of creative originality relegated to the void and forgotten. ” He left out Fast and Furious, Tolkien fantasies, Bat-man, Super-man, Spider-man, Ant-man, Iron-man, and (Insert-Noun-Here)-man, but the point is taken.
The lamentable problem of the present-day imagination–the failure to discover new antibodies to new spiritual illnesses–may be summed up this way: the entertainment industry has become our sole acknowledged myth-creating system; yet it was not meant to function as such, but to make profits. As long as this is so, our mythology, however compelling and badly needed in our time, will always bend to the demands of franchising.