Thirty-point riff on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rey-Star-Wars-Episode-7-Force-Awakens

  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun entertainment that achieves its goals, one of which is not to transcend the confines of its brand-mythos.
  2. SW: TFA takes Star Wars itself (as brand-mythos) as its central subject. The film is “about” Star Wars.
  3. To this end, SW: TFA is basically a remake of A New Hope. My saying this is not insightful and cannot be insightful.
  4. In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope (aka Episode IV, aka simply Star Wars), George Lucas synthesized Flash Gordon and Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and WWII serials into a cultural product that was simultaneously new and old, hokey and profound, campy and heroic.
  5. SW: TFA is not a synthesis (and does not seek to be a synthesis); rather it is a transcription, repetition, and  replication of the previous Star Wars films—particularly the so-called “original trilogy” (Episodes IV, V, and VI).
  6. Hence, SW: TFA often feels like a greatest hits collection, its sequences and visuals (engaging and visually spectacular) cribbed from the previous films. I could spend the rest of the riff outlining the correspondences—major and minor—but why? The correspondences are intentionally obvious to anyone who has seen the film; furthermore, they are not allusions, but the formal structure of the film.
  7. And this formal technique, this replication—it’s all very enjoyable and often warm and unexpectedly humorous and at times awfully sad even.
  8. And I liked the new characters very much, which I was of course supposed to. They are all in some ways replications of previously existing characters, just as the set pieces and sequences they act in/out/upon are replications.
  9. Let’s consider Rey, the heroine of The Force Awakens really quickly: She is, in some ways, a synthesis, but only a synthesis of the principals of the Star Wars brand-mythos: She is at once Han, Luke, and Leia: A figuration in the foreground: A childhood fantasy.
  10. A childhood fantasy: Watching SW: TFA feels like watching a Star Wars film—which is the film’s intention, obviously.
  11. But not obviously and really quickly and not a gripe: Isn’t there a part of us, by which us I mean me, that wants something more than the feeling of (the feeling of) a Star Wars film? That wants something transcendent—something beyond that which we have felt and can name? Something that we don’t know that we want because we haven’t felt it before?
  12. Re: Point 11: I already made an (awfully) oblique argument at some length almost three years ago about franchise films in general and Star Wars films in particular, arguing (maybe arguing) for, say, Wong Kar Wai to direct the next Star Wars film.
  13. In that riff I wrote that, “J.J. Abrams is a safe bet. I can more or less already imagine the movie he’ll make.” That prediction was incorrect only in that I enjoyed the product that he made more than I thought I would. That prediction was wholly correct in that I could imagine the product Abrams made. It was easy to imagine. I’d already seen the film dozens of times before he even made it.
  14. So, to return to point 11, the “not a gripe” point: Is the argument then that film as an art form allows us (the illusion of) a transcendent perspective? That film at its best, at its strongest and strangest, offers us a new way of seeing?
  15. (Yes).
  16. The Force Awakens is strong but not strange. Its major advancement (by which I mean break from previous films) evinces in its casting choices—but these reflect the progress of our own era, not the brand-mythos of Star Wars itself, which was of course always diverse.
  17. The Force Awakens is fun. Entertaining. Like I wrote in point 1.
  18. And, to repeat point 2 after repeating point 1: SW: TFA is “about” Star Wars.
  19. So what do I mean by this? Consider for a minute what the other Star Wars films are “about.”
  20. A New Hope is about escape and rescue, both in the literal, romantic, and metatextual sense.
  21. The Empire Strikes Back is about Oedipal anxieties and Oedipal violence, family entanglements, friendships and loyalties.
  22. Return of the Jedi is about restoration and redemption, a film about the genius of ecology over mechanization.
  23. And while the (so-called) prequels are generally reviled, I like them: They are “about” something.
  24. For example, Revenge of the Sith is about democracy and fascism, community and ego—and more of that Oedipal violence.
  25. Indeed the entire series is Oedipally structured—which The Force Awakens replicates and continues.
  26. Yet Abrams’s reverence for Star Wars bears no clear trace (at least on my first viewing) of Oedipal anxiety towards Lucas. No attempt to transcend or surpass—as such a move would entail a kind of critical (if metaphorical) violence directed at Lucas’s vision. (Notably, many of the criticisms of the so-called prequels rest on the way those films look beyond their predecessors (in a way that Abrams’s film doesn’t)).
  27. “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie,” said Jean-Luc Goddard.
  28. And Harold Bloom: “Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety…There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.”
  29. Abrams’s goal was not to criticize Star Wars or poetically engage it; his goal was to praise it—to praise it as stasis, to replicate its comforts, to avow and vindicate its forms and tropes. And he succeeded.
  30. And of course the biggest success of the film: I want to watch it again.
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8 thoughts on “Thirty-point riff on Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

  1. A talented filmmaker figures out a story for the Force Awakens that doesn’t negate everything that is earned by the end of Return of the Jedi. From Leia’s lack of response to Han’s end – she hugs Rey instead of Chewie? – to the casual destruction of planets, to Han’s anti-climatic, and telegraphed, death, to the wiping out of the village in the first scene (covered with shots that don’t really show the murder) this is a profoundly anti-human film.

    In Jedi there’s a moment when an Ewok mourns the death of another at Endor. In A New Hope we see the charred remains of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. And in Empire Strikes Back we get this, the epitome of Star Wars:

    I understand the show must go on. I understand a brand must continue. Fine. But Force Awakens shows a disgusting lack of respect to, as you describe it, the transcendence of Star Wars. This new one felt as if Star Wars went to ABC weeknights, which JJ Abrams knows a lot about.

    Star Wars is an incredibly rich, shakespearean-like universe. It shouldn’t be this hard.

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    1. The dude you cite here saw the film multiple times and says he wants to see it more…and is willing to give the whole third trilogy time to restore whatever he thinks needs restoration. I think people, “adult” people, clearly enjoy the relief that such Entertainments offer—that they offer the feeling of (the feeling) of “being a kid again,” or whatever cliche you like (or dislike) there. My suspicion is that this contemporary trilogy will follow the template of films 4-6, and end again on the note of restoration.

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      1. Star Wars reminds me of old traditional Italian opera, whole families congregating with snacks for eating during the performance, tomatoes being thrown at off-note performers. Great fun to be had by all. I do not want my science fiction to be ‘real’, but the plot well constructed and tight, believable. I have not seen a SW flick in years. Hope to see the new one soon. Being in an audience with Trekkies adds to the e scapist pleasure. Same with opera.

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  2. I think you’re right. I think the next films will follow the OT template closely, which is too bad, because following just the template isn’t enough. You say Abrams’ goal is to not engage with the material poetically, and you’re correct, and that’s so bizarre for a filmmaker uninterested in doing that. I hope the next filmmakers engage with it poetically or whatever.

    All comes down to talent, or the “pencil and paper level” as Kubrick said.

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  3. For contrast, I would suggest Knights of the Old Republic II. It’s a straight up, ruthless polemic against the entire Star Wars universe.

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