Brooke Clark on the latest instalment of Star Wars
THE NEW STAR Wars film, The Force Awakens, has been out long enough now that everyone who wants to see it has probably done so at least once. So what are we to make of the film, not only on its own, but as an indication of the direction of the Star Wars franchise now that it's in the Empire’s—I mean Disney’s—hands?
At least since the release of the first trailer, it has been obvious that the film was a work of ardent fanboy devotion made in imitation of George Lucas’s original trilogy generally, and Star Wars (aka “A New Hope”). But it’s hard to convey just how similar The Force Awakens is to Star Wars until you actually see it. It isn’t technically a remake, since it features new characters, but it doesn’t qualify as a sequel in any meaningful sense, since it doesn’t advance the story so much as replicate all the elements of the original. Is this what is meant by that currently ubiquitous term “reboot”? I think it’s more what marketers call a “refresh”: the same story retold with new actors in strikingly familiar lead roles.
By and large, critics have greeted this complete lack of originality with rapturous praise. Those with reservations have mostly focused on the fact that, from a narrative perspective, the film makes absolutely no sense. These issues are exhaustively—or obsessively?—documented at The Huffington Post by Seth Abramson (spoilers abound, if anyone still cares at this late date), but most of the major points centre on one essential question: how is it that, thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the Star Wars galaxy has returned to the same situation that obtained at the beginning of Star Wars: an Empire (now called the First Order) with seemingly inexhaustible resources (including a planet-sized battle station, star destroyers, TIE fighters, and storm troopers) arrayed against a tiny band of rebels (now called the Resistance) who are trying to restore—or in this case, preserve?—some more democratic form of government?
The names have changed, but the rest remains the same: a desert planet, a parentless teenager with a larger destiny, a hotshot pilot, a villain in black cape and mask (apparently worn for fashion rather than medical reasons) who reports to an uber villain who again resembles an evil apple doll. The First Order has even inherited the fallen Empire’s fashion sense (a schoolboy’s idea of the Third Reich) and taste in interior decorating (glossy and black, with polished torture implements and a fondness for bottomless shafts spanned by narrow metal catwalks). The villain himself is a fanboy; Kylo Ren consciously models himself after Darth Vader. But where Vader was a vision of icy (and generally competent) evil, issuing orders without hesitation and murdering any subordinate who failed him, Ren seems like a bratty child out of his depth, walking with the over-hasty waddle of a duck and throwing lightsaber-waving temper tantrums whenever things don’t go his way (which happens disconcertingly often). Is the galaxy really cowering before this guy?
Even the title makes no sense. What is the Force awakening from? A power nap? A good night’s sleep? A catatonic state? And to engage in full-nerd hairsplitting for a moment, if the Force is, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “an energy field created by all living things” that “surrounds us and penetrates us,” how can it fall asleep to begin with?
And yet the idea of awakening is central to understanding this film, not in terms of its storyline, but in the context of the larger marketing narrative of which the film is just one element.
This narrative grows from the Good George/Bad George dichotomy: the idea that there was Good George, who made the original Star Wars trilogy, and then there was Bad George, who soiled his legacy with the second, Jar-Jar Binksified trilogy, the various animated iterations of the Clone Wars that followed, and so on. Ever since The Force Awakens was announced, it has been repeatedly and insistently positioned as a return to the spirit and aesthetic of the original trilogy. This positioning not-so-subtly implies that Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm was not a corporate takeover of an auteur’s vision, but rather the rescue of a beloved film property from its destructive current owner—who also happened to be its original creator, Lucas himself.
And so complaining that The Force Awakens serves no narrative purpose because all it does is retell Star Wars with a new cast is to miss the point. That is precisely its purpose: to relaunch the Star Wars “brand” with new heroes that will appeal to a new (i.e. young) audience, and, more importantly, to create demand for the countless other pieces of branded merchandise—video games, comic books, action figures, Kylo Ren headphones, assorted light sabers—that are now pouring out of Chinese factories and into retailers near you. There was no point in coming up with a new story for the film because there are no narrative reasons for it to exist, only corporate ones. It’s not the Force that’s awakening; it’s the franchise.
ALL THIS DOUBTLESS sounds like the ranting of a grouchy geezer yearning for the films of his youth. I still haven’t forgotten the experience of going to Star Wars. I must have been around six years old, and I remember walking to the theatre with my parents, holding my mother’s hand on one side and my father’s on the other. I remember how it felt to realize, halfway there, that I was finally being taken to see Star Wars (all my friends had already seen it); I remember the feeling at the beginning when the Imperial starship seems to fly right over your head and onto the screen. I was also young (and naïve) enough that the distinction between fiction and reality wasn’t completely clear to me; I suppose I grasped that the story of Luke Skywalker was made up, but I don’t think I understood that the spaceships and laser guns and so on weren’t, in some sense, real. I figured that if they were up there on the screen, they must actually exist.
But most of what the film means to me comes from what I made of it after I saw it. Every morning I would sit on our little blue bathmat while my father shaved, and bombard him with questions about the movie: “How did they make the laser guns? Why did Ben’s body disappear when Darth Vader killed him? Light sabers are real, right?” Every day at school my friends and I would act out scenes from the movie, taking on the roles of the characters and using whatever we could find—sticks, mainly—as light sabers and laser guns. At my friends’ houses or at home by myself, I played with Star Wars action figures, and at night before bed one of my parents would read me The Star Wars Storybook. For a certain period of time, my imagination was completely colonized by the world and characters that George Lucas had invented. The Force Awakens can’t mean as much as Star Wars to me because there’s no way for me to see it in the same spirit; I can’t be six years old again.
And in a larger sense, our culture can’t replicate that experience either. It’s no longer very insightful to observe that we live in an era of “media saturation,” but the experience of taking my children to see The Force Awakens only reaffirmed the truth of that cliché. The number of movies they’ve already seen, including the previous six Star Wars films, must run into the hundreds. The number of theatrical films I’d seen prior to Star Wars? Zero. That kind of naivete—or media illiteracy, if you prefer—no longer exists.
My children’s much greater sophistication was evident in their responses. The five-year-old thought it was “awesome,” but he thinks a lot of things are awesome, so that’s not the most meaningful opinion. The ten-year-old thought it was “Okay … pretty good, but nothing special,” which shows just how blasé kids are about the latest blockbuster, knowing there will be another one in a month or two. My thirteen-year-old daughter thought it was bad, and was most put off by the “girl power” feminism of the main character, Rey, which she found too overstated and obvious—an interesting reaction because those elements of the film seem like they were inserted specifically to appeal to her demographic. Time to tweak those focus groups, Disney.
ULTIMATELY, DESPITE ALL the box office records it has broken and whatever ones remain to break, The Force Awakens feels like a missed opportunity. J.J. Abrams proves he’s a filmmaker that a corporation can trust to look after a major investment, but for those of us who grew up loving Star Wars as kids (guilty, obviously), he’s squandered what we dreamed of all those years ago: an opportunity to make the Star Wars universe his own by creating genuinely new stories within its flexible and ever-expanding confines. Instead, he chose an unimaginative retread of the early movies. If the most original element of your film is a new light saber design, it’s safe to say your film is not very original.
Worst of all, The Force Awakens seems not so much like an exercise in nostalgia—though it is that—as a film made to be consumed and then quickly forgotten, a product designed to generate interest in other products. It’s hard not to wish Abrams had been tempted to colour outside the lines a little bit, but even if he had wanted to, would Disney have allowed it? There’s simply too much money at stake to let one person make decisions for artistic or narrative reasons, which may be why this film feels like it was directed by a marketing department, not an auteur.
Granted, Star Wars is not a particularly profound or sophisticated film, as I am painfully reminded every time I re-watch it—it’s not even terribly original, especially if you happen to have seen The Hidden Fortress. But when you watch it, even now, it feels like a film that was made because a person wanted to tell a story. Lucas set out to tell the tale of a group of rebels struggling against a powerful empire, and of Luke Skywalker realizing his destiny as a Jedi knight, and given those parameters, he succeeded. I’m even prepared to defend the second trilogy, up to a point. I’m not a fan of those films (though I think they got less terrible as they went along), but at least you can say that they served a narrative purpose: they told the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, and how the Republic became the Empire. In doing that, they explained the state of things as we found them at the beginning of Star Wars, and answered our questions.
There is no such impetus here. The Force Awakens is a film made not to tell a story, but to launch a product line.
BROOKE CLARK edits an epigrams website and writes about references to Canada in books by non-Canadians. His poetry has appeared in journals in Canada and the U.S., including Arion, Literary Imagination, The Rotary Dial, Able Muse, and Light. Read more of his Partisan work here.