For further comment–Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Bio of a nerd

1977 was a good year for me. First, it’s the year that I was born, which makes it a banner year in my personal history. It’s also the year that the United States launched the two Voyager probes into deep space.

It’s also the year that Star Wars was released.

I grew up with Star Wars. I’m told that my parents saw it for the first time when I was six weeks old. They went to a drive-in theater, and I was asleep in the back seat. My earliest memory of going to a movie theater was seeing Star Wars. I also remember being scared of the Jawas, so much so that I started crying and my mom ended up taking me out of the theater. (I think that my younger brother has forgiven me for this….) We had Star Wars toys. Of course we pretended to fight with light sabers.

Of course, over time, the obsession with Star Wars faded. The trilogy was complete, and people moved on to other things. That’s right; there was a stretch of time during the late 1980s that Star Wars was largely dead as a brand. (Apparently West End Games’ Star Wars roleplaying game kept the flame alive. But I digress.)

The spark was reignited in 1991 with the release of Heir to the Empire, the beginning of a Star Wars novel trilogy by Timothy Zahn. I devoured that series and found myself reconnecting with the new flood of Star Wars material that began to be released.

And then, of course, the prequels.

My wife arranged for us to go to a midnight viewing of The Phantom Menace when it came out.

When Yoda drew his light saber in Attack of the Clones, I cheered with the rest of the theater.

And, I’ll be honest: when Amidala died in childbirth in Revenge of the Sith, I cried.

The mythology of Star Wars has been a central part of my life. And so, when I heard that a new sequel trilogy was coming out, I was thrilled.

We dodged spoilers. We watched The Force Awakens in 3D at the local big screen theater. It should have been awesome!

But it wasn’t. I really, really didn’t like it.

More recently, I rewatched it with the family, and I decided to give the movie another chance.

And I still didn’t like it.

I know I represent the minority, and it feels like questioning a geek sacrament of some sort, but I think that The Force Awakens is a fundamentally flawed film that betrays its legacy as a Star Wars movie.

Now, I could have just kept this opinion to myself, but I decided to admit this on social media. The response was interesting. Of course, some folk disagreed with me–I would expect nothing less–but I discovered a thread of agreement and support. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. So I figured that it would be good for me to outline my thinking on this matter. I won’t lie; some of this is probably just thinly disguised nerd rage, and I’m trying to keep that in mind to give this issue some needed perspective. But some of this also spills out into larger issues of social commentary, responsible storytelling, and even the business of geek culture. So, hopefully, somewhere in the midst of all of this discussion, you will find something valuable, even if you disagree.

Star Wars as myth making

Let me start by outlining one of my underlying assumptions: Star Wars isn’t science fiction. This isn’t an idea unique to me by any stretch. I’ve heard Star Wars called “galactic fantasy”, which seems closer to the truth. But I’m going to go all literary theorist here and argue that Star Wars is best understood as existing in the tradition of epic myth. When I say “epic”, I don’t mean the scale of the action–though there’s certainly that–but rather I’m referring to the subject material, Over here at Wikipedia, an epic poem is defined as “a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation.” The article goes on to note that “[c]lassical epic employs dactylic hexameter and recounts a journey, either physical (as typified by Odysseus in the Odyssey) or mental (as typified by Achilles in the Iliad) or both. Epics also tend to highlight cultural norms and to define or call into question cultural values, particularly as they pertain to heroism.”

This isn’t surprising. Anyone who has spent time around Star Wars knows that George Lucas relied heavily on Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth theory, first laid out in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, especially the idea of the “hero’s journey”. Campbell’s theory is not universally accepted, but it’s fair to say that the hero’s journey as he outlines it has deep roots, at least in Western culture, and taps certain fundamental storytelling archetypes.

Here’s where I admit something that I’ve secretly thought for a while: Star Wars is a terrible example of world-building, at least as an alternate reality. I cannot look at the world of Star Wars and envision “normal life” or the like happening outside the frame of the film. I don’t believe any of the planets that are shown (e.g. Tatooine or Hoth) being actual places.

But that’s fine, because Star Wars isn’t trying to set up an alternate reality. Instead, it is creating a collection of environments as different set dressings to bring vibrancy to the grand theater that it is creating for us. Hoth isn’t really a planet; it’s an environment for our characters to stand on. Viewed from this angle, Star Wars does a fabulous job of creating archetypal environments for its characters to inhabit.

The characters are also archetypes. Luke, Leia, and Han aren’t merely interesting characters in a clever setting. Each of them are resonant with fundamental Western storytelling archetypes. Han is the Rogue and Trickster–thus the whole brouhaha about Han shooting first. Leia isn’t just a princess; she is The Princess. And Luke is the Chosen One, who follows a classic arc: starting in obscurity, his destiny is revealed to him by an ancient wizard (Kenobi) who gives him his father’s sword and ushers him onto the pathway of destiny, where he rescues the princess from the evil fortress and conquers the villain…at least for now.

This isn’t just the sketch of A New Hope; it’s a sketch of one of the West’s core stories.

The complexity and nuance of this story only increases with the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, by tying in the themes of family, temptation, sacrifice, dedication, and redemption. By the end of the original trilogy, we have received a story that has highlighted and celebrated a variety of cultural values, especially around heroism. Star Wars is our culture’s epic.

I think that it’s valuable to consider the prequels through this lens. If the original trilogy was about redemption, the prequels were about corruption. They had to be, and we all knew it. Rather than being a heroic epic, they were a tragic epic, again using the Greek definition: a hero overcome by his fatal flaw.

Consider that there are two tragic heroes in the prequels: Anakin and Kenobi. Kenobi is tragic, because he allows his dedication to his dead master to blind him to the emerging problems with Anakin. Anakin is tragic because his desire to love ultimately leads him to betray the Jedi Order and bring about so much evil.

I think that the prequels were attempting to set this up, but they failed in execution. I think that Lucas focused too much on the idea that his audience was children and therefore watered down what he was doing. Jar Jar Binks is the obvious example, but even the use of slapstick robots as the enemy reduced the dramatic tension of the story. And, yeah, the romance between Anakin and Amidala just wasn’t handled well.

The ideas were there. It could have worked. Instead, the prequels represent a flawed attempt to tell another epic on the same stage. It should have worked, but it didn’t.

That all said, I do want to defend the prequels by noting that they felt like another epic story. They felt like Star Wars, even when they were tripping over their own feet.

And this is what I think was missing from The Force Awakens: epic storytelling. Unlike the original trilogy and, to a lesser extend, the prequels, the characters in The Force Awakens did not hearken back to culturally accepted archetypes, nor did the storytelling highlight particular cultural norms.

Or, maybe this is a more precise way of stating the point: the culture from which The Force Awakens drew its archetypes had changed. The previous movies were drawing on archetypes derived from classic storytelling.

The Force Awakens derived its archetypes from Star Wars.

So, for example, I’d argue that Rey is intended to be a new Luke Skywalker character. She is cut from the same cloth: mysterious parentage, desert upbringing, Force empowered. She even wears the same kinds of clothing as Luke does in A New Hope.

There are other correspondences. Poe is the new Han Solo. Finn is arguably the new Princess Leia. There’s even a new R2-D2 in BB-8. We are supposed to read their characters through the lens of prior Star Wars lore and make these connections.

There’s another term for this approach: nostalgia. The Force Awakens is not an epic film; it is a nostalgic film. It is an attempt to recapture the original feeling of watching A New Hope for the first time while introducing the new characters necessary to extend the brand into a new generation. All the trappings are present, but the mythic power of the original is gone. And that makes all the difference in the world.

More on The Force Awakens and nostalgia

Here’s my next objection to The Force Awakens. Not only did the movie trade mythic power for nostalgia, but then it did failed to do nostalgia well. Let me explain what I mean.

When A New Hope came out, the slate was blank. There were no previous films or stories that needed to be honored. This was the beginning. By the time that The Force Awakens hits the scene, though, this is no longer true. There are six movies’ worth of previous story that need to be honored. Okay, if you want to leave out the prequels, then there are still three movies’ of previous story that need to be honored. And I don’t believe that they were.

Before I proceed, let me admit a couple of things up front. First, this is definitely where the nerd rage is hitting. Second, some of this is surprisingly emotional for me. In fact, I will organize the following section along those lines.

First, some nerd rage.

I know that The Force Awakens is trying to replicate A New Hope. However, this ends up producing nonsensical results. For instance, consider the entire political situation sketched out in the opening crawl of The Force Awakens. We have the First Order, which is the heir to the old Empire, doubtless underfunded and reduced to guerilla action in the wake of the loss of leadership and resources in the decisive Battle of Endor. Oh wait. No, it’s not. The First Order is depicted as having the same reach, organization, and power as the old Empire…somehow.

But no matter! The Republic, seeing this threat emerging, masses its sizeable fleets and goes on the offensive, crushing the upstart First Order before it can become established…or maybe instead, it’ll set up a guerilla group with a secret base, equipped with only X-wing fighters because…um…I don’t really know.

No, really! Think about it! How does any of that make any sense at all. The Republic won, remember? They are the government now, not the First Order. That means that they don’t need to lead an insurgency. They have an army! So why don’t they use it?

For that matter, to get really picky here for a second, why does the Resistance only send X-wings after Starkiller Base? I’m thinking that some B-wing bombers or Y-wing torpedo fighters would have been pretty useful, especially in attacking a fixed position like that. I mean, if you’ve decided to leave all your MC80 star cruisers home for some reason.

The situation simply doesn’t make sense, given what has come before. We know that the Rebellion was able to field a substantive armada at the Battle of Endor, and that’s while it’s still an insurgency. The entire Resistance strategy makes no sense at all.

Furthermore, I object to the ongoing withholding of information that the movie trafficked in. Despite its unfortunate clickbait title, this video outlines the issue pretty well. None of the previous Star Wars movies created tension by withholding information. Certainly, we were surprised by revelations (“No, Luke. I am your father!”), but we were not teased with hints that would be paid off in a later installment. Why aren’t even we told who Snokes is? Or why are we teased with Rey’s backstory? To put it bluntly (and a little petulantly), Star Wars isn’t Lost. Yet The Force Awakens seems to delight in dangling information just out of reach.

Now, I’m going to pivot into more emotional space. But this is fair, I think. Nostalgia is an appeal to the emotions by drawing on treasured symbols. So, it’s only fair to ask: how did The Force Awakens do at handling treasured symbols? We did get to see many of the previous Star Wars characters. How did that go?

Now, remember my own history. I am squarely in the target audience for this movie. The Force Awakens is hearkening back to the stories of my childhood. Add to this my prior discussion of the archetypal aspects of the original characters. The Force Awakens is conjuring with powerful magic.

And, in my opinion, this is perhaps the most profound place that the movie fails.

The last time we saw all these characters was at the victory celebration on Endor after the destruction of the second Death Star. Luke has become a Jedi. Han and Leia have finally figured out their relationship. The Emperor is dead, and the Empire is defeated. All is right with the world.

Until the beginning of The Force Awakens, when each one of these items is systematically destroyed.

Every single one of the original characters are failures. Luke has failed as a Jedi Master, so badly, in fact, that he has fled into exile. The Empire is resurgent, and Snokes is functionally a new Emperor. The movie is particularly hard on Han. He’s really only had two loves in his life: the Millennium Falcon and Leia. And, at the beginning of the movie, he has lost both of them.

What’s worse, these failures are off-screen. We don’t experience them as the story unfolds. No, we are just informed that all of these characters’ previous victories have been negated. Instead, we find the original cast as broken shells of what they once were. Even the droids are not immune, as R2-D2 has shut down in apparent mourning after Luke disappeared.

Everything fell apart in the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

Yes, I know that there needs to be conflict for the story to exist. But the conflict could have built on the characters’ successes as they try to wage the peace. However, in their zeal to remake A New Hope, the filmmakers essentially undid all the previous characters’ successes.

Just think of that victory scene at the end of Return of the Jedi. Then think, “Meaningless. It didn’t matter.”

Because, remember, these aren’t “realistic” characters. They are archetypes. Negating their victories is like negating the “happily ever after” at the end of a fairy tale.

Or, for certain, that’s what it felt like to me. As I’m writing this, I’m discovering (a little uncomfortably, to be honest) how much this story is tied up in my identity. These characters have been a really big deal to me for a really long time. And, rooted deeply in these stories, is the simple idea that good prevails over evil through acts of love and courage.

But, according to The Force Awakens, apparently not. It was all futile. Which means that love and courage in the face of evil are futile.

I need to put in a particular word here about Han and Leia’s divorce, because this hit me particularly hard. In classic storytelling, a happy ending often includes a marriage. And that’s what you see at the end of Return of the Jedi. Sure, the marriage happens off-screen, but you know it will happen. And they all lived happily ever after.

Except that no one believes in that anymore, especially about marriage.

Divorce is endemic in our society. It’s gotten to the point that we’ve grown accustomed to it, like marriage is a long-term lease instead of a lifelong commitment. Broken families are becoming the norm, and the fallout is apparent in the children.

But still, our myths point towards something better. Towards lifelong fidelity and the beauty of family and childrearing. And yes, we all know that “happily ever after” takes a lot of work, but the stories hold up the ideal as something to be embraced, pursued, and achieved.

Even Star Wars adopted this view. I know that the Extended Universe has been ruled non-canonical, but it was really neat seeing Han and Leia try to work out how to be married and be parents. It wasn’t always easy, but they worked hard at being married.

But The Force Awakens destroyed that. No “happily ever after” for Han and Leia. And that hurt me deeply. It felt like a denial, at a fundamental level, of the possibility of wedded bliss for anyone. Because if the hero and the princess can’t stay married, what hope do the rest of us have?

Some thoughts from the real world

Okay. That got pretty heavy. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I consider The Force Awakens to be a conscious assault on my childhood. But that’s not actually fair to Disney. I understand that all of this is actually about brand management.

Here’s the deal. Despite everything I outlined above, Star Wars is not a cultural treasure held in the public domain, like The Odyssey or Shakespeare’s plays. Star Wars is an intellectual property, owned by a corporation, that intends on leveraging its IP for profit.

As an outsider observer, here’s what I see. Star Wars still has a lot of power as an IP. However, the perception is that brand loyalty took a serious hit after the prequels. So, in order to revitalize the brand, Disney needed to restore fan confidence. Making a seventh Star Wars movie makes all kinds of sense. There were always hints that there was supposed to be a trilogy after the original trilogy. By making this trilogy, Disney leverages this expectation, drawing a lot of fan attention. Then, by successfully executing on the first release, they lay the foundations for a host of other movies, including, of course, all the attendant merchandizing and the like.

However, the original cast members are getting old. So, for this all to work, Disney needs to introduce new characters for a new generation of Star Wars stories. Thus Rey, Finn, Poe, and the others.

Furthermore, Disney has already seen a lot of success with a shared cinematic universe in its Marvel superhero films. (Remember that Disney also owns Marvel.) So, they are executing the same strategy here. For example, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out in December 2016: Rogue One. It’s not actually part of any trilogy. Instead, it’s a standalone story set in the Rebellion era of the Star Wars continuity, focusing on the spies that stole the plans for the original Death Star. There’s also a forthcoming movie starring a young Han Solo. (See this article for more details on Disney’s strategy.)

But it all hinges on the first movie out of the gate being solid. Have to get it right, or everything else collapses. So, given all the money that’s at stake, best to play it safe. A functional soft reboot of the franchise is a great way to get everything going. And, yeah, be sure to include a trench run, just like in A New Hope. The audience will love it.

I know that J.J. Abrams wasn’t trying to ruin my childhood. It’s just a series of business decisions that led to this approach to the story.

Which brings me to my last thought. I’ll admit that this is a bit unformed, but I think it’s worth consideration.

A while ago, I came across the article “On Geek Culture”. In it, the author argues that geek culture has become just another form of brand loyalty. Here’s an extended quote from the article:

Most alarming is that, almost exclusively, the media being so strongly identified with is corporate and ruthlessly capitalist in nature. Star Trek might present an optimistic and inspiring vision of the future, which any American liberal would like to see, but it’s a vision wholly owned and operated by CBS. Star Wars is now held by Disney and all of their attendant copyright shenanigans. So, too, is Marvel Comics — a company recently focused to an alarming degree on denying ownership rights to its content creators (watching comic book fans contorting themselves in order to justify continuing to support Marvel while admitting their favorite creators are left destitute by the company’s practices is depressing). Even Dungeons and Dragons — market leader in a dwindling cottage industry — is run by a subsidiary of toy behemoth Hasbro.

As a thought experiment, imagine brand loyalty that doesn’t have people nearly coming to blows over Doctor Who and Star Wars; think, instead, of the argument in question being over Disney and BBC. Or, for a starker contrast, instead of people dressed as Marvel characters at ComicCon, imagine Geico geckos or Progressive Insurance Flos. This is essentially already happening: what is Superman in the twenty-first century but a corporate mascot, albeit one with a lavish backstory? It’s no wonder that non-geeky media desperately tries to cultivate geek cred in the form of viral commercials or a presence at conventions. Having brand loyalty so intense that it can incite real or simulated violence would be a remarkable windfall for any company able to harness it.

The author’s premise wasn’t universally accepted. Indeed, there were a couple of responses (here and here) which are worth reading.

But it did get me thinking. Something seems a bit off in our current relationship with stories, if the primary influences that shape them are profit motive and not a desire to tell the truth.

In addition, are my fellow nerds and I being exploited for corporate gain? This is a subculture that has traditionally had a serious inferiority complex. Witness this music video to get an idea of what I’m talking about. But now, our interests have become mainstream. In our thrill of being accepted, are we being taken for a ride?

Or am I overthinking this one? “Corporate” doesn’t have to equal “evil”, right? And certainly, without a large bankroll, the quality and production values of movies would be less. I do still love a good spectacle.

Yet still, I’m left wondering if we’ve allowed ourselves to become merely consumers of stories and not producers. Surely our own communities, be they local or interest-based, could benefit from stories created for our benefit, and not merely for an outsider’s profit. Is it time to strike out on our own and make our own stories? And what would that look like?

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I appreciate your willingness to read through my thoughts. I don’t know if I’ve managed to persuade you, but I hope you can understand my perspective on this matter. Honestly, now that I’ve finished writing this article, perhaps I can consider the matter properly exorcised from my mind, letting me move on to other things.

I do know one thing, though.

They should have just made Timothy Zahn’s “Thrawn” trilogy into the new Star Wars trilogy. That would have been so much better!

Thanks for reading.

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4 responses to “For further comment–Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

  • viclyn7

    I understand your frustrations now! If you ONLY thought of Star Wars as a reboot (not nostalgia, not epic story, etc.) how would that change how you view it? Good stuff Seth.

    • Seth Ben-Ezra

      I actually thought about that a little and decided that I probably would have liked the movie better if it had been set (say) 500 years in the future or something like that. Still place the story in the Star Wars universe, but make a clean break with everything that came before. That’s probably what would have been necessary for me to be able to disassociate this movie from the prior ones.

  • Tim Koppang

    Seth,

    Excellent post. I’m wondering how much the movie’s disregard for the books, et al. affected your opinion. I have another friend in a similar situation. He read every book he could get his hands on when he was a kid. Now that all of that extended universe material has been thrown out, he feels betrayed. I don’t want to disregard your many other points, all of which are insightful, but I’m also wondering what you might think if the writers had been more respectful of the non-movie material.

    While I agree with much of what you’ve said, I still loved the new movie. That’s not to say it’s perfect. Like you, I think they veered too far into nostalgia. Every time they did a little bit of fan service, I cringed, but I cringe at almost all fan service, so perhaps I’m biased.

    However, I did here an interesting take on the epic nature of the movie. As you said, they are drawing their material from Star Wars instead of from more general cultural myths or the pulp-era stories that informed the original movie. Yet what does that say about the status of Star Wars in our culture today? Instead of pure nostalgia, perhaps it’s best to think of the new film as retelling what has become our new myths? It’s not so much about servicing fans as it is about reengaging with the stories that are important to us now. I don’t buy the argument 100%, but I find it compelling enough to at least consider.

  • Jon

    In the comic book world, whenever a new creator picks up someone else’s super-hero title, they often start by retelling the character’s origin story. How many times have you heard about the destruction of Krypton? How many different ways has Peter Parker been exposed radioactive spiders? How many different ways has Bruce Wayne come to the conclusion that he wear a cape and mask? I’m viewing episode VII in the same light. Abrams is reviving a great old ‘origin story’ for a new generation…. He’s just happens to be weaving it into the old one as a continuation.

    The continuation isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the emphasis… The ‘re-awakening’ of a world we as fans care about is. The old characters are there as an homage and to lend credibility to the new characters. It’s actually a pretty smart strategy. And to echo others here, I agree that it’s not perfect, but it is good.

    Also see Kirby Ferguson’s segment on ‘why it works’

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