Star Wars, Infinite Remix
If you’re looking at the words below on if I think the movie is “good” or “bad”, know this. I think The Force Awakens is a solid movie not the best but not the worst. It is of such cultural relevance that even if it were getting pilloried by fans and critics you should still probably see it. So go see The Force Awakens it’s a pretty OK movie. Everything below this is fair game for “spoilers” (they don’t really exist).
2015 has been an interesting year for films. It saw four major movie franchises of the 1970s and eighties (Mad Maxx, Terminator, Rocky, and Star Wars) released new entries meant to reignite interest, and surprisingly, mostly succeeded. To varying degrees they leaned into the nostalgia older audiences have for these properties. But as evident by this years heightened awareness surrounding the state of race relations (in America) and general need for more inclusive media these the films acted as a remix of both iconography and narrative for a new generation fans. Creed saw Adonis Creed placed into the role of Rocky, with the franchise lead into the Mickey role, and while Creed is undoubtedly a “Rocky Story” it is so much more and the same. Fury Road gave us another fabled tale of the Road Warrior helping those in need. The only real failure in this batch was Terminator: Genisys, a film that simultaneously tried to reenact its filmic history –reliving the “glory days” –while at the same time attempting to extricate itself from it; never succeeding at either.
And then there is Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars film in a decade and the first to be produced by new owners Disney, after purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012. JJ Abrams, co-writer (along with Lawrence Kasdan) and director, has turned in a film that is essentially a remix of A New Hope with dashes of the other original trilogy bits. It’s kind of funny, thinking of a Star Wars remix; creator George Lucas originally made it as a pastiche of his pop culture ( from Flash Gordon serials to Akira Kurosawa jidaigeki) laid over Joseph Campbell’s Heroes’ Journey.
With The Force Awakens, the cultural ouroboros takes another lap on itself. Which is the best vector for Abrams into Star Wars; he is a storyteller at his best when playing with another creator’s style or genres. A New Hope provided him a well known template and a universe he can leverage audience understanding to blast through typical exposition dumps and replace them with more relevant ones for the story being told. Most surprisingly (and best) is how Abrams and Kasdan have taken the plot of A New Hope to tell a different story with it. The story of A New Hope is of a boy dreaming of and going on an adventure. The Force Awakens is about newcomers Finn and Rey, both finding and allowing empathy within them and constructing new familial units out of it. That story is exactly the one that needed to be told for this new trilogy of Star Wars episodes to work. And it does it marvelously, there are some under explained bits of mythology but that does not matter to the emotional journey Abrams tells and captures.
As with the first film (and most of his films actually) Abrams has constructed a fantastic cast of new leads that effortlessly sell the bonds of friendship and connection between Finn, Poe Dameron, and Rey. Oscar Isaac has been a good working actor for several years, but as Poe Dameron finally feels like he’s broken through and should achieve the fame and stardom someone of his talent deserves. His participation as the top fighter pilot in the Resistance continues an interesting eclectic body of work that has gone back and forth between Hollywood mega blockbusters and personal character dramas. John Boyega finally enters the mainstream of things as Finn, the former Stormtrooper. And then there is the true unknown of the cast Daisy Ridley as Rey. Ridely has had a variety of smaller parts in British film and television but comes front and center as the self reliant scavenger of Jakku who just wants her family to come and get her. All of these characters have mixes of each of the original trio in them and they should make for new and interesting dynamics going forward.
In opposition to this new trio is Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. He is one of Supreme Leader Snoke’s hands and master of the mysterious Knights of Ren. The revelation about Ren’s parentage, that he is the son of Leia and Han Solo, is thrown out there almost as if it were not a big deal. And for him it is a fact he is constantly trying to suppress, transforming him into what is easily the most interesting Star Wars villain ever. In the lead up to release, Ren was described as a Darth Vader fan boy. And he is, talking to the melted mask of his grandfather as if he was Hamlet and it was Yorick. So fanatical in his devotion to his grandfather’s legacy that he has reconstructed the all black armored attire and turned it into cosplay. It is armor in more ways than one. Unlike fellow new characters, Ren’s analogue isn’t to the Original Trilogy but the Prequel Trilogy. He is a version of Anakin Skywalker that would’ve made the prequel trilogy interesting, captivating and eternal at struggle with the light and darkness within him. He has wrapped himself in the vestiges of the Dark Side because he’s afraid of the light within him; afraid that he isn’t evil enough. As Adam Driver generally dose he gives a fantastic performance that is the only one that feels like it has the weight of a history on it.
As cute, self aware, and in love with itself (but not narcissistic), The Force Awakens is at times, it feels fitting for the saga to begin again by turning into itself like this. Beginning a new trilogy to find out not much has really changed in thirty years fits into the eternal fractal nature of the Star Wars saga. In the formerly Expanded Universe (now Legends stories), the Galaxy far far away, has never really knows peace. There was always a Republic and varying degrees of Empire. The Light side and Dark side in eternal conflict. So is the case in The Force Awakens picking up roughly 30 years since Return of the Jedi. There is a New Republic but the ashes of the Empire still exist in the outer rings, having reconstituted itself as the First Order. And to fight this threat the Republic is supporting the Resistance led by General Leia Organa Solo. It’s this bit of conflict that Awakens under explains. A New Hope with the Vietnam War as context quickly narrated the conflict between Empire and Rebellion. Here things are both more and less complicated. Is the First Order a nation state like the Republic and the Resistance is part of a shadow war? Or is the First Order more like a maurading band of Mandalorians? The film leaves this bit of the moral equation unfinished. It doesn’t really matter, and not just because the Republic is blown up like Alderann, but because we know whatever the status the Empire is bad and Leia is good.
When Star Wars came out, before it was retitled with Episode IV: A New Hope, there was no promise of a sequel and more. As audience and business we have grown much in the past thirty years. We now know the next 5 years worth of Star Wars films coming. This knowledge has led to a change in how these films are constructed and viewed. As Matt Patches is fond to point out, Star Wars and the Marvel/DC movies aren’t really “films” any more but continual experiences. Not everything is explained but that doesn’t stop it from being a good episode of Star Wars for better or worse. It’s the first step into a much larger universe and one I want to continue with these characters.