“The artist craftsman about to set work to fashioning the image of a divinity…will first have studied all relevant texts, to fix in mind the canonical signs, postures, proportions, etc., of the aspect of the god to be rendered. He will then settle down, pronouncing in his heart the seed syllable of the deity’s name, and if he is fortunate there will appear, in due time, a vision before his inner eye of the very form he is to render, which will be the model, then, for his work of art.” — Joseph Campbell, ‘Myths to Live By’
Though I knew little about The Force Awakens before seeing it in theaters, I knew enough to brace myself for a plot that would feel… familiar.
Thanks to my childish inability to resist peeking at the early reviews like presents under the Christmas tree, I learned of the most overarching complaint before knowing anything else. Several critics had already expressed reservations the story fit—specifically in narrative beats, character archetypes, and political/adversarial dynamics—fit a little too snugly to the contours of its 38-year-old progenitor. Some reacted fairly congenially to this approach, feeling the structure offered strong scaffolding to build near-universally beloved new characters. Less satisfied critics felt let down—I do think understandably—by what felt like a safe, conservative choice; a skirting of potential audacity for an affirming, nostalgic two hours all but certain to gross billions of dollars. The least generous of us derided the move as mere “fan service,” lamenting what appeared to be a toothless, unambitious, and unnecessary revival of a dormant franchise.
In retrospect, at least for me, perhaps this knowledge helped. It curbed whatever expectations I had for something completely new (which isn’t to say I ever truly expected “new”). Not even the first Star Wars movie in a decade—following a string of ill-loved installments—deserved to withstand such expectations. So I don’t know how much my enthusiasm would have deflated had I entered truly blind to the film’s structure. Yet hopefully, even if I did, I like to think I’d have been equally clear on Abrams’ intentions once Rey first scavenged her way into the frame.
Wordlessly, and accompanied by a stunning (as expected) new feature theme from John Williams, the scavenger emerges from the wreckage of some kind of spaceship, gathering what junk she can before stepping outside, catching her final drops of water while framed—bracingly—against the spaceship’s familiar-seeming thrusters. As she moves along to load her things onto a speeder bike, the camera pulls back, and we see it all: the unmistakable wreckage of an Imperial Star Destroyer. Scattered about the sandy junkyard are other vehicles, big and small. Remnants of a battle—of an age—long past. This is the universe we’ve always known, Abrams seems to say in these moments. Yet it’s time for new faces to guide us through the wreckage.
I’ve expounded in two essays already (here and here) how sound encases the heart of Star Wars, often more successfully than the visuals. But The Force Awakens might mark the first time in this series’ history wherein visual iconography plays the leading role. Abrams, with his cinematographer Daniel Mindel, gazes upon this universe sometimes less as a living, orbiting galaxy than as a snowglobe. A pretty confection to be gazed at and admired for its self-contained beauty. In some ways this is a departure from its 1977 counterpart; the respective pub sequence in this movie hardly shares the gritty, grungy quality of that Mos Eisley Cantina. Here it’s more idyllic; less gritty and grungy than “gritty” and “grungy;” a simulacrum.
Were you to push this snowglobe analogy further, of course you might argue this results in a hermetic, more fragile world, a one that can’t possibly be opened up, except to break it. The kind of unperturbed beauty fans will broadly go for. How boring! For those who reject how Disney’s handled this franchise so far, I admit I can understand the frustration. These are stories, after all, not snowglobes; art, not artifacts. But it’s not as if George Lucas didn’t himself originate this universe from his own childhood collection of cultural snowglobes. Star Wars is, in most ways, a cinematic confection, a nostalgic riff. It’s not the movie’s fault the planet Earth went on to take it incredibly seriously.
But it did take it seriously. As did, if his filmography to date indicates nothing else, the fanboy director Disney hired to relaunch a profitable franchise. J.J. Abrams’ projects his loving gaze for this galaxy onto the new characters he’s written. The scavenger Rey, the clearest mirror for Abrams—or really, for any Star Wars fan—excites to nearly every kernel of Wars lore she finds. In the background of her living quarters—a felled Imperial AT-AT Walker—we see her a rag doll in the unmistakable likeness of an X-Wing figher pilot. When she meets Finn, mistaking him for a
Rebel Resistance fighter, she tenses up with giddy reverence. At the mere mention of the Jedi Luke Skywalker—so lost to history to have seemingly become myth—she repeats his name in a near-scandalized, near-hushed tone. Her smirk betrays wonderment, a thrill to the fact the degrees removing her from adventure, in simply meeting Finn, had just gotten a lot smaller.
Equally striking as her smirk of recognition, though, is how she frowns earlier, when scrubbing clean her scavenged metals. She gazes on an old, taciturn woman toiling next to her, and momentarily it stuns her. Here she bears witness to a vision of her future, of a life waiting, of a life wasted. This is not the life she wants. And at the end of her day escapes home for her dinner, scratches a tally of yet another day on Jakku and fondly, bittersweetly, dons an abandoned Rebel fighter helmet as she relaxes in this graveyard of relics. For Rey these legends have become more than a history of her world, or even legend. It’s become her operative mythology, a respite from a quotidian nothingness that seems to give her own view of life meaning, even if her yearning for default comforts—the promise of her family’s return—compels her to do little more than survive and wait.
Later, though, that promise of legend becomes her reality. The ultimate artifact of past myth—the lightsaber of Luke Skywalker—calls to her with an entirely different vision. She runs in fear, rejecting the call to adventure. It’s a classic beat of any hero’s journey, yet that doesn’t make her reluctance feel any less genuine.
Encompassing all this excitement, all this reluctance, is the power Rey feels in the aesthetics and the artifacts of the myths she follows.
Aesthetics and artifacts command equal weight and inspiration to Rey’s antithesis, Kylo Ren. Unlike Rey, this self-proclaimed knight of the Dark Side grew up in the shadow of legends he knows are very much real. Even his birth name, “Ben Solo,” connotes the histories of two great warriors before him. Also unlike Rey, he rejects the legendary stature of his uncle, Luke. He finds inspiration instead from a very different Skywalker, scouring from the literal ashes of a time past the warped remains of his grandfather’s ominous breathing mask, and places it on a mantle. He crafts both a dark helmet and crimson lightsaber to match his ancestor’s fearsomeness. He pledges fealty to some unknowable, Palpatine-esque entity, and serves an order whose own aesthetic choices—armor, symbology, weaponry—play in equal, nostalgic tribute to that imperialist, supremacist, crypto-fascist force of yesteryear.
The Skywalker legend inspires this new generation, if in different ways. Rey feels her own pull to a journey mirroring the last Jedi, whose own journey takes a page from the trillion stories told before and since. Ren pushes himself—impotently, it often seems, if his prayers to his dead grandfather are indication—into a path of darkness that feels empowering. That renders him exceptional in a family of exceptional people. Yet both characters find themselves in dialogue, and in conflict, with a history that has inspired them, a history now is made myth, and a history-cum-mythology that appears to be happening all over again.
It’d be mendacious not to concede how conveniently all this fits into the mold of a studio-friendly blockbuster, a commercial product intended to lubricate the cogs of the capitalist machine. After all, well-established narrative and character archetypes are “well-established” for good reason. It’d be silly to deny the clear “why fix what’s broken?” mentality propelling The Force Awakens. Equally shaky would be to presume The Force Awakens integrates all these components with unqualified freshness. Any time a scene feels predominantly concerned with pushing forward the plot (c.f. the first scene between Ren, Supreme Leader Snoke, and General Hux), Abrams’ scouring of the past gives off a troubling waft of cheap derivation.
The Force Awakens may well be an artistic compromise, whose conservatism is meant to instill comfort and nostalgia. A sacrifice intended to sate the quadrant gods. But Abrams’ own artistic points of inquiry, though terribly compatible with the needs of his Lucasfilm bosses, permeate nearly every moment of this movie. Like Rey, Abrams obsesses over the artifacts and mythologies of his past, finding inspiration and empowerment in them. And like Rey, Abrams models his own achievements off some reclusive bearded man (albeit one who wears more flannel), whose own achievements largely examined the dominating mythologies of his own formative years. For Abrams and Rey, that dominant mythology of their own formative years happens to be bound, inextricably, to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.
When The Last Jedi comes out tomorrow (editorial note: squeeee!), I doubt I’ll want to see another movie like The Force Awakens, a retread of its own middle counterpart in an earlier trilogy. But that’s not to say The Force Awakens is bereft of value. The story is less retread than reexamination; an almost etymological approach to a once-dormant franchise unlikely to fall back asleep anytime soon. To paraphrase a wise, if diminutive Jedi knight, “you must re-learn what you have learned.” There is utility in re-examination; and primal truths that, if explored elegantly, can serve to illuminate why these stories so inspire us.
When Rey uses the Force, finally, to pick up Luke’s lightsaber—that artifact she’d earlier rejected—a familiar melody bubbles, hauntingly, on the score. Rey lingers for a moment, sensing the presence of legends who’ve touched that artifact. Bolstered by the heroes of a thousand faces who’ve partaken on her exact same journey. We feel it too.
This is the seventh in a series of film essays on the Star Wars film series. The schedule for the series and links to all posted essays can be seen below:
- It’s the Sound that Defines Star Wars (1977)
- Darth Vader is a Terrible Boss in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Return of the Jedi (1983) and the Downside of Safe Choices
- How The Phantom Menace (1999) Compensates for a Lack of Mystery
- In Attack of the Clones (2002), John Williams is Smoother than Sand
- On Revenge of the Sith (2005), and George Lucas as Auteur
- Essay on The Force Awakens (2015) — TODAY’S ESSAY
- Essay on Rogue One (2016) — Wednesday, December 13
- Final Thoughts — Thursday, December 14