*some spoilers ahead...you have been warned*
As the weeks roll on, it’s become rather apparent that Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens represents far more than just a tidal wave of ticket sales. There was little doubt the film would rake it in at the box office. I mean…this is Star Wars people. But in the aftermath of a much maligned prequel trilogy, which now stands in the annals of entertainment as one of the great monuments to disappointment, a question had to be asked. Could a decent new Star Wars film be made?
It would seem that the answer is a resounding yes. A sizable consensus of fans has given the film a stamp of approval, as attested by a 93% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Most professional reviews have been glowing as well.
However, there are some, a few contrarian souls swimming up stream, which is fine. To each his or her own, as the saying goes. But their common complaint that The Force Awakens lacks originality peaks my interest.
You can find a sampling of these complaints HERE. at BGR.
They are hammering Abrams for what is being seen as shameless pandering solely for the purpose of pleasing the fan base.
Now, there is no denying that The Force Awakens closely mirrors a number of major plot points from 77’s Star Wars – since renamed A New Hope. With numerous nods, callbacks and blatant bits of nostalgic fan service peppered throughout, the similarities are uncanny. I’m not going to waist anyone’s time claiming otherwise.
So, ok, on the surface, it’s an understandable reaction, but a superficial one at best. It is my contention that The Force Awakens’ emulation of the Classic trilogy is inherent to the narrative for which it is meant to belong. The film’s retread of established plot elements, design aesthetics and character archetypes was necessary if it was to succeed as both emissary for the past and vehicle for the future.
This notion that Abrams ripped off episode IV is then, a phantom argument. It essentially misses the point entirely, or bypasses it intentionally for the sake of being contrarian. Without such emulation, the film had no chance of coaxing a buy-in with its audience for the franchise’s new path in episodes to come, particularly in light of the last trilogy’s disappointing reputation. I would even go so far as to say that criticizing such emulation is to criticize the very nature of Star Wars to begin with.
Indifference to that nature is what hindered the prequels and we ought to look at them for a moment.
Now, to peg the prequels as being tremendous disappointments is like saying the sun rises in the morning. They do have their own following and one can argue the trilogy has its merits, few and far between as they may be. For our purposes, I’ll settle on the following notion: the Star Wars prequel trilogy, slapped with the franchise moniker as it may be, is almost as far from being Star Wars as you can get. Strip away its familiar character names, descriptive terms, planet locals and the oh-so obvious presence of lightsabers; you’re left with little more than pale imitations. These films are no more successful at mimicking Star Wars than any one example in the endless parade of mediocre space fantasies meant to piggyback off its success since 1977. Sure, there is some measure of plot emulation in the prequels, even shot for shot in some cases, but those three films simply lack a proper view to the past that defines Star Wars. The problem is, there’s no nostalgia to them when there should be. They simply lack the charm, the feel, the very essence and aesthetic of the Classic trilogy and were bound to disappoint. There’s also the matter of bad acting, atrocious writing, ill-considered character motivation and a hundred other insidious little details.
Which makes George’s recent interview with Charlie Rose, as reported by The Guardian, all the more interesting. He said, among other regrettable things, the following, “They wanted to do a retro movie. I don’t like that…I worked very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships – you know, to make it new.”
It is as though, in the fifteen-year gulf separating trilogies, George himself lost all sense of what Star Wars actually is. Sadly, he need only take a long hard look at his own saga’s opening preamble, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Read it and you feel a sense that whatever journey awaits is in looking back to a past you didn’t even know you were longing for. In doing so, the film creates an instantaneous aura of romanticism before anything has even happened. Star Wars is nostalgia.
In 77’, George Lucas essentially went and said, I love this, this, this and this and I’m going to repackage it all in the skin of a space opera in order to retell an age-old story of self-discovery for contemporary audiences.
Star Wars then became the prime example in pop culture in which an artist made something for the sake of appreciating what came before, only to have it become a phenomenon in its own right. The franchise is a much-documented emulation of George’s childhood passions with a few film school fetishes thrown in for good measure. It is steeped in his fascination with Flash Gordon serials, Buck Rogers, old westerns and “the Hero’s journey” as collected and retold by Joseph Campbell in his famous work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The franchise also owes an unmistakable debt to the cinematic genius of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. 1958’s The Hidden Fortress inspires so much of what became 77’s Star Wars, that all one has to do is take a look at the opening scene between two peasants stumbling about on a barren plain and find C-3PO bickering with R2-D2 in Japanese.
When you consider these influences, all directly referenced by Lucas himself at one point or another, it’s impossible to miss them in the Classic trilogy. Whether people consciously recognize these elements or not, their inclusion in the process of storytelling shines through with evident and obvious enthusiasm. It is this passion that bleeds so effortlessly through to the audience as we follow a Hero at the beginning of his classically defined journey (as detailed in its twelve stages HERE). It is a journey found in stories told in culture after culture over the course of human history and is universally recognizable. Star Wars is as much about a reverential look back to that legacy as it is about looking back to the passions of George’s youth and young adulthood.
You know, there’s that moment in The Force Awakens when Finn tells Rey that BB-8 is carrying a map to Luke Skywalker and she replies, “Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth.” How interesting it is that Luke was the embodiment of the mythical ‘Hero’s journey’ throughout the Classic trilogy and here he is, in The Force Awakens, referred to as myth by the very character set up to carry that same mythical mantle through a new trilogy, a new journey. That’s not an accident.
Star Wars was meant to be a vehicle for looking back, a history of the ‘Hero’ in storytelling, bound up in a space opera as romanticism for its own sake. People relate to it because it is a passionate nostalgia for that ‘Hero’s journey’, told if only to be retold; a nostalgia so unabashed, so familiar, so joyfully executed that it’s practically bursting at the seams. Star Wars exists to be nostalgic. That’s the whole point and The Force Awakens falls right in line.
In appreciating any work, you have to consider what it’s attempting to accomplish rather than simply what you think it should be. Everything stands or falters on its own merits if shown an open mind. But if a work is part of an established property, then it must also fundamentally identify with that property or it will fail before it gets off the ground. The Force Awakens attempts to embrace that nostalgic identity while also laying groundwork for new storytelling in its wake. It achieves both. This is why the prequels fell flat. They have in them no real attempt to fundamentally identify with the heart and soul of Star Wars as people came to know it.
Dan Gire recounts in Chicago’s Daily Herald that, “Thematically, [Lucas’ three prequels] are not about anything. Lucas himself admitted in Marcus Hearn’s The Cinema of George Lucas that his prequels wouldn’t contain beginnings, middles and endings, but be more of a ‘résumé’ illustrating how the main characters became who they are.”
Let’s take a second to think about that statement, read between the lines. Most people loathe writing a résumé as it’s an exceedingly boring process that becomes little more than a line item greatest hits of one’s own professional life. Furthermore, employers forage through stacks of them to find worthy candidates because they have to; I suspect, not because they want to. How many of them truly enjoy that process? If George thinks of his prequels as merely being “résumés”, then there is little to nothing left for us as members of his audience to appreciate in a work he describes in such perfunctory, passionless terms. The point is a bit tortured here, but it’s the truth.
In light of this, Abrams approach to a making a new Star Wars becomes particularly relevant. Consider the following, care of Starwarsnews.net from the November 27th issue of EMPIRE magazine:
“Before he started The Force Awakens, Abrams watched some movies. No, not those ones, Other ones. He looked at ‘the confidence’ of John Ford Westerns. He took in the ‘unbelievable choreography and composition’ of Kurosawa’s High and Low. And he studied ‘the powerful stillness’ of Terrence Malick ‘It’s not something I would have normally thought of coming to Star Wars’, he says. The spare visual style of Ford, Kurosawa and Malick points to a key mandate for Abram’s approach to Episode VII: the distinctive less-is-more quality of the originals.”
That is a clear acknowledgement of Lucas’ original influences in that Abrams sought them out as influences for his own bite at the apple. He is emulating as a wholehearted effort to embrace Star Wars in a manner aesthetically akin to George’s own nostalgic view of youthful passions and cinematic influences. He also firmly establishes this mindset in an Awards Chatter podcast for The Hollywood Reporter on January 8th, in defense of admitted emulation:
“I respect every reaction,” says Abrams, “I completely see that is a problem for some people…It was obviously a wildly intentional thing that we go backwards, in some ways, to go forwards in the important ways, given that this is a genre – that Star Wars is a kind of specific gorgeous concoction of George [Lucas]’s – that combines all sorts of things. Ultimately the structure of Star Wars itself is as classic and tried and true as you can get. It was itself derivative of all these things that George loved so much, from the most obvious Flash Gordon and Joseph Campbell, to the [Akira] Kurosawa references, to Westerns – I mean, all of these elements were part of what made Star Wars…I can understand that someone might say, ‘Oh, it’s a complete rip-off!’ We inherited Star Wars. The story of history repeating itself was, I believe, an obvious and intentional thing, and the structure of meeting a character from a nowhere desert and [she] discovers that she has a power within her, where the bad guys have a weapon that is destructive but that ends up being destroyed – those simple tenets are by far the least important aspects of this movie, and they provide bones that were well-proven long before they were used in [the original] Star Wars…I understand that this movie, I would argue much more than the ones that follow, needed to take a couple of steps backwards into very familiar terrain, and using a structure of nobodies becoming somebodies defeating the baddies – which is, again. I would argue, not a brand new concept, admittedly…Yes, the bones of the thing we always knew would be a genre comfort zone, but what the thing looks like – we all have a skeleton that looks somewhat similar, but none of us looks the same. To me, the important thing was not, ‘What are the bones of this thing?’ To me, it was meeting new characters who discover themselves, that they are in a universe that is spiritual and that is optimistic, in a world where you meet people that will become your family.”
Abrams downplays the emulated elements and influences, because he is more concerned with the possibilities for new storytelling that this faithful approach opens up. His description of these elements in terms of anatomy, ‘the bones’ of the piece, reiterates the idea that looking back to episode IV and its original influences was implicit to the exercise of telling this first story in a new cycle of three within the established Star Wars universe.
In his Forbes article, Erik Kain argues along these lines while highlighting some of the films new and more intriguing characteristics. In his words, the movie “tells the same story on purpose, because Star Wars is a cyclical story about birth and rebirth, loss and redemption.” He goes on to say that, “The Force Awakens is something of a classical tragedy…So our heroes don’t live happily ever after [following the events of Return Of The Jedi]. That’s disappointing from a story perspective, but not really in terms of good movie making. I think it’s actually pretty brave…[The fact] that evil once again made itself known and that our heroes found themselves in new conflicts without simple solutions is one of the film’s strong points.”
Complaints made against The Force Awakens seem to overlook that bit. This film lovingly emulates the very first Star Wars and yet it makes an effort to present our Classic heroes as tragic, tortured figures who would never look back at their own history quite as fondly as we fans do. People are weak. They betray those they love. Families fall apart. It happens. It’s sad, real and we can identify with that. Therein lies a flipside to that nostalgic identity that gives The Force Awakens the very freshness people claim it doesn’t have, providing a look at the tragic nature of life that is both tangible and honest. Combine this with a younger generation of compelling, superbly acted characters and you have a bridge from the familiar to an endless potential for stories yet to be told.
Abrams understands, clearly, that it’s about more than fan service. He’s not just being nostalgic for the sake of loving classical Star Wars. That is a part of it. But there is, in The Force Awakens, a clear thematic admission to the notion that this story is and always has been about acknowledging what’s come before, through rose colored glasses of course, but in order to establish a new path. For the sake of episodes VIII and IX, thank the Good Lord that someone, anyone understands Star Wars this fundamentally.
So it is that we recognize and affirm a cyclical pattern. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces positions ‘the Hero’s journey’ as the distilled backbone of told and retold myth throughout history. George Lucas’ Star Wars appropriates Campbell’s distillation of ‘the Hero’s journey’ to romanticize that age-old human story in the form of a space opera with a touch of his own passions layered in. J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens appropriates ‘the Hero’s journey’, George’s key influences and episode IV’s narrative structure to fully embrace, faithfully recreate and reestablish Star Wars’ aesthetic identity as nostalgia for its own sake. To be a fundamental return to the true nature of Star Wars, The Force Awakens had to be the cyclical piece of storytelling that it is. Period. The Star Wars I love and that so many others do is bound up in all of this. The very qualities for which The Force Awakens is being criticized turn out to be responsible for the film’s overwhelming cultural and commercial embrace.
So…go on, keep complaining if you must, while the rest of us persist in enjoying the first satisfying Star Wars movie since 1983. Just saying that makes the giddy ten year old in me beam with anticipation for whatever comes next, because now…I can rest assured that Disney knows what they’re doing.