FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*
Given all the ballyhoo surrounding the Disney Croporation’s purchase of George Locas’s most famous creation, this film might have been credibly subtitled THE FRANCHISE AWAKENS.
While the purchase put a lot of shekels in Lucas’s pockets, it could have resulted in a poor exchange for all audiences looking for a new STAR WARS adventures. Corporations that take over properties have been known to re-assert their “brand” over said properties by attempting ill-considered remakes or reboots of said properties. Of course, remakes and reboots come about even when corporate properties don’t change hands—the most relevant one being the 2009 reboot of the STAR TREK franchise. Producer-director J.J. Abrams orchestrated that re-branding, which, as I’ve noted here, was something less than a total aesthetic success.
When I first viewed Abrams’ STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS last year, I was much more impressed with the results of this work. I’m sure that some of my satisfaction eventuated from the fact that FORCE was not a remake or reboot, but a continuation of the ongoing saga. That said, the continuation follows some patterns of the re-brainding process. The story, though technically new, follows a pattern that some fans found repetitious way back when Lucas repeated his ‘destroy the Death Star” schtick in 1983’s RETURN OF THE JEDI. The script makes no bones about originality, either: BB-8, a new “cute droid,” is introduced early on, but late in the film the story had BB-8 come in contact with both C3P-O and R2D2. Thus the new kid on the block seems to picking up a passed torch rather than usurping a beloved role.
In the case of actors who aren’t playing non-aging droids, the necessity of replacement is far more crucial. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess (now General) Leia, and Chewbacca all make appearances, with Harrison Ford’s Solo getting the lion’s share of screen-time, for reasons relating to the film’s denouement. But all four are on the second tier next to two more new kids, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). In future chapters the two of them will almost certainly accrue further allies of consequence, but FORCE is constructed to sell Rey and Finn as the new core of Disney’s STAR WARS universe.
Before going into greater detail regarding the film’s heroes, I'll touch on the greater weakness of "New Star Wars": its villains. The original Empire has fallen within a time-span roughly covalent with that of the older actors’ life-spans. Now a new threat to the Republic arises: the First Order, said to have been built from the remnants of the old Empire, and once more empowered behind the scenes by two Sith Lords. The elder Sith, Snoke, is no better or worse than Lucas’s Emperor, but Kylo Ren, “the new Darth Vader,” reminds me less of the original’s samurai-like formidability and more of “whiny Anakin” from the prequel trilogy. His entire arc is predicated on the tremendous irony that he is the seed of the love between Han and Leia, but this alone is not enough to make him a memorable opponent.
Similarly, the fact that Kylo trained under Luke Skywalker doesn’t give him any gravitas, either. However, it’s an interesting psychological touch that the script, by having Luke be Kylo’s teacher, makes him the symbolic offspring of the Luke-Leia-Han triangle. Skywalker fled the inhabited galaxies prior to the rise of the First Order, specifically because he, as much as Kylo’s literal parents, failed in the parental duty of keeping the kid from Turning to the Darth Side.
Skywalker himself is the prize sought by Rey, Finn and assorted Republic allies, and the script does an admirable job of hewing to the simple charm of the original STAR WARS: two opposed sides seeking the same McGuffin. It’s certainly preferable to Lucas’s elephantine attempts at governmental conspiracy in the prequel trilogy, though here the Republic takes a back seat to the Resistance commanded by General Leia.
As for the First Order, its name alone gave me some hope that it might not be just another space-opera version of the Roman Empire; that it might more of a theocratic rebellion along the lines of al-Qaeda. No such luck, though: it’s the same old Stormtrooper methods.
That said, the Stormtroopers themselves get a “soft reboot.” I’m not enough of a WARS expert to know how serious George Lucas was when he suggested, in ATTACK OF THE CLONES, that all of the Empire’s soldiers were clones descended from one individual, Jango Fett. I’m not even sure what advantage Lucas thought this would give troops: to be dependent on one skill-set.
Here alone the Disney franchise significantly rewrites Lucas: now most if not all Stormtroopers are abducted from their homeworlds and trained to be obedient soldiers. In this essay, I noted how the misprision between Lucas’s ideas and those conceived under the Disney regime resulted in WARS fans evincing a negative reaction to the reaction that Finn would be a black stormtrooper. This was not, as some leftist pundits claimed, racism, but a perception regarding continuity. The Disney rewrite takes the emphasis off Lucas’s attempt to justify a tossed-off reference to “clone wars,” and implicates the Empire/First Order in a space-faring version of organized slavery, including, but not limited to, the Africa Diaspora.
That said, the character of Finn, though an improvement on the one-dimensional Lando Calrissian, remains underdeveloped in FORCE. He’s sometimes given the aura of a “Han Solo in training,” but this aspect of his function gets sidetracked when Rey, not Finn, forms a quasi-paternal bond with the original. In fact Rey displays aspects of all of her parental influences,combining Han’s talents for piloting and scrounging, Leia’s feminine hauteur, and Luke’s instinctive connection with the Force. The film ends with her making contact with Luke, who, I assume, will become her mentor. Whether or not Finn receives comparable character development remains to be seen in the sequel.
Surprisingly, director Abrams is as good a fit in the Lucas Universe as he was bad in the Roddenberry one. In my first viewing of FORCE, I was impressed by a simple scene in which Rey, having scavenged a wrecked ship, uses an improvised “sled’ to descend a high sand-dune. That one scene, more than any number of animated ray-blasts or whizzing tie-fighters, captures the essence of the original STAR WARS: full of Lucas’s love for the cinema’s transformation of sheer motion into visual poetry.
To be sure, Abrams doesn’t possess the talent evinced by the Lucas of 1977 for synthesizing great action-scenes from Classic Hollywood: the western’s saloon-confrontation, the pirate film’s yardarm-flights, the war film’s airborne strafing-runs. But then, given that even later Lucas lost his mojo in this department, it’s hard to expect Abrams to do him one better. FORCE AWAKENS is at least a good start to a new franchise, and a much better reworking than others that I could have—or already have—mentioned.