Lost in the Movies: The Force Awakens: thoughts on the phenomenon (& film)

The Force Awakens: thoughts on the phenomenon (& film)

The mega-blockbusters of 2015 are Spielberg/Lucas films, but without either Steven Spielberg or George Lucas at the helm. This is a rather depressing thought. There is a sense that Frankenstein's monster has finally destroyed even its own masters (though I doubt Spielberg is weeping too hard, having executive-produced the record-setting Jurassic World, and if Lucas is - as some allege - disappointed with the direction the franchise took after selling it to Disney, there are plenty of honors and profits on hand to soothe him). For forty years, the awe-inspiring, intimidating beast of blockbuster cinema co-existed with individual filmmakers (and they were filmmakers first and foremost) who could reign it in, using the massive tentpole format to express personal visions. The Spielbergs, Lucases, and others like them were outnumbered by directors-for-hire, executing studio committees' visions of how best to market their property. But perhaps because of the idiosyncratic fact that these almost inhuman cinematic juggernauts were born out of the auteurist autonomy of New Hollywood, for a long time the art of personal expression was able to overlap with corporate desire to attract a mass audience. No longer...now Hollywood finally has what it always wanted: complete control over the major franchises, with skilled minions like JJ Abrams or Colin Treverrow to deal with rather than creators who insist on controlling their own product (not to mention taking a huge slice of the financial pie). Auteurism is dead...long live the corporation!

Wait, wait, no, that's not right. Let's try again.

The Force Awakens, the seventh episode of the Star Wars saga (the first film in ten years, and the first sequel in thirty-two) is full of sweeping vistas and loving detail. Rey (Daisey Ridley) is a plucky new heroine, more Luke than Leia as she scavenges on her desert planet Jakku and discovers an ability to use the mystical Force. Teaming up with runaway stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and the lovably hilarious droid BB-8 - easily the most endearing new cast member - she makes her way across the galaxy in a stolen spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, running into the ship's former owner, aging smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and his first mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) along the way. At the forested way station of Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o), Rey discovers the lightsaber of the legendary Luke Skywalker in a striking sequence mixing flashback and vision. The film's climax sees General Leia (Carrie Fisher) lead the Resistance (confusingly fighting for the New Republic) battling the First Order, desperately trying to reinstate the Galactic Empire with the help of renegade Sith wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the Starkiller, a huge planet-turned-weapon-of-mass-destruction. The film is a lot of fun, hitting the nostalgic sweet spot by evoking old memories indirectly (Jakku obviously recalls Tattooine, yet it has its own barren, exotic flavor that somehow calls to mind Ralph McQuarrie's early concept art for the series) while also playing catch-up with old characters (when Han arrives, he essentially takes over the film for a while). The Force Awakens also plays it extremely safe by - as everyone else has already noted - very closely mimicking the dramatic structure of the first Star Wars film and resting so much of the film's appeal on familiar fan favorites like the Falcon, Han, Leia, Chewie, X-wings, TIE Fighters, the third incarnation of a Death Star, comic space-age banter, and the Empire vs. Rebellion power struggle (with the roles barely switched). This leaves the heavy lifting for the next episodes in the saga, leaving us with a sense of momentary satisfaction but also the larger question, "Why?"

There, was that better?

In truth, I find it almost impossible to discuss The Force Awakens as an individual film without dipping into the larger phenomenon. This sequel finds itself on one of the most unusual missions in cinema history, and every frame is informed by that mission. However, I did want to divorce my larger Lucasfilm frustrations from the experience of watching the movie. As such, I can report that The Force Awakens provided a good night out at the movies (and that, of course, the following write-up contains spoilers). Abrams, Kasdan, et al have crafted an enjoyable work of entertainment, more satisfying than most big-screen spectacles I have seen in the past decade. And as a bonus, many moments capture a whiff of that old Star Wars magic. Does it go deeper than that? Not really, and the ways in which it falls short and limits the experience are directly linked to the motivation behind the film and the context in which it was made. But first...why do I care?

Over the past week, I've been talking and (especially) writing a lot about the film and the issues surrounding it, in conversation with other viewers, in endless tweets, and in comments on others' blog posts. But as I attempted to write this piece - originally scheduled for this morning - I kept hesitating. Somehow I couldn't quite get into the mood. Just a few minutes ago, I listened to a compilation of Star Wars themes and it finally did the trick. Ironically, given my roots in the original trilogy, it was a piece of prequel music - the "Duel of the Fates" - which really began to evoke something for me. I've recently been eager to revisit the prequel films (which I had mixed to negative feelings about after initially embracing The Phantom Menace in 1999), to see them as their own thing after holding them hostage to the "Where's the Star Wars backstory I imagined?" for too long. But in this moment, listening to this score, I was transported into another mode completely: Star Wars, all of it, as the truly grand mythology it - and its fans - always wanted it to be (or thought they did).

It's easy for me to forget what a massive Star Wars fan I once was. Today I look at the squabbles of the fanbase from a distance; any investment I have is based more on a general principle (say, an affinity for auteurism in blockbuster cinema) rather than direct stake in Star Wars. But twenty years ago I was utterly obsessed with this universe. I recently heard someone say "The best part of an obsession is when it ends," but I think that only seems true at the tail end, or after the fact. When an obsession is just beginning, there is an absolutely intoxicating feeling of being swept up into something bigger than yourself, yet which makes you feel bigger as well. And I think obsessions begin because they connect to something truly fundamental, establishing a link with the collective unconscious that takes on a particular manifestation. That element of the particular is just as important as the general (in Star Wars' case - for all of the fruitful collaborations - it was created by the imagination of George Lucas).

The films - not just the films themselves, but thinking about them, reading about them, re-enacting them in drawings or with toys or outside with friends - charged me with a feeling of wonder and excitement. It's something intangible, and liable to slip away as one gets too fixated on minutia - something that many accused Lucas of doing when the prequel films dealt extensively with trade wars. But perhaps many fans were mistaking their own disengagement for Lucas'. Hatred of the prequels has reached the level of dogma, but take a step back and you realize that it is actually fairly limited: the people who really tend to resent those films are the ones who grew up with the originals (some of whom were already old enough by Return of the Jedi to reject that one too). They can break down their objections into point-by-point nitpicking, but ultimately they have more to do with a lack of something. The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and even Revenge of the Sith did not give them that "feeling" again and yes, that may partly be due to flaws of the films themselves but it's also due to being in a different place at a different time. When you are dealing with something as intangible as the alchemy of Star Wars, or really any art, there is no instant formula for success.

The limited successes, and the more fundamental failures, of The Force Awakens derive from its deep (or maybe just desperate) conviction that there is such a formula. The production gathers many crucial elements: John Williams (whose score is as stirring as ever), Lawrence Kasdan (who brings a sense of warm levity much-missed in the prequels), and of course the old cast: Ford, Fisher, and (in a cameo that lasts mere seconds at the end of the film, but still works wonders) Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. There is no doubt in my mind that the strongest parts of the movie rely on the power of these sources. Luke's appearance in particular evoked a mood and a feeling that, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) in Star Wars, I haven't felt in "a long time...a long time." These faces, gestures, and expressions do have some totemic power, and they lend the film a real sense of gravity. Is this a cheap tactic? I wouldn't say that exactly. But the big reason they resonate is their connection to the missing element: George Lucas himself. Gathering such relics atop an altar only goes so far to duplicate the essential ritual when you're praying to the wrong god (think the ending of Lucas' own Raiders of the Lost Ark).

As an officiating priest, JJ Abrams does have some talent. I had mixed feelings about Super 8 (the only other Abrams film I've seen), and The Force Awakens evokes the same feelings. Abrams' knack is for recalling the aura of the filmmakers he reveres; in Super 8, it was Spielberg, while this time, it's Lucas. There is a slight feeling of quotation marks around the pastiche, of the bright pupil who knows how to mimic so well that his work seems more fundamentally "that thing" than even the thing itself - more like how we imagined or remembered it as being than it actually was. Both films attain this quality almost flawlessly in their first halves. But the closer one looks, the more slippery this achievement becomes. In Star Wars' case, the feeling of not-quite-there comes from Abrams' restless camerawork and cutting (there is little sense of meditative immersion in a moment, which hinders the otherwise very attentive and loving worldbuilding). Abrams may most emphatically undercut himself with his somewhat lazy sense of composition: so much of the movie feels unimaginatively anchored in the center of the frame, a quality brought to my attention by this brief breakdown before I saw the film.

More fundamentally, Abrams lacks vision. Spielberg and Lucas have particular worldviews, and particular ways of expressing these worldviews in their films (their techniques are not just manufactured tics but the result of artists moulding the medium to their personalities). In Super 8, by creating an alien that is both a man-eating monster and a lost creature trying to get home, Abrams confuses two conflicting strains of Spielberg's sensibility (his more misanthropic action movies and his heartfelt family films), resulting in a mash-up that somehow misses the point of both, especially the more personal, emotional strain. Abrams doesn't blunder quite as badly in The Force Awakens, but he does fail to capture Lucas' central thematic concerns in the Star Wars films. There are many things I really liked about The Force Awakens - the atmosphere of the scavenging scenes on Jakku; the ensemble camaraderie of Boyega, Ridley, and Ford; that visceral montage when Rey picks up Luke's lightsaber; to a certain extent (though it probably could have been stronger) the dramatic gravity as Han dies at Ren's hands. But as I think of these moments, I realize they fail to coalesce into a larger purpose.

The father-son conflict between Han Solo and Kylo Ren yields the film's most memorable moment but, in stark contrast to the Luke/Vader drama, it is remarkably undersold. After revealing Vader's fatherhood at the end of one film, Lucas stretched the intergenerational conflict over another entire film and then went back to make three more films telling the story of the father's fall from grace (juxtaposed in our own minds against the rise and struggle of his son). The Force Awakens introduces and resolves its own family crisis in the space of about an hour, using the first scene between these two characters to kill one of them off. But if this story is at the heart of The Force Awakens, as it is certainly at the heart of the whole Star Wars saga, doesn't it deserve more? And if it isn't...what is? Looked at this way, the film's ability to mash up so many different elements of Star Wars into one package feels like a sleight-of-hand. From the opening crawl, I couldn't quite shake the sensation that I was viewing a skillful imitation. Abrams' ability to boil down different director's visions into digest form is an advertiser's skill, not a filmmaker's. And ultimately this seems to be what The Force Awakens is: an advertisement for Star Wars, lacking any deeper purpose or set of interests.

After seeing The Phantom Menace many times in the theater, I came to object to it on similar grounds: its primary intention seemed to be setting up the later films which were to do the narrative heavylifting (had Lucas not labeled Star Wars "Episode IV" I wonder if he would have made three prequel films instead of one or two). But Menace - and all of the prequels - were charged with personal touches that clearly came from Lucas' own heart (be they his love for speed or desire to dissect different societies) and, equally important, linked up to a larger set of concerns. Creating Star Wars, Lucas drew on the mythological lore of Hollywood, the compositional and thematic concerns of Akira Kurosawa, the scholarship of Joseph Campbell, the world creation of serials and comic strips, the annals of ancient history, the great world philosophies, the sci-fi texture of works like Dune, and the memories of his own midcentury Californian childhood. Directing The Force Awakens, Abrams drew on Star Wars.

I feel conflicted about being tough on the film, because I would recommend it to others and I would probably go see it again. It made me smile and I feel affection for a lot of its flourishes. I think, in a way, I liked it better in its moments than as a whole. And above all, I felt a surprising amount of goodwill towards it (considering the ill will I feel towards Disney's rather cynical marketing strategy and a large portion of the we-want-corporate-control fanbase). I liked the characters. I liked the film's energy and sincerity, which - after criticizing him a great deal here - I would credit to the clearly enthusiastic Abrams (as well as those returning actors and craftsmen who either helped create this world or grew up loving it from afar). I liked the guilelessness of the film's eagerness to please, which made a lot of the fanservice feel genuinely affectionate rather than cynically manipulative. All in all, I felt there was a film here with more life to it than I expected - but all that life was in the service of something other than itself: not just making a buck for the Disney corporation (which is the primary, obvious reason this film exists) but also satisfying a hunger of fans to relive something they thought they had lost.

The good vs. evil struggle in this film is the most simplistic and uninspiring it has ever been in any Star Wars film, lacking both the moral complexity of the prequels and the resistance-to-power rebellious streak of the original trilogy. Unlike IV-VI (which grew out of Lucas' counterculture sympathies) or I-III (which eventually dovetailed with Lucas' outspoken criticism of the Bush administration's response to 9/11), The Force Awakens presents a world in which the good guys are the establishment, unconvincingly cloaking their power and legitimacy behind the "Resistance" moniker. I had always thought the perfect subject for a sequel trilogy would be the Rebellion's uneasy transition into a new Republic, forcing it to fight new rebels and to question if it was becoming an Empire itself. Maybe, indirectly, this is what The Force Awakens is about, not in terms of its actual story, but in terms of how - and why - it was made.

The Force Awakens is about as good as a film can be when its makers are constantly looking over their shoulders. But Star Wars has been much more than that, even - maybe especially - at its worst (I've never been so inspired to revisit the prequels). To get there again, the saga needs a filmmaker who can do what Lucas did: make it his own. That's a tall order for two reasons. Firstly, Lucas didn't need to make it his own, it was his own. Anyone else tackling a Star Wars film is working in his territory, and always will be (unless they are as brave as Lucas himself was with the prequels, deciding not to worry if it "feels like Star Wars"). Secondly, the circumstances really don't favor that sort of bold authorship. Disney has a lot riding on this franchise, and their primary concerns are to satisfy the existing fans and create new ones. Neither goal is likely to be accomplished by a filmmaker taking bold risks and expressing a personal vision.

Nonetheless, Rian Johnson, who will be writing Episodes VIII & IX (and directing VIII), comes highly recommended (I've seen and enjoyed his Brick, but not yet his Looper). While typing this right now, I even came across a quote of him Lawrence Kasdan calling his own screenplay for the next film "weird." So we can hope. Looking at each film as its own thing, trying to ignore the larger phenomenon, a fresh, unusual, and above all personal Star Wars would be great. And in the bigger picture, this could also demonstrate that even as fewer filmmakers have creative control over blockbusters, they can still find ways to sneak their vision into mass media. But in a certain sense, however future battles unfold, the war has already been lost. Another filmmaker's Star Wars would still be another filmmaker's Star Wars and it would mean that the franchise is bigger than one person. I'm not sure I want it to be. I would rather filmmakers find their own Star Wars not by actually making a film called Star Wars but by doing what Lucas himself did: looking out at the world and within themselves and creating something original that captures our imaginations and envelops us in their world. That is the awakening I look forward to.


Matt D said...

The Force is gone, not merely sleeping. Nice article.

Joel Bocko said...

Sadly, the title may be overly optimistic. I'm holding out some hope for Ep. 8 (which, in the fashion of Evangelion 3.33 to the previous Rebuild films, could even make Ep. 7 look more substantial and necessary in retrospect) but even if it's great, it's always kinda gonna be a bummer knowing they are doing it without the creator at the helm.

I like to think the Force has migrated elsewhere - hopefully we'll find it again someday (but probably not in a Star Wars film).

Vassos said...

Thanks for a great read, and for a fair and honest review. I can't believe though that you have not watched yet the two Star Trek films that were directed by J.J. Abrams! Well, good for you, and I hope you never have to watch them!

Joel Bocko said...

Ha! I've heard pretty bad things about the second, though the first seemed to have a mixed response. They played a preview for the third one before Force Awakens and the crowd seemed pretty severely underwhelmed (ditto for Batman vs Superman and WoW trailers - maybe we're reaching fanboy burnout finally).

Stephen Morgan said...

As usual a very entertaining and thought-provoking article. I think it would be fascinating for you to revisit the prequels and publish your thoughts. I have been critical of them over the years but the way they are written off now is ludicrous. For what it's worth, as I was walking out of the cinema after seeing the new movie I was ranking all the Star Wars films and I was struggling to seperate The Force Awakens from the overrated Return of the Jedi and underrated Revenge of the Sith.

Joel Bocko said...

I will be rewarding them in the coming week and probably publishing a video review of Revenge of the Sith. I did offer a written revisit of them 5 1/2 years ago: http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2010/07/notes-on-star-wars-saga.html so I probably won't do another, but I suspect I may be more positive on them now.

At the very least, whatever the flaws of the individual films. I'm much more taken with their project now than I was in the past. The idea of Lucas taking his beloved trilogy and turning it into something he wanted to express and fans were not inclined to see seems extremely bold in light of today's excessively play-it-safe franchise environment in which fans dictate the terms and corporations rather than artists act as overseers to ensure there's enough fanservice to keep the money rolling in. Against such a backdrop, the prequels look downright subversive.

Not sure of you're on Twitter but I ended up tweeting about this quite a bit last night.

Joel Bocko said...

That should say "rewatching," not "rewarding"!

Stephen Morgan said...

I am on Twitter and yours is about the best account I follow! Thanks for the links to your prequel rewatches, I suspect you would be more generous in your praise now.
Having read the "Star Wars Ring Theory" and your thoughts, I accept that the prequels were an unusual, strange and ambitious personal vision, which as you have been saying is very rare these days.
Unfortunately, the positives and ambitious scale of the movies were buried by the incredibly poor execution. I need to watch them again but I suspect as much as I will admire what was being attempted I will still be appalled by elements of the script, acting, casting and distracting and crowded overreliance on CGI.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks! I am looking forward to watching them again this week. I think for me the biggest sticking point may be the CGI, especially for characters. It just isn't my aesthetic at all. Nonetheless, prequel images and moments have been playing out in my head since seeing a Star Wars fil in the big screen again and I don't think I've ever been so eager to watch the films. I'm sure I'll share my thoughts here and elsewhere. Even last time, I liked Sith the most by far & that's the one I'm going to start with.

Stephen Morgan said...

I agree about CGI characters being the biggest issue, and that Revenge of the Sith us by far the best of the prequels. I think that most people were so disappointed with the earlier films that by the time that came out they had already made their minds up or didn't bother watching at all.
It's a shame because I think it's a good movie and even some of the problems with the earlier films, like Ewen McGregor's uninspiring performances, had corrected themselves as he started to put in a proper shift.
Enjoy watching it again.

Joel Bocko said...

Just re-watched Sith - twice actually (I'm finishing up a short video essay on it right now) and to my surprise, the film left me with almost the same exact impression it did five years ago! I'm fascinated by many details and love particular moments, but the dialogue and line delivery sink a lot of really crucial moments. In the end I find it to be pretty much the polar opposite of The Force Awakens. One is very uneven but contains a lot of arresting and fascinating moments, and it tends to stick in my memory; the other is very consistent and satisfying entertainment with very few truly standout moments (I would highlight the images of the sand-submerged ships and AT-AT on Jakku, and probably Han's death) with little to hold onto after it's over. Together the two films exhibit all the risks and rewards of both auteurship and committee filmmaking.

Joel Bocko said...

As for the CGI - the first time I watched (on an HD TV screen), it really took me out of the movie, the second time (on a computer monitor) I found it less distracting. It occurred to me that Revenge of the Sith is at heart an animated film, not live-action. Its worst moments are probably due to this attempt to shove real actors into situations and dialogue that would go down better in more stylized form of filmmaking, less anchored in reality. One almost wonders why Lucas didn't just go out and MAKE an animated film full-stop instead of clinging to a few live-action elements. Or maybe he kinda did...from what I hear, The Clone Wars is actually the best piece of media set in the prequel universe.

I would also say that just as it kind of bugs me at times that the prequels make no real attempt to fit in with the original trilogy, it annoys me that The Force Awakens seems to ignore the prequel universe almost completely (the only exception I can think of is that apparently McGregor's voice appears on the soundtrack in Rey's vision). I'm hoping Rian Johnson makes more of an effort to incorporate some motifs from the prequels and also to move the universe forward more than TFA did. We're, what, 20-30 years post-ROTJ and we're still essentially dealing with the Rebel-Empire conflict? C'mon, you could do better, guys. This time around I actually quite enjoyed (at least in Sith - haven't watched the other 2 yet) the political intrigue and sense of a big civilization falling apart. I'd like to see more of that albeit maybe in the opposite direction, in Ep. 8.

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