Warning: This post is spoiler-ridden.
Eric and I agree on many things. His imaginative and well-thought-out approach to matters of art is not only inspiring, but worth emulating. While I rarely have any substantive disagreement with Eric on matters of art, particularly on Star Wars, when it comes to Eric’s review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I firmly disagree. While J.J. Abrams is not George Lucas, Episode VII is a worthy and significant addition to the heart and power of the Star Wars myth.
Defending Star Wars: The Force Awakens is probably the safest thing to do on the internet (besides mocking Donald Trump). After all, the film has received uniformly good reviews and is exploding box office records. The main complaint against the film, voiced by Eric, has been that it seems too much of a rehash, as if Abrams and his team were trying to recreate the original trilogy, as opposed to further moving and developing the galaxy far, far, away. Where Lucas created new ideas and worlds rich with imagination and complexity, Abrams seems to be reminding us of how great the original trilogy was (perhaps, even, with a cruel and undeserved hatred of the prequels). Instead of creating a Star Wars movie, he has created a graceful and colorful homage.
It is certainly accurate to say that The Force Awakens adopts many plot points from previous Star Wars films. There is a droid with a secret stranded on a desert planet, a scary villain with a mask and fearful dark side powers, a complex father-son relationship, a huge planet-destroying superweapon, a trench run, and even a Yoda-like mentor.
If adopting previous plot points is a reason to be dissatisfied with a film, however, there can be no Star Wars. Star Wars nearly always re-establishes plot points. There is always a looming Dark Side villain, there is often a superweapon or at least a massive space-ship. There is not one, but two Death Stars in the original trilogy, and the second is bigger, tougher, and scarier. Even the spherical shape of this superweapon is modeled in the Trade Federation Lucrehulk-class battleship, which is visually most distinct from the Death Star because it has a built-in, more impressive trench circling it. General Grievous and Count Dooku are fascinating shadows of the conflicts of Darth Vader. There is a long and abundant series of similarities and echoes in the Saga that I won’t list here. It is vital to understand, however, that repetition is not a sufficient indictment against the new Star Wars. Repetition can do wonderful, fascinating things to a plot. Shakespeare himself was aggressively fond of repeating the same conflicts and concepts in new and interesting ways.
More complex complaints, like Eric’s, will acknowledge this point, but argue that VII fails to use those repetitions to “serve greater narrative purposes.” I would argue, however, that the narrative echoes in VII serve significant narrative purpose to the development of the Star Wars saga.
One of the central conflicts of Star Wars is what it means to bring balance to the Force. In the Phantom Menace and the Attack of the Clones, Anakin is raised in the Jedi Order believing that in order to be bring balance to the force, he must overcome the Sith. The Jedi are training him as a corrective who will destroy what they see to be the remnants of evil in the galaxy. To properly bring peace, you must wipe out the wicked. They are “too dangerous to be kept alive.” Anakin’s desire to end evil by destroying the wicked is ironically turned with great force on the Jedi as Palpatine identifies the Jedi as those who are spreading evil. Through love for his wife and future family, Anakin wipes out who he sees as the obstacles to love: the Jedi. In a climactic moment, Anakin allows Palpatine to throw Mace Windu off of a building, presumably killing him. Palpatine assures Anakin and the Senate that now they will have peace. There is not peace, however, for evil dwells in Palpatine and Anakin and the cast down Mace
Windu’s influence still lives in Anakin’s heart and the remaining Jedi.
At the end of the Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker is faced with a similar problem. Palpatine tells him that he must strike down either Palpatine or Anakin. He must end wickedness through violent action. In perhaps the most compelling scene of the saga, Luke recognizes the good and evil in his father, seeing that both righteousness and wickedness are in conflict in the human heart. He chooses to spare his father and suffer cruelty from Palpatine. Then Anakin, again acting through love for his family, throws Palpatine down a shaft in the Death Star. As The Return of the Jedi closes, we see a happy, peaceful galaxy where Han and Leia are together, Luke is becoming a Jedi, and the evil reign of the Sith is over. We are promised peace.
Like before, it didn’t work. There was a snake in the galactic garden. Kylo Ren dominates opposition with aggression reminiscent of Vader. The cruelties of the Empire have come again in full force. Han Solo and Chewbacca are smuggling again, and Leia is again waiting for a droid. The audience members are left to scratch their heads:
Why is Han not with Leia? Why is the Empire back? Where is Luke? Where is the peace we were promised?
The influence of the cast down Palpatine still lives in the heart of Ben Solo, the First Order, and perhaps even Luke. The shockingly “Star Wars” setting of VII is a reminder that the evil that Anakin has tried to erase is still living and breathing. Anakin, and maybe Luke, has made a miscalculation. Evil does not lurk in the teachings of the Sith, it lurks in the human heart. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said,“the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”
When Abrams underplays the new trench run and seems to cut out all of the galactic dread out of the new superweapon (except for a stunning planetary destruction scene), he isn’t poorly trying to copy A New Hope, he is broadcasting to the audience that the same conflicts that span across all six episodes are present in this film. He doesn’t need to rehash the dread and tension of the end of A New Hope because Lucas already brilliantly accomplished this. He merely is reminding the audience of the universe we are in. The film is not about Poe and the Resistance, they are the setting. The film is about Rey and Ben.
While the same conflicts of all previous episodes seem to be present and unchanged, the conflicts of the past are not invalidated. Han begins in A New Hope as an irresponsible scoundrel. He runs from responsibility and is selfish. As the films go on, he becomes noble, even self-sacrificial. In The Return of the Jedi, he is established as a righteous character, and his union with Leia seems to solidify this transition.
Those who idealize the original trilogy place a peculiar heroic emphasis on the scoundrel Han. They urged Abrams to give them characters that resembled the morally shaky Corellian. Those, like Eric, who were more story-conscious, mourned Han’s return to smuggling in The Force Awakens as an ignoring and erasing of Han’s moral development. What prequel and Abrams haters don’t understand is that that Han’s return to smuggling is not a return to the scoundrel, but the desperate mourning of a broken man. Understandably devastated by his son becoming a vengeful mass-murderer, Han cannot remain with Leia. As he tells her, he knows that every time she sees him, she sees her son Ben. Implied is that he also sees young Ben in the face of his wife.
Han himself describes his action as running from his grief. Han isn’t returning to smuggling, he is regressing to smuggling as a coping mechanism. He is running from his son’s betrayal.
This daring and mature development of Han’s character is not only surprising on the part of Abrams, but is breaking new and interesting ground in the audience’s understanding of Han. When Han leaves for the Starkiller base, he sets out with a goal nearly identical to the goal of Han Solo in VI. He is going to disable a shield vital to preserving a superweapon. But Abrams, using the old material of VI to bring new depth to Han, has Han sent out with a new mission. He is going to bring his son home, or die trying. When he sacrifices himself to demonstrate his love for his son, he is not scoundrel Han or general Han, he is father Han, an old man who loves his son. Han sacrifices himself, calling back to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s deaths in I and IV, but he sacrifices himself for love, like his father-in-law.
As Han falls down the chasm of Starkiller Base, his death is reminiscent of the death of Mace Windu and Palpatine. Ben Solo believes his struggle against the light is over now that he has slain his father, but like Windu and Palpatine, Han will still live on in Ben, and the conflict between the light and the dark is only beginning.
Han’s story illustrates how Abrams uses his host of references to the original trilogy and the prequels to powerfully develop the themes and characters of his story. While Abrams is not Lucas, he has brought out significant emotional themes to play in the new Star Wars films that should have all fans not only excited, but thinking.
Eric probably agrees with my thematic praise, but believes that these themes were not brought out enough by Abrams, and that is a discussion of filmmaking and taste, but these themes are present and vibrant in this film.
Now that I have discussed Eric’s main complaint against the film, responding to him as a storylover, I will now respond to Eric as a Star Wars fan.
Eric said that Abrams seemed to have jettisoned the “titanic visuals, new planets, and a mastery of mythological metanarrative” of Lucas.
To titanic visuals, I point you to the awesome Starkiller Base scene, the wide-angle and beautiful shots of Jakku, and the wide shots of the First Order Army (something we never got of Stormtroopers under Lucas).
To new planets, I will admit that Takadona, and D’Qar look a lot like Yavin 4. Jakku, however, is a lot more than a Tatooine desert. Jakku’s economy, based on looting the broken hulls of crashed spacecraft, is a peculiar and interesting consequence of galactic war that is largely unexplored by Star Wars in the past. Starkiller Base even gives us a snowy forested planet, something unseen by the warm moon of Endor and the nearly lifeless Hoth. This environment is further explored as massive amounts of heat are fired from an edge, incinerating snowy forests in a harrowing display of power.
Mythological metanarrative is a more complicated matter, but the sins of the Skywalker family following their progeny into cyclical conflict is a mythological pattern worthy of Campbell.
Eric later praised the prequels for “the revelation that good and evil do not always align with the light and dark sides of the Force,” a description that also aptly describes the moral complexity of Ben Solo.
Finally, Eric stated that “The entire construction of the Starkiller Base makes very little sense: how could the First Order, a remnant of the defeated Galactic Empire, mount the resources to construct a destructive weapon multiple times larger and more destructive than the most powerful weapons the Empire mounted in its heyday?”
Because Starkiller Base is built into a planet, it requires both less metal (which could be taken from the planet itself) and less coordination to construct. While hollowing out a planet is impressive, it is not nearly as impressive as the construction of a Death Star, which, while smaller than the planet Starkiller Base is built on, is about as large as the actual constructed material on the planet. The Empire, even a remnant First Order, has massive industrial power at its disposal. We don’t know how many planets the First Order controls, but it necessarily has an unimaginable amount of manpower. Finally, Starkiller Base was likely already started by the Empire, which was obsessed with the creation of superweapons.
No matter where you fall in this discussion, there has been nearly universal praise of the well constructed and exciting characters of Ben, Rey, Finn, and Poe. Even if you disagree with my broader point, we can all agree that Star Wars is in fresh, new, and good hands.
And to Eric, who mourns the loss of George Lucas, I say this:
“Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.”