“Torn Apart”: Thoughts on The Force Awakens and the Myth of Star Wars
We live in a post-Star Wars world.
No, we don’t spend our days scavenging through the debris of Star Destroyers and X-Wings like the protagonist of the seventh and newest installment, J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens. But is it really that different? Take a look down any toy aisle and you’ll see Star Wars-themed detritus. There are treasured trinkets in thousands of children’s bedrooms – indeed, including mine. (Not just the bedroom, actually; sorry, mom and dad.) Pick a modern blockbuster at random and you’ll probably find a reference or touchstone, whether it’s Spider-Man talking about “really old movies” in Captain America: Civil War or the way every darker sequel is described as “the Empire Strikes Back of the franchise.” Indeed, the very prevalence of blockbuster films in today’s marketplace is due widely to the combined success of Star Wars and Jaws. Phrases from the galaxy far, far away have infiltrated our cultural lexicon and spread far and wide. If you were to try and visualize our cultural landscape, it might not look too different than Abrams’ vision of a crashed Star Destroyer looming over the desert of Jakku.
When George Lucas released his bold and (at the time) bizarre vision in 1977, it changed the world’s cultural landscape as irrevocably as that Star Destroyer. In the 30 years since Return of the Jedi was released – the same amount of time that has passed between episodes VI and VII in the Star Wars galaxy – Lucas has gone from a bright-eyed young man in search of adventure to a disgraced old hermit living in self-imposed exile. During those 30 years, he tried to create a new order of Jedi, but failed miserably, instead creating a troubled young man with an affinity for the Dark Side. Disgraced, he handed off the reins to a female contemporary, who proceeded to set off in search of new blood to reinvigorate the franchise.
Are you starting to see the connections?
In the wake of The Force Awakens’ release, certain questions have sprung up with some consistency. Many moviegoers and critics received the film warmly, but dissenters have asked: does The Force Awakens do anything new? Does it express a personal vision of any kind, or does it simply copy Lucas’ vision? Is there an inescapable inauthenticity to all this? Is the film a worthwhile piece of art at all?
Among the film’s more thoughtful critics, three primary accusations seem to arise repeatedly, each building on the last.
The first is that The Force Awakens has no originality: it is a slavish retread of the original 1977 film, or perhaps an unwieldy stew of elements from all three original films. It is not a good film on its own merits; indeed, it is a rather bad film that relies rather callously on nostalgia to earn audiences’ goodwill.
The second is that this is J.J. Abrams’ modus operandi. From his Star Trek films to his Spielberg homage, Super 8, Abrams has demonstrated a talent for repackaging hits of the past without creating anything of lasting value in the present. Star Trek Into Darkness collapsed (critics argue) under the burden of recapitulating Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, while Super 8 was so preoccupied with paying tribute to the Amblin Entertainment films of Abrams’ childhood that it failed to tell a meaningful story of its own.
Finally, there is the conclusion that, for all his obvious talent, J.J. Abrams is a copycat with nothing to say. That he is a purveyor of warm, nostalgic feelings which mask empty, soulless films. Devin Faraci wrote that Abrams “attempted to ape what Lucas has done before without truly putting his stamp on it,” and went on to clarify, “I have come to believe Abrams has no stamp to leave. He’s a mimic.” Many critics, myself included, prize a filmmaker, an auteur, with a personal vision. If Abrams merely regurgitates the visions of others, what good is he?
Let me be transparent. I didn’t approach The Force Awakens with anything that could be considered objectivity. Abrams’ penchant for nostalgia worked its magic on me from the very first teaser. I’ve been chided, and not entirely unjustly, for loving the film based not on its text, but on context; the assumption being, again not entirely unjustly, that I would love The Force Awakens even if it was bad. Even if, for instance, it trafficked in soulless, empty nostalgia without any deeper meaning or coherence.
The assumption probably isn’t wrong. I even have a certain degree of affection for the near-universally reviled prequels. But that’s not what keeps me coming back to The Force Awakens, which I’ve now seen (I shudder to admit so publicly) over a dozen times. Yes, it makes me feel good to hear John Williams’ iconic theme usher us into the galaxy far, far away. (Though if The Force Awakens is such a shameless nostalgia-fest, why does Williams recycle his old material so sparingly in favor of new themes and motifs?) Yes, it makes me feel good to hear TIE Fighters scream and lightsabers ignite, to see Han Solo again and to see Harrison Ford’s wistful smile in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.
But that wistfulness is the key, and it’s what keeps me coming back for more after the warmth has worn off – because The Force Awakens isn’t merely leaning on nostalgia for no purpose, or as a crutch (though it may also be doing those things). Instead, it is textually and subtextually about nostalgia. That’s not loving the film based on context; that’s text, context, and subtext intermingling in ways I find enduringly fascinating.
Repetition and Influence
“It’s like poetry. It rhymes.”
– George Lucas
Repetition has been a part of Star Wars since the release of Return of the Jedi in 1986. That film, as third installments often do, lifted beats from its predecessors in an attempt to “come full circle,” so to speak – returning to familiar places and moments to achieve a sense of completion and unity in the finished trilogy. Another excursion to Tatooine, another Death Star, another space battle, another climactic lightsaber duel, another “I love you”/”I know” exchange. And that was only half the circle.
Mike Klimo has famously documented, with admirable thoroughness, what he calls the ring composition of the Star Wars saga. Klimo argues that the prequel films form a corresponding half of a ring that interlocks with the half formed by the originals. In so doing, he makes a convincing case that what many took for a lack of originality or vision in the prequels – a reliance, perhaps, on empty fan-service – was, in fact, a carefully considered and deliberate artistic choice. (The question of whether The Force Awakens continues ring structure remains an open one, but not one I’m concerned with in this essay.)
Additionally, Lucas divulged in a 1977 interview with TIME Magazine that Star Wars was built from “the flotsam and jetsam from the period when [he] was twelve years old… The plot is simple – good against evil – and the film is designed to be all the fun things and fantasy things I remember.” He drew from a myriad of sources, including Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, to bring his vision to life, stating in a 1999 interview that he hoped design for The Phantom Menace would be “very different from anything we’ve seen but [with] a lot of cultural history behind it… I don’t want to make something up, I want to use something that has a living human culture.” The end result, drawing countless elements from sources that were not Lucas’ own, was nevertheless intensely personal, a distillation of George Lucas as a person and an artist.
That’s partly because of who George Lucas is: he is a curator of culture. American Graffiti was concerned with capturing a specific time and place, a way of life that was in danger of being forgotten. With Star Wars, Lucas paid homage to the science fiction serials of his childhood. In both cases, Lucas attempted to immortalize cultures in a way that was intimately personal, yet simultaneously universal in appeal and scope. By filtering cultural touchstones through his own lens, he created a work of art that stood on its own, not unlike the way Virgil’s Aeneid lifts and repurposes elements from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
All this is to say that there is a precedent for repetition of elements as a vital component of the nature of Star Wars, that originality may be a tad overrated as a concept in our modern culture – and that to draw from the past is not necessarily to preclude authenticity. In creating Star Wars, George Lucas drew on the culture he grew up with. In the prequel trilogy, Lucas dug even further into the recesses of our collective imagination, from film noir (the Coruscant underworld of Attack of the Clones) to Frankenstein (the creation of Vader in Revenge of the Sith). Now, in creating The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams has done the same.
It just so happens that J.J. Abrams grew up with Star Wars…
Which means it’s time to talk about J.J. Abrams.
He grew up, like so many filmmakers of his generation, in a culture defined by Star Wars. It’s been talked about in interviews – his adoration for the films was a key factor in earning the goodwill of fans – but, more to the point, is evident in his pre-Star Wars work, from a cameo by R2-D2 in Star Trek (heresy!) to the Easter eggs and references sprinkled throughout Super 8 and LOST. Many criticized his Star Trek films for hewing closer to the emotion-driven adventure style of Star Wars than the cerebral tone Trekkies had come to expect.
So when people say Abrams has no personal stamp, that The Force Awakens bears no signs of an individual’s vision, I’m a bit surprised. Because what I see when I look at The Force Awakens is J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars-loving soul spilled out on celluloid. The things people criticize him for – rooting through the past, repurposing old things for his own purposes, obsessing over what came before – well, those things are literally what the movie is about.
I don’t know if Abrams planned it this way. I can’t speak to his intentions. He doesn’t strike me as someone who goes out of his way to incorporate his personal life into his films, and as far as I can tell, he’s never talked about them that way. That’s just the unanswerable question of authorial intent. But regardless of whether Abrams explicitly designed The Force Awakens as a metaphor for his experience making The Force Awakens, it’s all over the film. Because it’s about trying to find authenticity in the trappings of the past. It is – textually, subtextually, and contextually – about living in a post-Star Wars world.
In a largely scathing essay on The Force Awakens, Hulk Film Crit wrote that while the original Star Wars was about universal, meaningful ideas, “The Force Awakens is just about Star Wars… Which means it isn’t really about anything.”
Which is where I disagree, partly. Yes, The Force Awakens is about Star Wars – but that doesn’t it isn’t about anything.
A Mythic Framework
The original trilogy of Star Wars films built a framework of mythic simplicity. As Bill Moyers puts it in his 1999 interview with Lucas, “One of the appeals of Star Wars originally was that it satisfied our craving to resolve our ambiguities. The good guys were good guys, the bad guys were bad guys.” Indeed, Lucas himself has stated that his main aim in making the film was “to give young people an honest, wholesome fantasy life” – a direct counterpoint, perhaps, to the cynicism and uncertainty that permeated culture in the 70s.
In the post-Star Wars world of The Force Awakens, that mythic framework has been fragmented and complicated. The galaxy is defined by the past we know as the events of the original Star Wars trilogy, but for the characters we meet, the world is no longer so simple. Similarly, Lucas’ prequels began from a place of familiar simplicity and charted a path deeper and deeper into obfuscation and relativism: “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!” Abrams’ sequel starts from that point, wrestling with this tension between simplicity and complexity, letting his characters struggle to fit difficult, multifaceted realities into their mythic worldviews. The tension is expressed visually: Abrams frequently fills shots with red and blue light (symbols of the dark side and the light, respectively), letting them intermingle with each other so that they no longer seem so clearly delineated.
When we meet them, each lead character is wearing a mask. They are faceless, defined by icons of the past, by their roles. Finn’s face is concealed by his Stormtrooper helmet for the first ten minutes of the film. Kylo Ren hides behind a mask that evokes Darth Vader’s. Rey, when we see her, is – well, what is she? In her words, she’s “nobody.” Each of these three characters struggles to find an authentic identity over the course of the film, within or apart from the symbols that define them.
“I’m not who you think I am… I’m not Resistance. I’m not a hero. I’m a Stormtrooper.”
Finn is the first to pull off his mask. When we first meet him, he is a faceless soldier, indistinguishable from the hordes of Stormtroopers who charge into battle. Then, when his inhuman shell is marked by blood, he has a crisis of conscience. He breaks free from this role, shedding the iconic trappings of the Stormtrooper and seeks another icon to follow. He finds it first in Poe Dameron. If Poe initially seems to be a variation on Han Solo, the cocky pilot with a heart of gold, Finn certainly seems to see him as one. The former Stormtrooper tries to model himself after this new archetype, taking the name Poe gives him and, eventually, the man’s jacket. He tries to act like Han Solo, circa A New Hope: trying to escape the wrath of old overlords, lying his way into people’s trust, not sticking his neck out for anybody, just trying to survive. He even sits in the Millennium Falcon’s gunner seat, as Han did. But that’s not who Finn is either. He’s still defined by the First Order, even as he runs from it. At Maz Kanata’s castle, Finn decides that he would rather leave his new friends than risk recapture by the First Order. But that’s not who Finn is.
Finn is put to the test when Rey is taken to Starkiller Base. He makes another choice: to go back to the place he swore never to return to, into his past, for the sake of his friends. This is who Finn truly is: he forms genuine affection for people more quickly and instinctively than Han Solo ever did. In the end, Finn finds authentic identity as a man who cares deeply for his friends, whose empathy gives him unexpected reserves of strength and courage. He is no longer defined by his past – not by his training as a Stormtrooper, nor by the absence of a family he never knew. He is defined by friendship in the present.
“I know all about waiting… for my family. They’ll be back, someday.”
When we meet Rey, she is a scavenger, adrift in a hostile world between past and future. She lives in an old relic, with a doll depicting a pilot from the war of the original films. She spends her days searching for parts to sell in the wreckage of a decades-old battlefield. In her free time, she puts on an old helmet – imagining herself, perhaps, in the world that existed before she was born. She stays in this life because she’s waiting for a family that she believes will come back for her someday. In every sense of the word, she is living in the past. There is nothing else around her, only desert.
Over the course of the film, Rey is pulled from this life. She reacts to the new world around her with a mix of wonderment and hesitation. When Han Solo offers her a job, she initially reacts with glee, before remembering the family she thinks she has to wait for. When Finn asks her to come with him into an uncertain future, her response is diametrically opposed to his: “Don’t go.” She would rather stay in the past.
Immediately after Finn’s departure, Rey goes down into an ancient chamber – a bit of descent imagery mirroring Luke’s dreamlike encounter with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back – where she encounters a literal token of the past, Luke’s lightsaber. Touching the saber yields visions of her childhood and other past events (including, quite literally, a scene from The Empire Strikes Back), but it also shows a way forward. While Luke was instantly curious about the Force, Rey is repelled, and resists the call. Maz tears her idealized past to shreds – “Whoever you’re waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back” – and encourages her to look to the future. “The belonging you seek is not behind you,” she chides. “It is ahead.” Rey, however, refuses – and this refusal lands her in the clutches of Kylo Ren, aboard a massive reminder of the past.
In The Force Awakens, the First Order represents the dangers of blind nostalgia. While the original trilogy represented a fairly delineated generational conflict, with the youngsters as heroes fighting an old regime of oppression, the face of the First Order is a young one. Here are people who, for whatever reason, have come to cherish a time that ended before they were born, clinging obsessively to its trappings and ideologies. Rey’s imprisonment on Starkiller Base is what jolts her out of the past and forces her to accept her destiny. It is only here that she uses the Force, first to escape a cell, secondly to challenge Kylo Ren. She takes the token she earlier rejected and embarks on a journey to find the future ahead. Yet even that future is defined by the past. The Force Awakens ultimately suggests neither fixation on the past nor plunging blindly ahead into the future; instead, Rey takes a relic of the past to find a person from the past and beckon him back to the present. It is a process of careful negotiation rather than forceful reshaping, a search for authenticity wherever it may be found.
“Show me again the power of the darkness and I will let nothing stand in our way. Show me, grandfather, and I will finish what you started.”
– Kylo Ren
Kylo Ren, on the other hand, is agonized by his failure to live up to the past. When we meet him, he certainly seems to be on the right track: seeking to follow in the footsteps of Darth Vader, the most iconic Star Wars figure of them all, he cuts a similar figure and makes a similar entrance. His mask disguises his voice, rendering it in a deep timbre not unlike that of James Earl Jones. Yet as the film goes on, Ren fails to match Vader’s composure; he lashes out in anger when a mission goes wrong, and his standing in the First Order seems less than secure, based on the way he jockeys for control with General Hux. Finally, the mask comes off, and Ren is revealed as a pathetic young man striving to live up to his grandfather’s legacy but paralyzed by his inability to do so. He’s a dark inversion of Luke Skywalker in A New Hope: desperate to prove himself, failing as often as he succeeds.
His fixation with the past defines him in other ways: he judges not only Rey (“a scavenger”) and Finn (“traitor!”) based on identities they seek to leave behind, but also his own father (“he would’ve disappointed you”) and, most tragically, himself. “It’s too late,” he says, quietly, when Han offers him a chance at redemption. Defining the world based on the past, he fails to see the potential for change.
Ren believes that the world should conform to the mythic simplicity of the original films, and aspires to the perceived simplicity of Darth Vader: he prays to the Dark Lord’s mangled helmet, hoping to purge himself of light to achieve a purity of darkness. Yet the light will not go out, and Ben finds himself caught between the simple, clean ideal he aspires to and the messy, complex truth of who he really is.
Furthermore, each of these new characters has a different idea of who Han Solo is – just as we in the audience bring our unique histories with the beloved character to the theater. Finn thinks he’s a war hero, Rey thinks he’s a smuggler, and Kylo Ren thinks he’s a disappointing father. But when the man himself is asked if he’s Han Solo, the answer is inconclusive, mournful: “I used to be,” he says. The film indicates that Han Solo has spent a good part of the last 30 years trying to reclaim the glory days, searching for the Millennium Falcon. This fixation on the past drives him and Leia apart, just as obsession with bygone generations drove their son from them. The idealized past is out of reach, diffused by time, and the characters of The Force Awakens sift through it, picking out pieces on which to build their own identities. Yet for those who place too much faith in the icons of the past, instead of becoming liberated or authentic, they find themselves torn apart, thinking they know what to do, but unsure if they have the strength to do it.
The Force Awakens: An Allegorical Reading
I opened this essay by suggesting a connection between Luke Skywalker and George Lucas. In the original 1977 film, Luke was surely a stand-in for the director: a bright-eyed and idealistic young man off on an exciting journey into an impossible new world. He was doubted at every turn, but triumphed in the end. Here, after all these years, the connection between the names Luke and Lucas still holds. As we learn from Han Solo, Luke, after completing his work in Return of the Jedi, tried to create a new Jedi Order. Sound familiar?
Luke’s work failed miserably, just as the prequels were widely reviled. Along the way, there was a mopey, troubled, long-haired young man who turned to the Dark Side on the path to becoming (or attempting to become) Darth Vader. Now Luke is a disgraced old wizard living in self-imposed exile. Williams’ theme for Luke’s island, “The Jedi Steps,” recalls the sound of Tchaikovsky’s “Tempest,” based on the Shakespeare play of the same name. That play, widely considered Shakespeare’s last, had autobiographical dimensions, with many critics viewing Prospero’s renunciation of magic as a dramatization of Shakespeare’s departure from the theater. Like Luke, Lucas – now a laughingstock in the very world he created – retreated into self-imposed exile, selling his legacy to Disney, handing the reins to Kathleen Kennedy just as Luke leaves the galaxy in the hands of Leia.
The Force Awakens begins with the line, “This will begin to make things right.” Many have interpreted this as a jab at the prequels, a sign of a kind of subliminal anger. Yet two lines later, we hear the phrase “balance in the Force,” a concept originated by the very prequels the fans despise. Lucas’ absence is felt; the first line of the opening crawl reads, “Luke Skywalker has vanished,” and much of the film centers on the search for him. His lightsaber is a token that passes from character to character. In The Force Awakens, we see a wish to return to the roots – if not literally to Lucas himself, then to the same well of imagination that gave birth to this universe in the first place. The film may start with anger towards the prequels, but by the end, it’s as much a process of working through that anger as anything.
What happens when Lucas is gone? If Luke was a stand-in for George Lucas, and Ben Solo is an inversion of Luke, does that make Kylo Ren a stand-in for J.J. Abrams?
I would suggest that it does. Abrams has mentioned his dislike for the prequels in interviews; like many fans, he turned against the man who brought the galaxy far, far away to life. It’s not hard to read Ren’s anger towards his father as an anger at the man who “ruined” our collective idea of Star Wars, our childhood. Ren stands in Vader’s shadow as Abrams stands in Lucas’ shadow. He’s impatient and cocksure, but deeply unsure of himself. He’s infatuated with the era of the original trilogy, with the iconography of that time, but he’s disgusted by what Luke/Lucas did afterwards. Finally, he’s willing to kill off a beloved character in a bid to make his mark. “We knew we needed to do something f*cking bold,” Abrams said in an interview. “The only reason why Kylo Ren has any hope of being a worthy successor is because we lose one of the most beloved characters.” (On a level that is probably more coincidental, note the similarities in Abrams’ and Driver’s appearances and demeanors; nerdy, soft-spoken young men with curly black hair and prominent noses.)
Yet Rey is also a successor to Luke, and, I suspect, also a stand-in for Abrams. Rey is held back by her family; Abrams has mentioned in multiple interviews that, when approached with the director’s chair, he hesitated based on a desire to spend more time with his family. When the film starts, Rey is a scavenger, picking through the detritus of the past just as Abrams does. Both search for authenticity in the trappings of a time gone by. And at the end of The Force Awakens, both pass the baton, handing the lightsaber over to a new owner – perhaps one they feel deserves it more than they do.
So does The Force Awakens say anything meaningful, or is it a retread? The answer is tricky: it’s both. It leans on nostalgia, but examines the very nostalgia it leans on. It turns to look backwards, and then looks inward. It’s Abrams pulling from the past, as he always does, but this time he’s interrogating his own impulse to do so.
In a lengthy article, Devin Faraci posed the question, “Will Star Wars Just Be Fanfic From Now On?” He emphasized the intensely personal quality Star Wars had for George Lucas, but remarked, “I do believe it’s possible to take the Star Wars universe and put a personal mark on it. The Star Wars universe is completely the creation of a singular genius, so the key is to not copy that vision.”
Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, directors of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, respectively, were subsumed by the universe they worked in. Very few remember their names; no one thinks of the two films as intensely personal works of art for them. All six Star Wars films, before 2015, were George Lucas Films. With The Force Awakens, though, we have a Star Wars film that is intensely personal for J.J. Abrams. It is, unmistakably, a J.J. Abrams Film. And, to my mind, that’s a good thing.
And it’s not just Abrams. He speaks for a whole generation – multiple generations, actually, and mine is among them – that’s been shaped by a collective experience. I, like J.J. Abrams, have had Star Wars irrevocably written into my DNA. It’s shaped my creative sensibilities and who I am as a person. When I watch The Force Awakens, I, like J.J. Abrams, am able – prompted, even – to take stock of that impact. Yes, The Force Awakens is an imperfect film, but it speaks to something true. It speaks to the universal desire to construct identities for ourselves out of fragments of the past, of our childhoods, of the culture around us. It speaks to the specific experience of those who’ve been shaped by this specific cultural phenomenon. And by speaking to those things, it speaks to me.