Where’s That Olde Time Religion? The Force Awakens (PG-13)

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I suspect I am not unique in claiming to have had serious conversations with friends in the wee hours of the morning wherein real considerations of future plans have been hashed out using the original Star Wars trilogy as a template for a genuine pursuit of truth and goodness. Should I find a Yoda under which to train? If I leave town after I graduate, am I like Han Solo abandoning the Rebels in the tenth hour, and will my conscience only prompt me to return at the eleventh? In what way are the local heavies like Darth Vader, and will they prove righteous in the last?

I am only a poor movie critic, but I’ll throw in my two cents as to the artistic, intellectual and cultural success of the trilogy:

  1. George Lucas was a pious devotee of Joseph Campbell, that well-studied Gnostic, symbolist extraordinaire, daffy religionist and goofball savant. For all his faults, Campbell did try to take religion seriously. Campbell’s problem wasn’t that he failed to understand religion, but that he failed to understand seriously. Lucas absorbed Campbell’s fascination with religion— especially Campbell’s unique, simple way of collapsing every mythology and every sacred text into a kind of smooth, entry-level Gnosticism that could put a modern man in touch with at least some of the creepiness and otherness and spiritualiness of ye olde heresy. The original Star Wars trilogy I should stop calling it “the original” now, because there was only one real trilogy before last Friday) lassoed some of the potency of Gnosticism in a way otherwise unique to myths like The Little Prince and The Matrix.
  2. Star Wars drew its politics from a genuinely historical well. The tug-of-war between the Republic and the Empire situates Star Wars somewhere near Rome, sometime between the 1st century BC and the 4th century AD. In “Dreaming of the Middle Ages,” Umberto Eco notes the distinctly medieval quality to the Star Wars landscape, where lords and knights, princesses and priests all jostle for space.
  3. A flexible mood which was light enough for humor, but dark enough for charred corpses, dismemberment, and the death of the most meaningful and dignified character just a little over an hour in.
  4. The greatest motion picture score in the history of cinema.

Of course, there are numerous other factors which contribute to the perfection of Star Wars, like the costumes and the creatures and Harrison Ford back when he could hack it. After watching The Force Awakens, the flawlessness of the old films seems all the more surprising, all the more unattainable. Their brilliance expands further each time someone freshly fails to ascend to such heights. The Force Awakens was never going to win Academy Awards, although it might win a Nobel Peace Prize for not being The Phantom Menace— a film which induced a kind of sad queasiness that felt something like watching your mother neck some strange actor in a cheap local production of Hairspray. So on the one hand, The Force Awakens had it easy. It would almost certainly get the Hayden Christensen taste out of our brains. On the other hand, The Force Awakens had it tough. It would never take over the world like its real older brother.

About twenty minutes into The Force Awakens, I was pleased as punch. “This isn’t a sequel,” I thought. “It’s a space station remake.” And not simply because the film opens with a storm trooper shoot out, a lost droid with a message and a goofy kid wasting time in the desert. As hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) scales the massive metal guts of a downed star destroyer, the narrative takes it easy and gives us time to acclimatize to the changed Star Wars cosmos. In the thirty years since the Death Star was destroyed, the Republic has failed to truly assert itself as a viable politics. Plenty of galactic citizens live on scraps pulled from the rotting carcasses of the Empire. The planet of Jakku feels a good bit like the Old West, not a place where law and justice preside. Rey sleds down the side of a Texas sized spaceship which crashed in the desert, and Abrams gives us time to drink in the splendor of the scene without saddling us with plot or lasers. We get a little time to pleasantly feel our way about the place, to wonder, to let our eyes meander around the screen. Throughout the first act, I actually felt like I was inside a Star Wars movie, for Lucas had the same talent for giving just enough room for his effects and just enough room for his sets. The “lived in” Lucas universe is not simply a universe of old things, but time enough to spend with those old things before being hustled on to something else.

So far as the dark side is concerned, nothing succeeds quite like failure. The Empire has given way to the First Order which, while staffed with a bunch of kids, has an operating budget which capably exceeds the former. Where all the money comes from, or why the Republic failed to impose sanctions on Imperial sympathizers, is anybody’s guess. The youthfulness of the First Order is intriguing, though. Gone are all the gray hairs and wrinkled noses of Vader’s Death Star generals and admirals. Apparently all the Republic mothers and fathers failed to pass their views on to their children, for as soon as they came of age, they fell under the spell of stories about the Imperial glory they had narrowly missed. I prefer to think the movie can be interpreted at this level, and that such observations don’t count as skylarking, however, in half billion dollar ops like The Force Awakens, I suspect the cost of such plot and character considerations got sucked up into, say, a forty thousand dollar half second shot of a TIE fighter exploding in the background which absolutely nobody noticed.

The first act of The Force Awakens is lovingly, dutifully lifted from Star Wars, but after that, Abrams gets picky and skips around the trilogy for interesting scenes to scavenge. The narrative becomes dense and we lose a sense of space, a sense of openness, any time for reflection on what is happening. Like most big budget effects films, one series of explosions quickly gives way to another, and there is no time left for quiet disagreements about the force, no training sessions wherein sage mentors give counterintuitive advice. Travel times are all but eliminated. The characters announce their intentions to travel a billion miles away and arrive half a second later. Lucas enjoyed using the vastness of space to give his characters time for contemplation, conversation and mounting dread. Abrams is impatient to get to new action.

The characters are a bag of mixed nuts. Rey is the independent 96 pound ass-kicking heroine we’ve all become accustomed to in sci-fi pictures over the last twenty years. She is entirely self-sufficient, knows a little judo, is a better mechanic than even the old pros, and an ace pilot to boot. While the plot never gives her an opportunity to do so, I bet she can waltz, triple lutz and build a sturdy but elegant bird house, as well. Part of the fun of Star Wars was falling down the rabbit hole with a whiny dip like Luke Skywalker. That fellow couldn’t do anything on his own, although we thrilled to find that the Force condescended to such a one. Anything miraculous which Luke accomplished was truly accomplished by the Force working through him. Rey doesn’t really need the Force, though, and so when she discovers her capacity to use the power of the Force late in the film, it’s a bit like Trump finding a fiver in the pocket of last year’s winter coat. It might be argued that Rey’s preternatural abilities to fly and fight and fix old machines are a result of the Force working through her, but American Eagle models who can MacGuyver and Bruce Lee have become so rote within sci-fi of late that suggesting Rey needs special clearance from the Force to do what she does for the first two acts seems like special pleading. She’s just doing what Sydney Bristow and Keira Knightly always do in pictures like this. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a far more successful new addition to the Star Wars pantheon, largely due to a believable back story wherein he failed to genuinely sympathize with his Jedi teacher. Ren learns of Darth Vader from his parents and from Luke, whom he trains under, but becomes sufficiently intrigued with stories of Vader that he quits Luke and seeks darker pastures. Driver plays Ren very cool, very even, and I found myself thinking of the serenity of Yoda in Driver’s eloquent, even-keeled and intense delivery of his lines. That his training was incomplete comes through in his sudden, comic bursts of ill temper and his contemptible imitation of Vader’s style, even though he has no disfigured face to hide. John Boyega’s Finn is passable, though Boyega lacks the strong screen presence of Daisy Ridley and when he cracks wise or makes jokes, the film exits the Star Wars mood with remarkable speed. Andy Serkis reprises his role as an embarrassingly-rendered CG villain from the year 2003. For the life of me, I don’t know why people can’t stick to rubber suits. Decades of phoning it in make Harrison Ford just about impossible to take seriously, and, in the meantime, Carrie Fisher has become the real smuggler. Lord knows what she’s hiding under all that makeup.

A failure to make much of the Force is what finally shelved my respect for the story. The Force is not a tired old religion here as it was in Star Wars, and there are no monks like Obi-Wan quietly preserving the faith against casual skeptics like Han Solo. In truth, I don’t know there’s a director in Hollywood who is sufficiently religious to make a film about the quiet, omnipresent power of the divine rising from slumber, which is what the title of The Force Awakens promised. Terrence Malick, maybe? Although The Force Awakens could nearly be the title of any and every film Malick has made. Obi-Wan was the beguiling, perplexing heart of Star Wars, an ascetic cave dweller yet willing to slice a fool’s arm off when things got dicey in a bar. The simple mystery of Obi-Wan’s corporeal disappearance upon death and his regular reappearance in Luke’s thoughts suggested a depth which The Force Awakens never glances. For Abrams, the Force is little more than simple magic, levitation and mind tricks, and in the end, his movie is a lot of redirection around the simple fact that the thing lacks an emotional, intellectual center.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

One Response to Where’s That Olde Time Religion? The Force Awakens

  1. Imma say maybe not a great film, but a pretty good movie. J.J. Abrams seems to understand what people like about Star Wars, whereas Lucas showed us in the prequels that while he knows everything about Star Wars, he understands very little about what make the first films what they are.

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