Like most people I know, and strangers all around the world, I recently saw Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Now, this isn’t going to be some rant about the “plot” or “character development” (or any other screenwriting parlance) of the film. Fans of the series have pretty much consumed, contemplated, and ossified their opinions of the movie, so a lot of good it would do to throw out yet another opinion on the topic. Frankly, I’m much less interested in whether certain decisions made by the storytellers were the “right” or “wrong” ones, and much more intrigued as to why they wrote the film they did.
Of course, the cynic will say: “Money.” And that is certainly true. Holy hell have you seen what they’ve been peddling in the past week alone? All the corporate tie-ins and multi-media marketing of this film. Man… you have to give it up to Disney. When they want to whore out a product, there is no better pimp in town. Some are already forecasting the movie will gross about $3 BILLION dollars in it’s theatrical run alone. Seeing as it is already a third of the way there in the first two weeks… that doesn’t sound too far-fetched. And to think, Disney only paid $4 Billion for the franchise to begin with. Now that’s some amortization, folks!
And this is where the crisis begins, you see. Because one can obviously begin to understand the market aspects already in play forming the constriction within which the film must live. I like to visualize a stressed-out Mickey Mouse standing over bar graph projections and Excel reports spread out all over his desk. He’s only managed to sleep for a handful of hours in the past three weeks, his eyes are bloodshot and his diet consists of a jar of pickles, cigarettes, and milk. He’s screaming at JJ Abrams in that folky wholesome voice about how much money they’ve dumped on the series and how much of a success Episode VII needs to be. “Big bucks,” Mickey says. “We need to bring in the big bucks, huh huh. So don’t fuck it up!”
So yes, in a way, the realization of capital was able to “force” the storytellers to “awaken” the kind of film they created (no more intentional Star Wars puns, I promise). But I don’t see that as the only factor. Indeed, I’m sure there were many factors in what led to the final product being what it was, but the one I think contributed most impact was the idea of what Star Wars is. To put it another way, the legacy (not just financial) of the beloved series is so immense that it renders any and all sequels (here I mean chronologically following the first trilogy) unable to escape its impact on the minds of those who have come across it–especially those who encountered and still remember the true** originals.
For many Star Wars fans, there is an idea of Star Wars. It represents many things: a movie series, a mythology, a piece of nostalgia, an exemplar of Science-Fantasy, et al.: containing some of pop culture’s more memorable characters or lines, and harboring some of the soundtracks to fans’ childhoods. Even those who are not fans will recognize or concede a few of the above points–certainly the pop culture aspects of the films. With such an influence on these peoples’ lives, and indeed many lives who are not even fans or want to have any part of the series, it is hard to build upon such a consecrated, well-known, yet variegated thing with much success. In other words, so many people have an idea of what Star Wars is that it becomes impossible to construct a version of the franchise that is satisfactory. In addition to this, one must contemplate Star Wars completely outside its universe (as that is how people consume entertainment) and understand the added pressure (and knowledge) of the failures that were Episodes I – III (not financially of course, or even critically necessarily, but if you ask fans of the true** originals… yeah, it was mostly a total let down). Not only does the next movie have to live up to these undefined expectations of the faceless masses of fans, but also pick up the torch that was perceived to have been dropped (by the creator himself!) and keep the flame burning. (Then again, one might ask: “Why even continue the story? The original trilogy is all you need. Why not come up with something new? Something that might be just as good, but–you know–different.” Which is a valid point, one that is–SHUT-UP IT’S STAR WARS AND NOTHING CAN POSSIBLY REPLACE IT GAHWAHGAHGWHAGWHGAWHG!#!##!$!@!!)
So, in the face of such daunting odds, it appears the storytellers did what storytellers do when they want the audience to walk away satisfied: they give the audience what they already know it likes. And that’s what Force is: a soft reboot of sorts.
This leads to what most critics of the film have been labeling as a “rip-off” or “plagiarism” or “pile of shit.” It is this “mirroring” effect going on that displeases them most. (Thought: I wonder if Richard Rorty can be applied to this idea of “mirroring” in anyway… any philosophers care to opine? Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org) It leaves fans of this ilk feeling as though they have encountered yet another fraud in the series. Something purporting to be Star Wars, only to not deliver the goods.
But I cannot fault JJ and Crew for the decision. They were charged with creating a new film that would reinvigorate the franchise, bring people back to the fold. What is the easiest, safest way to do this? Give the fans what they want. What do they want? All the crap they already know. In many respects, its the sin all sequels take on. You not only find this in movies, but in music, television shows, video games, etc. etc. And JJ did a good job when considering all this, I think. It’s a fun movie. It’s hard to deny that. There is genuine enjoyment to be extracted from this film. Moments in which you lose yourself in the movie and think: “This is Star Wars!” But those moments are also deeply saturated in pablum, in which the movie caters to fanboy expectations (and Disney’s bottom line) instead of achieving enough creative authority.
This is what left me feeling a little ambivalent when I left the theater. I enjoyed most of what I experienced in there, but partly because I had already experienced it before–some time ago when I was a younger lad. And that was the problem for me: déjà vu. I suppose I was just looking for something a little… well… different. But it doesn’t look like people want that. It appears the central idea of Star Wars focuses solely on a certain fetishism of the franchise. It appears to have more to do with light sabers, blasters, Storm Troopers, the Millennium Falcon, Luke, Han and Leia, clinging to that nostalgia of what was Star Wars. And this fetishism of the Legacy of Star Wars will not allow the series to expand beyond the boundaries that it knows so well. It can only fall back in on itself, collapsing, creating an inward vortex in which nothing can escape.
But in the end… who cares? It’s just a movie. Let’s dance!
** By this I mean the original trilogy that was not altered by Lucas in the late-90s, in which he performed his own “Great Purge” and rid the world of the Star Wars trilogy as it had been seen in theaters. Replaced with his “true vision” of the films, this new trilogy was complete with added CGI tomfoolery and revisionist history of Star Wars events. (Han shot first!) Anyone who has seen the Episodes IV – VI since say 1997 has encountered a counterfeit. You live a lie, a horrible, terrible lie.