"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" by Adam Roberts
Saturday, December 26, 2015
The most interesting thing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens has to do with the cultural moment into which it was received. I don’t mean that it has been greeted so rapturously by fans and cinema-goers, that it has already earned a shedload of money, that it is set fair to overtake Avatar as the highest grossing movie of all time—we could all see that coming a mile off. I mean the acute and often panicky paranoia about spoilers this release has occasioned. How angry people get! Spoiling Star Wars became suddenly one the worst things a person could do, just below genocide and just above admitting a fondness for Coldplay.
[Editor's note: ...which is probably the right time to say - "contains spoilers".]
What, we might wonder, is at stake in this sudden hot-flush anti-spoiler agitation? What could be ‘spoiled’ in our enjoyment of a film like Star Wars: The Force Awakens by knowing one or other plot-details ahead of time? One answer might be: ‘the pleasurable sensation of being surprised by a plot-twist’. Does it spoil Star Wars: the Force Awakens to say: a major character dies half-way? Maybe it does, a little bit, even though I haven’t yet identified which major character gets pronged. Then again, ‘a major character dying halfway through the story’ is so bald a cliché of contemporary blockbuster cinema—it happens in the original 1977 Star Wars for example—that ‘surprise’ is hardly the appropriate reaction. You know already how this film is going to go. You know how it is going to look. You know that new characters will mingle with naturally-aged characters from the original trilogy. You know that X-Wings will dogfight tie-fighters, that Chewbacca will put his head back and make a noise like a walrus gargling phlegm, that lightsabers will buzz and sputter and that the Death Star will be eucatastrophically destroyed in the very nick of time. The reason you can be sure of this is that J. J. Abrams and his large team of highly-paid cinema professionals have put a lot of effort and money into making a film that does not surprise its audience overmuch.
Abrams et al do not want to alienate you. A Tarkovski-esque 4-hour movie about an ewok trying to carry a candle across a half-filled swimming pool might have been interesting; a brisk Chantal Akerman-style film about the day-to-day lives of sex-workers and species-cross-dressers in a Mos Eisley nightclub might have been interesting. But Star Wars fans don’t want anything like that. They don’t want anything that deviates so far from the original template. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that they’re not interested in the film as such. They are interested in recapturing a certain feeling they experienced once upon a time when watching another film. So, conscious of where the money is, Abrams-and-team have here elected to re-shoot that other film, tweaking and altering it in odd places to give the fans reason to buy tickets at the cinema rather than just pull out the Blue Ray copies and watch A New Hope for the hundredth-and-eleventh time.
The anxiety about spoilers is really a tangle of conflicting emotions comprising (a) the desire that Star Wars: The Force Awakens be new and different and therefore exciting (b) the fear that any manner of change of any kind will be inflicted upon the core text, thus mutilating and despoiling not only it but that part of fans’ sensibilities caught up in memories of it. Accordingly Abrams et al made sure to flag-up the film’s two main shifts of emphasis—a black Stormtrooper, a female Protagonist—early on, via the trailers, to give all but the most dyed-in-the-wool racist-sexist loonies time to get used to the idea. And what non-racist, non-sexist fans needed time for was: any change at all to the original format. We want to a comfortable re-immersion in a much-loved world. We want no al-arms and no sur-pri-ses. Indeed, true fans will surely prefer the re-watch of this movie to the watch, because then they can relax and enjoy all the little details they missed first time round. And first time round they missed those things because they were subconsciously terrified that Abrams was going to fuck-up Star Wars, which is to say: was going to change it in some radical way.
Fans yet to see the movie can rest assured: this is not what Abrams does, in this film. But more to the point, this suggests that what spoilerphobia indexes is not a fear of finding out specific aspects of the plot, but a rather more complicated knot of anxious-desirous affect about difference as such. The fear a spoiler evokes is not that we might find out about unexpected things, but on the contrary that we might be denied our hope that everything is exactly the same. We invest our hostility in spoilers as an apotropaic gesture at the notion that the film could contain anything that deviates from the perfect death-drive reproduction of the original, any burr or sunspot or thorn, anything standing proud from the machine-smoothed reflective plate—anything in the movie capable of spoliation. And whilst we crave that reassurance, we are also afraid of it, because of what it says about us.
To put it another way: one of the most eloquent images from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that of Rey—a significantly royal name, we note—living a pared-down scavenger’s existence, her house the tumbled-down chassis of an old Imperial Walker. Because that’s us, all of us, all Star Wars fans: we’re all eking out a denuded existence in the ruins of the tattered infrastructural fabric of the original Star Wars movies. Ours is a love among the ruins.
I think people are not quite asking the right questions about this movie. So, one response has been to gauge its merits as against the two previous trilogies of Star Wars films, with a consensus emerging that it is maybe not quite as good as 4 and 5, but probably a little better than 6, and certainly much, much better than 1, 2 and 3. This is the wrong comparison-game, though. The prior texts against which this film needs to be judged are not those long-ago movies, but rather the trailers for this new movie.
It’s only a few months ago, and so we cannot have forgotten just how excited we all were when the first trailers appeared: the tingle-up-the-spine glimpses of a world at once intensely familiar and—that crashed star destroyer like an angular metal mountain on the desert horizon!—eloquently estranged. The sheer energy that went in to fan-discussion of the fact that one character’s light-sabre had two little lightsaber-stub crossguards on its handle—blimey, do you remember how exercised we all got over that little detail? When cultural historians come to write their analyses about the third Star Wars trilogy, they will have to begin with the trailers. The first one, with its resonant voice over (‘there has been an awakening … the dark side … and…’ cut to the Millennium Falcon barrel-rolling through a swarm of dogfighting tie-fighters ‘…and the light!’). Cheers, veritable cheers echoing through the cinema. The middle trailer, with Harrison Ford, his voice brimming with emotion, telling his best friend ‘Chewie, we’re home’. Not a dry eye in the house! And the last of the trailers, a woman’s voice speaking directly to fandom: ‘the Force: it’s calling to you … just let it in.’ One of the most pushing-at-an-open-doorish examples of pushing-at-an-open-door I have ever encountered.
So is the actual movie of Star Wars: The Force Awakens as good as its own trailers? The answer has to be: no, it’s not. The trailers isolated moments of affective intensity and presented them to the fans, and that’s really what the fans want. The film itself has to do all the other stuff that movies need to do, like tell a coherent story, flesh out believable characters, pull together a consistently realised world and so on. And, by all those criteria, the movie has many problems. On the level of overall story, this film hugs the shore of the original Star Wars so closely it’s basically on the shore, dragging a big trench along the sand. So we have: the desert world; the bleeping droid with secret information vital for the success of the resistance; our heroes’ narrow escape on the Millennium Falcon; their sojourn on a heavily forested world; their stepping inside a bar full of weird aliens; some rapid plot-exposition and finally squadrons of X-Wing fighters attacking the Death Star. That’s the whole movie.
Many of these elements are in precisely the same place they were originally, or else are minimally shifted, such that the Mos Eisley cantina scene now happens just after our heroes have left the desert planet rather than just before. One of the more noticeable relocations of a prefab-plot-element is that the Obi Wan Kenobi role is now being played by a bearded-and-cowled Luke Skywalker, and our thousand-faced-hero (now, a heroine) encounters him not a quarter of the way through the tale, but right at the end. This, though, is a purely superficial alteration, since the underlying story structure still builds itself around the same reversal: a father-figure unexpectedly killed. In the original movie, this is Obi Wan, cut down by Vader. In the new film Ford’s Solo is laid low in one-go by so-so Kylo’s low-blow. Oh no! Spoil, Spoiler, Spoilest. As in the 1977 movie, the individual death of one absentee papa is played as being more emotionally devastating than the destruction of an entire world which immediately precedes it. That doesn’t say anything good about the moral centre-of-gravity of the franchise, I think.
In this film Leia is no longer a Princess (and how was that ever supposed to have worked, politically-speaking?), but rather ‘General Leia Organa’. Of course, she was a General in the first film too. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens she even boasts that, having broken-up with Solo, she went back to military command as ‘the only thing I was ever good at’. As in the first movie, so in the most recent: her military skills consist entirely of staring anxiously at a display-screen whilst too-few fighters laser-strafe a distant target. And speaking more broadly, any army abruptly discovering for the first time not only that their enemy possesses a planet-sized super-weapon, but that said enemy is literally minutes away from obliterating all opposition, would have grounds for putting their generals on trial for gross incompetence. Not that I want to hate-on Leia, of course. I'm no different to many straight men of my generation: she will always have a special place in my heart. True, Harrison Ford appears noticeably older and more grizzled (though no less handsome) in this movie, where Carrie Fisher’s face looks like it has been grafted onto her skull with a botox-scalpel from a life-size Princess Leia merchandizing doll. But to say so is only to touch on the fundamentally sexist pressures that apply to the physical appearance of male and female actors in today’s culture.
The story, then, is the same as Part 4. The récit (that is to say, the way this story is actually told) is a series of well-made set-pieces stitched together with illogic thread and a coincidence needle. The set pieces show that Abrams is very good at action sequences; not only at the motion and the thrill, but at the visual field, the balance of larger effect and detail, the framing and drawing the eye. The movie as a whole show that Abrams is less skilled at the more architechtonic aspects of creating a whole movie. Transitions are poorly paced, the overall shape is lumpy and the ending—Abrams Achilles-heel—is underpowered.
We open as baddie Kylo Ren, wearing a black anteater-snout mask, and a platoon of Stormtroopers massacre a village. This sequence is deftly shot, actually exciting and, with the mass-murder, even manages to be startling. In this point in the story we don’t know who Ren is (his given name, it turns out, is ‘Ben’, presumably after Old Ben Kenobi, despite the fact that it was Luke, and not either of his actual parents, who used to call Kenobi that). Not knowing who he is, combined with his briskly savage attitude to mass-murder and a neat force-related trick where he freezes a bolt of blaster energy in mid trajectory, such that it hang fizzingly in mid-air, is certainly effective, dramatically speaking. This, we might think, bespeaks profound and well-trained Force-related skills—even Darth Vader himself could do no more than bounce laser-beams off the palm of his hand. But Ren’s later handling of the Force suggests that he’s still a neophyte (for example: he can barely fight off lightsaber newbie Finn, and loses outright to lightsaber newbie Rey). I’ll come back to this, because it’s sort-of important for the overall coherence and effectiveness of the movie. Ren represents the ‘First Order’, the old evil empire redux; although why the empire would rename themselves as a menu hors d’oeuvres choice rather than simply sticking with ‘Empire’ isn’t clear. He is fighting the Resistance, which also appears to be the restored Republic, although why an intergalactic government self-identify as an underground Maqui also, er, isn’t clear. Good and evil, though, clearly; and good as underdog makes for a better story.
At any rate, the movie gets off to a good start. And the sequences that follow, on desert-world Jakka—totally ‘Tattooine 2’, truly—are brisk and exciting. Scavenger Rey and Finn the reformed-stormtrooper (a part of me wants to call such a figure ‘calmtrooper’) steal the Millennium Falcon. They are able to do this because its current owner’s anti-theft precautions involve leaving it unguarded, unlocked, fully-fuelled and ready to go out in the open. Then there’s a neat aerial chase, two tie-fighters pursuing the Falcon over dune and through the innards of long-ago crashed star destroyers. Rey and Finn then manage, implausibly, to evade the First Order blockade of the planet, and zoom off to meet the returned Han Solo, plus Chewie, who’s also bacca. There’s a ho-hum interlude in which our guys and various baddies are chased around a space freighter by a gaggle of tentacles-and-teeth monsters; followed by another ho-hum interlude in the Force Awakens version of the Mos Eisley bar. Then our heroine Rey is captured by the First Order, and Finn, Han and Chen, sorry, Chewie stage a rescue mission.
In amongst all this there’s a dollop of exposition—Luke Skywalker has disappeared, and globular droid BB8 has a map that might find him. It turns out this map is only one jigsaw-piece in a holographic larger map, and without that context it is useless. This can only be because these two incomplete pieces are the only two galactic maps in existence, which you’d think would make navigation hard. But there we go. The rest of the jigsaw is inside R2-D2, but with an arbitrary wave of the scriptwriter’s hand, that little droid is too depressed to boot-up, following the disappearance of its master, Luke. Then, with a gabble of over-hasty plotting we’re into the climactic battle. The First Order have constructed a ‘Star Destroyer’, a planet-sized weapon that works by sucking up entire suns and vomiting them out again. After doing this, I suppose it hangs useless in sunless space, and the First Order presumably have to start all over again kitting-out another planet, but they seem to have plenty of money, so I daresay that’s not a problem.
Alongside Kylo Ren we have the other main First Order baddie, a shrieking villain in neo-Nazi livery called General Hux (a nod to Bill Cosby’s signature character, presumably). Domhnall Gleeson plays Hux without restraint, not so much chewing the scenery as devouring it whole and spitting it out again in splintery gobbets of E-e-evil. Both men report to the Supreme Leader, whose name, ‘Snoke’, halfway to snookums, rather misfits his hideous gollumnar ugliness. Actually we only see Snoke as a sixty-foot-tall hologram. Presumably in the later films the actual Snoke will be revealed to be Yoda-sized, although I rather hope the film-makers don’t go down that obvious track and instead reveal that the hologram is a shrunken-down version of the original, that the actual Snoke is a thousand-metre-tall giant. Then X-Wing fighters could fly up the trench in his skull and blow up his pineal gland, bringing the whole series to a satisfying end.
Still, Snoke and Hux are second space-fiddle to Kylo Ren, the movie’s focus for its evil. And this brings us to a more substantive problem with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It would be foolish to criticise a film like this for being a cartoon-ish action-adventure battle of attractive goodies against nasty-looking baddies. That’s the name of this game, of course. But such a narrative has to be true to its own logic; the good characters need to be attractive and the evil ones scary. One of the things that made the original trilogy so effective was that it pulled this off. In both the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, evil was—in a word—paternal. The twist in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that Kylo Ren is the son of Han Solo and Leia Origami, gifted with the force but obsessed with his grandfather Darth Vader and an easy mark for John Snokes to seduce to the dark side. The movie’s mid-point unexpected death involves Han Solo wandering out onto one of those characteristically Star-Wars-y bridges—a desperately narrow walkway strung over deep chasm entirely lacking in handrails or other safety features—to try and persuade his evil son to come home. At this point Kylo Ren takes off his helmet to reveal the lugubrious countenance of Neil Gaiman cosplaying young Severus Snape. And here we get to the nub. The thing is, sons simply aren’t scary in the way fathers can be scary. Ren’s tantrums, his tendency to smash stuff up with his lightsabre when he gets bad news, his emo teenage moodiness is more comical than alarming. The parody twitter feed of ‘Emo Kylo Ren’ makes this point rather brilliantly. What that means is that the cartoon-y moral and dramatic dynamic has a hole in it.
One of the things the original Star Wars films were saying to their audience of mostly-kids was: father is angry. Father is terrifying. He is the sort of man who thinks nothing of chopping his son’s hand off at the wrist. He can make walking down a corridor a genuinely intimidating business. What the new film is saying to that same demographic is: father is a bit of a sad-sack, really. He’s separated from Mom, shows up from time to time with a hang-dog expression on his face. It is saying: nowadays it’s not the parents but the teens who are angry, and that means a film that simply is not terrifying in the same way. It’s saying that there is some kind of dislocation between the new generation and the old, and that the youngsters whose story this film is float free, in a universe that is characterised a little by its randomness and a lot by its sheer belatedness. And this brings us back to the point I made above: Rey, sitting in her make-do-and-mend home built in the ruins of the Imperial walker. This is a film that moves through the ruins of something greater, to sometimes intriguing but overall to rather deflating effect.
The original Star Wars was an intensely nostalgic movie—nostalgic after the manner of American Graffiti, for the American of the recent past, nostalgic for the Saturday serial adventure movies it formally apes. Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels belated, not nostalgic; and those two quantities are not at all the same thing. The old gods are dead, and when the old gods die (if you’ll excuse me quoting Delillo) they pray to flies and bottletops. The original trilogy, and especially the first movie, was an open-ended work, one that looked to the future and encouraged its viewers—the long-time-ago galaxy-far-away misdirection of the opening title notwithstanding—to look forward: to kicking off the small-town dust and launching yourself into a spacious and varied galaxy of adventure. This new film looks back; the future has turned out to be nothing but the endless repetition of past played over and over. The first Star Wars was a text that disclosed; this is a text that encloses.
I’m not suggesting it could have been any other way, mind you. The pressure to return to the Star Wars universe was a brute fact of commercial and cultural life, and was never going to be withstood for very long. And I don’t want to give the impression I disliked this movie. I enjoyed it plenty. I liked that the hero is now a heroine, a gesture that might have been progressive thirty years ago but which now feels overdue. And Daisy Ridley does well as Rey, acting with just the right balance of canny ingenuousness. John Boyega does a good job as Finn, too. It occurs to me that if Rey is the new trilogy’s Luke, and Finn the new trilogy’s Leia, then I suppose we can look forward to a scene in Star Wars 9 with Boyega wearing a metal bikini whilst a gigantic lecherous slug-alien licks him, which will be very edifying and pleasant for all of us, I’m sure. And I can honestly say I am looking forward to the next two movies. I just think the best of Stars Wars 8 and 9 will be the trailers for Stars Wars 8 and 9.
Adam Roberts is Adam Roberts. You can disagree with him vehemently (or better yet, discuss things politely!) with him on Twitter at @arrroberts, but - beware - you may get punned down.