Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Why the Force Awakens is the new Star Wars


If there are stories (bad stories) whose later chapters add nothing essential to their significance, and whose significance is therefore contained in something less than the whole, at least you cannot tell whether any given story belongs to that class until you have at least once read it to the end...I always now omit the last book of War and Peace.
             C.S Lewis

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a 2015 action movie. It concerns the adventures of Rey (Daisy Ridley) a young woman of uncertain origins who lives all alone in a wrecked Walker in the desert. It's not the same desert that Luke and Anakin grew up in; but there are nomads and scavengers and huge reptilian beasts of burden: it's Tatooine in all but name.

Like Luke Skywalker, Rey accidentally acquires a robot containing secret information of the utmost importance, and as a result, becomes involved in a series of quests which bring her into contact with the Jedi Knights, the Rebellion and a veteran hero from the legendary past. The Rebellion has been re-branded as the Resistance and the spaceships have had a respray, but it's the Rebellion in all but name.

The correspondence between the two stories is pretty close. In Star Wars, Princess Leia put secret plans into R2D2 before she was captured by Darth Vader; in the Force Awakens, Leia's trusted agent Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) puts secret maps into BB-8 before he is captured by Vader's self-appointed successor, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). There is no point in complaining that VII "copies" or "rips off" IV: the new film's re-enactment or recapitulation of the old one is a major part of its aesthetic. When Ben handed Luke his father's lightsaber, we thought "Gosh: that reminds us of Merlin giving Excalibur to Arthur." When the very same lightsaber "calls out" to Rey, we think "Gosh! That reminds us of when Obi-Wan gave it to Luke." Star Wars draws on the fairy tales we all grew up with; The Force Awaken draws on Star Wars. 

Luke Skywalker lived with an Uncle and Aunt and had a group of friends and a social context. Rey seems to be as much of a hermit as Obi-Wan Kenobi. The story of Star Wars was the story of Luke growing up; Rey is already a confident, self-sufficient young woman when we first meet her. Luke used to spend his time racing sky-hoppers and shooting womp rats; Rey spends her time skilfully scavenging metal from wrecked space-ships and selling it in order to survive. Luke's golly-gosh vernacular marks him out as a teenager; Rey's cut-glass English gives her a kind of maturity and authority. (I kept thinking of Mary Poppins. At one point I caught myself wondering whether the Jedi Worreel would turn out to be a creature, a weapon or a holy place before realizing that what Rey had actually said was "The Jedi were real!")

So although Rey's story is to some extent shaped like Luke Skywalker's, it has no such trajectory. It isn't about anything. I suppose you could see her journey as being about the gradual discovery that she has the powers of the Force; or the gradual realization that she is going to have to use those powers to help the Resistance. Or perhaps she knew this from the beginning and only gradually reveals it to the audience? Until we are told her back-story, there is really no way of knowing.

Luke's main objective, when we first meet him, is to get off Tatooine and join the Rebellion. Rey's objective when we meet her is to stay at home and wait for her family. When she finds Luke Skywalker's lightsaber, her first inclination is to run away; when offered the chance to become second mate on the Millennium Falcon she says that she has already been away from Jakku for too long (although she's only actually been gone for about 35 minutes) [1]. Her family, about whom we know nothing, abandoned her many years ago: she is literally counting the days until they return. So it may be that her assimilation into the Resistance; her embrace with Princess Leia; and her journey to meet Luke himself all represent the quest for a family. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a solitary figure who separates himself from his community in order to bring back the Boon they need. Perhaps the Heroine With a Thousand Faces is the one who comes home and establishes a new community?

Luke Skywalker is a natural hotshot, but when we first meet him, he's still very much a neophyte. When he tells Ben he's ready for anything the audience cries out "Oh no you're not!" He flies well and shoots well and picks up Obi-Wan's Force lessons in a hurry; but he gets creamed by the Sandpeople in the desert. Rey is burdened by heroic omni-competence from the beginning. When we first meet her, she is confidently dangling on a rope in the hull of a wrecked Stardestroyer; at the end of the film, she's confidently abseiling around the interior of Starkiller base (this movie's Death Star substitute). She out-flies First Order TIE fighters the moment she gets behind the wheel of a spaceship; she is able to overpower Finn (John Boyega), a trained soldier, in unarmed combat; holds her own against Han Solo as a pilot and engineer; works out how to do Jedi mind tricks from first principles; and wins a duel with a wannabe Dark Lord the first time she holds a lightsaber.

Oh: and she speaks Wookie.

Does this demonstrate that the movie is a propaganda piece, intended to infect the youth of America with the dangerous lie that women can be just as good as men and thereby destroy western civilization?

Probably not. But I do think it's rather lazy writing, or else a gigantic unresolved plot hole. [2]

By the way: I would take the phrase "Mary Sue" to refer to a character, usually in fan fiction, who is obviously a stand-in for the writer. If you were to read a story about a fat Methodist kid with glasses, who hates football and French lessons, who, while trying to avoid some local bullies, finds an old Police Box on the East Barnet Road, and immediately strikes up a great relationship with the mysterious old man inside… well, I would call that character a Mary Sue. There is nothing specially Mary-Sue-ish about Rey. It's not like her first name sounds exactly like the director's last name…

Perhaps Rey's over-powered character sheet simply indicates that she is Strong In The Force. If she is a person of great importance—maybe Darth Vader's granddaughter—then it would hardly be surprising if Ben and Anakin and Yoda were hovering over her shoulder, controlling her actions. Partially. The ghost of Ben literally told Luke to go to Dagobah; perhaps he indirectly told Rey to steal the Millennium Falcon?

This would certainly explain the shocking use of coincidence in the first twenty minutes of the movie. We don't have too much of a problem with Poe, the captive rebel who needs to escape, hooking up with Finn, the stormtrooper with a conscience who wants to jump ship: circumstances force them together. Although it was jolly lucky that Poe was imprisoned on the one ship in the galaxy which had a malfunctioning stormtrooper on board. But it's quite a stretch that when Poe tells the robot containing the McGuffin to run away, it runs straight into the hands of Rey. (The more important a person she turns out to be, the more of a stretch that becomes.)  And it's even more convenient that Finn, believing Poe to be dead, runs to the nearest town and immediately bumps into Rey and the Robot. The three of them, trying to escape from baddies, run straight to a wrecked ship that we all instantly recognize as the Millennium Falcon— which is immediately boarded by its original owners, who just happen to be in the area smuggling space dragons. 

It bears repeating: the robot containing the address of Luke Skywalker—who Rey believes to be a legend—runs straight onto a ship once owned by another legendary character, who knew Luke in the days of his flesh.

A long time ago, before Star Wars was Episode IV of anything, a very wise man pointed out that the Force was largely a way for the Author to intervene in the narrative and direct the plot in the direction he wanted it to go, without any of that pesky fooling around with character and motivation

"It's not always necessary for the author to put in an appearance himself, if only he can smuggle the Plot itself into the story disguised as one of the characters… "The time has come, young man, for you to learn about the Plot." "Darth Vader is a servant of the dark side of the Plot." When Ben Kenobi gets written out, he becomes one with the Plot and can speak inside the hero's head. When a whole planet of good guys gets blown up, Ben senses "a great disturbance in the Plot."

I don't think this is nearly such a bad thing as Nick Lowe (author of the essay quoted above) does. I think that the existence of the Force is one of the things which made Star Wars fun. I think that the Force worked best precisely when Lucas was using it as an excuse to skip over the boring bits. When it's obvious that the Empire Strikes Back has run out of Plot, Luke Skywalker suddenly develops telepathy so Leia can come and extract him. I think that the Force is at its worst when Lucas is trying to convince us that it's a Very Profound piece of Space Philosophy. [3] The Plot influences Luke relatively subtly: he voluntarily takes on a series of quests in which he has obvious personal stakes. But Rey keeps running headlong into new situations for no reason except that the Plot says she ought to.

It would, by the way, be cruel to point out that the writer of such an influential essay was confusing Star Wars with a series of adverts for fizzy candy lozenges.

Luke's quest is to find Princess Leia. Rey's quest, if anything, is to find Luke. The first line of the story-so-far crawl announces that Luke Skywalker has disappeared. Many of us spent a long time speculating as to what Luke's role in Episode VII could be, and it is rather cool for the reveal to come in literally the first second of the movie. It is also very cool to withhold the resolution—the moment we actually see Luke Skywalker—until the very last second. Between those two massive revelations there are lots of small reveals, one very big twist—and many unanswered questions.

There were questions left dangling at the end of Star Wars too. Did Vader survive the last battle?What did Ben mean about becoming more powerful than Vader could possibly imagine? Which of the heroes did Leia love? But they were largely questions about what was going to happen next—in some future film. The Force Awakens leaves us with sheaths of blank space. Who is Rey? Why did Kylo turn to the Dark Side? Is Finn anyone special? Who or what is the Supreme Leader? Where did the First Order comes from? Why, forsooth, is there a whacking great crashed spaceship outside Rey's front door? Stuff which has already happened; which the writers know about and the characters know about; but which the Plot has decided to conceal from us paying customers.

Star Wars ends with Luke trusting to the Force. If you agree with me and Joseph Campbell, this means that he has grown up and become a Jedi. The Force Awakens ends with Rey meeting Luke Skywalker. She hands him his lightsaber (the one he got from Ben who got it from his father, the one that was cut from his hand and lost on Cloud City). The film rather cleverly stops before he takes it. If her Quest was to find Luke, then Rey has definitely completed it. But what does it mean? Has she found the family she's been waiting for? Or merely signed on as the acolyte of the Last Jedi? Until we know her relationship to Luke, it's hard to read. And where are we in the Plot? Is this the end of a self-contained story; or the cliff-hanger at the end of the first episode of a trilogy; or merely the end of the first act of a three act story?

Here is one thing it might mean.

The Force Awakens is not a satisfying story in the way that Star Wars was, but it is shaped like a story, indeed, it is consciously shaped like that story in particular. It constantly looks back on it: the Jedi, Darth Vader, the Death Star, and Luke himself. At the beginning of the film, Rey thinks that Luke is a myth: at the end, she is standing face-to-face with him. So perhaps the Force Awakens is the story of how one person discovered, or rediscovered, that the old fairy tales were true.

And that "myth" didn't necessarily mean the same thing as "lie".

That's what Star Wars was about, come to think of it. And perhaps that's what it means to be awakened by the Force.

[1] Chronology is a big problem in Star Wars: on-screen action occurs in real time, where months seems to pass off screen. Luke clearly spends months with Yoda on Dagobah; Han and Leia spend a few hours running from Hoth to Bespin; but they all arrive at the same time. Don't even think about what would happen if Biggs were canon. It is tempting to think that Abrams put this time-line inconsistency into Force Awakens as an in-joke.

[2] The decision to make the hero of the movie a woman was clearly a political one. The decision to make the hero's confident a black man was probably equally political. It was also a highly political decision not to have one single non-white character in the original Star Wars, and only two women (Luke auntie and the girlie that he has to rescue from the baddie.) The difference is that no-one, not even George Lucas, realized that there was even a decision to be made because this is 1977 and you don't have women or black people in sci-fi movies. I'm not racist or sexist, you just don't. Abrams was aware that a choice existed and decided not to make the same mistake again. This is indeed political correctness, but it is by no means mad.

It is a Very Bad Thing that no black people have been nominated for an 2016 Oscar: whether this is the fault of the prize committee, overlooking black actors; or Hollywood, not casting black actors in decent roles; or wider society, making it hard for black people to go to film school or stage school and learn how to be actors, I, of course, could not possibly say. But if we allow the lack of black faces to be the only thing the 2016 Oscars are about, then the judges in 2017 will feel obliged to give the "best actor" statue to a black person even if some white guy actually puts in an amazing performance. And that, of course, will in turn lead the fascists, of whom there are many, to say that the prize was awarded purely on the basis of colour, and for people who are not themselves fascists to say that there are two sides to the argument..

[3] Something else I don't have any problem with is an author using a little bit of divine intervention to help an already religiously themed story on its way. When the heroes have literally done everything they possibly can and failed, God Almighty sticks out his leg and trips Gollum up. This seems to me to be a strength, not a weakness, of Lord of the Rings.

If you want me to carry on writing, either buy my book...


Mike Taylor said...

"Star Wars draws on the fairy tales we all grew up with; The Force Awaken draws on Star Wars."

... because Star Wars is the fairy tale we all grew up with.

Mike Taylor said...

"Although it was jolly lucky that Poe was imprisoned on the one ship in the galaxy which had a malfunctioning stormtrooper on board."

... but not particularly surprising that he was imprisoned on the ship whence came the detachment that captured him -- Kylo Ren, Finn and all.

P.S. Hurrah! Comments are back!