[Editor’s Note: In this feature-length essay, the Page’s Resident Art Critic discusses Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the context of the controversial prequel trilogy and George Lucas’s decision to sell Lucasfilm to Disney.]
Let’s at least be honest and recognize Star Wars: The Force Awakens for what it is: Fan fiction. After the prequel trilogy failed to ignite the shining renaissance fandom apparently was expecting, the House of Mouse bought out the beleaguered Lucas and appeased the angry mob with the sophisticated pandering they’ve profitably cultivated over the years. And so, we are given a continuation that reveres the idea of Star Wars without Lucas’s supposedly pesky vision to derail it. Past films remain “canonical,” even the maligned prequel trilogy, but mostly as something to be seen through the rear-view mirror of a franchise accelerating forwards to a Lucas-free future. Like the now-discarded Extended Universe of books and comics, which operated with Lucas’s hands-off approval, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is Star Wars filtered through other people’s perceptions.
The Dark Side Clouds Everything
The irony is that the prequel films that have come to define Lucas’s legacy, aren’t the hot mess that the rabid have declared them to be. Collectively, the films amassed $2.5 billion at the box office while the critical consensus measured by Rotten Tomatoes reveals entirely respectable freshness scores of 56% (The Phantom Menace), 66% (Attack of the Clones) and 79% (Revenge of the Sith) in years that had bona fide commercial and critical disasters. To suggest that the prequel films aren’t crimes against humanity and have much to admire requires the honesty to recognize the original trilogy as B-movie material through-and-through. Look closely at the original films, and there they are: Faulty narratives, sketchy characterizations, incoherent concepts, and juvenile ethics. Yet the production design, archetypal characters, and zippy cinematics persuade us to overlook these failings, a maneuver that’s entirely in keeping with the style of old-fashioned serials that Lucas aimed to emulate.
The prequel trilogy is rife with the same failings, which are arguably necessities for films that are purposefully built as B-movies, and adds a few new ones, most notably clunkier dialogue and Hayden Christensen’s nearly unwatchable performance. It does, however, share the original film’s production panache, giddily amplified with the use of technology Lucas wished he had at his disposal the first time around. The planets, the ships, the character designs, even the action choreography display energy and imagination that surpass even the original films, using both traditional methods and CGI.
It was Lucas’s ambition to make Star Wars mean something beyond cartoon good vs. evil, however, that should earn the prequels some respect. For all that the execution is risible at times, the thematic notion that fear can corrupt on both a political and a personal level is entirely credible. The Republic’s downfall as it trades liberty for security easily finds its real-world analogues in contemporary and historical politics, and Anakin’s fear of death is a compelling motivation for succumbing to evil.
We could argue the extent to which it is jarring to transubstantiate fluff. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the prequels is the absence of saintly heroes. The Sith, represented by Palpatine/Darth Sidious and his apprentice Darth Maul, are predictably evil. Unexpected is how the Jedi are not depicted in reliably heroic roles. The prequels confirm an impression gleaned from the original trilogy’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda; the Jedi as well-intentioned, but also shifty, authoritarian, paternalistic and complacent. As demonstrated by their unwillingness to challenge the slavery that holds Anakin’s mother, and their willingness to engage in combat, the Jedi are depicted as agents of the status quo. It is for the status quo that even compassion is set aside, as we see when Obi-Wan abandons Anakin to his gruesome fate after defeating him in the prequels’ climactic duel. The Jedi come across less as Shaolin Monks and more like Knights Templar. Viewing the Jedi’s downfall as equally self-inflicted as the Republic’s and Anakin’s makes the prequels’ narrative more sensible and dramatic.
The damage is done, however. Alongside criticism for tinkering with the original films via the Special Editions, the prequels have saddled Lucas with the ire of fans who once adored him and the mistaken but entrenched perception that he produced catastrophes and ruined Star Wars.
The Force Resets
Disney’s solution to the Lucas dilemma was to resort to the time-tested and market-approved technique of recreating the past, the very rationale for all those reboots Hollywood is fond of. As a skilled craftsman lacking a vision of his own, director J.J Abrams is ideally suited to the effort of enacting someone else’s vision.
After proving himself a poor fit for the Star Trek franchise, and admitting as much in his apologies for Star Trek Into Darkness (as well as confessing to Jon Stewart that he didn’t even like Star Trek before filming the reboot), Abrams makes a cozy nest for himself in the universe George Lucas built. Unlike Star Trek, there’s nothing philosophical or cerebral to get in the way of his filmmaking, which is appropriate. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an all-around well-crafted, occasionally breathtaking but never intellectual repackaging of the film that started it all, A New Hope, with flashing citations from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The elements and scenes that defined Star Wars are all back in new guises, but the narrative merely retells A New Hope and blurs the distinction between homage and plagiarism.
Lucas is right to point out that this is a retro film. Abrams recycles the visual lexicon Lucas developed in the original trilogy, with only a few polished updates here and there (e.g. the stormtrooper armor), and adds nothing new. What Abrams and his writing crew update is the film’s tone, which abandons the serial adventure sensibility Lucas embraced in favor of a contemporary storytelling style. The result is a thoroughly and safely modern Star Wars, as entertaining as it lacks surprise and imagination, with the original’s optimism and fun lost in the translation. The Force Awakens is also strangely downbeat, its gloom emphasized by the way in which the film resets the Star Wars universe to nullify the original trilogy’s achievements and consign its larger-than-life heroes to tragedy. The final scene, a morose cliffhanger that promises but doesn’t provide answers to the film’s most worthwhile question – what happened to Luke Skywalker – is tonally off-key, a poor reward for sitting through a film we have seen before.
There is much to enjoy, notably charismatic new protagonists Finn, a Stormtrooper with a conscience, and Rey a resourceful scavenger with an intuitive connection to the Force. Daisy Ridley is exciting as an assertive character whose identity has yet to be explained, and John Boyega charms as a young man who rejects his conditioning along with the fascist atrocities of the First Order but struggles to fit into the resistance. The new bubble droid, BB-8, is endearing, with a personality that is quirky like R2-D2’s but distinct in its own right. Throw in Oscar Isaac’s swashbuckling pilot Poe Dameron, and we have a convincing new generation of characters to fight the battle against evil.
The villains, however, are decidedly unimpressive. As the Tarkin analogue, General Hux, Domhnall Gleeson huffs and puffs mightily but never approaches Peter Cushing’s icy menace. Supreme Leader Snoke, the film’s malevolent hologram, is little more than a gimmick and cipher; one can only assume at this point that, off-screen, he moonlights as a Voldemort impersonator in a Vegas nightclub. Then there is the film’s Vader wannabe, Kylo Ren, who is all helmet and no cattle. Beneath the pretty mask is a young man whinier than Luke and Anakin combined. His voice may have broken, but he’s still working through adolescent angst by throwing temper tantrums against defenseless equipment. Though explicitly torn between the light and dark sides of the Force, which is interesting, we learn that his biggest fear is not being as powerful as his idol, the immeasurably more sinister Darth Vader. For a film that rehashes A New Hope, only on a bigger scale, the villains are curiously small.
There’s No Fixing the Hype Motivator
Beyond its merits, which by now have been firmly established in audiences’ minds one way or another, The Force Awakens raises issues about hype, secrecy and the relationship between creators and fans. If anything was bigger than its hype, it was the secrecy that surrounded it. Turns out we were conned. As with the whole Khan debacle with Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams proves himself yet again to be a Wizard of Oz – quick with the spectacle, but with nothing to show behind the curtain. The trailers, carefully calibrated to avoid spoiling anything, turned out to be honest in their impression that Abrams was retelling A New Hope, with the result that the only spoiler is that there isn’t really anything to spoil (Kylo Ren’s identity notwithstanding). Abrams is too busy re-enacting familiar scenes to bother with exploring those few questions that do arise. There is, of course, something to be desired in avoiding major plot twists. Films like Psycho, The Sixth Sense, and innumerable whodunits out there rely on the big reveal at the end. But secrecy of the kind we are routinely seeing with Abrams’s films serve to distort rather than enhance our perception of a film. Christopher Nolan can be similarly cryptic, but the difference is that he understands the difference between teasing and pitching.
The Fans Strike Back
Most of all, however, Star Wars: The Force Awakens represents the victory of fans over creators. Lucas isn’t the first creator to be deposed from his own creation – Gene Rodenberry was quietly shunted aside from Star Trek, notably during the development of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country when he clashed with the film’s director, Nicholas Meyer. The Great Bird of the Galaxy’s death freed up the studios to mold his vision into a more militaristic action sci-fi mode. But there is something historic about the creator of a pop culture juggernaut being removed from his own creation during his lifetime. The decision to sell Lucasfilm rather than develop the sequels himself was his own, of course, but entirely understandable given the environment he would have to work in: Fans declaring that the prequels and Special Editions “raped their childhoods,” documentaries with inflammatory titles like The People vs George Lucas, critics who perpetuate the myth that the prequels were disasters, and celebrities like Simon Pegg who further exaggerate that misconception by making absurdly pompous statements like “I don’t really have any respect for anyone who thinks those films are good. They’re not. (They’re) a monumental misunderstanding of what the (original) three films are about. It’s an exercise in utter infanticide … (like) George Lucas killing his kid.” Lucas’s work is fair game for criticism, as is anyone’s, but this isn’t criticism. It is a pathological disorder.
Sure, Lucas made off with $4 billion in his deal with Disney, but what’s money to someone who already is rich, especially when the issue is creative control? While we complain about the entertainment industry’s lack of original visions, we simultaneously reward studios for selling us familiar, even routine, formulas. (Naturally, secrecy was a brilliant marketing move on Disney’s part. It prevented dissenters from pointing out how formulaic Star Wars: The Force Awakens is and potentially influencing ticket sales.) As the confluence between fan fiction, which at its worse co-opts an artistic vision in favour of fan-wish fulfillment, and marketing, Star Wars: The Force Awakens validates the notion that an artist’s vision of his or her own work is subservient to – rather than considerate of – what actually sells best and what fans (read: consumers) want. What, then, is the incentive for any artist to dream large, to take risks, to innovate?
We’re now told that Riann Johnson, writer of the next two films’ scripts and director of Episode XIII, will have something weird and wonderful to offer us. This may be true. Johnson, a gifted writer and director, is superior to Abrams as a storyteller. The Force Awakens essentially has blanked the slate for him to focus on new material rather than engage the story Lucas told. If little else, this latest film has whetted the appetite to discover where Johnson takes the story, although why do we have to wade through Abrams’ recycling before getting to the new stories? Whatever Disney may decree from on high as canonical (the new films) or non-canonical (the Extended Universe now called “Legends”), the most meaningful distinction remains this: Lucas’s creative vision and Disney’s fan fiction. However enjoyable future films may or may not be, the tragedy of this whole affair is that the fan fiction depends on rejecting rather than embracing the artist’s vision. In the case of the People vs. George Lucas, the People (and the Empire of Mouse) won. And we all lost.