From the previous blog in this series:
I had to come back to The Force Awakens understanding that no decision in a script is taken lightly, nor is it accidental. Given that, what was it trying to say both in its own context, and as a meta-work within the frame of Star Wars itself?
A Moment of Clarity
To reiterate, The Force Awakens was facing not just my critical judgment but the emotional baggage of decades of fandom. This was exacerbated by many hours re-reading and re-watching existing works to prepare for this new iteration of the classic tale we’d come to love and then podcast about them.
The first time I saw The Force Awakens, I came out guns blazing. My overall appraisal was bleak. I was “coming to terms” (so dramatic) with it as a simple “fan work writ large,” a sort of Silver Screen Expanded Universe. “This is not what Lucas would have done,” and such.
The second time I saw The Force Awakens, it was Agent Bun’s first time viewing it. It was in IMAX 3D. (I’ll spare you a tangent about aspect ratios, 3D, Christopher Nolan and proprietary formatting here.)
She loved it. I put on my Expert Fan pants and started laying out, again, what my problems were with it. As we turned off the main road into our neighborhood she said, “You need to relax. Normal people aren’t looking at the movie like you.”
Those were sobering words. In that single moment, everything I’ve laid out up to this point about being too immersed in things leading up to The Force Awakens exploded into my brain with clarity.
One of the few people on the planet with the insight and ability to speak truth to me when I’m in “fan mode” called me out. This is one of the reasons I love Agent Bun so much. She saw the trap I’d walked into with evaluating this film and challenged me on it.
She doesn’t indulge my fandom, nor consider it a silly thing. She understands how important it is to me, and when it skews my perspective. A man she’s heard defend the silly antics of Jar Jar Binks was harping on the humor in The Force Awakens. She probably thought I’d taken crazy pills. She then challenged me to look at it with fresh eyes.
So I trekked again to the theatre and watched it with the kids. A new opinion started forming.
Then I figured it out. It’s not just an in-narrative “soft reboot” Like Fast & Furious (the fourth in that series, directed by the inimitable Justin Lin) – it’s a meta-work examining what Star Wars itself has come to mean.
Like the audience and filmmakers, the characters in The Force Awakens are living in the shadow of the legendary story that came before them. The galaxy has changed some trappings but it’s not been able truly to move forward in the way we expected.
Han and Leia have reverted to who they were before they fell in love. The Heirs to the Empire are acting out a giant exercise in hero worship which has stunted them. As represented by Jakku, life is not better. In fact, it looks very similar to what we’ve seen before.
But the real point of attack for the meta-narrative is the relationship of Han Solo and Kylo Ren. It’s reflective of the fan base’s relationship with Star Wars as a whole and George Lucas in specific. I first hit on this idea as I was preparing to join an audio commentary for the film as a part of Aggressive Negotiations on The Nerd Party network.
Stay with me here.
Solo is Lucas. Here is a man who’s run out of tricks and the galaxy has no use for anymore. He has come back to the life he knew but those who worked with him consider him a disappointment. (“When have I ever let you down?” he asks Kanjiklub. The answer is not good.) Solo is trying to stay relevant, and though some admire him for his past, the present has no more use for him.
Kylo can see only Han’s faults. He is angry about how he didn’t fulfill him, instead of accepting what he did that was special. He is conflicted throughout the film by these feelings as well, torn apart by the love he once felt and doesn’t know how to feel anymore. He wants to prove he is worthy of the legacy he prefers to remember as opposed to the one of which he’s an actual inheritor.
Kylo is, in a sense, the generation of fans and filmmakers who have come to hate Lucas (Solo) for how he disappointed them. (I won’t even touch on how Snoke is therefore the snidely cynical friend who refuses to watch the Special Editions and makes his own fan edits of the originals.)
I have no idea if Kasdan and Abrams intended that level of narrative. They’re both intelligent people and gifted filmmakers in their own right, but the question of whether Kasdan and Abrams did this consciously is moot. Artists often have themes in their work that are shaped as much by their subconscious as anything else. As the old adage goes, you write what you know.
The problem is that I fell into the trap with some other fans, or even quasi-fans, of dismissing the idea out of hand that such a symbolic layer might exist. This plays off what we’ve grown accustomed to overall, which is Professor Lucas walking us through things and explaining every little bit to us.
As for the complaint that it too-closely follows the plot of Star Wars (which is bunk – it more closely mirrors Return of the Jedi in its structure), I have thoughts on that too.
Distance Between the Death Stars
I don’t know why people would have a problem with the idea of repetition in a Star Wars film. There’s been repetition already within the series, most notably the resurgent Death Star in Return of the Jedi. Other series embrace repetition, like James Bond and Harry Potter, and at their core are unable to avoid it.
Further, Lucas stressed how the stories are like a Tone Poem, things repeating in iterations. Like Norse Myth, names and places repeat, sometimes in an obvious way to the audience but with the characters unaware. They are therefore susceptible to the traps of repetition.
So the argument that The First Order wouldn’t try to build an even bigger version of the Death Star has fallen apart for me. They want to prove that the Empire’s ideology was strong and worthy, and so of course they’d try again on a larger scale.
It’s possible that living in the DC Metro area my whole life has taught me that if there’s one thing governments do, it’s repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Ride our subway system and learn for yourself.
The repetition also gets back to the “viewing order” argument popularized as a “coping mechanism” for those that didn’t care for the prequels that much. If you view the movies Originals-Prequels-Sequel(s), you preserve that disjointed metanarrative, and put “distance between the Death Stars” as it were. In a sense, The Force Awakens functions best as a sequel to Revenge of the Sith, which is both decidedly unintentional and subversively refreshing since this series is supposed to be evocative of the old serials.
The whole thing brings me back as well to the man himself, George Lucas. It’s been regarded by some as curious that I could come to love The Force Awakens while remaining an not just an apologist for the prequels but an honest fan of them!
But that’s a topic for the next blog in the series.
Tune in next time for Part IV, The Question of George Lucas.