19
Dec 15

The Anxiety Of Binksfluence

Do You See19 comments • 1,077 views

jarjar This is about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You should not read it if you plan to see the film, care about spoilers, and haven’t yet. I haven’t spelt out what happens but you’ll work it out.

On Facebook I made the mercifully obscure joke that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be like The Malloreon, David Eddings’ awful sequel to his fantasy saga The Belgariad, in which precisely the same plot repeats itself with minor variations, and this is accepted by the characters as a principle of cosmic order. This comparison turns out to be unkind, but not entirely untrue. Obviously TFA is a soufflé of callbacks, mirrors and echoes, which is probably less irksome to the casual viewer like me than to the long-term fan who wanted something new. And the constant parallels aren’t just fun (or not-fun), they’re useful. JJ Abrams uses them to hide the film’s big twist in plain sight. I was too busy noticing the echoes to pay attention to their logic – it’s so enjoyable seeing someone settle into the Kenobi role that I forgot what the Kenobi role actually involves.

More generally the lack of something new becomes a feature, Eddings-style. In a dualist universe ordered around the yin and yang of the Force, its cosmic principle and plot device, of course patterns are likely to repeat as the balance between the Dark Side and Light Side ebbs and flows. This is also happening for metatextual reasons – fans wanna see what fans wanna see, and the film is a demarcation exercise in What Star Wars Is which pointedly doesn’t include most of what it was between 1999 and 2005.

But that doesn’t mean Abrams can’t use the sense of repetition to thicken the plot and the stakes. Star Wars gets called “mythology” in a rather lazy way (see also Marvel Comics and Tolkien and Harry Potter and anything else which is a bit fantastic and sells a lot). But The Force Awakens has some of the textures of mythology people aren’t usually talking about when they say that: duty and patricide and exhaustion, characters trapped in the amber of story and family.

Only one element of Star Wars (1977) is genuinely unrecoverable – a sense of lightness that was lost with the Oedipal turn taken in Empire and never reversed. The Force Awakens could have tried to step back from it – instead, Abrams doubled down, drawing more characters into the cycle, growing and tightening the Theban knot that Star Wars has become.

So the central thematic question of The Force Awakens is also the metatextual question – do you continue a story or break out of it? And – whatever your answer – how? Since we know that Disney plans to continue this particular story until long after anyone who saw Star Wars in 1977 is dead, this question is both very urgent and somewhat rigged. But The Force Awakens does its best to be even-handed. Finn, who breaks out of his story and throws off a lifetime of programming, is heroic, something new in the universe. But Leia, who simply keeps on going, is heroic too, and Luke, who steps away from his story (and inescapably starts this one rolling), is more ambiguous. And then there’s Ren and Rey.

Ren is one of the film’s best ideas – he’s pathetic, a weak man paralysed by history and by his sense, entirely shared by the audience, that he’s no Darth Vader. But of course he is a Darth Vader – the Darth Vader from the Star Wars lacuna nobody cares about, the gap between Episodes III and IV, the helmeted badass with the emo brat still perilously close to the surface.

Ren’s tragedy isn’t exactly that he can’t break out of his story, but that he imagines (with his decisive action) that he is cauterising the issue and definitively choosing not to. But behind that is a deeper issue – he’s so caught in the tangle of family and Force that either path he takes feels predictable. It’s possibly putting too much weight on a few well-turned grimaces to suggest Adam Driver’s performance captures that – but it’s a real feeling, that spoiled adolescent sense that every possible outcome for your life is kind of corny so you might as well really fuck things up for yourself.

What about Rey? My nine-year-old son pointed out something. In the 1977 film, Luke is obviously the hero, but as counterweight to that he is generally belittled by Han and Leia – he’s a kid, a farmboy, etc. Rey has no such opposition – to meet her is to be awed by her general competence. But that does also have its counterweight – for all that she is the film’s lead, gets the final showdown with the villain, and so on, it’s clear her plot hasn’t exactly got going yet. The outline of Rey’s choice – do I fully become part of this story or not? – is obvious, but she never quite gets to a point where she has to make it. Even in the final shot, she’s looking for someone else to be the main character. Luke was born to be a Star Wars hero. Rey is firmly established as someone strong enough to get the choice.

All of which isn’t exactly a deep reading – as is obvious from the shot where Ren makes his good-or-evil choice just as the sun is extinguished and night falls, this still isn’t a series which ‘does’ subtlety much. But Rey’s indecision has its metatextual mirror, even so. This is a film which starts off with a straightforwardly heroic dude (affable plot-free goon Poe Dameron) acquiring a black sidekick, and then simply cuts off the apparent hero fifteen minutes in to keep the focus firmly on a black man and a woman. Rey’s question – am I actually going to be a main character in this story? – is answered strongly and affirmatively by the film itself, but she’s the last to be convinced.

It’s Disney’s ultimate answer to the film’s question. Do they break out of the story, or continue it? They have, and take, a chance to do both. Tell the same stories but with new protagonists. There’s disappointment in that, but credit too – it’s the same solution Marvel Comics has hit on recently. But Marvel Comics sells a couple of hundred thousand copies at best. The Force Awakens will be seen by hundreds of millions.

Star Wars is often talked about in terms of childhood wonder. The Force Awakens is not a startlingly exciting film – it has beautiful designs and great set-pieces, but Star Wars birthed the era of set-pieces and effects, and has sometimes struggled to live in it. My kids can go from seeing it in the cinema to seeing a dozen other epics on Netflix the next day. But the simple fact of making Rey and Finn the leads is something kids genuinely notice. They might not be able to articulate it – my nine-year-old fumbled to explain why he’d liked the film but been so wrong-footed by Rey’s prominence (“It wasn’t about who I thought it would be about”). But they feel it.

I left the film happy. Its flaws – its plot is a lazy hopscotch of set-pieces, the background is hazy, the villains as idiotic as ever – are not new and not fatal. I want to see more of the new characters, not the old, which has to count as a win. I will see Episode VIII with enthusiasm. What I hope is that when Rey makes her decision, her answer isn’t to become part of the old stories but to write a new one – but then this is a franchise, the strongest force of all.

Comments

  1. 1
    Tom on 19 Dec 2015 #

    (I made edits to this, most notably my misidentifying Oscar Isaac, the Latino actor who plays Poe Dameron, as a “white dude”. Sorry about that!)

  2. 2
    Alba on 20 Dec 2015 #

    When I heard JJ Abrams interviewed on the radio, he mentioned Oscar Isaac as one of the faces of a more diverse cast. At the time I thought: “Oh, that’s interesting, I guess he must be Jewish” and had vague thoughts about Jewish people being considered white or not. Didn’t realise he was Latino till you posted that. Not sure that part of your blogpost works now you can’t call him a “white dude”!

    “It wasn’t about who I thought it would be about” is a great line. For all the film’s generic conservatism, the seeming effortlessness with which it redresses the gender (and, to a lesser extent, racial) imbalance is quite an achievement.

  3. 3
    Mark M on 20 Dec 2015 #

    ‘Only one element of Star Wars (1977) is genuinely unrecoverable – a sense of lightness that was lost with the Oedipal turn taken in Empire and never reversed.’

    Well, no, the other thing that is unrecoverable is the licence to tell a whole story in one movie – although Lucas may have had a multi-generational epic in his mind (if a muddled and ever-changing one, according to Peter Biskind), Star Wars works a fully self-contained story with a beginning, middle and very clear ending. Such a clear ending, indeed, that no one working on the films either in the ’80s or now seems confident to better it.

    I’m enjoying Tom’s take on Star Wars (now and then) because it starts off from such a different position from mine: I’ve never had patience for the type of storytelling used in fantasy, some sci-fi and superhero comics that requires readers/viewers to constantly remember who was whose great uncle ALONG with a whole complicated set of rules about what can/can’t happen in that universe etc. Tom has referred to Star Wars as being comparatively low-entry cost as far as things that attract this kind of fandom go, and I’m definitely all about the low-entry cost entertainment in those terms (I don’t want to have to do homework).

    I enjoyed The Force Awakens to a point. JJ Abrams delivered exactly what he was hired to do, which is to make something true to the spirit of the first three films in way the way the prequels blatantly weren’t. (Including – anybody who cares about spoilers has stopped reading long ago, right? – by showing a glimpse of one of shiny CGI places seen in the prequels and then instantly blowing it away). I did like some of the nods to the past – it was when it became clear where we were going for the ending that I (audibly, I fear) groaned. And as my brother-in-law said, just because you get characters to say ‘Oh, this again’ doesn’t give you a free ride to indeed do the same bloody thing again.

    (Incidentally, one of the reasons you (Tom) might have missed who TFA’s Kenobi figure was going to be is that there has already been a more immediately obvious one early in the film. You know, the cinematic great who you might have forgotten by the time you get to the end?).

    (Incidentally (2), Oscar Isaac has played plenty of ‘white dudes’ – his most famous role was as the 1960s Greenwich village folk singer title character in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.)

  4. 4
    Alba on 20 Dec 2015 #

    I know! But given that his character’s ethnicity isn’t directly mentioned in Star Wars (and God knows how it would be) I guess Tom felt uncomfortable referring to him as a “white dude” and changed it to “straightforwardly heroic dude”. But I was wondering whether that then undermines his original point.

  5. 5
    Mark M on 20 Dec 2015 #

    (Re4: Sorry, that (2) was actually just meant to mark that it was the second postscript, not to refer to your point as separate from Tom’s on Isaac’s ethnicity or to imply a lack or otherwise on your part of knowledge of his career so far. But I’m betting a fair few people who see him in TFA are still going to think he’s David Krumholtz from 10 Things I Hate About You/Numb3rs in any case.)

  6. 6
    Andrew Farrell on 20 Dec 2015 #

    Even in the US, Hispanic is officially seen as a category within, rather than an alternative to, whiteness though (and in practice the opposition is v dependant on whether you’re Mexican, as I understand it). He’s certainly white enough for Tom’s point – a film with Poe Dameron as the main character would have made some Guetamalan-Americans very happy, but it’s by no means the same as a film largely built around a black man and a woman.

  7. 7
    Andrew Farrell on 20 Dec 2015 #

    (and an old white giffer, in fairness)

  8. 8
    Matthew K on 21 Dec 2015 #

    #3 Mark – Isaac is brilliant in Llewyn Davis but there’s no reason to think that’s a “white” role other than the character’s name I guess. Other than Dave van Ronk, the obvious counterpart to the fictional Davis would be (Cuban-Irish) Richard Fariña whose persona has some similarities. Although not his end – pancaked his motorcycle aged 29, the day after his novel was published, on his wife’s 21st birthday.

  9. 9
    Mark M on 21 Dec 2015 #

    Re8: Greenwich Village folkies certainly came in a range of ethnic flavours: Latino (Joan Baez, and as you say Fariña), Jewish (Bob Dylan) and (from a slightly earlier generation) African-American (Odetta). I’m indeed assuming that Llewyn Davis is a white dude because of his name, which I think we’re to take as his real name since his father, the fisherman, is called Hugh Davis. If you’ve worked out his mother’s background, let me know.

    So much for The Force Awakens…

  10. 10
    Alba on 23 Dec 2015 #

    He specifically tells John Goodman he’s half-Welsh, half-Italian in Inside Llewyn Davis. Which doesn’t mean he’s necessarily white, I guess, but y’know.

  11. 11
    Alba on 23 Dec 2015 #

    Here ya go:

    ROLAND: What’s the N stand for? Lou N. Davis.
    LLEWYN: It’s Llewyn, L-L-E-W-Y-N. It’s Welsh.
    ROLAND: Well, it had to be some stupid fucking name like that.
    ROLAND: You don’t look Welsh
    LLEWYN: My mother was Italian …

  12. 12
    Mark M on 24 Dec 2015 #

    Re11: Well done for establishing the facts of the case – a white dude then, though not a WASPy one.

  13. 13
    Ed on 26 Dec 2015 #

    Back to TFA…. (Massive spoilers ahead.)

    I agree that Kylo Ren is great, and the characters of Finn, Rey and Ren are the best thing about the film. Their battle at the end provided what was for me the film’s one true “oh wow” moment.

    They are very well cast, too. I liked the echo of Moses from Attack the Block in Finn’s journey from villain to hero, and in his realisation of a whole universe beyond the circumstances of his upbringing. And Kylo Ren basically is just Adam from Girls, sent into space. His hand-crafted artisanal Vader mask is exactly the kind of thing Adam would have spent months making.

    On the other hand, as Tom suggested, the plot is a lame warmed-over effort that is about as appealing as turkey hash on December 29, and the world-building is even worse. If the Republic is the legitimate government, what is the Resistance resisting? And if the First Order are a movement of neo-Imperialist insurgents, where do they get the resources to build a planet-killer about 30 times the size of the Death Star?

    This must be the first time anyone could walk out of a Star Wars movie, as I did, wishing there had been*more* political exposition.

    So basically Abrams gets right everything Lucas got wrong, and vice versa. It’s almost as if Abrams and Lucas were two opposing principles of the universe, forever competing for dominance. If only there were someone who could bring them into balance…

  14. 14

    I believe this someone is SETH MacFARLANE with his upcoming coarse parody sidesplitter R2Dted

  15. 15
    Pete Baran on 27 Dec 2015 #

    From a intergalactic geopolitics point of view, the New Republic appears to have not yet learnt the lesson of Germany post WWII, and clamping down on Nazi / Dark Side-fetishism, allowing it to fester, get fanboys, amass giant slave armies, build Sundraino Deathplanets… There is a question about intergalactic astro-geography however, if the remnants of the Empire – you know the home planet bits – were never occupied, and demilitarised by The New Republic, then there is plenty of gear and who knows, natural resources to rebuild. I bet loads of people are buying the First Order’s oil.

  16. 16
    thefatgit on 29 Dec 2015 #

    Sekrit New Republic theory:

    Lucas’s “tiresome” Trade Negotiations from the prequels made the old Republic seem ineffectual, bogged down with So Much Talk And Very Little Action, also by association made the Jedi seem like an influential pressure group, lobbying the Republic with handwavey magic. Old Chancellor Vellorum usurped by Palpatine, because WE ALL KNEW WHO PALPATINE REALLY WAS, GEORGE! No sting in the tale in Ep III, just a boring showdown with Obi Wan phoning it in vs Emo Anakin. So Old Republic swept away by Evil Empire. Anakin becomes Vader, yada, yada etc.

    Then after Evil Empire is destroyed by plucky rebels + ewoks, New Republic fills power vacuum, with reinstated democratic principles and more trudging through negotiations, Jawa focus groups, spin doctors from Bib Fortuna’s homeworld…peace across the Galaxy (yawn!). So First Order formed as a kind of Dark Side UKIP, can’t get a toehold in the New Republic’s democratic process, so wander off and under the guidance of Nigel Snoke, form a collective of like-minded smoking-in-pubs-none-of-your-foreign-muck types, dress up in black/white a lot and wish for the good old days of the Empire, when they strutted about in tanks with legs and blew up planets.

    You know, we had a sense of purpose back then and we always looked slim and dangerous in that white Kevlar armour, didn’t we? Should have learnt a bit more about marksmanship, mind…but we were part of something. And along comes this Ren fellow, and his good buddy Hux and suddenly we’re building bigger, better Death Stars out of planets and learning how to shoot straight, which is novel. And before long nobody will take any notice of the New Republic and their boring democracy and Deathstick tax, because the First Order’s going to make the Old Empire look like a dress rehearsal for the road production of Caravan Of Courage! I sure hope some meddling young ‘uns and their pet Wookie aren’t going spoil it for us…

  17. 17
    Kit on 30 Dec 2015 #

    But I’m betting a fair few people who see him in TFA are still going to think he’s David Krumholtz from 10 Things I Hate About You/Numb3rs in any case.)

    I didn’t recognise Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis while watching Ex Machina, and kept calling his character “this Krumholtz-looking motherfucker” in my head until the closing titles.

  18. 18
    Mark M on 8 Mar 2016 #

    Re17: Clearly just to fuck with everyone, the Coens have the actual Krumholtz with lots of facial hair in Hail, Caesar!

  19. 19
    Mark M on 22 Dec 2016 #

    At 3, I wrote: ‘the other thing that is unrecoverable is the licence to tell a whole story in one movie – although Lucas may have had a multi-generational epic in his mind (if a muddled and ever-changing one, according to Peter Biskind), Star Wars works a fully self-contained story with a beginning, middle and very clear ending.’

    …Or maybe not so unrecoverable, via the expanded universe option. Which is to say that a number of people have told me that high among the many things they enjoy about Rogue One is indeed the fact that though it clearly belongs in the Star Wars continuum (to the point of borrowing footage from the original film), it tells a story that, yes, has a beginning and an ending, and is thus more satisfying.

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