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<<< SPOILERS WITHIN >>>

I’m a Star Wars fan.  Though, if I’m completely honest, there are only really two excellent Star Wars films, with the rest ranging from horrible to slightly-better-than-meh.  The latest installment unfortunately falls into that latter category.  It’s a more enjoyable movie than any of the prequels yes, I alternated from annoyed to entertained while watching The Force Awakens.  Seen as an action-fantasy-in-space—and seen from an ‘I-really-want-to-like-it’ POV—it’s ok.  Seen as a Star Wars film—or more accurately, seen as the Star Wars film I wanted it to be (ie. a continuation of the first two)—it was a disappointment. 
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Why then, since I think that there hasn’t been a very good Star Wars film since 1983, do I remain a fan?  I think a big part of it is because I, like so many millions of others, have a nostalgic connection to the series, it’s like family.  Beyond that I also find the phenomenon fascinating in its own right.  Throughout its history the franchise was (and is) a touchstone to the cultural milieu.  We as a society have changed alongside the films.  From idealistic rebels, to philanthropic yuppies, to the nostalgic yearning to recapture the promise of what once could-have-been.

The Lucas Star Wars films (especially the first two) were ostensibly modern mythology via Joseph Campbell—they were pop spirituality without the baggage of Western religion built for a ‘secular’ age.  The 70s saw America fall in war, an economic collapse, and mass disillusionment.  It was an era in need of, well, a new hope.  Star Wars tapped into the zeitgeist, it spoke of the evils of attachment, that we were all bound together—but it also spoke of how special individuals could thus tap into this energy and play a role in ‘saving’ us.  It’s a story that mirrored the ideas of many wannabe do-gooders of the day.  The franchise follows society’s journey.  From idealistic rebels, to philanthropic yuppies, to the nostalgic yearning to recapture the promise of what once could-have-been.

I remember watching Jedi and leaving deflated and confused to why everyone else seemed to love it—the resolution just didn’t seem to fit, it was too neat and too easy.  Now I’m not the first to critique Jedi as the beginning of the slide in quality for the franchise.  The original Star Wars story was openly mapped over Joseph Campbell’s idea of the heroic monomyth, and that myth wasn’t a synonym for ‘false’ or ‘imaginary’ but was instead humanity’s attempt to vocalize the search for life’s meaning, it was the truth of life that could only be spoken of in metaphor.

s-l1000.jpg“Revenge of the Jedi” (as it was first titled) was originally supposed to end bittersweet, as in other myths the hero didn’t often get full happy endings.  Here is the what could have been according to Lucas’ collaborator Gary Kurtz:  Han dies.  Vader (a hero himself) seeks redemption for misdeeds, but Luke ends up having to kill him (his own father).  The Empire suffers a major defeat and is left crippled (but undefeated).  Leia (another hero and not Luke’s sister) becomes Queen of the Alderaan refugees, and a sense of duty to them results in a life alone as a monarch.  Luke ends the movie victorious but having lost all his family and friends, the last of the Jedi, walking off into the metaphorical sunset.

“We had an outline and George changed everything in it,” Kurtz said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”

Post-Empire the idealist George had become very, very wealthy.  It was the 80s, the economic and social crises of the 70s had subsided, and with many of his fellow middle-class former young do-gooders, he transformed into the yuppie philanthropist.  In the words of his own mythology, he didn’t realize ‘the power of the dark side,’ the allure of an ‘easy path.’

This was the George that gave us the special editions, and then the prequels.  But say what you will about those, they retained seeds of the mythology: the framework was there, but ultimately it failed in the telling of a hero’s fall.  Like the originals, the prequels core ideology was a reflection of the times.  In the 1970s the Jedi were ascetic warrior monks who lived on society’s fringes and taught of letting go of attachment and worldly things.  By the late 1990s the Jedi had become fully embedded within the system—the Galactic Republic—preaching good while at the same time being the prime defenders of the status quo.

That brings us to The Force Awakens (TFA).  I enjoyed parts of it while watching it.  Basically I enjoyed the parts that weren’t blunt force hammers that were unsubtle ‘remember this scene from the movies you liked’?  Two days since viewing it, I have to admit that I mostly liked it because the best parts were great because they allowed me to remember—on my own—moments from a different time.

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Yet…
…was it a good film on it’s own?

No.
But it was still a film I (reluctantly) enjoyed.

For why I think this is a bad film (as a film), let’s go film critic for a bit and talk of three points (there are more, but this is already too long).

First, was the fact that at it’s core it’s a reassemblage of the original trilogy with elements that were taken beat-for-beat from the originals (e.g. the opening introduction of the Big Bad, the lost droid with secret information, the trench run, etc.), but dressed up in fancy modern clothes.  Critics and fans online are still using the term “Star Wars myth” to describe TFA, but they only mean myth in the commonplace sense of ‘imaginary story’ now.  The Campbell-ian ‘mythic’ elements have been stripped away.  TFA is as much attached to the original mythology as Wonder Woman is to any of the works of Homer.

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Second, there were too many storylines.  A good film needs to have one single thoroughfare to take you through the story, there can be secondary and even tertiary stories, but in a two hour film you need just one that drives as the main motivation.  Take Episode Four, it can broken down to: there is a rebellion against an evil empire and it’s about to be crushed by a new super weapon, the weapon needs to be destroyed.  In TFA you have multiple stories that each compete with each other for limited screen time (at the top of my head):

– Luke abandoned his duty to recreate the Jedi Order and both the good and bad guys are looking/hunting for him. (Introduced in the opening crawl then kind of forgotten in the middle and returned to in the end.)

– A former child soldier/stormtrooper escapes and his journey brings him to the rebellion/Republic/whatever.  (Introduced after the opening crawl, but whose implications are never explored.)

– A mysterious child is abandoned on a desert planet and as a young woman discovers the Force on the way to joining the rebellion/Republic/whatever. (I still have no idea about anything except: mystery!)

– Two people in love were driven apart by the loss of their prodigal son to evil and they strive to get him back. (Sometimes people go bad, and that sucks.  Again: mystery!  An interesting but under-explored bit that happens and then someone dies and I think I was supposed to be sad.)

– There’s a bigger version of a super weapon, that was itself a bigger version of another super weapon, which is also a planet housing a huge garrison of ground assault troops and weapons, that is I guess to be used in a soon-to-happen (vague) battle for galactic dominance.  So the rebellion/Republic/whatever decides it should be destroyed. (Introduced as an something that needs to be done so that other things can happen in the story, even though in an actual war in the stars, this would be kind of a big deal.)

There are so many stories competing to be the main story, that at no time do we feel that any one is driving the overall story.

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And third, with so many stories it also becomes less than clear who the main character was supposed to be.  In the originals it was clearly Luke that we followed.  I think it’s supposed to by Rey, but she is so shrouded in mystery that other than the fact that she seems nice I never really feel invested in her.  And with the multiple story arcs and multiple character arcs, there was no time for satisfying character reveals or character evolutions, nor was there time for any of the story lines to be adequately explored or resolved in any way that feels earned (most glaringly Rey’s instant learning of the Force, and that damned Death Star v3.0).

Yet…

Yet, I still enjoyed watching the film.  I knew it was problematic as I was watching it… but I still smiled most of the way through.

How?!?
Why?!?

I think it’s a good(ish) enough to succeed not in spite of, but because of, nostalgia.  Here’s what a couple people on my social media pages wrote about TFA:

“Saw Force Awakens today,I’ll be shocked if you don’t like it.Its a film made by a fan for the fans 8.5/10”

“While I agree with your observations [critiquing how derivative it is to the originals]… this is what I think makes the movie good.”

Fredric Jameson wrote the following of the original trilogy, something that I think is even more accurate today:

“Star Wars, far from being a pointless satire of such now dead forms, satisfies a deep (might I even say repressed?) longing to experience them again: it is a complex object in which on some first level children and adolescents can take the adventures straight, while the adult public is able to gratify a deeper and more properly nostalgic desire to return to that older period and to live its strange old aesthetic artifacts through once again.”

 

The franchise has always been a remix of the past, that’s part of the mythological motif of the universal monomyth.  But beginning with the prequels and intensified by TFA, the films moved into self-referencing for the sake of self-referencing, to outright copy-pasted plagiarism.

Star Wars once spoke to us of hope, today it’s our escape back to that time.  Most of us know that there are problems with the world, but most also accept that that’s just the way things are.  It is what it is, but we also reminisce and long for the naivety of our past.  *sigh*

Pop culture like Star Wars is a pretty good barometer to what we as a society generally think.  We as a society are no longer the idealists that once felt that we can defeat the problems by renouncing our old attachments.  We are not even the society that feels that we can spend our way out of our problems.  We now live in the age where, if we look to pop culture, hope for a different world resides in an apocalyptic event, or passing first through a dystopian society.  It really doesn’t have to be this way—but what’s interesting is that most of us can’t imagine, let alone act towards, other possibilities.  This is what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism”:

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[We see] no alternative to capitalism… it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Other systems might be preferable to capitalism, but capitalism is the only one that is realistic. … a sense that all we can do is accommodate ourselves to the dominance of capitalism, and limit our hopes to containing its worst excesses.” 

Once George Lucas, inspired by the past, sought to provide a hopeful story to the then struggling present.  Today we live in the post-Lucas Star Wars era.  And though Lucas later shepherded the franchise more and more towards commodification, he always struggled with retaining the initial essence of the films.  Since selling the brand to Disney for $4 billion, the journey towards a full market orientation is complete.  Movies have always been about profit, I’m not saying otherwise, but Star Wars changed the business model, it changed Hollywood.

 

Disney has since announced that there will be a new Star Wars film every year for the foreseeable future, it’s simply too profitable not only in ticket sales but in countless other merchandise.  That’s why the mysteries in TFA are not, as I’ve heard it argued by fans, an element of episodic storytelling, but the point in and of itself.  Where in the original films there was always the resolution of at least the main story point, in the new film virtually nothing was answered.  Like special content in video games, the answers to mysteries can only be accessed by purchasing more and more product (e.g. if you want to know what happened to the Empire and Rebels after Jedi, you can get a small piece from each of the book “Aftermath,” the Marvel comics series, and the new Battlefront video game—and I’m sure there’s others, and even then the picture is not complete).  Mystery leads to curiousity, curiosity leads to the seeking out of answers, answers that come in the form of products, and products lead to profit.  And we love it, we revel in it.  And it’s fascinating.

 

I critique, but still enjoy Star Wars.  Having long lived with the fact that I’ve only really enjoyed two of the films as films, it’s the story of the greater societal relationship with Star Wars that keeps me coming back.  It’s a cultural phenomenon tied to society both at the moments of their creation, and how they are read/viewed at later times.  Star Wars is a mirror—and I am as vain as everyone else.

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