by Niles Schwartz
Entering biblical themes, so Cecil B. DeMille introduced The Ten Commandments. And so I introduce a review (or something like it) of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Short of bringing up the saga’s religious significance or the cultural parallels we could draw on a canvas of space opera metaphor, there’s the pressure on anyone approaching this shrine of letting loose a damn spoiler, for fear of becoming a social pariah. Also, in reviewing, offering criticism, however modest, is risky when online Jedi Jihadis don’t exactly have much tolerance for anything short of the same assessment Tony the Tiger has for his Frosted Flakes. If I wanted to ensure people asking me to quit writing film criticism, I’d just have to hand in a mixed review of The Force Awakens. I mean, The Phantom Menace had a highly positive Tomatometer reading for chrissakes.
Now, I’m tempted to either just lay out all of the twists right here and now, in a Vanishing-like display of honey badger IDGAF arm-breaking, or conversely, concocting some alternative plot to lamely parody the tiresome pitfalls of widespread Spoilerphobia (We begin in a cheese factory on the desert planet of Jakku. Bovine hordes, covertly working with the First Order, are on strike and refusing to give milk, resulting in massive unrest and starvation, while farmers are stowing the cheese away for personal gain. It’s here where we learn the origin of the Huts. The Huts, you see, are giant slabs of cheese which, uneaten, come to life and seek power. The Force Awakens begins with one such Hut, Shuntar the Hut, who begins to have second thoughts and so on and so on and so on oh God). Or maybe I’ll just forgo discussing The Force Awakens and reevaluate the last Star Wars film released, 2005’s Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Or hey, remind you all to see Manplanet this Saturday at the Triple Rock, speaking of nostalgia!
Stay with me. I’ll get to an assessment eventually. The conclusion of that last Star Wars and the narrative of this new one form a striking juxtaposition. Being that it was a prequel, we all knew what happened plot-wise in Revenge of the Sith years before cameras rolled: Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) would be seduced by Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who in turn would do away with the Senate and, with the help of Anakin (now dubbed Darth Vader), eradicate the Jedi knights. We knew Vader would be maimed by his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), his body kept alive by the imprisoning suit of black machinery. We knew that Anakin’s secret wife, Padme (Natalie Portman), would give birth to twins, Luke and Leia, and then she would die. And we knew that the newborn children would be separated and raised on different planets, while the remaining Jedi, Kenobi and Yoda, would go into hiding.
Delving into The Force Awakens, for months we’ve have speculation: new character Rey (Daisy Ridley) is the daughter of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and is set to be the new Jedi seeing how she has that midichlorian-rich Skywalker blood; Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is the same tragic Sith character mentioned by Palpatine to rouse the young Skywalker’s curiosity in Revenge of the Sith; the masked First Order Sith, Kylo Ren, is actually Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who in the intervening years has decided to switch to the Dark Side.
And none of this is turns out to be so! The most I’ll say about the plot of The Force Awakens is simply giving due credit to director and co-writer J.J. Abrams (joined writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt) for hatching a scenario quite removed from what most of us imagined would happen after that Yub-Yub Ewok party on Endor. That may be the boldest maneuver he makes here, as it’s clear that Abrams just wants to get his saga on base, in contrast to the bold brushstrokes of George Lucas’ lambasted Baroque prequels. Abrams’ is a Star Wars for the Marvel Movie generation: likable, a little funny, kind of spectacular, and otherwise unremarkable. Abrams evades the grand CGI tableau of the prequels in lieu of sparsely populated oases and desert wasteland settings, and stays away from familiar “far far away” locales such as Tatooine or Cloud City, handling the prequels’ Republic in a way that’s frankly kind of laughable (and I hope, oh I hope, Abrams intended us to cackle). In contrast to the pageantry of the prequels, which played like digital homages to DeMille, Spartacus, and Anthony Mann’s El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Force Awakens is stripped down. It’s not an opera of expression, but relatable specificity.
Disclosures of the story, again, are anathema in this climate of constant information handoffs. The spoilerphobia so rampant regarding The Force Awakens ties into the strategy in its world-conquering inception and what sets it at odds with what George Lucas did in his final prequel which, yes, clunky as it is, I’ll just come out and say is a better film (the hyperbolic praise following The Force Awakens in its opening days is extraordinary and a little mind-boggling). More on that in a moment, but the driving element of Abrams’ Just-Fine endeavor is to keep us interested in What Happens Next. No more. It’s all about plot, from what’s going to happen in five minutes to, oh my! what’s going to happen in the sequel. Abrams, who made his name in TV with Alias and Lost, is the perfect show-runner for Disney, The Force Awakens being perhaps the most expensive TV pilot ever made. And that’s fine.
Inside George Lucas’ 40-year-old snow globe that’s been with us for 40 years, Abrams successfully builds on our collective nostalgia (the opening scrawl alone buys the director 10 minutes of undivided interest and truly, I was nearly in tears seeing Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher back in the same frame together) while getting us acquainted with his new characters first (played by Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Gwendoline Christie, John Boyega, Domhnall Gleeson, and Adam Driver, who all do fine work). He injects humor and chummy banter mostly absent from the prequels, while transgressing Lucas’ boundaries to explore new perspectives (Lord, forgive me if this is giving anything away, but there’s a Storm Trooper with PTSD). Even so, the screen time of the old players probably amounts to less than Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, one of the icons in question having no dialogue whatsoever, another giving off the vibe that they’d much rather be doing other things.
Still, despite MacGuffins, chases and escapes, cheeky jokes, and clever allusions to Star Wars movies past, The Force Awakens curiously doesn’t soar. Like what Yoda saw as Luke’s flaw in The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens is hung up on the future, what happens next, who’s going to die, who’s related to whom, etc. The film is one of Abrams’ cherished “Mystery Boxes,” opening up several strands to follow, the mystery opening more stories to follow. It rarely has an arresting moment that elevates itself above the plot. Finishing Yoda’s quote about Luke, the film never has its mind on where it is, what it is doing. All of the other films–yes, including some of those misfiring sequels, which so struggled to get a handle on a new digital palette–had images and looming presences etching themselves into the mind’s eye.
Hopefully I’m not warranting any death threats by saying that, more than other Lucasfilm Ltd. production, this new Star Wars reminded me of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. It’s imaginative world-building and anthropology within an established movie universe. The characters feel fashioned for a long-running television show, killing off the indelible mark left by the movie star. The Force Awakens, with Abrams’ jovial sensibility, has some fun folks to hang out with, but I’m not sure if they’re particularly soulful. The playfulness with which they’re treated might be a debit, considering that it was Han Solo’s earthy scroundelness playing off the cornball elements of the original trilogy that arguably made it work (the prequel trilogy was hampered by lacking a Solo to begin with).
Abrams’ characters are sufficiently given their troubles for developmental arcs, but it comes off as a smorgasbord of contrivances. In the original Star Wars, Darth Vader gracefully exhibited his malevolence (Most memorably, “I find your lack of faith disturbing” and “Apology accepted, Admiral”), while here, if the Young-Angry-Jedi-Goth trait we saw in young Anakin is insuppressible, the emphatic rage undercuts the danger and mystery; it’s sort of like comparing Darth Vader’s William F. Buckley to Kylo Ren’s Sean Hannity. While the new faces in The Force Awakens swerve away from cardboard, the traits applied to them feel arbitrary, cherry picked and not contextualized. (No, I can’t give examples, you guys, because spoilers!) In the prequels, Anakin Skywalker’s neediness, leading to his downfall, had a chilling association with a Freudian attachment to his mother, from whom he was taken away; Luke Skywalker’s dreamy wanderlust was a Telemachian search for a father he never knew.
Nervously defending the prequels though I am, the “squirminess” in those films (we could apply Freudian attachment theory to Ani’s thing for a much older woman) that makes us uncomfortable, works with their clunkiness in aspiring toward a summit Abrams’ film won’t dare contemplate; Lucas was interested in psychological trauma and plucked some deep nerves. That’s the most striking irony. After paying $4 billion for George Lucas’ empire, Disney rejected the creator’s own ideas for Episodes VII-IX. Most of the fans, not without reason, rejoiced. Lucas’ misguided faith in CGI, his changes (arguably ruinous changes) to Episodes IV-VI (and a refusal to offer his audience the films in their original versions, unlike the re-edits of Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg), the whole of The Phantom Menace and at least half of Attack of the Clones, showed a filmmaking icon similar to his own Darth Vader, more machine than man with an obstinacy single handedly destroying his own achievements, suggesting something frighteningly reflexive about where those prequels ended up. And while not totally agreeing with Camille Paglia’s view in her book Glittering Images that Revenge of the Sith is the greatest work of art in the last 30 years, she’s absolutely right that that film makes its peers look tepid by comparison. Episode III’s climax of models, animation, and “modern dance” choreography over an apocalyptic backdrop with politics and industry crumbling and men suffocating under the weight of the machine, the newly minted Franken-Vader mirroring how our most valued arts are nowadays industrial gadgets, is a maverick director’s enflamed imagination volcanically erupting, a true Revenge of the Nerd, destroying the illusory Golden Age he delicately engineered above the fault lines. Lucas even undercuts the Joseph Campbell-infused romanticism that guided the original trilogy, Anakin’s path of learning the Dark Side to balance the Light similar to how Lucas’ defiantly apolitical mentor Campbell misjudged what was happening in 1930s Germany. Following your bliss can be following the Dark Side. You can call it all a mess, but that last episode is addicting and makes me repeatedly remark, “Jesus, what balls!”
! In contrast to that, The Force Awakens is pretty good, I guess, and sure, I’m eager to see where it goes (that Episode VIII is helmed by an admirable and less risk-averse filmmaker, Rian Johnson, is encouraging). How strange it is that what this film could have used to make it “great” instead of “just fine” was a little George Lucas, who even at his most disjointed was reaching for the sublime, however ridiculous it may have turned out; Abrams, meanwhile, is playing with Lucas’ toys, putting on the Sith mask in mimesis of the myths with which we all grew up. I accept my judgment on this matter is imperfect. When it comes to the question of mimesis, nostalgia, and reliving childhood, critics have never been good at gauging Star Wars, or rather, I’m not sure if we’re simply adapting to how low the bar is falling. Read reactions by Pauline Kael and Robin Wood regarding the origins. In 1977, 1980, and 1983 the original films were accused of being regressive and stupid, moving way too fast and making us all ADHD, perfectly suited for the Reagan years; then, in 1999, those original films were apparently exponentially more mature than The Phantom Menace (as Simon Pegg says in Spaced, “Jar Jar Binks makes the Ewoks look like fucking Shaft!”). 16 years after that, The Force Awakens is labeled old fashioned, holding a 95%+ Rotten Tomato meter rating and, as if it were common wisdom already, the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t know. But if you go to the theaters this weekend and all the Star Wars shows are sold out, you could see a little film also dealing with nostalgia that basically does everything Abrams sets out to do, but aspires towards something transcendent the way those George Lucas movies did. I’m talking about Ryan Coogler’s Creed.