Yes, I finally saw yesterday Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It has been very hard to avoid the spoilers for a couple of weeks (yet I must also marvel at the conspiracy of silence to conceal some major plot turns!). Harder to miss were the tepid reactions of most professional reviewers. Given their warnings, I cannot say I am disappointed in the film. I am disappointed, rather, by a Hollywood system that has simply abandoned innovative storytelling for mindless plot-driven action and that is currently in love with the ugly notion of the ‘reboot’ (for this is what this ‘new’ film amounts to, with the addition of a competent girl hero and her male sidekick).
Despite this, I’m not offering here a review, for there are already thousands which readers can check and also because fans will see the film no matter what others think of it and non-fans (?) will not see it no matter how persuasive positive opinions may be. I am not myself quite a Star Wars fan but I belong to the generation that was mesmerized in their childhood (age 11 for me) by the absolutely mind-blowing image of the colossal Imperial cruiser crossing the screen at the very beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope back in 1977. Nothing will ever surpass the cinematic wonder of that moment. Ever.
I have contributed my bit to the surprisingly scant academic work on George Lucas’ brainchild with an article on Anakin Skywalker, no doubt the most complete–and hateful–character even despite Hayden Christensen’s appalling performance (See: “Shades of Evil: The Construction of White Patriarchal Villainy in the Star Wars Saga” in Josep M. Armengol (ed.), Men in Color, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011, 143-167). This new film arguably confirms my hunch that the main topic of the whole saga are the difficulties of raising teenage boys. As I age, I appreciate the good job that the overlooked Owen and Beru Lars did in raising their foster child Luke Skywalker, the quintessential good boy. No doubt Star Wars is a story about men’s problems to control their own potential violence. I don’t quite see a woman facing the same issue in the saga… hopefully.
Why do we care about Star Wars? I assume that the many millions in the world who do not care find the story silly and the space opera trappings just escapist fiction junk. Even those of us who care bemoan the many gaps and errors in the script–beginning with the erratic ways in which the Force operates. As for space opera, there’s plenty of much higher quality in print. Please, don’t say that the success of the Star Wars franchise is just due to Hollywood business acumen and its greedy marketing ploys, for these emerged only after the unexpected planetary success of the first film. Obviously, the money-grabbing, in-your-face strategies are easy to spot in the brief appearances of characters who are only in the movies to sell the corresponding figurine. There is, however, something that surpasses all the gadgetry, whether this is the elementary pleasure in the soap opera of the Skywalkers’ depressing family saga, the need to explore the roots of male violence as I say, or the urge to renew the basic myth of the struggle between good and evil.
I am not familiar with the Expanded Universe, which extends to all the licensed products connected with the saga in a variety of media and which is itself complemented with the countless derivative products generated by the fans. You may be horrified to learn that back in 2014, after George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Walt Disney (in 2012), this EU was re-named ‘Star Wars Legends’ and declared non-canon, which is Disney’s dubious attempt to keep a tighter grip on the links between the forthcoming films and the new secondary products. As the Harry Potter case proves, however, the struggle to keep under wraps the collective impulse to add new strands to key stories in the style of traditional folk tales and mythmaking cannot simply be won by capitalist corporations. So, here is for me a reason why we care: Star Wars has provided its audience with a vast canvas on which to add detail to a growing web of stories. We miss the old collective art of folk story-telling and the saga satisfies our nostalgia for it (as other cultural manifestations do).
Then, there’s the Force. The possession of mystical powers by certain select individuals is a very old fantasy and Lucas borrowed from, among his most immediate predecessors, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. Actually, he took it away from the women to place it in the hands of the Jedi, a circle of so-called ‘knights’ that only recalled there were females among them in the 1990s (‘lady’ Jedis?). The saga’s most glaring sexist turn is Yoda’s decision not to train Princess Leia even though he acknowledges that the Force is strong in her (as it should be given her family connections). Before I ramble onto a feminist bypath, let me recap: a great deal of the appeal of the saga is based on the possibility that any humble individual can be in possession of the Force–this is what Luke embodies. It is not so different, as you can see, from magic in Harry Potter. Both sagas have this in common: they do have an individual hero but he belongs to a community of good-doers facing a community of evil-doers. Many others can join in, hence the appeal for the fans. Get the wand or the light-sabre and you’re in.
The saga deals also with a major problem: the patriarchal lust for power. Ask yourself: if you were in possession of the Force how would you use it? The saga argues that you should have to overcome the temptation of falling into the Dark Side (capitalized, yes), for having ‘powers’ leads to craving ‘power’, and having excessive ‘powers’ and ‘power’ only leads to villainy. This is a patriarchal attitude best exemplified by Anakin Skywalker’s supposition that he is entitled to a great deal of power just because he has powers. Luke, in contrast, and the Jedis in general, embody the difficulties of being good in a universe in which this position does not pay.
And this is our own struggle: since the 1970s, when the saga started, the villain is our hero but because we are secretly ashamed of wanting to be Darth Vader we pretend we are on the side of the Jedi. Yet, we enjoy following a story in which they fail again and again, for, being good guys, they are easily hoodwinked by the patriarchal monsters, call them Sith, Empire, or First Order. Luke Skywalker has never been a strong hero and we tend to prefer Han Solo, that rascal who cannot really commit. Let me recap the argument: Lucas’ saga, in which there are neither gods nor God, places the burden of moral decision with the individual by focusing on the problem of avoiding the temptation of abusing our power/s. The Dark Side is just this: the individual’s awakening to the advantages of doing evil (a concept that Lucas borrowed from Heart of Darkness–he was supposed to direct the film adaptation that later became Apocalypse Now!).
The key issue of why some individuals want to accrue power in order to do evil, and thus accrue even more power to do even more evil, can be discussed by an abstract philosophical treatise or by space opera with a silly melodramatic plotline. Like all the other stories about heroes and villains, Star Wars is, however, unable to imagine what the Jedi can do with their own power to do good. What I most missed in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a political discussion of the kind of Republic the rebels had managed to build once the Empire had been destroyed in Episode VI. Instead, we are given the story of how a new bunch of evil guys have already built a fascist regime, thus actually becoming the resistance to the Jedi’s Republican new order. Surely, the new trilogy will tell the story of how the Jedis rebuild their lost strength and once again defeat their opponents–yet the debate, as you can easily see on the internet, is already focused on whether the new villain Kylo Ren is charismatic enough. Not on Luke’s efforts. As for the new hero the debates are focused, rather, on her being too perfect, a Mary Sue none can identify with…
To sum up, the Star Wars saga deals with our increasing collective inability to root for the good heroes and our secret wish to be evil–if only we had Force enough. May the Force not be with you, then, unless you can imagine ways to do good with it.
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