Saturday, December 19, 2015

On Star Wars, the Force Awakens, and Sharing Bad Literature with your Children

Warning: Herein lie spoilers for The Force Awakens. Proceed at thine own risk!

Yesterday I finally saw Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. While it was not, in my estimation, a particularly good movie, it is a good Star Wars movie. A series of discussions I had with Chloe (regular readers of this blog know of Chloe, the now-nine year old with whom I've been sharing my love of fantastic literature), I was pondering how some (but not all) of our beloved classics are, in various ways, deeply flawed. Can you still love something with problems?

The initial discussion was about Return of the Jedi, particularly the revelation that Luke and Leia are brother and sister. Her question (as she saw a part of it out of context) was WHY this was. It lead to a nice chat about the love triangle between Leia, Luke, and Han along with what a love-triangle does in fiction in the first place. I then pointed out that making Luke and Leia siblings after teasing the relationship for the first two movies can be read as a cheat. It resolves the conflict without having to have one of the two rivals "lose". It was a nice discussion that lead to more of a chance to teach about the shape of stories. And this brings us to The Force Awakens.

The biggest and most obvious weakness, to me, is how closely The Force Awakens tracks the plot details of the first trilogy. It's almost as if someone made a checklist:

  • Black-masked, lightsaber-wielding supervillain
    • Killing a beloved mentor (repeated in Ep IV, I, and and now VII. With a scream of "NO" each time)
  • Stormtroopers
  • Young dreamer on a desert planet
  • Hot-shot pilot.
  • Death Star. Even bigger death star!
    • With a small vulnerability
    • Destroyed moments before obliterating the Rebel base.
    • (Death Stars were destroyed in Episodes, IV, VI, and VII. A droid command ship was destroyed in similar circumstances in Episode I)
we also get Han Solo, the Millenium Falcon, Princess Leia, a new Emperor-like figure. It is, in its way, a better film than A New Hope; most notably, the acting and dialog are far better (although there are a few parts - especially near the beginning - in which it's a bit too far on the snappy side). Kilo Renn is a more interesting character than Darth Vader, yet he's less menacing. Vader was, in some ways, more of a force than a character. He had no facial expressions, showed no emotion, existing as a pure threat to the heroes. Renn, on the other hand, is emotional. In the Star Wars mythos of the "Dark Side" of the force being fueled by negative emotions, he's the first we've seen really feed on uncontrollable anger. It also makes him less of a credible threat, but more of that later.

As in all Star Wars films, the plot in  The Force Awakens relies heavily on coincidences. Landing in the one part of the planet where another important person lives. The one dessert scavenger who can use the force stumbling across the macguffin. Etc.

It's not without its charm. I LOVE the new "Jedi to be" character Rey; there was a moment early in the film in which she was in danger and it appeared that the male lead was going to rescue her. He then watched, almost slack-jawed, as she fought off multiple attackers on her own. Less convincing is her emergence as a budding force-user. We see some tricks from the standard Jedi playbook: the Jedi mind trick, the grabbing something from a distance with her mind, fancy lightsaber fighting.  Where it breaks suspension of disbelief (for me) is that she does all of these things almost instinctively, after revealing earlier in the movie that she didn't even believe for certain that the Jedi were real. We even saw her sneak through an enemy base in a scene very reminiscent of Obi Wan Kenobi on the Death Star in Episode IV.  It was, from my mind, too much from this character too early.

This was echoed in my mind later when she fights Kilo Renn. It's a great lightsaber battle in which the untrained, young woman who has never before held a lightsaber defeats a foe who had destroyed the new Jedi order and sent Luke Skywalker into hiding. It's a moment which, to me, not only did not feel "earned" but is the wrong shape for the story; I'd rather have seen the hero defeated in a hard-fought battle rather than emerge triumphant. This leaves something more to which to build for their next encounter. As things stand, he's been beaten once. That will make it mean less when he is beaten again. 

Was the movie fun? It absolutely was. It looked like Star Wars, with all the rough edges and beautiful decay we've come to expect. Harrison Ford gave a very memorable performance as Han Solo and, sentimentality aside, did an excellent job showing us the once-swashbuckling hero as an older man, hanging on to the things he knows how to do after facing a tragedy. Ditto for Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. Overall, though, what bothers me the most is how safe it felt. It's like a once-great band on a reunion tour playing their greatest hits from back in the day. Yes, we still like them. And yes, it's fun while it is happening. At the end of the day, though, it's not "art" so much as a package: as what we expect wrapped up in a pretty box for us. Disney spent four billion dollars on Lucasfilms. 
 What they got is a cash cow to milk, nostalgia to sell back to us. 

Was it a good Star Wars movie? Ultimately yes. A good movie? For that it would have had to take more risks, break more new ground, give us something to say.

And that is today's lesson: it's one which would be harder to tell with a better movie. To look critically at film and literature and see it for what it is, not what we want it to be. 

So endeth the lesson.

May the force be with you.

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