Review of “The Force Awakens”: a film for Boomers. It’s about us.

Summary:  The new Star Wars film shows how well Hollywood understands us. Not just what we want in a film, but the deeper themes that appeal to us. As such it provides a valuable mirror of early 21st C America, one well worth studying. There are spoilers. Lots of them.

The Force Awakens poster
Available at Amazon.

———— Spoiler Alert!  ————

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a pastiche of George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. The plot is almost identical, although with key differences in tone and especially character development. The original gave us a classic hero’s quest. We first saw Luke as a callow farm-boy and watched him grow into a competent young man — with his real growth lying in the future. Han also grows into a hero.

The Force Awakens is a tale of grrl-power. Rey (Daisy Ridley) appears on screen as an independent, intelligent, bold, and brave women. She fights and chases off two thugs. She is a skilled engineer and starship pilot (immediately doing acrobatics with the Millennium Falcon). She masters the Force instantly: she frees herself from restraints, controls a guard’s mind, is an ace shot the first time she fires a blaster, and defeats a trained Sith the first time she wields a light-saber.

Daisy Ridley as Rey
Daisy Ridley as Rey. A long way from Lucas saying “There are no bras in space.”

She can grow more powerful — at this rate she’ll be a god by episode three, bringing “balance to the force” — but has no flaws to overcome. Like so many female protagonists these days, she is a “Mary Sue” (an omnicompetent fantasy character, admired or loved by everyone in the story;more about this in the comments).

John Boyega plays Finn, the dorky sidekick and love interest, another paring of an alpha girl with a beta boy (like Peeta and Katniss in The Hunger Games, Hermione and Ron in Harry Potter). Beaten up by Rey at their first meeting, Finn later abandons her. Rey and Han Solo repeatedly rescue him. He lies to Rey about being with the Resistance. He lies to the Resistance’s leaders about the critical plot point.

The story is ramshackle, filled with plot holes. It has more action and less dialog than the original, giving it that theme-park-ride-experience pioneered by Pirates of the Caribbean. The galaxy seems like Smallville: Han bumps into Rey and Finn while they’re flying away, Rey stumbles upon Luke’s light-saber, Finn sees Rey escaping the enemy base. Flight between stars takes minutes.

The emotional flow is erratic, lacking the clear simple sweep of the original. The musical accompaniment is crude, even for a summer blockbuster.

Soul of the Saga
The soul of “Star Wars”, according to Disney.

What “The Force Awakens” says about us

This is a story of a generation that began with great hope following the death of the Emperor and Darth Vader, plus the destruction of two death stars. Offstage after the end of chapter VI is the embodiment of New Hope: Jedi Master Luke training Ben Solo (the son of Han and Leia), recreating the Jedi Order. This hope leads to bitter failure.

In Chapter VII we find the marriage of Han and Leia in ruins as our heroes fight a reborn Empire, a reborn Sith Lord, and Ben as a new Darth Vader. Luke has failed as a master Jedi. Han and Lei failed as parents.

Dark Side, resurgent in the Boomers.
The Dark Side, resurgent in the Boomers?

This plot parallels the dark endings of The Dark Knight Trilogy, which ends with a broke Bruce Wayne fleeing a wrecked Gotham — and the first X-Men Trilogy, which ends with the two team leaders dead, Jean Grey dead after turning to evil, and the fallen Golden Gate Bridge showing the world the result of unregulated mutants.

This pattern follows that of the Boomers’ era. Our parents were not the “greatest generation”, but their accomplishments were awesome.

They lived their early years in the Great Depression, fought fascism in World War II, erected the first just international order (however imperfect), and concluded the 100-year-long struggle to give Black Americans civil rights. They ended their time running America by launching us into the rapid growth of the 1990’s. We were their great hope.

Many Boomers’ youth were spent working for peace, justice, and freedom. That was long ago.

The Boomers leave America mired in foreign wars and slow economic growth, politically polarized, with massive government surveillance plus increasingly stringent codes controlling speech and behavior at schools and workplaces. Racial divisions are growing again. Inequality has risen back to peak levels of the Gilded Age. We leave the Millennials a legacy of failure. These films follow the larger pattern of our lives.

There are other similarities with America, despite Star Wars being so far away in space and time. The New Order transforms a planet into a cannon that consumes a star to fire a faster-than-light blast destroying multiple planets — and is capable of star travel (to get a new star as fuel). Meanwhile on other planets people ride animals and live in poverty. While not as dark a future as that of Jupiter Ascending — where individuals own planets and harvest their inhabitants — it is not the liberal paradise of Star Trek: the Next Generation (1987-1994).

Another realistic note: as with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the First Order does not ask for surrender or fire demo shots before mass murder.

What do the Millennials enjoy about The Force Awakens? What do the people of other nations see in this? Perhaps it is just boom and Zoom? If so, what are the myths that engage their imaginations? Post your answer in the comments.

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia.

For More Information

An interesting review of The Force Awakens: “‘Star Wars’ and Decadence” by Ross Douthat in the NYT. He gives some powerful insights.

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15 thoughts on “Review of “The Force Awakens”: a film for Boomers. It’s about us.”

  1. About “Mary Sue” characters

    The observation that Rey is a classic “Mary Sue” character has produced confused outrage from feminists, such as “With Star Wars’ Rey, we’ve reached Peak Strong Female Character – And there’s nothing wrong with that” by film critic Tasha Robinson at The Verge. She responds to this observation as if it were an insult to her sister.

    “Mary Sue” characters are commonplace in fiction. James Bond in the Roger Moore films, Superman, Supergirl, Wonder Woman — all are variants of the “Mary Sue” mold, omnicompent people respected or loved by all in their stories.

    Such characters are problematic in two senses. They start almost perfect, so the story can have action but little character growth in its protagonist. In the new Star Wars trilogy that will probably occur in Finn — and perhaps in Poe Dameron (a possible second love interest for Rey, if the trilogy follows the pattern of The Hunger Games and Twilight stories).

    Second, sometimes viewers find them inconsistent with the story premise. This is subjective, as are all reactions to fiction. In the Star Wars films the Force is mastered through training and practice, so Rey’s insta-mastery seems odd — which bothers some viewers.

  2. “The Boomers leave America mired in foreign wars and slow economic growth, politically polarized, with massive government surveillance plus increasingly stringent codes controlling speech and behavior at schools and workplaces. Racial divisions are growing again. Inequality has risen back to peak levels of the Gilded Age. We leave the Millennials a legacy of failure. These films follow the larger pattern of our lives”
    Boy is that dark. Accurate but still dark. Yet it provides a valuable perspective to the larger patterns we can see all around us. Causes me to grit my teeth and go sit through this Flickture. Boom and Zoom? What pray tell are the underlying urges and myths this extravaganza may be revealing.

    “Mary Sue”? Ha…always something new to learn here.



  3. Given the Mary Sue character. It also seems to devalue the whole concept of the Jedi. Who are supposed to be elite warriors akin to the samurai.

    It is diminished by the fact that a person requires no training to even master the abilities of the force and Lightsaber combat.

    It prevents one from taking a Jedi seriously.

      1. I wouldn’t put it past Disney with its proclivity for Princesses and especially its recent warrior princess trend.

        Might as well give her a dress and tiara while they are at it. Or some other kind of fabulous clothing befitting a goddess.

  4. Hello again Fabius, haven’t seen you for a while!
    Your generational analysis makes sense. What struck me most about it, was the sense of repetition and of a failure to advance. The “First Order” seems to be a reborn Empire, and they seem wedded to the same failed strategies. They’re overinvested in weapons technology, to the point where they keep trying to perfect the same weapon – a weapon that will never give them victory. And their stormtroopers are actually very low quality, always losing their nerve in gunfights and firing with no aim.
    Meanwhile, the Republic, with its smaller army – still called “The Resistance” for some reason – keeps trying to create a Jedi Academy, a place where the human side of warfare is perfected. But twice now, Jedi masters have created Academies only to have enemies kill their young padawans. This leaves the Jedi masters with such deep hurt that they must retire from galactic society. The Jedi can’t seem to organize.
    This retarded narrative cannot advance. The galactic culture – or at least the part that our protagonists live in – seems stuck in a rut. This situation seems oddly similar to our world. The USA and Europe are stuck in a neoliberal rut, unable to advance beyond the ideas of the mid twentieth century. The Middle East is barely holding together. And meanwhile our entire planet is degrading.
    I wonder if, to complete the picture, the moviemaking team should next show a galactic disaster like the unfolding global disaster of the Climate Crisis. Then the war between these two galactic nations could take on a differnt character. How much does the First Order need galactic supremacy when the galaxy is tearing itself apart? What would they be rulers of, exactly? And can they even ask themselves these questions or are they just stuck on stupid?

    1. Cynical,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective!

      The post was already too long, but I wanted to draw an analogy with the Dark Knight Trilogy which follows a similar plot trajectory. At the end the Wayne fortune is gone, the Wayne dynasty is gone, and Gotham is still a wreck. Bruce Wayne’s life has been lived in vain. Another metaphor for the Boomers generation, who have wasted the momentum given us by our parents.

  5. Bruce Wayne’s life has been lived in vain. Another metaphor for the Boomers generation, who have wasted the momentum given us by our parents.

    Sounds bleak. But it’s a possibility, even for the most powerful of heroes.

    1. Cynical,

      Absolutely so! Yet there were few such stories told about our heroes until recently. My theory is that this reflects the Boomers’ interest in stories that mirror their (our) experiences. But what do the younger generations see in these stories?

      On a larger scale of time, the stories of classical Greece about their heroes were often bleak beyond anything I care to read. Hercules kills his wife and children. Jason betrays his wife Medea, who kills her children. They had lots of these stories. I don’t know why, or what that means.

  6. I don’t know why, or what that means.

    America does have tragic stories *, but they aren’t as central as the Greeks’ tragedies seem to have been. We require positivity and uplift in our stories. If you ask me, this requirement of sweetness leads to a kind of diabetes in our culture, like a chemical imbalance. It is an impediment to seeing things realistically. It’s easy to make Rey super-competent, and it would be more difficult to make her flawed and disappointing.

    * Consider the songs of Johnny Cash – or some of the “Gangster Raps”.

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