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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America.
- Our choice of heroes reveals much about America.
- Loki helps us to see our true selves.
- Hollywood’s dream machine gives us the Leader we yearn for.
- Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
- Star Trek reboots to give us simple stories, the cartoons we like.
- Why have our movies become so dark, showing a government so evil?