Roundtable: Star Wars: The Force Awakens Part 2

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Part 2: Return to Form, Revenge of the Fans, or What?

Reboot or remake?

Anton: In Part 1 to our roundtable, Anders nailed the themes of The Force Awakens when he said, “the driving emotion of The Force Awakens is nostalgia, both in the film and in the audience. Characters repeat the events of the original films in the same mythic breath that fans do. It’s about return, repetition. The driving emotion of the original film was wonder, a call to adventure, to a new cinematic world that no one had ever seen before even if it did recall many classic films.”  

I’d like to unpack what Anders is talking about a bit more to start things off. J. J. Abrams brings the nostalgia present in our culture for the original Star Wars trilogy into the world of the film itself, and it’s a pretty savvy and interesting move, I think.

If nostalgia is a key theme, however, the film’s title is wrong. It should be “The Force Reawakens.” The very title Abrams and Disney went with effaces the thematic and creative bent of the film—return, repetition—not to mention its own status as a seventh film, even if it has a more pleasant ring to it.

Anders: Yes, and the notion of return is something that Lucas already went with in Return of the Jedi, even with the notion that that film returns to the locales and situations of the original—Tatooine, a newer, bigger Death Star, etc. But I do think The Force Awakens is different somehow in its return to the past.

Anton: There are a great deal of retreads in The Force Awakens. I mean, it’s almost a remake of A New Hope. I don’t think that’s entirely unfair to say. I know this sounds like I’m reiterating the backlash against the movie (and I’m aware there’s already a strong backlash-to-the-backlash in motion, in typical 2010s fashion), but Abrams’ defensive comments about repetition and myth, and, “you know, well, Lucas borrowed a lot too” (I paraphrase)—frankly, they just don’t own up to the amount of repetition in the film, nor do I think they actually do justice to the interesting themes he does create with the repetitions.

Matt Zoller Seitz offered some interesting comments on 2015’s other big box office sequel/reboot: Jurassic World. Basically, he says that that film incorporates meta-commentary about its own status as a sequel and a franchise product into the diegesis, the world of the film itself. Seitz cites the comments in Jurassic World about creating “bigger, louder” dinosaurs with “more teeth,” but I would also point to Jake Johnson’s comments about how “legit” the old park was, a moment when Johnson basically echoes fannish defence of the original film’s special effects and retro 90s appeal.

To return to The Force Awakens, could we think, for instance, of Kylo Ren’s obsession with Vader as meta-commentary on how many fans worship a villain, linking Kylo’s misguided fetishization of Vader’s mask with the adoration of certains fans for the “badass” Vader? (To clarify, Vader is a great character, but I’m sometimes uncomfortable with the levels of adoration some fans profess for the villain, or at best tragic hero, of the series. And Kylo’s emotional instability and inherent childishness is actually a great bridge to the prequels’ understanding of Anakin, who turned to the dark side because of fear of loss, not because he’s so damn cool and badass.)

In general, though, The Force Awakens seems to involve less explicit meta-commentary, but I would suggest that, like Jurassic World, it’s also what I might term a “diegetic reboot.” This might be a new phenomenon in the franchise era of filmmaking we are inhabiting. Reboots are happening all the time, but now films that act as narrative successors can also function as thematic revivals and franchise reboots, even remaking situations and events from the earlier films. I think this goes beyond the usual patterns and repetitions of sequels and films in a series standard in the 80s and 90s, and is actually a product of the hyper-postmodern franchise era, when there’s so little new or original and studios want to both continue stories while still distinguishing their new products. Skyfall inhabits similar ground, in how it both references back to previous films (e.g. with the old Aston Martin) while also starting everything again (new Q, new Moneypenny, etc.).

Aren: Ryan Coogler’s Creed also operates in a similar way.

Anton: Yup—wow, there’s another one.

Anders: I think that the term “diegetic reboot” is an apt one, but perhaps this film doesn’t take it quite as far as J.J. Abrams’ last series reboot, Star Trek. In Star Trek (2009), they wanted a fresh start, not setting the films in the future, so they developed a complex “in universe” explanation for the reboot, involving time-travelling and changing destinies. As we discussed in our James Bond series, the Bond films have never had a strict continuity and had multiple “reboots” over the series while maintaining other elements of continuation. In this sense I think that Jurassic World is the most apt comparison for what you’re talking about. In The Force Awakens we get the fresh start in terms of a new generation of heroes, but also the repetition of key events and structures that were beloved.

Anton: Because both those films need to be able to stand alone, in order to maximize the audience.

A friend of mine couldn’t stand The Force Awakens because he thought it was basically a ripoff of the original Star Wars. I don’t really have a problem with the repetition, but I can understand my friend’s feelings even if I don’t share them. They point to the fact that The Force Awakens is not a great new thing. It’s something great being done again very well. Stephanie Zacharek says that “somewhere along the way, Abrams begins delivering everything we expect, as opposed to those nebulous wonders we didn’t know we wanted.” For all their flaws and idiosyncrasies, the prequels actually broke new ground, but they were punished for feeling different and for having different interests. Fans didn’t want something new—they never want the new—they wanted the same thing done again with just enough variation.

The other weird phenomenon in franchise films right now is the fact that the generations continuing the long running series like Star Wars and Bond are all people who grew up as fans of the originals. Umberto Eco said the use of cliché and convention by the astute cinephiles, Lucas and Spielberg, is different than the almost unconscious thousand clichés of Casablanca. Similarly, new Star Wars and Bond films are conscious of the legacy of their respective series in such a profound way. Casino Royale is aware of the 007 legacy in a way that the winky old Bond films, which can still be self-referential, aren’t. The Force Awakens could never have been unconsciously Star Wars. I don’t think the prequels are either, partly because of Lucas’s interest in mythic repetition and partly because of his creative team, which consisted of both veterans and youngish fans. What Star Wars was was already cemented.

There was that great time around Empire when the horizon could truly expand, because what Star Wars was wasn’t entirely known yet.

Aren: I think you hit on a lot of interesting points here. I think it is necessary to clarify for readers that you don’t mean nostalgia as a derogatory term here, if I’m reading you and Anders correctly.

Anton: I’m simply talking about that longing for a past thing, and not about whether such longing is healthy or not. Nostalgia is not necessary wrong, but, by definition I think, it is a limited or limiting view of past.

Aren: So it’s merely a descriptive term, not a qualitative one.

Anders: Yes, it’s descriptive. But it’s also by definition about a longing for something that you can’t ever get back. It’s illusory and impossible. That’s kind of why I think some of us are having mixed feelings about certain aspects of the film. It aims to recreate an experience, but it’s an experience that we can never fully recover. Remember how in the first season of Mad Men Don Draper reminded us that the word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek for “the pain from an old wound.” The nostalgic aspect of Star Wars is especially strong for people who grew up with the film, and they have a desire to share the same experiences with their kids and recover their childhood. I think it also explains some of the antipathy aimed at Lucas regarding the prequels and the choice of horrible analogy that people used to describe those films.

Anton: I’d say, more descriptive than qualitative.

Aren: That’s fair. I think the comparison to Jurassic World actually clarifies a lot about what The Force Awakens does right. Unlike Jurassic World, which I enjoyed well enough, The Force Awakens doesn’t use nostalgia as the entire justification for its existence. In Jurassic World, the most triumphant moment is when Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) unleashes the Tyrannosaurus Rex to fight the Indominus Rex. All of the enjoyment of that scene is contingent on the viewer’s love of the T-Rex from the original Jurassic Park. The Force Awakens doesn’t so heavily rely on nostalgia to provide the emotional satisfaction of its big moments, like the bridge scene between Han and Kylo Ren, or Rey’s fight with Ren in the woods. These scenes are familiar in their function and visual elements, but they’re new in their content and themes. The Force Awakens lets nostalgia carry the smaller moments, like when Han and Chewie show up on the Falcon or after they escape the gangsters and Finn accidentally activates the holochess.

Anders: I agree. This is why I ultimately enjoyed the film. It doesn’t feel purely redundant. The things that are new are genuinely the most interesting things about the film. While there are callbacks, they don’t dominate the plot. The echoing happens in the structural similarities rather than the repetition of exact plot points.

Anton: The holochess board was pure fan service. I didn’t need that moment, since I remember the original moment well enough.

I think you’re right about Abrams’ ending too. After my first viewing, I was fairly unhappy with the assault on Starkiller Base, since it’s pretty much a less-tense version of the assault on the first Death Star. But, as you point out, the narrative and emotional centre of the film is not the blowing up of Starkiller Base. The destruction of the Death Star is the central moment of A New Hope. That film ties Luke’s hero’s journey and his growth in the Force to the assault on the Death Star. The assault on Starkiller Base is more akin to the assault on the droid control ship in Phantom Menace, which raises the question of why we even needed a big space weapon in this one.

Aren: We probably didn’t. The idea of a massive weapon is more of a fun thing for designers to create, than something that’s essential to the story they were going for.

Fandom and Fan Service

Aren: As for your comments about Kylo Ren and his fanboy obsession with Darth Vader, I do think this is deliberate commentary on the part of the filmmakers. As well, there’s a counter meta-commentary to this critique in Rey’s collection of toys in her AT-AT home. She has a small doll dressed up like a Rebel pilot (its straw-blond hair means it’s likely a toy of Luke Skywalker, specifically) and she wears an over-sized X-wing pilot’s helmet as a means of unwinding at the end of a hard day. It’s as if The Force Awakens is showing the two scales of fandom: that if fandom is a retreat from a harsh world, then it’s good, but if it fuels one’s bitterness and disappointment with reality, then it’s harmful. But perhaps I’m reading too much into things.

Anton: No, I like the comparison between Ren’s obsession with Vader and Rey’s attachment to the leftovers of the previous war, such as her AT-AT shelter, the pilot’s helmet, and her fighter pilot doll. Ren is consumed with his relic of Vader. Rey finds solace in the stories and remains of the original film’s events, but she also has to learn to grow up and move on. She can’t stay on Jakku forever, waiting for a return that’s never going to happen. Perhaps J.J. should just point to that element to defend his film.

Anders: I think the defensiveness over this film is to an extent unnecessary, as we’ve discussed here. But that J.J. and others are exhibiting defensiveness at all shows that the fact the film works might owe more to the quality of the overall structure that is the Star Wars series than the specific handling of the repetitions on the part of this particular creative team.

Aren: I don’t know about that. I think some defensiveness is excusable. Not only is Abrams a fan playing with the biggest franchise in film history, but after the reactions to the prequels, he had to expect some intense pushback. He also doesn’t have the luxury of reiterating George Lucas’s defense, which is that Lucas invented the franchise so he can do whatever he wants with it. Star Wars used to literally belong to him.

Anton: Abrams has to prove his ownership or authorship.

Aren: Exactly, and justify Disney’s ownership in the process.

Anton: The question, then, is whether there is too much nostalgia and fan service in the movie?

In some respects, the film could be viewed as a sort of checklist of items that adult fans have been hungry for. Han Solo, smugglers, and gangsters. Check. Plenty of humour, but less childish and slapstick. Check. Keep the politics to a minimum. Check.

Would someone unfamiliar with Star Wars really enjoy this movie?

Aren: Why wouldn’t they? First of all, there are not a huge amount of moviegoers who are completely unfamiliar with Star Wars.

Anton: I think there are more than you think. I know people who’ve never seen a Star Wars movie, and just have no interest.

Aren: I’ll trust the box office numbers over your anecdotal evidence.

Anton: I wish there were an actual way to determine the percentage of the population who sees a movie, because, while box office is an indication, it also doesn't take into account people who go multiple times—like you, Aren.

Anyways, what I’m really wondering—and, readers, please respond in the comments below—is how accessible and enjoyable is this film for someone who has never really seen a Star Wars movie before? I think this movie is primarily geared towards fans of the original series. While there’s plenty to please people of all ages, I think it skews older than most of the earlier films do (in contrast to the claims that it’s too childish). I think it was more designed to please a generation of fans than to ignite a new one, though admittedly they try for both.

Anders: I think this film is one of the most widely embraced films in culture that I can remember in a long time, and also embraced and enjoyed by the population as a whole, not just genre fans (though that segment of the population is much bigger than it once was as well). If you mean by people who are “unfamiliar” with Star Wars, you mean people who aren’t obsessed with Star Wars, but rather probably watched the originals a few times, saw the prequels in theatres, and aren’t following books, games, and other lore, yes these people really seem to like the film.

Aren: The film is probably geared more to placating old fans of the franchise instead of creating new fans, but let’s be serious here. The Star Wars movies are the most popular films of all time. When you say the film’s target audience is fans of the original trilogy, you say that as if that target is a limitation, when in fact, fans of the original trilogy are probably a larger demographic than almost any other one you can think of. It’s not like they sold themselves short in broad appeal here. Although I do agree that it’s definitely playing hard to fans of A New Hope. You don’t get any Jar Jar Binks or General Grievous references alongside the nods to trash compactors and Boba Fett. (Although I was glad for the reference to a clone army they do have.)

Anton: What do unfamiliar kids think about this movie? I guess that’s hard to tell since there’s such a Star Wars industry of toys and televisions shows.

Anders: The kids aren’t even really that unfamiliar with it. The Force Awakens is as much a marketing and toy event as a film. The kids in my son’s kindergarten class mostly haven’t seen the film, but they were very excited about new Lego, books, and other toys. They are all familiar with the basic characters now, especially Kylo Ren, BB-8, and Rey, even if they haven’t seen the film. It’s a hit already, on just the level of iconography and recognition, with elementary school-age children.

Anton: Anecdotally, a friend of my mine was dragged to the movie with her husband (who is a fan of the original films) and she sort of enjoyed it, but she also thought it was kind of hokey and that the dialogue was corny at times—complaints levelled about all the movies over the years, but complaints many fans relegate to the prequels alone.

Despite claims about better camerawork and tighter dialogue, I would wager that this film does little to persuade non-fans that Star Wars is actually good, the way Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy or Skyfall appealed to non-fans of those franchises. In fact, I’m happy to say that the film doesn’t transcend, or even attempt to transcend, what a Star Wars film is.

Han Solo’s Demise

Anton: The film really tests the admirable qualities and weaknesses of Han Solo, both the diegetic character and the filmic creation. Is this the Han Solo story we wanted? Is it the Han Solo story we needed?

Anders: It’s funny that Harrison Ford always complained about these kinds of films, but he’s the best in The Force Awakens that he’s been in at least a decade or more. He’s funny, but treats the role with appropriate seriousness.

Aren: You think he’s much better here than in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? He’s also really good in The Age of Adaline. Seriously.

Anders: Maybe he’s just so gleeful that he finally gets to kill off the character the way he wanted it to happen in the original trilogy, but I think he’s finally realized how important Han Solo is to people and that that this was his chance to return to the character that really made him a star and the one (along with Indiana Jones) that he will be most remembered for into posterity.

Anton: Whether Harrison Ford or Lawrence Kasdan were happy about it, Lucas was very intentional in creating a reforming narrative for Han. In the first film, he’s the cool dude, but he’s also not a good man, and he has to learn self-sacrifice from the goofy farm boy. And this arc continues throughout the original trilogy. Granted, most Expanded Universe writers didn’t know what to do with the less cold, less cool, more reformed Han of Return of the Jedi, and like Abrams and Kasdan, those writers usually decided to go back to the well and bring in some of the more roguish elements again, or else they kept him fairly boring.

Now, I disagree with Lucas about Han shooting first, but amidst that debate people forget that the themes Lucas built into Star Wars mean that Han needs to change. His roguish ways are part of what keeps him from being the hero he could be.

It’s interesting that in The Force Awakens Han, and the fans, get to have it both ways—Han’s back to his old smuggling ways as well as the most noble he’s ever been. I wasn’t pleased by the idea that Han had to go and become a smuggler again, as if it were the only thing he was ever good at. He was a prominent Rebel war hero and leader, by the way.

Aren: Yeah, and he was never a good smuggler anyway. In the midst of people’s adoration of Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon, people forget that Han always messed up his smuggling missions and that the Falcon breaks all the time.

But there are also some really interesting things going on here with Han’s character. Yes, he double backs to smuggling, which is the safe option from a character and story perspective. But this is not the same Han Solo we first meet in A New Hope. It demonstrates growth for the character that he’s the one who reassures Rey and Finn that the Force is real, when he’s the one who scoffs at the notion of the Force in the entire original trilogy—not just the first film.

Furthermore, Han has truly become selfless. He might try to hide from the Resistance, but that’s more rooted in his desire to avoid Leia instead of any ideological backsliding. It doesn’t take much convincing for him to agree to help Finn and Rey, and once they get into the thick of things, he’s the one who pushes the idea of blowing up Starkiller Base, because he’s blown up a Death Star before. He’s the one who forces Finn to acknowledge that running away won’t solve anything (schooling him about foolish notions on how the Force works in the process). After they take down the shield when they’re fleeing back to the Falcon, he suggests they stay behind and blow up the energy regulator to help the X-Wing pilots overhead.

Most importantly, he goes out onto that bridge to face Kylo Ren, hoping to bring him back from the dark side. He knows that this choice could mean his death, but he’s willing to sacrifice everything to help his son and give him a chance for redemption. In this way, Abrams and Kasdan let Han’s final moments be the culmination of Lucas’s redemption narrative for him. Not only has he become a hero but he selflessly sacrifices himself for the chance to do good. The last thing we see Han Solo ever do is something that the charming rogue we first meet in the Mos Eisley Cantina would never consider.

Anders: For all the callbacks and moments that are supposed to give audiences a shiver of nostalgic yearning or a thrill of excitement, the best moment in the whole film for me is the bridge scene with Han and Kylo Ren. Both Ford and Driver play the moment perfectly. Despite the inevitability of it all (I knew as soon as Han calls out “Ben!” that he was doomed), both actors play to the emotions of the scene. It also helps that the sequence has some of the film’s best framing and composition. The light that streams from the door to the middle of the bridge. The callback to The Empire Strikes Back and the famous Darth Vader/Luke scene is implied, but it is a dark reversal. Really, it’s one of the darkest moments in the series along with Anakin and Obi-wan’s emotional final duel. It’s the one moment where the allusions work while simultaneously pushing the story forward in new directions.

The Ending . . . For Now.

Anton: What do you guys think about the amazing, swirling final shot? It looks back to the original series, but in many ways it’s distinct. All the other final shots are static.

Aren: It feels familiar but it’s also something new for an ending. I like it. It fits very well within Abrams’ visual wheelhouse.

Anders: It’s definitely something new. It’s not a tableaux, so regardless of whether moving or static, it’s not of a piece with all the others.

Anton: Abrams also manages to sneak in one of those “family photo”-type shots Lucas uses, where the main characters line up facing the camera (or with their backs to the camera when it’s a sad ending). We see Leia, C-3PO, BB-8, and Poe as the Falcon takes off. So, I like that he includes stylistic nods to the other six films, while leaving his visual stamp on the ending.

Aren: I don’t recall that. Are they out of focus in the background?

Anton: No, the camera sort of pulls back from the group, as they look at the Falcon. I don’t think I dreamed this up. (Readers, a little help?)

Narratively, is the ending too Marvel, with its cliffhanger? How the hell are they gonna start the next one? Can Episode VIII possibly not start immediately after this one? Because if they don’t, we’re all gonna want to know what Luke said to Rey when they first met. Abrams stole the glory for his ending, and I think Rian Johnson has one pickle do deal with.

Aren: I don’t think it’s too Marvel. I think crying “Marvel” about the way any big franchise is run nowadays is a little too easy. Star Wars has often delayed resolution within individual episodes. Perhaps none of the previous films have ended on such a radical cliffhanger as the appearance of Luke Skywalker, but it’s not like it’s unheard of for the series to get you interested in what’s happening in the next film. In fact, only The Phantom Menace, A New Hope, and Return of the Jedi truly resolve things for the past films.

Anders: This has been one of my complaints about the film. Not about the ending shot in particular, because I think visually it’s fine, but rather about plot. Marvelization isn’t just about cliffhangers, as Star Wars has had cliffhangers before, but rather it is about narrative information and where the story is going. So many things are left unresolved or unanswered.

To contrast the famous cliffhanger ending of The Empire Strikes Back, there’s a difference between what J.J. has done and what that film does. Empire ends after a major revelation of information that changes what we knew and makes us want to watch the next episode. Also, the capture of Han Solo by Boba Fett is also fairly clear resolution; we just have to wait to the next film to find out if they are able to rescue him. But in The Force Awakens, suspense is created not by the doling out of information but by the radical limiting of knowledge. So many loose ends and lack of information: Who is Rey? Who is Snoke? What is Luke’s reaction to Rey’s arrival?

It’s not quite Marvel, in which the film’s are constantly moving toward a plot point that fans know, which drains each individual film of narrative momentum and plot significance. This in some ways is quite the opposite: it’s J.J.’s “Mystery Box” in action on the large scale.

Aren: I also think it would’ve been bad writing to end the movie in any other way than having Luke finally appear. If the entire dramatic thrust of the film is the search for Luke Skywalker, then you have to end with the heroes finding Luke Skywalker. In anything, I would’ve been fine with perhaps a few minutes more, with Luke agreeing to train Rey, and then the film ending on that note.

Anton: That’s what I mean. Even if there are unresolved issues at the end of other episodes, a scene has never been cut mid-moment. While that’s not necessarily a Marvel tool—The Matrix Reloaded uses it more infamously, actually—it’s unusual for a Star Wars film to abruptly end the scene in this way. It’s a cool movie moment, but it is a cliffhanger, because we’re all wondering what will happen? It’s actually more TV than anything.

Anders: Some friends of mine pointed out that basically The Force Awakens is like a pilot episode for the new series, and J.J. structures it similarly. J.J. creates a bunch of questions and re-establishes audience interest. But it’s in the next episode that things will really be set in motion and we’ll get going.

Anton: Which points to an idea we’ve discussed before: how franchise movie making is increasingly structured like long form television series.

Aren: And many long form television series are increasingly structuring themselves as 10-hour movies.

What you both rightly point out is that Rian Johnson is going to have a real hard time starting the next movie in any other way than picking up right where we left off, with Luke and Rey on that island cliffside. But considering that the decisions Johnson made in writing Episode VIII influenced the narrative of The Force Awakens, I’m confident they figured something out that works well. It probably just won’t be a familiar opening for a Star Wars movie. They’ll have a hard time working a starship into that opening shot.

Anton: Title crawl: “Luke Skywalker has agreed to train the young Rey. Little do they know that Kylo Ren has survived, and now wears a Darth Vader costume.”

Aren: We’ll have to wait until May 2017 to see.