Our Star Wars Holiday Special
SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY.To criticize The Force Awakens for “recycling” the first three Star Wars movies—to complain that it’s “un-original” compared to that original work of genius—misses the point of the franchise so thoroughly and dramatically that this critical impulse seems more interesting to me than the movie itself. The one thing the original trilogy wasn’t was original. Similarly, The Force Awakens is great, but it isn’t interesting. The jokes are good, the action is organic and compelling, the characters are well inhabited by competent actors, and the cinematography and music is excellent and consistently inventive. But everything that puts you in the moment, when you’re watching it, falls apart as soon as you turn your brain back on. As experience, as ritualistic performance, as society-wide holiday, and as entertainment-industrial-complex, Star Wars is a strange and magnificent and disgusting enterprise. As original story, it’s total crap.
But of course it is. The more interesting question is why we would expect otherwise? Why would anyone act surprised when the new Star Wars turns out to be precisely as predictable and coherent as the story of Christmas itself, or as nakedly designed to sell toys to children? No one complains that this year’s Christmas only re-packages and recycles the stories of Christmases past, and to pretend to be scandalized by how commercial Christmas is “getting” is, itself, a clichéd-to-death joke. The same is true of Star Wars. You can be cynical or you can enjoy it; you can turn your brain on or leave it off. But you can’t have it both ways. Star Wars is what it is, and you can participate, or not. But there’s nothing else it should be.
For starters, it’s hard to think of a movie franchise that so revels in its own tautological premises. After all, what is “the force” except a means of embedding narrative convenience directly into the story itself? The force of heroic protagonism is strong with this one, declares Obi-Wan; may the camera be with you. Because if the camera is with you, you can defy odds, physics, and logic, in an even more blatant way than on-screen heroes usually can. But the force is not interested in people that we haven’t seen in close-up; if you don’t have a John Williams-composed theme to mark the fact that you matter, you can and will live or die unnoticed. The “force” is just the diagetic trace of an extradiegetic will, an expression of the screenwriter’s desire as it gets projected onto the blank screen of the audience’s appetite. The force is strong with Luke because he is a stand-in for Lucas’s own wish-fulfilments, and so, the universe obeys his commands. It’s not subtle, and like Luke for Lucas or Darth Vader for Dark Father, it’s not clever. But it is compelling.
It’s easy and fair to complain that the original trilogy had precisely one woman in it, and that she played sister, love interest, and mother all at once. This is how infantile (male) fantasies work, and Star Wars is nothing if not an infantile fantasy. Lucas liked to claim that he learned to think about myth from Joseph Campbell, but he only started saying that later, after he had decided to pretend that he had done something other than magnificently re-create Flash Gordon with better special effects. But Star Wars is just Flash Gordon with better special effects, and for the sort of story Flash Gordon is—an infantile masculinity expressing by narcissistic phallic desire—you only need one woman, and you don’t really want more than one. A movie that can pass the Bechdel test is the last thing you want: if two women have a conversation—and if it’s not about you—it might turn out that your boy-hero character is not at the center of the universe. If you let society into your movie, it might tell you to stop being a child.
This is why, as Lili has observed, Star Wars likes to show us entire worlds being destroyed—genocides on a literally unimaginable scale—and then fades the horrors of those holocausts into the background, the better for us to obsess over the Skywalker family soap opera. Will Vader turn good or will Luke turn evil or will Kylo Ren come back home to his parents? Such narcissism is par for the course, even if Star Wars offers a more intensified version of it; the force is with the Skywalkers, and to hell with everyone else. But at the same time, this monstrous ethical myopia is striking because of how a mastery of visual scale has always been one of the franchise’s trademarks; remember Darth Vader’s star destroyer filling the screen as it dwarfed and pursued Princess Leia’s tiny diplomatic ship, or all the great set-pieces of small ships flying inside big ships. At the level of cinematography, the franchise’s mastery of visual perspective is sublime; why, then, is its lack of moral proportion so flagrant? What are we to do with figures like the pacifist Storm Trooper who reclaims his humanity because he refuses to kill, and who then goes on to kill dozens (or hundreds) of nameless Storm Troopers because, as Storm Troopers, they aren’t human? No camera, no force, no face, no matter? It’s the same problem we face when Luke refuses to kill his father at the climax of Return of the Jedi, because he knows there is good in him still: when Darth Vader proves Luke right, and turns good, he does it by killing the emperor, his own father-figure. It makes no sense when you stop and think about it.
The real question, then, is whether you should stop and think about it. Lots of people have done so, laboriously struggling to work out how it all does makes sense, adding stories and details and characters to turn a radically simplistic and mythically shallow set of stories into something that resembles the logic of the real world. For decades, the “expanded universe” was the umbrella term for this enterprise of filling in the gaps, the novelizations and video games and other archives of canon, less canon, and sub-canon material that made a set of flickering films into a universe. That’s all gone now; Disney destroyed it all with as little ceremony as it blew up the Hosnian system, the necessary blank space in which to build its own empire. Millions of voices cried out and were silenced, but now, a new revenue stream flows through the galaxy.
I wouldn’t overthink it. Take Finn the good Stormtrooper: what a great character! But his psychology makes no sense at all if you think even a little bit about the life he has lived, the world he knows, and the things he has experienced. The movie plays his fish-out-of-water bluffing for comedy—and it is funny and charming—but there’s something extremely unsettling about how easily he shrugs off a lifetime of indoctrination into a fascist death-cult, how quickly and painlessly he becomes one of the guys, just basically a good dude. This is a nice fantasy, and you shouldn’t think too carefully about a fantasy: how can he know he’ll never know his birth family, but somehow feel and mourn the absence of something he’s never known? Where is the ideological indoctrination (and psychological scar tissue) that would have accompanied being crassly made into biopower and canon-fodder? Where is his ambivalence about leaving the only life he’s ever had behind (and about killing those who stayed)? We don’t see a trace of esprit de corps within The First Order, because if we did—or if Finn still identified even a little with his fascist family—then it might have been difficult for him to kill dozens or hundreds or millions of them, and our pleasure in the spectacle might have been interrupted. Finn has never even had a name: he should be damaged and tortured, deeply traumatized and unstable. Instead, he has comic mommy issues with the absurd figure of the Annoying Mother Stormtrooper, who is easily overcome, humiliated, and then shunted off-screen to the trash compactor, with a wink to the audience (remember the trash compactor in the first movie? Get it?!). These are not problems with solutions. These are flaws so fundamental that the only thing you can do is let go your conscious self and act on instinct. As Obi Wan taught Luke, so long ago: Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them. Stretch out with your feelings!
If you stop and think about how actual human beings act and think and behave, however, even a little bit, there’s nothing to be salvaged here. None of these people should be doing any of the things that they do. So don’t stop and think. If you fixate on details like the fact that Leia should hug and mourn with Chewbacca instead of Rey, those details will draw your attention away from the very well-made cartoon you’re watching. And what’s the point of watching Star Wars if you’re going to look away? It’s not a criticism to call Star Wars infantile fantasy; that’s simple description. None of these characters existed before they walked onscreen, and they fall apart if you think too much about their paper-thin backgrounds. But that’s how action figures work: they are meant to be picked up and played with; they are not meant to be ruthlessly interrogated for their psychological coherence.
It’s the implication that there’s something terrible about cartoons and action figures that we need to think about. Like the Star Wars Holiday Special, Star Wars is ridiculous and ill-conceived, with moments of true grace. But you can’t have the childish wonder if you don’t embrace the puerility of it all; they’re baked into the same Christmas cake. The Force Awakens is a great movie while you’re watching it, because while you’re staring up at that gigantic projection on the wall, you’ll be watching it with your belly and your throat and your heart and your gut, as you should be. (Not your genitals, of course; this is Disney). But none of it makes sense if you try to watch it with your brain. So either do or do not.
Is hair, in technical terms, “excrement”? It’s dead and it comes out of our body, and Lili tells me that according to seventeenth-century thinking, maybe? So: yes, it is.Like his cartoonishly great hair, George Lucas’s great weakness might have been his desire to be respected and taken seriously; after the first trilogy, he spent decades pretending to be a great auteur who had planned it all out after reading Joseph Campbell, his key to all mythologies. But this is like pretending you believe Santa Claus is real. You don’t. Even kids don’t really believe Santa is real; how can they believe in something they’ve never seen? They’re just happy to live in the world created by that belief. To “believe” in Santa Clause is not to care if he’s real or not, but to count the hours down until you can open your presents. And if there is one thing sillier than Star Wars, it’s taking Star Wars so seriously that you criticize it for being Star Wars, for not being original, for having failed to be something different than it is. Because here’s the thing: I don’t know if George Lucas’ hair is real, but I love that he’s rocking it like that. And Star Wars works when it is exactly as shameless as that crazy lock of hair that sweeps majestically across George Lucas’ forehead. Who cares if it’s real?
Every beat in The Force Awakens reminds you that you are watching fan service. It recycles the original Star Wars with the same shameless and joyous abandon that the original trilogy “recycled” chanbara samurai movies, WWII movies, pulp sci-fi, and anything else that George Lucas happened to come across and devour. And this point is worth underscoring: Lucas gobbled up and digested so many different pop cultural predecessors, and did it so directly and shamelessly, that to subject any of the resulting crap to standards of originality is to fundamentally misunderstand how it works, or why. The man literally cut together footage from WWII fighter pilot films and then re-shot it as space battles; his first treatment actually plagiarizes Donald Richie’s description of The Hidden Fortress. But to accuse him of “plagiarism” is like accusing him of making a movie. If it felt good, he released it, and that’s Star Wars: sensation and feeling without thought or coherence. Star Wars is the indescribable goodness of the images and sounds, and the way that goodness overwhelms and digests the rest of it. Star Wars misses the target if it aims. Just let go, Luke. Trust yourself.
The best thing about The Force Awakens is that it reminds us how to watch Star Wars without overthinking it, everything from the howlingly cheesy opening titles to all the little winks to the audience that Abrams is in on the joke of this thing (“That’s not how the Force works!” or “So it’s another Death Star?”). Naming the new Mega-Ultra-Death Star the “Starkiller” base is a reference to Luke Skywalker’s original name in an early script; it’s a loose thread left loose so that, if you want to pull on it, you can unravel the whole sweater and see how hackish the “original” inspiration for these movies was. George Lucas literally tried to buy the rights to the Flash Gordon series, and couldn’t, so he just wrote his own version of it, and it’s exactly the innocent and dumb bit of fun that it was supposed to be.
This is also why the prequels were so terrible. They were marred by horrific writing and joyless characters, of course, but those superficial failings pale in comparison (or resulted from) the more fundamental underlying problem: they tried so hard to explain that they killed the joy of the thing itself. The expanded universe is a really sad place. Action figures aren’t fun if you know the entire story, and have a script to perform; the point of action figures is all the space left behind to explore and screw around with. How did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader? How did the republic fall? Where did the emperor come from? How did Luke and Leia end up separated, who is Obi Wan Kenobi, and where are all the mothers in this universe?
These are not plot holes; these are the dark matter that holds the galaxy together. Trying to fill them in, therefore, was a huge mistake. “The trick in art is not telling the truth”—as Mike Thomsen put it after watching The Phantom Menace on acid, which is the only way—“but convincing the audience you believe something that is self-evidently untrue.” The prequels failed on every level, then, because they tried to explain away what was self-evidently ludicrous. They tried to restore order to the galaxy by placing past, present, and future into a coherent cause-and-effect relationship: Instead of placing their faith in the force—the way an open-mouthed child lets the storyteller carry them off—the prequels tried to explain what the force really was (MIDICHLORIANS!) and worked so hard at it that they made the entire thing tedious and boring. They turned their targeting computer back on.
In finding the Luke who was lost, The Force Awakens also finds the George Lucas who was lost with him. For the prequels, Lucas went over to the dark side: instead of an infantile dreamer, he became a dad. But as it turns out, there was still good in him: having brought a deadening order to the force, he had the sense to hand off the lightsaber to J.J. Abrams, who can empty his mind and release the torpedoes with the very best of them, as his joyful desecration of the Star Trek franchise demonstrated. Indeed, the worst thing about the prequels was that they had become Star Trek, filled with nonsense about diplomacy, trade negotiations, and crypto-obvious political allegory. I love Star Trek, but as Abrams’ unholy violation of that franchise demonstrates, they are very, very different things: Star Trek was a projection of Roddenberry’s faith in human perfectibility—his mid-century liberal belief that the arc of history bends towards justice and that utopia was just a matter of time—so the Star Wars that Abrams made out of it is horribly perverse. Roddenberry looked to the stars and saw progress towards the final frontier; Lucas’ dreamed of regression to childhood. Star Wars is what happened to 1960’s idealism when it ran aground on the despairing hedonism of the 70’s and became the nihilistic narcissism of the 1980’s. Star Trek dreamed of a bright future, because Roddenberry believed that our present would be Star Trek’s past (the nightmare from which they would struggle to awake); Star Wars just stays in bed, dreaming, wrapped tighter and tighter in Jedi sheets.
The prequels were what happens to a dream once you’ve woken up from them, once you’ve showered and put on clothes and organized what you remember—by forgetting a lot of the truly weird parts—all so that you can convince yourself that you understand what it meant. Calling the lightsaber a “phallus,” for example, explains what and why and how, in ways that reassure you that you understand. But, as such, that understanding has nothing to do with the feeling of the thing itself, and even does a disservice to the energy that stupidly animates it. Giving “the force” a pseudo-scientific explanation only obscures the way “the force” just expresses narrative convenience, things that can happen once the reality principle has been relaxed. But to state the obliviously obvious: if dreams are anything, they are not their analysis. Dreams are what your brain does when you don’t demand that it make sense. You can subject them to rigorous analysis—and, perhaps, the rigor of that analysis might help you understand something about the conditions that created those night-terrors, or the work that dreams do to provide relief from the pressures of daily life. And you let dreams go, once you’re awake and moving around and doing daily life things. But dreams are also the literal opposite of work, the unspooling of your mind when your body rests, when the filters and safeguards and adult self-surveillance is all turned off for the night. You might need to rest so that you can work again, but this doesn’t mean that rest is work. And neither are dreams, or Star Wars: they are play.
Abrams’s version of Star Trek is a bad Star Wars: instead of the next Next Generation, he froze and fetishized a young and fresh and glossy and fun and breathtakingly stupid version. As a child, he had preferred Lucas’ creation, so he saw and re-interpreted Star Trek through Lucas’s eyes, evacuating it of everything that had made it what it was. When he took over the Star Wars—that had become a bad version of Star Trek—he did the same thing. But while making Star Trek regressive kills it, returning Star Wars to its origins brings it back to life. It’s precisely because The Force Awakens so thoroughly makes its own incoherence into a virtue—trying so little to make sense—that it’s able to have its cake and eat it too, and also to make great, organic, nourishing crap out of it. This franchise is nothing if not joyous relief and the infantile exhilaration of evacuation. Which is why, once you recognize that it’s crap, you can see why it’s wrong to talk about how the Force Awakens “recycles” Star Wars. It doesn’t: it composts it.