The Force Awakens, and Its Complicated Relationship With Lucas

4

December 31, 2015 by Devin

(Spoiler warning)

I believe I am at the point where I can honestly say that while I think the film is enjoyable enough and the characters really carry it, I am starting to see the cracks and story problems in The Force Awakens, chief among them how plain and predictable it is. Whereas George Lucas took influence from a wide variety of sources, from Flash Gordon to Samurai to Nazis, The Force Awakens feels primarily inspired by… well, Star Wars. It really does feel like everything in this film can be traced back to previous entries in this franchise, and that simply feels dull and unexciting.

Like really, did we need another Death Star?

On the other hand, the many similarities to A New Hope actually allow us to see JJ Abrams’ themes and intentions with this film that much greater; the differences stick out that much more.

When I watched this film a second time, I perked up at the part where Poe Dameron assured BB-8 not to worry, that he would most definitely assuredly come back for it. That felt oddly enforced, and knowing that Poe Dameron would not come back for BB-8 made the moment feel a bit sadder and odder.

Why would JJ Abrams feel the need to have Poe disappoint BB-8? After all, in the analog in A New Hope, Princess Leia giving the plans to R2-D2, Leia never makes that promise. Leia understood that this was the end of the line for her and that R2 was basically on his own. Poe should have come to a similar conclusion, but he didn’t, and focusing on that felt weird.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 7.20.38 PM.png

Poe, how could you disappoint a face like that?

Why did Abrams need to make this moment about a character failing another by abandoning them?

Then I realized this happens a lot in the film.

Rey’s parents left her on Jakku and never returned.

Han and Leia abandoned Kylo Ren when they were worried he was going to the Dark Side.

Even Luke abandoned the galaxy after Kylo did go to the Dark Side.

In other words, The Force Awakens is a story about failed parental figures.

This is a theme that was absent in the Original Trilogy. We were told that Darth Vader was Luke’s father not so we could see how terrible he is, but so we could see the light in him. On the other hand, we were told that Han Solo was Kylo’s father so we could see how Han failed.

When I said that The Force Awakens was influenced by Star Wars, I meant that, but I also meant Star Wars as an experience, not just the films. The Force Awakens is about JJ Abrams working out his complicated relationship with George Lucas.[1]

Compare the protagonists. Luke is a kid on a farm who knows nothing of the world. He relies on Obi-Wan to open up his world and expand his mind in the same way that the old serials and stories opened up Lucas’s world.

But what about Rey, the protagonist of The Force Awakens? She already knows how to survive on her own and knows how to pilot and fight, at least with a melee weapon. She reflects a vision more confident in itself, more assured that it will succeed on its own merits. Her independence reflects the themes of the film in general: she is a strong, independent protagonist who don’t need no dad. Unlike Luke, she can leave at any time, but it is her devotion to her parents, something she overcomes, that makes her stay and keeps her from her full potential. I feel like Abrams wants The Force Awakens to be like Rey: recognizing the strengths of the past while carving out a space for itself in the future without the need to listen to disappointing father figures.

That is not what really happens, though. Ultimately, though, The Force Awakens is more akin to Kylo Ren. Like Kylo, Abrams is obsessed with imagery without knowing what it actually means. Kylo looks upon a destroyed Darth Vader helmet, the likes of which inspired his own, and says, “I will finish what you started.”

But what does this actually mean? Does he mean, “I will finish your Death Star,” because if so, his approach seems awfully misguided. Vader’s journey, and the Original Trilogy, was never about Death Stars, but both Abrams and Kylo miss that, leading to a film and a character that feel like a faded photograph of a much richer tapestry.[2]

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 7.07.09 PM.png

Kylo, I don’t think that means what you think that means.

 

George Lucas is, according to latest interviews, not happy with The Force Awakens, and while I do think this film is better than the prequel trilogy,[3] I understand that. If Abrams is Kylo Ren, then Lucas is, without a doubt, Han Solo, and that bridge scene is probably going to be the best visual representation of the great Lucas/Star Wars divorce we are going to get. You can see in Kylo Ren’s eyes that there is a part of him that loves and respects Han Solo in the same way that Abrams clearly has a huge amount of respect for Lucas, but both Kylo Ren and JJ Abrams ultimately make the conclusion, “I am better off without anymore of you.”

Devin Faraci said of JJ Abrams, “I have come to believe that Abrams has no stamp to leave. He’s a mimic,” which is a fair point, especially when looking at something like Super 8, but I honestly think there is something more. His mimicry is his stamp. His ripping iconography from context and misunderstanding its meaning, which was famously awful in Star Trek Into Darkness, has gone from subtext to text here. He no longer hints at famous imagery but takes it wholesale and makes the film about taking it. No one else but Abrams could have made this film because it is a film that is so deeply wanting to be that film made by someone else.

It is worth noting that The Original Trilogy was also about the passing of one generation onto another, but the difference is how that happened. Obi-Wan sacrificing himself effectively passed the baton on. He saw Luke and knew that Luke would never reach his full potential by trying to be with him. In the same way that Lucas not getting the license to Flash Gordon allowed him to create something greater, Luke not having to stick with Obi-Wan allowed him to become something greater.

This is not the case in The Force Awakens. There are a hundred million different ways Han Solo could have died, and about 90 million of those are heroic, one last hurrah for a great general before similarly passing the baton to the next generation. Instead, Han looks into the eyes of his failures and crumples to the ground, surprised by his death, a decrepit old man who falls into the abyss. He does not so much as pass the baton as let loose his grip on the baton and drop it to the ground. Others have to pick it up.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 7.07.29 PM.png

I’ve made a huge mistake… literally.

 

George Lucas sees his childhood as something to draw from, something that is encouraging him. Luke even says, “I am a Jedi like my father before me.” Abrams sees Lucas as someone to overcome, something he needs to get rid of to make his own legacy.[4]

That results in a film that is deeply insecure. As he metaphorically kills off George Lucas, Abrams seems to be screaming that he does not need Lucas to create memorable characters and fascinating worlds while ironically still sticking almost wholesale with characters and worlds deeply influenced by Lucas. Ultimately, I get the impression that, like Kylo Ren to Darth Vader, Abrams is worried that he will never be as good as George Lucas even as he layers his “improvements” over Lucas’s works, and I have to imagine that that scared the hell out of him.

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[1] I’m not going to say that Finn being brainwashed since birth with First Order propaganda and one day deciding he’s had enough of it is analogous to this latest generation of Star Wars fans who have been raised since birth on the Prequel trilogy but later decide that they’ve had enough of that… but someone else could.
[2] Keep in mind, none of this is attempting to be an assessment of quality. I was both disappointed in and fascinated by the redundancy of the script; I have no idea how that translates to a numerical score or stars.
[3] Anyone who says this film had high standards to beat is fooling themselves. The prequels set an incredibly low bar for Abrams to jump over. If they were great, this film would be scrutinized to death against that standard, but because they were awful, fans are more than happy with anything that is mostly competent, which is possibly why Abrams was brought on board.
[4] Now I want to write a compare/contrast with Creed, but I am way too far into this particular post to do that now.

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4 thoughts on “The Force Awakens, and Its Complicated Relationship With Lucas

  1. Fiona Fire says:

    TThehe more I think about TFA, the less I like it. Less than the prequels. Say what you will about their quality, but those movies were going for it! Lucas was swinging for the fences. Crazy CGI world buildings and trade disputes and heavy focus on Jedi mythology– they were not playing it safe. Similarly, the original trilogy is way out there and way earnest and that’s what makes it so awesome. This latest movie played it safe and kept winking at the audience and to me that’s just not Stat Wars. Don’t get me wrong. There were some nice moments and the acting was good but overall it felt meh.

    Now, my taste has changed a lot since I saw the original trilogy when I was 10ish, but I don’t think that’s all it is. There was a really interesting story in all this stuff and a easy way to tie it to the old characters– Kylo Ren! I’m so puzzled as to why the movie wasn’t about him as it would have given Han and Leia’s and Lukes legitimate story reasons to be in the picture.

    • Devin says:

      I feel like my approach to the Prequels is the exact opposite of how I approach this film. With the prequels, there were so many good ideas and concepts at play that I really want to like them, but I don’t. They fail on the most basic character level so frequently and so often that it’s hard to ignore. With this one, even though I recognize and understand its problems, I still really enjoy seeing these characters and was engaged throughout, even on my second viewing. Abrams was playing it safe, but unlike Star Trek Into Darkness or Super 8, he was also playing to his strengths, and that really worked for him.

      • Fiona Fire says:

        I wouldn’t say that I like the prequels. They’re just bad, but I do appreciate the imagination. I like your idea of the absent father (though it really is bad taste to throw the old work your current work is based on under the bus). I feel about the same as I did with Mickingjay pt1/2. They sorta got some of it right and it was nice seeing the characters and scenarios again, but it didn’t feel like it quite fit the series.

        Have you thought about how Jurrasic World and SW7 both rebooted older franchises this year and both seemed contemptuous of their source material? With so many reboots, I suppose this was bound to happen. Just a bummer that they were the only two ongoing ish blockbuster series I followed.

      • Devin says:

        I wouldn’t say Jurassic World was contemptuous of its source material. If anything, it was contemptuous of itself and desperately wanted to be like its source material. That’s why all the action scenes felt weird and unsatisfying. And TFA definitely has a leg up on Jurassic World because Abrams is a gifted director, at least in certain regards, but he was able to keep the movie entertaining and the characters likable even when the story did not quite work.

        Which makes me really worried about Star Wars IX.

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