The Corporate Driven Nostalgia of The Force Awakens

I’m a second generation Star Wars fan. The love for the series was passed down to me from my parents, and as a kid I wore out my VHS copies of the Original Trilogy. Literally. I watched them so much the picture became noticeably faded. In a very substantial way, George Lucas’s saga was my introduction to real film. In short, what I’m getting at is that Star Wars is very special to me.

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Along with millions of others, I was deeply disappointed by the Special Editions. Why tamper with something that worked so well and captured the hearts and imaginations of so many people? While some of the purely cosmetic changes might have been justified, most of the edits were just so awful that it’s mind-boggling how anyone, let alone a professional film-maker (especially one once considered a cinematic visionary), could have thought they were a good idea. Greedo shooting first was just one of many disastrous decisions.

And then came the Prequel Trilogy. Honestly, I really don’t have the words to describe how terrible those films were, but as Obi-Wan would say, it was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror. Seriously, they were that bad. Lucas took all the worst aspects of the Special Editions and amplified them ten fold, resulting in a series of films that bore almost no aesthetic resemblance to their predecessors. It’s as if, somehow, Lucas completely forgot everything that made the originals work so well. Gone was the story’s emotional heart, the interesting characters, the quality writing and acting, the groundbreaking special effects, the mythic quality of the story, and even the natural sense of humor that flowed organically throughout the originals. Instead, the Prequels were as flat and lifeless as cardboard. They had the most uninteresting characters imaginable, and a plot that was needlessly convoluted, which was especially bewildering given the cartoonish slapstick humor of the new series aimed at kids.

When it was announced that Lucas was selling Star Wars to Disney, despite having some reservations about giving over total control of the franchise to a mega-corporation, the most mainstream entertainment company possible, on some level I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that Lucas couldn’t do any further damage to the film saga I love. And in theory, I actually liked the game-plan Disney presented, alternating official  saga “Episodes” with stand-alone films that explore the Star Wars universe in a new way. Giving the keys to the kingdom to some fresh talent was perhaps exactly what the doctor ordered.

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But then, in what I first thought was a bad joke, it was rumored that J.J. Abrams would direct the first installment of the new franchise; the very same J.J. Abrams who had recently taken over the Star Trek franchise and churned out a pair of extremely calculated, nostalgia driven films. Prior to that, Abrams had been tapped to reinvigorate the Mission: Impossible franchise. While many Star Wars fans cheered the news of his hiring, I was instantly apprehensive. It struck me as safe, predictable, and generally uninspired to turn to Hollywood’s go-to hack for rebooting stale franchises.

When the first teaser trailer was released, the first thing that really jumped out at me was that there was clearly a deliberate effort to be anti-Prequel. So far so good. But as the release date drew nearer and the trailers started coming out, I started to worry. Not so much that the film would be bad in the way the Prequels were, but rather that they would go too far in the opposite direction. I knew Abrams was savvy enough to avoid a Jar-Jar Binks level disaster, but my fear was that he was such a super-fan of the Originals that he would simply rehash them for a new generation. In trailer after trailer I started to see evidence that this was the case. But obviously trailers don’t tell the whole story and their primary purpose is put butts in seats, and using nostalgia is a powerful emotional appeal to the real fans. So I held out hope that Abrams’ film would find a way to carry on the legacy of the Originals without pandering to the fans in a lazy, condescending way, or without totally rehashing the formula of the Original Trilogy. What I wanted was for The Force Awakens to feel like a Star Wars film, but to ultimately be great in its own right.

Well, here we are. The film has been unleashed upon the world and it’s clearly a huge success. As of now it’s tracking at a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which tabulates the reaction from critics, and it has an astounding 8.6 (out of 10) rating on IMDB, voted on by the general public. In just 10 days it’s made over $1 billion at the worldwide box office. Clearly, this movie is blowing up faster than the Death Star destroyed Alderaan. Most people seem to really like it, including most of the hardcore fans. But I feel a great disturbance in the Force.

After finally seeing The Force Awakens for myself I couldn’t shake the feeling that something just wasn’t quite right. However, before I get into how this film went to the Dark Side, first what it got right…

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The casting of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and Lupita Nyong’o was fantastic. All of these young actors fully inhabit their roles. They feel like real people and they’re well developed characters. And, like the characters we’re introduced to in the Original, we grow to care about their fates and can relate to them on an emotional level. This was something the Prequels really screwed up, and it was refreshing to finally have a new crop of three-dimensional characters operating in a story that has a some genuine emotion and substance.

Another key element of Star Wars is its sense of humor, and Abrams successfully reinstated the natural, organic humor that flows from the characters’ personalities, rather than resorting to a cartoonish slapstick humor.

The film also isn’t totally overloaded with bad CGI. Although of course a lot of CGI was used, for the most part it’s blended with old-school costumes, make-up, physical sets and real locations. Lucas had tried so hard to make the Prequels special effects extravaganzas that he neglected the story and characters, and the result was a total disaster where even the effects seemed totally out of place. So, at the very least, Abrams didn’t ruin the film by continuing down the path of putting visuals over narrative. A bit more on this later.

Abrams also gets some important details right. The language of the opening crawl sounds right and sets up the story in an easy to understand way, fitting right into place with the Original tradition. And the film’s pacing feels just right. After an initial rush we’re eased into the story and it’s allowed to develop naturally. We get to know our new heroes Finn and Rey by observing them in their current environments, just as we were first introduced to Luke Skywalker, rather than having the essence of their characters explicitly spelled out. And in general The Force Awakens does look and feel like a genuine Star Wars film. The cinematography style, the lighting, the music, and the transitional wipes all pass inspection. So then, why can’t I shake this feeling that something is horribly wrong?

Where things break down goes back to my initial fears of the franchise being sold to Disney and J.J. Abrams being tapped to oversee the project. Despite getting many of the details essentially right and establishing an aesthetic that looks and feels like it belongs in the tradition of the Originals, more than anything this film comes off as a product rather than as a piece of art. The Original series might have been wildly successful, but this was surprising to literally everyone involved, including Lucas himself.

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Star Wars wasn’t designed to be a massive cultural phenomenon, it was just a personal story, told with honesty and integrity, which just happened to strike a chord with millions of people. The Force Awakens, however, is a film specifically designed to make fans happy. Or, perhaps more accurately, to not piss off the fans. Disney paid a lot of money to have the opportunity to sell this product, and in order to get the most out of their investment they played it as safe as possible. Make a technically good movie that looks and feels right, but which doesn’t take any big risks or try anything new, and sit back and watch the money roll in from fans who just want to forget the Prequels exist. It’s all so calculated, and kind of evil, like a Sith master plan to trick us all into thinking we’re getting what we want (a real Star Wars film), while in reality Disney is just laughing its way to the bank after bottling up our nostalgia for our childhoods and selling it back to us.

The Force Awakens is a rehashed version of A New Hope that panders to our longing for something innocent and true and real from our past. But it’s not really real art or a genuine cultural phenomenon, like Star Wars was in 1977, it’s a manufactured product designed to tickle your nostalgia for the real thing. And as such it can never really be a great, worthwhile piece of art in its own right, because its goal is to make a profit while reminding you of your past, and tricking you into thinking you’re experiencing it again. But it’s a pale, ultimately empty reflection of something that was genuinely meaningful.

Disney and Abrams looked at the Original formula that captured the hearts of millions, and blatantly copied it in a way that is almost laughable. Of course Luke, Leia, and Han are back in cameo/supporting roles, and most of the new characters are designed to be obvious stand-ins for the old ones. Rey and Finn fill the roles of the original young trio, Kylo Ren is the new Darth Vader, Snoke is the new Emperor, BB-8 is the new R2D2, Poe is the new Wedge (with a bit more personality), and General Hux is the new Grand Moff Tarkin. There’s even a new Death Star, except the Starkiller Base is even bigger and badder, of course.

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The film is littered with little Easter eggs, winks, and nods to the Originals in a really insulting way; things like all the staffers on the Starkiller being British, Snoke only appearing in holograms just like the Emperor did, Finn stumbling across Obi-Wan’s floating Jedi training ball and the animated chess-like game in the Millennium Falcon. There’s a scene that closely resembles the famous Cantina sequence. There’s a scene where the heroes are running around inside the Starkiller trying to disable its shields. Sound familiar? Most blatantly, there’s even a trench the Resistance pilots have to fly through during their attempt to destroy the Starkiller Base. These things are all in The Force Awakens for no other reason than to remind you of the first film, and to reinforce the idea that Abrams is fan just like you, and that he gets it, and that his film isn’t like the Prequels. Cute, huh?

Abrams’ film is such a calculated nostalgia machine, rehashing the Original formula and winking at the audience so as to safely guarantee that the fans are satisfied, that it ultimately fails to be a worthwhile piece of art in its own right. It exists only as an imitation of something else, and as a refutation of the Prequels. Though, ironically, by trying so hard to be anti-Prequel, despite laying some decent narrative groundwork to build from and establishing some interesting characters, some strange common sense mistakes are made, just like in those despised movies.

For example, Rey is a interesting character, but her intentional use of the Force without any knowledge or training whatsoever makes no sense. How would she even know what a Jedi Mind Trick is, let alone how to do it? And also, simply learning that you’re strong with the force doesn’t automatically make you skilled in the art of the lightsaber. Likewise, Finn’s showdown with Kylo Ren is highly improbable, given that Kylo is a highly skilled user of the Dark Side and Finn is just an ex-Stormtrooper who used to work in sanitation. How Finn holds his own in the fight makes no sense. That might sound like geeky nitpicking, but the point is, Lucas didn’t make those kind basic logical mistakes in the Original trilogy. Abrams knew he needed a lightsaber fight in the film, so magically Finn and Rey know how to use a lightsaber.

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And even though I praised the restrained use of CGI earlier, the original Star Wars was a film that broke new ground visually. Lucas was an artist who had a bold vision for how he wanted the film to look, and his effort to create a new kind of visual experience moved cinema forward by light-years. This new film looks “good,” but in a very safe, generic way. It really offers nothing new, and in terms of being an exciting visual experience, it doesn’t compare to any of the Original films. Also, its motion capture simply isn’t good enough and wastes the good performances of Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis, and I was really hoping that Abrams would take advantage of this opportunity to do something really striking, like James Cameron did with Avatar. But Abrams simply doesn’t have Cameron’s talent.

Even though Abrams has made a film that may look and feel like a real Star Wars film, it’s ultimately fraudulent. Capturing the magic of Star Wars is about more than imitating the look, rehashing the formula of the original, and throwing in some cheap Easter eggs. A Star Wars film needs to be more than a corporation’s calculated attempt to please the most fans in the safest way possible by repackaging nostalgia in an insulting way. A real Star Wars film needs to be a personal, heartfelt piece of art. A real Star Wars film has to take some sort of a risk. It’s not The Avengers, it’s Star Wars. It’s special.

As bad as the Prequels were, at least Lucas knew better than to totally rehash what he had already done. The Force Awakens isn’t made by an artist trying to make a meaningful, personal film. It’s a product made by Hollywood’s most mainstream studio and the town’s most successful corporate hack.

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But of course, as a hopelessly devoted fan, I’ll be looking forward to Rogue One, and especially to Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII, which I hope has the emotional weight and cinematic integrity of The Empire Strikes Back, building on the good things Abrams established for The Force Awakens, but leaving behind all the condescending fan service and corporate driven nostalgia.

5 thoughts on “The Corporate Driven Nostalgia of The Force Awakens

  1. You write very well, and I thoroughly enjoyed this look at the new movie. I have to say though….as the original fan who enticed you to watch the movies over and over….I liked the new movie. I didn’t LOVE it, like I loved the first film when I was a 16 year old girl seeing it for the first time, but I liked it.
    I’m holding out hope for the next one to become what you’re looking for.

  2. You lost me at your description of Kylo Ren.

    He’s basically a padawan, which is made clear. Sure he looks and tries to act the part of the dark side knight, but he’s a kid with a temper as is made clear many times. He isn’t some acrobatic force wielding bad ass. He’s a rookie sith who’s never faced any legitimate threat and who has never had to battle others wielding lightsabers.

    • I understand that, but the guy can stop laser blasts in mid air and freeze people. People like Finn and Rey would be absolutely no match for him, even if he’s still in training.

      • I believe the only reason Rae and Finn were able to hold their own is that Ren was seriously hurt. He had just been shot and was favoring his left side. Plus, he seemed to want Rae alive.

        As for the fact that the movie is highly derivative of the original, I can’t refute it. There are numerous parallels. However, I did enjoy the many subversions of our expectations. For instance, the film delighted in putting Rae in harm’s way only to have her handle herself while another male character awkwardly tried to come to her rescue. Also, I liked how Rae, unlike Luke or even Annikan, did not dream of going to the stars. She was dragged off world by necessity rather than the zeal to see the galaxy like her cinematic precedents.

        And if we’re saying any film that was created to make a profit can’t be art, then I think you’re needlessly simplifying the industry and essentially saying almost no films are art. Studios green light films because they want them to make a profit. The skilled filmmaker can work within that framework to create a work of art that also pleases investors, and I like to think Abrams lands closer to this goal, rather than just making a movie to make money. This was a passion project for him. He walked away from his relationship with Paramount to do it. He loves Star Wars and it definitely shows.

        In summation, I completely agree that in many ways the film plays it safe. But I do not think that is a blight on the movie. It plays with our expectations enough for me to feel like they are doing something new.

        Also, leaning too heavily on the originals does not automatically remove the film from the world of art. That’s the great thing about art; one writer on the internet isn’t allowed to summarily declare something as worthy or unworthy of that distinction.

        Your article was a great read. And while I don’t always agree with your analysis, it’s always interesting to hear.

        May the force be with you.

        • Thanks for the reply, and I appreciate your perspective. The only thing I want to clarify is your question about art and profit.

          All of us, artists included, live under a system of capitalism. In order to continue working artists need to find a way to make money under this system. That’s just an unfortunate truth. What I’m trying to argue is the distinction between a piece of art being made primarily to make a profit vs. being made primarily as the expression of an artist’s vision. So, of course all films are made in the hope of making money, it’s just a question of whether or not profit is the main reason for its existence, or if it exists because an artist felt compelled to express something to the world, while also hoping that it is successful. It’s a cart/horse question of orientation and purpose. And, to be clear, I fully agree when you say a skilled film maker needs to find a way to express themselves artistically despite the requirements of the capitalist system.

          My position about TFA is that there’s really not too much genuine artistic merit to it, and that it seems carefully crafted explicitly to make the most money possible. If TFA was some kind of bold artistic statement that stood on its own legs, I’d have no problem with it also making money, at least as long as we’re forced to live under capitalism.

          Live long, and prosper

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