THE END OF MAGIC- REVIEW OF ‘THE FORCE AWAKENS’

EVERYTHING AND THE KITCHEN SINK

A misunderstanding of what makes Star Wars work

A misunderstanding of what makes Star Wars work

They threw everything they had at it: the whole Hollywood system, JJ Abrams, the boy- wonder specially groomed by Steven Spielberg himself, the whole Disney machine, all the toys that money could buy- but they could not animate the body…

I so wanted this movie to be good. We all did. So many have so much invested in it that many are refusing to feel the prodding of doubt about the movie, refusing to listen to the voice inside telling them that something is not quite right with this film. You know who you are: Refusing to listen to your intuition. Turning your back on the Force… That same inner voice has also been drowned out by the near universal acclaim this movie is receiving in the mainstream American press. 95% on Rotten Tomatoes… The chorus is unanimous: “JJ Abrams is a genius, George Lucas is a moron. All is right with the world.” The Empire has spoken, who dares say otherwise…

Unfortunately I’m going to have to disagree with the parade marching in single file, and be that storm trooper who mutinies…

NOT GETTING IT

From the opening crawl it was clear that Abrams does not understand what makes the Star Wars universe tick. The crawl reads:

“Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed. With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy. Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke’s whereabouts . . . .”

That premis is all wrong. Luke Skywalker is not the reason the FIRST ORDER has arisen. The FIRST ORDER has arisen because that is what happens when Empires fall, elements of that dictatorship and oligarchy arise to try to destabilise the freedoms won by good people- like what’s happening in the Middle East and Latin America now and across the world in the 70s or France in the 1700s. Tyranny never sleeps. Luke Skywalker is not the premis for the existence of the FIRST ORDER- the premis is ‘control’ and ‘domination’. Luke is important to the REPUBLIC as the last Jedi and for what Jedi represent as communicators with the Force. The REPUBLIC now rules so therefore what Leia leads cannot be the RESISTANCE but a type of PEACEKEEPING FORCE which is attempting to keep a newly constituent Senate in power long enough so it has a chance to set up a form of government that can successfully govern the Galaxy with integrity and in peace…

The crawl should have read:

“The Empire has fallen, but out of its ashes the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen to destabilise the NEW REPUBLIC and return to the dark times of the Sith. General Leia Organa leads a brave PEACEKEEPING FORCE to stop the spread of darkness whilst a new government establishes itself. Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker has vanished! The FIRST ORDER led by the ruthless GENERAL HUX and the mysterious KYLO REN has made a priority of seeing the last Jedi destroyed. General Leia is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy. Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke’s whereabouts . . . .”

Now that’s a Star Wars opening crawl. Why? Because like all the Star Wars crawls before it, it deals with War- its reasons and status. The human drama in Star Wars films are a direct consequence of War. Abrams’ crawl does not get its causations correct. Placing Luke’s disappearance at the centre of the war and rise of the First Order is a fanboy misunderstanding- not an insider’s understanding of how Star Wars really works. Abrams gets his metrics off throughout the movie because of this miscalculation…

To understand why Star Wars works we need to go behind the curtain to understand Star Wars’ structure. The Star Wars movies are about 3 main stories all operating at once: the story of the Republic- how a Republic collapses into an Empire and how Empires can be destroyed; the story of the Skywalker family; and finally it is the story of the Force and the concept of balance between light and dark, between the Jedi and the Sith. To misunderstand these 3 equal stories is to misunderstand the basis of the hypnotic power of Star Wars. Any inheritor of the Star Wars Universe must understand this and have a command of all 3 of these story arcs and their intricacies.

Abrams only understands and cares about 2 of the 3 things that make Star Wars tick- the story of the Force and the story of the Skywalkers. He ignores the story of the Republic completely because he- like most of the mainstream critics who have controlled people’s dialogue on the prequels- think that the politics in Star Wars is irrelevant. They could not be more wrong. By removing the politics Abrams has castrated the very reason for Star Wars and especially the reason why it has become the world’s largest contemporary mythology. Star Wars became World Mythology because Lucas was telling the most important story for the modern world- how do Republics collapse and become Empires and how do we defeat Empires.

MISUNDERSTANDING WAR

The movie gets the reasons for War all wrong

The movie gets the reasons for War all wrong

Every human being living on planet Earth under Western domination intuitively understands that story on a deeply subconscious level. ‘Republic’, ‘Empire’, ‘Resistance’- these words mean something to Lucas who understood that the transition of Western ‘Kingdoms’ into ‘Republics’, their collapse into colonial ‘Empires’, and then the ‘Resistance’ to them by the people of the world was the single most important story of mankind. These words obviously mean nothing to JJ Abrams who uses the terms loosely, failing to understand that ‘forms of governance’ and ‘human freedom’ are completely at the heart of Star Wars. That’s the whole ‘Wars’ part of the name!

That epic scope of human history magnified to a Galactic scale is what gave the context for Star Wars and invested the actions of all its characters with so much significance. That’s why Ewoks exist- because they represented the Vietnamese and other such grassroots resistance movements with the lesson that a super-technological Imperial enemy could be defeated on homesoil with primitive weaponry, common sense, and natural know-how. The larger political lesson of solidarity is the backdrop of the movies: grassroots anti-colonial armies (Ewoks) ally with a diverse army of like-minded Peoples (the Resistance) who stand against Imperial power (the Empire). This coalition of fighters ally with sons and daughters (Luke and Leia) of the Empire’s top henchmen rebelling against their parents (Darth Vader) alongside societal rebels (Han Solo)… That diverse anti-imperial coalition and their strategies to triumph provide the context for the Star Wars movies and is what we FEEL at the heart of Star Wars and why it resonates like it does. You remove that political context from behind all Star Wars films and you have ‘Power Rangers’ or any other fantasy franchise…

JJ Abrams had the opportunity to re-engage this epic story at the pivotal point after the collapse of empire- incredibly this is exactly the point of history that our planet exists in now. For a real artist this is an amazing opportunity to comment and connect deeply with a contemporary subject and a global audience. But Abrams does not have the same understanding of politics and global history as Lucas. We are at a moment when collapsing Empire is attempting to re-establish domination by reconstructing its machinery and by sabotaging the life of emancipated people. We also have elites trying to re-take power by any means necessary especially from the manipulation of financial markets and fundamentalism.

Abrams had all the seeds of these possibilities with the Stormtrooper child soldiers and the rise of the fundamentalist Knights of Ren and their slavish devotion to the Legacy of Vader and the Sith. Abrams fails the test out the gate by calling a governmental army ‘The Resistance’ and by getting the reasons for the First Order all wrong. This larger political context is why Star Wars has remained relevant for 40 years, and why- despite the fact that people say they hate the prequels- those movies will continue to be watched more than Avengers and all other blockbusters put together- because they are dealing with the central issues of humankind.

The Force Awakens premis is not big enough for a Star Wars movie- the disappearance of Luke Skywalker never seems momentous enough to hang the hat of war on. This is proven in the end when Luke appears to little emotional power. Nothing is done to show his investment in the rebuilding of the Jedi, the betrayal of Kylo Ren- his best friend and his sister’s son, the crisis in the Force that this might mean, the despair this caused, and how this relates, if at all, to the Republic reconstituting itself. If we had only seen the casualties of this it would have been enough. But nothing is shown. Luke is not important just for being Luke, he must mean something…

Lucas always showed stuff to back up the politics of his crawl. In A New Hope we immediately get a sense of the Empire, what it represents, and what it is capable of- and we get a sense of the Resistance. No such thing happens in The Force Awakens. We do not get a sense of the New Republic, of a government trying to maintain an uneasy peace after the fall of an Empire whilst the First Order rises and does damage. If you don’t have a sense of what is at stake- how are you to care about the actions of characters? Abrams does not show the Republic because he does not understand what any of these things really mean. Lucas did, and would have made the background of these sequels about the difficulty of winning Peace, and about the complexity of forming government after civil war when the surviving enemy is resorting to fundamentalist violence and is regrouping… That in fact was what the Expanded Universe books were about. Lucas always understood that the context of the story mattered as much as the star boy and star girl’s action. JJ Abrams misunderstands this entirely. His only textbook are the Star Wars movies whereas Lucas’s textbooks were all of world history, world mythology, and world culture. This lack of a sense of a larger sense of history and global mythology ultimately is what limits Abrams ability to give TFA that grander sense of design that Star Wars has at its centre.

FAILURES

A villain that does not invoke or resonate design wise

A villain that does not invoke or resonate design wise

The major failure of TFA is this depleted sense of design. The epitome of this is in the failure of the character Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren fails because visually he embodies nothing. When he appears onscreen he carries no vibration and no foreboding. This is purely an element of design. His character is also not invested with enough backstory for us to care about him and his relationship with his parents. And for fan boys who had so much problems with Anakin’s brattiness what do they have to say now about Ren?

In a previous article I spoke about Lucas’s mastery of design and it warrants repeating: “The genius of Lucas is that he merged human archetypes to symbols from global culture. Lucas plumbed world mythology, biology, and anthropology for characters, animals, modes of national/tribal dress, ethnic languages, and arcs of history looking for elements with resonance which he combined, synthesised, and transformed into new modern archetypes to create each character, each alien, and each weapon and vehicle, to tell his huge myth. The epitome of that design sensibility would be the creation of the greatest movie villain of all time Darth Vader. The words ‘Darth Vader’ is actually a German/Dutch/English derivative for ‘Dark Father’. Vader’s helmet was a combination of a World War 2 German war helmet and a Japanese Samurai helmet, his face a combination of a bat and a human skeleton, with the finish of a black sports car. His clothes were a cross between Dracula, a Western cowboy villain, and a Roman crusader. And of course everything was black. All this was brought together to create a vision of a mechanised man- a man who had lost his body and soul to ‘the machine’. Even his breath had become mechanised and oppressive. The brilliance of Lucas is the subtlety of how all these design elements were brought together. You felt all those references without any one dominating and being too obvious and descending into stereotype. You felt the layers of resonance without knowing what you were reacting to. That is genius design. This design genius and mythical intelligence elevates character into symbol and archetype.”

Not only does Kylo Ren have none of this type of design intelligence and layers of meaning in his character conception, neither does any other character, vehicle, costume, weapon, or alien in TFA. And the universe of the story is poorer for it. It means that each character is flat and one dimensional and is symbolic of nothing. This is true of the stereotypical smugglers who board Han’s ship to the underwhelming Maz Kanata. This then is not ‘Star Wars’ but a TV show set in space. One that happens to feature some characters that we know…

The inability of JJ Abrams and his crew to dream new things (the difference between Apple before and after Steve Jobs) is a major departure from the Star Wars we know. Every Star Wars movie debuted spectacular new vehicles and space craft that worked in new ways and pushed the vision of audiences- the original vehicles of the original movie, the At-Ats in Empire, the forest speeders in Return, the Galactic Senate in Menace, Count Dooku’s sail ship in Clones, Grievous’s wheel bike in Sith… This was part of a sense of continual unveiling of a Universe always expanding, always innovating. That innovation has ended with TFA…

Generic alien characters not worthy of the Star Wars pantheon

Generic alien characters not worthy of the Star Wars pantheon

This design vacuum was apparent in the conception of many of the aliens- they mostly lacked that animating spark that removed them from puppets and props to realism. They all felt generic and like inventions. They looked like aliens one could see on any dime-a-dozen fantasy series… Star Wars is more than that. Part of this was because the main thing Lucas insisted upon with all his costumes, aliens, vehicles, and weapons is that they looked casual, lived in, comfortable, and used. Most things looked uncomfortable in TFA. This goes from simple things like Captain Phasma’s clumsiness in her armour to the slow clunky movement of the 4 legged creature that Rey rescues BB8 from. It extends to how all of the new bad guys feel uncomfortable in their clothes- Kylo Ren and General Hux included. The weight of the cloth selected for their costumes is all wrong, and it shows the design naivety of this new team… The cloth is too hard and stiff calling attention to itself, and the openness of the weave and the weight of the thread is too heavy. These are things that Lucas made sure never happened in the Star Wars universe. It was always about the seamlessness and naturalness of each artefact- no matter how spectacular.

General hux uncomfortable in his costume

General Hux uncomfortable in his costume

And speaking of seams… There are NO outside seams in Star Wars clothes- until now… One of the reasons Star Wars clothes feels like “a galaxy far away” is because its clothes never had visible outside stitching that would resemble clothes coming from an earthbound sewing machine. It’s a small thing- but it is momentous. This simple tailoring decision takes the Star Wars drama completely outside of the realm of Earthliness. You would never see a jersey collar, a sleeve seam with stitching, buttons, etc- in the original Star Wars universe. They are all over TFA. In the same way Lucas banned all wheels and said things moved by ‘anti-gravity devices…

These laws of design keep the story in “a galaxy far away” which then allows the story to operate in a particular way. Abrams breaches these laws with costumes for main characters that mirror earth-clothing construction. And of course these costumes contain no global cultural or mythological influences. This removes layers of resonance from each of the characters. The early Han Solo costume was a cross between a cowboy sheriff’s outfit and a pirate. The Jedi wore Samurai influenced outfits with Shaolin Bhuddist monk fabrics with earthen tones. These references established layers of resonance for the viewers and built meaning at a conscious and sub-conscious level. This is what Myth does- and is why ultimately the characters Kylo Ren, Hux, and so many others failed. It is why, despite the impressiveness of Snoke’s size, he does not vibrate at a level of threat like past Star Wars villains and looks like a generic CGI character. He is based on nothing…

This uncomfortableness with scale is also probably what is responsible for the zealous over-acting of General Hux in his address to the storm troopers…

Abrams bringing of the drama to Earth-like planets (and hopefully not to Earth itself in the final shot) is a reflection of that part of his sensibility which is the opposite of Lucas’s who understood why each of his stories began with that simple blue sentence “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ Lucas understood the power that line gave him. The power to go as far away from the known universe as possible enabled him to tell the most relevant stories possible. Which is why all folklore survives, because it is animals speaking human truths.

POINTS OF DEPARTURE

Even if one has problems with the prequels one must respect Lucas’s genius and the sheer amount of craft that went into the 6 previous films. Abrams however listened to the fanboys more. The disrespect for Lucas is implicit in the first line of the film, “This will make everything right again.” It shows Abrams anti-prequel alliance with fanboys rather than to the man who should have been his mentor- Lucas- and unfortunately we will all pay for that betrayal.

The TFA opening shot is the weakest of all 7 films indicating a conservatism, and an uncomfortableness with the language of the film and the scale of its storytelling landscape. Abrams repeatedly tries to restrain the Universe and keep it small and manageable when the vistas of Star Wars are in fact infinite…

Star Wars is a soap opera- with an emphasis on the word Opera. Go back and watch the first trilogy and the prequels- go back to the A New Hope and listen to the background music of each scene. You would find that it is unlike the soundtrack of any other movie. It is not a typical movie soundtrack. It is in fact the soundtrack of a musical but without the characters singing. It is an opera, with each character or collective having a theme which counterpoints with the major musical movements. The Force Awakens has a soundtrack that is almost invisible. One critic demanded to know if John Williams had anything to do with the movie at all, so uncharacteristic is the music bed! TFA contains a conventional approach to movie soundtrack. And whereas it is competent- it is not Star Wars…

General Leia not even given the dignity to mourn

General Leia not even given the dignity to mourn

This sense of opera is also why things like weddings and funerals, medal ceremonies, and gazing at horizons matter to the Star Wars stories at the end: it is that sense of operatic moment. Which is why the lack of mourning and ceremony for Han Solo’s death by the ‘Resistance’- far less Leia(!)- is a missed opportunity and a breach of Star Wars movie protocol. As well as of human decency.

These things matter. These are the things collectively that elevated Star Wars from being just ‘good movies’ into ‘global folklore’ and ‘Global Myth’. People are not fanatical for ‘good movies’- they are for ‘Myth’. And we will find that if the directors of the next 2 films don’t repair the damage that the omissions and miscomprehension that Abrams wrought- we will find that the Star Wars franchise will die a natural death. We will find that these next 3 movies- although blockbusters- will fade from our collective obsessions- unlike the previous 6. We will find that despite the fact that these films seemingly are more ‘competently’ filmed in a conventional way than Lucas’s films that we do not have the same relationship with them as we do the others. That they will not generate Heat or Light- only cool. And they will die.

FATHERS AND SONS

I watched 3 films back to back- the original Star Wars: A New Hope, the movie Creed, and The Force Awakens a second time. I watched TFA and Creed back to back because they both are films dealing with past film legacies and narratives whilst attempting to relaunch their stories for a new generation. They are also stories that at their heart deal with fathers, their ghosts, and the idea of Legacy…

Creed is a beautiful, intimate film- it never abandons its human dimension. It always builds from the ground up. It is respectful of its source material but uses it sensitively to tell an altogether new story. It never disrespects the viewer by trying to cheat or use a cinematic trick to achieve a plot shift, character transformation, or draw an emotion from the audience. It allows these things to happen honestly. This is apparent in the way it dealt with the issues of fathers and sons, the weight of their Legacies and absences, and the issues of choices and inheritance. These are the same issues at the heart of The Force Awakens and the character of Kylo Ren (and possibly Rey). The masterful way that Creed dealt with those issues reflects a craft and sensibility missing from TFA. In just 2 short scenes Creed built the complexity of Adonis’s relationship to his father- the myth of Apollo Creed- so that whatever happened next will have resonance. Nothing like this was done for Kylo Ren and Han Solo so that by the time the father/son showdown happens on the bridge over the void there is no fuel for that fire to ignite…

Han Solo deserved better…

MYTH VS BLOCKBUSTER

‘Story’ is not Myth. Myth is the ultimate form of story, it is story that resonates in the cells of the human being. It has certain behaviourial characteristics. It is not a form of storytelling anyone can do because it does not rely on the normal tropes of storytelling. Myth does not depend on characters, effects, and plot- it depends on symbols, archetypes, sacred spaces, and transformations. Normal types of story depend on ‘storytelling craft’. Myth depends on ‘invocation’. You must be able to ‘summon’ the archetype- which is a thing that contains multitudes, it contains an idea, a people, a place, a moment. This is something much bigger than ‘a character’.

The design of an archetype requires intuition, and it requires an understanding of the Idea you are attempting to invoke, in all its dimensions. It also requires the fashioning of the container the idea comes in. Each piece of Myth is created in this way- every character, every landscape, every moment contains this essence and these transactions. So the Cantina scene in A New Hope is not just a room full of aliens- it is the Descent into the Underworld, and every single alien depicted in that scene contained physical resonances of things found under the soil, under the ocean, or demons from a range of global underworld mythologies. Thus when we experienced the Cantina scene it resonated for us the viewers in a transformative way. We instinctively knew our boy hero had left the farm way behind and had entered the unfathomable Darkness… There aint any scene one-thousandth that resonant in The Force Awakens…

THE THINGS THAT WORKED

A credit to the franchise- the best thing in the movie

A credit to the franchise- the best thing in the movie

The best thing about TFA was Finn. I believed him. He was funny, but most of all he was channelling the way Star Wars characters act. John Boyega speaks about watching hundreds of clips of the original Star Wars characters and their interactions, rhythm of language, and beats- and he nailed it. He was the heart centre of the film producing most of the genuine laughable and emotional moments for the film. He validated the other characters unselfishly. The film came alive anytime Finn was present. Boyega understands the rhythm of the Star Wars Universe. He is the glue holding the film together. This despite the fact that they portray him as the ‘always sweating frightened negro’. Boyega so dignified his arc that he subverted this stereotype and elevated his character. He is also helped by the fact that his character is the best built in the film- and again this comes out of the design-based filmic moments contained in what a Stormtrooper represents. This is where Abrams is at his best- he is a good deconstructor of Myth, not a creator of it. This is why he is strongest as a re-animator of old franchises. Unfortunately Star Wars is not just any franchise.

JJ succeeds with Finn because he is subverting and deconstructing a design archetype Lucas has already invented- the storm trooper. The arc of Finn is brilliant because it allows JJ to deconstruct a Stormtrooper and create a character out of it. This again is the only arc in TFA which resonates on multiple levels mythically because it speaks to the de-indoctrination that must happen to child soldiers globally. The fact that this is the opposite of Kylo Ren’s character arc is not explored… Finn’s arc goes from: care for a fallen comrade; the 3 striped blood stain on his storm trooper helmet; his not firing to kill innocents; his removal of his helmet to reveal his blackness and humanity; his rescue of Poe; his turning his guns on the First Order; his escape in a Tie-fighter; his getting a name; the sucking of the Tie-fighter into the sands; his mourning of Poe; his slow stripping off of Storm Trooper armour in the desert to replace it with Poe’s jacket; his constant caring for people and his sense of what is just; his acquiring of the light sabre; his one-on-one battle with a Stormtrooper; and his blossoming love with Rey… All these are character transformations that are built into not only dialogue but design and action. The film fails to do this as powerfully with anyone else.

Daisy Ridley an exciting young talent

Daisy Ridley an exciting young talent

Daisy Ridley was excellent, but is straddled with character transformations related to the Force that are too inexplicable, too fast and unbelievable without the filmmaking craft to back them up. There is a moment in Creed when Adonis has been knocked out when the filmmaker uses a device which he had restrained himself from using for the whole movie. It works to devastating emotional effect. Rey was not provided with those kind gears for her leaps. She does not earn them, despite the fact that Star Wars has a range of devices that could have been used to gift her them. So whereas her performance is excellent, her ascendance is great in a feminist way, it is bad in a storytelling way…

The pacing of the movie is very much closer to the original trilogy, the first half hour zooms along nicely with the clever banter anchored by John Boyega- especially bouncing off Harrison Ford- working in driving stuff along- but unfortunately a lot of this is because the plot is almost an exact replica of A New Hope. Exact. A message is intercepted after a massacre and hidden in a droid who goes to a desert planet where the heroes bounce up the stolen droid and are chased off-planet on the Millennium Falcon, etc. The repetition is so great that we may have come to a time to tell Star Wars authors that they are banned from using certain plot devices ever again. Guys you are not confined to A New Hope template, there are actually infinite ways to tell a story! And enough with the Death Stars already. Please. No more. Enough with the fatal design flaw, the trench runs and the planetary size explosions. Please. Thanks. There are millions of other ways to imagine Imperial military conquest.

THE IMPERIAL CRITICS

Reading though the Reviews one has to conclude, “Nobody wants to go against Disney!” Hardly a negative word has been said. Each little critical sentiment is carefully phrased with an apology or an adoration of something else. Fan boy hate is also policing any dissenting voice. The pressure placed on Abrams to deliver a film narrowly loved by the critics who have stirred up a fan boy hate of George Lucas and the prequels is great. The film therefore is an anti-prequel film- but in many ways it also is anti-Star Wars by extension. To paraphrase another critic: Art is not created by consensus or committee- and is not written by fans. It is created by Artists. Created. Not re-booted. Fans have been so heavily invested in this movie, in the trailers and hype, in the anti-George Lucas ranting, in the anti-prequel frenzy that they cannot allow themselves to feel just how much TFA falls short… This is not just a case of different writers and director, this is a case of a different series altogether!

I attended The Force Awakens with an audience of fanboys and girls ranging from those 40- 50 who were fans from the beginning, right down to kids and youths dressed to the nines in cosplay, boys walking into IMAX with light sabers… The movie elicited no major rises from them except for the nostalgia- the first appearances of the Millennium Falcon, Han and Chewie, Leia, Artoo and C3PO, and finally Luke. All elicited a ‘Yay!’ but tellingly not a roar- because there was no revelatory emotional, plot-based, or transformational experience attached to their appearance. Now, I remember how people participated with the 6 previous films in cinema- even the prequels everyone loves to hate now- people laughed, cheered, screamed, and cried regularly during these shows- genuinely moved by what was taking place on screen. That is the difference between Lucas and mostly everybody else operating in film today, a connection to the sweet spot of Heart, awe, and fun. The part that is the kid- even when discussing politics! I watched as people left the cinema after The Force Awakens, hands at their side, not animated… This is not what a Star Wars movie is supposed to feel like…

Han Solo deserved better

Han Solo deserved better

There is something used in movies to get you to know about characters, care about characters, know about the larger world they exist in- it’s called filmmaking and it’s in very short supply in TFA. Abrams has produced a decent movie and we know Abrams is more than a competent stylist- but obviously he felt trapped by the fans, the mythology, and its perceived conventions, and is innocent of the deeper rivers that run under the series that could have emancipated his tools. He kept putting Star Wars characters onscreen that somehow magically we are supposed to know and care about- but it does not work that way- especially after 30 years. You still have to invest them with something. Han Solo, Leia, and Luke deserved better…

THE END OF MAGIC

Although best friends, Steven Spielberg is almost the polar opposite of George Lucas. Whereas Lucas was always a maverick, an outsider who riled against authority and always reached for independence until he claimed it, Spielberg was always- in the words of author Peter Biskind in ‘Easy Rider, Raging Bulls’ “a company man”- a creature and a creation of the Hollywood system. JJ Abrams- Spielberg’s apprentice- is very much cut from the company cloth. He works from a very conventional filmmaking toolkit that needed to expand to grapple with the Star Wars universe. Instead he shrunk Star Wars to fit the conventions.

What George Lucas represents is Magic. And Genius with a capital G. Artists like himself Jim Henson and Steve Jobs are a particular breed apart who brought a particular Spirit to the world through the artefacts they crafted. They brought Heart, Freedom, and a Liberation of Imagination to their work. Their successors do not have that gift despite the fact that they now occupy the same house…

In TFA you had all the sets, all the costumes, all the beautiful original actors, all the markers of the same Universe, you also had everything the fanboys cried out for- ‘real sets’, less obvious CGI, less corny jokes, less ‘world-building, an anti-prequel aesthetic- and yet still there was no soul inside. It did not have the spark that makes not only a story live, but this ‘story of stories’ live…

The glorious failure of this project feels like not just an individual failure of a director and his team but it feels like the passing of an Age. It feels like some kind of Magic has left the world…

In a very different kind of article Tony Parsons, speaking about the death of the NME music magazine says: “What happens when the music is no longer the centre of the universe? The NME mattered when the music mattered.” Basically saying that what is responsible for the magazine’s death is not the ‘death of Rock’ or the rise of the internet- but the death of music mattering itself! With the chorus of acclaim rising for The Force Awakens I feel that we are talking about a parallel phenomenon in film: the passing of Lucas’s magical touch is part of a death of Music and Magic in Western civilisation. What is happening is that humanity is being forced to lose the capacity to feel intimately and to even hunger for such depth- and is being flooded with plastic placebos instead. It is a serious civilizational shift towards numbness, of noise and spectacle over Art. It is a monumental human tragedy and is something that we all must rail against.

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Posted on December 25, 2015, in President's Blog and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Excellent!…should be sent to JJ, Disney…and Lucas!…

  2. This was a paragraph that was edited out. It might summarise the argument better for some who still didn’t quite get the thesis of the article: “This failure: to invoke archetype; to layer meaning through design; to understand and invoke the parallels between Star Wars’ politics and Western imperial history; and failure to even deepen and validate the character and plot choices he makes in TFA means that JJ Abrams effectively de-Mythologised Star Wars. In The Force Awakens Abrams has removed the filmic and storytelling devices that made this story ‘Myth’. This is a seismic shift in the artistic heavens. It is not often that a work of art magnetises hundreds of millions of people across national, language, and ethnic barriers over 40 years and 3 generations… Abrams took a movie property that had not only maximised film’s power to match ancient man’s primal capacity for Myth, but which had created the world’s first secular global mono-Myth- and reduced that artefact to a normal ‘story’. A workaday block-buster. An elevated TV episode. To deafening applause! It is a moment for planetary pause…”

  3. A really trenchant analysis of a film that represented a waste of resources and more importantly a lost opportunity to reignite a storyline in a fresh way would have respected the core attributes of the original tale.

  4. I am so glad for this article. It perfectly describes how I felt when I left the cinema. I had hoped to see the after math of episode 6 instead you got a rehashing of 4 and a poor one. During the movie I felt myself frustrated at the blatant attempts to please the “fans” and that the opportunities for real new story were wasted. I don’t want to repeat what was already stated so briliantly in the article but the truth is as a fan I am not excited for the next movie and disappointed by this attempt to serve me something I already know. P.S Mr Abrams I have already watched episode 5 so if you freeze Fin in carbonite you would have failed this project in a miserable way.

  5. The bad underuse of Luke Skywalker,See Threepio,and Artoo Detoo is another reason why this film doesn’t work,since the film is supposedly based around finding Luke but is instead tossed aside for another Death Star battle,for why not have BB8 recharge Artoo to give out the rest of the map and then have Han,Chewbacca,and Finn go to the planet where Luke resides and lure him out of his self imposed retirement to help them rescue Rey. This film is so extremely frustrating(with everything so wrong in it) that it simply killed my sense of wonder of STAR WARS,as well as my lifelong love for the series. And No Way–No Way–is it a better film than RETURN OF THE JEDI,as all of the tool minded fanboys are saying.

  6. Excellent article.. you eloquently put into words what I could not.

  7. Interesting take and I even agree with some of your arguments. Definitely not all of them, though. I honestly think you give Lucas way too much credit while comfortably ignoring the prequels. Sure, you mention them in passing, but your analyses of the original trilogy doesn’t extend to the prequels and I suspect that’s why you don’t do it. To imply that Lucas has a profound understanding of world politics, I have to ask what prequels were you watching? If you’re going to talk about missed opportunities in the political spectrum of Star Wars, the prequels are missing just as many if not more than TFA on a one-to-one basis. That being said, yes, I agree that at least Lucas did -try-. I don’t know if you could call that genius, but I’m certain that his execution of the prequels will not endear them to the test of time as you hope.

    The only other thing I want to comment on is that you mention Lucas, Henson and Jobs all in one sentence about artists. Jobs? An artist? That’s not to say the comparison is missing the mark, but the context isn’t right. If Lucas and Jobs have a parallel, it is that they are/were both incredibly business-savvy gentlemen. They’re both incredibly-gifted salesmen, not artists. Ewoks as Vietnamese? Try Ewoks as an attempt at franchise mascots.

    I don’t say any of this in an attempt to invalidate your critique. You and anyone else who wants to give you a friendly pat on the back have great reasons to be disappointed in Abrams’ take on the legacy and it’s easy to sit back and pick apart a critique posted on the Internet, just as easy as it is to pick apart someone’s first entry into a universe that is unimaginably “heavy”, as it were. I don’t envy anyone attempting to revisit the Star Wars universe on film, be it Lucas or Abrams or anyone else that might come along. There is so much -more- to what made the original trilogy and in particular A New Hope special to so many people. It’s not just about the story, the myth, and the magic, the politics, the characters, etc. Star Wars has always been much larger than the film it’s printed on – that’s what makes it a cultural phenomenon (and a very lucrative business, to boot). It means so many things to so many people especially when you consider how people were first introduced to it, whether they saw an amazing technical marvel in ’77 or had it crammed down their throats by eager parents desperately wanting their children to like the things they like haha For Lucas to go back 10 years after the fact (unless you count the Special Edition stuff) and Abrams to go back 30+ years after the fact… it takes cojones.

    All I’m saying is that while yes, there are missed opportunities as you have thoughtfully written out, considering the sheer weight of the words “Star Wars”, I don’t think Abrams did a bad job at all. Out of necessity, I think he played it safe, linking Jedi with TFA, setting the seeds for future stories. By comparison, A New Hope wasn’t that much deeper than TFA; it was a simple story of good vs. evil (even if you want to read deeper into it) and TFA is the same. Time will tell if eps 8 and 9 take the opportunity (or gift) to transcend the trappings of a franchise and set the stage for things even grander – let us hope so – but let’s not fool ourselves: Star Wars will always be a business first and art second.

  8. I think you as an intellectual have given much thought to this. What I always noticed mostly in the New Hope is that the Empire characters have British accents while the rebels have Americans accents. This symbolizes the American Revolution when the upstart colonies stood up the a great empire like Britain, Maybe the lack of politics in the story is because they dont want to talk about what happens when an empire fails(like the USA?). Also dumbing down an audience that doesnt know the difference between a republic and an empire, or an empire becoming a dictatorship.

  9. Everything written in this review regarding the shortcomings of TFA and Mr. Abrams? Is completely fair and actually pretty insightful.
    Everything written in this review regarding Mr. Lucas however, undercuts those fair criticisms and makes me question the POV and credibility of the author.
    Of the two men? Mr. Lucas is the one who has changed over time. Abrams is a dime store Spielberg without a true masterpiece to his name. He’s just doing what he does. Anyone who is surprised by what he turned came up with? Wasn’t paying attention and needs to reset their expectations a little. He is today what he was when he began. Little has changed.
    Lucas on the other hand, went from a bon a fide pioneer to a person who seemingly couldn’t write then direct a bit of dialogue to save his life. He has so little confidence in us and himself, that it is presently impossible to watch his original three SW films in their original theatrical cut. He once testified to Congress about the evils of colorizing classic films. And yet now we cannot even see nor hear the original work of the cast and crew from ’77,’80 and ’83.
    F Him. Seriously. Go away. TFA is indeed a kinda cheap Star Wars cover band version of this universe. And it does make me long for the real deal. But ya know what? At least they showed up and tried. Don’t sell your life’s work for $4B and then cry to me. They (Disney)paid for it. They can do what they want with it. If you’re afraid nobody shares George’s -small “g” “genius”? Then he should have closed up shop like Bill Watterson with C&H and made darned sure nobody ever defiled that singular genius. Sounds like your real issues are with Lucas himself Bud.

  10. This is me of the funniest things I’ve read all year, so thanks for that. As I started reading, I thought ‘too much time on their hands’; that was before I saw the word count. Wow! I think one of the problems is that you are viewing it through the eyes of an adult, having long ago banished your inner child to the basement, which is a shame. It’s a good film, it just is. I spotted a couple of plot holes, but nothing more or less than in most films. It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, but neither was Star Wars. Let the fun back in, you’ll feel better for it.

    • Typical ‘You have no life’ argument. The author clearly has invested so much into Star Wars and you should be thankful. Instead you’re like, “I’m so good because I know how to have fun! Look at me guys! I like watching shitty movies for the fun!” Seriously dude? Respect the author at least. Also, you say “you are viewing it through the eyes of an adult,” with surprise. What are we supposed to do? Act like 8 year olds when it comes to Star Wars? I think you are the worst type of fan. With your own words, you imply that we must dumb down Star Wars to enjoy it. smh.

    • I watched the original Star Wars trilogy with my father. There was plenty for him to enjoy back then. I can watch those 3 movies and still feel the “magic” as this piece describes. I wanted a new plot. Some substance. There was an infinite number of directions to explore. This movie was simply regurgitated nothing. Abrams failed big time.

  11. @Luke Skyporker Typical ‘You have no life’ argument. The author clearly has invested so much into Star Wars and you should be thankful. Instead you’re like, “I’m so good because I know how to have fun! Look at me guys! I like watching shitty movies for the fun!” Seriously dude? Respect the author at least. Also, you say “you are viewing it through the eyes of an adult,” with surprise. What are we supposed to do? Act like 8 year olds when it comes to Star Wars? I think you are the worst type of fan. With your own words, you imply that we must dumb down Star Wars to enjoy it. smh.

  12. AnOldStarWarsFan

    I saw “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” yesterday with my husband and agree with your review. We were so excited to see the movie. Yes, the SFX, 3D, Cinematography, and the acting were great; however, we felt the story was mediocre at best. The big reason why we really loved the Star Wars series was the philosophy related in the previous episodes. These philosophical jewels were not always visible on the surface but shone very strongly in the world created by George Lucas. So, it was very disappointing for us that these philosophical messages were missing from “The Force Awakens.” I am not sure if we will be able to hear them in future episodes or not.

    Also, we thought this episode was more about making money than the more substantive Star War films produced by George Lucas. “The Force Awakens” is similar to episode four with new characters mirroring Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. We could almost hear the sound of coins falling from this movie as Disney declared, “The old generation of Star Wars is over, now we can make billions of dollars over the next 30 years from the new style lightsabers, dolls, games and remaking movies. Actually, we saw tons of the new merchandise in the shopping mall after watching the movie. I feel it is typical Corporate Disney.

  13. Erica J, I actually am speaking of the prequels too when I talk of the entire Mythic architecture that Lucas created and which Abrams and team collapsed. In fact the prequels even take the scope of the Mythology even further. But more on that later- I’m following up this piece with a critical look at Lucas himself and the prequels in particular.

  14. Thank you for articulating so well what I could only describe as my vague sense of disappointment with TFA. One idea that I think your critique could explore further is this: that the Force and its use have devolved into the realm of “superpowers” — whereas Luke had to train extensively in order to use his power effectively, Rey is instantly adept at using the lightsaber. There was no commitment of time or effort involved, no hero’s journey from innate talent toward proficiency and excellence. That was the thing that we left the theater really bothered by, and in reading your piece I realize that it was emblematic of your point: that the mythic structure of the originals has been lost, and replaced by superhero blockbuster styling.

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