“At what point is it no longer Star Wars?”
The six Star Wars films produced and/or directed by George Lucas developed into one of the most beloved mythological expressions of human civilization of the modern era. I thought about this quite a bit as I sat relatively indifferent to J.J. Abrams very good new film, Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015). I shouldn’t have been so emotionally aloof at this experience. I had sat sobbing in a movie theater in May 1999 upon the release of Lucas’ Episode I: The Phantom Menace, not particularly because the film was any good, but because its rituals (the triumphalist John Williams music and the opening text crawl) returned me to a 1977 when I was a ten-year old boy.
Indeed, The Force Awakens delivers with its opening in ways The Phantom Menace does not. One of the great visceral shocks that saved popular American cinema happened twenty-two years earlier, in May 1977 as a giant piece of plastic that resembled a clothes iron steamed over top of our heads in pursuit of a tiny ship containing Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), R2D2, and the plans for the death star. The fact that the shot of the ship would never seem to end augured a grandiose cinema that would imagine fanciful worlds where great things were possible, a place in our imaginations that had long since seemed murdered off by the brutal realities of industrial modernity.
Conversely, The Phantom Menace begins, precisely to make the point about the taken for granted nature of peace in the Republic, with an understated tilt downward to a small craft hurrying to Naboo to resolve what seems like a mere trade dispute. To recapture the gravitas of A New Hope, Abrams returns the scale of The Force Awakens to the gigantic, with a ship, in the words of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), that is one of “not the local bulk cruisers mind you, I’m talking about the big Corellian ships now.” The opening vessel in Abrams’ film engulfs, beyond just the movie screen, an entire planet in our field of vision. Indeed, the rest of the new film goes to great pains to demonstrate that it is better because it is bigger: the Death Star, well that’s just small potatoes compared to the Starkiller Base, the size of a planet, and capable of destroying other planets from the other side of the galaxy.
I am fully aware that Star Wars is an insane subculture of its own, and poor J.J. is in a terrible position; clearly no decision he’s made will please everyone. As a popular Hollywood film unto itself, The Force Awakens is terrific. It has compelling characters, is craftily plotted, and indeed, it honors a film series beloved to hundreds of millions of people far better than did Lucas’ own attempts in Episodes I-III. I don’t want to produce an act of criticism that automatically assumes the new artist is inferior merely because he is not the original. Indeed, there’s nothing original about George Lucas in the first place, which is, in fact, my greatest worry about The Force Awakens.
What if what makes Abrams a better filmmaker (for example, that he has the good sense to not include Jar Jar Binks for comic relief without bothering to add the comedy part) is precisely what makes his films uninteresting? Filmmakers of Abrams’ generation take their inspiration from the so-called “Movie Brats,” a 1970s generation of filmmakers—among them, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—who were in turn inspired by classical Hollywood cinema. While Steven Spielberg also relied on a raw aesthetic talent that few artists have (his shot through the bones of a shark jaw that inaugurates the second act of 1975’s Jaws is one such bravura example), George Lucas was the worst of the intertextual thieves, merely kluging his own films out of the detritus of the cinematic past. Most of the Star Wars films, especially the ones he directed, are beautifully composed from the shards of other films, intriguingly some much better than his (Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress  serves as the grist for the banter between C3PO and R2D2) but also others much worse than his (the text crawls that begin the films as well as many of their action sequences come from low-budget classical Hollywood serials, such as Universal’s Flash Gordon, made in the mid-1930s).
This collision of film references often leads to dead ends (the endless monsters which attack Qui-Gon Jinn [Liam Neeson] and Obi-Wan Kenobi [Ewan McGregor] in the watery depths of Naboo in The Phantom Menace, for example), but at least this allowed spectators something to think about amid the terrible dialogue, the endless action sequences, and the array of silly special effects monsters. And sometimes, the things that one thought about were far more important than the films themselves: What does it mean that the first turning point of The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) motivates Luke Skywalker to become a hero in A New Hope, while Episode II: Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002) invokes the Indian massacre which ends that Western, to demonstrate his father, Anakin Skywalker’s descent into evil? One of the great features of the language of film is that it is translated via prior cinematic articulations.
In The Force Awakens, however, J.J. Abrams doesn’t quote such a wide range of cinema; instead, he merely quotes Star Wars films. Given that those films are not nearly as interesting as The Hidden Fortress and The Searchers, this makes for a less engaging cinematic experience. What does it mean that Abrams’ current generation of filmmakers laud their cinematic precursors, but do not share those heroes’ belief in the transcendent nature of the prior cinema on which they built their money-generating New Hollywood blockbusters?
Academic scholars like Frederick Jameson argue that nostalgia is a dangerous practice. Indeed, I am wary of the implications of my argument, that The Force Awakens is a weak echo of A New Hope, which is merely an amalgam of a disparate group of prior films. But I think that understanding at least helps to explain my indifference to Abrams’ film, which is clearly better than my emotional experience of it indicates. In the stickiest of the implications of my argument, there’s the question of race and gender.
The Phantom Menace is rightfully ridiculed because it is a sexist and racist mess. The bildungsroman trajectory—the journey to become those who shape galactic events—is only available to Anakin ane Luke, not young girls. There are indeed female Jedi, but they do not become those whose stories we must follow—like Yoda, the Emperor, Obi-Wan, and Darth Vader—who change the course of history. In terms of racial difference, Watto is a big-nosed Jewish stereotype, concerned only with money; Jar Jar Binks is a CGI Stepin’ Fetchit; and the leaders of the trade federation seem to have stepped off the set of a Charlie Chan movie for some reason. But the latter might precisely be the point: the characters in a George Lucas movie are not statements on the contemporary political moment, but expressions of a representational legacy, one oddly one less endearing to us than to him.
I do not want to continue to live in a world exclusively dominated by white men, nor do I want a cinema that lauds the perpetuation of such a social configuration. But the simplistic representational solution of offering “good role models” is not the answer. The failure of “stereotype” analysis in film studies indicates this; no one can ever agree on what qualities the “good” object should possess, beyond those which would describe better human beings more generally.
Having apparently not received the memo, The Force Awakens seems to have been constructed by a multicultural education committee. Continuing the World War II-era tradition of villains with British accents, Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke and Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux drip evil every time they are on screen. Meanwhile, a melting pot of heroes—empowered woman, Rey (Daisy Ridley); black storm trooper turned resistance fighter, Finn (John Boyega); and dashing pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)—push their boring white elders, Princess Leia and Han Solo, to the sidelines. The villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a psychotic whose mental instability is specifically associated with an isolation caused by being the heir to the white male legacy.
As with Star Trek, the other important sci-fi franchise at which J.J. Abrams finds himself at the helm, there’s something too unsatisfyingly Utopian in these portraits of post-race and post-gender societies. Even if this wasn’t his intention, the continuation of the racist and sexist legacy of classical cinema in the George Lucas movies at least attested to the perpetual nature of gender and racial discrimination. Maddeningly, The Force Awakens refuses to indicate how racism was eliminated in the past such that black and white storm trooper clones can be manufactured interchangeably, or how sexism disappeared such that beautiful women live desperate but seemingly peaceful lives as scavengers after the fall of all political order. Given how our civilization takes at least one step backward for every two steps forward on both of these fronts, seeing a Star Wars movie about how “a long time ago… a galaxy far, far away” resolved these conflicts would be an episode well worth seeing.