Toy Story: “The Force Awakens” as Nostalgia Gone Terribly Wrong
By Ira WellsApril 19, 2016
The image of George Lucas as a rabble-rousing documentarian or avant-garde provocateur may seem like a stretch. In the public consciousness, Lucas has in recent decades come to represent the very archetype of the filmmaker-as-businessman: quarantined from criticism on his Xanadu-like Skywalker Ranch, Lucas appeared to grow increasingly out of touch with his audience even as his creations (Ewoks, Jar Jar Binks) were increasingly governed by “market imperatives,” which is a polite way of saying that he oversaw the most rapacious and sustained marketing campaign ever aimed at children. Lucas had created some of the most beloved fictional characters of recent memory, and he pimped them mercilessly, shamelessly, reaming them for every last dime. No marketing opportunity — from Jabba the Hutt bubble bath to Princess Leia dog outfits, from lightsaber chopsticks to a Darth Vader imprinting toaster — was too outlandish or chintzy to bear the Star Wars imprimatur. Lucas could spin his meretricious, pseudo-anthropological piffle about folklore and cultural universalism and tapping into the monomyth, but we knew the truth. We knew what Star Wars had become, and what it had become was a vehicle to sell Happy Meals.
Naturally, Lucas has his own interpretation of these events, and a starkly different conception of himself as a filmmaker. In his own mind, Lucas started out as — and, despite everything, remains — a boundary-pushing, countercultural aesthete. “I’m a 1960s kind of guy,” Lucas told Charlie Rose. It was only the financial failure of his first film, THX 1138, which necessitated a temporary expedition into the popular marketplace. Star Wars, which Lucas originally conceived of as an “experimentalish” film “about mythology,” was supposed to have been a one-off — a payday that would fund the avant-garde cinema and documentaries that were his true passion. In his own view, Lucas was a bohemian auteur who got slightly sidetracked by creating the most popular and lucrative franchise in entertainment history: an iconoclast who accidentally invented the blockbuster. Before dismissing this as revisionist nonsense, recall that Lucas had apprenticed not only under Coppola but also with the Maysles brothers (Salesman, Grey Gardens), for whom he worked as a camera operator on Gimme Shelter (1970). And in the 1980s, his fortune secure, Lucas would occasionally produce the sort of aesthetically meaningful cinema he had once aspired to make, including Paul Schrader’s Mishima (1985). In 2012, Lucas sold Star Wars, along with the rest of Lucasfilm, to Disney for $4.06 billion: $2 billion in cash, plus 37 million Disney shares. And what will Lucas do with the fresh infusion of billions? In his interview with Rose, Lucas had one answer: make art films.
It’s difficult for those of us who grew up on the original Star Wars to recognize the stupidity of those films without feeling as though we are disavowing or defiling a part of our own childhoods. I remember lying in the bathtub, bored in that world-engulfing way in which only five- and six-year-olds can be bored, extending my prune-wrinkled fingers in the direction of my mother’s shampoo, trying make the bottle levitate with the power of the force. (I didn’t really believe, but it was worth a shot.) I remember crunching through the snow, reliving the Battle of Hoth on the frigid walk to my elementary school. I pedaled my bike around the circuit of neighborhood garage sales, scavenging for any of the original Kenner action figures I could find. (The chronic problem with pre-played action figures, as you may recall, is that their hip joints were usually shot, which made standing them upright a very difficult proposition. My vintage Han Solo was particularly prone to sudden episodes of paralysis. Still, you took what you could get. The years following Return of the Jedi (1983) turned out to be a brief respite from the marketing madness: for that sweet decade or so, it was borderline impossible to find Star Wars stuff in the stores. Just as no music will ever sound as good as the music you heard when you were 16, Star Wars will never again feel quite as joyous as it did when you were nine.
The question of whether or not Star Wars is a “good film” was almost entirely irrelevant to us ’80s kids. Indeed, to us, it was hardly a film at all, in the sense of something you sat down and watched from start to finish. It would be more accurate to say that Star Wars lived through us as a collection of hummable songs, snippets of dialogue you heard quoted on the playground and quoted in turn, robotic bleeps and bloops, alien languages, daydreams, arguments over trivia, rumors about stories untold. This reservoir of sensations and recollections is not peripheral to the embarrassing burst of overpraise that initially greeted The Force Awakens. Indeed, these experiences are the real cradle of Star Wars’s energy, and the reason why the franchise has retained a sense of vitality even after the many years of vandalism and abuse (the “Special Editions” and prequels) it endured at the hands of its creator. Disney makes the DVD available this month.
Everyone understands that the sole reason for the new film’s existence is to generate truckloads of money for the stockholders and corporate “white slavers” (Lucas’s words) who now own the franchise. If Star Wars’s raison d’être had ever been in doubt, recall Disney’s attempt to create a new national “holiday” on September 4, 2015 — punningly called “Force Friday” — to celebrate the release of the latest wave of merchandise. The inaugural event generated $1 billion in sales on a single day.
And yet it’s also clear that many of us quite desperately wanted The Force Awakens to be something more than a feature-length toy advertisement. We didn’t want just another film; we wanted to bask in the aura of Star Wars again, to feel — as Will Leitch puts it in his New Republic review — as though we have once again “soared out of our seats and [are] living up in that specific world of wonder and myth.” For many, the piercing desire to believe in Star Wars again seemed to have assumed a strange psychological urgency; the fate of the franchise had become an intensely personal matter. When the first reviewers came back to report that the film was not a disaster — that it might in fact be very good — you could practically feel the emergence of cultural goose bumps. The New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis called this feeling a “collective bliss-out,” which she attributes to a widespread “relief that at long last, a [Star Wars] sequel isn’t an abomination. […] And while its populism is commercially driven, it feels as if it’s trying to appeal to more than cultists, critics or the Academy — which may itself be an argument for it as best picture.”
One definition of mythology is a religion in which people no longer believe, but it is clear that a huge number of people still believe in Star Wars. The question that arises, at least for me, is how we can continue to believe in Star Wars with such unadulterated fervor when the product itself is so thoroughly adulterated, so nakedly engineered according to the dictates of the bottom line. For those born into the most secularized generation of American history, Star Wars provided a path into mysticism and awe and spiritual wonder while never letting us forget that this was an exercise in marketing and corporate synergy. The most interesting thing about Star Wars today is the intense proximity between the sacred and the profane — the intimacy between our capacity for belief and the cynicism of corporate greed. Star Wars appeals to your highest faculties while rubbing your face in the plastic ordure of capitalism. The miracle is that it manages to do both at once.
Of course, one person’s miracle is another’s parlor trick. Pauline Kael called Star Wars “an epic without a dream.” “It’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success,” she went on. “The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.” New York magazine’s John Simon wrote, “Star Wars will do very nicely for those lucky enough to be children or unlucky enough never to have grown up.” Stanley Kauffmann attacked the film along similar lines in The New Republic. “This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world’s affairs or — in any complex way — sex intruded.” It is perhaps mildly sobering to recall that these critics’ exasperation at the film’s infantilizing force came well in advance of the ubiquitous kiddie advertising and marketing hype that grew more obnoxious with each passing “episode,” as the films came to be called. When Star Wars was released on May 25, 1977, it played on 32 screens across the nation.
Kauffmann’s point that Star Wars constituted a “portable shrine” to childhood was more than clear-eyed criticism: it was prophesy. It’s just that what Kauffmann regarded as a weakness turned out to be a vast and enduring font of cultural power. At the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, Kevin Smith described how, during the filming of The Force Awakens, he was permitted to visit the set, where he had the opportunity to tour the “real” Millennium Falcon. Smith was so flooded with awe and reverence that he broke down in tears. That reaction may be the extreme response of an unreconstructed fanboy, but some miniature version of that emotional event has touched many fans during Star Wars’s recent resurrection. The huge financial success of The Force Awakens has less to do with Disney’s prodigious investment of marketing capital than it does with our own investment of spiritual and emotional capital. In a curious way, then, we are not only the consumers of The Force Awakens: We are also the product. We are buying back, at a loss, the faint traces of our past imaginative exertion.
If the original Star Wars was selling exhilaration and excitement, The Force Awakens is selling a nostalgic return to a time when excitement of that sort was still possible. Of course, there are two sides to nostalgia, which are suggested by the two Ancient Greek words the term combines. The affix “álgos” (which means “pain or suffering”) is familiar to us from sickly sounding clinical terms such as “cephalalgia” or “neuralgia.” “Nóstos,” meanwhile, signifies “a return home.” The most immediately quotable line of dialogue from the trailers and promotional material for The Force Awakens, and perhaps from the film itself, is “Chewie, we’re home.” The clothing retailer J. Crew presciently recognized that the film’s thesis statement doubled as a slogan for the commodification of nostalgia: The Star Wars™ for J. Crew men’s or women’s “CHEWIE, WE’RE HOME” T-Shirt (item e7672) can be yours for $45 plus applicable taxes. In the Star Wars universe, no thing truly exists until it can be sold.
There are two major story lines in the The Force Awakens. The A-plot involves the quest to find Luke Skywalker, who, the title crawl informs us, has “vanished.” In the film’s opening sequence, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) retrieves a map to Luke’s whereabouts; when the First Order shows up, he hands the map off to BB-8 (the winsome soccer ball droid), who beats his escape. BB-8, who is being pursued by both the Resistance and the First Order, becomes the MacGuffin around which the rest of the A-plot swirls. Once the Resistance has safely recovered BB-8, they discover that he contains only a fragment of the coveted map. The rest of it may have been contained in R2-D2, but that familiar droid has come down with a debilitating case of depression. R2, as C-3PO explains, “has been in low power mode ever since Master Luke went away. Sadly, he may never be his old self again.” Furthermore, he continues, in a line that must give Abrams and fellow screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan a case of the cold sweats, “It is very doubtful that R2 would have the rest of the map in his backup data.”
The B-plot, meanwhile, involves the First Order’s creation of the “Starkiller Base” — which, as one unfortunately ham-fisted scene serves to remind us, is the exact same thing as the Death Star, only bigger. The B-plot proceeds pretty much on autopilot, regurgitating the last act Return of the Jedi beat for beat, as Han Solo and his team knock out a shield generator while a daring team of X-wing pilots abolish yet another evil orb. The script attempts to minimize the mechanistic grinding of its final act with some ironic lubrication: Han: “Okay, how do we blow it up? There’s always a way to do that.” Leia (serious): “Han’s right.”
If you’re thinking a few narrative chess moves ahead, you can foresee a number of ways in which the A- and B-plots might eventually converge. But they never do. Instead, in one of the most appalling and unmotivated deus ex machina moments of recent cinematic history, R2-D2 simply wakes up. It goes without saying that he is indeed his old self again and that the remaining portion of the map is safely preserved in his backup data. Two minutes later Mark Hamill is on the screen and the credits roll. It’s true that the screenplay to this point has tested our patience with a variety of minor story problems (such as when Captain Phasma, who we have been led to believe is the most psychotically merciless stormtrooper of them all, simply lowers Starkiller’s shield without a fight because Han asks her to in a firm tone of voice). But R2’s “awakening” is nothing less than the resolution of the central narrative problem our heroes have been trying to overcome for the entire film. It happens for no discernable reason whatsoever aside from the fact that the movie needs to end.
In The Force Awakens there is no forgetting that the narrative is not an organic expression of its character’s desires, but an exercise in engineering, an equation to be solved. Every development, plot twist, and narrative action in the film points back to a list of ingredients that (I can’t help but imagine) was once scribbled on a whiteboard in a Santa Monica (or possibly Burbank) office — a catalog that was itself the product of market analysis and demographic consultation. The film’s producers listened attentively to the needs of the market, and were careful to avoid the turgid exposition and cartoony digital effects that hamstrung the prequels. They also created a film that, in Richard Brody’s apt phrase, feels so calculated and prefabricated “that it plays less like an experience than like a summary of itself.” The action may take place in a faraway galaxy, but the imaginative consciousness behind the film never travels beyond that whiteboard in Burbank, or wherever it might have been.
Most thoughtful criticism of The Force Awakens has thus far circled around the question of its imitative nature: does the film effectively recapture the spirit of the originals, or is it simply a facsimile or remix of those films? That’s a question that has and will be debated, at least until Episode VIII arrives in 2017. But the underlying issue — the question of whether or not myth can be manufactured, whether those qualities of wonder and awe and unbridled belief can be schematized and rationalized by market logics and demographic research — can now be put to rest. J. J. Abrams was handed an impossible task: recreate the magic of Star Wars. He failed so brilliantly as to blow the roof off of the accepted definition of blockbuster filmmaking.
The more you read and hear about the genesis of the original Star Wars, the harder it becomes to shake the suspicion that George Lucas really didn’t know what he was doing even in the beginning. Sometimes, Lucas asserts that his ambition was to create an unassuming entertainment in the mold of the disposable B-movies and serials produced by Republic Pictures in the 1940s and ’50s. (Deliberately corny subtitles like Attack of the Clones lend a certain credence to this idea.) At other times, Lucas suggests that he had intended to create nothing less than a new national mythology: an epic nine-part family saga that would endure for generations. Lucas himself was either Ed Wood or Edmund Spenser, depending upon the telling. Or perhaps he was a thwarted Jean-Luc Godard — an experimental filmmaker who lost his edge by cutting all those deals.
Four decades on, it is increasingly apparent that the contradictory impulses and unresolved tensions that underlie the creation of Star Wars were integral to the film’s success. The big bang behind its creation — a combination of happenstance, good luck, short-term opportunism, long-term vision, and creative audacity — might have coalesced more or less by accident, but that accident enabled a sense of imaginative liberty on Lucas’s part, and that freedom makes itself felt on the screen. J. J. Abrams enjoyed no such liberty on The Force Awakens, and that lack of freedom makes itself felt on the screen, too. Abrams is a supremely effective manager of Lucas’s legacy, but the franchise’s constitutive affect (that virgin cocktail of marvel, astonishment, and reverence) remains fundamentally inimical to managerial discipline.
This tension I’m describing — the pull between spontaneity, whimsy, and imaginative vivacity, and the ironclad regulation of big-budget commercial cinema — has always been woven into Star Wars’s DNA, and that tension is inadvertently captured in the name Lucas gave to his visual effects company: Industrial Light & Magic. If The Force Awakens reveals anything about the larger cultural phenomenon, it is that the light and magic of Star Wars cannot be industrialized. Star Wars, for those of us who grew up with it, was less of a film you watched than something you played. The creators of The Force Awakens have sought to revivify that playfulness, but their industrial methods (market and demographic analyses, budgets, timelines, spreadsheets) have instead turned out an intricately made nostalgia machine. Every move the film makes is carefully predetermined, rationalized, governed by some empirically based set of Star Wars “best practices.” The overall effect, as is always the case with nostalgia, is to highlight what has been lost, to emphasize the yawning gulf between the corporate realities of the contemporary film industry and the light and magic that Star Wars brought to children a long time ago — in a galaxy that only feels far, far away.
Ira Wells is a Toronto-based culture writer and the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism.
Ira Wells is a Toronto-based culture writer and the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism. He has written essays and opinion pieces for The New Republic, American Quarterly, Popular Music and Society, Canada’s National Post, and elsewhere. Follow on Twitter at @Ira_Wells
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