Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has seen an incredibly positive reception in the critical press for which one can only congratulate Abrams, Kasdan and Kennedy as well as the actors and all others involved. Several reviews and discussions on fan-sites however also reveal there is a lot of criticism on the lacklustre treatment of some of the deeper themes of the Star Wars hexalogy. At first sight much of this seems to be discarded in favour of a high-octane, fast-paced space adventure pulp-romp … of which some will say that this is exactly what Star Wars is supposed to be. I will argue here however that Episode VII does contain all these deeper layers even though this might be despite Kasdan and Abrams and not because of them.
There is no room for ‘Author’s intent’
The first point I want to make here is one that might disturb you a little: in my analysis here there is no room for ‘Author’s intent’. What I mean by that is that it is irrelevant whether Kasdan and Abrams wanted to write a ‘deep’ story or whether they ‘wanted to avoid doing so’. Stories are not so much what they were intended to be, but they are what hey can be seen to be. Let me apply this notion to Mike Klimo’s Star Wars Ring Theory idea.
Is it important for the justification of the claim that the Star Wars Hexalogy has a ring-composition structure that such was Lucas’ intent? Many of you might say ‘Yes!’ but I will say ‘No!’. What is, in my view, essential is that the material we are presented with by the author (Lucas) supports that structure. When it does the claim that it has that structure is evidently legitimate even when the author would say ‘but I never intended that’. Unintended consequences do not only occur in military interventions, in emotional disputes between people but also in the creative process that goes into making art. In fact, one of the downsides of the commercialization of Art is that the process of making it consumable often actively tries to suppress unintended consequences.
Mythology is stronger than ‘the author’
A key aspect of real mythology is that it is ‘alive’, something that fans who fuzz about canonization do not seem to appreciate. A mythology is alive when it is open to ‘change’ of the stories that are already there as well as open to the addition of stories to the existing batch. One of the downside of the devotion of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is that is suggest, as does the misnomer ‘monomyth’, that mythology is something static and unchangeable throughout human history. However such unchangeable myths are the ‘dead’ myths we encounter in canonised books, myths that can even be revered without actually being able to read or understand them.
A successful author of a mythological piece will inevitably however lose control over it. This of course, to paraphrase Palpatine, is what they all fear to lose. It is the inspiring characteristic of living mythology that moves other authors to add their stories and/or to change existing stories. If a myth loses that inspirational property then usually what we see is that it ends up being ‘regurgitated’ for consumption by people who get warm feelings of nostalgia and longing for a better past when hearing it. The distinction between the regurgitation of dead myth and the ‘rhyming’ of living myth can be terribly hard to see. It is typically not the author who chooses on which side of the dividing line she is.
If you go to a Christmas carols service then there is no doubt many of those actively involved in it will consider themselves as rhyming living myth yet at the same time these story-telling events hardly ever manage to go beyond what is really just nostalgic regurgitation. If you want to see evidence that the mythological story surrounding Jesus’s life is still alive than don’t look for run-of-the-mill depictions that typically drown in either dogmatically fuelled narrative (say ‘The Passion of the Christ’) or in the unbearable lightness of nostalgic sweetness. Usually this outcome of a project is not what its creators were after. It can equally be the unintended side-effect of such a project however (for example as in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, the ’73 movie, or in Scorsese’s ‘Last Temptation of Christ’) that it adds a living dimension to a re-telling of a story that reveals a myth is still very much alive.
The Force Awakens
Star Wars The Force Awakens is in many ways a re-telling of the three Original Trilogy films baked into a single story that has to mark the departure point of a new trilogy. It is amusing that where Prequel Trilogy fans were worried we would see Disney go for a reboot of the Prequels, what Lucasfilm actually came up with almost resembles a reboot of the Original Trilogy … talking about unintended consequences.
But The Force Awakens is not such a reboot despite all its borrowing of plot points, motives and themes from across the OT. It is totally evident that Kasdan and Abrams were looking for a film that would recycle many of those elements in a more kinetic and high-paced, and yes a more pulpy, fashion of 21st century cinema. They have done so exceptionally well and the laurels for that are well-deserved. But now the beautiful thing of living mythology comes into play.
The Force Awakens resonates with the Originals and the Prequels, whether anyone likes that or not. In particular this means that any shot, scene or dialogue that the authors of this Episode VII have written will derive meaning not merely from their intention (entertainment for the audience) but also from how it connects to the tissue of the Star Wars Hexalogy.
Interestingly (EU fans, relax please!) The Force Awakens does more to re-awaken Jacen and Jaina Solo’s narratives than any additional EU books could ever have done. A ‘story-group’ can decide to cut these book from the ‘canon’ but the funny thing is … they can only control output but not the meaning associated with whatever output they allow. The Force Awakens is full of rhymes with the prequels and the originals that we can already identify as incredibly meaning-laden even when it is not easy yet to say which meaning that exactly is.
Examples of meaningful rhyming
I just want to go through a couple of examples of this rhyming that I selected for the purpose of showing how powerful they are and yet how ambiguous their interpretation is.
Towards the end of The Force Awakens Rey picks up Anakin’s lightsaber from Revenge of the Sith, she then brings it to Luke. The shot of her picking it up from the snow-covered ground is nearly identical to the shot of Obi Wan doing so in Revenge of the Sith. Obi Wan picks it up there and in Episode IV we see him handing it to Luke, in Episode VII we see Rey picking it up and handing it to Luke. This places Rey in an odd resonance with Obi Wan Kenobi. It is totally clear that this is full of meaning and yet it remains completely open to speculate what this meaning could possibly be. Note also that in A New Hope it is Obi Wan who takes the lightsaber from a wooden box before he gives it to Luke, just like Rey does in Maz Kanata’s lair.
Another example is the destruction of the central system in the New Republic by the Star Killer weapon. In terms of it’s scoring as well as in terms of it’s cinematography it is an echo of the Order 66 sequence, albeit a much shorter one. It resembles that scene much more, and in many ways, than it does the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope. Alderaan is destroyed in an almost burocratically coincidental manner in order to dish out some pain to Leia and we never see a response of the citizens on Alderaan. The destruction of the New Republic’s core system however is depicted as a genocidal act that is to clear the way for the First Order to assume full control and to allow them to target the Resistance next. Notice the nice inversion here: Where in Revenge of the Sith the small band of Jedi who protect the Republic are eliminated so as to allow the Sith to take on the Republic next, in The Force Awakens the New Republic that is protecting the small band of The Resistance is targeted so as to allow the First Order to take on exactly that Resistance.
A final example is the resonance between the last scene of Han with Kylo Ren and two other scenes. Han’s attempt at drawing Kylo back to the light within him takes place in a setting that echoes Luke’s duel with Vader from Empire Strikes Back. Luke makes no such attempt although there to we see a father attempting to get his son on his side. Of course Luke doesn’t as he does not yet know the full truth of his ancestry and such an attempt would most definitely come ‘to early’ for Vader. Well, as you have seen, so it does for Kylo. Amidala attempts something similar on Anakin in Revenge of the Sith. The last thing she asks Anakin, after noting he has changed, is to comeback and she expresses her love for him in a desperate attempt. Han does exactly the same and, significantly, Padme and Han meet the same fate. Padme’s heart breaks while Han’s is pierced.
It is interesting that in a Star Wars movie that some say call merely fan-service by re-using Original Trilogy plot-devices, or that is a love-letter to the Originals as other assume, there are visual and narrative echoes from across the 6 films (yes including the Prequel Trilogy) that front-load seemingly irrelevant scenes and shots with great potential for depth. It is still early days in analysing the true content of The Force Awakens and I am not convinced Abrams and Kasdan are fully aware of what they have put in. What I am trying to argue is that to find out what The Force Awakens means we shouldn’t be waiting for interviews in Entertainment Weekly and it’s peers, but rather we should explore that meaning ourselves from the film and it’s 6 predecessors. we are the authors of that half of the Star Wars myth. As long as we do there will always be some of us who will keep making Star Wars films and the mythology remains alive.