Star Wars is the latest exemplar of a genre that's accelerating toward its own creative exhaustion. That genre, of course, is the Hollywood tent-pole.
Over the recent Christmas break, I went to see the new Star Wars movie with my brother-in-law at a cineplex in San Carlos, California. Apart from a few moments of mild amusement, I was bored. It'd be easy to dismiss my boredom for one of several plausible reasons. The first of those: it just wasn't made for me and my ilk, that is, curmudgeons with a surplus of opinions. But judging from the ubiquity of the hype preceding the movie's release, Disney very much wanted to pitch it to just about everyone, including the likes of me.
On that score, I feel I have cause to share my opinion of the film. Furthermore, given my reaction, the predominantly enthusiastic reviews, as well as the astronomical ticket sales worldwide, present a puzzle I feel compelled to solve. Consider what follows an exploration, however self-indulgent, of why I was so bored by this film.
When the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, I was the perfect age (and gender) to succumb to its charms. I was a boy, white and seven years old, living in suburban Connecticut. A decade ago, editor and critic for the now defunct film magazine Premier , Glenn Kenny, published a brilliant collection of essays on Star Wars, called A Galaxy Not So Far Away. Several of the writers in the collection write movingly of their childhood experiences of the Star Wars phenomenon and of their subsequent disillusionment.
This disillusionment was twofold. It was, in part, a WTF? reaction to the second trilogy. It was also the product of a critical maturation that laid bare the numerous flaws of the first.
The press has largely embraced the conviction that J.J. Abrams' reboot of the franchise restores "balance to the Force" of the original films. I can't decide whether Abrams is either a genius or a huckster. Perhaps he's a huckster genius.
While considering the place of Andy Warhol in the history of contemporary art, Eleanor Heartly writes that he exposed "the mechanisms by which collective desires are generated, the way in which our aspirations and self-images are homogenized to better serve the market, and the peculiar deformations of consciousness brought about by life in the 'information age.'" This may very well also describe Abrams' talent, save for the fact that, unlike Warhol, Abrams has simply harnessed those collective desires, rather than expose them. Abrams' oeuvre is less Campbell's Soup Cans and more Campbell's soup cans.
Some critics have observed that the original Star Wars film is classically postmodern in its indiscriminate borrowing from a panoply of other sources: spaghetti Westerns, Flash Gordon, Casablanca, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, The Hidden Fortress, WWII naval and aerial battle documentary footage, to name a few. At its best, the original Star Wars is shameless pastiche that coheres into an aesthetically pleasing whole.
Many have praised Abrams for his meticulous homage to the look and feel of the original films. A few party poopers, on the other hand, have groused that his reboot comes off as merely derivative. If the original Star Wars was itself derivative, according to these malcontents, then the new Star Wars is, to borrow a term from calculus, a second derivative, the acceleration to the original's speed. But what are Abrams and Disney rushing ever faster toward?
Abrams not only peppers the The Force Awakens with lines of dialogue, often quoted verbatim, from the original Star Wars, he also borrows countless tropes from it, all the while adhering faithfully to its core narrative arc. The Empire and Rebellion become the First Order and the Resistance; the Death Star becomes Star Killer Base; Tatooine, Jakku. Luke becomes Rey; the Emperor, the Supreme Leader; Darth Vader, Kylo Ren. F
or the most part, even his innovations are calibrated to extend, rather than subvert. Kylo Ren halts an energy blast in mid air. A rogue Tie fighter is pursued by heat-seeking missiles. Star Killer Base emits not one planet-annihilating beam, but an arcing comet that splits into multiple streams, reminiscent of the multiple warheads of an ICBM. To charge its weapon, the planet-sized base sucks the energy from a star (which the characters oddly refer to as the "Sun", as if all extraterrestrials call all stars "Sun").
At times, these gestures of homage are evoked, at most, with a mild ironic distance. Of Star Killer Base, Poe Dameron quips, "So it's big." When Han Solo enters Maz Kanata's canteen on the planet Takodana, Maz drolely calls out, "I suppose you need something. Desperately." Several times, characters call attention obliquely to how "lucky" they are. Much as Lucas rehabilitated material from adored, if exhausted sources, Abrams follows in his footsteps, and with a wink, makes the protagonist of The Force Awakens a scavenger. But this ironic distance never breaches decorum to send the pastiche careening into parody. So, the obvious explanation for my boredom is the film's aggressive reluctance to innovate. None of the plot twists surprised, not even the patricide of the final act.
We can forgive Abrams his penchant for adulatory imitation, something we've noticed in his previous work. Besides, he was under tremendous pressure to do justice to the franchise, beloved by so many. These are fans who are often downright fanatical in their policing of its sanctities. Abrams was also under tremendous financial pressure from his bosses at Disney, which, after all, is a profit-seeking corporation, one that took on a great deal of risk, in the form of both capital and reputation, to produce this film.
The root of the malaise, however, lies deeper. Star Wars is the latest exemplar of a genre that's accelerating toward its own creative exhaustion. That genre, of course, is the Hollywood tent-pole. For those unfamiliar with the term, a tent-pole is a heavily promoted blockbuster engineered to support an array of tie-in merchandise. The tent-pole is the closest thing Hollywood studios have to a sure thing. It's no coincidence that the most successful tent-poles are invariably fashioned to emulate a more ancient form of storytelling, the epic.
Epic has been around for at least three thousand years. It forms the foundation for many of the world's great literary traditions. Three cornerstones of the Western literary canon, for example, are the two epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as the Aenied of Virgil. Other noteworthy examples include: from the subcontinent, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; from Palestine, The Books of Genesis and Exodus; from Europe, The Divine Comedy (a bit of a misnomer), Beowulf, The Song of My Cid, and Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight; and from the Americas, Popol Vuh and Apocalypto (just kidding about that last one... but not really).
If there's a genre that can stake a claim to universality, it's the epic. As we're all constantly reminded, the Hollywood tent-pole strives for universal appeal. This makes the epic the tent-pole's natural complement.
Like the tent-pole, the epic, both in its protagonists and its audience, begins with the adolescent male on the precipice of adulthood. The epic as literary form is open-ended, episodic -- ideal for sequels and reboots. It often begins en media res, in the middle of the action. A parvenant protagonist, an outsider with the values of an inside group, is confronted with obstacles in his struggle to realize his full potential.
As poet and literary scholar Frederick Turner reminds us in Epic: Form, Content, and History, epic conforms to a fairly rigid structure. This includes: the opening invocation, the creation myth, the destined hero, the quest, kinship troubles, the descent into the underworld, ritual mutilation, the founding of the city or nation, and the sorting of good from evil. As a genre, epic is both mutable and capacious. It can accommodate variations in the prototypical hero, for instance, replacing male with female, white with black. As Turner puts, epic is "already postmodern", insomuch as it's voraciously macrophagic. Its very malleability allows it to more effectively bend competing worldviews to a narrative arc that is always striving for universality. Turner goes even further and proclaims that epic is the "most fundamental and important of all literary forms... the fons de origo of all the others".