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”.
The Peonage of Fandom
A case could be made for such a claim, but Turner overreaches when he writes that “epic is the basic story that the human species tells to itself about itself”, thereby equating epic with evolution. But evolution, as a story, is itself ambiguous enough to accommodate other genres besides epic. Is evolution also not comic, in that it concludes with a coupling? Or perhaps evolution is more akin to farce, since it, unburdened by telos, tends to drift with the prevailing winds of environmental flux.
Turner could certainly make the case that epic is the dominant genre of the post-WWII era, an era defined by the unleashing of adolescent male fantasies of not only world, but universal domination. Thanks to the wonders of CGI, modern film studios are able to green screen with state-of-the-art production values a cast of thousands into all manner of larger-than-life triumphs. The juggernauts in the lineup, tent-poles such as Star Wars, with budgets into the hundreds of millions of dollars, are engineered to be cultural events. These cash-capturing black holes further replicate out into an array of tie-in merchandise, into armies of mass-produced action figures and cross-branded buckets of high fructose fizzy water.
Epic’s penchant for aggressive cultural appropriation makes it well-suited for imposing its own economy of imagination on its consumers. In that sense, post-industrial capitalism is certainly epic. But capitalism’s 20th century adversary, socialism, in its heyday, was also epic, a story about which everyday heroes could get excited. As it turns out, epic supersedes both of these ideologies.
In Debt: The First 5000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber posits the rise of what calls the “military-coinage-slave complex” during the Axial Age, from 800 to 200 BCE. In Mesopotamia, the Indian subcontinent, the Mediterranean, and China, proto-monarchies began to employ mercenary armies to loot cities and collect slaves. These kings paid their soldiers in minted coin. Subjugated populations were pressured to bargain with these soldiers who, in turn, paid for goods and services with those coins, in terms advantageous to the buyer. Kings would then dispatch agents to collect a sizable portion of the coins back from their subjects as tax. This imposed circulation of currency, backed by the cachet of the king, effectively created new markets, markets propped up by the vicious inhumanity of massive-scale slavery.
Does this plot sound familiar? It’s kind of like the economy of a certain story that occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. There’s no mention of capital in the Star Wars universe, but there are plenty of examples of purchase, debt, conscription, and servitude. In a way, Star Wars romanticizes the Axial Age, jazzed up with the hyperdrives and light sabers of techno-fetishistic junk physics.
Inspired by Graeber’s hypothesis, we might even posit a modern-day equivalent to his “military-coinage-slave complex” — duly sanitized and virtualized — and epitomized by Star Wars. Let’s call it the “studio-likes-fandom complex”. In this analogy Disney, the ambitious monarch, conquers a swath of the agora through a campaign of scientific marketing, a marketing so effective that it manages to leverage the voluntary submission of consumers. Fans become all too willing to work for free to promote the studio’s intellectual property in exchange for whatever cachet — say, “likes” on social media — that results from glomming onto somebody else’s stuff. In effect, the contractual labor of corporate mercenaries is turbo-charged by gullible volunteers.
The currency in circulation within this complex is coin, yes, the money that the studio collects from ticket and merchandizing sales. But we live in highly mediated times. So the coin is also a kind of meta-coin, one that liquidates social status. Conquest, then, for a studio like Disney, means imposing an economy of “likes” on a critical mass of consumers, thereby creating a market, from which it gets a cut of every transaction — the King’s fifth, so to speak. That mass of consumers that constitutes Disney’s market, the millions of folks who embrace Star Wars as an avocation, willingly submit to a kind of peonage. They work for the meta-coin of “likes” in exchange for the fleeting gratifications of fandom at, of course, terms favorable to the patron of the enterprise, the intellectual property owner.
By framing the transaction in this way, I don’t mean to be glib about the profound inhumanity of Axial Age economies. The peonage of fandom is a welcome upgrade from actual slavery. You could even call it Progress with a capital “P”.
And yet. And yet, what Star Wars, as economic phenomenon, represents is a nostalgia for an antique civilization built by the violent creation of a market where participants traffic in a kind of hypocritical triumphalism. Star Wars, as story, mimics uncritically that same violence, but in virtualized form, to create its own ameliorated version of just such a market. A genre that came of age in the Axial Age—think Iliad and Mahabharata—epic finds its postmodern perfection in Hollywood tent-poles like Star Wars.
Epic tent-poles, like the military conquests of the Axial Age, impose not only markets, but also a worldview. Epic longs to be epic, to delineate right from wrong, good from evil. In his seminal work on the imaginative underpinnings of American politics, Moral Politics, cognitive linguist George Lakoff writes that the most basic assumption of the conservative worldview is that the world is a dangerous place. Conservatism’s imaginative structure, including the compulsion to tidily sort good from evil, rests on this foundation.
For epic, the world is also always a dangerous place. Conflict and the threat of violence abound. In this sense, epic is conservative. It may pay lip-service to gender equality or social justice, but by framing its plots as a death-struggle between good and evil, as it invariably does, a quintessentially conservative worldview resonates throughout. Star Wars, as epic, is no exception.
Look no further than the films’ preoccupation with the “mumbo-jumbo”, as Han Solo puts it, of the “Force” for confirmation of this conservatism. In a catechism of sorts, Solo says to Rey, as Obi-Wan once said to Luke, that the Force is “a magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light”. Let’s not forget that before the word “force” meant gravity or electromagnetism, chi or shakti, or even what it means in the Star Wars universe (an inherited access to magical powers like telekinesis), it meant physical violence.
Within Star Wars, the force, above all else, is used to threaten or inflict violence on another. Wherever we witness the neat delineation of good from evil, we must always look for the “magical power” lurking beneath that sorting process. It’s invariably a sword, gun, or fist — the force that props up the Force as lynchpin of a Manichean worldview.
Ultimately, what bored me the most about the new Star Wars was its failure to say anything interesting or new about the nature of good and evil. Others have noted that it’s impossible to recapture the zeitgeist that allowed the original Star Wars, in the late ’70s, to enjoy such a cultural moment. The moral punch of that Star Wars grew out of the formidable menace in the American imagination of not only the Nazis, but also the Soviet Union. Those were worthy villains for the epic imagination! Nowadays, when casting antagonists for our most grandiose epics, we settle for the likes of ISIS or North Korea.
The new Star Wars betrays this power vacuum within the American epic. The highest expressions of good and evil in the film are CGI muppets. Even their names, Maz Kanata and Supreme Leader Snoke, sound silly. Especially Snoke, a lazily rendered Oz figure who will undoubtedly be revealed in one of the future installments to be the ruse of a hitherto “good” character, perhaps Luke Skywalker.
These avatars of evil fail to inspire a deferential awe commensurate with their supposed authority. Without a credible antagonist with whom to engage in mortal struggle, all the flashy special effects, all the clever quips and winking references, all the plot twists, heated exchanges, and moving soliloquies, in sum, all that makes the tent-pole a tent-pole, fall flat.