New 'Star Wars' Film Is a Fascinating Insight into the Populist Artistry of Its Veteran Screenwriter
The rehabilitation of the Star Wars franchise is a triumphant return for Kasdan, whose output since the start of the millennium has been as underwhelming as that of, well, George Lucas.
Star Wars: The Force AwakensDirector: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie, Simon Pegg, Max von Sydow, Mark Hamill
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
US date: 2015-12-17 (General release)
A curious consequence of Star Wars' apotheosis in pop culture has been its almost total disassociation from the New Hollywood context in which it emerged. Endlessly cited as an influence on later blockbusters, the Star Wars trilogy has nevertheless rarely served to draw attention to its influences or to the other works of its key creative players; the exception that proves the rule being its spiritual and marketing cousin, the Indiana Jones franchise. True, an endless parlor game among fans since the disastrous prequels has been trying to figure out how much Lucas' collaborators contributed to the success of the first three Star Wars films. But this has mainly taken the form of dissecting the process of their making (e.g. how much of the original did his then-wife Marcia, famous for her work on Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, reedit?) rather than thinking comparatively about common elements in the Star Wars films and other works of Lucas' partners.
Similarly, the insatiable appetite for new material has produced endless streams of books, cartoons, fan fiction, and speculative debate about the Star Wars "universe", but rare is the fan today curious enough to seek out Irvin Kershner's New York films or even Lucas' own earlier American Graffiti and THX 1138. As for the Flash Gordon serials, to which Star Wars was an homage, their only contemporary resonance seems to be an enduring affection for the kitschy charm of Queen's theme song for the 1980 film adaptation. Even in discussions of the new post-Lucas The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams' influence has been considered not so much as a filmmaker per se, but as a Star Wars fan who has worked in similar genre-pictures.
One result of this trend has been the relative disinterest in the role played by the second name that comes up in the new film's credits: Abrams' co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, perfunctorily mentioned in reviews as the screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back (after the death of Leigh Brackett) and Return of the Jedi without further comment. This disinterest is all the more notable in the case of a film whose manipulation of nostalgia has been a central talking point, given that Kasdan directed The Big Chill, which one could easily describe as ground zero for the commercialization of nostalgia in American cinema.
Kasdan is a curious figure in the universe of Star Wars professionals. Like Harrison Ford, he is one of the few key players who broke out of the creative ghetto of both Star Wars and science fiction, using the franchise to launch a career rather than becoming defined by it. The comparison to Ford is not accidental: Kasdan got the job on Empire after delivering the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark, the vehicle that got both out from under the shadow of Star Wars. (Kasdan had already become a hot property after selling scripts to The Bodyguard, which would languish for over a decade in development, and Continental Divide, which brought him to the attention of Spielberg.) But even more so than Ford, Kasdan would use his Star Wars success to branch out into more ambitious and adult territory: between Empire and Jedi he made his directorial debut with the fantastic Neo-noir Body Heat, which he followed the year after Jedi with the generational touchstone The Big Chill, about Baby Boomers coming to terms with the compromises of adulthood. Despite some fine later films (The Accidental Tourist, Grand Canyon), Kasdan never lived up to his untouchable streak in the early '80s. Nevertheless, unlike almost everyone else involved with Star Wars, his most important body of work is apart from and subsequent to the franchise; put bluntly, his obituary will not begin with The Empire Strikes Back or even Raiders of the Lost Ark.
For someone like me, who grew up in the in early ‘90s watching the Indiana Jones and Star Wars films on VHS, Kasdan's contemporary directorial work, which I only first saw recently, is a revelation. Body Heat in many ways forms a sort of unofficial third part in a trilogy withRaiders and Empire. All three films are meticulously crafted, character-driven spectacles that give a Postmodern take on pre-Eisenhower American genre-spectacle: Douglas Fairbanks adventures (1920s), Flash Gordon (1930s) and hard-boiled noir (1940s). This is Postmodernism in the original sense of self-conscious genre-play before the onslaught of either fashionable nihilism or glib irony that is now connoted by the term: Blade Runner rather than Pulp Fiction. All three titles are thus quintessential New Hollywood: intelligent popcorn films anchored in compelling performances that triangulate between reverence for Pre-War Hollywood, an appreciation for the playful intellectualism of the European New Wave, and the demands of flashy American entertainment. Watching Body Heat is to recover a Rosetta Stone for seeing the Star Wars films in the same context as, say, The Godfather, making sense of why Francis Ford Coppola once thought of Lucas as an ideal director for Apocalypse Now.
Watching Body Heat is also to understand how well Kasdan could write for the Harrison Ford type: William Hurt's Ned Racine, the protagonist of Body Heat, is essentially the morning-after version of Han Solo, and the overt eroticism of his character's relationship to Kathleen Turner's femme fatale is a reminder of how important the comparatively subdued romantic tension of Han/Leia and Indy/Marion was to the success of those films. (A truth incompetently acknowledged in the decision to bring Marion back for 2008's embarrassing Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which, like all of the sequels to Raiders, had no input from Kasdan).
Much has been made of Ford's performance in the reactions of critics and fans to The Force Awakens: for the first time in years the actor seems invested, and, despite being in his early 70s, convincingly embodies the breeziness of Han Solo. But it is not just that Abrams has somehow gotten Ford to care in a way that Spielberg failed to in 2008. Ford, rather, has finally gotten the right Cyrano to slip him lines again from off screen. Indeed, Kasdan admitted in a November interview with Adam Rogers of Wired that he was only lured back to Star Wars by the opportunity to write Han Solo again. To analogize from another éminence grise in The Force Awakens, Kasdan enables Ford the way that Ingmar Bergman, a fellow writer-director who understood actors, knew how to make the best use of Max von Sydow. Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, the rare critic who considers the implications of Kasdan's involvement in The Force Awakens, even goes so far as to argue that Ford in this film is more Indiana Jones than Han Solo.
As instructive as Body Heat is for understanding what it is that Kasdan added to Lucas' two franchises, The Big Chill is in many ways the most perfect distillation of the former's oxymoronic talent: I would affectionately term this as great superficial character drama. Often described as the ultimate "hangout" movie, The Big Chill briefly entertains some serious questions about aging and compromised ideals, but its core appeal is as an accessible ensemble drama of characters who are efficiently drawn, highly charming and embody recognizable archetypes. Like The Force Awakens, it is also a film about living under the shadow of a seemingly more consequential past that manages to be reverent without becoming either slavish or all that terribly critical towards the good old days. We're not talking about fearless drama here on the order of Bergman and von Sydow. Instead, The Big Chill is a collection of wonderfully realized scenes with effective—if shallow—emotional resonance. Put another way, Kasdan's characters are easy to understand precisely because they are carefully streamlined creations that give the audience something tangible to connect with and the actor meaty material to develop.
This is one reason that Kasdan's early movies helped launched so many careers. Even minor players like Mickey Rourke and Ted Danson in Body Heat, or Jeff Goldblum and Meg Tilly in The Big Chill are always given a few scenes each where they both serve a narrative purpose and provide scope for a fully realized performance. As Kasdan comments in an interview for the 2006 DVD release of Body Heat:
I wanted everyone in the movie to have something worth doing. And so I tried to write the arsonist character as an interesting character, the cop, the woman who runs the diner, the DA—I thought they were all good parts...Let everyone surprise us with their humanity. So, I've tried to do that throughout the next nine pictures I've directed too. I like to have them rich and full of believable people.
To stick to the contrast with Bergman, if the Swede's films are to enter into the fathomless complexity of human relations, Kasdan's cinema is the equivalent of a friendly but revelatory chat with a stranger at a party. It is, accordingly, symptomatic of the guileless fusion of art and commerce that the populist wing of New Hollywood achieved: Hollywood "deep", a sort of high middlebrow, which viewed uncharitably led Chicago Reader critic Dave Kehr to quip of The Big Chill that "there is no place for depth or nuance in this slickly engineered complacency machine."
It is Kasdan's genius for hyper-efficient characterization, even as it shades into the shallow, that made him such a great scribe for Lucas' blockbusters. In the same way that Body Heat combines ruthlessly efficient plotting with opportunities for its entire ensemble to deliver memorable performances, Raiders makes such a lasting impression because everybody in it has a fantastically drawn persona: not just the leads, but minor figures from the hapless Marcus to the meathead Nazi who is too cocky to see the propeller blade that does him in from behind. All of these could easily have been rendered as mere cogs for advancing the narrative, but instead each actor is left scope to anchor a memorable vignette without, however, imperiling the forward momentum of the "slickly engineered complacency machine."
This is the quality that makes The Force Awakens, despite its caution and commercial calculation, something more than a cynical retread. Although critics and fans have had little nice to say about the film's overreliance on recycled plot elements from the original trilogy, it is the effective realization of its characters—new as much as old—and their foregrounding above any "world-building", self-important mythologizing or mindless action that has helped the film stand out.
In my estimation this is Kasdan's contribution, or perhaps better said what Abrams recognized Kasdan could add to the film. (Many elements of the plot seem to have already been in place when original screenwriter Michael Arndt departed, but Kasdan and Abrams wrote the final script and its dialog from scratch, according to a December interview by Abrams with io9's Germain Lussier.) Like Kasdan, Abrams has a sense for readily digested archetypes, but, as his Star Trek films demonstrate, this too easily devolves into over-caffeinated caricatures full of glib one-liners that are become lost in the breakneck plotting. Contrast the new triad of heroes and, especially, the always superb Adam Driver's villain Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. It is remarkable how little information we know about any of these people, but they are nevertheless organic creations that give the actors space to dramatize effective if simple internal conflicts arising naturally in the course of the plot. (The walking toy commercial Captain Phasma is another exception that proves the rule.)
Abram's glibness pokes through from time to time, particularly in the lines given to John Boyega's Finn (e.g. "Droid please!"), but they avoid preciousness precisely because the character's deflationary one-lines are dramatized as a coping mechanism for his very relatable fear, rather than showboating archness. Hardly a film transcending to the level of art, as the superior Mad Max: Fury Road almost manages, The Force Awakens is nevertheless a blockbuster interested in its actors. In this sense it recalls 2008's Iron Man, another tent-pole movie involving an actor's director, Jon Favreau, comfortable moving between Hollywood's commercial and artistic sensibilities.
As much as the movie is a pleasing rehabilitation of the Star Wars franchise, it is also a triumphant return for Kasdan, whose output since the start of the millennium (2003's Dreamcatcher and 2012's Darling Companion) has been as underwhelming as that of, well, Lucas. Here his talents are put to good use, complementing and enriching Abram's kinetic direction. Of all his New Hollywood peers who have gone back to the well—Coppola (Godfather III), Lucas alone (the Star Wars prequels) and Lucas with Spielberg (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)—only Kasdan has emerged with his dignity intact. Perhaps this is because Kasdan's contribution was tightly circumscribed around his proven assets by a conscientious senior partner, rather than these being traded in for a creative blank check squandered half-assedly. Or perhaps it is because Kasdan returned to Star Wars without any great pretensions or stakes: He doesn't need the franchise to validate a reputation made largely outside of it, and long a stranger to the anal-retentive mentality of "world-building" in modern space opera, he could trim the franchise's fat without compunction. As Kasdan told Rogers about writing the script with Abrams, "We felt liberated. We had only one goal, which was to delight, to have as much delight in the movie as possible."
To say The Force Awakens succeeds because it gets back to the heart of the original Star Wars trilogy is too narrow, although symptomatic of the myopia surrounding the franchise. Rather, it works because the movie is an accomplished and self-conscious piece of populist "Neo" New Hollywood: a flashy, smart-dumb, character-driven blockbuster of the type Kasdan helped define.
Richard Fernando Buxton is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Classics at Colorado College.