The same, but more
[Warning: in this post SW:E7-TFA will be thoroughly spoiled, if you care about that sort of thing this late in the game.]
I was interested to see the newest Star Wars, not because I’m particularly a fan of the series, but because the idea of series—of unified stories composed of multiple parts—interests me. The original Star Wars had three; with the prequels, there were six; and if the new series had maintained the structural integrity of this pattern (as the prequels did nominally, albeit not actually), it would have been a single story with nine parts: an impressive achievement. Even Harry Potter only had seven, and I’m unconvinced that that number was really justified.
Well, a nonology looks unlikely even nominally. As by now “we all” know, “Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens” is not really a continuation of the original story, nor even a pastiche of the original; it’s just “the same frickin’ movie”; or, seen more optimistically, just a reboot of the original series for the age of comic book extended universes.
We might define an extended universe as a single work of art with an indeterminate number of independent parts. Whether such an artwork can actually succeed remains for me an open question. But even supposing it cannot, the attempt to achieve it brings about intriguing artistic situation. For example, the present situation of “The Force Awakens,” which attempts to give us more of the same, despite the manifest impossibility of doing so.
Impossible, I say, because when it comes to a work of art, you can never have more of the same thing: more will turn out to be different. Reduplication affects different aspects of a story differently, and so “the same frickin’ movie” will inevitably mean more of some things, less of others.
It’s instructive, I think, to consider what we get more of, what less. Note that none of the following observations are new to me; I just find it helpful to lay them out in this order.
The “more” we get is mostly spatial. Even the Force—which the series sees as a field permeating all of space—seems to have gotten thicker.
- Most obviously, the Starkiller Base is an order of magnitude larger than the original Death Star, and it blows up several planets, not just one.
- This movie’s villains are carbon copies of Darth Vader and the Emperor, except that Kylo Ren’s lightsaber doesn’t have just one main blade—it also has two side-prongs! And Supreme Leader Snoke (or at least his hologram) is 50 feet tall!
- In a more metaphorical spatiality, the cast of protagonists is superficially more diverse: they’ve been selected to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible. This even at the cost of incoherence: the First Order are basically space Nazis, but they have black storm troopers?
- In the original movie, even the most powerful Jedi can only influence someone, getting them to do what they might have done anyway: not notice something. In the new movie, Rey “forces” a Storm Trooper to violate both common sense and a supervillain’s direct command by releasing her from captivity, all this mere moments after first realizing that she might be able to use the Force.
Those mere moments bring us to the “less,” which is predominantly temporal. Everything takes less time, nothing ever needs to be explained, and whatever is past quickly becomes irrelevant.
- In the original movie, the main characters wandered for ages in the corridors of the Death Star: it was a big base; you could get lost. But for a planet-sized base, the Starkiller sure is easy to navigate—it takes only a few moments to find whatever you’re looking for.
- In the original, no one knew what the Force was, and it took a while for anyone to be convinced it even existed. The new movie has a few moments of doubt, and Han’s line from the trailer about how “it’s all real,” but they feel perfunctory.
- In the original, the characters have checkered pasts; Han is a smuggler who (at least in the first edition) shoots first, and only gradually is he turned into a hero. The new movie allows for none of this: the only hint of such dissonance, Finn’s status as renegade stormtrooper, is quickly papered over with assurances that he never really supported the First Order or even killed anyone.
- The original’s characters constantly hear hints of a complex backstory which is never fully explained, and they suspect that what happened then is the key to understanding what is happening now. The new film does the opposite: it bombards the viewer with references to the films we’ve already seen, but does little to suggest that the characters particularly care what happened thirty years ago. Instead of history, we’re offered nostalgia.
- The exception that proves the rule is Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side. We’re supposed to wonder what exactly happened between him and his parents to trigger it—but this is not an interesting question; it’s nothing more than a guessing game. The parallel situation in the original movie gave us nothing to guess about, because the relevant mystery wasn’t “how did Luke’s father die?”, the only obvious question Obiwan leaves open (and one that gave no appearance of being worth pursuing), but rather “who is [not: ‘was’] Luke’s father?”, a question we didn’t even know needed to be asked.*
More space, less time: what does this add up to? Most basically, that the new movie isn’t a copy of the shape of the original, exactly; rather, it’s an attempt to reproduce its effect on the audience. But things aren’t the same the second time around. The audience, having already seen the original Star Wars, has acquired a resistance to the drug, and so a higher dosage is needed: bigger bases, more powerful Force users, quicker action. That which is not subject to this quantitative logic drops out. Everyone already knows that in this universe the Force exists, so skip the gradual introduction, and hints about a complex past are redundant if we’ve already seen the most important part of that past for ourselves. Just jump right into the action.
I find pointing this all out this helpful as a response to this attempt to compare the new Star Wars universe with Tolkien’s Legendarium. The claim is that, by showing us how history repeats itself, and how even the greatest victory is only temporary, both “condemn [us] to actually live inside history, rather than transcend it.” “Condemn” being here a word of praise, not censure, at least in part: a way of saying that they avoid escapism.
Now, this seems accurate as an account of Tolkien, and perhaps it’s true to the old Star Wars Expanded Universe—I don’t know, never having read the books. But it doesn’t really capture what’s going on in the new movie.
A story can only teach us about the futility of history if it steps back from the action long enough to give us a sense that history matters. The Lord of the Rings is all about this stepping back. It insists constantly on the parallels between the current struggle and the old stories, and has the heroes realize this parallel. This realization both saddens them—because even the old victories were temporary; because even if they win today, they will never reclaim what was lost in the distant past—and gives them the strength to persevere.
But the repetition in the new Star Wars is not thematized, nor is any attention paid to the place of this battle, here, now, in the ancient war of Light against Dark. “Here” and “now” need never be mentioned, because in this movie, they’re all we get. Whatever repetition there is comes not on the level of the plot, but on the level of the narrative. The story has not repeated itself—the storyteller has. And so the new Star Wars movie does not teach us about the tragedy of history. Rather, through nostalgia, it blinds us to that tragedy, and so, on however small a scale, it contributes to it.
*: Of course, it may be that such a question lurks beneath the surface of “The Force Awakens”. I’m not optimistic, but if there is one, I suspect it’s something like: “Who does Kylo Ren serve?”; and the answer will have to make Surpreme Leader Snoke something more than just the Emperor 2.0. Perhaps, as I’ve seen suggested, he’s a projection (made substantial through force sensitivity) of Kylo Ren’s subconscious desire to follow in Darth Vader’s footsteps. That, or Darth Jar Jar Binks.