One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
-T.S. Eliot, “The Sacred Wood”
This op-ed discusses numerous plot and character details. It is intended as a discussion for the benefit of people who have already seen the film.
In STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, J.J. Abrams commits great effort (and money) to imitate the pathos if not the ethos of a galaxy far, far away. We could deconstruct Abrams’ work as a pedestrian exercise in fan service vis-à-vis Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, but that would be just as much a slam dunk as handpicking not one but two movie franchises, each for its built in audience.
The babbling spring, in this case the “best watering hole in the galaxy”, is a bar run by Maz Kanata (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), who bluntly tells Rey (Daisy Ridley) of The Call, leading her to the amulet (Luke’s original lightsabre). Along with Rey’s refusal, Abrams dances through a facile re-creation of Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) Journey which begins with a premonition in the cave on Dagobah in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I’ve always wanted to know at least a little bit more about that cave, but I’m content to keep wanting. George Lucas, that master of annihilating suspense with ponderous explanations, fortunately never revisited the subject. J.J. did, in a slapdash manner more akin to visual cacophony than mystical omen.
As I mentioned in my review of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, there’s a well-paced, kinesthetic initiation in the duel between Rey and Luke’s fallen pupil, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). A tremendous opportunity was missed here. We have already seen the initiation rites of the light side of the Force, but why not the Dark Side? Why not see his Call and Refusal? Kylo Ren can be a fascinating character, if writer/director Rian Johnson tugs on that thread farther than Kasdan and Abrams did.
You might have the underpinnings of a social commentary: On the one hand you’ve got an underprivileged young woman, taken from birth and left on a ball of sand to scavenge for a trader who looks like a walking blobfish. Then you have the privileged white male teenager whose parents are a Princess and a General. He was boarded with the finest of teachers, Luke Skywalker himself. How is it that the underprivileged woman keeps her chin up despite her circumstances and yet the privileged white boy succumbs to the forces of darkness and kills his own father?
Joseph Campbell once stated that George Lucas was his best student. As I re-read Campbell’s Hero, I begin to understand, partially, why he stated this even though it was Kasdan and Irvin Kershner who did most of the heavy lifting after the financial success of a standalone story allowed them to run with the world Lucas haphazardly laid out. The chapters describing the Hero’s Journey read like a reference manual. Mind you, I love reference manuals. However, the cold, analytical fact-reading tone of Campbell’s book is devoid of passion, quoting passage after passage from classical prose. This seemed to fit Lucas’ documentary mindset toward world-building and archetypal characterization. Lucas embraced Campbell’s technical instructions for re-creating the pieces of the Hero’s Journey, if not the philosophical motivations. Abrams merely sought to imitate the parts of Lucas’ technique to appeal to the pocketbooks of fans disgruntled with Lucas’ foundering, self-indulgent prequel trilogy. To quote Walter’ Chaw’s brilliant writeup at Film Freak Central, “Abrams doesn’t always hit the notes, but he hears the music.” Well, he hears the money.
In the final scene of THE FORCE AWAKENS, Rey finds Luke atop a steep cliff (typical of Abrams’ literal-mindedness). Like Rey’s theme, one of Williams’ most original works in decades, the music swell evokes the same awe as during Indiana Jones’ raising of the Staff of Ra in the Well of Souls in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The name Skywalker, aside from sounding vaguely tribal, has an aura about it, and now monomyth becomes metamyth. Luke’s defeat of Vader and the Galactic Empire is fundamentally reduced to prelude of a retread—the doomsday device plot already exhausted twice. How could he?? Vader’s redemption is Luke’s apotheosis. In the final scene, the now-godlike Skywalker, last of the Jedi, expresses simultaneous anguish and dread—already having established powers of premonition in films prior.
Part of me wishes to see Rey complete her training under Luke’s tutelage and liberate Kylo Ren from the clutches of Supreme Leader Snoke (Kim Jong-Il would like to have a word with the screenwriter). However, wouldn’t that too be repetitive?
It’s a given, too, that Snoke is a direct stand-in for Oz, giving orders from afar appearing only as a giant holographic projection. Who wants to bet that he’s just as short as Yoda or any other Campbellian crone in the paint-by-numbers Star Wars universe where everything is so deliberately and harshly delineated? Why not imbue the characters with meaningful conflict. Campbell did a great job of explaining the idea of monomyth and how the Hero’s Journey manifests, but he didn’t necessarily seem to subscribe to the idea that it was a good narrative. But if I had to pick a mythology for which both he and Lucas shared affection, it would probably be Buddhism.
The STAR WARS universe is replete with unexplored possibilities and implications. Consider the will power it takes for Vader to defeat the Emperor; his extended invitation to Luke is perhaps borne out of foreknowledge that Luke
will be is his salvation. Now take a step back…
The Jedi and Sith are both fighting for what they believe is subjectively good. But in context of Buddhism and its intellectual grandfather, Hinduism, they’re both failing to see the forest through the trees. The saga of STAR WARS is narrower than the ideas it embraces. In a galaxy (ours spans 100,000 light years; there are 200 billion galaxies in our known universe), how do you contextualize such conceits as “good” and “evil”? What ultimately is the objective of the Sith? They’re evil. We get it. But evil doesn’t exist for its own sake, except in the minds of the mentally ill. The Sith have no ideology whatsoever, but its an ideology not an heritable illness. Tyrants always believe, in their minds, that they’re doing good. To write it off as, “The Sith only deal in absolutes,” is simply mediocre storytelling.
In post-Vedic Hinduism, there’s much introspection on dharma, the cause of doing right for its own sake. But Lucas so hastily cribbed from Kurosawa’s tales of a thousand-year old warrior class protecting the peasants that he neither understood the outdated context of that narrative in terms of post-imperial Japan and American military pre-eminence, nor did he really digest the cosmic implications of creating a far-spanning galaxy in which those motivations would scale to the infinitesimally trivial. Abrams was too shallow-minded to improve upon it and the common excuse given is that he’s setting things up for the next film. It’s now a perpetual franchise, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is that to be the excuse given by every writer and director who gets a paycheck from Disney from here until the end of time? It need not be.
If the Saga stayed true to the ideals of more than just Lucas’ sophomoric read of Buddhist philosophy, how might its denouement manifest? Rey and Ren would transcend the banal concepts of good and evil, light and dark. Luke might merge with Ben, Anakin and the Force and ascend to a demigod, a semi-objective arbiter. They might come together to defeat the ruling class of Princesses, Generals and Supreme Leaders, who, like our own ruling class, creates “others” out of everyone to manufacture the consent of the bourgeois to send peasants to fight wars that profit only the elites.
Wouldn’t it be something if the Saga concluded not with more battles to titillate and desensitize us. Why, when they can move objects with their mind and see into the future, are they not already liberated from the petty ambitions of their teachers who are, to paraphrase Sagan, strangely transfixed on being momentary masters of a fraction of a dot somewhere in one galaxy among a couple hundred billion? I suspect that every director who ever cribbed from Campbell never actually finished the book.
“The community today is the planet, not the bounded nation; hence the patterns of projected aggression which formerly served to co-ordinate the in-group now can only break it into factions….
“It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”
-Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces