Are Millenials Being Screwed by Boomers Why The Force Awakens is the Smartest Fanservice Ever Made? [SPOILERS]
No one was surprised when fans and critics reacted with overwhelming positivity to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, after a decade wait for new official material to the franchise (a franchise which was originally intended to be “finished” after the release of Revenge of the Sith) and three prequel films that enraged nerds and critics alike with wooden acting, lazy use of computer-edited cinematography, and ridiculous backstories to familiar characters. Yet my Twitter feed is even now deluged with the naysayers, the daring ones who are willing to speak the harsh truth: that this latest Disney-bankrolled space adventure is not just a profit-motivated cash grab (unlike all those other films in the multiplex) but “fan service.” Its plot is in some ways an almost shot-by-shot remake of the first Star Wars, its villains are unoriginal, and there’s another freaking Death Star!
Despite the fact that the above is all technically correct, I believe that The Force Awakens, while absolutely being designed to keep a grin on the face of every fan of the original trilogy and to dodge their m0st common criticisms of George Lucas’s ill-received prequel films, is also an intelligent metacommentary on intergenerational strife and the franchise itself. Before I get into my criticisms of these naysayers, I want to warn again that this is a spoiler article.
I am an anomaly, trapped between two generations of Star Wars fans. Growing up in the 1990s, an isolated upbringing led to me reaching that moment in The Empire Strikes Back without knowing what would be revealed. The Special Editions released when I was nine, and I saw the original trilogy on old Betamax tapes for the first time earlier that year. The Phantom Menace came when I was eleven, and I saw it nine times in the theater. In both the intervening and following years, I was a ravenous consumer of content from the old Expanded Universe — the stories George Lucas never could make up his mind about accepting as canon, and gave various answers from time to time with respect to their level of officialness. I was in the same position as many fans who, I think, are a bit older than me — kids like my brother, who grew up in the 1980s and always had the original trilogy on video, but weren’t there to see the film when it came out back in 1977. The fact that I was a homeschooled kid and heavily influenced by my older brother makes me a bit of a curmudgeon compared to kids these days, like my niece and nephew, who grew up with the prequels and find the old trilogy a little slow to sit through. Not only have the prequels always been part of their galaxy, but they’ve had increasingly official expanded universe content to consume, like The Clone Wars and Rebels.
The experience of watching The Force Awakens on opening night for someone like me — someone who I would argue legitimately qualifies as a sort of “old school” fan compared to the vast majority of Star Wars consumers — was orgasmic and bittersweet, and I’m not exaggerating with the first term. I felt it in the theater — a tension as we sat through preview upon preview, as the movie theater promised us we would join their rewards program (it was inevitable), and then as, like all quasi-sexual experiences, we were let down from the start. One aspect of the original experience, produced by and also inherently prevented from being relived by the machinations of copyright law which both the franchises’ current and former owners are dark architects, was forever lost to the new films: the 20th Century Fox fanfare. It was obvious the filmmakers know that its absence would be conspicuous; rather than substituting Disney’s Enchanted Palace, they simply showed the Lucasfilm, Ltd. logo that has been on every Star Wars release since 1997, and then began the opening crawl. The initial letdown turned to dazzling wonderment as the stage was set for the new adventure.
The opening crawl of the film definitively tells an old Expanded Universe fan that that world is dead. There is a Republic, established after the old movies; later in the film we’ll hear it called the New Republic, as in Timothy Zahn’s novels (which were once hailed as being the closest we’d ever get to three more films); but the Empire, rather than being reduced to an Imperial Remnant, has becoming the dominant force in the galaxy. Princess Leia, rather than becoming a Jedi, has taken the rank of General; and Luke Skywalker, rather than establishing a Jedi Academy, has disappeared. Yet from the very start of the film, the old EU also echoes.
Marketing (and the practice of trailers in particular) has always spoiled narrative twists, the kind that aren’t “x is y’s father” but that have to do with who the narrative focuses on. (Cast billing can do this too, but this film subverts this in a likely record-setting capacity, with its lead-billed actor onscreen for less than a minute and having no lines.) We’ve known for a year now that the narrative focus would be on Finn, a Stormtrooper, and on Rey, a scavenger and pilot from the planet Jaaku, where the story begins. Similarly, in 1992 Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s audience knew that Arnold Schwarznegger’s Terminator would be allied with John Connor.
But in both cases, someone watching the film completely blind would be mislead as to the story’s protagonist. The first ten minutes of Force Awakens focuses on Po, Princess Leia’s “most daring pilot” and a man who appears to have been transported through time directly from a barbershop in 1977. He’s pure fanservice, a Han-Luke hybrid from the distant past. Piloting his X-Wing, he reaches an old veteran just in time to hide information in his droid about the location of Luke Skywalker — and then the stormtroopers come. In the ensuing fight, our protagonist tries to fix his X-Wing — and fails, being taken prisoner. It’s only then that we start to realize that Po’s sharing focus with the stormtrooper FN-2187 (a term that his commander, Captain Phasma, uses with a dehumanizing fervor that would startle Javert). Our trooper companion witnesses his companion die, leaving a bloodstained mark on his helmet — blood spilled, I’ll note, by our dashing hero — and putting him into shellshock. Then, the Force, well, Awakens, just as the film’s villain, Vader wannabe Kylo Ren, orders the execution of a large civilian population. FN-2187 refuses to fire, sealing his fate in the hierarchy of the First Order. He then springs Po from Ren’s interrogation room, and they steal a TIE Fighter together, setting up a buddy-movie dialogue which is hastily cut short when Po is killed and they crash on the desert planet of Jaaku.
The parallels even in the first fifteen minutes with A New Hope are massive, and I’m not denying or trying to hide them. They’re quite intentional, and they are fan service. We end up with stormtroopers, looking for a droid, on a desert planet, after a surprise Imperial attack. The droid has plans that have to be taken to a Rebel base on a forest world. Yadda yadda yadda. But we lose who the narrative, if not the marketing, had set up as the Luke or Han of this tale, and instant are given Rey — a character whose likely parentage (psst: probably a Mr. Skywalker)—is going to overshadow discussion of how complex a character she is and how unique her place in the Star Wars galaxy and canon are. Here’s where I get to the chief metaphor that I believe drives The Force Awakens:
Rey lives in a graveyard. Anyone who’s been playing Star Wars: Battlefront has had the opportunity to explore Rey’s backyard in a recent free DLC; she lives in a crashed AT-AT, and lives by salvaging debris from wrecked Imperial and Rebel ships from a battle fought long ago. Rey’s paid by a Jabba-like alien who grumpily insists that what’s she’s selling him is worth quarter or half “portions” — of what, we don’t really know. Rey’s room in her walker is decorated with chalk marks on the wall, counting down… or up… to the return of… something that is never coming. I would argue that Rey represents Star Wars fans: when we occupy the imaginary galaxy Lucas created (and sold for mega bucks), we live in a graveyard of ideas. As Star Wars mockers love to point out, Lucas created the saga itself from memories of pulp serials as a child (funny how people love to suggest this somehow impairs the series, while praising Tarantino for doing the same by culturally appropriating blaxploitation and kung fu movies), and the Expanded Universe and the prequels and really everything after the first film have been grabbing stuff, putting it together… some of it is worth something, a lot of it is worth nothing. Sometimes you get Knights of the Old Republic, sometimes you get The Glove of Darth Vader. And we’ve all been waiting… for sequels, for fandom to mean something. We know it won’t, that it’s just an entertainment franchise that will leave us let down even if it deliversw everything it promises, just like Rey knows her family is never coming back.
But the graveyard theme expands beyond Rey’s life, although it centers on her, and on her nemesis, Kylo Ren, to whom I must confess an overwhelming and uncontrollable sexual attraction (which, according to a large subset of Twitter and Tumblr makes me not only foolish but quite possibly the worst vanguard of patriarchy since Phyllis Schafley). The galaxy is a graveyard. It’s unclear if the First Order has established totalitarian control like the Empire had, or if they just seek it, but the galaxy has turned into a Firefly-style ‘verse where there’s just planets, and sometimes the bad guys come. The Starkiller (a reference, of course, to some of the earliest Star Wars scripts in which Luke’s name was Starkiller) wipes out the Republic by destroying five systems, including Coruscant. Everyone is constantly on the run, looking for relics… and everyone is trying to be, or not be, their parents.
The “Snape kills Dumbledore” twists of the movie are, as I’m sure you know if you’ve read this far, that Kylo Ren is Han and Leia’s son, once known as Ben Solo (an odd choice given that each of them knew Ben Kenobi for like five minutes); and that he kills Han in a scene which is so telegraphed that it should have credited Alexander Graham Bell. In that scene, of course, we have a Ben killing the mentor figure who recruited our protagonists to the cause and who is one of the last who remembers the wars of the past. It’s A New Hope 2: Hope Harder. But, as with a lot of things in Force Awakens, it’s all inverted; the Stormtrooper saves the droid, Ben kills the mentor, and the father makes an appeal to turn his son back to the light. As a transgender woman, Han’s appeal to Ren to turn back to the light actually made me a bit uncomfortable — he calls him by a former name, and insists against Ren’s protestations that his son isn’t dead, that Ben’s still in there.
I’m not suggesting that Kylo Ren is in fact some sort of transgender metaphor, but this confrontation really sums up what I think the film is commenting upon: the generations that share Star Wars as a fandom are separated by the fact that the elders had their fun in a universe that wasn’t a graveyard. The folks who lined up to see Star Wars in 1977 — the Hans, Lukes, and Leias of this metaphor — may have lived under an Empire, with Reagan and the specter of Vietnam, but they lived in a world where new stuff was made. Like Rey, who scavenges the parts from the brutal war her parents fought, and Ren, who tries so desperately (and sexily) to be his grandfather, whose burned mask he treats as a sacred relic, we don’t have a future in the face of an endless push toward war and fascism.
That The Force Awakens represents the plight of Millenials so well is likely to fly right over the heads of the generation who it’s blaming. They’re going to focus on the fact that Ren chooses to kill his father — his father who loves him, who caresses his face gently before falling into the dark. They will ignore Ren’s warning to Rey (“you believe Han Solo is the father you never had. You would have been disappointed.”) They will ignore Leia’s acknowledgement that sending Ben to train with Luke was a mistake, and the likely implication that Luke Skywalker has no freaking idea how to train a Jedi. And of course, they will ignore the specter of capitalism, patriarchy, empire in the back of all of it. Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz, a 1000-year-old alien cantina owner who plays the Yoda and the Jabba of this piece, warns Rey that the Sith, the Empire, and the Order are united by more than just their love of Nazi iconography and the colors black and red. The mysterious Snoak, Kylo Ren’s master and Voldemort-lookalike, strongly resembles previous expanded universe descriptions of Darth Plegeius, who Revenge of the Sith implies may have created Anakin through immaculate Sith conception, more or less. Rey, Finn, and Kylo inherit a galaxy that is on the edge of death through no fault of their own, and they struggle to survive. All of them are scavengers, taking the best they can find — including the Millenium Falcon — and making the best of it.
I hope that subsequent titles in the franchise continue this theme of intergenerational conflict. This movie is likely to be the biggest blockbuster of my generation, and we’re watching it while burdened with debt, while the Federal Reserve increases interest rates to serve the interests of our parents, and none of us are getting to live the lives our parents did. Some of us deal with this by taking our parents’ stuff and using it — whether by emulating our grandfathers, as Kylo Ren and people who have Mad Men parties do, or by living on the edges of society and struggling to survive. But our world is a graveyard, and the future requires radical change.