I bought a ticket to The Force Awakens because I didn’t want to feel left out. Since everybody was going to be talking about it, I decided, I had better go see it. I also made a point of getting to the movie theater on time. While it meant sitting through 40 minutes of previews, I didn’t want to get stuck in the first row, the last row, or in a seat so far over to the right or left that I’d have to crane my neck just to see the film.
The previews, as usual, were tedious, mind-numbing, and soul-killing, but in the case of The Force Awakens, strangely appropriate. Big-budget Hollywood action movies flatten language. It’s not that the studios can’t afford to hire good writers. They can and often do. Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, and Wes Anderson may not be Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges, but there’s no question they write entertaining, fast-paced, literate dialogue. Action movies are different. The more special effects the director piles on, the bigger the car chase, the louder the explosions, the more imminent the coming apocalypse, the flatter and more generic the language gets. The whole process reaches its peak during previews for big-budget action movies.
“Well Bob it looks like we’re gonna have a bad day,” a scientist may say to his assistant after he notices the killer asteroid about to collide with the earth. “I guess it’s your turn to buy lunch.”
While the flattened language of many big-budget Hollywood movies serves to distance the viewer from the action taking place on screen, the intention is not Brechtian alienation, to make the audience feel uncomfortable, even disoriented. It is, in fact, precisely the opposite, to reassure him that even if that killer asteroid does hit the earth, even if that highly evolved, yet malevolent race of alien beings ships all our friends and neighbors back to their home planet to serve up as appetizers at their highly evolved yet malevolent alien dinner parties, people are still going to speak exactly the way they would during a perfectly normal day at the office. This kind of dialogue is comforting, not alienating. Sure, we think, it may look bad for humanity, but if people are speaking in such a bland, generic way, everything is going to be okay. Besides, we realize. It’s only a movie.
The Force Awakens follows this pattern so closely the movie flowed seamlessly from the previews. When Poe Dameron, the ace resistance pilot played by the Guatemalan actor Oscar Issac, is captured by Kylo Ren, the millennial generation Darth Vader played by the 6’5” but still cuddly Adam Driver, their dialogue is more appropriate to an uncomfortable job interview than to a confrontation between a revolutionary and a thuggish enforcer for a genocidal, evil empire. “So do you want to talk first or should I?” Poe says to Ren. “I guess I will.” When Han Solo, played by the now septuagenarian Harrison Ford picks up a specially designed blaster — it’s shaped like a crossbow — he sounds like the typical suburban dad checking out a new power tool his wife just bought him for Christmas. “Hey, I like this thing,” he says before sending another stormtrooper to his grave.
Stormtroopers, you’ll be happy to learn, still shoot like stormtroopers. They still can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Indeed, if any of the First Order’s white-suited shock troops cracked and went on a work-place shooting spree inside an imperial star destroyer, I doubt anybody would even get killed. All that being said, the most, and perhaps only interesting character in The Force Awakens is FN-2187 or “Finn,” the turncoat stormtrooper played by the Anglo Nigerian actor John Boyega. The Star Wars universe is fundamentally aristocratic. While Han Solo and Luke Skywalker may initially come off in The New Hope as two more or less typical California guys – it’s sometimes easier to imagine them fixing up the hot rod or polishing the surfboard than it is to believe them helping to overthrow the evil empire — Solo marries a Princess, and Skywalker is a member of a superior race, a Jedi with supernatural powers.
Finn, on the other hand, might just be the first genuine member of the working-class ever to get a major speaking role in a Star Wars film. In fact, he’s not only a proletarian, a common soldier with the specialty of “sanitation worker,” he’s an abducted child soldier, brought up never to develop into an individual human being. He only gets a name because Poe won’t call him FN-2187. When Finn rebels, therefore, helps Poe to escape, then later falls in love with Rey, the film’s female lead played by Daisy Ridley, we see the promise of a more interesting movie than George Lucas ever gave us. It’s just too bad J.J. Abrams didn’t take a chance and center The Force Awakens around Finn instead of Rey.
Rey is a typical Star Wars hero. By the end of the film, although it’s probably going to take a few sequels for the script to get around to telling us explicitly, most of us have figured out her real history, what family she belongs to, and who her father is. Finn, on the other hand, is something new, a character who not only talks like someone we know in real life, but could actually be someone we know in real life. Finn is one of those East German policeman who refused to fire on demonstrators in 1989, a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a member of the New York City Transit Worker’s Union that refused to let the NYPD us their buses for mass arrests at Occupy Wall Street. He’s the key to any successful rebellion.
A plot that featured Finn leading a rebellion of his fellow stormtroopers against the First Order would have made The Force Awakens a great movie. That, of course, is not what we get. It would have been far too dangerous, far too subversive, and no Hollywood studio would allot a budget of 200 million dollars for a dangerous, subversive movie. Instead, The Force Awakens, just like any other big budget Hollywood film, plays it safe. It has a resistance movement but no politics. Don’t bother debating about the First Order or the Resistance. They’re generic names designed to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible, to the far left, the far right, and everything in between, free floating concepts full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The Force Awakens gives us what every other Star Wars film has given us, family drama on an intergalactic level. That it’s the family drama of an elite family, and family drama complete with fleets of space dreadnoughts and planet killing super weapons, doesn’t change the fact that it’s not only just family drama. It’s poll tested family drama designed to mean nothing and offend nobody.
If the original Star Wars films were good films, it was mainly because of two things. First there was the sense of mystery that the great actor Alec Guinness was able to evoke as the elderly Jedi Obi Wan Kenobi. Guinness never liked the role. I guess he did it for the money, but it didn’t matter. The way he spoke hinted at a larger, more complex, deeper, older universe outside of A New Hope’s immediate action. Second, there was the G-Rated love triangle between Luke, Han, and Leia. Han and Leia are a couple out of Hollywood’s golden age, two strong-willed people who express their affection for each other by squabbling, an abridged comic book version of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell from His Girl Friday. The prequels did away with both. The Force Awakens improves on the romance. Finn and Rey are a more interesting couple than Han and Leia, if only because they’re an interracial couple. Sadly, however, except for a brief cameo by Max Von Sydow, it keeps the romance, but does away with the mystery. Unlike A New Hope, The Force Awakens is a fast-paced, busy film, all surface, all action, no depth.
Instead of mystery, The Force Awakens gives us nostalgia. People hated the Star Wars prequels mostly because they simply weren’t made for anybody over the age of 12. They were not only children’s movies. They were cynical, branding campaigns disguised as children’s movies. Jar Jar Brinks was never intended to move the plot of a good film. He was intended to be a toy you’d sell in the mall at Christmas. The Force Awakens errs in the opposite direction. I wanted a buddy movie between Finn and Poe, or perhaps a love-triangle between three attractive young heroes. Instead we get old people, old people and more old people. Han Solo, Princess Leia, First Order general officers speaking in British accents, Kylo Ren wearing a Darth Vader costume he doesn’t need, droids, death stars, tie fighters and x-wings, The Force Awakens is one endless parade of cameos from the 1970s. A good movie for the first 45 minutes, it just falls part after Han Solo makes his entrance. The elderly Obi Wan Kenobi evoked a dead culture we longed to see again. The septuagenarian Han Solo is an old man without the slightest trace of mystery, and there’s nothing more boring than an elderly man without an aura. “It’s all true,” Solo explains to the two 20-something heroes, “the force, all of it. It’s all true.” You could just see the two kids checking their watches and looking for an excuse to leave the family reunion without hurting grandpa’s feelings.
True, the teenagers sitting behind me loved it. They not only pointed out a few images that had been borrowed from the Harry Potter books that I didn’t catch, they understood every single cultural reference that had, undoubtedly, been handed down from their Generation X parents. I’m a 50-year-old adult who saw the original Star Wars trilogy as a child. They were 16 and 17 year old teenagers born just before 9/11. When it came to the Star Wars universe, there was no generation gap, yet this is not something to be celebrated. Unlike the vastly superior Creed, which features a 20-something hero actively trying to come to terms with the cultural inheritance of the 1970s, or the more daring, more creative Mad Max: Fury Road, which keeps the name of the old hero, but goes off in a radical new direction and never looks back, The Force Awakens is a film locked in a prison house of nostalgia. Even though there will certainly be one, two, three, probably more sequels, it’s really time for the whole culture to move on.