Enmity & Loss, Love & Hope
The trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII) seemed less movie than altar call: its eerie last words, eked out slowly, urgently, "The Force, it's calling to you," and then, whispered, emphatically, "Just let it in." To be sure, the trailer also hypes the pure fun of cool new droids, fetching young heroes, female and black, and blasters and fighters aplenty. Mostly, though, it seems bent on re-conjuring again the mystique of the Force, that metaphysical Something so full of both light and dread. Yes, "it's true, all of it," as none other than once-skeptical, and now aged, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) tells the curious youth: "The Dark Side, the Jedi, they're real." A stunning bit of promo, the trailer hits all the right chords to suggest that the Star Wars franchise, with its original magic, has fallen into exactly the right hands. And that is a very happy turn, given the last go-round.
Understand that rarely ever do sequels match the original, especially if the original wowed, as did that first Star Wars (1977), that space-Western surprise by thirtyish writer-director George Lucas whose only prior film, American Graffiti (1974), was an affecting nostalgia trip deep into teen life of the early 1960s. And then quite out of nowhere came Star Wars, and its long saga, a genuine cultural phenom that has smashed both Death Stars and box-office. The two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983), story by Lucas but written and directed by others, sustained the visual and narrative pizzazz of the original, though the third showed the susceptibility of Lucas, who retained final control, to bloated stories and "cute" touches (oh, those too-furry Ewoks). Those tendencies later swallowed Lucas in a prequel trilogy (1999-2005), written and directed by him, a laborious accounting of how young Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen), father of Luke and Leia, became a devotee of the very malevolent Dark Side. On his own, Lucas seemed to have gotten lost in his own storytelling, as both writer and director. The prequel trilogy did well enough financially, more or less running on fumes, but critically and for devoted fans, it pretty much limped along.
So quite a lot of the fevered expectation for the new one was to see if the franchise, sold to Disney for a measly four billion, would muddle still more or somehow relocate the lost verve. To achieve the latter, veteran director J. J. Abrams did as much as he could to return to the production constraints of the originals, shooting on film, eschewing green screens, and largely refusing CGI shortcuts. And veteran writer-director Lawrence Kasdan (Grand Canyon), co-writer on the first two sequels, joined Abrams and Michael Arndt to work on this one.
At least one index to the answer is in: The Force Awakens in just a few weeks obliterated box-office records. Disney hoped it would bring in two billion box-office (and another six with merchandise), and now it looks like gate could double the initial estimate. And there's video still to come, ad infintum profitum. Just wherein lies the magic that hauls in such vast heaps of green?
First, happily, this is a buoyant, very well made film—efficient, fluid, focused, suspenseful, witty, and, most of all, deftly balanced between the new and the nostalgic, smartly reworking some of best strokes from the original three. So right off we have a mysterious lonely orphan in the vast expanse of a forbidding desert planet. This exactly repeats the plight of young (and very brash) Luke Skywalker, only now it is Rey (Daisy Ridley), a solitary, fierce, and omni-competent young woman scraping by scavenging junk (in look and temperament she clearly recalls Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia). And soon enough the story sets about assembling a random bunch of creatures, past and present, including droids (R2-D2 and C-3PO) and even Chewbacca the Wookie—and, not least, machines such as the derelict Millennium Falcon—all fated to oppose a resurgent remnant of the evil Empire. One notable difference from the originals is that much of the acting is far better, especially Harrison Ford's Han, now an exiled husband and grieving father. Most pleasing is the jolt of Daisy Ridley as Rey, though for what she searches we do not yet know. Whatever the case, Ridley finds her match, as actor and plot foil, in Adam Driver as fearsome new villain Kylo Ren, a very bad guy very much in the mold, and line, of Darth Vader, and he knows what he wants all too well.
Over all of this and more, even the fancy critics have gushed, and justly so. There has been, though, scant talk on the why of such lasting appetite for a cartoonish series now almost forty years old. What little there is mentions myth, but little on the why and what in particular of myth that makes it still for so many so very strangely compelling. Maybe that's a given in these days of disenchantment. The old gods banished, or paltered, maybe it's obvious that we miss the peculiar sanctified buzz of wonder, surprise, and hope. And as a fetching surrogate for "the old time religion," conservative evangelicals are maybe right to remain suspicious of that mushy talk about the Force. Then again, there's not much they don't suspect, save for themselves.
That desert planet looks about as far from Eden as one can get, as is the plight of those rag-tag wanderers and aliens more or less surviving there. From the look and feel of it, one expects Abraham or Moses and his unruly hordes to wander in any minute. Indeed, all the protagonists are broken souls of some sort in hard search of a lost something or someone. In the original three films, Luke Skywalker pursued a doubly lost father he never knew he had, and in the new film, it is Luke himself who has gone missing, and no one knows why or where. And as if that were not enough, the new story doubles down with the search of a renegade son for a lost connection that means everything to him (no spoilers here, thank you, just in case there is someone who has not yet seen the film). And so also for heroine Rey, seeming orphan girl, solitary and tough, though with a subcurrent of sadness. Full of dazzling potential, she nonetheless has not a clue about herself and the path to arrive anywhere. And there are separated parents brought together only by the shared grief. It is no wonder, then, that no single word or name resonates so loudly in the screenplay as "home," whatever that is. In the Christian tradition at its best, that has always proven a hard-won destination, an Eden-like place of shelter, welcome, trust, and delight, and so it was in the original Star Wars trilogy. In any case, that ancient concept has once again, however tragically, found huge "bite" as the globe bakes and millions flee terror, privation, gas, and fear itself.
There has always been a sort of creepy allure to Darth Vader, a darkness made iconically palpable, and that continues now with Kylo Ren. With the original Vader, faceless concept artists brilliantly conjured a compelling, fearsome "presence" that delights in oblations to an all-consuming "dark side," an evil that relishes its power to afflict and destroy. In uncanny ways, Vader more than looked and spoke the part, tapping deep into everyone's visceral dread, a sensation that now finds, once again, more than enough warrant amid beheadings, mass slaughter, and trafficking of all kinds. Maybe life is a movie, or the other way around.
Hope there is, though, as Yoda would phrase it (the first of the Star Wars films was subtitled "A New Hope"). In The Force Awakens, the threat of an all-consuming darkness has again returned, and in mustering a response the bright side again lurches by fits and starts. It seems it has to wait for the young to grow enough to read the searing ambiguities of a crazy two-sided world, themselves included. Fortunately, there await in the wings Jedi masters akin to Obi-Wan and Yoda, especially the mysterious Lor San Tekka (the magnetic Max von Sydow), who according to one website was "a follower of the Church of the Force, an underground faith of loosely affiliated followers of Jedi ideals." There is also the suggestion that the Force will provide a savvy female mentor in Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o, 2013's Best Supporting Actress). And last, we know nothing about the mysteriously absent Luke; the mystery of where and what he's been up to closes this story.
Always in what we do glimpse of masters past and future, they look and act a whole lot more like monks than warriors, and well they should, given the nature of Jedi-ism. Here, in the matter of combatting the Dark Side, it is more a question of "being," a kind of spiritual discipline, than might—or so we hope. More than anything else perhaps, the lasting appetite for Star Wars lies in its consistently stirring, upfront treatments of loss, thirst, hope, and eventually love breaking through devouring enmity, and all done with a pitch-perfect vibe of numinous portent. Yes, it's huge melodrama, and a space-Western to boot, but it nonetheless refracts what the soul knows of the way the world is (not at all nice) and what it hopes for, albeit without a whole lot of evidence of much light to come. As the liturgy has it, "Longing for light, we wait in darkness," at least until the next episode.
Roy Anker is the author of several books on film, including Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies (Eerdmans).
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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