Critic's Notebook: How 'Star Wars' Went From Shakespearean Saga to Harry Potter in Space
For all their wooden dialogue and silliness, George Lucas' 'Star Wars' movies were works of intellectual and moral weight; the new J.J. Abrams film revitalizes the saga by infantilizing it — and us.
Barely two weeks into its release, The Force Awakens is already a record-breaking, history-making, billion-dollar smash hit for director J.J. Abrams and his Disney paymasters. Old fans love it. New fans love it. Even movie critics love it too, mostly, and we are a notoriously sour bunch.
I was never a hardcore Star Wars geek, despite being just the right age to have my tiny schoolboy brain blasted into orbit by the first trilogy. But I am also sick of reading contrarian snobs proudly boasting about never seeing any of the series, as if their lack of cultural curiosity is a virtue. So I went to see The Force Awakens with an open mind, and came out — well, both exhilarated and disappointed. Who knew deep space could be so shallow?
To be clear: The Force Awakens is a superbly crafted thrill ride that presses all the obvious pleasure buttons for millions of Star Wars fans. And the addition of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as young co-stars is obviously a welcome sign of progress in an otherwise very white, male franchise.
Does it matter that Abrams shamelessly recycles most of the key plot elements from Episode IV: A New Hope? To some critics, sure, but not me. Should we care that Kylo Ren is basically a petulant, bratty, emo-kid tribute act to Darth Vader? Not really, but he is certainly whinier than he is scary. Is it rude to point out that Starkiller Base is easily destroyed thanks to the same fundamentally stupid design flaw as the Death Star? Possibly, but the Empire/First Order might want to consider hiring architects with a basic grasp of safety regulations before building their next planet-sized superweapon. Just a suggestion.
But my one serious beef with The Force Awakens is this: George Lucas was an innovator, and J.J. Abrams is an imitator. Lucas had depth, for all his faults as a filmmaker, while Abrams is a genius at flashy populist spectacle that evaporates into stardust almost as soon as you leave the theater. Star Wars created its own ever-expanding universe of myth, allegory and fairy tale; The Force Awakens is full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.
When he first conceived Star Wars, Lucas was one of the young auteur directors of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, making films that combined the social critique of 1960s hippie counterculture with the visionary swagger of the 1970s "movie brats." This brief but fertile period in studio history gave him the freedom to conjure up a grandiose space opera that was undeniably clunky and flawed, with notoriously wooden dialogue: "You can type this shit," Harrison Ford famously protested to Lucas, "but you can't say it."
But for all its limitations, the original Star Wars was a commendably ambitious and multilayered creation that treated its audience like culturally engaged adults. Decades before Tarantino, Lucas created the first postmodern blockbuster, an experimental collage of cinematic homages and literary allusions both low- and highbrow. Having failed to secure the rights to Flash Gordon, the young director simply incorporated elements from this classic pulp sci-fi series into his own self-penned space epic alongside audience-nudging quotes from Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, John Ford's The Searchers, Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will and Fritz Lang's Metropolis — plus Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, The Dam Busters and more.
In building the Star Wars universe, Lucas drew on Jean-Luc Godard and Sergio Leone, Frank Herbert's epic Dune fantasy novels, the hallucinatory writings of hippie cult favorite Carlos Castenada, and Joseph Campbell's seminal 1949 book on mythic archetypes, Hero with a Thousand Faces. He also included lightly disguised references to President Nixon, America's then-recent disastrous defeat in Vietnam and his own Skywalker-esque childhood in Modesto, Calif. On top of this, he layered Wagner and Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Freud, Nordic sagas and Greek tragedy, Arthurian legend and Biblical allegory. A deep, dense, heady mix, indeed.
Of course, Lucas later went on to squander an entire universe of good will with his trilogy of Star Wars prequels. But even those unloved movies were rich in intellectual ambition and grand ideas about society, power, courtly love and the darkly seductive allure of fascism.
The prequels were rightly criticized for their annoying characters, creaky dialogue and enslavement to CGI technology. But Lucas made his biggest mistake in overestimating his audience's appetite for moral complexity and novelistic depth. It turned out most of us just wanted to see more wise-cracking space cowboys, Pixar-cute robo-pets and teenage wizards with Daddy issues. Which is where J.J. Abrams comes in, revitalizing the Star Wars saga by infantilizing it. And us.
One parallel that springs to mind is David Bowie, who was a uniquely energizing figure in the 1970s, a one-man art school for kids who never made it to art school. It was mainly through Bowie that my generation first learned about Jacques Brel, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Lou Reed and other cult figures from the Dark Side of pop culture. After Bowie created the template, every self-styled art-rock alien borrowed from his surface style, but rarely from his avant-garde depths. If George Lucas is Bowie, J.J. Abrams is Duran Duran.
Yes, The Force Awakens is a terrific reboot of a stagnant franchise. But it is also pure sensory spectacle, devoid of substance or subtext. While the original Lucas films invited curious minds to explore a vast cultural hinterland, this new chapter only looks inwards to itself and its own mythology, with perhaps a few comforting echoes of the Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings series. A conventional studio action franchise, in other words. A multibillion-dollar cash cow, whose chief legacy will be theme parks and intergalactic merchandise profits.
In his prime, George Lucas dramatized complex adult ideas for kids. J.J. Abrams has made a children's film for adults. Behind its dazzling visual wizardry, The Force Awakens is essentially Harry Potter in space. As a commercial brand, Star Wars has never been stronger. But the original concept — visionary, experimental, morally challenging, imperfect but wildly ambitious — has been exiled forever to a galaxy far, far away.