Too often movie sequels look achingly like their prequels, and although the latest in the Star Wars franchise doesn’t buck this trend, somehow it doesn’t feel like a formulaic rehash. I think I know why that is and the reason is melancholic to say the least.
JJ Abrams came to prominence in Hollywood via his television darling, LOST. LOST is a show about the interplay between the mystical and the mechanical. Just when you think there’s a transcendental mystery afoot it has a rational answer at the next turn, which gives way to another gut-tingling mystery, which gives way to another grounded answer, and so on. Even the gods puppeteering free will and fate get grounded in an origin story–but ultimately, what we’re left with is this force, this formless intelligence in which we are embedded and acting out our roles as individuals to serve the growth of the group in a feedback loop. This is life.
Is there a better-suited co-writer and director for Star Wars: The Force Awakens than JJ Abrams? Methinks not.
In the original Star Wars trilogy, we learn of The Force in terms of mysticism: it is the light/dark combo that moves through us and binds us and only those pure enough to bear the hero’s journey or corrupt enough to become soulless psychopaths may manipulate it consciously. This mythological feast of Eastern flavors comes at the right time in the 1970s when Western societies are exploring Eastern spirituality on their way out the door of orthodox Christianity and mainstream culture.
Cut to 1999. The West has pulled back into some new conformist sense of itself. It’s found its new belief in explanations that sound more like science and often times are based in it. In the 1990s you can’t just have some airy explanation of a force that binds all. Not good enough. We need the technical jargon on that. Just the words will do, though. We need words that express the feeling that there’s a rational anchor to make sense of it all even if the anchor is pseudoscience. We also are less concerned with gaining the feeling of discovery that comes with the hero’s journey and more concerned with where we went wrong as a society. We feel our society collapsing, not transcending. We screwed up. Where?
It’s now when George Lucas trots out the prequels that seek to ground The Force and the Jedi who use it. In their heyday, we find out, Jedi Masters were really a political tool, an order of peacekeepers more than anything. And their ability to use The Force was based on the midichlorian count in their blood stream. The prequel worlds of longer ago in a galaxy far, far away look less like mysterious aliens on new planets than they do like New York and Tokyo. Out with the creature cantina; in with the sports bars. Unlike the original trilogy, the prequels are a reflection of us as we are, not us dreaming of who we could be.
But still… sometimes the good and evil levels in The Force come unbalanced… and when that happens, The Force produces a virgin-birthed child with mega midichlorians who will restore balance. The twinkle of mysticism and destiny shine through the political claptrap and technological advancements of choice and time….
Cut to a month ago. Now that Lucas has handed the keys to his universe to Disney, we have JJ Abrams reconciling the two versions of Star Wars that Lucas gave us. Not the light and the dark but the mystical and the material. JJ Abrams understand better than any American director out there why history repeats itself–why there is a karmic wheel at all–in terms inherent to the Star Wars universe. When he has the bad guys building yet another Death Star it’s not because he’s a Hollywood hack lazily repeating a formula. It’s because a Death Star must be built. This is what the dark side of The Force demands: the worst thing ever. What’s worse than a planet-killing machine?
On the other hand, it can’t work forever. Balance, you see. The inventors must always leave a blindspot in their defense for the good guys to exploit. Han Solo calls attention to this in an off-the-cuff remark about how it’s not scarier, it’s just bigger. So what? Find the weakness, blow it up, end of story. He’s seen it all before. And here he is speaking as the audience’s point of view, for we have seen this all before, too.
But that is the point. The melancholic point of it. There is a mechanistic function to the mystical Force. It must produce good and evil. Good and evil must be embodied in people through bloodlines with high midichlorian counts. Got a high midichlorian count? Guess what. You don’t get to live in the free will world of your neighbors. You’re put on the fast track to destiny. Some of you will be evil. Some of you will be good. And one of you, a variable, will be the person who switches sides to restore balance. And this game goes on forever even if the pieces and the board change. However the world changes, The Force adapts. In this new world the heroine needs no training to fly the Millennium Falcon, fight with a lightsaber, or use The Force. She needs no Jedi council, no formal training for anything. It is all within her. At first she is bewildered by this but by the end, in the final showdown with new affluenza-afflicted baddy Kylo Ren, he offers to train her and she… closes her eyes… trusts that she already knows deep down what she doesn’t consciously know at all… and bests him in a saber duel.
And that’s where we are as a society right now. We know what we’ve done. We know that the old order is over and there ain’t no one coming to save us. Not Jesus really late for 2000. Not aliens late for 2012. Not even Bernie Sanders in 2016. We are intelligent forms embedded in formless awareness–the mechanical embedded in an intelligence that moves and is us–but so what? What does that admission give us on the day to day level where we appear to be making decisions?
Nothing. Nothing unless we look within, having read the signs without. It is there and then that we may relax into the larger stream in which we are embedded and not use The Force, but… recognize ourselves as it and see what changes come next. And who directs. And what free will and fate are.
And finally, for once and for all, understand what it truly means to awaken.