Anghus Houvouras on whether The Force Awakens is a thinly veiled metaphor for our obsession with Star Wars…
There’s a line in the new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens where the villain Kylo Ren tells us “I’ll finish what you started.” while the shot lingers on the burnt helmet of Darth Vader. It feels like this line could just as easily apply to Director J.J. Abrams, finishing what George Lucas started back in 1977.
Like everyone else on the internet I was watching the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer with anticipation and a little bit of trepidation. Anticipation because it’s a new Star Wars movie. Trepidation because I’ve been here before. I remember 1999. The hordes packing the theaters to see the first glimpse of The Phantom Menace. Every geek was bursting with anticipation. Darth Maul figures were flying off the shelf. This movie would surely threaten Titanic as the most successful movie in the history of film. We all know how that worked out. So this time around, my expectations are a little more grounded.
It’s not like I’m not looking forward to the new Star Wars movie. Far from it. I’m freakishly excited to see what J.J. Abrams does with his long languishing franchise that has hasn’t fully recovered since George Lucas made everyone wary of the word ‘prequel’. I’ve been talking about Abrams in Star Wars for the last three years, curious to see what Abrams, an expert on fan service heavy crowd pleasers, does to a franchise desperately in need of someone who understands that very principle.
J.J. Abrams has made a career affectionately channelling the work of other filmmakers in his own easily digestible mainstream movies. His Star Trek films are entertaining action films that gleefully abandon everything that came before and stripped the sci-fi franchise to the most basic components. He dumbed down the franchise, amped up the sex appeal and the action, and turned the film into a four quadrant hit. Even Super 8, considered his most original feature, was a trippy nostalgia filled romp through Steven Spielberg’s subconscious.
The new Star Wars trailer a similarly strange journey into the mind of J.J. Abrams. Everything about it is familiar. Familiar images from the original Star Wars movies. Familiar themes. Familiar characters. Everything about The Force Awakens is designed to feel familiar. The opening images of our main character digging through garbage (literally dumpster diving for scrap) shows us exactly the kind of movie that J.J. Abrams is going to make. He’s sifting through the rubble. taking us on a tour through the husk of the original trilogy. Even the poster screams nostalgia. What’s that Death Star-ish like thing in the background? Going back to that well, are we?
You could make the argument that Star Wars is the ultimate nostalgic vehicle. That more than any other film franchise, Star Wars exists as fan service: a pop culture mainstay that can never truly exist outside the massive cultural crater it created upon impact in 1977. That every film will always be connected to the original, and that no filmmaker is ever going to be capable of clearing it’s blast radius. That may very well be true.
Look, I’m not saying The Force Awakens won’t be great. Only an idiot would bet against this film being a crowd pleasing, four quadrant monster. It could be argued that J.J. Abrams’ isn’t a cinematic architect, but someone who works with nostalgia and fan service like other artists work with oil or clay. At his best, Abrams makes engaging collages by deconstructing the work of others and stitching certain pieces together while abandoning entire stretches of canvas. At his worst, Abrams is a chop-shop mechanic stripping away the heavy weight of a vehicle, finding the lightest, prettiest parts to make something fun & fast that rarely holds up over time. With Star Wars, he may have found the perfect vehicle for his skills. One that only needs to be fast and fun. A franchise that is impervious to criticism.
The fact that so much of The Force Awakens seems to focus on dumpster diving, both literally and metaphorically, makes me think Abrams is not only cognizant of his reputation, but wears it like a badge of honor. There’s part of me that watches the trailer for The Force Awakens and believes that Abrams may have made a movie with a subversive side.
The planet Jakku is a giant trash heap. The final resting place for the battle damaged ships that took place in the Return of the Jedi finale. Abrams is literally starting out the movie sifting through the wreckage of the past: not only of ‘a Galaxy Far, Far Away’ but of movie fans who have been eagerly awaiting for a continuation of the series. Kylo Ren seeks out the final remains of Darth Vader to place on his shelf, collecting what remains of the dark Sith Lord like a crazed fan. The same obsessive behavior exhibited by fans seeking out their own Kylo Ren action figure on Force Friday. Is Kylo Ren just a super obsessive Darth Vader fanboy?
Is Abrams trying to tell us something with The Force Awakens? Could Star Wars: The Force Awakens be a thinly veiled metaphor about our own pop culture obsessions?
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker and the co-host of Across the Pondcast. Follow him on Twitter.