Thursday, December 24, 2015

These aren't the droids you're looking for -- and by the way, this is the best movie ever

It's probably just me, but somehow the rave reviews for "The Force Awakens" have a whiff of jedi mind tricks about them. It's not that it's a truly bad movie. Certainly, if you compare it with "Phantom Menace", it's a real accomplishment. But it's been called the best movie of the year, which seems just a little excessive in a year that saw the release of "Room" and "Spotlight".

For those who go to movies looking for spectacle, "The Force Awakens" delivers. For those who want to see plot twists, this movie will more than satisfy. If you want to see moments of convincing acting between the explosions, it comes across as well. For those who want to see truly coherent, truly excellent writing: see "Spotlight", or see "Room".

In his book "The Empty Space", the great English theatre director Peter Brook wrote about the disconnection between plays that described inner lives and plays that addressed the great sweep of world events. Brook points to the Elizabethan theatre as proof that writers could address both interior thoughts and feelings and world events, exposing the conflicts and interactions between the fears and hopes of individuals and the great events of the world. Perhaps Star Wars aims to do the same thing on a mythic scale, but it misfires badly.Star Wars has a red shirt problem. The first movie of the series, in 1977, began with the destruction of the planet Alderan.

All story-telling risks a kind of narcissism: telling a story inevitably means telling it from a particular point of view, and the listeners come to understand, and to that extent sympathise with, that view. Some story-tellers resist, making a conscious effort to remind their hearers that people outside the circle of the story also matter. Other storytellers happily capitulate to the limits of the form, even turning effect into ideology. Star Wars explicitly defines some of its characters as "chosen", some as auxiliaries placed by fate in the orbit of the chosen, and the vast majority as grist for the cosmic grinder. But this juxtaposition of the few who matter with the many who do not creates jarring inconsistencies in the heart of the story. At the end of Return of the Jedi, the film clearly presents Annakin Skywalker as fulfilled and redeemed, together with Obi-wan and Yoda which leaves the audience to wonder where in that afterlife the inhabitants of Alderan have got to.  "The Force Awakens" does not change this; it doubles down on the anonymous slaughter.

The problems with "The Force Awakens" start with, well, the force. An invisible, quasi-religious and very loosely defined principle associated with a set of abilities, mostly telepathy, the ability to manipulate others, and telekinesis, the Start Wars movies describe it as a grace somehow passed on by heredity. The force, in fact, provides a continual deus ex machina for the series, and particularly for the current film. The film depicts one of the principal characters as a scavenger, scratching out a subsistence living selling parts scavenged from the debris of space battles of a generation ago to an exploitative and oppressive junk dealer. Yet this character goes on to display excellent piloting and combat skills, skills that take decades to master and in fact act as the hallmarks of military aristocracy. Who taught this character these skills? Why would they? It should not surprise any viewer that the film makes it abundantly clear that the force is strong in this one. The films express a vision of profound inequality, and "The Force Awakens" does not change this.

Some of the best works of literature and drama to describe great historical events and movements have done so from the point of view of a random participant, as "Casablanca" tells the story of the Second World War, or from the point of view of the victims, as "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" or "Johnny Got His Gun" do. The protagonists of these stories represent the millions of people who went through the same experiences. Other accounts tell the story of major events from the point of view of people who happened to make specific decisions that had a profound impact. The choice of protagonist matters, and in Star Wars, the choice of protagonists, by an impersonal blessing from the universe passed on in the family line, contradicts the ostensible theme of the series, the struggle to preserve, then the struggle to restore, then the struggle to maintain a democratic state. The writers of Star Wars do not manage this tension well. "The Force Awakens" is spectacular; it has good acting between the blasts, but it does not tell a compelling story.

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