The Kobayashi Maru of
"The Force Awakens"
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) score -
"Main Title / Attack On The Jakku Village (J. Williams)
“IMPRESSIVE! MOST IMPRESSIVE!”
Satisfied with the script, Abrams & Kennedy cast relative newcomers Daisy Ridley as Rey (she best known at the time for the award winning British horror film SCRAWL, and the BBC’s MR. SELFRIDGE), John Boyega (ATTACK THE BLOCK, 24: season 9) as Finn, Adam Driver (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, HBO’s GIRLS) as Kylo Ren, Oscar Issac (A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, EX MACHINA) as Poe Dameron, Gwendoline Christie (GAME OF THRONES, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS) as First Order officer Captain Phasma, and Lupita Nyong’o (12 YEARS A SLAVE, NON-STOP) rounding things out as the mysterious Maz Katana. Veteran character actors joining the franchise included the aforementioned Max Von Sydow as retired adventurer Lor Van Tekka, and Andy Serkis (THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) as Supreme Leader Snoke.
Returning STAR WARS franchise faves included Tim Rose as Admiral Ackbar and Mike Quinn as Nien Nunb (both from RETURN OF THE JEDI); Anthony Daniels as C3PO, and Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca (although 6’10 basketball player Joonas Suotamo would double for the 71 year old Mayhew in a number of strenuous action sequences). And (of course) returning STAR WARS lynch-pins Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa, and Mark Hamill as the story’s “MacGuffin” Luke Skywalker. And, oh yeah, a few “blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em … or at least not hear ‘em” (Easter egg) cameos would include James Bond’s Daniel Craig, as well as UP, THE INCREDIBLES, JURASSIC WORLD composer Michael Giacchino, and Radiohead’s Nigel Godrich (all as Stormtroopers); RETURN OF THE JEDI and WILLOW’s Warwick Davis as a denizen of Maz’s nightclub, and Billie Lourd (the daughter of Carrie Fisher) as a Resistance fighter.
THE FORCE AWAKENS Concept Art: "The Scavenger"
After tossing the names of possible directors such as David Fincher and Guillermo del Toro into the mix, a suggestion by Steven Spielberg lead to Kennedy and Disney hiring J.J. Abrams to take the helm of the new STAR WARS entry. Long before their collaboration on Abrams’ 2011 Spielberg homage, SUPER 8, as a teenager Abrams was profiled in a newspaper article about his participation in an L.A. Young Film Maker’s Festival – an article which Spielberg read, and which lead to the E.T. / CLOSE ENCOUNTERS director hiring young Abrams and a friend to repair reels of Spielberg’s personal collection of super 8 mm films from his own childhood movie making days.
An avid reader of CINEMAGIC magazine (in the days before it was purchased by STARLOG), Abrams next brush with filmic fame was when he convinced that publication’s founder / editor Don Dohler to allow him to score the low-budget auteur’s third feature – 1982’s NIGHTBEAST, sort of a sequel / remake of / to Dohler’s earlier THE ALIEN FACTOR (1976).
Abrams 1990s screenwriting triptych
Abrams’ first step into “the Bigs” was when his comedy script, co-written with Jill Mazursky, was picked up and filmed as 1990’s TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS starring James Belushi and Charles Grodin. As writers he and Mazursky would re-team on the 1997 comedy GONE FISHIN’ with Danny Glover and Joe Pesci. But in between he’d become one of the industry’s hottest screenwriters with his solo efforts REGARDING HENRY (1991) starring THE FORCE AWAKENS’ Harrison Ford, and 1992’s sci fi slanted love story FOREVER YOUNG with Mel Gibson. In 1994 he and other members of “The Propellerheads” - a group of Sarah Lawrence alums (including future MONSTERS VS. ALIENS / SHARK TALE director Rob Letterman) who were experimenting with computer animation, where commissioned by DreamWorks co-head Jeffrey Katzenberg to develop animation prototypes for a then-in-the-planning-stages film later to be called SHREK. And continuing on that upward career trajectory, Abrams then became one of five credited screenwriters (along with Robert Roy Pool, Jonathan Hensleigh, Tony Gilroy and Shane Selerno) on the Simpson / Bruckheimer sci-fi action epic ARMAGEDDON (1998).
On STAR TREK (2009)
Zoe Saldana as Uhura: STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)
No bones about it, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a great film! The classic definition of everything you could ever want from an afternoon at the movies, it’s a bravura exercise in giving the audience what it's been jonesin' for, … and then some. A fast and furiously moving action / adventure of the first order (pun intended!), its first half is perhaps the most briskly entertaining “Holy crap! - The breaks are out as we careen down the mountain road with no guardrails and a trailer full of dynamite” entry in the STAR WARS saga since the 1977 original. And this is entirely by design as, you’ll recall, Disney was keen on giving the world a “Space Opera” as opposed to Lucas’ originally intended “Family Opera”. So yeah, in the swashbuckling action / adventure genre, THE FORCE AWAKENS has few peers. Whether or not it’s a good “STAR WARS film”? … well, that’s more complex. And that complexity stemming from the simple (and once again not so simple) fact that everyone’s definition of what constitutes a bonafied “STAR WARS film” differs.
THE FORCE AWAKENS Concept Art: "Strengthen Me"
What constitutes bonafied "STAR WARS" to us? Well, to begin, one has to acknowledge that, with the possible / arguable exception of 1977’s original film, the STAR WARS entries have never really been “Space Operas” any more than THE GODFATHER series were “Gangster Films”, or THE NATURAL and FIELD OF DREAMS were / are “Baseball Movies”. Most fans and historians generally recognize the core of Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo's crime epic to be a Shakespearean family tragedy merely set within the world, … within the context of the Italian mob in America. That is the pulp fiction backdrop against which the drama is set.
THE NATURAL and FIELD OF DREAMS? Both of those are certainly more contemporary myth than “dugout drama”. While GOODFELLAS on the other hand? That’s a "mob movie". Continuing down that genre checklist, how 'bout MAJOR LEAGUE? Yup, that's a "baseball film". And 1984’s wonderful (and woefully underrated) gem of a little movie - THE LAST STARFIGHTER? With that one, yeah, we're talking the working textbook definition of an old-school, soaked-to-the-gills “Space Opera”. But STAR WARS, while over the years evolving into a genuine genre all its own, has always been within the spine of its thematic central nervous system, as Lucas stated, a “Family Opera”.
Concept Art: "Rey's Speeder"
Shakespeare’s HAMLET (once described as “The world’s most filmed story after CINDERELLA”) is far and away not about the mechinations of a ghost spirit within an ancient Danish Royal Court as much as it is about the always contemporary subject of the ghosts of one’s familial past returning to cripple one’s familial present. And without this powerfully timeless thematic “HAMLET genome” genetically inserted into other HAMLET-esque “redos” as THE LION KING (1994) and SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982), those stories would not have the psychological and emotional punch for which they are still justifiably known and lauded.
Our choice as “the world’s most oft filmed story”? Hands down we go with OLIVER TWIST. And there again, more than the episodic misadventures of an orphan boy adrift among the sordid streets of Victorian era England, Charles Dicken’s “social novel” to this day remains an emotionally gripping (and quite visceral) story about the search for identity, … about the search for self in the world. As with HAMLET, this becomes the psychological / emotional / spiritual DNA within the genetic makeup of other such powerful OLIVER TWIST updates the likes of THE COLOR PURPLE, CLOCKERS, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, BLOOD DIAMOND and even the animated AN AMERCAN TAIL.
The soul of OLIVER TWIST roosts within CLOCKERS (1995) and AN AMERICAN TAIL (1986)
The six STAR WARS films under George Lucas? Some are certainly better than others. And, as do most, we cast our lot in voting THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) as the best of the bunch. Although, make no mistake, the final act of REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) is a series high water mark as well. Just as HAMLET, TITUS ANDRONICUS and OTHELLO (on the surface ghost stories and revenge dramas - the Shakespearean era's version of Lifetime Network movies) used their dramatic histrionics to lure audiences into peripheral socio-political commentary on such topics as incest, child abuse, nationalistic zeal run amuck, racism and more, so would Lucas’ STAR WARS films in general, and SITH in particular, use their “Family Opera” histrionics to take (sometimes obvious; sometimes not) glances into the subjects of Facism, the delicate nature of democracy, and the corruption of corporate economics leading to social revolution. They are also of course well known for their already much written about philosophical examinations into the nature of faith, the history of world religion, and how both can be co-opted to either oppress a populace or set it free. Deep stuff within the context of an intergalactic swashbuckler.
The soul of HAMLET roosts within RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
We vividly recall the summer of 2009 when Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS opened, and we found ourselves having (surprising) discussions about how on certain levels it and REVENGE OF THE SITH (which had opened four years prior) were cinematic cousins sharing a number of intriguing similarities - starting with the fact that both were written and directed by students of not just film history, but also of world history.
Both SITH and BASTERDS use their pulp novel environs to “re-create” and “re-examine” history - in particular that surrounding the seductive rise of Facism in Europe. And both igeniously use film history to drive the point home. Many of Tarantino’s references (such as to famous anti-Nazis like Marlene Deitrich – realized in the fictional character Bridget von Hammersmark) are obvious, while SITH’s, while certainly not “hidden”, are a bit more subtextual.
After Anakin Skywalker falls and becomes Darth Vader under Palpatine (aka “Darth Sidious”), the annihilation of the Jedi sequence becomes a near spot-on recreation of the infamous “Night of the Long Knives” – wherein during late June / early July of 1934 Hitler ordered a preemptive purge, carried out via the executions of not only known anti-Nazis, but also against members of the more left-leaning “Strasserist” Nazi faction whom he considered a possible later threat.
Visually this “purge” sequence in REVENGE OF THE SITH (arguably the darkest and most disturbing in the entire STAR WARS filmic canon) is patterned after the rigid formal structure of the 30s era German propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl (TRIUMPH OF THE WILL in particular). And this reference – those black & white Riefenstahl films, somewhat half-remembered by audiences from high school history classes long ago, register on a subconscious level, and drive the point home of how easily despotism can arise under our very noses from the most (formerly thought of) unlikely of places.
The soul of Dietrich roosts within INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS' Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger)
One also can’t help but notice how Palpatine’s purge command is designated “Order 66” – a biblical reference to the rise of “The Beast” / Anti-Christ, who’s own designation number, as the entire world is aware, is (what else?) “666”.
Again, as with those half remembered, grainy Riefenstahl films, so too does the average audience member kind of half remember stories and references to the Anti-Christ and 666 from years ago in Sunday school, or at the very least from pop culture sources such as thrash metal band Slayer's 1983 song "The Anti-Christ", the 1976 film THE OMEN and others.
As such, when the audience hears the evil (and demonically looking) Lord Palpatine utter the words “execute order 66”, a chill of familiarity runs down it’s collective spine as it sees an evil perhaps more so than Hitler. They see the Devil himself. All of this to say …
With the exception of THE FORCE AWAKENS’ vague early analogy to the new Stormtroopers being warlord-like child conscripts, we didn’t get ANY of the mutli-layered cultural / historical / philosophical subtext from the new film. And because of that, on certain levels FORCE, as enjoyable as it was / is on one level, rang as rather hollow on others. Yes, at times Lucas’ own earlier references in his STAR WARS films (nods to Dante and more) could become a tad heavy-handed to the point of at times making his narratives top-heavy or cumbersome. This notwithstanding, with some films you just still come to expect certain things.
With Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Hitchcock and Spielberg films you come to expect certain things even if at times they tend to tilt their narratives into "top heavy" or "cumbersome" territory, as (for better and for worse) this is part of what an "Oliver Stone", "Spike Lee", et al film is. When done heavy-handedly it can be self-indulgently irritating. But when on point, there's a stunning bit of cinematic magic which can forever-after tug at one's heart and mind. To us at least, what makes a STAR WARS film a bonafied “STAR WARS film” is that same brand of expectant multi-layered subtext which an audience can notice or not notice - often such that as a child you seldom pick up on it, but years later while re-watching, you find yourself experiencing a magical “lightbulb finally clicking on” moment.
This holds true too across filmic genres, y'know - even with comedy. What makes the crème de la crème of Zucker / Abrams / Zucker films, such as AIRPLANE, TOP SECRET and THE NAKED GUN, infinitely more interesting (and a damned sight funnier) than knock off ZAZ wannabes like the SCARY MOVIE franchise or the 300 parody MEET THE SPARTANS? It’s often the subconscious awareness the audience has to a history of filmic clichés and references, … even if the audience is unaware of from whence those references originate. There is a subconscious / subtextual sense of familiarity with what we’re seeing onscreen, and it registers as (for lack of a better term) “deeper” than mere jokes. In like manner STAR WARS films should register somewhere as more than simple “swash” and “buckle”, even if that “swash” and “buckle” is carried out in the most grand and glourious of manners. At any rate ...
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a rollicking, and rollickingly well made, space-set adventure. And that mid point sequence with Han Solo attempting to talk his way out of a corner with two rival “employers”, with each ready to blast him to oblivion, is the “Han Solo in his element” we’ve long wanted and waited to see. Joss Whedon’s FIREFLY was distilled from this version of our beloved bad-assed Solo. And it's great seeing the (Lando's words, not ours) “’ol pirate” back in his element and reclaiming his territory for at least a little while. Other highlights and kudos ...
Near the film’s midway point however, when Kylo removes his helmet to reveal to Rey not a horrific Palpatine or Vader-like visage, but the face of a smooth-faced (pimpled?) young man, there was (was it just us? We don’t think so) a very pronounced if unspoken collective audience inner sigh of “Is that all?” And, in a way, that “Is that all?” feeling infects the remainder of the entire film. Not because of the letdown of a less-than-superhuman villain. But because, just as in the months leading up to the film's release, when there was such a build-up of Ren's importance and presence, only to have his true self revealed not with a bang but with a wimper, so to was the first half of the film such a rollercoaster of new wonders and narrative, that when we get to the second half and (once again, for lack of a better term) "another Death Star" it's a bit of a deflation.
Perhaps while not to the same self-destructive degree to which Tim Burton's 2001 PLANET OF THE APES became more a straight-ahead adventure and less a subtextual exercise, we do feel that Disney’s desire to excise the more mythic and subtextual elements of the STAR WARS universe from THE FORCE AWAKENS, in their attempt to make it more of a “throwback Space Opera for the fans”, ironically has the opposite effect of making it not a “Space OPERA” at all, but more a nifty “Space ADVENTURE” film. Not a bad end result to be sure. But in the same manner in which 1977’s THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (one of the most popular and lucrative entries of the entire James Bond franchise) is a fantastic adventure film in and of itself, … but not really a “James Bond” movie (Bond is more a super hero in this one), so is THE FORCE AWAKENS one of the best slam-bang sci fi oriented pulp adventure yarns in years, … but not really a “STAR WARS film” as we've come to think of, and know and love them.
Is this necessarily a "bad" thing?
It doesn't have to be, as this slightly less mythic "clean slate" beginning actually does give us unexplored places to go - both narratively and literally, as well as an opportunity for the series to evolve into something truly special and unique; perhaps even developing into a genuine genre all it's own, just as the previous STAR WARS series did. It would be nice to see more die hard fans adopt this same "let's see what happens next" mind set.
We do wonder, with so many of the brutal, sadistically cruel, and – call them what they are – self-indulgently nitpicky social media attacks (opinions are necessary and cool; attacks aren't) hurled in recent days at THE FORCE AWAKENS in general, and at Abrams (and still at Lucas) in particular, from fans who claim to be upset about the breaking from canon in visual style, narrative and more, why the more important issues of the film's dearth of mythological, socio-political and historical subtext are seldom if ever brought to the table. For this is what makes STAR WARS “STAR WARS”, and not the firearms and other weaponry used, not whether “Starkiller Base” is but another Death Star, whether or not Supreme Leader Snoke is in actuality "Darth Plagueis the Wise", or whether Carrie Fisher's too heavy, Harrison Ford's too grey, or John Williams’ score has enough memorable melodies.
Concept Art: "Rey's Home"
While some of these peripheral matters do have importance (and personal nostalgia) in the telling of a STAR WARS tale, they are not STAR WARS any more than the Enterprise is STAR TREK (for proof see 1986’s STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME – one of the series' best, and with no Enterprise as it was sacrificed by Kirk in the previous film), or any more than an Aston Martin, “Q” and Miss Moneypenny make a James Bond film. For proof on that one take another look at the superlative CASINO ROYALE (2006) – it mostly devoid of all of those elements yet still considered one of the franchise's best. CASINO doesn’t even feature the James Bond Theme until the end credits. Talk about breaking from canon!
And while we're on the subject, a question about this “faithfulness to canon” thing. Y'know, just playing a little “devil’s advocate” as we wrap things up.