The Hero’s Journey: Meta, Myth, and The Force Awakens

by Troy M. OlsonThe Hero's Journey

First of all,

“Calm down, nerds!” – Wife of the Year runner-up (because my wife won this year)

An amazing response from opening night when a new-to-Star Wars audience member was asking her husband a question related to the expansive and unfolding Star Wars universe and three twenty to thirty-something year-old males in the row behind hyperventiliated and attempted to hush her.

Second of all,

Thank you, Devin Faraci.

And finally, my review:

I enjoyed The Force Awakens, especially upon further viewings.

While it is great to see so many general audience fans excited again for the future of the Star Wars film mythology, canon, and universe; it is mildly annoying to see so many so-called “fans” make non sequitor attacks against the creator of this mythology and film series, George Lucas. There are very few public figures in recent years who have endured more unfair, unrelated, and hyperbolic criticism than the man who created the Star Wars franchise, among other things he has accomplished. At least when political figures are criticized, there are often big things (rights, liberties, livelihoods) at stake.

But I did enjoy The Force Awakens, and the following will focus on what I thought was “good” about it, as well as a passing mention to a few areas that I thought were “bad.” The “ugly” portion has little to do with the film and more to do with certain aspects of the fan base (whether diehard or casual, it’s hard to know exactly).

This film did exactly what the first Disney-era Star Wars film needed to do. First things first,

The Plot:

(Spoiler Alert!! But I feel like there should be a limit to how long someone should be able to play that card).

Act One: the Set-up of the Political Situation in the Galaxy

Poe Dameron puts (Princess Leia) plans into a droid, BB-8 (R2-D2), who goes on a special mission to find Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Ben Kenobi), who has vanished/been in exile for many years. Along the way, the droid stumbles upon our new hero, Rey (Luke Skywalker), on the desert planet Jakku (Tatooine), who then runs into Finn (Han Solo), and they go on an adventure together, eventually leaving Jakku (Tatooine) behind.

Act Two: the Mentor and the Passing on of Knowledge

Our hero Rey (Luke Skywalker), receives mentorship from an older character, Han Solo (Ben Kenobi) who is our connection to the past few decades of events which have occurred off-screen (building of a New Republic and the rise of the First Order or in the case of the original film, the events of what became the prequels).

Before we enter the lead-up to the climax of our story, Han Solo offers our hero, Rey (Luke), a job working with him on the small crew of the Millennium Falcon.

Act Three: Destroying a Super-weapon

The good team, the Resistance (Rebel Alliance), which is more diverse and in touch with nature, and follows the Light Side of the Force, fights against the “machine” Government — the First Order (Galactic Empire), who secretly follow the Dark Side of the Force.

To protect their central base from certain doom after a frightening demonstration of the super-weapon destroys the Hosnian System (Alderaan), Starkiller Base (the Death Star) is attacked and a narrative time-lock is placed on the climatic battle of good vs. evil. Once the plasma of a nearby star is gathered into Starkiller Base, it is ready to fire (once the Death Star clears the planet, it is ready to fire) on our heroes.

The Good:

This is probably the funniest Star Wars film yet. The new characters were great, especially the series’ new protagonist, Rey, portrayed by Daisy Ridley in her first feature-length film. The other new main characters, Finn and Poe, were also wonderfully portrayed by John Boyega and Oscar Isaacs. Everything that was new worked very well in terms of character. Even BB-8, like R2 and Chewbacca before him, worked well in its ability to convey emotion to the audience without any dialogue that the viewer can readily understand. It speaks to the solid, universal, mythical foundations that are at the core of this unfolding saga. While it did not immediately jump out to me on the first viewing, I also am now digging the new Darth Vader, Kylo Ren.

So while the new characters, especially Rey, worked well for me, arguably, a more scrutinized portion of the film was always going to be how the beloved “legacy” characters were handled.

For myself, the most important character isn’t even a character, rather it is the score of John Williams, who is the Mozart of film scores.

The score to The Force Awakens did not immediately jump out at me, although it works really well within the story. After further viewings, I’m happy to report that at 87-years young, Johnny “Baby” (note: John Williams calls everybody “baby” and because he is a jazz musician, that is awesome) still has it. The score was wonderful and operated as its usual companion piece to what has always been a cinematic and visual treat (2D version that is, the 3D version, like all 3D films is just too distracting for me, but I digress).

The characters in the story were handled with the outmost care and respect. Most important, the story decisions made sense. Han Solo was great. The film is elevated to another level the minute Harrison Ford as Han Solo again enters it. Like many of the new characters, Solo was charming and funny. In a way, this is the most Han Solo we have ever seen him. While previous films alluded to his exploits and overall scoundrel-ness a great deal, this is the first time we see him in the middle of an adventure like that on-screen.

Not far from Han Solo is the always-loyal Chewbacca, who shines in this film and serves as an almost R2-D2-esque role in being the sidekick that helps our main characters get out of trouble time and time again.

Princess Leia, although a little light on screen time (I will get into this more later), was very much the character I imagined her to be at this age. She is a fighter and a scrapper, not a Princess or a completely political-figure. It also alluded nicely to the fact that she is very much, still a Force-sensitive and is in tune with the Force, even though she may have never trained as a Jedi officially (does anyone really anymore?). Leia still has it, and her banter with Han, her estranged partner, is both short and snappy (a la Empire). Carrie Fisher does a solid job, especially considering she has not acted in awhile. Beyond the film though, pretty much every statement she made during the press tour was priceless. If you haven’t seen her one-woman show or do not know too much about her when she isn’t playing a space Princess, do yourself a favor and embark on a tour of her witticism.

Finally, it wouldn’t be the continuation of Star Wars without Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The first draft of the 1973 screenplay was titled “From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker” for a reason. Luke’s story or hero’s journey may be over, or passed on to the next generation, but that does not mean his character arc is over. Probably one of the most controversial choices in the story was going to be the way they handled Luke one way or another. At least for this film, I have to say that they knocked this one out of the park. As much as I would have liked to see more of Luke, I completely understand this design decision. When a friend   and co-writer of mine and I were talking about what the story of Episode VII should be, we had trouble coming up with a serviceable story with Luke in it. He overwhelmed the narrative because of the heights we left him at in the previous chronological installment (1983’s “Return of the Jedi”). It makes sense to take him out of the narrative in the present sense and turn him into the over-arcing “MacGuffin” of the plot. Because of his importance via absence, this story decision works really well for this film, and also sets up the next two films in the “sequel trilogy” really well.

Speaking of plot devices, in 2015, “meta” was all the rage. From “Jurassic World” having a character reference how the first park (movie) was the “real deal” to The Force Awakens having C-3P0 referencing people wondering about “his red arm” and how he got it (hint: that was directed at the audience). There were so many fourth wall-breaking references that I lost count. So lets just go macro with it. Each of the major returning characters was in large part, written from a real-world perspective of how the audience sees each actor.

This movie isn’t just the first Star Wars film with the original cast since 1983, for many hardcore fans it was the first time seeing these actors again. It doesn’t matter how many times you remind everyone that Carrie Fisher has been one of the most successful script doctors in Hollywood, and is a very successful memoirist. Or that Mark Hamill has been a very dynamic and prolific voice actor, etc. To so many fans that operate at the pop culture surface level, the tag line of “where is Luke Skywalker?” could very well be “where is Mark Hamill?” Princess Leia being a discredited noble within the New Republic (not the once-solid, now professionally mediocre policy journal but the current intergalactic government situation in the galaxy far, far away) could be seen as a commentary on her being Hollywood royalty (Fisher is the daughter of two movie stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”), which she shunned to be a writer and fighter. After all, being the offspring of Darth Vader would have its political obstacles, so it would make more story-sense that Leia is not a viable political figure in this galaxy anymore.

My favorite meta commentary is that of Harrison Ford, the only original star that never seemed to love his or her association with these movies. “You’re Han Solo” asks our heroine Rey, “I used to be”, replies Ford, I mean Solo. It’s super corny, but it is in-season and it works very well in this film. Because like the original film, we need a Star Wars in our lives. It is fun. It can be deep if you want it to be, but it can also just be a fun and thrilling adventure. The world is depressing enough at times. We all deserve to go into the theater and go on a journey into our imaginations.

Star Wars is successful because it taps into a very deep and psychological human need, not just to be entertained and delighted, but it speaks to our need for mythology. Our need to explain and understand the world.

The most important question I had going into this as a film fan, and a Star Wars fan, the question that needed to be answered in the affirmative for me to enjoy it was: Does The Force Awakens feel like a genuine continuation of the enthralling and endlessly compelling mythology told via the medium of film, as created all those years ago by George Lucas?

For me at least, it did feel like the genuine continuation.

The Bad: 

LA Times has one of the more negative reviews of the film I have seen and they bring up some interesting points. I don’t want to stress the bad too much, it has been repeated elsewhere by people who get paid to make these observations or opinions. I’m a film and Star Wars fan at the end of the day, so I’ll keep it brief (note: my version of brief).

No surprise given my deliberate description of the plot, The Force Awakens is highly derivative. It is so derivative that Lucas should have probably been given a “Story by” credit in addition or instead of the “Based on characters created by” credit. Speaking of Lucas, now that he has settled into a Gene Roddenberry post-season 2 of Next Generation-role, I could not help but notice the lack of the distinctive visual styling with shot composition and inventiveness, as well as the world-building of the narrative (mostly in terms of the stakes at hand: what are the politics? factions?)

Part of the weaknesses could be a course-correction gone too far. The more likely scenario though, the film was trying to replicate the original Star Wars as much as possible, and years of subsequent releases of further information and detail of this beloved galaxy have blinded us to the fact that if you just sit down and watch the original Star Wars without any other knowledge of anything, it is very similar to how little information you get in The Force Awakens. Chalk it up to perception and the “mystery box” at work.

The Ugly:

Nothing to do with the actual film itself was ugly, however:

The marketing campaign was cynical in certain aspects (constantly reminding fans of all the practical effects used, etc.), certain segments of the fandom’s treatment of Lucas continues to be embarrassing to watch, and some in the media picking up on the most negative aspects of Star Wars fandom is unfortunate (example: a few lone trolls and hateful people saying outlandish comments knowing the gullible and clickbait-based internet news media will pick it up).

The Bottom Line: 

Ultimately, who cares what I say, because the results and bottom line speaks for itself. This new Star Wars film is the most successful since the original Star Wars. That’s right, it may be blasphemous to say it, but The Force Awakens is already more of a phenomenon than The Empire Strikes Back, objectively speaking. Although, the original will no-doubt still hold the top spot (and probably always will).

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%

Box Office Mojo: The Force Awakens broke the all-time domestic record and is on track for top-2 or 3 worldwide all-time record. It recently surpassed the adjusted for inflation box office of The Phantom Menace to become the 2nd most successful Star Wars film at the box office but has some work to do to top the original Star Wars, which itself has benefitted from re-releases to be fair.

Academy Awards: will likely become the most nominated Star Wars film since the original film.

 

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