A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – the pre-imperial United States in 1977, to be precise – director George Lucas unleashed “Star Wars: A New Hope” on an unsuspecting world. Equal parts “space opera,” sci fi adventure, and “hero’s journey” mythology (see Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces), Star Wars quickly became an iconic global cultural force, spawning two movie sequels, three more movie pre-quels, endless commercial products, spoofs, and copycats, and forty years worth of conversation about what Star Wars means. As a ten-year-old kid trapped in New York suburbia in 1977, “Star Wars” changed my life. I saw Lucas’ movie in the theater four times, collected SW trading cards by the dozens, and one week of solid viewing on HBO at Grandma’s house in Florida burned the entire movie into my brain. For better or worse, Star Wars became a part of me.
Since its 1977release, the Star Wars phenomenon has been hotly debated by fans and critics alike. At a time of deep political malaise for the United States – Vietnam, Watergate, the oil shocks of the 1970s – Star Wars supporters pointed to the story’s mythological Campbell’ian underpinnings, democratic (republic and rebels galore) message of empowerment, and vague but stirring feelings of happiness and hope – “feel the Force, Luke” – as an elixir for a troubled world. Critics, meanwhile, lambasted Lucas for creating a “feel good” franchise that invoked nostalgic warm fuzzies at a time when the real U.S. republic was imploding in the face of an energy crisis, the Reagan revolution, and the slow creep of corporate-friendly global empire into American culture. “Star Wars is the story of an orphaned farm boy who is radicalized after a military strike kills his family,” one popular Internet meme explains. “He is indoctrinated into an ancient religion and joins a band of insurgents on a terrorist attack that kills 300,000 people.” Read this way, from our 21st century vantage point here in the United States of Empire, the “Star Wars” phenomenon suddenly becomes more complex and disturbing, in a world of “terrorism” (real and manufactured, false flag attacks, drone warfare, and full spectrum dominance.
Put politics aside for a moment. Forty years after Lucas launched “Star Wars,” director J.J. Abrams (himself an SW fan boy from way back) has done the near-impossible, managing to reinvent Star Wars in a way that pays homage to Lucas’ original AND creates something unique, fresh and new. In the spirit of the annual year-end countdown, here are ten lessons from the new “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” that make it a magical re-boot of the franchise, regardless of your politics. (Note: mild spoilers ahead.)
- Don’t Mess With Success
In “The Force Awakens” (TFA), Abrams essentially retells “A New Hope,” Lucas’ original 1977 Star Wars story (Episode 4 right?), and pays loving homage to the themes, aesthetics, and narrative arc of Lucas’ original vision. After Disney Corp bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, their smartest move was hiring J.J. Abrams to direct. Well played.
- Age Gracefully
Bravo to Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (General Leia Organa), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) for reprising their original roles with the same rogue’ish wit, banter, bravado, and just the right amount of wistful nostalgia.
Look, casting a black actor (John Boyega) as one of the main characters (Finn) will not solve the crisis that is U.S. race relations any more than electing a black man president, but it can’t hurt. Seeing Boyega as a leading man in TFA is a giant step forward for Star Wars, especially after the disastrous Step-N-Fetch-It’ism of Jar Jar Binks. Way to represent.
- Women Can Cry AND Kick Ass
Daisy Ridley’s Rey – the orphan’ed Jakku scavenger turned Jedi apprentice – makes Katniss Everdeen look like a shrinking violet. Rey can run, fight, think, fix stuff on the Millennium Falcon even Solo and Chewie can’t, and is both fragile and resilient. In short, she is a complex three-dimensional female heroine – ‘bout time, Star Wars. Welcome to the 21st century.
- Machines + Humans = Friends
BB8, the roly poly droid, steals this movie in scene after scene – and reminds us, as C3PO and R2D2 did forty years ago, that we humans can get along with the machines we create, if we endow them with emotional intelligence, something we humans can all use a bit more of.
- Multicultural/Racial Harmony is Possible
Yes, Abrams revived the famed SW cantina scene in TFA, and with good reason – while fun, it’s also a reminder that creatures of different races and cultures can share the same space in peace and harmony. At least, until the Empire shows up.
- “Greeble” trumps CGI
What killed the last three SW films, other than Hayden Christensen’s mediocre acting and Natalie Portman’s absurdly coiffed hair, was an overreliance on computer-generated imagery (CGI). Thankfully, Abrams forgoes CGI (mostly) for creating the TFA universe the old fashioned way – scale models, wires, pulleys, and green screens. “Greeble” refers to the cobbled-together industrial bits and pieces – a tube here, a wire there, a metal plate from over there – that comprise model space ships and machines in the Star Wars universe. Big props to J.J. Abrams for doing it the old-fashioned way – Lucas must be pleased, as are we, the movie audience.
- Dirty is Good, and Real
J.J. Abrams and his TFA production team coated every set and object with dirt, just as Lucas did. Along with greeble, this subtle but painstaking and vital aesthetic decision gives the new SW film the same grit and authenticity of the original. Dirt is Life.
- We Are All Both Light and Dark
Real life is seldom black and white. All of us have the capacity for good and evil. Like Lucas, J.J. Abrams honors this reality in TFA. Thanks for keeping it real.
- Mentors Matter
Beyond Yoda, the quintessential SW mentor, lies a fundamental truth – each of us is shaped to be our best selves by our mentors, who take the time, interest and energy to push us beyond our cliché’d “comfort zones.” Abrams and his team bring back this theme in spades – no spoilers, just keep an eye out.
- The Force is No Fantasy
Is there an animating Force that inhabits all living things in the Universe, a mysterious energy that all of us can tap into if only we would silence ourselves and listen? Or is it “mystical mumbo jumbo,” as Han Solo opines, before giving in to the Truth? Given our 21st century era of endless war, Peak Oil, climate change, and the Age of Limits, now is a good time to pursue this question with renewed energy.
“May the Force be with you” this holiday season and into the new year.
Rob Williams, PhD, is a professor of media, global studies, and communications in the Burlington, Vermont area. He teaches at the University of Vermont, Champlain College, and Saint Michael’s College, has authored numerous articles on critical media literacy education, lectures around the world, and is currently the board co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME). His most recent book, for which he served as co-editor, is Media Education for a Digital Generation (Routledge, 2016).
Contact Rob: Rob@acmesmartmediaeducation.net