Plot points for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” discussed below.
A few years back, people were fighting over what constituted true creativity as “remix culture” became the hot new thing. There was a meme going around that could be paraphrased something like this: “You already love remix culture because you love ‘Star Wars,’ and ‘Star Wars’ is just a mishmash of cool things that George Lucas saw when he was growing up and in film school.”
I was never terribly impressed by this line of argument, for a number of reasons. Foremost among them, though, was the idea that “inspiration” and “copying” are the same, that snipping beats and riffs from a song and using them as the basis of a new single is the same thing as borrowing the look of a shot or paying homage to the works that you love. Yes, “A New Hope” was kind of like old samurai films and resembled old war films and paid homage to the old serials and employed the monomyth. However, it was also entirely different from those things, wholly original.
Just compare “A New Hope” to the genius mashup masterminded by this blog’s proprietor and unleashed on the world last week:
“A New Hope” may have echoes of past works, but “Galactic Civil War” has the actual work, rejiggered in a way that would instantly be familiar to anyone who has seen either (or both) of the original works. One is a new work inspired by old works. The other is a new work that uses the old works. The difference, it seems to me, is clear.
That line gets much fuzzier when considering “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” This is a movie that doesn’t do homage and inspiration so much as cutting and splicing, molding familiar vistas, themes and even characters into the least-new-feeling new movie in years.*
Director J.J. Abrams is an admitted “Star Wars” fan. He is into lightsabers and the Force much more than he is into warp factors and Pon Farr, a sticking point for fans of his last project, “Star Trek.” And his love for the wars amongst the stars shows! Abrams has made what amounts to the greatest fan film of all time.
In “The Force Awakens,” he has recycled the most memorable landscapes from the original trilogy, giving us a taste of fire (Jakku here; Tatooine from “A New Hope”) and ice (the Starkiller Base here; Hoth from “Empire Strikes Back”) with a side of jungle (Maz Kanata’s home here; Dagobah from “Empire Strikes Back”). He has recycled the most memorable images from the original trilogy, pitting the Millennium Falcon against TIE Fighters and setting Rey against the backdrop of a desert sun and having a trio of heroes run around a planet-sized base trying to rescue a prisoner.
Perhaps more important, he has recycled many of the same emotional resonances. The conflict between father and son in this film is different from the conflict between father and son from “Empire” only insofar as which is good and which is evil has been reversed. The lonely orphan living in the desert, looking at the stars and longing for the family she never knew — where have we seen that before? Abrams even got to play with his favorite childhood toys in new and exciting ways, having Han shoot Chewie’s crossbow for some reason on multiple occasions.
All of this is to say is that, as I noted yesterday, I’m sympathetic to Max Landis’s argument that Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a “Mary Sue,” and for reasons that have nothing to do with her being a woman. Here’s how Wikipedia defines the trope: “an idealized fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities. Often but not necessarily this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.”
The film’s most glaring plot hole — aside from the incoherence of the Republic/Resistance/First Order relationship — is Rey’s use of the Force. How does she know what a Jedi mind trick is? I’m not asking “how does she do it,” but something more basic: “How does she even know what it is?” And the answer is, “Of course she knows what it is because she’s us and we know what it is. She’s the authorial insert into the greatest, most expensive piece of fan fiction that has ever been created. She’s what you get if you mash up Episodes IV through VI and put yourself into the mix.”
“The Force Awakens” is the apotheosis** of remix culture, its logical endpoint, a film remixing portions of earlier films in the same series in order to create something wholly similar and familiar, something comforting and unchallenging. This isn’t to say that it’s bad or fails to entertain: I enjoyed it well enough and thought Rey was a fun character. But it does make me wonder where we go from here — and where the next generation of myths will come from.
**That being said: There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s new film, “The Hateful Eight,” that could very well be serving as a comment on a famous scene from the Tarantino-scripted “True Romance.” If “The Force Awakens” is the height of remix culture, then Tarantino commenting on Tarantino in a Tarantino film might be the “Inception” of remix culture.