And in the depth of its relevance to our new story — to this new hope — it might be the most elegantly illuminating character name in the entire Star Wars franchise.
I refer, as you possibly guessed, to FN-2187, the Stormtrooper turned Rebel fighter played by John Boyega in the box office-crushing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) soon tags this fleeing friend with the nickname “Finn” (which, within a hero-quest tale, could be interpreted as both nod to, and inversion of, Mark Twain’s central river-rafting characters — if you so choose).
But in terms of filmic lineage, the beautiful nod here is naming this new breakaway Stormtrooper after “21-87,” the nearly 10-minute movie made in the mid-’60s by groundbreaking Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Because it is that abstract experimental short that so profoundly influenced Lucas as a young film student — and that helped spark the naming of his story’s “Force.”
Lucas’s Star Wars influences are manifold, of course, from “Flash Gordon” comic strips and serials (complete with the swashbuckling blond hero, the merciless villain and the space damsel in distress) to Central California’s car culture at midcentury to ’60s cinema (just to cite a few). But no filmmaker seems to have turned on young Lucas’s technical pilot-light — in sparking his understanding of the interplay between light and sound — more than Lipsett.
“In terms of understanding the power of sound and picture relationships, there’s no one better than Arthur Lipsett,” Lucas himself says to the camera in the 2006 feature documentary “Remembering Arthur.”
Lucas even appreciates how Lipsett’s cinematic eye moves from the light side to the dark side. From Lipsett’s editing to his “cutting from dark to light, light to dark,” the Star Wars creator says, “there’s no better example than his films.”
(Not long before, Lipsett’s first film, “Very Nice, Very Nice,” received an Oscar nomination — prompting future “2001” director Stanley Kubrick to ask Lipsett to cut his trailer for “Dr. Strangelove”; Lipsett declined.)
It wasn’t merely Lipsett’s technique that so inspired Lucas (who a few years later would make “THX 1138”). The words within the found sound clips themselves fired Lucas’s imagination — as “21-87” intercuts faces and nature, the pastoral and the violent, to raise themes of man vs. machine, and man as machine.
“Take me to a place where I’ll have freedom. I’m a human being. I want to feel free,” we hear a woman say in voiceover. And then we hear cinematographer Roman Kroitor say to A.I. scientist Warren McCullough:
“Many people feel … that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask — which we see they in front of us, and they call it God.”
This force? This mask? Lucas has acknowledged a link to the film. (And indeed, Lucas has included a visual wink in his Star Wars films, by having Princess Leia Organa held captive in cell No. 2187.)
Yet now that Abrams (co-writing with veteran Jedi scribe Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt) has created a lead character who unshackled himself from the designation “2187,” the name seems to represent both homage and freedom — perhaps even release from the weight of public expectation faced both by Lucas after the Original Trilogy, and by Abrams in inheriting the franchise.
In a neat twist of an artist’s life imitating art, after all, the voice heard in Lipsett’s “21-87” then says:
“…And then the people say: ‘Well, this is good. Let’s have more of it.’ ”
And perhaps the whole naming nod is something that mostly just made Abrams himself smile. After all, the voice heard in Lipsett’s film then intones: “Somebody walks up and you say, ‘Your name’s 21-87, isn’t it?’ Boy, does that person really smile.”
Such twists indeed make us smile, Mr. Abrams (who happened to turn 21 in ’87). We are even entertained by the realization that in profile, Arthur Lipsett even bears a vague resemblance to the dark-haired, high-cheekboned actor who plays your new villain: Adam Driver, assuming the mask (and the Force) of Kylo Ren.
And then there’s one last plot twist that might make Abrams smile: Roman Kroitor, the cinematographer heard in “21-87,” developed IMAX.
So far, after just one day of release in North American theaters, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has grossed nearly $6-million simply from IMAX screens.
Very nice, very nice.