‘The Force Awakens’ and our Culture of Self-Referentiality

Our media moves at such a furious pace, you have to be quick to your blaster if you want to fire off a ‘hot take’. Wait for others to shoot first, and you’ll find your head slumped on a table in the Cantina of Irrelevance. I fear that writing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens in January 2016 may seem like sad devotion to an ancient religion, but I did want to make a brief note about the film, building on what all the other critics have said. Spoilers ahead.

Many, many writers have noted how the film appears to be little more than a remake of the original trilogy. Each plot-point, scene and character seems to have a companion in the 1977 film or one of its sequels. As well as clear parallels between, say, Rey on the desert planet of Jakku and Luke on the desert planet of Tatooine (both characters are strong in the force and both are hurriedly propelled skywards by the same piece of ‘junk’, the Millennium Falcon), there are times when the similarities are egregious and a little lazy. Entrusting crucial computer files to a brave, bleeping droid; a planet killing weapon with a single point of weakness. 

However, the similarities become forgivable when they invert the original scene or flip the gender roles: my favourite was when the hapless Finn arrives, still in his Stormtrooper gear, to rescue Poe—a clear reference to the Luke and Leia meet-cute in Episode IV.

As the film progressed, I was struck by how so much of its meaning depends on a good knowledge of the previous films. By this, I do not simply mean that the story is a saga or a soap opera, where what happened to this person’s dad or that person’s mum is crucial in understanding the drama of each scene (it is that, too, but that is to be expected with epic sci-fi and fantasy stories).

Rather, it is that every scene has two layers of meaning.  First, the prima facie advancing of the plot; and then a second meaning, which is the reference: not to some abstract monomyth, but to a precise piece of film-making within an specific, earlier piece of art from the late 1970s.

I am sure that there are plenty of people who watched this film with little or no knowledge of the original triology.  I do wonder what that would be like! Akin, I imagine, to watching a Bollywood film when you cannot speak Hindi. The subtitles help you out but you chuckle out of time with everyone else. The Force Awakens is not really a film for newbies.

That the film cannot stand alone, that it is not self-contained, is not necessarily a bad thing.  Indeed, at times I think the references are perfect.  The way the music score in the final scene iterates towards Luke’s familiar theme is just sublime.  Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the biggest film of the year (possibly the highest grossing film of all time, eventually) is predominantly paraphrase, parody and reference. I think that it is emblematic for how the dominant culture entertains us in the middle half of the second decade of the twenty-first century: through overt and specific call-back. This is a post-Simpsons Star Wars; Sci-fi for the Family Guy generation.

The self-awareness is not only to be found in the scene-for-scene parallells, but in the dialogue. Star Wars always had funny, flippant lines, usually spoken by Harrison Ford as Han Solo. He, and others, deliver similar lines in The Force Awakens and yet here they feel more appropriate than in the earnest originals.  In particular, the way in which Rey chastises the men who patronise her feels bang on-trend for the decade. Her dialogue with the other characters reminded me of countless scenes from the modern Doctor Who, where the various so-called ‘companions’ do a good trade in one-liners that deflate the Doctor’s grandiosity…. as if they know they’re in a TV show. Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not break the fourth wall in the way Spaceballs does so magnificently. But there are moments, when a character subverts a movie cliché, where I felt that a wink at the camera was just a few frames beyond the cut.

The biggest subversion of movie clichés is in the notable and welcome prevalence of female characters in the film. I think that also says something important about our Fifteen-Years-Into-The-Millenium1 culture. I will write about that in a separate post.


1. Its incredibly tiresome that we lack an eloquent way to describe our current period in history. “The Noughties” sounds crass and uncultured, and what do we even call the years beyond 2010: “The Teens”? “The Tweens”? In the past I have used fin de millenaire, referencing the established phrase fin de siecle, but of course that refers to the end of a period, right before the turning of the century or millenium, rather than the period immediately after.

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