The latest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, opened at the end of last week. It’s a fun movie. But is it more than just that? I asked a few philosophers who are Star Wars fans to write brief reviews of the movie for Daily Nous. Be warned, there are spoilers in these reviews.
I know what you’re thinking: “philosophers writing about Star Wars? Does it get any nerdier than that?” The answer is of course.
Thanks to these philosophers for contributing to this post:
- Roy T. Cook (University of Minnesota) — What Was Missing from Episode VII
- Jason T. Eberl (Marian University) and Kevin S. Decker (Eastern Washington University) — The Force of Memory
- Lewis Gordon (University of Connecticut) — On Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Daddy Issues Continued but….
- Kathryn Norlock (Trent University) — Survivors and Resisters
- Daniel Silvermint (University of Connecticut) — Choices and Commitments
- Eric Winsberg (University of South Florida) — Is This The Eternal Recurrence You Are Looking For?
- Louie Generis (Daily Nous) — Complicated Questions
Feel free to review their reviews or share your thoughts about the movie in the comments.
Did I mention there are spoilers?
Roy T. Cook — What Was Missing from Episode VII
Let me start with this: I absolutely loved The Force Awakens. It was almost everything I had hoped for: Sticks were slapped, swashes were buckled, and buckles were swashed. Scoundrels were scruffy looking, and nerfs were herded. Outer space was once more operatic. I even choked up a bit when Han … well, you know … and that hasn’t happened since I watched an Ewok vainly attempt to revive his injured buddy in Episode VI.
But as I left the theater I felt a slight disturbance in the Force. Like something important was missing.
Let’s begin with an obvious observation: stories are often – usually, in fact – about particular characters. Many characters appear in Blade Runner, but the film, as a whole, is Rick Deckard’s story. Likewise with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indy. We care about these stories in part because we care about, or are at least interested in, these characters, and we get excited when new chapters are added to the story because we want to learn more about these characters and their lives.
The Star Wars films are a bit tricky in this respect. Those of us old enough to have seen Han shoot first spent decades thinking that Star Wars was about Luke Skywalker and his Campbellian hero’s quest and, to a slightly lesser extent, about Han Solo’s transformation from criminal loner to heroic leader. In 1999, however, we found out that we had been misled: what we had seen was merely one part of a larger story that was really all about Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness and eventual redemption. This is not to say that Luke and Han didn’t play important roles in the final chapters of that story. But the films, viewed as a whole, tell Vader’s story, not theirs.
By the way, the reader interested in the various ways that fictions can conflict with larger fictions of which they are a part should consult the small but flourishing recent literature on the paradox of serial fiction. Interestingly, the literature on this phenomenon focuses on another aspect of Star Wars: whether it was fictionally true in 1977 that Vader was Luke’s father A New Hope.
The Vader-centric interpretation just discussed is not the only way to interpret who and what Star Wars is about, however. There is another character – a heroic character – who can be seen as the protagonist of the first six Star Wars films. In fact, he is the only character other than Vader who appears in all of the first six films: R2-D2. While C-3PO does “appear” in all six films, he receives a memory wipe between Episodes III and IV. Thus, it seems unlikely that this is the same character throughout, although one’s final view on the matter will depend on one’s views on personal identity. Similar considerations apply to Obi-wan Kenobi: he also appears in all six films, but as a force ghost in two of them.
Star Wars is about R2-D2. Most of the heroic deeds recounted in Star Wars are in fact Artoo’s doing: Amidala’s shield generator needs near impossible repairs? Artoo’s got it under control! Death Star plans need delivering? Artoo’s your droid! Buzz droids attacking your fighter? No problem, Artoo is on the case! Your hyperdrive’s been de-activated? Artoo will re-activate it! Need a lightsaber smuggled into a crimelord’s palace? Give it to Artoo!
Re-watch the scenes in A New Hope where Obi-Wan rescues Luke from the Tusken Raiders, takes him back to his hut, tells him a bunch of things whose truth is relative to one’s point of view, and finally gives him Vader’s lightsaber. Keep reminding yourself that R2-D2 knows about everything that happened in Episodes I, II, and III, and knows that Kenobi is feeding Luke a pile of Bantha poodoo about his father. Further, Obi-Wan knows that Artoo knows this. Yet not a peep, not a beep, out of Artoo. Obi-wan and Artoo go way, way back, and in this scene are conspiring together in order to motivate Luke to follow the ways of the Jedi.
Once you know to look for it, it becomes obvious that for most of the original trilogy and the prequels R2-D2 is the only one who has any clue about what is really going on, and he is also usually the only person who has any control over what is happening (exercise: watch the films, and count how many times Artoo saves the “heroes”, often unbeknownst to the “heroes” themselves).
But where is Artoo in Episode VII? He’s mostly not there. And when he is, he is completely out of character.
We don’t even see Artoo until about halfway through the movie. And even then he is rusting, leaning against the wall in a self-imposed “low power mode” coma. When BB-8 shows up, with the tiny scrap of map that everyone has been fighting over, does he re-activate and reveal that he had the other 99% of the map in is memory all along? Nope. When the First Order is about to blow up the Resistance base, does he leap into action, heroically saving everyone’s butts as usual? Nope. Instead, he only budges after the crisis has passed, and then for no apparent reason.
Actually, we need to be a bit more careful here. Rey’s presence – and her awakened Force abilities – may be what finally caused Artoo to share the map. The narrative does imply that Luke isn’t necessarily hiding at all, but rather waiting for Rey. But this fact doesn’t explain why Artoo didn’t do something about the impending Starkiller threat.
Now, it is very cool that the remote control R2-D2 model used in Episode VII was built by Lee Towersey and Oliver Steeples, two British replica-building hobbyists. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been possible if Artoo had a more prominent role. But it is telling that no one is listed as having actually played R2-D2 in the film. Towersey and Steeples are part of the art department, and the legendary Kenny Baker is credited as an “R2-D2 consultant”, since he never got inside the droid to perform. But given how little Artoo does in the film, this isn’t surprising: No actor needed to play Artoo in the film because he didn’t need any personality – just someone to drive him from one spot to another.
So, as much as I loved The Force Awakens, it nevertheless struck me as a bit like an action film where the action hero never shows up, and the other characters were left to stumble and bumble their way towards salvation. In fact, that’s exactly what it was like. Hopefully future installments in the franchise will treat the little astromech better.
The Force does, indeed, seem to be emerging and re-energizing as a power that actively guides galactic history in Episode VII. Fresh-faced protagonist Rey is able to use to hold her own against Kylo Ren with Anakin Skywalker’s antique lightsaber; Ren himself is able to use it to not just torture, but interrogate his prisoners. With its help, he sees in the minds of others truths, not merely emotional states, as Vader and Luker were able to do. Is Finn’s dramatic moral awakening a sign that he, too, has been touched by the Force? These new developments provide philosophers some new grist for the mill in thinking about the ontology and nature of the Force.
Yet Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Many of the themes, settings and action pieces of The Force Awakens will seem like a retread of A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, the most beloved of the previous six films among fans. The film is set in a galaxy far, far away that is familiar to the audience, and the return of old faces from the original trilogy is welcome. Yet on planets like Jakku and Takodana, nostalgia for the good old times of the Rebellion is noticeable by its absence: people have forgotten the Jedi, the Force, everything important. The impressive Rebel victory that rounded out the first trilogy now seems hollow and the First Order — Empire 2.0 — rules, while the masked Kylo Ren pledges to complete the work of Darth Vader.
It’s almost as if the freedom struggle that destroyed two Death Stars never happened. While thinkers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger claimed that to exist, we must forget, in Episode VII, the characters who are in control are the ones who have never forgotten, while the characters in whom the Force “awakens”—Rey and Finn—lack a Yoda or an Obi-wan to give their power direction. Hence the trajectory of future films, as new hope emerges from the struggle against the First Order for a renewed Jedi Order—if only the patriarchal Luke Skywalker can be found. As much as the Force binds the Star Wars universe together, so does family (as several chapters in our book, The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy, explain). Perhaps this helps explain why Star Wars appears to be a film treasure handed down from generation to generation, and will continue to be, as long as we continue to believe.
Lewis Gordon — On Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Daddy Issues Continued but….
The danger with entertainment is our tendency of forgetting what it is: entertainment. As with dreams, where the imagination could play, wishes, desires, hopes, could make themselves manifest where we would otherwise prefer they remain hidden. Thus, the layers of hiddenness and revelation that unfold in this four decade’s romp we call Star Wars are so many that only few could be addressed in this forum.
Let me focus on the darkness of the Dark Father/Darth Vader whose hiddenness awaited confirmation as he was audio-visually “black” (through the voice of James Earl Jones), which made his unmasking (or is it unhelmeting?) such a disappointment of continued white revelation. Power, after all, is feared most as black and thus relieved of threat when the rather lipid and, unfortunately, redeemed father, was re-whitened. Such a disappointing fate for the greatest line, perhaps because of its psychoanalytical and theological significance, echoed across the reaches of cinema, mythic and historical: “I am your father….”
Freud, as we know, would have a proverbial field day, at least given his arguments in Moses and Monotheism. Redemption could only be offered through a specific son’s willingness of taking on the sins of all the sons, symbolic and otherwise, for the death of the Dark Father, which makes the re-awakening a wonderful subversion of the original premise by making an ornamentally white warrior reveal a dark interior. The force, in this black storm trooper (Finn), speaks teasingly (great decoy of early footage of him holding a light saber) to larger forces at work (yes, pun intended) as the sins of the father, including Founding Fathers, come to bear on what they had suppressed across time in the white washing of history, mythic or otherwise. Perhaps in this awakening, Black Lives may matter a little more through at least one black life willing to walk under the light without white uniform and its uniformity.
Yet, what is going on here is more than a racial matter. The penchant for trinities, which the set up of this one promises for the overall portrait of nine episodes, raises the question of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Patriarchy, we should remember, is ultimately a conflict between fathers—in fact, The Father—and sons, in which Christianity offered some resolution in terms of a special son killing the father and taking on the sins for the deed. Women, in this portrait, suffer as collateral damage. Thus, the twists and turns offered here, where Han Solo (need we stress the contradiction of a man with the name “Solo” trying to raise a family?) faces erasure through the call of the Dark Father as the only father to whom homage must be paid. There is no way out, as Luke (whose name, after all, means “light”) is also a son, which continues the dramatic Father-Son patriarchal relationship. Resolution? While his sister Leia produced a son (Ben / Kylo Ren—his given name being redundant as “Ben” is Hebrew for “son”), Luke offers hope in terms of a daughter (Rey, whose name requires a slight change in spelling to become “ray,” as in “ray of light”), through whom a new relationship is raised: The Father-Daughter possibility. She disrupts this pathological Father-Son drama, and more: her heart reaches not for whiteness clothed in black but blackness once clothed in white but now, at least for a time, wearing the leather jacket signaling a bad Mutha…yes, watch your mouth.
All this may be too much for Geeks’ jouissance. Some, as we know, protested the unholy of unholies of antiblack and sexist societies: hetero-normative love between a black man and a white woman. Though tapping into the childish world of entertainment and play, this installment of the series, though retelling its humble beginnings on a desert planet, with all the biblical resonance with which we are familiar, offers more grown up reflection in a world that is willing to accept other species but shudder at the blackness within.
The star of this installment of Star Wars is Daisy Ridley (Rey) as far as I’m concerned. I look forward to seeing the extent to which her character may be able to disrupt The Force—including the Son-Father who is now training her—in this primordial battle between power that destroys and power through which life flourishes.
Kathryn Norlock — Survivors and Resisters
Daniel Silvermint — Choices and Commitments
This movie had me thinking a lot about choices and commitments. About facing things even when you know it’ll hurt. Near the end, two characters walk out onto a bridge, and what happens next is predictable. But not in a cheap, lazy writing kind of way. It’s predictable because it’s the inevitable result of who the two characters, in that moment, resolve to be.
Han has spent the last several years running away from his responsibilities. Even his participation in the final battle is reluctant. But when he sees his son on that bridge, he decides to stop running, to stop being the lucky scoundrel that can talk his way out of any situation. It’s time to keep his promise to Leia, and risk everything on even the smallest chance of reaching his son. Because that’s what partners and fathers do. The decision costs him, but he doesn’t show any regret, because he fully accepts the consequences of the role he’s chosen.
Ben/Kylo Ren has all the power on that bridge, but unlike Han, he has difficulty accepting where his choices are taking him. He speaks of the pain of uncertainty, of being continually torn between two paths, and what he seems to want more than anything is some kind of resolution. Any resolution, really. If he leaves with his father, the dueling temptations will always be there. But if he takes his father’s life, then he’ll cross a moral point of no return, and commit himself to every subsequent step along the path. When that lightsaber ignites, he’s resolving to just be Kylo Ren, because he imagines that a life without internal struggle will hurt less. He makes the wrong choice, of course, but his almost adaptive preference-like attempt to bind himself is very human.
While the bridge scene offers the starkest examples, the film is filled with moments where characters decide who they’ll be. Leia fights on, as she always does, but in a quiet moment admits that this is her own way of running. Stormtrooper FN-2187 (as much a victim of manipulation and apparent brainwashing as Kylo Ren) decides that he doesn’t want to be a killer, but soon realizes that he also can’t live with the responsibilities he flippantly undertook when he donned that Resistance jacket. Ultimately Finn resolves to be something simpler: Rey’s friend. My favorite character Rey, a gifted pilot and engineer, spends years choosing to stay on a junkyard planet that she easily could have escaped, because she’s choosing to be that same abandoned girl awaiting rescue. She rescues BB-8 instead, and when the full consequences of that decision are later revealed, she takes her cue from Han and runs away from who she truly is. She eventually embraces the Force, because the only way to fight back against her circumstances is to be a Jedi. She rescues herself long before the rest of the gang shows up. And in the final shot of the film, Luke, who has himself fled from his responsibilities, makes no move to accept his old lightsaber, or the frightened yet determined student that’s holding it outstretched to him. He also has a decision to make about who he’ll be.
In the Star Wars universe, deciding who you are often has both personal and galaxy-altering consequences. And that’s why these are great stories, even though they’re simple stories.
(Acknowledgment: this is all informed by a recent discussion I had with two geek buddies. I love them. They know.)
Eric Winsberg — Is This The Eternal Recurrence You Are Looking For?
What, if some day or night a Hollywood film studio were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This movie as you now see it and have seen it, you will have to see once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your movie will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this black mask and cape and this flight through the trenches of a planet destroying weapon, and secret plans hidden in a droid and Chewbacca himself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, movie ticket buyer!”Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the film producer who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to established franchises as to crave nothing more fervently than to watch the same damn movie over again but with weaker characters, darker lighting, and an elevator music version of a John Williams’ soundtrack?
That about sums the movie up, and I have to admit I’m a teeth gnasher. If I really want to watch Star Wars over and over again, complete with a dark cloaked villain who strikes down his elder on a catwalk, a light saber being ripped from the snow by the force, a firefight against TIE fighters from the Millennium Falcon, a woman with knowledge of a secret location being interrogated in a small room, a trench run by X-wings trying to blow up a planet-destroying sphere, etc. , I know where to find the DVD. Search your feelings young Padawan. You know it to be true. And then I can have a genuinely terrifying villain played by James Earl Jones instead of Lena Dunham’s boyfriend in a bad halloween costume whining about how his father didn’t bond with him enough. Protip: don’t have your villain take off his mask if he looks like an angsty teenager.
But seriously, aside from having the worst.villian.ever (no really: he makes Count Dooku look terrifying; hell he makes Jar Jar and a pack of Ewoks look terrifying; he has trouble fighting off a single ordinary human), the movie suffers from two serious flaws compared to the original. One of the things that makes Star Wars a compelling movie is that it juxtaposes the sense that the whole story ark is fated and destined to happen from the perspective of the grand scheme of things, with the strong sense that the main characters have an inner life: they make choices. Luke weighs his loyalty to his family with this desire to go off and fight the empire. When his family is killed in his absence because of his choices he feels great guilt. Han weights his greed and loner rebel streak against his infatuation for Leia and his loyalty to his new friends. But the only character in this movie that has any of this is Fin, and the thing that allows him to have this is that, unlike all the other characters, his is not a reboot of Star Wars past. The writers are so keen to turn Rey into a reboot of Luke that she literally has no inner life—there is vague allusion to something on her home planet that she is torn to, but this is all vaporware. She just follows the path that she has to follow to reboot Luke (but without needing any training.) It’s a general problem with the movie, it all plays out on rails so as to re-animate the first movie. Nothing happens organically. Instead of “The Force Awakens” it should have been “Episode VII: the same old hope.” If I had more pomo cred, there would be a point to be made here about everything being self-referential, and audiences caring more about familiarity (and reclaiming the first trilogy’s feel)than genuine drama.
It’s the same, of course, with the bad guys, and this brings us to the second serious flaw: the role of evil in the movie. Another review I read complained that unlike in the first six movies, the rise of the evil forces is not adequately explained. I couldn’t care less about this. In fact, the plodding story of Darth Vader’s origins through three tortuous movies is brilliantly ridiculed in a comedy routine by Patton Oswald. (“I will kill George Lucas with a shovel.”) I’m perfectly fine with the fact that Star Wars begins things in the full evil glory of the Empire, on the verge of destroying the last vestiges of its opposition. I never wanted to see Darth Vader being sad because they took him away from his mother. But now it’s episode seven. And we know that the empire was destroyed just a few decades ago. So now we need some backstory about how a new evil force has taken its place. What’s the point in fighting these guys if they just keep cropping up like weeds? It’s as if we are watching a sequel to the movie “Patton,” and now the Schmazis have occupied all of Europe and everyone is acting both like this is an existential threat to the world and like it’s perfectly normal and to be expected. A good WW2 movie doesn’t have to explain the rise of fascism in Europe. But if it’s going to be a sequel, it would be nice if there were some explanation of why we are back at square one other than eternal recurrence.
The movie does have its moments—especially in the first 30 minutes or so. The images of an abandoned battlefield strewn with the wreckage of Star Destroyers and Xwings is amazing to behold, and the backstories of both Fin and Rey are enjoyable. But once the movie gets placed firmly on its star wars rails, the fun began to fade for me, and all I could do is gnash my teeth at the repetition.
Louie Generis — Complicated Questions
The magic is back! Fans of the franchise who’ve long lamented the ruination of their childhoods will be pleased to hear that this weekend’s release marks a significant improvement over the last three films in the series. With returning characters sharing the screen with plucky newcomers and a surprisingly relatable villain, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip takes us on an endearing and weighty adventure of self-discovery.
The story has progressed since the last time we saw these characters, and part of the joy of the theater-going experience is seeing what everyone is up to after all this time. Kindly, perpetually frustrated Dave is dating a doctor by the name of Samantha, and Alvin, Simon, and Theodore are none too pleased. Part of the problem is Samantha’s son Miles, adored by his mother but a tormenting presence in the lives of his would-be stepbrothers. The Chipmunks also fear that Dave’s deepening romance could leave them abandoned by their father, and as much as they continuously insist otherwise, our trio of rad rodents are not quite ready to grow up and be on their own. So the discovery of a hidden engagement ring sets them off on a cross-country race against time to stop the engagement before it changes their family, and their lives, forever.
When Justin asked us to go to the movies this weekend and review “that new sequel about an aging hero and his beloved, furry sidekick,” he asked us to highlight the philosophical aspects of the film. And nothing could be timelier than The Road Chip’s nuanced handling of domestic terrorism. The Chipmunks, plus unwelcome tagalong Miles, initially attempt to fly to Miami, but they’re soon kicked off the plane by an Air Marshal named James Suggs (comic genius Tony Hale, in an unexpectedly dramatic role). He pursues them for the rest of the film, the Inspector Javert to Alvin’s Jean Valjean. And this is where the film sets aside all the cute CGI and silly sight gags, and raises complicated questions about how far we should go in our collective pursuit of national security. It suggests that even valid concerns about security can quickly descend into a culture of paranoia, where possible threats loom everywhere, and simply boarding a plane with an unusual appearance is judged to be suspicious behavior. If we’ve reached a point where we can no longer trust one another – if we only see sources of danger when we regard our fellow human beings (and chipmunks) – than have we simply traded one form of insecurity for another? The film doesn’t provide us with any easy answers, and I suspect that this is a debate we’ll be having for years to come.