Look, another Star Wars post! Gee, what could possibly have sparked this one? Oh right, that miserable trailer dropped.
Star Wars is supposed to evoke a sense of adventure. A glimpse into an exciting, developed, fleshed-out world on which our little stories shed only the barest of light for the audience. Cantinas full of strange characters, expansive planets with inhospitable elements, strange powers and stranger aliens, and city-sized ships traversing incalculable distances—this is the stuff of adventure that Star Wars encapsulated. It told a story of good versus evil, it highlighted a nuanced morality play given form through its metaphor of the Force, and it depicted the struggle and eventual triumph of the hero across two generations of characters (and audiences). And while it was by no means a perfect story—complaints about Return of the Jedi’s hackneyed plot construction and blatant market pandering, in addition much of the execution of the prequel trilogy’s content are usually valid—it remains a staple in the social consciousness of the popular culture.
But it’s over. It needs to be given a rest. Like the elderly horse in more pain that it can handle, it’s time to put her out to pasture, even if that means a lead slug to the cranium.
The problem here isn’t so much that Star Wars has gotten too old to appeal to the present market of moviegoers, although the patience of filmmaking that went into the original trilogy certainly comes across dated compared to the hyper-manic editing and muted colors that have become standard fare for the present blockbuster industry. The problem is that the story of Star Wars does not fit the present narrative. Good guys are good, and they’re generally attractive, wise, and noble, even if they’re a little rough around the edges or inexperienced, or if sometimes they whine too frequently. And the bad guys are, likewise, bad; they’re the ones in masks with threatening voices, physically malformed, threatening, and even when they’re meek and cowardly, they rely more on numbers than on technique or honor. But the moral lines are quite clear, in both the original and the prequel trilogies. Characters make mistakes and the ethics of some actions are called into question, but it is the fundamental understanding of which characters are good and which are bad that serve to highlight one Anakin Skywalker’s internal struggle and moral uncertainty.
Some of this may be lost on present-day audiences. In the wake of the prequel trilogy, amidst a revitalized surge of Star Wars interest and the general wave of comic book, video game, and the ‘nerd culture’ golden age for Millennial geeks, the moral framework that underpins the Star Wars universe has become perverted from what it originally stood for. The prequel series fleshed out aspects of the Force, the Jedi, and the Sith that the original trilogy either never commented on or merely left vaguely implied. The expanded universe ran with some ideas and various directions, but for most of the decade and a half between Return of the Jedi and A Phantom Menace, whatever lore those writers explored remained mostly limited to the background of comic books or video games. These stories never made it to mainstream Star Wars interest, unless you already considered yourself something of a geek.
With the prequel trilogy, Lucas returned to the metaphysics of the Force that were only touched on in Jedi, giving audiences just the taste they needed to understand what it meant to ‘restore balance’ to the Force. Naturally, given the light/dark dichotomy, audiences have since demonstrated their ability to utterly miss the point. Instead of actually listening to the dialogue and watching the movie, all of which explicitly laid out the consequences of trying to master the ‘dark side’ of the Force, they seemed to think it operated according to the Taoist principle of the Taiji, or yin/yang opposition of forces kept in a hyper-static balance. Whether the Force actually utilizes such a balance is inconsequential to the light/dark dichotomy, because the ‘light side’ and the ‘dark side’ were used merely as placeholders for morally righteous and morally abhorrent methods of using the Force itself. The practice of Jedi at the academy, the establishment of monks, emphasis on tradition, regimented training, meditation, and calmness all indicate an order built on virtue, and it was even stated as such. Their opposition was not to Sith in particular, but to anything that threatened that order. And that could take the form of an organized conspiracy to grab power and destabilize the established, monastic tradition founded on virtue, as is the case with Palpatine and the greater Sith legacy that he stood at the end of. Or it could take the form of the conflicts within every individual’s heart, the constant back-and-forth between the temptation of wrongdoing, the pursuance of the Good, and the confusion of the two.
This means that Lucas’ ultimate moral framework within the Star Wars universe wasn’t all that dissimilar from the one provided by virtue ethics. Pursue virtue for a more stable life, and a greater reward that transcends the flesh is made available. Pursue sin for a more hedonistic life of pleasure, but in return, your reward becomes one of physical deformity and ugliness without the possibility of a transcendent life after death. The light side is no more feminine than the dark, and the dark side is no more masculine than the light. Neither should a balance between the dark and the light exist in which both mutually require one another—not on the galactic scale in the form of factions like Jedi or Sith, nor on the scale of understanding these forces within the individual’s heart. Balance is only possible whereupon the dark is first understood, then controlled, and then finally eliminated. Any goal that falls short of that would not be an act of balancing the Force, but rather a degree of embracing the dark side.
So it’s not hard to argue that Star Wars depicted a story in a predominantly Western mode, utilizing Western virtue ethics that share the common ground of Christian values in our society. The oft-referred to hero cycle of Joseph Campbell undergirds most of this as well, and Star Wars’ massive success in becoming a cultural staple remains the evidence of all this. And Lucas, for his part, tied it all together coherently—and any snide comments about midichlorians are, as usual, poor attempts to confuse the point.
Now we get to the Disney films, and in particular, the complete lack of any moral or metaphysical framework that could sustain dialogue or backstory related to the Jedi Order, the Sith, or the even the Force itself. I get it, The Force Awakens was made with the explicit intent to minimize what fans saw as failings of the prequels—how boring they were, the dull injection of politics and moralizing mysticism into what should have been an exciting adventure romp not that dissimilar from the original trilogy. In predictable Hollywood design-by-committee fashion, The Force Awakens was thrown together as a sequel-remake that brought old cast members back for no apparent reason, while shamelessly redoing entire segments of A New Hope in ways less creative, less coherent, and less meaningful than they were the first time. Where A New Hope had just enough exploration of the Force to give it a bit of creative substance—mostly in the form of Obi-Wan’s vague statements about relaxation, his attentiveness to far-away events through the use of the Force, and his seeming defeat of death. Lucas didn’t need to dwell on it at the time, he only needed to provide enough background to engage his audience’s creativity so that the rest of the story functioned. He maintained the same light hand on this stuff through most of the original trilogy.
The Force Awakens, however, displays no such restraint. In fact, much of Awakens preoccupies itself with quasi-messianic babbling and offers no support or understanding as to why the protagonists do—or are even capable of—anything at all. The audience is left to assume that the events taking place on screen somehow make sense in the broader universe the story takes place in, but unlike the other two trilogies, no framework has been built to properly contextualize most of the action. It’s like a split-second glimpse at people and things without any development, as if the entire film was the Mos Eisley Cantina scene from A New Hope that just happened to favor giving screen time to three or four characters as they jettisoned around the galaxy. At the end of it, the audience is no wiser to those characters’ motivations than they were at the beginning. The events of the film plod along by the dull nature of causal finitude, lacking the sort of organic story that features characters given moral substance, conflict, and growth. The only character that even remotely resembles this old way of storytelling in Awakens is Kylo Ren, but his depiction is so laughable as to discredit it entirely.
The reasoning seems clear. The production staff is either uninterested or incapable of depicting a morally substantive character and universe, by which I mean a story in which good and evil are understood, and the drama that unfolds is a result of the conflict between those two antitheses. And yes, some stories make it complicated—Hayao Miyazaki’s acclaimed comic book masterpiece Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind expertly entwines various narratives and stories together to form a grand, heroic, adventurous tale rife with complex moral questions. Yet even Nausicaä makes an effort to explore good and evil, and to help the audience to define these things coherently. Without that crucial step, there is no drama, because there is no meaning to the action. Remove the moral substance from a story and all that’s left is the stylistic exuberance of the writer or storyteller. Remove it from a film, and all that remains is the special effects. Hmm, that seems familiar.
It doesn’t help that, in the case of Star Wars, the studio seemed to pander to a fanbase that actively disdained the moral framework of the original product, at times to such a degree that they misrepresented exactly how that morality worked. The whole notion of a ‘Grey Jedi’ within the fandom makes this obvious. Whether this is due to writers and game producers insisting on including their own little Ariuses sowing discord as to the fundamental nature of the Force, or their own Martin Luthers overemphasizing the bureaucratic faults of the Jedi Order, it doesn’t matter. The consequence is that even the fans can’t seem to understand how the Force works, and if they can’t understand that, then they won’t understand what the moral substance of Star Wars offers—and dishearteningly, a growing portion of them seem not to care, either. And Disney seems to want this. Kylo Ren’s monologue in Awakens seems to imply the same fundamental misunderstanding of the Force that these fans have—a point that wouldn’t be nearly as important were it not for the fact that no other character in Awakens has any sense of dynamic intrigue or substance.
This brings us back around to the present issue. The new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, just had its trailer drop last week. And for all intents and purposes, it looks every bit like Empire Strikes Back as The Force Awakens looked like A New Hope. Big surprise. Meanwhile, rumors are already circulating about the plot and the script, which apparently includes backstory on the origin of the Force (what?), some idiotic stuff about reincarnation, and, of course, the position of the ridiculous notion that the light and dark sides of the Force balance each other in some bizarre fashion. Were it not that this is the equivalent of suggesting that good requires evil to exist, and that a virtuous life promotes the existence of evil in order to balance the existence of good, this change to the Star Wars mythos would be inconsequential. But as it stands, it turns the entire framework of Star Wars on its head. If the dark and the light must balance one another, then there is no moral high ground, only moral equivalency. If the dark and the light must balance each other, then there was no reason for Luke Skywalker to confront the Emperor, or even his own father, the fallen Anakin, at the end of Return of the Jedi. If the dark and the light must balance each other, then everything Yoda discusses in The Empire Strikes Back about conquering fear and the short-sightedness of the dark side doesn’t mean anything. If the dark and the light must balance each other, then the climax of Revenge of the Sith was an expressive and dramatic fight without reason or substance, Anakin’s turn from a Jedi Knight to a Sith apprentice was merely a change of vocation rather than an altering of fate, and Palpatine, rather than being a seductive manipulator whose thirst for power negatively impacted the Galaxy for generations to come, was instead a mystical politician whose decisions didn’t really matter. Because taking a stance of moral equivalency means that nothing matters.
But it’s fitting. Today’s popular culture attempts to paint morality over with broad strokes of ambiguity and cultural homogeneity, bolstered by the now decades-old trend in academia to incisively decry the Christian foundation of moral absolutes as oppressive structures rather than ladders to virtue. And while they deconstruct the Western mode of ethics, their vapid substitution of moral relativism—in all of its forms—still requires a contradictory doublethink: an absolute moral truth that there are no absolute moral truths. And every wing of the Left-Liberal machine tows that line—and you can rest assured that they aren’t towing that line because it’s a convincing one to tow.
It’s not enough to write stories to this end. Perhaps because you can’t, not in a way that will engage the public’s imagination. Existing stories that already have a strong foundation and developed narrative framework with memorable characters and an exciting story—those have to be wrenched free from their creators, subverted, hollowed out, and ripped to shreds. Disney is doing it with Star Wars, with Marvel, even with their own older movies as they remake them. Just end it. Let it die already. Even if the age cannot be fought, at least let the ideas of the past remain in their graves undisturbed. Old stories, like old ideas, should be revisited with new life; digging them out of graves and propping them up on stilts is every bit as grotesque as the charade that Disney and their ilk present to the public with movies like this.