A lot of fans have complained about “repetitions”. But repetitions in a different context are repetitions with a difference. So is Star Wars: The Force Awakens sequel, prequel, or coquel?
Sequel, in the sense that we do have a return to the ongoing fight between light and darkness, and some familiar faces, machines, robots.
Prequel, in the sense that this episode suggests possible genealogies to be explored next (luckily, not in 10 years…). The lightsaber already proposes a mise en abyme of possible curses and nemesis through the surge of past memories. A force to be reckoned with against the mantra: “do not look for belonging in the past, it is ahead of you”.
Coquel, in the sense that today’s context is so different today that what it was in the 1970’s. What was Science Fiction then has now become reality, for better or for worse—so that we do have two stories taking place simultaneously: Star Wars as SF and its tradition of fantasy; Star Wars as science without the fiction (some scientists might say: fiction without the science…). Or, rather, the deconstructing of how reality and fiction are tied in a double bind by science—a marriage made amidst stars at war, indeed.
Let’s consider the soldiers and their terrific/terrifying weapons: the sophistication of today’s military weaponry has turned the movie’s images and characters into grotesque repetitions of warfare reality. The Stormtroopers, in their likeness and machine-like behavior, speak to the disembodied way of waging war today, in particular through the distancing effect of drones, surgical strikes and unmanned vehicles operated remotely. The attending bestiary literalizes the dehumanizing dimensions of current warfare. Faceless and cruel, human strife resembles a meeting of interchangeable entities—pawns on a chess board or avatars in a video games, as the viewer sees fit. Soldiers, however, can be “deprogrammed”, as Rey successfully shows in a momentary triumph of utopia over the exploration of the theme of brainwashing and other dimensions of control that have become all too real to be confined to the universe of SF.
The pyrotechnics of special effects would find its contemporary counterpart in “shock and awe” campaigns—impressive spectacle and entertainment for some, deadly terror for those on the other side of the “screen” or battlefield…
Finally, the robot takes the day—in cinema as in real life, increasingly and stealthily. BB-8’s cute aping of human behavior has to be contextualized within current discussions on robots—and the controversies about their capacity to trigger human attachment through their ability to affect/mimic human emotional patterns (see for example Daniel Mendelsohn and Serge Tisseron’s recent contributions; see also Leo’s article for this blog).
Last but not least: the two marginal figures propelled at the center. Beyond our possible interest in gender and class, these two protagonists cannot be explained away by a PC agenda “imposing minorities on screen”.
Rey is a scavenger that hunts for food. Her game is no living animal but the leftovers of a disposable culture against the haunting backdrop and significant imagery we find in other contemporary works such as The Road (novel and film). The recycling of the material for some unknown purpose (at least in the world of the movie) is clearly staged as a means used by those who have real food to oppress those who have to beg for it. Rey’s decision not to “sell” the robot for the incredible amount of 40 food portions is quite remarkable—an act of generosity indicating that to rise above one’s immediate need (such as “consuming” the other) is possible. Last call for Science Fiction, perhaps, in our world where anything may become a commodity to be traded, sold, enjoyed or discarded.
Finn, the man-turned-weapon that had been snatched and enrolled by force, rebels and “wakes up” from his status as war machinery, even though such a drastic (free willed) choice jeopardizes his life.
Rey and Finn’s agency, as a site of resistance to the hegemony of destructive imperatives, is where the Force truly awakens. Both have to improvise strategies of survival and expertise, calling on skills that they didn’t think they had and conjuring up the powers of human imagination and creativity—the “tinkerers” (bricoleurs, in Levi-Strauss’s image) of a new kingdom and paradigm. A new side beyond its dark twin.
We won’t comment on the killing of the father on the bridge which enacts (or reenacts) the fated crossing of the threshold into definite evil. But we can’t help considering the empty void below and the fragility of the pathway poised over the abyss as emblematic of the current world order. The suggested posture of being on the verge of, or on the brink of, takes on a new sense of urgency. Solo’s disappearance emblematizes the tragic extinction of hope to retrieve the light, at least for now. The ultimate power of evil rests in the ability to control the other’s thoughts through mindreading —a plot detail that gives flesh and blood to the mechanics of our surveillance society.
The caveat uttered by Maz Kanata – “do not look for belonging in the past, it is ahead of you”—might finally be addressed to the viewer…The quick dismissal of the new film as déjà vu might conceal its novelty. The Force awakens. Let it work for you too.