The Force Awakens; Joseph Campbell Sleeps Through Alarm

So I’ve seen The Force Awakens twice now, and will probably be seeing it again today. I like it. It feels like Star Wars should feel, and while I do have some complaints, this is not the prequels. We have left that dark age behind, and have entered into a new era of hope and wonder. Or something.

The thing is, it’s still not quite the Star Wars that I’m looking for. I think it could be a decent introduction to it, but this movie is definitely more fanservice and set-up than a story in and of itself, and while I honestly don’t mind it all that much, it is definitely its greatest weakness. And upon watching Star Wars (what some people call A New Hope, because they’re wrong) the other night, I finally put my finger on exactly what it is about Awakens that leaves me wanting.

Not enough Joseph Campbell. Not nearly enough.

Because even though Awakens has the look, the feel and the terminal velocity of a good Star Wars movie, it lacks that one vital ingredient that makes Star Wars quite possibly my favourite film of all time: a by-the-numbers Hero’s Journey executed with style, passion and, most importantly, understanding how and why the Hero’s Journey works.

Which Awakens does not. Let’s talk about Rey. Who I really like. And who does actually go through an on-paper perfect Hero’s Journey. Spoilers ahead; for that matter, if you haven’t alrady seen The Force Awakens this entire post might not be of interest to you, because it kind of assumes you have.

And as for the question of why, on my writing blog, I am talking about a movie: it’s Star Wars. This is where I learnt how to tell stories. If there is any film franchise that can be more or less directly translated into the medium of writing, it is Star Wars.

The first one anyway. As for this one …

*cracks fingers*

Rey receives the Call To Adventure by bumping into Finn, Accepts the Call by running off with the Millennium Falcon, and meets Allies and Enemies upon meeting Han and Chewwie while they’re fighting with gangsters, which is also the Second Ordeal. Then her Innermost Cave moment is everything from the basement scene up until she gets interrogated by Kylo Ren, and in going through this ordeal she undergoes a Rebirth and finds the Elixir (discovering she can use the Force), is pursued on the road back to the Ordinary World (duel with Kylo), and then brings the Elixir back to share with the world (presumably what happens in the sequels).

*pants, bows, falls on facehgi39*h5%qilL*

It’s all there. She’s got all the right moves, it happens at the right pace – on the surface, this is the Hero’s Journey we’ve been looking for. And my problem is not the fact that it’s “easy” for her to get through it, which it seems to be for some other people, collectively known as dickwads. The term “Mary Sue” has been thrown around a hell of a lot concerning Rey’s sudden mastery of the Force, and while that does bother me, it’s not really because it’s easy for her and she doesn’t “earn” it. It’s the fact that it only serves to further her sub-plot of personal development, instead of being the absolute core of the story that influences every other part of it.

Luke doesn’t learn to do anything particularly impressive with the Force until Empire, but in Star Wars he uses the Force to blow up the Death Star, which is certainly a badass moment for him, but it’s also a humble one – awesome pilot and crack shot though he is, he still doesn’t know shit about the Force. But what matters is that his use of the Force, in narrative terms, is not just to show us that he’s a badass that we need to take seriously: it’s the Hero doing something to influence the wider world. Even though this use of the Force is certainly part of Luke’s personal growth, it is personal growth that echoes throughout the entire story, because through learning to master his powers, Luke saves the fucking galaxy. Rey uses the Force in Awakens to throw down with xXxSephirothxXx29, which certainly saves her and Finn and makes her look like a badass, but has zero wider consequences for the story.

She finds the Elixir, but she doesn’t bring it back to the Ordinary World; she is not allowed to, because the story she’s a part of spends so much of its time reminding us of a story that’s already been told, and told much better. The return to the Ordinary World with Elixir in hand is the part of the Hero’s Journey that makes it … well, heroic.

In a lot of ways, it’s actually the same complaint that I have about Return of the Jedi: it’s not the fact that the new Death Star is, in fact, a new Death Star; it’s the fact that Luke basically becomes a side-character in his own Hero’s Journey. Why couldn’t it just be that the Empire finds the Rebellion on [insert planet here], and Han and Leia fight it out on the ground while Luke goes to the root of all evil, the Emperor, and attempts to defeat the Dark Side itself by redeeming Vader? But no, the actual saving of the galaxy is left up to Han, Leia and Lando, and while I’m very fond of those characters and seriously hope Lando is going to make an appearance at some point in the new trilogy, it totally steals Luke’s thunder. It ruins the Hero’s Journey, because it makes it feel like a sub-plot, because the significance that it should have to the wider world of the story is a task given to the supporting cast. Which is exactly what happens in Awakens when it’s Poe Dameron, a dude who has been in the film for all of two fucking minutes, who blows up Starkiller Base and saves the galaxy (for the time being) while Rey does what she should have done at the end of the second act: start coming into her own. Only it’s not the second act. It’s the third act. Because this film hasn’t left itself enough space to tell a proper Hero’s Journey, because it’s given so much of its space up to the retelling of a Hero’s Journey that has already been told.

Rey’s Journey is compromised by the fact that Awakens is a huge Star Wars pastiche. This coming from somebody who very much does not mind that Awakens is a huge Star Wars pastiche, because if you’re going to shamelessly recycle something, you might as well recycle the best thing there is. What I mind is that the pastiche basically holds the film to ransom. Everything that happens in Awakens happens in the service of drawing attention to the innumerable references to Star Wars and Empire, rather than in service of telling a story. It’s like Abrams, Arndt and Kasdan were given a mandate (or imposed one upon themselves) that the pastiche came first, and the only story they were allowed to tell was one that made use of that pastiche.

“We need a reference to the cantina scene!”

“But, like, in terms of story there’s literally no reason for them to go to some random cantina instead of just going directly to Leia, or being captured by the First Order, or maybe –”

“Don’t try to intimidate me with your actual storyteller ways! This pastiche is now the ultimate power in the universe! I suggest you use it.”

“Well … I guess if we have the Legacy Light Saber turn up in the cantina then it’ll … work? Even though it doesn’t? Like, at all?”

“Ooh, no, but we can be savvy and hip by lampshading the fact that it makes no sense! So, like, we can have a character who only exists to be a replacement Yoda, and the other characters ask him why the light saber is there, and he can say – no she can say, because we’re progressive – that, like, it’s a good question why it’s there, and that it’s a question for another time, because it’s all mystical and vague stuff, just like the original films! The original films didn’t have narrative logic at all; they completely got by on contrivance! And that makes it –”

“Self-referential; of course! Audiences will forgive a complete lack of storytelling so long as we’re self-referential!”

“Yeah, you’re right! Just like the originals!”

 

I think that whatever there is of a Hero’s Journey running through Awakens is there strictly due to the fact that Awakens is a pastiche of a film that was perhaps the most perfect realisation of the Hero’s Journey in Hollywood history. Awakens is not, itself, enacting a Hero’s Journey, just borrowing lots of material from one that’s already been told, which means that there’s bound to be at least a semblance of a Hero’s Journey (and there is, a semblance of one), and then technically having one through Rey’s sub-plot – but, again, it is confined to her sub-plot as an individual character within the wider story, which pretty much carries on without her thanks to the main driving force of the film being an act of recycling so obvious it puts the Hobbit films to shame, and thus doesn’t really count as a Hero’s Journey. And because the culminating act of her very private Journey is to make her look like a badass instead of a hero, Awakens takes the Hero’s Journey and turns it into a privatised power-fantasy, rather than a narrative that surrounds and penetrates the story and binds it all together, which is the only point in using the Hero’s Journey to begin with.

This privatisation of the Journey is obvious in all the other stuff that happens in the film. The sheer critical mass of references to Star Wars and Empire means that there simply isn’t enough time or space for Rey’s Journey to be as well fleshed-out as a Hero’s Journey deserves to be, especially in a franchise whose main strength comes from adhering to the Joseph Campbell formula like scripture. As mentioned before, Poe Dameron is the one who blows up Starkiller Base; more detrimental to the story than the fact that he’s been in it for all of two minutes is that he has precisely zero significance to Rey and her Journey (and vice versa), thus only serving to act as yet another distraction (and I really wish he’d been more than just a distraction). Finn is another distraction in that he’s wasted on being the red herring that covers up the fact that it is Rey, a woman, rather than Finn, a man (specifically a black man, which makes his red herring, fakeout-hero role in the film even more problematic), who will inherit the Jedi legacy, and as such not only does Finn feel completely inconsequential when it’s revealed that he’s not the Jedi we’re looking for, but because so much of the time the film spends on trying to trick us into buying Finn as the hero could (and should) have instead been spent on giving Rey a decent Hero’s Journey.

But despite all that, Finn actually has a pretty damn heroic story in defying the First Order in his first battle – even though, like with Kylo Ren, they really could have done a bit more in terms of fleshing out his motivations. Finn is also an obnoxious character in a lot of ways. The thing I dislike the most is how he’s low-level sleazy towards Rey for the entirety of the film; it’s not like drooling horndogs are new in the Star Wars universe – go back and watch the first one and tell me I’m wrong – but I really didn’t need to see it again in 2015. That combined with the fact that he’s so damn giddy about everything means, if Kylo Ren is the return of Hayden Christensen’s Anakin (only infinitely better), Finn is Jake Lloyd’s. But I don’t actually mind that he’s basically a 12-year-old boy, in a broad sense. He’s a soldier trained from birth to be a killing machine; his emotional growth is bound to be a little stunted. However, that brings us to his thinness of motivation in defying the First Order – it’s an awesome idea, executed with about as much care as the oh-look-another-cantina scene, and the real issue here is that this poorly-executed premise is his entire character. He is the Storm Trooper who Defected. That has mythic written all over it, but nothing is done with it.

Well, that’s not 100% true, more like 88%. He kind of lives up to it – just not in a satisfying way. I think there’s a decent argument to be made that Finn has more of a Hero’s Journey going on than Rey does, because his story is not just about him. Unfortunately, neither is this film, so it’s not much of an argument – but I’ll try anyway.

Finn starts off as a conscientious objector. He objects to participating in the massacre of a village of innocent people, and while Star Wars worked because its symbolic events were backed up with at least a bit of justification, here it’s just completely out of the blue.

It’s also the most original bit of storytelling that this film does. Try not to blink.

Along the way he meets Rey, gets a hard-on, and proceeds to be the most pleasant obnoxious entitled adolescent boy on the internet of all time, which is not that pleasant as it turns out. The best scene in this film is when he and Rey are fixing the hyperdrive and getting increasingly irritated with each other, culminating in Rey’s fantastic “the one I’m pointing to!” line. Sadly, this is also where we see that even a genderless robot is treated as Default Male and adheres to the Bro Code, helping Finn to keep up his fuckboy façade so that he has a shot at getting into Rey’s pants. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? I wish. BB8 is supposed to be Rey’s wing-droid. What is this shit?

And then there’s the oh-look-another-cantina scene, and this is where Finn finally gets something to do – kind of. He leaves. He’s a conscientious objector; he’s seen first-hand what the First Order can do, and he is – rightly – scared shitless. If there is one thing that I like about Finn besides the fact that John Boyega is a rather likeable chap, it is the fact that he brings some counterweight to the gung-ho heroism that Rey defaults into for … whatever reason. She also doesn’t really have much motivation in that regard. Unless it’s that she’s as much of a Rebellion fangirl as Kylo Ren is a Darth Vader fanboy.

Oh god. I bet that’s actually it. Because it rhymes. Noooooo …

But seriously, do any of these new characters have motivation for doing the things that they do? I mean Luke gets over the death of his family pretty quickly, sure, but at least there was something to get over. At least it gave him a fucking motive, skimmed-over though it was, to join up with Obi-Wan’s religious cult that is predicated on suppressing all emotion.

Wow, Star Wars was actually pretty dark if you think about it that way …

Anyway, Finn. He leaves because he doesn’t want to, y’know, die, and while it’s disappointing in the way that anybody who decides that they don’t want to play with you anymore is disappointing, it’s Finn, so I find it hard to care. I wish I cared, but I don’t.

And then he just … comes back. Because … why? I think the fact that we don’t see him changing his mind really spoils his Hero potential here; he has a change of heart, and most importantly goes from acting in his own self-interest to the more noble (according to the logic of the Hero’s Journey at least) motive of acting on the behalf of others – but we don’t get to see that change, because the film doesn’t treat it as important, thus cementing the fact that Mace Windu is the only black Jedi we’re ever going to get.

Although maybe he doesn’t actually have change of heart; maybe he just comes back because he still has a hard-on for Rey, and that same hard-on is what propels him through to his final act in the film: sacrificing himself to protect her.

Which … I mean, he does protect her. He holds off Kylo Ren long enough for Rey to regain consciousness and have her crowning moment of awesome; yes he gets his ass handed to him, but that is the other part that gives me the argument for his Hero’s Journey being the one to watch. He Refuses the Call, has a change of conscience (or is overpowered by his unquenchable thirst), and follows it through with a noble and, most importantly, heroic sacrifice. It’s not a self-contained Hero’s Journey, if it is one at all: it’s the beginning of a Hero’s Journey that extends beyond himself. Finn’s act of sacrifice is his first step into a larger world.

And for me at least, this is something that Rey never does. I think she almost certainly will, because she’s gone to meet Luke and learn the ways of the Force like her father before her, but in Awakens, like Finn, the best she gets is a beginning, and even then it’s a beginning that has consequences only for her.

To return to Rey, there’s another reason why I don’t like her getting her Force powers “without earning it”. I find it completely believable that she learns to use the Force in the way that she does, to the extent that she does, at the speed that she does. For one thing, all of this Mary Sue bullshit – it’s fucking Star Wars. Star Wars exists to create Mary Sues, and because of that, the term loses what little meaning it has outside of satirical fan fiction (yes, the original Mary Sue was a parody, do your research). You can say that Rey embodies X traits of a Mary Sue, but because this is Star Wars the criticism simply doesn’t mean anything. If you’re describing a Mary Sue, you’re describing a Star Wars character, and if you don’t like that, then you don’t like Star Wars. End of discussion.

For those looking for something a little more nuanced, it’s been argued that Kylo Ren is essentially her Mentor in this film, because when he interrogates her she fights back, and the only way to resist the Force is by using the Force yourself – his antagonism is her titular awakening, basically, and that’s just as it should be, because every good Hero needs a Villain to drive them.

But even without that, I still think it’s totally believable that she starts Jedi Mind Tricking people “out of nowhere”, because the Force is the ultimate Deus ex Machina. It can do anything. Anything. It is fucking canon that the Force partially controls your actions, even as it also obeys your commands. You know who said that? Alec fucking Guinness. The real Obi-Wan. Stick that in your fanboy pipe and shove it up your ass. That’s not a weakness of Rey’s story or character; that’s a flaw, if you want to call it that, in the very fabric of the Star Wars universe. That is how the Force works. If you have a problem with that, take it up with George Lucas.

Although you might want to bring an umbrella, because that is a long fucking line indeed.

And the thing is, I might get in that line myself, because even though it works, even though it makes total sense, it’s not just that it doesn’t extend beyond her in how she uses it that bothers me. It’s not just the fact that, even though I’m fine with her learning the Force in the blink of an eye, it still doesn’t feel as satisfying to watch compared to Luke’s training in Dagobah.

It’s the fact that I will bet you anything you like that they only did it this way because she’s a woman.

As evidence clearly shows, we are nowhere near done with our cultural fascination with the Action Heroine, the girl who can do anything the boys can do, the woman who is just as tough as any man – the heroine who, as Rey never grows tired of saying, can “take care of herself”. It is a fascination borne out of a sense of guilt and insecurity, of trying to make up for something, and that is totally justified because there is a lot to make up for when we consider our storytelling history, and the role that women play in it.

But, as Yoda taught us, fear ultimately only leads to suffering. It’s the blatantly gendered insecurity that if a heroine doesn’t do something to prove that she is “just as good as” a Default Male hero would be in her place, she won’t be taken seriously. So Hollywood makes it a thing. They draw so much attention to it that it becomes her sole defining trait. They make her sneer at dresses and other markers of conventional femininity because she’s “not like other girls”; they have throwaway antagonist characters assail her with gross sexual banter and give her “witty” comebacks that are supposed to tell us that she can give as good as she gets, without changing the part where she’s the receiver rather than the initiator. They have her tell us, over and over the fuck again, that she can “take care of herself”. Even after they’ve shown us that she can take care of herself, as they do when Rey fights off the two goons the elephantine alien played by Simon Pegg sends after her to take BB8, making Finn realise that, yes, she can take care of herself. The film has, at this point, shown us that this is true. It does not need to tell us that anymore. And yet it does, and the only reason I can think of for why it persists in doing this is because it has not shed its insecurity over having a heroine instead of a hero.

So it is no surprise to me that this film also feels the need to grind this “she can take care of herself” message into us so hard that it comes at the cost of a Hero’s Journey for Rey, which would have been about a million times more subversive and feminist than anything else in this goddamn movie, because when is the last time we saw a heroine get to play out a straight-up, no bells and whistles attached Hero’s Journey? When has she gotten to do it without having to reassert time and time again that she can “take care of herself”, that she’s “not like other girls”, blah blah fucking blah?

When has a heroine been allowed to be a heroine without having to compensate for not being a hero?

Because if she was instead a hero, I bet you anything her crowning achievement would not have been a smackdown with Cry Alone Ren. I bet you she would not have learnt how to use the Force in 0.2 seconds. I bet the reason they sped through her Journey, didn’t take the time to build her up and craft her a narrative befitting a true heroine is because the filmmakers were afraid that in order to be taken seriously, she had to be badass first and foremost, just like this entire film had to be a pastiche/homage to Star Wars first and foremost rather than a story in its own right. This film and its makers were too afraid to give Rey the Hero’s Journey she deserved, and the film certainly suffers for it. She was given a story in which she was not allowed to be the hero from the get-go, because we had to be duped into thinking it was going to be Finn instead because, silly patriarchal audience that we are, we can’t help but believe it’s going to be a dude, because it’s always a dude (though, again, that trick is spoiled a little by the fact that he’s black, which is, again, gross), because as we all know, audiences just can’t handle the idea of a female character, let alone a female lead lead, if she’s not also somehow subversive.

And that is my problem with the speed at which she masters the Force: not that she does it so quickly, but the insecurity that is exposed through how quickly she does it. It was more important to this film to give us a hip, Whedon-esque gender-role twist than it was to tell an actual fucking story, and as a result we didn’t get an actual story, one confident in itself and the story it has to tell. We got a very long Act One about the most badass Action Chick in the galaxy.

But like I said at the beginning, it’s an Act One that I very much enjoy and plan to enjoy many times more, starting this evening if I can find a session that isn’t sold out. Like, yeah, I just shat all over this film, but this is nothing I haven’t said about any number of other films, plenty of which I also really enjoy. And The Force Awakens is no exception. It’s just that, as my brother said when I asked him for his thoughts on the film, this isn’t anything that will entice people who aren’t already familiar with Star Wars to watch it, because it doesn’t stand on its own merits. I personally don’t care very much that it doesn’t stand on its own merits, because I am already invested in Star Wars. I’m fine with the pastiche, because it awakens (see what I did there) nostalgic memories for me, and while that is blatant manipulation, it’s the kind of manipulation I’m fine with participating in. I am the target audience.

Or I assume I am anyway, because holy shit if this was meant to attract newcomers to the franchise there are some seriously goddamn problems. Maybe it’s best that Abrams isn’t directing the next one.

Regardless of who does direct the next one, I hope that this film is the absolute end of the references to Star Wars of Christmas Past. I can’t possibly hope that the issue of race will be handled any better, but I can at least hope that Finn develops as a character, because I think he has a ton of potential to be awesome, and has been set up that way by the way his sub-plot played out. I can hope that Poe Dameron actually gets something to do. I can hope that Phasma, played by Brienne of motherfucking Tarth, also actually gets something to do. I can hope that Kylo Ren, who I honestly like a lot as a villain-in-the-making, also develops, because as history has shown us there is little more dangerous than an angry white man trying to compensate for something.

And I hope that Rey gets the Hero’s Journey that she deserves, and that we deserve.

… and I hope that Luke gets a ton of stuff to do because I know everyone loves Han and fuck it I mean I love Han don’t get me wrong but Luke has always been my boy I was so fucking ready for Luke in this film and then he doesn’t even get a fucking speaking role so the next film oh my god the next film had better make everything right because I swear to Darth Plagueis the Wise if they ruin Luke for me

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