Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Month: December, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Much of the response to the long-awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been a combination of relief and excitement — relief because the film avoids the gross miscalculations (the stilted dialogue and serpentine plot structure, not to mention the infamous Jar Jar Binks) of the franchise’s previous three installments, excitement because it seems primed to advance the story for the first time since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. After seeing the movie, I can understand both of these sentiments. The Force Awakens is a well-paced popcorn flick, which nicely blends a cast of both old and new faces. Moreover, it ends with a gripping scene, which promises more of the same in the not-too-distant future.

And yet, despite its relative success, The Force Awakens fails to address what I take to be a decisive problem: why was it made at all? Of course, in terms of box-office receipts, this is an easy question to answer. But it becomes more complicated if one attends to the narrative arc of the series itself. After all, Return of the Jedi ends with the redemption of Darth Vader, the destruction of the Death Star, and the overthrow of the Galactic Empire. It is a denouement that presupposes a linear history, from the rise of Emperor Palpatine (Darth Sidious) and his Sith henchmen (including Vader) to the rebellion led by Jedi such as Yoda and Vader’s son, Luke Skywalker, to the Untergang of the Emperor and his plan to rule the galaxy according to the Dark Side. Thus the celebration on Endor at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi does not mark the end of a battle but, rather, the end of a war, that is to say, the end of Star Wars. Good has triumphed over evil.

The very existence, then, of The Force Awakens means that this celebration was premature — a point that may explain why series founder, George Lucas, has stated that the new film is more of a vehicle for fan interest than a continuation of his own vision. It is tempting to reason that Lucas’ view here is simply a matter of sour grapes, but, I suspect, he is also concerned with the narrative and thematic unity of Star Wars. It has always been an overtly religious series, promoting what Lucas himself terms “spirituality” and inspiring at least one prominent figure in contemporary philosophy of religion. Thus the victory of the Jedi, who serve the Force through the knowledge and practice of the good, implies the primacy of light over darkness. Yet, of necessity, The Force Awakens calls this story into question, and its title — to the extent that it is coherent at all (could the Force, which “binds the galaxy together,” ever actually go to sleep?) — even suggests that the Force is metaphysically neutral. Rather than an ultimate source of good, the Force is simply a power that can be exploited however one wishes, without eschatological repercussions.

Intriguingly, this new way of conceptualizing the Force may shed light on one of the more common criticisms of The Force Awakens — namelythat it’s closer to a collage of the previous installments than a film in its own right. As Kyle Smith of the New York Post has put it:

[R]ight about the time I was thinking, “Surely they’d never trot out another Death Star,” they trotted out another Death Star. There’s also another dramatic confrontation on a catwalk, another wise old soul who urges the heroes to return to Jedi ways, a “These are not the droids you’re looking for” moment, another Empire (renamed the First Order), another Emperor (the Supreme Leader), another Darth Vader type (Ren, played by Adam Driver) and a starting point that kicks us back to the beginning of the original film: The Jedi are nearly extinct and the Empire (oops, First Order) is being completely unreasonable.

In short, the plot of The Force Awakens is redundant, even circular. But this circularity follows from its metaphysics, which, as noted, no longer understands the unfolding of the galaxy in linear terms. On the contrary, what we now have is something closer to paganism’s cyclical understanding of time, where divinity is found in an ongoing alternation of life and death, light and darkness. With this in mind, it only makes sense that the story would repeat itself, for that, in fact, is the story — the eternal repetition of the same.

Ironically, the possibility of this sort of interpretation rests on the shoulders of Lucas himself, who, over the years, has struggled to clarify the nature of the Force. Yet, if his ideas were muddled, his story was not. Now, that has been lost as well.

But look on the bright side: there are already three more Star Wars films in the works. While Hollywood and its business interests can’t do much with a benevolent, triumphant Force, they can certainly take advantage of a disinterested one. I’ll probably go along for the ride too, though, on these terms, Star Wars means something different than it once did. And that’s okay. At least the One Ring has been safely destroyed.

Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2015)

The original film in the Rocky franchise — Rocky (1976), which went on to garner multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture — was an ode to rough-around-the-edges classics such as John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). Yet, where its forbearers plunged into squalor and despair, Rocky made transcendence central to its message. For Rocky Balboa was not just a boxer but, rather, an archetype for everyone who seeks to overcome his or her limitations — a point summed up in Rocky’s iconic climb up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (pictured below).

In that sense, the latest installment of the Rocky series, Creed, does not stray too far from the original film. However, under the leadership of talented young director Ryan Coogler, it incorporates enough twists to revitalize what had become a stale franchise. Creed centers on Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of former heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. Though preternaturally talented, Adonis has every reason not to step into the ring: his looks and mind can only be marred by a career in boxing, and, ominously, his own father had died on the mat. But it is on just this point that the film turns, since Adonis is at once attracted to and repelled by the life of Apollo. He wants to be like his father, even as he longs to step out of his shadow. Thus he seeks out Apollo’s old friend, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, who is quite good in a smaller role), hoping that the venerable yet weary champion can coach him to a greatness of his own.

Of course, framed in these terms, it is inevitable that Creed will culminate in a make-or-break fight. But this eventuality is, in truth, secondary to the film’s exploration of Adonis’ paradoxical psyche: he is a rich man working in a poor man’s sport; he is a rebel against that which he loves; he is a frontrunner destined to serve. A different, more jaundiced film might refuse to reconcile Adonis’ predicament, but, true to form, Creed seeks transcendence. It’s not that Adonis comes to imitate his father or, conversely, to repudiate him. On the contrary, he comes to realize that it is only in accepting his legacy that he will be able to overcome it. A Kierkegaardian reading of Creed might contend that, in the end, the film portrays the harmony of “necessity” (the life that Adonis has received) and “possibility” (the ideal life to which he is called). But, of course, this conclusion is not so different than that of the gospel, which insists that one is only able to redeem one’s life when one gives up the desire to control it.