Star Wars and the Failure of the Imagination

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Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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11 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    says:

    I was very glad that they didn’t play it safe with Luke.Report

  2. Avatar James K
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    says:

    I’m more optimistic on the future of Star Wars than you are, but that’s because I think The Last Jedi represents a turning point and not a blip. Also, the impression I got is that Johnson is being given the next trilogy to do, but that it will have a different focus than Star Wars has had to date.Report

  3. Avatar Zac Black
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    says:

    Ok, this complaint about the bombers I keep seeing is driving me crazy, because they are literally the only space physics thing that makes any goddamn sense in the whole of Star Wars space combat. We know from every single ship in the setting that they have artificial gravity, and that is literally a plot point within that bomber scene (the survivor on that last bomber trying to get the remote to fall down to her from above. Once the bombs are released, they fall due to the internal gravity of the bomb bay, just like the remote, and upon leaving the ship they will continue with that same momentum. In a setting where every other aspect of space combat makes zero sense (ships are way too close together and move in ways that make no sense for zero-g combat, sound in space, curving laser artillery despite a lack of gravity, ships designed in ways that would be awful for space combat [like the TIE fighter, with those huge panels that block a massive portion of the pilot’s line of sight]), it’s maddening to me that the bombers are the thing that people honed in on as being dumb and nonfunctional.Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko
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    So I was going to write a Star Wars post myself, and it got a bit too long and I never really finished it before I took off to go visit my father for the holidays. This was the core of my idea:

    The original Star Wars (Episode IV, A New Hope) patterned itself after The Hero’s Journey (read your Campbell) with slavish detail. Then the sequel (Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back) did a remarkable job of recapitulating the Hero’s Journey while striking a darker tone and leaving a more ambiguous resolution. If anything, it was better because we got two Hero’s Journeys — Luke took another one and Han took a Journey of his own.

    And after that, something got lost for three movies.

    To make it work, we need to have a few elements: a) the Call to Adventure, b) the Hero’s refusal of the call, c) the Antagonist’s imposition forcing the journey, d) forging a new friendship, e) the tutelage of a mentor, f) a Journey into a Dark World, g) theft of a MacGuffin from the Dark World, h) the revelation of the Antagonist as the mirror of the Hero, i) a Great Sacrifice for the Greater Good, and j) a final confrontation between Protagonist and Antagonist that is won by way of k) a superior moral choice and l) the aid of the new friend. We need these elements to adhere to the mythic structure — and generally we need them in about that order.

    So in that vein, I rated most of the rest of the reasons we find the various movies satisfactory or dissatisfactory as their ability to convey these narrative elements. Episode IV presents us with all of these elements in order with a triumphant end and Episode V gave us all of these elements in a wholly new way, with an ambiguous resolution.

    Episode I, The Phantom Menace, doesn’t even give us a clear understanding that Obi-Wan Kenobi is the Protagonist until the end, when all of these elements are thrown in towards the end of the third act.

    Episode II, Attack of the Clones, is probably the most disappointing because it could have shown us the cognate to the Hero’s Journey, offered us an explanation for what makes an Antagonist evil, but instead it tries to make Anakin’s morally questionable choices too ambiguous and even empathetic.

    Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, does a better job of fulfilling the promise of offering a sympathetic Villain’s Journey, but also succeeds because it keeps the moral focus on Obi-Wan Kenobi and his having to make a moral choice to see his student for what he really is and confront him despite his personal feelings.

    Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, seems like it should succeed but doesn’t because it doesn’t contain the element of the Great Sacrifice, while too slavishly adhering to the pattern of Episode IV and containing those damnably annoying Ewoks.

    Episode VII, The Force Awakens, comes a generation after the original trilogy and has little choice but to put its protagonists through the paces of their respective Hero’s Journeys, and also gives us another Villain on a Journey of his own, and we get to see each one make a morally consequential choice. It worked for me.

    And the Great Sacrifice and consequential moral choice is what Rogue One was all about. That movie worked for me magnificently.

    And that, ultimately, is why I think Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, works. I think we get all of the elements of the Hero’s Journey but very interestingly, the Theft of the MacGuffin fails, the Escape from the Dark World goes very badly, the Great Sacrifice is made as a result of that, and the most consequential moral choice was made by the Antagonist.

    We want — indeed, we need all of these elements. But we don’t need them in a story that sees the hero triumph unambiguously, and we don’t need them in that order. The real test for Episode VIII is if we can have them spread out over an ensemble of two (three?) heroes and a villain. I think so — we get lots of mentors leaving the scene, sacrifices, and last-minute heroics from new friends to save the day, and we get it in the unusual circumstance of saving the day meaning “keeping hope alive” rather than decisively triumphing.

    We can quibble about Space Bombers, Annoyingly Cute Porgs, Suicide Hyperspace Jumps, Casino Planets, and Hornblower Chases all day. If the narrative hits all of these elements, we have a hero’s journey and it’s the kind of story that Star Wars wants to tell. For me, the question is whether Episode VIII gives us the mythic journey we crave, and I think it does.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      (read your Campbell)

      Am I the only one that bounced hard off Campbell every time I tried to read that damned book. The problem I run into early on is his typically mid-20th century intellectual’s obeisance to Freud. Either this is important to his argument or it is irrelevant fluff. Either way my eyes are rolling so hard it is impossible to continue reading the book.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      My more substantive response is that you are essentially rating each film on how closely it follows the formula, perhaps with a few tweaks within that formula. This is largely my critique of the films.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Richard Hershberger
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        says:

        Ah, but this is, in fact, how every film, movie, or other narrative is evaluated. Not just Star Wars.

        That’s not to say you can’t have a departure from the formula that works, but it is to say that the further you deviate from the formula, the harder the narrative is to digest.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to Burt Likko
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          says:

          But the formula is just more god-king rah rah where everyone without a noble bloodline is just an expendable spear carrier. It’s the opposite of American tradition of can-do and the able everyman. Episode IV starts out with the ordinary farm boy who, through adversity, hard work, and belief, can somehow rise to the occasion. Then we find out that his abilities came from his royal and Jedi bloodline and that ordinary mortals need not apply. Then we find out that his father’s abilities were from a blood infection. Now we find out the blood infection is probably a side effect of fetal alcohol syndrome and chronic toxic waste exposure from working in spaceship salvage yards.

          I’m not sure where the narrative can go at this point.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      Burt Likko: Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, seems like it should succeed but doesn’t because it doesn’t contain the element of the Great Sacrifice, while too slavishly adhering to the pattern of Episode IV and containing those damnably annoying Ewoks.

      First of all, Ewoks are awesome, but my main reply is that isn’t Anakin/Vader the Great Sacrifice?Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kolohe
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        says:

        If so, then he is ALSO the Elixir. Or maybe Luke is, himself, the Elixir. Or Luke is, himself, the Great Sacrifice, offering himself up to the Emperor so that Vader can finally be moved to pity and love and paternal instinct.

        No, it doesn’t work for me — what does Luke have to give up in order to get into that room with Vader and the Emperor in the first place? What does he give up while he’s in that room? IMO this muddles with the basic structure of the monomyth too much.Report

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