Monday, June 03, 2024

Guest Post: The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy Part 6: This Has All Happened Before and It Will All Happen Again...


This Has All Happened Before, And It Will All Happen Again: The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy 

 

by Michael Giammarino

 

6. Finn: Post Traumatic Stress, Captain Phantasm, Plot Vs Character, Pulp Storytelling, and Vietnam's Effect on Star Wars 

 

When The Force Awakens begins, and the opening crawl rises into infinity, we watch the Star Destroyer Finalizer gradually eclipse a moon of Jakku. The nose of the Star Destroyer resembles Kylo Ren’s crossguard lightsaber. Just before it blots away all light cast by the moon, four troop carriers exit, and we follow them towards Jakku. This is a visual metaphor. A Stormtrooper aboard the troop carrier isn't like the rest. He carries the one little speck of light amongst the darker objectives of these troops. 

 

He is Stormtrooper Designant FN-2187.



Plucked from sanitation rotation on Starkiller Base and thrust into combat (even real world soldiers rotate KP, sanitation, or some other temporarily assigned duty), FN-2187 suffers what one might call immediate war related trauma – what was once called shell shock (supposedly the Department of Veterans Affairs still uses the term in relation to PTSD) – under realistic circumstances. This behavior also falls in line with genre conventions we see in war films like Saving Private RyanPlatoonCasualties of War, and Born on the Fourth of July. But here, it's an epiphany caused by the Force. 

 

The following sequence – in which FN-2187 has this epiphany – is bracketed by two major real world influences on Star Wars: World War II and Vietnam. George Lucas used a similar technique in The Phantom Menace, as the Gungan and battle droid armies converge on Naboo's Great Grass Plains. George brackets the approach of the two armies with references to two Akira Kurosawa films. The Gungan approach through the foggy marshland is patterned after a similar shot in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, while the battle droids cresting Shaak Ridge mirrors a shot in Seven Samurai. And like this sequence's counterpoint in the chiastic model, the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, the Battle of the Great Grass Plains is inspired by the Vietnam War, circling us back to the opening incursion in The Force Awakens.

 

In The Force Awakens, the opening crawl tells us  the First Order “rose from the ashes of the Empire.” The Empire was steeped in World War II Nazi iconography, therefore the First Order is steeped in World War II Nazi iconography, while Tuanul Village stands in for a village in Vietnam. As the troop carrier advances to Tuanul Village, World War II is headed to Vietnam. Framed by J.J. Abrams and Dan Mindel in medium close ups emulating J.J. 's hero, Steven Spielberg, the troops anxiously await touchdown on Jakku, as the soldiers in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan anxiously awaited their arrival to the shores of Omaha Beach. Once the four drop ships touch down and release squads upon the villagers, the scenario is relatable to the Stormtrooper attack on the Tantive IV in A New Hope



 

FN-2187 rushes to the side of a Stormtrooper who has taken blaster fire. In his final, dying act, the fallen trooper brushes FN-2187's helmet, leaving behind three bloody streaks as he succumbs to his wounds. This act has a profound effect on FN-2187. With a series of quick cuts, we feel his disorientation. It's not quite the same as the grainy, undercranked, slow-motion panic attack Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller experiences in Private Ryan, but it's close. Both men have a negative reaction to the events transpiring around them. It opens them up emotionally. Captain Miller is the most empathetic character in Saving Private Ryan, towards his mission, towards his men, and towards his goal (getting home to his wife), and this Stormtrooper's trauma makes him more emotional; at first, his emotions make him want to run, and later, they make him want to join the Resistance and fight. 

 

While it can be said that this Stormtrooper – FN-2187, later named Finn – is feeling the effect of war on his senses, at least on a subtextual level, Forbes writer Luke Y. Thompson, in a piece called, "Recurring 'Star Wars' Patterns In 'The Force Awakens' Are More Than Just 'Member-Berries'," equates this with the actual narrative effect Ben Solo's turn has on Leia, Luke and Han, and the generational parallels between real life and the space fantasy of Star Wars:

 

The key to understanding The Force Awakens is in George Lucas’ comparisons, at the time of release, of Return of the Jedi to the Vietnam War. He said Emperor Palpatine was based on Richard Nixon, and the victory of the Ewoks was inspired by the way the Viet Cong outlasted the U.S. military’s technologically superior forces. Okay, yes, it’s insulting to those of us who have Vietnam veterans in the family to compare them to Stormtroopers, but let’s be generous and assume Lucas didn’t think it out that far, beyond the notion that the Battle of Endor is the Vietnam War. If Luke, Han, and Leia are therefore the space equivalent of the Baby Boomers/Vietnam generation (as J.J. Abrams’ parents were, more or less), then Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren are Generation X. And it’s in that analogy that their motivations begin to make sense.

 

One of the major symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which finally started to be diagnosed properly in Vietnam veterans, is a retreat to comfort zones; you see this in vets who’d rather sleep outside than indoors, or go back into combat rather than interact with peaceful civilization again. The Force Awakens makes a point of noting that Han Solo and Leia Organa have done this – he by running away to smuggle again, and she by running an underground military rather than governing – but does so less with Luke Skywalker, who has fled into meditation at the first sign of danger in his Jedi Academy; and R2-D2, who has had perhaps the most realistic PTSD reaction of all, in that he has shut down completely, only communicating with the outside world again when BB-8 can finally add to his programming with a missing piece. (C-3PO, always neurotic, remains so, and ironically has coped the best, perhaps because he willingly shares his feelings and anxieties to all who’ll listen.)

 

So what happened to the children of the Vietnam generation? They felt lost, confused, nonconformist yet wanting to belong to something. The term “Generation X” was coined to sum up a group that had no one common factor save an unwillingness to be labeled, and perhaps an insecurity of their place in the world due to narcissistic and absent parenting, sometimes deliberate (overly hedonistic hippies) and sometimes not (emotionally isolated combat veterans). And yes, some grew up healthy and moored. The Force Awakens represents all of this.

 

The common factor uniting Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is separation. Finn was forcibly taken from his parents as procedure; Rey was left alone presumably as a consequence of larger events; and Kylo was abandoned by his father into the care of his loner uncle. All three reject the path they’re on: Finn, most notably, bails on the Stormtrooper profession as soon as he realizes what it entails; Rey ends her fruitless wait for her parents’ return once the realization is forced upon her; and Kylo/Ben embraces a dark lord who listens to all his concerns rather than an absent father whose comfort zone is elsewhere, or a religious fundamentalist (from his perspective) uncle who teaches a detached philosophy. Poe is the rare well-adjusted kid, though it’s telling that his character was not initially supposed to survive the first act of the movie.

 

Their quests for identity and agency define the new trilogy, just as Luke’s journey to noble knighthood and Han’s arc from uncaring smuggler to loving protector did in the originals. Finn, failing to find meaning in either the militaristic First Order or his own PTSD solution of running away, will earn his place in the Resistance. Rey, no longer living waiting for a dream that never happens, will finally see her way to being a hero by finding a larger cause. And Kylo, whatever the fates have in store, will define himself apart from the baggage of his war-veteran father. None of them even have safe spaces to return to; their quests are to find one in the first place. Poe can do what he likes; he’s all good. 

 

But hey, by all means, dismiss that as “ ‘member TIE fighters?” if you like. Just understand that in real life, ‘membering patterns of actual wars helps you repeat the mistakes of the previous ones, even as humans are drawn to do exactly that. Heaven forbid a movie pick up on that notion. 

 

The Force Awakens shows that they come back to haunt us and exact a toll. Han pays for denying his memories with his life. Luke pays with his religion-philosophy nearly being erased. Leia pays in loneliness and betrayal by her only child.

 

The trilogy after this, where our future heroes will represent millennials, is the one to worry about. 

 

In an article for Flavorwire, "The Millennial vs. Baby Boomer Conflict at the Heart of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’," Jason Bailey writes:

 

JJ Abrams’ much anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens hones in on the family-drama aspect of George Lucas’ creation in a particular manner that makes very specific sense, given the contemporary cultural atmosphere. It’s the ultimate battle of good and evil, of light and dark – and also of “darn those kids and their selfies” and “you ruined the economy for us anyways”: the baby boomers and the millennials.

 

The most striking element of The Force Awakens is how overtly it juxtaposes its characters against a world – or universe, rather – that has fallen, that is decaying. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is seen hopping on a little makeshift sled as a gigantic ship from the Empire lies in the sand, dwarfing her. The planet she lives on, Jakku, is struck with a kind of poverty that seems even worse when compared to that of the decrepit and dusty Tatooine. Rey sells junk parts for rations of food, her family gone. Elsewhere, everything is in pieces, including the Millennium Falcon.

 

The subtextual dialogue between generations isn’t as polemical as it has been in other recent films that have tacitly covered the subject, such as the horror film Unfriended, which takes a stance that’s in keeping with anti-millennial rhetoric. If one thing can bring people of all ages together, it’s Star Wars, even the more overtly political and controversial prequel films. But what’s particularly striking is the way that the generations inside and outside of the film function, both in terms of the characters and the audience. The presence of an inclusive cast and its retread of Star Wars’ narrative beats are like a reclamation of the original film trilogy (which was dominated by an all-white cast) by new voices, from Ridley and John Boyega to Lupita Nyong’o and Oscar Isaac (and Adam Driver, if you read Brooklyn hipsters as villains — which you might, after While We’re Young).

 

Father/son relationships are core to the Star Wars saga, but The Force Awakens’ intergenerational subtext makes that dynamic more potent contextually, with characters old and new explicitly in tension. Not to discount the importance of Luke and Vader’s relationship, but the interpersonal connections and the cross-generational appeal of Han Solo and Kylo Ren’s relationship is an interesting manifestation of baby boomer/millennial tension.

 

Boomers and millennials go at it in endless think pieces, often with the younger generation written off by the elders as narcissistic, lazy, and entitled. Kylo Ren embodies that rhetoric; once training to be a Jedi, he instead chose the path of the Dark Side for his own gain. (You know who also did that? Anakin Skywalker.) The latter blame their situations – economically and socially – on the previous generation. Ren is driven by power, and the film implies that he saw no benefit in training to be a Jedi. Perhaps paradoxically, while Kylo Ren exemplifies an argument that accuses a younger generation of being self-interested, he also debunks the claims of laziness, if not those of narcissism and entitlement. Regardless of the fact that he is taking orders from a quasi-Emperor Palpatine named Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), his stakes in the game are personal. Looking, nearly genuflecting, down upon the recovered, burnt mask of Darth Vader, he says, “I will finish what you started.” And while that sounds like his motivations are for some greater ideological cause, the origins of Darth Vader’s path to the Dark Side were personal.

 

The Star Wars universe – gradually decaying from film to film (chronologically) and its subtext becoming clearer – seems as broken as Gen Y writers posit reality is. Ross Pomeroy and William Handke scoff, “True entitlement is allowing the reasonable minimum wage that baby boomers enjoyed when they were our age to deteriorate while opting to cut taxes on the gains from stocks and bonds that they accrued during periods of debt-driven economic and stock-market surges – creating an economy where wage earners at all income levels, as of 2012, receive a smaller portion of economic output at any time since 1929.”

 

Kylo Ren, as the primary villain of the film, is the intersection of old and new, a convergence of both the arguments against and defenses of millennials. Ren is at once the primary character who would be the target of such claims of entitlement – in his desire for ultimate power – and the millennial who blames the previous generation of those that catalyzed the events that lead to galaxy’s current situation, in this case a governmental coup whose effects seemed to have had little positive effect in the Star Wars universe.

 

Baby boomers can give it as good as they can take it, and the gruff Han Solo and Chewbacca fire back as well as they ever did; there’s a clear sense of denial, in them, that their generation is accountable for how the galaxy operates now. The litany of allegations against millennials in the media represents an accusatory rhetoric, and, beyond Ren as the figurehead of the debate, it’s one that The Force Awakens does not abide by in the film.

 

It means, though, that heroes from this younger generation have to prove themselves in The Force Awakens. The subtle inclusion of concepts of validation and identity permeate the film, particularly in the various ways that Finn and Rey explore their identity through external factors: Finn does not define himself by the Stormtrooper helmet he once wore, and Rey evolves into someone who is not defined by her familial situation on Jakku. That Finn and Rey also represent a vision of Lucas’s universe that is more inclusive of both race and gender is both subtle and crucial to this flim’s subtext about the way millennials fixate on identity. The search for self-validation is an aspect of Gen Y’s proclivities which is written off – like selfies – but when such an exploration of identity proves useful, there’s a sense of validation for both the character and the audience. Rey’s background is mostly unknown to us; even her clothes are relatively nondescript, making her as much of an enigma as Luke Skywalker before her. But her versatility and acumen on the Millennium Falcon, an external factor to her identity, is enough to win Han Solo over. How one defines themselves via the intersections of factors like race, gender, and class — the core of identity politics — doesn’t impress an older generation: function and utility do.

 

The film’s supposedly throwaway references have been labeled as fan service, but contextually, such remarks as, “Is there a garbage chute?” – quipped by Han Solo on the Starkiller Base, when asked what to do with a captured Stormtrooper – suggest that the present generation must reconcile with the past, and vice versa. Though Abrams seems very interested in the friction and the dialogue surrounding this subject, he employs restraint (and humor) in approaching it. If the main dialectic of antagonism presents itself through the dynamic between Kylo Ren and his parents Han Solo and General Leia, then it allows Abrams to propose a version where both generations are able to save the galaxy. Abrams’ vision of the future is teamwork.

 

There’s a specific objective in mind, and the characters are forthright with their intentions. That these characters actively perform this intergenerational dialogue suggests that the subtext of the film is a future where the sins of the past are rectified by both the present and past generations. The ghosts of the past disappear in favor of a strategy or rhetoric more amiable and workable (in the form of bringing down Starkiller Base). Reconciliation with time and history even plays out, for comic purposes, between C-3PO and BB-8, who, while prodding R2-D2, is told that the latter droid has gone into low-power mode after the disappearance of Luke Skywalker. But it appears that dealing with the remnants of the past and picking up the pieces of the previous generation’s follies will be a crucial thematic through line throughout the new Star Wars trilogy.

 

J.J. would be inclined to agree with this assessment, and said as much, at a screening of The Rise of Skywalker at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

 

“This whole trilogy, 7, 8, and 9, is really sort of about the generation that follows the Great Generation, and the idea of bringing balance to the Force—which is the whole point of the Chosen One, Anakin, and the original trilogy. What I loved was the idea that balance brought to the Force doesn’t mean that it’s forever. It’s not immediately everlasting, and I think the idea that if we’re not careful, the ultimate evil will rise again. We have to be proactive in doing what we can to maintain the balance, and how does the generation that follows the Great Generation do that? The idea that these two main characters, both the grandchildren of these crucially important characters, Palpatine and Skywalker, the idea of these two houses coming together in this next generation felt like there was an inevitability to it. And if one were to watch I through IX 50 or 100 years from now, hopefully you’d feel like these stories were inevitable.” 

 

(Notice, also, that J.J. referred to Anakin as the Chosen One. Which means the sequels were never trying to rob Anakin of his birthright, no matter what contrary opinions you may find floating around the interwebs.)

 

The Great Generation refers to Americans born between 1900 and 1925, many of which fought during World War II. That generation led to the Silent Generation, those born between 1926 and 1945. This is the generation that led to the Baby Boomers, George Lucas's generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, which then led to Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, and then Millennials, aka Generation Y, born between 1981 and 1996. 

 

And writing for Pop Matters, in a July 27, 2022 article entitled, "Baby Boomer Optimism And Regret In The STAR WARS Trilogies," Carol L. White adds:

 

…16 years passed between the release of the last film in the original trilogy and the first film in the prequels. Those 16 years witnessed seismic shifts in society. They saw Lucas transform from one of the most notable in a new generation of young, maverick filmmakers to an established industry leader overseeing a massive movie empire. 

 

Lucas’ transformation is the transformation of the Baby Boom generation writ large. In the 1960s and 1970s, Boomers were young, idealistic outsiders bucking against the system. In the 1980s and 1990s, they were the system. How Boomers felt about the system they now commanded depended greatly on their political leanings. As conservatives seem to emerge dominant in US politics, liberal-leaning Boomers struggled to come to terms with their failures. That reckoning with the course of history influenced the story told in the prequels. While the original trilogy displayed Lucas’ youthful optimism, the prequels revealed his dismay and regret at the world that the Boomer generation had created.

 

The scholarly examination of generations owes a debt to Karl Mannheim, an early 20th-century sociologist of German and Hungarian heritage who laid the groundwork for contemporary generational studies. In his influential essay “The Problems of Generations”, Mannheim argued that people born around the same time shared significant experiences, such as wars or economic upheavals, and that these experiences generated a common sense of history and a connection that shaped how they saw their world and responded to it.

 

Mannheim was quick to acknowledge the complexities of generational cohesion. For example, if a generation experienced economic upheaval, such upheaval would affect the various social classes differently, which could potentially blunt any sense of common generational identity. Subsequent scholars of generations have acknowledged that factors such as race, gender, sexual identity, and disability (among others) have also undercut generational cohesion. Mannheim also introduced the idea of generational units. Although all generation members may share common experiences, their responses to those experiences may vary; they may even be diametrically opposed. According to Mannheim, all the members of a generation that shared a common response make up one generational unit within the larger generation.

 

The idea of the generational unit is important to keep in mind when examining the Baby Boomers. Born around the end of World War II and for approximately two decades thereafter, Boomers shared in the prosperity of the postwar years while simultaneously bearing the brunt of the Cold War. Given its unprecedented size and eventual influence, it is not surprising that the Boomer generation is arguably the most talked about, studied, and dissected generation in modern memory. It is also probably the most stereotyped. Most notably, as young Boomers entered adulthood, popular media portrayed them almost exclusively as members of the so-called counterculture—radical, leftist student protestors or drug-loving hippie dropouts. That stereotype proved remarkably enduring.

 

To be sure, the counterculture certainly represented one generational unit—to use Mannheim’s concept—among the Baby Boomers, but it was not the only one. Lucas is an interesting case in point. Born in 1944 in Modesto, California, Lucas represents the first wave of the massive Boomer generation. In his youth, he sympathized with the counterculture’s political beliefs, opposing the Vietnam war and supporting civil rights. Similarly, as he explained in a 1980 interview in Rolling Stone, when he first began making films, he wanted them to have messages. “Of course, being a student in the Sixties, I wanted to make socially relevant films, you know, tell it like it is” (Kline 1999). His first feature-length film, THX 1138 (1971), offered just such social commentary, imagining a dystopian future in which those in power kept the population complacent through mind-numbing pills and constant surveillance.

 

But even if Lucas wanted to “tell it like it is”, like millions of other Boomers, he was never completely committed to the counterculture. After THX 1138, he gave up on social relevance and instead made the nostalgia flick American Graffiti (1973), followed by the space fantasy Star Wars (1977, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope). Even today, it is difficult to pin down Lucas’ political beliefs. In a 1997 interview with journalist and playwright Bernard Weinraub, Lucas said that he is “very conservative, always have been” (Kline 1999). But his biographers typically disagree with Lucas’ assessment of his politics. Although he has some conservative tendencies, his political views are generally liberal, and he frequently supports progressive causes.

 

As the case of Lucas demonstrates, the stereotype of the counterculture does not work for every member of the Boomer generation. The media certainly privileged the image of the counterculture of radicals and draft dodgers in its representations of the Boomer generation. Still, such reductive stereotypes do not give the diverse generation its due justice. Given that Lucas cannot be easily pigeonholed, an analysis of the original trilogy from a generational perspective should proceed along the lines suggested by Mannheim. Rather than focusing on media stereotypes, it is better to start with the core common events that shaped Lucas and the other members of the Boomer generation.

 

To begin, Baby Boomers grew up in the shadow  of World War II. The echo of the war is easily identified in Star Wars. The Empire’s uniforms are reminiscent of the Nazis, and Lucas called the Empire’s soldiers stormtroopers, the same name as the paramilitary that helped bring Adolf Hitler to power. But the influence of the war on the original trilogy far exceeds a borrowing of an aesthetic and language. As children, Boomers wrestled with the failure of the previous generation to take a stand against totalitarianism and the Holocaust. Unlike their European peers, youth in the United States were largely spared from having to wonder if their parents had been Nazis or collaborators.

 

Nevertheless, there were still troubling questions about what the United States knew about the events of the Holocaust and why the country waited so long to act. US youth also had to contend with the knowledge that the United States was the only country to use a nuclear weapon against a foreign population. The lesson for US Boomers, then, was that history would judge them if they remained silent in the face of the mass murder of civilians.

 

One of the interesting aspects of the Empire in the original trilogy is the absence of any identifiable ideology. It is unclear what the Empire stands for or if it has any guiding principles beyond might equals right. As a product of the postwar years, Lucas did not necessarily feel compelled to give the Empire principles or an ideology. It was only necessary to show that the Empire was evil, which was easily accomplished by echoing World War II. Lucas not only evoked Nazism but also the dropping of atomic bombs on the defenseless civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the Empire destroyed a peaceful planet and all its inhabitants just one hour into the first film. For Boomers like Lucas, evil was easily recognizable; it looked like World War II. Moreover, through Star Wars, Lucas preached a doctrine of standing up to evil, no matter the costs—an implicit criticism of the previous generation.

 

As Boomers reflected on the mistakes of their parents during World War II, they also had their wars to contend with. Most notably, Boomers in the United States were born into the Cold War, which dominated national and international politics in the postwar era. Spending their childhood under the growing threat of nuclear annihilation, by the time Boomers began to enter adulthood in the 1960s, they started to wonder if it mattered on which side of the Iron Curtain one lived. The US-led West and the Soviet-led East were equally culpable in adhering to inflexible ideologies, building up threatening military capabilities, and fighting deadly proxy wars. So although anticommunist sentiment generally remained high in the United States, there was a growing recognition that when two great powers fought for dominance, everyone suffered. 

 

The tendency among members of the Boomer generation to view both the United States and the Soviet Union as equal offenders in the Cold War helps explain why the war in Star Wars is not a traditional war between two competing national—or interplanetary, in this case—powers. In the context of the Cold War, there was nothing noble about two competing powers. Such wars just caused misery—misery for which both sides were equally responsible. It is not surprising, then, that Lucas chose as his heroes in the original trilogy, not a great power with right on their side but outsiders. Lucas’ heroes were freedom fighters or rebels.

 

So were the Viet Cong, the communists in South Vietnam who led a surprisingly effective insurgency against the United States and its allies during the Vietnam War. As influential as the memory of World War II and the effects of the prolonged Cold War were on the Boomer generation, there is little doubt that the conflict that most directly impacted the Boomers was the Vietnam War. Lucas expected to be drafted into the war until a medical exam revealed that he was diabetic and was subsequently classified as unfit to serve. But even if he never fought in the war, it significantly shaped his perspective of the world, including a noticeable admiration for the Viet Cong.

 

For many Boomers—particularly those on the Left—the Viet Cong were folk heroes. They were simple people standing up to a much larger, imperialist force—and winning. In an interview, Lucas made explicit the influence of the Viet Cong on the story of the original trilogy. He said, “I was interested in the human side of the war [in Vietnam] and the fact that hhere was a great nation with all this technology which was losing a war to basically tribesmen” (Baxter 2012). The Rebels were the tribesmen of the Star Wars universe; the Empire was the floundering United States.

 

Lucas has admitted to this, as recent as this conversation with James Cameron for AMC's Story of Science Fiction in 2018:

 

GEORGE LUCAS: In school, I was of the… I don't know, angry young man –

 

JAMES CAMERON: Sure. You were a Rebel–

 

GEORGE LUCAS: I come out of anthropology…so my focus is social systems. And in science fiction, you have two branches. One is science, and the other is social. I'm more of the 1984 kind of guy, than I am…

 

JAMES CAMERON: Sure. THX 1138.

 

GEORGE LUCAS: … the spaceship guy. I got into spaceships out of cars. I love cars. I love going fast. So I like spaceships. But this isn't the science, aliens, and all that kind of stuff that I get focused on. It's the how do the people react to all of those things. And how do they accommodate them. So that's the part that really fascinates me, and that I'm interested in. 

 

JAMES CAMERON: You did something very interesting with Star Wars, if you think about it. The good guys are the Rebels. They're using asymmetric warfare against a highly organized empire. I think we call those guys terrorists today. We call them Mujahideen. We call them Al Qaeda.

 

GEORGE LUCAS: When I did it, they were Viet Cong. 

 

JAMES CAMERON: Exactly. So were you thinking about that at the time?

 

GEORGE LUCAS: Yes.

 

JAMES CAMERON: So, it was a very anti-authoritarian, very kind of '60s 'against the man' kind of thing nested deep inside a fantasy.

 

GEORGE LUCAS: Or a colonial [thing]. We're fighting the largest empire in the world and we're just a bunch of hayseeds in coonskin hats who don't know nothing. It was the same thing with the Vietnamese. The irony of that one, in both of those, the little guys won. And the big, highly technical -- the English Empire, the American Empire -- lost. That was the point.

 

JAMES CAMERON: The War Of Independence and The Vietnam War are a classic story of us not profiting from the lesson of history. Because if you look at the inception of [America], it's a very noble fight of the underdog against the massive empire. You look at the situation now, where America's so proud of being the biggest economy and the most powerful military force on the planet... it's become the Empire, in the perspective of a lot of people around the world.

 

GEORGE LUCAS: Well, it was The Empire during The Vietnam War. And what we never learned from England or Rome, or, you know, a dozen other empires that went on for hundreds of years, sometimes thousands of years, we never got it... We never said, 'Wait. Wait. Wait. This isn't the right thing to do.' And we're still struggling with it.

 

JAMES CAMERON: And they fall because of failure of leadership or government often… you have a great line, "So this is how liberty dies…"

 

GEORGE LUCAS: We're on the middle of it now.

 

JAMES CAMERON: "… to thunderous applause." Exactly. It was a condemnation of populism in a science fiction context. 

 

GEORGE LUCAS: That's a theme that runs all the way through Star Wars.

 

JAMES CAMERON: But I think science fiction is so good as these kinds of social themes. 

 

GEORGE LUCAS: Yeah, yeah. The great thing about Star Wars is, I had a thing, a vessel, that I could throw anything onto. One of the biggest problems you can have in science fiction with movies, you don't have it in books or anything but movies, you have to create a real world, and it's a real world that doesn't exist, and you have to do what I call, what Kurosawa used to say, it has to have immaculate reality.

 

JAMES CAMERON: Yeah, I like that term. 

 

Of the parallels between WWII and Star Wars, and George Lucas's worldview, Carol L. White continues:

 

Despite having the trappings of the Nazis, the Empire in the original trilogy is a stand-in for the United States. Because of the Cold War, Boomers had to come to terms with the reality that the United States was a growing imperial power that often exerted its influence over people who did not ask for or want US intervention. So although the Nazis were long gone in 1977 when A New Hopeappeared, the idea of an evil empire still resonated with Lucas. The possibility that the United States had become an evil empire weighed heavily on the minds of many Boomers.

 

After writing and directing A New Hope, Lucas took a less leading role in the two subsequent films in the original trilogy, merely providing the story for and producing Star Wars: Episode V – Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983). Lucas’s direct engagement with filmmaking was limited for much of the ’80s and early ’90s. He preferred the role of producer, which afforded him the time to build a massive filmmaking empire that included the powerhouse special effects firm Industrial Light & Magic, among other business ventures. Then in 1994, Lucas announced that he was finally ready to return to the Star Wars universe by delivering the long-promised prequel trilogy that would provide the backstory for Darth Vader and the rise of the Empire.

 

At the time of the announcement, Lucas was 50 years old. He was perhaps still a maverick—preferring to locate his film empire near San Francisco rather than Hollywood—but he was no longer part of the young, up-and-coming generation. He was just another established, aging Boomer. How exactly had Lucas’ worldview changed with the passing of time, and what impact did it have on how he continued the Star Wars story?

 

One potential area of exploration is Lucas’ self-proclaimed optimism. In numerous interviews spanning decades, Lucas repeatedly said that the shift from the dystopian vision of THX 1138 to the popcorn fare of American Graffiti and the original trilogy was intentional. He believed that society had become too pessimistic in the ’70s and that he wanted to make optimistic films. Although Lucas believed that his optimism ran against the grain of the era, he was not exactly right.

 

In general, optimism was a hallmark of the Boomer generation in their youth, particularly among activist Boomers associated with the Left or the counterculture. Student protestors may have been cynical about the actions of the United States in Vietnam, but they also firmly believed that by bringing attention to those actions, they could force an end to the unjust war. Similarly, a new generation of black civil rights activists embraced Black Power over civil disobedience, believing that a militant, empowered, and united black population would bring to fruition the racial and social justice that the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. could only dream about.

 

But by the ’80s, that earlier optimism among Boomer activists was getting harder to uphold. In the years that followed the turbulent ’60s, there was a significant backlash against the so-called counterculture. President Richard Nixon came to office in 1969 promising to give a voice to the Silent Majority, the supposed bulk of the US citizens who wanted “law and order” rather than leftist politics. The backlash that began in the ’70s under Nixon became the norm in the ’80s under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. 

 

The apparent triumph of the Right found Boomers on the Left reflecting on how they had seemingly lost the advantage. Many pointed to their optimism, especially their naïve faith in their ability to affect political change. One prominent example is Mark Rudd. As a student at Columbia University in 1968, he helped orchestrate a student occupation of several campus buildings to protest the Vietnam War and Columbia’s intrusions into the adjacent Harlem neighborhood. After the occupation ended with a police bust, Rudd became increasingly radical, joining the militant group Weather Underground, which the FBI classified as a domestic terrorist organization.

 

In 2018, he reflected on his actions during the campus occupation and the years that followed: “We were so sure [of our militant methods] …that we completely forgot about organizing, the hard work of education, gaining people’s trust, building relationships, forming alliances, and ‘building the base’” (Rudd 2018). Looking back, Rudd realized that he had failed to appreciate how complex politics were and that real political change takes time and strategy.

 

When Lucas reflected on the ’60s in a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone, his takeaway was similar to Rudd’s. He explained, “You must accept change so you can control it and make it work for you…. I think it’s the people who realize this the fastest who can go in and subvert the system and direct it and have a far greater impact than the ones who try to throw bombs. I believe people learned that lesson in the Sixties” (Kline 1999). Like Rudd, Lucas disavowed militant action to affect change and implicitly embraced the complexity of politics. For Lucas, to win, it was necessary to work within the system and play its game.

 

These sentiments from 1987 seem odd in the context of the original trilogy. Imperial Senator Leia Organa (played by Carrie Fisher) did not defeat the Empire through her impassioned speeches on the Senate floor, but rather as a leader of the Rebellion that blew up two Death Stars. But these comments from 1987 were not made by the George Lucas of the original trilogy; they were the views of the George Lucas of the prequels. As Boomers aged and reflected on their youthful experiences, they came to acknowledge a certain naïvete about how politics worked. This later-life realization explains why the first prequel film Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) opens with trade negotiations and, unlike the original trilogy, includes those scenes on the Senate floor. Alongside aging Boomers, Lucas had come to accept that getting the right thing done was not as easy as mounting a protest or blowing up a Death Star. Lasting change required understanding—and ultimately playing—the complex political system.

 

That said, the person who is best at playing the system in the Star Wars prequels is the villain, the future Emperor Palpatine (played by Ian McDiarmid). Certainly, one of the primary purposes of the prequels was to establish how Palpatine came to power. Lucas knew as early as 1981 that, compared to the original trilogy, the prequels would be “a little more Machiavellian—it’s all plotting—more of a mystery” (Kline 1999). But what is striking about Palpatine’s Machiavellian political scheming is his ability to play the long game, as it were. His ascension to power takes place over three films, as he first creates an artificial crisis on his home planet to become chancellor, then manipulates other political actors into a divisive civil war that enables him to amass even more political power, and finally ends the civil war that he started and reorganizes the republic into an empire that he commands. It was a crushing defeat for the heroes.

 

This defeat in the Star Wars universe mirrored the defeat of the Left in US politics. As noted, in the ’60s, the media image of Boomers tended to focus on the counterculture of hippies, draft dodgers, and student protesters. But Nixon was right to assume that the media was not telling the full story. The counterculture was not the voice of the Baby Boomers; it was merely a voice, just one generational unit, to use the language of Mannheim. The reality was that plenty of Boomers in the ’60s did not identify with the counterculture and were politically more conservative. These more conservative Boomers shunned the protesting and theatrics of leftist politics. Instead, they buckled down and began to work the system. 

 

In the summer of 1999—while The Phantom Menace was smashing global box office records—William A. Rusher reflected on the rise of the Right in US politics. A member of the earlier Greatest Generation, Rusher was one of the most prominent voices of the conservative movement, serving as publisher and editor of National Review, which is generally considered the most important conservative journal in the United States. In his article, Rusher observed, “The New Left of the 1960s has no traceable successors in the politics of the 1990s. On the other hand, the conservative movement has advanced politically with seven-league boots”. He credited the conservative movement’s success to actions dating back to the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign of 1964—a campaign that had mobilized young, conservative supporters.

 

According to Rusher, the Right circumvented the media in the years that followed. This appealed directly to average conservative US citizens, which allowed it to build its base slowly and methodically. By the ’70s, “there were brand-new think tanks, …eager political candidates, experienced campaign managers, ‘public interest’ legal foundations to test issues in the courts, candidate-training schools, journalistic training schools, columnists, radio and television commentators, and even new foundations offering financial support” (Rusher 1999). The successes that Rusher pointed to continue today. The conservative movement has not only become a powerhouse in grassroots organizing but, more crucially, it has played the long game well. 

 

If the Star Wars prequels are to be believed, Boomers sympathetic to the Left should have seen it coming. One of the more troubling aspects of the prequels is the failure of the Jedi. Palpatine hid his Sith identity from them while simultaneously manipulating the Jedi into fighting a fraudulent civil war and poisoned the mind of the prophesized Chosen One, Anakin Skywalker (played by Hayden Christensen). The Jedi of the prequels were blinded by pride in the Jedi Order and their naïve faith in the politics of the Republic. The failures of the Jedi in the prequels are the failures of liberal Boomers. Because of their naïvete and pride, they found themselves beaten by those who held values antithetical to their own.

 

In the original trilogy, when Lucas needed a villain, he evoked the Nazis. But when challenged with telling the story of Palpatine’s rise, Lucas did not need to go as far back as World War II. Rather, he went back just a few decades to the failures of the counterculture and liberal politics. Lucas was not a member of the counterculture himself, but his political sympathies lie with them. In the wake of Nixon’s “law and order”, the Reagan Revolution, and George W. Bush’s War on Terror, the defeat of the Left felt crushing—and the sting of that defeat saturates the prequels. 

 

However, the Boomer generation’s narrative is not as simple as the victory of the organized, methodical Right over the idealistic, naïve Left. The contemporary feminist, environmental, and LGBT+ rights movements can all trace their roots to the Boomer activists of the ’60s, suggesting that the defeat of the Left was not so crushing after all. Similarly, for all the pessimism of the prequels, the Star Wars universe still had hope. Some Jedi, most notably Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Sir Alec Guinness) and Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz), survived Order 66. More importantly, Anakin’s children, Leia and Luke, were hidden, protected, and ultimately given the opportunity to right the wrongs of the previous generation by leading the Rebellion and reestablishing the Jedi Order.

 

Ultimately, George Lucas may have regretted the course of history in the real world. Still, when it came to the galaxy far, far away, he made sure to leave the gift of his youthful Baby Boomer optimism behind for future generations.

 

The following scene in Tuanul Village plays out like a scene in a Vietnam War movie, when the American squad encroaches upon a village, looking for VC or some such. We see it in Platoon, we see it in Born on the Fourth of July, we see it in Casualties of War. They either find what they're looking for or they don't, and when they don't, violence ensues, either because the Americans are too cocky, or due to some oversight. There's almost always a soldier who can't handle the pressure, and feels the effect of post-traumatic stress. And when the squad departs, they've left the village a burning ruin behind them, usually with men, women and children lying dead, or survivors in lament.

 

The same happens here: the Stormtroopers move in and immediately set fire to the camp. Troops move in on Poe. There's a fire fight, a trooper is shot and killed right in front of FN-2187, where he experiences an awakening akin to PTSD. Kylo Ren arrives to survey the situation and pump Lor San Tekka for information on the map to Skywalker. When he doesn't get the information he wants, and San Tekka needles Ren about the past, Ren kills him. Poe, in desperation, tries to take Ren out. Kylo senses this attempt, freezes Poe's blaster fire in midair, immobilizes Poe, troops arrest Poe, and Kylo departs with Poe, leaving Captain Phasma to finish eradicating the villagers.

 

Captain Phasma (played by Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth, Gwendoline Christie) – or, as I like to call her, Captain Phantasm – is an important figure in Finn's further development as a character. She also carries referential significance. Her look, and her name, allows what was only a simple coincidence in 1979 when Don Coscarelli's cult favorite indie horror movie Phantasm was released, to finally become actual Star Wars trivia, and we have J.J. to thank for that. 

 

J.J. not only grew up a Star Wars fan, he cut his teeth on cult and indie science fiction and horror films; and Phantasm certainly fits the bill. 

 

In Don Coscarelli's Phantasm, the Morningside Mortuary is overtaken by interdimensional  creatures who transport corpses to their world, either reanimating and transforming them into mutant dwarves or running their weaponized  silver sphere projectiles with their brains. The dwarf-like creatures are led by Angus Scrimm's intimidating Tall Man. 




 

J.J. told Entertainment Weekly's Anthony Breznican how it came to be:

 

Turns out, Abrams sometimes does go out of his way to pay homage to unusual pieces of cinematic pop culture. The proof is Captain Phasma, a First Order warrior garbed in mirror-like armor, played by Game of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie.

 

During preproduction, Abrams was reminded of Phantasm, a 1979 horror film that featured a gaunt, terrifying figure known as The Tall Man and a flying, silver sphere that bores into its victims’ bodies like a bullet crossed with a drill-tip.

 

"Phasma I named because of the amazing chrome design that came from Michael Kaplan’s wardrobe team. It reminded me of the ball in Phantasm, and I just thought, Phasma sounds really cool,” Abrams says, but as he was telling this story, I remembered the last time I’d seen The Tall Man actor, Angus Scrimm.

 

It was an episode of Abrams’ TV show Alias.

 

Phantasm director Don Coscarelli explained further to Hitfix writer Chris Eggertsen, in an article called, "Don Coscarelli talks ‘Phantasm’s’ strange, four decade-long ‘Star Wars’ connection," republished by Uproxx:

 

In 1977, Don Coscarelli was deep into production on his future cult classic Phantasm when he received a fateful call.

 

"We'd shot like 60 percent of the movie, and I get a phone call from somebody, and they go, 'We just saw a trailer for this new movie Star Wars and your characters, the little brown dwarf guys, are in it,'” Coscarelli remembered when I spoke with him on Friday. “And I was like, 'What do you mean?' And so I went and saw the trailer, and we actually sat around for a couple of days totally depressed and being like, 'Do we have to put them in red hoods, or grey hoods, and re-shoot everything?' Finally we just decided, 'Okay well, it's another movie. A few years later, nobody will remember it.'”

 

Little did Coscarelli know that Star Wars would soon become the highest-grossing film of all time, with Lucas's Jawas far overshadowing his reanimated zombie dwarves in the popular imagination. Little did he also know that nearly 40 years later, the director of the seventh installment in the Star Wars feature-film franchise — J.J. Abrams, just 12 years old at the time of Phantasm's release — would pay homage to Coscarelli's low-budget horror film in his mega-budget 2015 sequel The Force Awakens, by naming Gwendoline Christie's character — yes — Captain Phasma.

 

"That Phasma thing came out of the total blue. I read about it just like you. Nobody ever told me,” said Coscarelli of Abrams' tribute. “So it was kind of strange and kind of cool.”

 

The full-circle of it all continued when Abrams, after reaching out to Coscarelli about screening the original Phantasm for Abrams' Bad Robot employees, discovered that the elder director only had what Coscarelli himself described as a “junky old print” of the film in his possession. That led Abrams to offer Coscarelli the resources he needed to give the original negatives a high-def 4K restoration, which allowed him, among other things, to edit out all the pesky fishing lines that could be seen in the original 35mm print. “Every damn piece of fishing line has been erased,” Coscarelli enthused with a broad smile. “Cause you know, that's the only way we could fly those balls.”

 

So ensued a second round of post-production work on Coscarelli's nearly four-decade-old film; over the next year, the director would frequent Bad Robot's offices, working on the remastered version that's due for release on cable and digital platforms this Friday (it's also screening in limited theaters). “It would just be like, a Tuesday night I'd get a phone call: 'Can you come over at 8:00? We've got like 4 hours. You can work with this guy.' And I would come over,” said Coscarelli, who continued: “Best part really though I think is the audio restoration. There is a real Phantasm fan who works over at Bad Robot. His name is Robby Stambler and Robby and his partner, they made it sound so great.”

 

In some ways, this process also mirrored Coscarelli's experience making the first Phantasm, when the then-twentysomething filmmaker was forced to share — and often kicked out of — editing space with Lucas' Star Wars.

 

"I'd be sitting in there and they'd go, 'Don, you're going to have to leave the room now, because we're going to have to run some Star Wars stuff.' And I'd go, “okay, cool.” And I'm walking out thinking, 'Oh, so we've got Phantasm on the screen and then 10 seconds later, Star Wars is going to be on this screen. There's just something weird about both movies are being worked on at the same time.”

 

Not only did J.J. Abrams grow up a fan of cult horror and science fiction films, he got his start collaborating on cult movies; directly and indirectly. Directly, he contributed music to Don Dohler's exploitation science fiction horror movie Nightbeast, when he was sixteen years old. Indirectly, J.J. and his father made suggestions to John Carpenter significantly affecting the theatrical cut of his 1981 film, Escape from New York. In attendance at a test screening for the film, J.J. and his father stayed behind during the audience consultation period. J.J.’s father suggested the opening sequence, where Snake Plissken is arrested following a bank robbery and subsequent chase into a train station, “undermined the character's mythical outlaw status.” Carpenter cut the sequence from the film. Then, young J.J. raised his hand, admitting confusion about the fate of Adrienne Barbeau's character. Carpenter would later shoot an insert shot depicting Barbeau's character, dead, on the 69th Street Bridge, in his garage. 

 

Star Wars and Phantasm also share a Dune connection. Early in Phantasm, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) visits a teen girl whose grandmother is reputedly a medium. Relating his fear that his older brother might be moving away, the girl persuades Michael to put his hand in a mysterious, ominous black box. The box closes on his hand and causes the boy extreme pain, to which the girl pleads with him not to fear. In Dune, Paul Atreides is tested by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim with a similar pain-inducing box. In this case, in order to resist the pain, Paul goads himself with the Litany Against Fear: "I must not fear… fear is the mind killer… fear is the little death that causes total obliteration… I will face my fear…" And we all know, in Star Wars, "Fear leads to the dark side! Fear leads to anger… anger leads to hate… hate leads to suffering." In Phantasm, Michael's elder brother Jody frequents a bar called Dunes Cantina, and the Jawa-esque dwarves take bodies from Morningside Mortuary to a desert planet much like Arrakis… or Tatooine. Or Jakku, nee Jacurutu, per Children of Dune. In Denis Villaneuve's Dune: Part Two, Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV's silver, spherical flagship bears an uncanny resemblance to the Tall Man's weapon of choice. 

 

Phasma will become that which Finn must defeat in order to find his place in the galaxy. Phasma is the personification of everything keeping Finn back. Archetypically, this makes Phasma Finn's Threshold Guardian. A Threshold Guardian is someone who stands between a character and their goal, or destiny. In A New Hope, Uncle Owen was Luke's Threshold Guardian. It wasn't until Owen was gone that Luke could go with Obi-Wan to Alderaan, learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like his father. But Finn must be more proactive with his Threshold Guardian. Phasma is the dragon Finn has to slay to be able to move forward. 

 

I know there are people who believe Finn got a raw deal in the sequels, that John Boyega got a raw deal in the sequels, that Finn never really had a fully developed character or a full character arc in the sequels. 

 

But is this a general bias against Finn, or is this a common function of Star Wars?

 

It's a common function of Star Wars. 

 

This is a trait of several supporting characters in these Star Wars movies. Simply put, supporting characters in these movies usually have thinly written parts. (Besides, filling in all the extraneous character information is the ancillary material's job.) Or they merely serve another character's story. Making Leia Luke's sister to tie up the original trilogy only serves to expand Luke's character. It gives Luke someone specific to defend and protect, someone specific Vader can threaten to drive Luke crazy with rage, and test his resolve. Harrison Ford's gripes about his character are common knowledge. On Return of the Jedi, he'd press George Lucas to kill Solo off, to no avail. During The Force Awakens’ press junket, Ford admitted, “I've been arguing for Han Solo to die for about 30 years. Not because I was tired of him or because he's boring, but his sacrifice for the other characters would lend gravitas and emotional weight.” In Empire of Dreams, a 2014 documentary, Ford reasoned, “He's got no mama, he's got no papa, he's got no future, he has no story responsibilities at this point. So let’s allow him to commit self-sacrifice.” He added in 2015, “I thought the best utility of the character would be for him to sacrifice himself to a high ideal and give a little bottom, a little gravitas to the enterprise.” 

 

As tvtropes.org defines it, character development “is the change in characterization of a dynamic character, who changes over the course of a narrative. At its core, it shows a character changing. Most narrative fiction in any media will feature some display of this.” 

 

From my perspective, a character also needs depth to consider them fully developed. Character depth is defined by tvtropes.org as, “how ‘deep’ a character is. It involves questions like why the character does what the character does, what the character thinks, feels, desires, and hates, backstory, and/or how the character sees the world. It may be there in subtext, but it still affects the depth of the character. This is often known as a character being one-dimensional, two-dimensional, or three-dimensional. Keep in mind that not all characters have to be three dimensional, nor is there necessarily something wrong with a character who is not. The genre, audience, plot, and role of the character affects the minimum depth needed for the character to maintain willing suspension of disbelief. Go at least that far, and you're good with the audience.”

 

I wish all viewers were on the same page with this definition. Especially the “not all characters have to be three dimensional, nor is there necessarily something wrong with a character who is not” part. I'll get to that in a second. 

 

Typically, in Star Wars, character development is reserved for the main characters, our protagonists, while the other characters serve the plot and act as archetypal satellites for the main players. Protagonists in Star Wars movies are the ones who tend to have the most fully fleshed out arcs and the most developed characters, as well as portraying archetypes in their own right. Luke Skywalker has an arc and he's a fully developed character. Anakin Skywalker has an arc and is a fully developed character. He also has the distinction of being the only villain in Star Wars to have an arc and a developed character. But that's because his arc began as a protagonist. There is no villain – no one who began and ended their function in the story as a villain – with a fully developed character in the Star Wars movies.  Palpatine (Darth Sidious) doesn't have a fully developed character; he is simply archetypal. He is the ultimate evil adversary. Anakin Skywalker is the most fully developed character in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. He is hero and villain; the hero in the prequels who becomes the villain moving into the original trilogy. Luke Skywalker is the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy. He is also the student. It's his destiny to defeat the ultimate evil and become a Jedi like his father before him. And Rey Nobody from Nowhere… Rey Palpatine… Rey Skywalker… is also a fully developed character with an arc. 

 

Anybody else in Star Wars… well, you can certainly find an arc in other characters if you try hard enough or look hard enough. But Star Wars isn't driven by its characters. George Lucas liked to work in archetypes, motifs and themes, not necessarily in character. Therefore, Star Wars is driven by its plot, archetypal characters, motifs and themes.

 

Archetypal characters, according to tvtropes.org, are “character(s) who appear over and over in legends far and wide, even in cultures that have shut themselves off from the world; in other words, a universal character. An archetype is a universal theme, story or character which is so fundamental that, regardless of how many times it is used (or misused), it never becomes stale, dated or cliché.”

 

Not all characters in Star Wars have arcs; they don't always learn, grow and change over the course of these films. Nor are they all fully developed characters. But they are all archetypal characters. 

 

For instance, Chewbacca doesn't have a fully developed character or a satisfying arc in the Star Wars films at all. Archetypically, he's the friendly beast; a sign that nature is on the heroes' side. And he is a trusted ally. And that's really all he is. See-Threepio, Artoo-Detoo, and BB-8 are loyal retainers, or sidekicks; they assist the heroes and reflect the heroes’ nobility. They're heralds; they bring information to the Protagonist. Jar Jar Binks is more or less a developed character, in the sense we know where he hails from and how he's regarded by his own people. And while he has an arc in The Phantom Menace alone, he lacks a proper arc carrying him through the prequel trilogy. His role in the story diminishes as the prequel trilogy moves along. He is the fool, in the Shakespearean tradition, who finds status among the people in power before being manipulated to hand over that power to a tyrant. A common archetype we see running through the Star Wars movies is the mentor figure. In The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn doesn't have a developed character; he's simply a mentor figure. And a mentor figure always dies in the first chapter of a Star Wars trilogy, leaving their student to grapple with the mentor's teachings on their own until they become the mentor to another character, allowing the cycle to continue. Qui-Gon passes this responsibility on to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn't have a developed character in The Phantom Menace; he's the dutiful student to Qui-Gon Jinn. He graduates to mentor in Attack of the Clones, accepting the mantle as Qui-Gon's replacement, and Anakin becomes his student. His failure with Anakin leads to his posthumous success with Luke in the original trilogy. In the sequel trilogy, Rey will have three mentors: Han, Luke, and Leia. 

 

Does Luke make decisions that move him forward, or does fate call on him to meet his destiny? Does Anakin make decisions that move him forward, or does fate call on him to meet his destiny? Does Rey make decisions that move her forward, or does fate call on her to meet her destiny?

 

Does Finn make decisions that move him forward, or does fate (i.e., The Force) call on him to meet his destiny? Is what happens going to happen, no matter what one or more people do or say to try and prevent it? Do these characters truly have free will, or is everything they do preordained?

 

They are what the plot calls for them to be. 

 

On the website AlmostAnAuthor.com, Matthew Johnson writes:

 

In the early days of filmmaking, the plot took center stage. Meaning, the plot gets more emphasis over character development; which allows plot twists, fantastic worlds, and breathtaking action to take center stage. Remember, the plot is simply a sequence of events that a character encounters as they progress from point A to point B in your story.

 

Laurie R. King noted, “In silent films, quite complex plots are built around action, setting, and the actors’ gestures and facial expressions, with  very few storyboards to nail down specific plot points.”

 

Plot-driven stories still have amazing characters for the audience to connect with; however, this approach shows more of what the characters do, rather than who they are and what they think.

 

This is why plot-driven storytelling works well for movies; it allows the audience to see the action and fantastic worlds the characters live in. It is especially helpful for fantasy and mystery narratives. 

 

As the plot advances our narrative, ideally our character/characters will change in the process. Plot-driven stories often have more revelations or questions for the characters to deal with, driving the story further ahead.

 

Plot-driven stories are unique because they shape our character during the narrative, as opposed to the character shaping the plot.

 

Google searches on whether Star Wars is character-driven or plot-driven can become muddled. If you ask if Star Wars is character-driven, you'll be met with links saying Star Wars is character-driven. If you ask if Star Wars is plot-driven, you'll find links calling Star Wars plot-driven. But when you ask if any Star Wars movie (or trilogy) is character-driven, it points you, not to the Star Warscharacters who are thinly written with open arcs, it points you to the Star Wars characters who are fully developed, namely, the leading protagonists of each trilogy. When I Googled Is Star Wars character driven? I got a hit from a commenter saying A New Hope was character driven, and used Luke as an example. I suppose it's easy to assume you're watching a character-driven narrative if you're only focusing on the character the story is focusing on. But in A New Hope, seventeen minutes pass before we even meet our lead. Until then, it's all plot. And even when Luke is introduced, he doesn't make decisions that further the plot. The plot makes those decisions for him, when Artoo goes missing, when his aunt and uncle dies, when Obi-Wan dies. 

 

Regardless, the story works. 

 

That's really what it comes down to. Not troubling yourself with whether character-driven narratives are more satisfying than plot-driven ones, or vice versa. 

 

If the story works as is, the story works as is. 

 

How can you tell if a story works, though?

 

Well, that's the real trick, isn't it? Here I am, saying A New Hope works as a plot-driven story, while in an earlier chapter, we heard several critics bemoan how Star Wars movies don't work. At the end of the day, reactions to movies are what movies have always been, whether character-driven or plot-driven: subjective. What you or I or anyone else thinks about one of these movies or any movies will depend on our own perspective. 

 

There is a way character-driven stories work. There's a way plot-driven stories work. But ultimately, it's always going to come down to personal perspective and personal preference, on how you prefer to absorb or receive stories. If you're more inclined to gravitate towards character-driven stories, you're probably going to turn up your nose at plot-driven ones. Maybe you don't know or even care about character-driven or plot-driven narratives; maybe you just watch a movie to watch a movie and you either like it or you don't. Maybe you just prefer the pace of a plot-driven story that moves like a freight train and get bored at the slower, more deliberate pace of a character-driven story. And then there's a movie like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is plot-driven, episodic, and deliberately paced, proving that stories come in so many different forms. 

 

Speaking as a cinephile, I have no personal preference. Whether a story is character-driven or plot-driven, it doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is if, at the end of the story, does it work for me? And can I articulate how the movie makes me feel and how or what it makes me think? That's all. If I think it's a good story, well told, that's all that matters. And that's going to be different for each and every viewer. 

 

We get to know as much about Finn in the sequel trilogy as we need to know. The sequel trilogy is Rey's story, like the original trilogy was Luke's story, like the prequel trilogy was Anakin's story. The characters in her orbit, like the characters in Luke's orbit and the characters in Anakin's orbit, are there to serve the plot and her story. 

 

We understand Finn through what little we know of his backstory, and how we see him relate with Rey and the other characters. And by The Rise of Skywalker, we're left with dangling character threads begging to be continued in new stories; hopefully new stories where Finn is the lead. It can happen. It should happen. By the end of The Rise of Skywalker, we have implied confirmation Finn is Force sensitive and that he can only grow deeper as a Force user, as a Jedi, as a character.

 

However, if it doesn't happen, an open arc isn't so terrible. 

 

Having an open arc after the end of a three act play means the character's story can continue from there… in the mind of the viewer. An open arc can engage a viewer's imagination. An open arc allows us to envision what might happen to the character in the future if we never get new movies or new stories. That's what's fulfilling about open arcs; it gives the audience room to invent their own scenarios. For a character like Luke to continue, who has already come to the end of his story after Return of the Jedi is over,  has already become the man and the Jedi and the hero he was meant to be in the original trilogy, he needs to face some kind of new problem. He needs to be dealt a bad hand. He needs to be sent back to square one. Otherwise, he'd just be a plot device. And Luke isn't just a plot device in the sequel trilogy. I mean, yeah, sure, at this point in the story he is a plot device, very much so. But that's not all he is. 

 

In the sequel trilogy, Finn is the Stormtrooper who became a deserter, the deserter that became a Rebel, the Rebel that became a Resistance General. That's an arc, friends. It might not be the most satisfying arc, but it's still an arc. Han Solo follows a similar arc; the rogue who becomes a Rebel, the Rebel who becomes a Rebellion General. And like Finn, Han spent time as an Imperial soldier before deserting. Knowing this when we watch Han and Finn interact in The Force Awakens creates a parallel between them. Solo even has his moment rethinking his status in the Rebellion, and flirts with stepping away from it, in The Empire Strikes Back, as Finn does in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. (And between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, Han follows through and steps away.) Han doesn't have a particularly strong or satisfying arc by the end of Return of the Jedi. It isn't until The Force Awakens that Han is given an end with a purpose, and The Rise of Skywalker only adds to it. But still, following Star Wars formula, Han's death facilitates Kylo's character and Rey's character, not really his own, as Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Yoda's deaths serve Obi-Wan, Anakin and Luke's characters, respectively, and learning Leia's true bloodline serves Luke and Vader’s characters. Princess Leia also suffers in Return of the Jedi, but also receives a purposeful arc at her end in The Rise of Skywalker: Kylo and Rey's purpose. Han, Leia and Chewie serve a plot function in Return of the Jedi's third act… until they're placed in jeopardy. It's when they're placed in jeopardy all the interest and concern that has built up in us for these characters over the course of three films makes us care what happens to them. The sequels benefit Han's and Leia's arcs by giving them resolutions George never gave them in the original trilogy. If John Boyega was open to it, I'm certain Finn's arc would benefit from further adventures. 

 

But the question becomes, would it benefit his character, or would it benefit other characters? Or would it benefit his character because it benefits other characters?

 

And are all characters supposed to grow, learn, and change? Is this a universal rule, or merely one narrative medium, one medium amongst many?

 

What if a filmmaker isn't interested in telling a character-driven story? 

 

There is a stigma in film criticism against plot-driven narratives, that character-driven narrative is the only “proper” way to tell a story. Audiences pick up on this when they read the critics who believe this or listen to the pundits who believe this or watch the YouTube talking heads who believe this, and accept it as fact because it's coming from who they suspect are experts on the subject. But this simply isn't true; not in literature, and not in cinema. Cinema isn't, and shouldn't be, limited to one way to tell stories. Not all critics recognize this fact. Or, if they do recognize it, they might object to it. George Lucas attributes this to film criticism being borne out of literary criticism, and critics who come from literary backgrounds, or approach cinema from a literary background. In an earlier chapter, I quoted George Lucas, in response to his critics: “The problem is, the theatre aspect of it has sort of taken over, and the institutions that comment on film are very literary. They aren't cinematic; you don't have a lot of cinematic people talking about cinema, because visual people don't use words, they use pictures. Cinema has only been around [for] 100 years or so - not long enough for people to really understand it.”

 

Plot-driven narratives are a different medium, that's all. A plot-driven narrative is a study in archetypes, not a study in character, and shouldn't be damned for what it isn't and was never intended to be. It should be assessed for what it is. 

 

It's very easy to slight a story for having undeveloped characters, and to consider it bad storytelling as a result. 

 

I don't think that's fair, though. 

 

If I know a filmmaker is comfortable telling a story a certain way, I'm not going to project what I might think they “should” be doing onto the movie. A plot-driven story hasn't “failed” because it isn't a character-driven story. And I'm not going to apply a formula to a movie to determine if the movie “works” only if it strictly follows that formula or complies to somebody else's theoretical metrics, either. (Unless it's the filmmaker’s theoretical metric.) I’m going to approach it the way the story is signaling me to approach it, and I'll respond to it accordingly. A movie works when it follows its own rules. If a movie doesn't obey its own rules, that's when it fails. 

 

But I think this critical attitude is borne out of another stigma within literary circles: a stigma against pulp fiction. Not the Quentin Tarantino classic, mind you, but actual pulp fiction literature. 

 

And what is pulp fiction?

 

Pulp fiction has been described as “a particular style of writing or storytelling that was popularized in the early 20th century [taking the place of the dime novels, penny dreadfuls, and short fiction magazines of the early 19th century]. It was called pulp fiction because it was published on low-quality pulp paper. The pulp fiction style is characterized by fast-paced, action-packed storytelling with a focus on plot over character development.”

 

I'd say Star Wars certainly fits this description. 

 

Now, the same description also typifies the language in such stories as “often gritty and raw, with slang and colloquialisms used liberally. Dialogue is typically snappy and filled with humor, irony, and wit.” This description focuses mainly on the hard-boiled noir genre, but pulp has also typified the science fiction, fantasy, Western and horror genres, and doesn't always involve witty or even snappy banter. The language in H.P. Lovecraft's pulp horror stories don't exactly roll off the tongue easily. And Star Wars isn't always brimming with catchy dialogue, either. As we all know. 

 

The cinematic equivalent of this pulp literary style can be found in the cheap black and white genre serials of the 1930s and the B movies of the 1930s till around the 1960s. Once many of these “genre” movies started being made with A budgets rather than B budgets, by major studios, the only way to distinguish this pulp style is in the way they ape this style with their content. 

 

We know George's Star Wars influences included pulp dignitaries like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Isaac Asimov. Frank Herbert published early versions of Dune in the pulp magazines, as well. Even Leigh Brackett, the first contributing writer on The Empire Strikes Back, got her start writing stories published in pulp magazines Astounding Science Fiction, Super Science Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Planet Stories, and wrote hard-boiled crime, mystery and Western novels. George has credited Obi-Wan’s detective work in Attack of the Clones, leading him to the cloners on Kamino and later Geonosis, on hard-boiled crime stories, like Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep

 

Referring to Star Wars’ use of wipe transitions on the Attack of the Clones commentary track, sound designer Ben Burtt said, “'The inspiration for these wipes comes from their use in the classic serials in the golden age of Hollywood. I think the wipe is somewhat associated with the pulp style that these films are emulating." 

 

Pulp literature was always looked down upon as  hackwork, defined as “writing, painting, or any professional work done for hire and usually following a formula rather than being motivated by any creative impulse.” Raymond Chandler was called a hack in his day. Googling Isaac Asimov, I found links leading me to reactions claiming he is “truly the worst of the great writers,” was “a stylistic hack with visionary ideas,” and, “he couldn't do characterization or style if his life depended on it.” One reader said Asimov's “greatest strength was in his ideas, not his writing. People remember Asimov’s story for what he said, not necessarily how he said it.” Yet another said, “Oh, Asimov was a consummate hack. Prolific, indiscriminate in intellectual and writing interests, verbose in dialogue, crippling in characterization, pen-thin plots that veer on peculiarities and technical detail… non-elitist, fan-friendly mentor and professional schmooze. Couldn’t write intimacy, physical conflict or describe sex for squat – Didn’t write contemporary slang or patois.” Golden age short story writer Damon Knight “considered Ray Bradbury something of a hack.” Edgar Rice Burroughs was considered a racist and a hack in his day. Ditto H.P. Lovecraft and Agatha Christie. August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Robert Heinlein, Dashiell Hammett, Jack London, Cornell Woolrich, Edgar Wallace. 


Even Arthur C. Clarke has been called a hack. Yes, that Arthur C. Clarke. Even O. Henry. It's as though, to reach any state of credibility amongst the critics, any writer must be raked across the coals first before achieving true notoriety in their field. This puts George in good company. While he's not a guy who's working for hire, George was working by formula in his conception of Star Wars. And like Asimov before him, George, too, is accused of being “a stylistic hack with visionary ideas,” that  “he couldn't do characterization or style if his life depended on it,” and “his greatest strength was in his ideas, not his writing.” Those who accused Asimov of being, “verbose in dialogue, crippling in characterization, pen-thin plots that veer on peculiarities and technical detail,” and “Couldn’t write intimacy, physical conflict or describe sex for squat,” may as well have been criticizing George Lucas. George has even fielded accusations of racism, as Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Agatha Christie, and so many others have before him. 

 

I don't think it's a stretch to call George a pulp storyteller. He's written and directed pulp stories his entire career. Whether the story depicts an Orwellian future (THX 1138), teen rebellion (Milner and The Pharaohs in American Graffiti), or the pulpy science fantasy storytelling in Star Wars, the proof is in the way his subjects and characters are manifested. 

 

If the sequel trilogy is going to work, it has to maintain the pulp formula that has come before it, which George instituted. Finn's character works within this pulp framework. Be that as it may, there has been much discussion about wasted opportunities, about wasted potential, concerning Finn's character, debating his function as a character in the sequel trilogy. But this type of criticism is on par with reactions to pulp storytelling, and the way characters are written in pulp stories. 

 

One early story treatment (when Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow was involved), before J.J. Abrams was attached to Episode IX, had Finn leading a stormtrooper uprising. There is concept art and a leaked script to support this. 

 

I know audiences (and John Boyega) wanted to see Finn start a stormtrooper uprising, and I agree, that sounds really cool. It certainly would've brought Finn's arc full circle. But have you ever tried – and I'm just as much addressing veterans as I am anyone else – to convince an opponent on a battlefield to HOLD UP! STOP! YOU'RE FIGHTING FOR THE WRONG SIDE! STAND WITH ME! STAND WITH US! HELP US! YOU'VE BEEN LIED TO! 

 

Oh. Well. When you put it like that… lead the way, pal! 

 

No. I'm sorry, no. That wouldn't happen. And no one in their right mind would attempt such a thing. 

 

You're pretty likely to get shot in the face if you tried that. 

 

And there's nothing in the films we got – at least, not in The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi – to suggest an outcome like this could or would happen.

 

The stormtroopers in the sequels were abducted  and conditioned to hate and distrust anyone who isn't part of or loyal to the First Order. That's indoctrination of the highest order. That's Hitler Youth type stuff. (It's also the method of the Old Republic Jedi Order, to indoctrinate ‘em when they're young.) But indoctrination is indoctrination. Upbringing is upbringing. And education is education. If you're taught to believe something from childhood, it's likely you might continue believing the same things. Unless you have a crisis of conscience that gets in the way of your upbringing. That can and does happen. In the sequels, it's represented by the Force. The Force intervenes. For there to be an uprising on the scale we're talking about, it would have to have come from the Force. But such a mass crisis of conscience… brought upon by the Force… would that work dramatically? I don't know, friends. I really don't know about that. 

 

The Force will step in suddenly or not at all. But sometimes too much is too much, and I don't think the stormtrooper uprising would've worked, as cool as it sounds. 

 

The Force was designed as the ultimate deus ex machina. It is God. It is the ghost in the machine. If our characters are in a bind they cannot escape, the Force is there to do the job. It is the omnipotent Get Out of Jail Free card. If you want to bring characters together that would never decide to come together on their own, the Force will do it. 

 

And as the viewing audience (and the critical space) has grown more and more sophisticated as years have gone by, the Force appears like the ultimate cop out. But like so much else to do with Star Wars, the deus ex machina has its roots in Greek drama. Even in the age of Greek tragedies, its usage was divisive. Aristotle avoided it at all costs and dubbed it a contrivance. Euripides championed it, and used it often. Greek playwrights used deus ex machina to impart moral lessons on their audiences. These plays weren't merely entertainments or reflections of real life; they were religious and moral commentaries–divine criticism–in which the gods intervened to impart lessons upon the characters and therefore the audience. 

 

In A New Hope, there's this exchange between Luke and Obi-Wan:

 

Obi-Wan: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him. 

 

Luke: You mean it controls your actions?

 

Obi-Wan: PartiallyIt also obeys your commands.

 

Also, note what StarWars.com says about the Force:

 

Harnessing the power of the Force gives the Jedi, the Sith, and others sensitive to this spiritual energy extraordinary abilities, such as levitating objects, tricking minds, and seeing things before they happen. While the Force can grant users powerful abilities, it also directs their actions.

 

So, does this mean the Force changed Finn's mind because it needed someone to deliver Rey off Jakku? Is this an example of how the Force controls your actions? Did the Force wait for the right time to find someone to deliver Rey from Jakku? Was the Falconleft there by the Force on purpose?

 

Did the Force put all these events into motion?

 

Rey has been having dreams involving the island where Luke is. Clearly, the Force is telling Rey to go to Ahch-To. To meet Luke. To prevent his destruction of the ancient Jedi texts. 

 

Rey ignores these dreams. 

 

Which means the Force would need to intervene to get Rey to Ahch-To. 

 

So what outside occurrences impacted Rey to make this journey?

 

Well, the Resistance is alerted that Tekka has a piece of the map to Ahch-To. 

 

This intel is received by Kylo Ren. 

 

Poe obtains the map but the First Order invades. 

 

Poe gives BB-8 the map and sends him away. 

 

Finn has a crisis of conscience during the incursion of Tuanal Village.  

 

Rey finds BB-8.

 

Finn springs Poe and they crash land on Jakku. 

 

Finn meets Rey and BB-8 and they escape on the Falcon

 

Han and Chewie find the Falcon and agree to help Finn and Rey get BB-8 to the Resistance. 

 

Artoo awakens from low power mode, adds his piece of the navigational chart to BB-8's piece, pinpointing the route to Ahch-To. 

 

This is akin to the Force converging on Tatooine to bring Luke into the fight to redeem his father.

 

Leia was heading to Tatooine to solicit Obi-Wan’s aid.

 

Her ship is attacked. 

 

Knowing she has no chance to get to him, Leia gives Artoo a message for Obi-Wan in her absence. 

 

Artoo and Threepio escape to Tatooine and are seized by Jawas. 

 

Artoo and Threepio are sold to Luke.

 

Luke tracks down Kenobi. (More like Kenobi comes across Luke, battered and beaten by Tusken Raiders.)

 

Then, Kenobi finds Leia's message, and in one moment, everything finally coalesces.

 

Consider what he must be thinking.

 

What are the odds of this?

 

It's all finally coming together: Anakin and Padmé's daughter sends a message for Kenobi, intercepted by Anakin and Padmé's son, and delivered to Kenobi, through messengers that used to "belong" to Anakin and Padmé. 

 

It must be the Will of the Force. 

 

And it took the Force 19-20 years to line all these events up. 

 

It took years after Palpatine began to orchestrate his grand scheme for the Force to decide to step in and conceive the Chosen One. Another two  decades passed after this, giving him the opportunity to plan out his conquest while Anakin matured. And all the while, the Jedi didn't notice, because the dark side clouded their vision. 

 

It took another thirty years after the end of Return of the Jedi for the Force to step in and find someone to defend the light against Palpatine again. 

 

This deus ex machina likes to bide its time. 

 

When Obi-Wan asked him to go to Alderaan and learn about the Force, Luke didn't want to get involved. He would rather stay on Tatooine than go with Obi-Wan. Same with Rey. Rey would much rather stay on Jakku and wait for her parents to come back than go on this grand adventure. So the Force didn't really control either one of their actions here. 

 

But it certainly changed the situations around them that led to the events that happened next. 

 

Was this why the Force influenced Finn? Why the Force “awakens” Finn? To negate his indoctrination? So he could influence Rey's departure from Jakku? 

 

I'm gonna say… yes. 

 

And Kylo Ren noticed. 

 

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