U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Homage and Imitation in Star Wars – Then and Now

The following guest post is by Varad Mehta.

Picture1The other day, while discussing an essay I wrote about the role of nostalgia in Disney’s marketing of The Force Awakens, an acquaintance remarked that “it’s impossible to separate the movies from the myth.” What he meant was that it’s no longer possible to talk about any Star Wars movie without at the same time talking about the larger fictional universe in which it takes place; the lore, the mythology, the meta-narrative, what have you. Our ability to address Star Wars, or The Empire Strikes Back, or Revenge of the Sith, or the other three (now four, and soon to be five, six, and infinity) films in the Star Wars franchise depends on our knowledge of the other movies and their relationship to each other and the larger mythos. There’s no Star Wars anymore, only STAR WARS. There was a time, however, when it was possible to talk only about Star Wars because that’s all there was. What I want to do in this essay is reconsider some early scholarly criticism about Star Wars and use it to connect the storytelling methods George Lucas used in Star Wars to those J. J. Abrams deployed in The Force Awakens. Though they use narrative techniques that are, superficially at least, quite similar, their results couldn’t be more different. 

What strikes one on reading these first forays into scholarly analysis of George Lucas’ third feature film is the immediate recognition that it was, for want of a better word, revolutionary. But because these things hadn’t happened yet, they don’t focus on how Star Wars conquered popular culture or transformed Hollywood and sci-fi.

Instead, these earliest critics focus on how George Lucas tells his story. Robert G. Collins, in what as far as I can discern is the earliest article about Star Wars to appear in an academic journal, describes it as “inexplicable” outside the context of narrative and myth. [1] “[T]aken for what it is,” he writes, “it functions as magic” (1). Lucas, he goes on, has invented “a new and effective narrative technique,” one which Collins christens “visual literature.” The story is told less through language than it is through images. These images are the result of pioneering special effects and props, sets, and costumes unlike anything seen before. The offspring of Lucas’ marriage of technology and narrative, Star Wars is “the first omnibus work of generalized myth in the film medium” (2).

Lucas’ fusion of innovative filmmaking techniques with the conventions of epic storytelling account for its success. Yet Collins is interested more in how Lucas uses those conventions than he is in the ways Lucas translates them to the screen. Collins never says so directly, but he clearly implies that without Star Wars’ immersion in “generalized myth” it would be an empty triumph. Formally groundbreaking, substantively it is conservative and traditional. In Collins’ view, that is exactly why it works so well. Nor was Collins alone in thinking so.

Dennis Wood, in an article from 1978, attributes the popular success of Star Wars to “the pervasive persistence of a certain narrative vision” common to it, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings[2] All three tales, Wood points out, in addition to their mise-en-scène world-building, “revolve around a parentless young man who, under the guidance of a wise but mysterious tutor . . . finds himself on a perilous venture he never sought, the outcome of which is crucial in a larger contest between opposing cosmic forces” (329). The parallels between the three legendariums don’t need to be redrawn here. The salient point is that they can be drawn and so readily.

The term “monomyth” and the name Joseph Campbell don’t appear in Wood’s essay. They do in Andrew Gordon’s, whose title, “Star Wars: A Myth for Our Time,” conveys the common spirit of all three articles. [3] Gordon devotes the second half of his article (which appears in the same issue of the same journal as Wood’s) to an analysis of Star Wars in terms of Campbell’s monomyth. The more interesting part for my purposes is the first half, where Gordon attempts a census of the influences that Lucas channels into the Galaxy Far, Far Away. Gordon sees Tolkien’s shade, but he also identifies as sources of Lucas’ vision The Wizard of Oz, along with Westerns, the Flash Gordon serials, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels (A Princess of Mars, etc.), the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, the swashbucklers of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Japanese Samurai films, and other “bits and pieces of twentieth-century American popular mythology – old movies, science fiction, television, and comic books,” all of which share “the standard pattern of the adventures of a mythic hero” (315). Little wonder, then, that Gordon regards Star Wars as a “pastiche which reworks a multitude of old stories, and yet creates a complete and self-sufficient world of its own” (314).

“Pastiche” is a term Collins uses (it’s in his title). Gordon also describes Star Wars as a “compendium” (319) and Collins, we saw, styled it an “omnibus” (2). In common with Gordon, Collins too espies elements of Westerns (specifically Zane Grey pulp novels) and L. Frank Baum’s world in Lucas’ creation. He also detects a strong current of Arthurian and medieval romance (particularly Spenser’s Faerie Queen) as well as, in the climactic space battle, echoes of World War I and II aerial combat films.

Star Wars, viewed from this perspective, resembles a crazy quilt, a grab bag of the detritus of Western culture jumbled together and thrown onto the screen. Collins, Gordon, and Wood all note that in thematic terms it is quite traditional, even conservative. As Gordon puts it, Star Wars is “simultaneously innovative and conservative, backward-glancing and nostalgic” (315). Yet as Collins recognizes, “A conservative impulse frequently has revolutionary effect” (9). Ultimately, it is this revolutionary effect that absorbs the three scholars’ attention, just as it did that of moviegoers in 1977 (and has ever since). Gordon, for example, marvels at Lucas’ achievement, anointing it “a masterpiece of synthesis, a triumph of American ingenuity and resourcefulness, demonstrating how the old may be made new again” (315). Collins praises Lucas’ “incredible audacity” (1) and lauds him for “legitimiz[ing] the modern myths of popular art forms” (9). “Moreover,” he adds, “the simplicity and beauty of the total experience yields a warm sense of delight” (8). A warm sense of delight! And he means this without cynicism or irony. Wood scorns those who dismiss these myths as being solely for children. “To those who have done with growing they do not speak, but to those who are growing still they still have much to say” (341). [4]

The message of all three articles is that Star Wars succeeds because it takes some of the oldest story elements in Western culture and transforms them into something novel both in its medium and its presentation. “It is precisely this sense of renewal which makes Star Wars so appealing,” posits Gordon (324). A sense of renewal is exactly what Disney and Lucasfilm aimed for in The Force Awakens. The articles by Collins, Gordon, and Wood, in explaining why Star Wars achieved this goal, also explain why J. J. Abrams’ film falls so far short of it. Simply put, Star Wars was homage, while The Force Awakens is imitation.

Picture2“Pastiche,” “compendium,” “omnibus,” – all these term are used, as I’ve recounted, to describe the syncretic nature of Star Wars. It melds components from a variety of genres and media. But a word neither Gordon nor Collins uses to describe it is this one: “derivative.” That is a word one uses when the seams show, when the ingredients aren’t digested, when the parts are greater than the whole. Star Wars is not derivative in this vulgar, pejorative sense. The Force Awakens is, and it is how it is derivative that is the main cause of its shortcomings.

Collins, Gordon, and Wood all emphasize the antecedents of Lucas’ origin myth. As I’ve detailed, the mythology he drew on was Westerns, chivalric romance, 1930s sci-fi serials, pulp science fiction, Kurosawa films, and so on. The mythology J. J. Abrams drew on was . . . Star Wars. And this, more than anything, explains the problems with the storytelling in The Force Awakens.

Star Wars’ antecedents harkened back to an entire cultural history. It distilled centuries (millennia, even) of the evolution of the Western psyche (with borrowings from other cultures for good measure). The Force Awakens’ antecedents are, essentially, itself. The mythology it borrows is the mythology of Star Wars. I won’t describe specific plot points to avoid spoilers, but anyone who has seen it and is familiar with its predecessors knows how heavily it recapitulates thematic and narrative elements from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. The Force Awakens is synthetic, but whereas Star Wars synthesized an entire culture, The Force Awakens synthesizes three movies released in a six-year period which ended just more than thirty years ago.

Star Wars was a pastiche of old things. The Force Awakens is a pastiche of Star Wars. Consequently, The Force Awakens is something Star Wars never was – derivative. And it is derivative not of sources outside itself. It is derivative of itself, of the narrative universe in which it exists. It is not telling an old story in a new way; it tells an old story in an old way. Abrams wants to pay homage, but he lacks the gifts to do more than imitate. The result is a kind of mimicry, the shell of a Star Wars movie without the spirit.Picture3

A thing cannot be transformed into itself. Using Star Wars as the mythological basis for Star Wars yields Star Wars. But an attenuated, deracinated version. It’s like having children by cloning your grandparents. Lucas’ vision incorporated other mythologies because he didn’t have one of his own. Abrams needed no other mythologies because Star Wars is its own mythology. Lucas created a modern myth. This was what Collins and company admired him for. But it can’t be created again. Abrams can only re-create. Like Rey, he scavenges; but the parts are not of his making. His enterprise is a victim of Lucas’ success. He can preserve and extend its legacy; but it will never be his own. He worships at the temple, but will never be the oracle. Truly, it is impossible to separate the movies from the myth.

Star Wars was self-contained, but it always looked beyond itself. The Force Awakens is not self-contained, but it looks only within itself. Hence the insularity of its vision, and why it’s a derivative, incestuous mess. The first six Star Wars movies told the story George Lucas (who, let’s not forget, is one of the greatest visionaries in the history of film) wanted to tell, the way he wanted to tell it. It’s unclear whose story, if anyone’s, the Disney version of Star Wars will tell. Collins, noting the effect it had on its first viewers, commented that “[t]he eyes of spectators leaving a showing of Star Wars shine” (8). The Force Awakens is bright. But whether it shines only time will tell.

[1] Robert G. Collins, “Star Wars: The Pastiche of Myth and the Yearning for a Past Future,” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 11, no. 1 (Summer, 1977): 1-10; quotation at 1.

[2] Dennis Wood, “Growing Up among the Stars,” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 4 (Fall, 1978), 327-41; quotations at 327. Wood compares Star Wars to White and Tolkien’s works because companion volumes to the latter, The Book of Merlyn and The Silmarillion, respectively, had been published around the same time that Star Wars was released.

[3] Andrew Gordon, “Star Wars: A Myth for Our Time,” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 4 (Fall, 1978), 314-26; quotations from 315, 314

[4] Or as Gordon puts it, Star Wars may be “kids’ stuff,” but that, “after all, is the stuff that dreams are made of” (325).

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Well done. I wholeheartedly concur.

    I am beginning to wonder if Abrams’ can do anything but “scavenge.” A couple of years ago, after watching his Star Trek: Into Darkness with my kids at the local cineplex, I told them that it was an example of “cut and paste” film making. I believe that criticism fits his latest production. Your observations are applicable to Abrams’ handling of the Star Trek franchise. He violated “the rules” of each universe numerous times just to conveniently advance the plot.

    Watching the movie I confess, I cringed several times at the heavy handed use of easter eggs and cameos. C’mon “celebrity” stormtroopers? Kevin Smith shows more taste with his Star Wars references in his comedies.

    In the last twenty years, I’ve see the three big sci fi franchises of my youth butchered. I watched the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes reboot and refuse to watch any of its predecessors, Abrams Star Trek, and now his Star Wars’ reboot.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Brian. I’ll admit that despite my considerable reservations about the storytelling in The Force Awakens, I still liked the movie. It has some good moments, and the first third works quite well. So I liked it a great deal more than Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, which I loathe, abominate, despise, hate, etc. That was a complete and utter desecration of Gene Roddenberry’s legacy. I hated the first one so much that I never bothered with the second.

    I wasn’t too worried he’d mess up Star Wars that way, and he didn’t. I imagine this is in large part because unlike on Trek he was on a leash this time and wasn’t in charge. Disney and Lucasfilm were. But the very fact that Disney and Lucasfilm hired such an unimaginative hack as Abrams in the first place certainly doesn’t inspire confidence in what they have planned for the future.

  3. Wow, this is the best piece I’ve read on The Force Awakens–by quite some distance. Of course, it helped that you referenced some of my favorite articles on the original. 🙂 But well done, sir! Indeed, the snake is eating its own tail. And it’s a damn shame.

    Do you mind if I ask how long this took you to write?

    Mike

  4. Mike –

    I’m glad you liked it. From you, that’s high praise indeed!

    I wrote it over the weekend. At first I was just going to focus on Collins, Gordon, and Wood. My angle was to be, “What did early scholarly critics think of Star Wars?” This being an intellectual history blog, that seemed a suitable theme. But then I saw The Force Awakens on Thursday and realized I could connect what those three said about how Lucas crafted his narrative and apply it to the way Abrams crafted his. The parallels are, at least to me, pretty obvious. And, of course, I’m not the only one who has taken Abrams to task for it. As I said in my previous comment, I like the movie. But it could have been so much more. Though I doubt it could have been Star Wars. No movie can.

    VM

  5. Thanks for this post! Your piece really helped my thinking about “The Force Awakens” and its, as you put it, imitation of the first “Star Wars” films. I don’t have much to add, but really great stuff here!

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