Star Wars VII and the Ultra-Real

Originally published at Ordinary Times

SPOILER WARNING: This post contains general Star Wars VII plot, theme, and content spoilers, with only the most specific details blacked out (text revealed when highlighted). For the sake of the two or three remaining people in this galaxy who still hope for the freshest possible experience of the film, the OT Editors encourage commenters to use the “spoiler” button in their comment editing boxes also to black out details of the movie’s story.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame © 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved..

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Did any of the Ordinary first responders to Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens go to an IMAX 3-D theater?

Not to imply that seeing it in some other format was aesthetic treason, but the IMAX emphasis on “experience” seems more appropriate to the intentions, methods, and skills of the film makers. ((Our foreign correspondent notes the availability of a so-called 4D experience in some locales, but I am… skeptical.)) Predictably, most of the negative commentary on the film seems to focus on other elements – especially narrative realism, coherence, and originality – that were apparently very far down on the list of its producers’ priorities, artistic and otherwise.

To me, as I was making my decision to venture out into the traffic and the night and the crowds to see the movie, my reason for doing so was mainly to locate myself socially or culturally, in other words to be able to participate in the Star Wars conversation. I did also, however, look forward to escaping, as we say, into an immersive cinematic spectacle. At the next stage the two motivations ought to come together: One escapes in order to return: Every movie-goer’s own “heroic journey.”

The Implausible Conversation

Much of that social conversation turns on peculiarly bracketed questions of “plausibility”: How believable or logical we find this, that, or the other narrative contrivance.

We all understand that the conversation is conducted under a distinction, as popularized long ago by screenwriting guru Syd Field, between believability in general and what he called “credibility,” meaning believability within the implicit rules of the fictional universe. We want to discuss the latter. All the same, too much incredulity – regarding the disposition and design of a super-weapon, or the appearance of a character or object extremely improbably just where it has to be, and so on – is itself implausible, considering the constant violations of believability in both senses, often at once, that anyone who has seen a Star Wars movie before (or all six of them, repeatedly) has already encountered.

So, for example, recalling one highly consequential Star-Warsian violation of all known physical laws, we are traveling through a universe in which, spaceships of every size 1) are somehow accelerated to the speed of light – or “c” in the classic equation – 2) are launched or launch themselves into “hyperspace,” and 3) carry their occupants across unimaginable if never precisely specified interstellar distances. On occasion, as we see or are informed at one crucial point in Star Wars VII, these ships may even, if so desired, emerge moving at c within the atmospheres of Earth-like planets.

So, one suspends one’s disbelief. Yet one may still wish at some point to account for what one has suspended.

As any reasonably sentient adult viewer of the films knows, or should know, entry by a meteor, spacecraft, or other object into the atmosphere of the Earth at mere 1000s of miles per hour (rather than nearly 200,000 miles per second or at c), produces infernal heat due to collision with the gaseous particles of the atmosphere, under the danger of “burning up on re-entry.”

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If it were possible – though it is not even conceivable – to propel an object like the Millennium Falcon to or near to relative c, and to inject it instantly into a planetary atmosphere, the result would be catastrophic, first of all for the ship itself. ((Since I am not a physicist, I cannot speculate informatively as to whether the results would be atmosphere-incinerating or otherwise planet-killing. I feel more confident, however, about asserting that, even at velocities well below c but at any significant fraction of it, each of those little “fighter” vehicles would be immensely more destructive used as a missile than any of the directed energy weapons or munitions with which they seem to be equipped.))

Alternatively, if some divine force somehow protected the ship from destruction, no merely human observer would be aware of it: It would be gone for all intents and purposes as soon as it arrived (for the pilot as well).

Among the further questions raised in this exercise is what power source in combination with what other technologies is accelerating any of these objects in the first place. Though I have little doubt that some pseudo-explanation exists somewhere in the “expanded universe,” and probably in more places than one, as to how all of this machinery does what it does, and is manufactured in the first place, I am confident that it is nonsense. The simple truth is that all of these spaceships fly by the same principles that allow Peter Pan and Tinkerbell to fly, or for that matter allow “Heisenberg” to make his way back home to New Mexico and slaughter his enemies, or that allow Santa Claus to make it down your chimney with a Star Wars Lego set or, in my case, a lump of coal.

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So, yes, again, one suspends disbelief – or refrains from the application of reason and knowledge – as required, yet there still seems to be a struggle among Star Wars aficionados, including many of the participants in the Ordinary Star Wars-apalooza, over where to draw the line between believability and credibility, or between reasonable and unreasonable suspensions of reason.

We might suppose, for instance, that the line for most 10-year-olds would be in a different place than for many 40-year-olds, but such formulations are not very dependable, since many 40-year-olds may see little point to drawing any such line at all, or may, indeed, be pleased by every violation, as in: “You say the plot depends upon too many coincidences? Why is that a problem? Why should a Star Wars movie not pile one coincidence on top of another, the more the amazinger?”

After all, in this universe, everything and -one is surrounded by The Force, which can be defined as “whatever we need it to be for the sake of delivering a simple quasi-mythical or epic narrative understandable by children and childlike adults, adjusted for present widely approved or approvable social, cultural, political, and economic purposes.”

Though injecting this unreasonable construct of light and sound into a personal atmosphere of reason serves the needs of generally reasonable people – seeking to make whatever story their own – to presume that anyone’s reasons or reason in general is or could ever have been a main point of the plot seems unreasonable. An interest in getting to the next panel on the storyboard sooner rather than later seems at least as reasonable as a priority, as long as the primary narrative objective – emotionally involving progress over two hours or so, during this segment of the “hero’s journey” – remains mostly secure for most of the audience. ((There can be no doubt that the three credited screenwriters – whose resumes include one Oscar (Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine) and four Oscar nominations (Lawrence Kasdan) – were fully conscious of, speaking plainly, the utter inanity of the material on the level of narrative as well as scientific realism. Asking for the former and occasionally the latter seems to be a passion for some number of plaintiffs in the suit Geeks vs. JJ Abrams et al, but we can observe that the real-existing jury is laughing the case out of court with a 9.5 out of possible 10 rating on IMDb, 4.5 out of 5 on Fandango, and a fast $500 million U.S. box office take – and that those complaining the hardest now will likely again be among those turning out for Stars Wars VIII‘s and IX’s first weeks as well.))

40 Years in 135 Minutes

A different, more instructive, complaint comes from those who have attacked Star Wars VII for having merely repeated key plot elements from the earlier films, especially the original Star Wars, or Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. To the extent, however, that VII replicates IV (or IVV) on the level of fictional plot, the effect is to mark the actual (as in real) elements of difference, or progress, between the galaxy of the late ’70s and early ’80s and the galaxy of 2015.

On the level of social-cultural evolution, change was already evident in the advance publicity, as discussed both at Ordinary Times and at my own site – elsewhere treated as of discussable significance mainly among proponents of a racialized and patriarchal, retrograde and self-consciously reactionary social-political perspective, in other words the very perspective that this evolution points beyond. For everyone else, the replacement by a female and a non-white male of the earlier film’s white and male heroes has been a cause for celebration if mentionable at all. On the other hand, believers in white supremacy might be comforted to know that, in this galaxy far, far away, white men are still at the center of the action on both sides. Indeed, the fate of this galaxy still turns on the same blond-haired hero we met in 1977. No film, however fantastical, progressive, and progressively fantastical, ever jumps over its own historical shadow, in this or any other universe.

the first order

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As for enacted ideology otherwise, such nearly pre-literate mass entertainment permits only broad strokes. Below the level of Campbellian “monomyth,” Abrams and collaborators have re-packaged globalized Americanism for maximum distribution. Since the subject is “war,” the package includes a precis on international law after the UN Charter, the Nuremberg Tribunal, and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, as neatly encapsulated in a series of key plot points mainly concerning the character “Finn,” defector from the Nazi-like “First Order”: We are reminded that prosecution of aggressive war and other war crimes or crimes against humanity ((The last term must, of course, be interpreted capaciously in the Star Wars universe.)) do not merely justify but require opposition, and in this connection, “only following orders” is no excuse. ((It was on this level that the most confounding failure of the film both on its own terms as a film and also within the moral economy of the larger tale arises, since the destruction of planets full of innocents is rendered relatively briefly and somewhat uncomprehensibly, their passing hardly seeming even to register on the survivors. The pattern is repeated after the successful but extremely costly final victory of the Resistance – involving the loss, apparently, of the large majority of its combat pilots – and cannot be attributed solely to the expressive limitations of the actors. Within the realer than real aesthetic, the attempt to express these inexpressibles demands overstatement.))

This structure of human rights and responsibilities holds a primary place for rights and responsibilities of the individual. Star Wars ideology is in this sense a classical liberal ideology or bourgeois ideology. It has this feature in common with the vast majority of movies because it is still the ideology of this world-historical era in its American phase. ((…of which The Movies are arguably its central and unique cultural expression)) The realization in Star Wars is characteristically American: We are encouraged to identify not just with the collective good of the galaxy, but with the individual’s personal preferences. Or, we can say, his or her self-preference, inevitably a preference as well for his or her virtual family, is privileged. So, in the traditional manner, the story must and will finally confirm for us that the option for oneself and one’s loved ones or one’s personal code will, by the Force or by the will of God or by the workings of destiny, coincide with the greater good. As an ethical concept, this matter to be taken on faith suits a capitalist-consumerist economy, a theory of limited government, and the culture for which they stand and which stands for them.

No one, at least no self-respecting and socially-politically eligible member of the culture-state that produces Star Wars VII and other “mass entertainments” of its general type, all telling this same story, much wishes to deny these propositions: We hold their truths to be self-evident – that all beings are created equal, that they are endowed by The Force with certain unalienable rights, and so on – but they produce contradictions, dilemmas, and uncertainties. They both compel and encourage us to act on intuition and emotion, or faith as such – to “trust the Force” – but, because they defy reason or certain forms of reason, to which we are also committed as a matter of finally unreasoning faith, we also find them in need of constant repetition and reinforcement. ((We therefore need not look too unkindly on those whose reactions to perceived unfair attacks on the epic, which is our epic, take an emotional and incidentally unacceptable form.))

The Ultra-Real, or Third Type of Realism

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Perhaps, if not necessarily provably, the message could be conveyed worldwide, and more effectively and adequately profitably, in a more “plausible” or “believable” narrative format – that is, in some manner better conforming to narrative and scientific realism.

Yet part of the message is that the message itself is to be taken on faith – or under suspension of disbelief. More important aesthetically and functionally is that the major burden regarding believability, or the political-ideological objective of persuasion, is carried by realism of a third type, not based on narrative or scientific realism, but rather on some cognate of “common sense” or immediate inescapability: on the evidence, in other words, right before one’s eyes, on the other side of one’s 3-D glasses.

The movie may be flimsy and ludicrous in numerous ways, but, as an experience of the auditory and visual senses it is just what it aims to be: an immersively intimate spectacle, “realer than real” ((The phrase is associated with theories of the Simulacrum, and has been specifically applied to Steven Spielberg’s films; it has been used to define the aesthetic aspirations of “Hollywood” film-making in our time.)) – ultra-real: the shock cut to the seemingly immense, exquisitely detailed “Finalizer” spaceship whose prow narrowly misses your shoulder; or the transfixing depiction of a populated landscape wondrously disrupted by concatenating sub-surface explosions; or the young woman reduced to the size of an insect by a backdrop of sand and immense wreckage; or her rescuing hand, within your reach; or the middle-aged man surrounded by a perfect projected holographic star map, like a chandelier with him at the center, its arms extending to your stadium seat with the pull-down armrest and drink holder, to a point right above the emptied $10 bag of popcorn in your lap.

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This latest cycle of development in motion picture arts and sciences, begun with Avatar some six years ago, may be at or near its peak – all the more reason to see Star Wars VII 3-D IMAXimized. The technical achievement of the movie and the entire industry it represents is the second of those two elements of progress made more visible by otherwise mostly replicating key elements of the original Star Wars narrative.

Cinema is Gesamtkunstwerk, an objective synthesis of all of the arts, in which simple narrative realism and allied logics are only subordinate elements. The cinematic rather than merely narrative objective of Star Wars VII, facilitated by JJ Abrams and an army of collaborators, finally including all of us, is to persuade by being overwhelmingly Star Wars VII, to advance or “project” as an awe-inspiringly undeniable experience a story that we know is flagrantly unlikely, impossible, false, and derivative, but whose truths we know or believe we know are and must be true.

(All images except Lego Set (by LEGO): Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Film Frame, © 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.)

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