by Sam Brock
4 January 2016
There are no significant spoilers in this post.
Like many fans with a love for Star Wars and little to do past 9:00 PM, I spent last week re-watching the six existing Episodes in preparation for the upcoming release. This experience, I thought, gave me adequate perspective to judge the quality of The Force Awakens. To my mind, and apparently to most professional reviewers, the new movie was a vast improvement over the last three Star Wars releases (Episodes I-III). Much of the old gang from the original films was back, the action was smooth, the design elements fantastic, and the screenwriting happily devoid of Anakin-Padme sand-based love-talk.
However, when I tried to think through the actual differences between Episode VII and the much-maligned prequels, I found it more difficult than I expected. Much of the new movie, in fact, runs along a similar path as its recent predecessors. Uncomfortable banter still appears frequently, and lightsaber, blaster, and spaceship battles still dominate the runtime. Largely, The Force Awakens fails to return to the central moments of reflection, of philosophy, of contemplation that epitomized the original trilogy—best demonstrated by Alec Guinness’ Obi Wan Kenobi or Frank Oz’ original Yoda. Even more troubling, the plot is essentially a rehash of the original Star Wars, or even more so The Return of the Jedi, the closest chronological Episode to the new release. Once again the space-Nazis have achieved a space-laser capable of space-exploding all of the good guys, unless the good guys can dodge Sith while beating a countdown and destroying the space-laser in time. While the film seems self-aware of this repetition evidenced in a scene mapping neatly over the original’s rebel war room debates, one wishes The Force Awakens had pushed into less familiar territory.
Somehow when actually watching the new film, I noticed none of these problems. The experience of the movie is truly captivating. Why this disconnect? More importantly, how did this installment avoid the prequels’ disenchantment? The positive response of many fans and reviewers despite repeated plot hiccups is perhaps better attributed to the Uncanny Valley. In the late 1970s, right around the time of the first Star Wars release, this term was introduced into popular discourse. In essence, the Uncanny Valley refers to a place on the graph of human empathy towards robots or computer graphics attempting to render humans. As representations of humans become more and more accurate, actual humans have a stronger empathic connection to those representations. However, once the representation becomes too lifelike, actual humans experience a feeling of uncanniness that destroys the empathic connection. For instance, take any 10 seconds of this scene from Star Wars Episode 3. The clone troopers and machines look extremely lifelike; in fact I could not tell you how I know they are not real. Rather than render a believable and engaging scene, though, the animated characters are too close to reality, reducing the viewer’s empathy towards them dramatically.
The Force Awakens, unlike Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, has learned this lesson well. Whenever possible, the new film uses real actors instead of computer simulations. It is surprising to see how a much smaller battle, involving far fewer combatants, can be far more appealing than the significantly more ambitious melees of the prequel trilogy. Nowhere is this improvement more apparent than in the lightsaber confrontations. Rather than flips, jumps, saber tosses, and general force-aided ridiculousness, the new film keeps the duels simple. Instead of losing audience focus, this choice engages the sympathy of the viewer by both strictly avoiding the Uncanny Valley and also by harkening back to the original trilogy. Providing the franchise learns to trust itself with new plot developments in the future, this choice to avoid the worst sins of technology’s temptations bodes well for a new era of the Star Wars mythos.
Sam Brock is a PhD student in the English and Comparative Literature Department at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He focuses on Medieval literature and ecology, but also fancies himself a Star Wars and Lord of the Rings aficionado.