We went to see Star Wars: the Force Awakens, we’ll confess, looking for political parallels to New Jersey more than a revival of The Force.
Happily, the parallels leap off the screen, and no it’s not just that so much of the time what passes for public oratory in New Jersey sounds more like the howling of Chewie than the cadences of Cicero.
We didn’t love this film, which most everyone is raving about, but from under the heavy, glossy layers of commercial gunk that pass for storytelling emerge some interesting correspondences with this world of politics we call home.
Certainly our biggest objection to the movie – apart from the feeling it engenders of living amid the circuitry of a computer for two plus hours – is the way it teases the tragic romance of Han Solo and Princess Leia then leaves us hanging amid the usual trapezes of big budget digitized mayhem. More on that in a minute.
Ever fearful of that arc leading us back to the terrifying House of Atreus, the director slops on bucket after bucket of veneer to keep us from the starker structure of a classic story.
But first, the angle of New Jersey as a galaxy far, far away.
Notably in The Force Awakens, the good guys are in retreat, assailed by a manifestation of the dark side known as the New Order.
Director J.J. Abrams might as well have called independent expenditure super PACS, that shadowy network of big money influencers sapping the system of vitality and life. You could even use a variation of the Gold Dome as a helmet for the despicably masked Kylo Ren.
Like the outset of the latest iteration of Star Wars embodied perhaps by the stormtrooper Finn who doesn’t know which side to fight for – we live in cynical times. That stabilizing force – in the untimely words of Obi Wan Kenobi, who may as well be a bearded desert version of James Madison –that binds us together and sustains us, otherwise known in our civic lives as democracy, appears not only in jeopardy but buried.
The system has taken too many liberties, usurped too much. We have allowed it to cut too many corners. The demands of job and family pin us down and prevent greater engagement in the body politic.
Civic submission appears inevitable – traded off for pure survival.
In such an atmosphere, we don’t know if we can believe anymore, or if we even have the time to summon consideration of questions of belief.
When it comes to our political life, this surrender is borne out everywhere, from those Patrick Murray Monmouth University polls that reflect high levels of voter apathy, to the patronage swamped franchise we have come to distrust as our horrendously dysfunctional overgrown orphan child of democracy otherwise known as government.
Like any science fiction story, the movie reflects our own times; and these are times of deep doubt; which brings us to that scene when the old beaten up and barely recognizable Han Solo says in his tortured voice, “It’s true, all of it. The Jedi. The dark side. It’s true.” The lines haunt with a particular power, for it was pirate captain Solo, after all, who as a young man laughed off Obi Wan’s teachings as hocus pocus, and a joke. Under all the trappings of special effects and alien creatures that defined Star Wars from the beginning, what’s clear, as one sifts through all the critical online treatments of the latest Star Wars, is the love affair an entire generation of Star Wars figure-obsessed kids had with Han Solo.
It’s easy to see how it happened.
Compared to the boring Jedi knights, whose story spawned those excruciatingly bad prequels starring Liam Neeson and Jar Jar Binks, Solo as defined by Harrison Ford was a cosmic cowboy with a wild and unpredictable streak, improvisational and unrestrained by a system. In short, he was the ultimate individual, whose refusal to be defined or constrained by one side or the other of someone else’s dogma put him in that realm occupied by other American anti-heroes who have always sustained our imagination.
But here’s the trouble.
An entire generation grew up wanting to be Han Solo – not Obi Wan and Luke – and so what we have now is a landscape of scowling Solo wannabes – self-absorbed (“I know”) nerd-swatting rogues without the accompanying Hollywood charisma that is Ford’s particular gift.
We have Chris Christie playing the part of Han Solo.
We have a spawn of bad-mannered and ego-driven individualists apparently preoccupied with the payoff and utterly unconvincing when they attempt to speak about those deeper duties of interconnectedness, community and destiny.
So when Solo confesses in the Force Awakens to the Jedi and the Force being real, he is, after a lifetime of roaming on the outskirts of the system –admitting to belief.
The young, brilliant, humble and eminently serious Jedi-to-be Rey absorbs Solo’s words, mesmerized. Out of a young desert life in tatters she will summon an understanding of that invisible world, harness its power and effect good.
She has the gift.
It sounds lame, but it happens to be true. We need that reawakening here in New Jersey, that spark of recognition for the genius of the country and its imperfect but sustaining system, where instead we conspire to combine all the worst elements.
On the one hand, the influence of big money has forced a New Order mentality onto the Statehouse, such that no real creative thinking can emerge. People feel stymied and systematized. Simultaneously, like Christie yet without the volubility, almost everyone quietly nurses a Han Solo-sized ambition and apparently no belief that any good can come from a situation that more resembles the chess-like game in the Millennium Falcon than a noble cause.
We don’t mean to put this all on politicians, most of whom have simply good-naturedly adapted to the world each of us, by usurping the force of civic life, have helped create.
But we do desperately need leaders to revivify a process worn down by too much cynicism, where the most common connector is too often someone’s capacity “to get the joke.”
Now, our other problem with The Force Awakens.
It sets up Han Solo and Princess Leia as Antony and Cleopatra, but then evades real development of their story, sacrificing it – predictably – to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-style special effects-burdened action.
Examined more deeply and developed – even if just in two or three more scenes, without flashbacks, relying not on gimmickry or special effects but alone on the great acting of Ford and the power of the Word – the tragic arc of Solo would have that much more impact at the climax.
And that impact would have a special potency here among us, on this planet of iconoclastic Han Solo offspring run amok.