Would Joseph Campbell Like the New Star Wars?

Star Wars is often associated with the special effects grandeur introduced by George Lucas in the late 70s. New heroes and new aliens captured our imagination as well as the really cool planets they lived on. Of course, we can't forget the truly awesome X-Wing and Tie Fighters that sparred in the depths of space. But that's what  not Star Wars is all about. The story had a soul and that soul came from the inspiration of one man -  Joseph Campbell, a mythologist who popularized the notion of the hero’s journey.

This journey was a pattern that turned up in most hero stories since ancient times. A hero story is defined by a character who resists the call to a higher purpose only to be thrown into the thick of things by fate. We love to see them play out because they remind us of the courage to fight the good fight. Campbell went as far as to cite Star Wars as a prime example of a contemporary myth that brought the hero story back to the millions  or so moviegoers in the 20th century. It was because of this hero story that Star Wars ever took on a spiritual quality. Much of it was lost, however, with J.J. Abrams' recent addition: The Force Awakens.

So, did J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens live up to this standard or not? Or, if Joseph Campbell was alive today, would he consider The Force Awakens as the quintessential hero story like the 1970s' original? Probably not. The answer likes in Rey's story or lack thereof.

The original Star Wars hero story features Luke, a lonely crop duster, who leaves his home planet of Tatooine to join the rebel fight. The job is too big, no one can do it, not even Luke, until of course he learns how to use the Force to demolish the Death Star. Luke instantaneously goes from crop duster to galactic hero in seconds. (Special credit to Han Solo who manages to fight off Vader before Luke’s ship gets shot down.) The story, then, is about Luke's quest to become a Jedi Knight like his father as well as making new friends along the way.  It was so powerful it made everyone flock to see The Force Awakens with the hope of seeing the old friends reunite one last time.

Narrative Unity in Star Wars, The New Hope

Luke’s story is what brought narrative unity to A New Hope. Narrative unity is what keeps it all together. Without it, you’d have nothing more than people doing stuff for no apparent reason or interest to you, the audience. Narrative unity makes it about people doing stuff for a reason. That reason helps everyone learn about themselves, life and Death Stars. In turn, the audience does too. For example, one may believe that the hunt for the Death Star brought narrative unity to A New Hope. It didn't. The Death Star plans move the story forward but the true narrative is Luke's coming of age saga.

Narrative Unity in Star Wars, The Force Awakens

Star Wars The Force Awakens isn’t anymore about finding Luke Skywalker as The New Hope is about finding the Death Star. The story begins with the First Order looking for a map piece leading to Luke Skywalker. Another hunt, just like for the Death Star, but still, not what brings it all together. We now know that narrative unity isn’t the overall plot, but rather the overall story that's delivered by the plot. Because plot isn't story or vice-versa. The story will usually be about a person, in this case, Rey from Jakku, a very intelligent young woman whose handy with things just like Luke. The Force Awakens is her coming of age saga. Unfortunately The Force Awakens didn't work like The New Hope at all, For one thing, our female protagonist had to share that stage with too many characters.

Rey vs. Luke

Compared to Luke, we don’t really learn as much about Rey. We know she's a scavenger of sorts in a desert planet that isn't Tatooine. We know she’s a kind soul too. For example, she's willing to give up her food in exchange for keeping a distressed droid. We know she’s an exceptional fighter. Later, we even learn that she doesn't want to live her world because she's hoping to meet up with her parents that abandoned her. That’s not a lot of information about her. Her inner life is going to eb hard to figure out too. Simply put, we don’t know anything about Rey compared to how much information The New Hope gave about Luke.

In A New Hope, the first act is almost completely devoted to Luke on Tatooine. He’s lonely, bored and sorely underused. He’s excited about the rebellion and hates living on a desert world with his aunt and uncle. Allusions are made to Luke’s father – negative ones – despite Luke wanting to learn more. Even worse, his aunt and uncle seem afraid that Luke will become just like his dad. Ben Kenobi comes along and puts crazy ideas into Luke’s head, like leaving Tatooine and becoming a Jedi knight like his father. Now that’s a lot of information compared to Rey from Jakku! How can we possible get the hero's journey from so little attention given to her? It hurts the story and does not make Joseph Campbell proud.

The Force Awakens Lacks Narrative Unity

With that, we can say The Force Awakens fails to develop a strong narrative unity much like A New Hope did. Simply put, Rey's story is undertold. With that, her hero's journey doesn't take center state like Luke's did and that almost completely destroys any real mythology coming out from The Force Awakens. That's why Joseph Campbell wouldn’t be especially impressed with this new installment. J.J. Abrams gets credit for a great action movie but nothing close to what Lucas accomplished with the original instalments. Even more, Abrams probably didn't even try.

Would Joseph Campbell Like Rey's Hero Story?

No, he wouldn't. Joseph Campbell wouldn't even come close to caring about this film. There's nothing that even resembles the original Star Wars movie. A New Hope wasn't about desert planets, rebellions or Death Stars. It was about people. The individual's fight to become real in a world besought with psychological dangers is what really made Star Wars really special. It really seems as Abrams was given a smaller scope to work with and the emphasis was on not screwing up the franchise, if anything. So, they got rid of the CGI's, made allusions to the original film and gave it a female protagonist similar to Luke, and, after the failure of the last three installments, called it an overwhelming success.

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