This list looks at the deeper messages and metaphors in the new Star Wars Episodes VII and VIII. I’ll dissect the major themes and mention some artistic choices. Several of these items are definite Disneyfication. All are decidedly Deep.
Analyzing iconic films is about more than finding discontinuity with my head-cannon. (Which was, afterall, first instantiated when I was six years old). Don’t get me wrong. There are objectively obvious problems in every new/Disney Star Wars film. Which are visible to fans, critics and filmmakers alike. Don’t get me started on Solo.
Instead of another list like that, what went right? What wisdom are these movies passing to the kids? What makes you say, “That’s so cool!”
For clarity, I’m talking about the final theatrical cuts of Episodes VII and VIII.
…not the original intentions of any one creator or contributor. These choices are often rooted in the writers and directors, then developed with contributing creators who provide influential inputs. After that, it’s only the molding and refining in the hands of thousands of people that gives us the culminating impact. Not to mention our varied interpretations. The feedback loops of many micro-cultures, into a shared phenomenon.
1. Star Wars is now, literally, a war using stars.
Absolutely brilliant. I could fill an entire post talking about this one. My brother pointed this out to me a few years ago and I couldn’t believe I didn’t realize it. In Episode VII, they took the simple title and made it more finely-tuned to be literal (they use the star to make the wars). This weapon design expands the metaphors about light, dark, destruction, brilliance and balance in a new way. The charging, use, and sun going out, all intercut perfectly to express the themes of parallel scenes. The light of the star is used for the darkest deeds. The same force that gives life can cause the most devastating destruction.
They also throw in that ‘hope is like the sun’ metaphor, in the following film. Deep.
2. The humor is more natural, more casual – rather than classically theatrical
It’s especially present in VIII (and I love it). Star Wars was always funny, and it’s gotten better this round.
There’s buddy humor, shenanigans and even the occasional innuendo. (In both new episodes it’s way more than all previous SW films). This style of comedy is much more approachable. Such humor meshes well with the major themes and characterizations; matching the language to the message. (Which isn’t always as easy as you think it’s gonna be, with dialogue.)
The closer to common language movies are – the less inaccessible – presumably the less alienated the audience feels from life, the universe and each other. Disney creatives have been moving in this general direction (relative to age-range context, of course), over the past ten or so years. So, I’ll throw it into both Disneyfication and Deep.
To be fair, this could be a product of the times we’re living in. Were we really that much more formal in the early 2000’s? Nah.
3. In the New Episodes, our three or four leads aren’t romantic. Romance isn’t even the B or C plot (like it was in IV-III).
The new episodes aren’t tunnel-focused on friendship either, but it’s been a major theme since the beginning and carries through now. Friendship is given almost the same level of importance as other values emphasized in the films. The emotional weight of romance carries through too, but it doesn’t move the plot along at all anymore. (Sometimes friendship is the main drive, but rarely). Both relationship categories are features of life; not the main story motivations during war.
Despite being a key plot element, the underlying theme in both films is to transcend family drama as well. These dramas were more subjective and plot-important to I-III; and are least important to VII + VIII.
Relationships are more universal, as many of us expected. In Rey’s first sequence, when she saves BB-8, she treats the conscious droid like a person (and passes her first testing moment when she doesn’t sell them.). Relationships are frames of goodness to motivate, give meaning, be prioritized – but there’s so much more our characters learn about, too.
Meanwhile, the films’ underlying philosophies do value human connection. Virtues and decisions are heroicized for the greater good, compassionate honor, courage, self-acceptance, and a universal-spiritual kind of love layered with a brothers-in-arms vibe. Deep.
4. We see the true face of what’s at stake in these wars: the suffering of the people.
Concern for the enslaved, oppressed and downtrodden of all kinds is integral to the philosophy underpinning Episode VIII. (And present in Episode VII.)
It was always presumed within the philosophy of the original movies, and even fetishized in Episode VI. (Perhaps ironically, we’ll never know.) But, it rarely took center stage before. In VII, the first mass murder focuses on innocent villagers.
Episode VIII features the slave owners and operators treating slave kids badly. We don’t see a child having cheeky conversations with his master, as in Episode I. (We also get a quick glimpse of a rather intense union dispute).
A middle-act action scene features the abuse and jailbreak of racing animals.
We even see conflict within Chewbacca, about eating such cute birdies (porgs). He’s probably not a vegetarian after that, but I think it speaks to the inner conflict of any given responsibility to other beings. It’s peripheral in the film, to the human social responsibility not to abuse others.
Overall, the empathy required, for the justice that is real daily peace, is emphasized. Definitely Deep.
5. Enemies to friends and gray morality.
Arguably one of the best parts of Episode VII, is the introduction of Finn (slave name: FN-2187). His character development may not be the most expanded of all time, but the themes are obvious. Finn’s role as Stormtrooper-turned-reluctant-resistance takes this theme further than Lucasfilm had previously. It’s not only about redemption anymore.
It’s debated by someone at least once a year whether the Death Star building crew were innocent. IV-III Star Wars had a clearer division between dark and light. The turncoat-ing moment of Darth Vader is the ultimate movie climax. He gets switched on like a bulb, without a dimmer.
The core plot hinge is still the distinction between Light and Dark, in the new episodes. The line isn’t completely erased, but it’s definitely blurrier. While the only requirement for Light was a heart-of-gold in the older episodes, we see the exposition of much more complexity in the new ones.
This shows up clearly when Ben sways between sides and fritters himself to pieces, throughout both new movies.
The theme carries over in Episode VIII with Luke’s issues, the characterizations of both codebreakers, BB-8 stealing a ship, Poe’s rewarded disobedience (which is another nod at the stagnation of hierarchy), etc. Deep.
It fits into Disneyfication too.
When we look at the kids’ movies from Feature Animation and Pixar (sometimes even Toons) it’s obvious: Coco, Moana, Frozen, Zootopia, Tangled, Aladdin, Beauty & The Beast, and even Toy Story (before and after the acquisition of Pixar), all carry these themes. Highlighting the moral gray area in service of mutual understanding, forgiveness and redemption, is a big theme with the various studios under the Disney umbrella.
6. While family is valued, and loyalty to the morally-good is respected, tradition can be updated for the better. It’s not about lineage, heirs or blood.
The underlying philosophy during and post- Lucas is about personal choice – the development and guidance of character essence. In the new episodes, SW continues to grow and move past inheritance or elitism.
A new depth of villainy is explicit in Snoke’s preoccupation with lineage; and his designation of Rey and Ren as discrete opposing forces. It’s also obvious he manipulates Ren’s ego with the notion of being Vader’s successor. In contrast, Rey has no glorified family name; nor even the names of her parents. She needs none for us to value her as our hero.
The most potent moment expressing this (among other things), is when Yoda burns the Jedi temple. We’ve moved beyond the notion of the born heir, and even beyond the notion of spiritual heir. What we have is the ultimate realization that pre-determined rightfulness leads either to stagnation (the Jedi Order) or animosity (the Sith and First Order).
To align with the Force for the good, one must transcend that duality and begin working on a new dimension of it. The books held nothing the girl didn’t already possess… (And you can too. Seriously.)
Which is Disney-esque.
Since the early days of Snow White (even if cliche and rather traditional in terms of gender roles), defiance of unjust authority within a good-and-evil dichotomy (Evil Queen, etc) has been heroicized in Disney films. Then, in later eras with The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and eventually Frozen, new layers of deconstructing misperception emerged. This continued with Moana, where the ultimate good and evil are the same person (no spoilers, definitely see it). This theme can even be seen in Coco, which is explicitly about family values and respecting others’ beliefs through our actions. Still, the most heroic moments in Coco are when people choose love of family over tradition or expectation.
7. Speaking of identities, the construction and deconstruction of identity.
Themes of identity were at the forefront in Episode VII, and really showed up in Episode VIII. For one thing, the mystery of identity is a key plot point in all major character arcs in VII. For another, the undefinable power of the Force, which cannot be allocated to serve anyone’s vanity or dominance, is part of Luke’s self-devaluation and identity issues in VIII.
This is echoed in the fact that our most central character, Rey, isn’t even mentioned in the preamble crawl (for either movie). She’s not fulfilling a prophesy, she matters because we care about her. She happens to be tapping into our collective soul.
Perhaps most poignantly, VIII offers the infinite self reflection that is the search for morality/ethics, purpose and empowerment. These scenes ask for a definition of the Dark side, and the existential answers to suffering. As seen on Dark Pool Mirror TV (when Rey went into the pit). She knew it couldn’t go on forever. As a metaphor indicating those philosophical questions and more, we watch as she asks to see her parents.
It’s just more self.
From the power to create one’s own identity which is Rey’s life to the confusion of identity which is Kylo Ren’s torment, you can’t miss this theme in any given 40m segment of the new franchise. (I want to say 20m, but I’ll buffer that estimate to be reasonable). It’s at the bottom of every deep, mythic theme and symbolic cinematic gesture. Character relationships would be enough, not to mention the name changes, costume changes, and near constant discussion of origin, upbringing, purpose, group label, individual feelings and light-or-dark dichotomization.
In both VII and VIII, the main characters are all moving past these issues in different contexts, and reformatting their identity. In VII, Han has a strong sense of self as always, but his identity as a father is definitely on the table – laying out various expressions of grief and loss.
Meanwhile, serving to contrast them, the main-but-not-lead characters do have a solid sense of their identity. (Leia, BB-8, Rose, Holdo, Maz, Artoo, etc.) Poe, too, has a strong sense of his identity. (He’s just maturing to functional-without-Leia status. It’s hard, believe us, we know.) He’s technically a lead, but he barely ranks higher than these stellar women and tenacious droids, in terms of screen-time, plot motivation, lines, etc.
This theme serves to answer both the existential and common crises throughout time, which were beautifully pieced together in the original. This third round evolved the theme. If you’re gonna “go mythic”, you’ll probably touch upon this at some point.
Is it Disney?
Whoa. Whoa, wait a minute. I was with you there for a few of them, but this gives them way too much credit. That’s definitely not something embedded in the princess movies.
But it was, to an extent. It’s certainly a primary theme that Disney has been approaching in recent decades, in films across their domains. A few important examples are The Little Mermaid (which world do I belong in), Mulan (obviously), Moana (can I be well-adjusted and exploratory at the same time?), Coco (identity in relation to family), Zootopia (identity, profiling and job performance), Inside Out (identifying with emotions or not), Finding Dory (who am.. what? are we our memories?), Brave (similar to Moana and Mulan, sort of), Lion King (similar to Thor, sort of), Hercules (self-value, origin and society). I could go on.
8. Anti-war undertones. On a whole new level.
This theme is present in all Episodes. Whether it’s the cause of war, who makes war, or why, it’s not heroicized. In most scenes, there are enough particulars which make fighting morally acceptable only in this limited context of justice against oppression. The Empire and First Order are villains because they use force, and The Force, to impose their own sense of what’s right, on others.
Seven of the eight episodes start with a battle or face-off, but they all end sufficiently differently. None end with “graphic scenes”, (but all have awesome graphics). The idea is to end the wars, bring balance to the force, and gain freedom for the people.
Episode VIII brings this message home, and Episode VII opened the door to go all the way with it. Even if big battles do increase revenue, and provide fun sequences, and weapons tech our characters have fun with, that’s not the moral-of-the-story. Inner strength serves other purposes too.
Finn begins to learn this from DJ in Episode VIII. They cover how good and bad are made up words – or at the least, it’s subjective – because both sides are systemically implicated in the darkness of war itself. Back in Episode VII, his story always spoke of this theme. It’s the cost of war which makes him quit Stormtrooping. Yes, we do find moral preference, a scale of virtue indicating a morally superior side of the war. However, we’re reminded once again that the Jedi and extended family aren’t perfect.
Life is about choices in the given context, since we’re all capable of both. It’s about how and when we apply different energy, in balance. Star Wars has always been critical of the wars part (depicted as necessary in the face of evil); and of corrupt government structures most of all. The new trilogy has expanded, with the times, on what that means for society.
The overall message, in all Disney films geared for ages 2-20+, is that war is not the answer. Being the first attacker is not the answer, and those who pursue it generally see the error of their ways.
We might not realize this, because the company makes billions, but the entire global entertainment industry is just pocket change compared to Defense: Pitting us against each other is not their strategy for world domination. Actually, come to think of it, using weapons for any reason, training, driving around, having a need (in the first place) to prioritize social justice over leisure…these are all things we do when we could be watching movies instead. Disney would make way, way more money if there were less conflicts and injustices in the world (common causes for mass violence). Just a thought.
Disney as a whole is family-friendly. We might not like that when it comes to anticipating Deadpool 3, but it means most departments, if not all individuals, are teleologically and culturally adverse to the war machine. They compete for our time with those Big Industries who profit from war-making. The entire defense sector threatens the children viewers with planetary collapse, and reduces the energy invested in entertainment, education, health, etc.
Whether the corporate side of Disney follows through on this inherent social positioning or not, there’s plenty of public ground for us to demand it out of them as transparency increases in the years to come. Whatever their systemically implicit relationship to propaganda, anti-war messages are clear in the films. Hopefully it’s been making a difference in our culture the last couple of decades…
Whatever the case, Episodes VII and VIII beautifully build out this legendary story.
Which leads me back to the point that different companies and departments within Disney have different cultures and formulas/formulae to follow. Disneyfication within an artistic production, internal management, and merchandising, are three different things. Corporate maneuvering has its influence, but that hasn’t prevented truly potent and socially relevant messages and metaphors from coming through the films, thanks to the creatives.
In conclusion, Star Wars is still worthy of our mythic level of emotional investment.
- Press Conf Panel before Last Jedi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyyqOVRXOQA
- Rian Johnson (long interview w/ Collider): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xW6woTAof0
- Rian Johnson (shorter interview): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=id76RguminE
- Last Jedi PGA screening (Johnson, Hamill and Bergman): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvaCJCuSiPI
- Comic Con panel before Force Awakens: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fMx670jOnw&t=44s
- JJ Abrams interviews Bob Iger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wyt6whKvo_0
- Abrams and Jony Ive (designer at Apple) via Vanity Fair: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey8FzGECjFA&t=784s
- Another reason this one is interesting is the representation of how different departments and companies have different workflows and values; and what that means for society.
- Abrams’ TED Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/j_j_abrams_mystery_box?language=en#t-327909
- For fun, Mark Hamill at Oxford Union: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5Iv_sazoGg