Our love of the "eternal return" in Hollywood isn't anything new, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens is no exception to the rule.
This review contains spoilers, so stop reading right now if you haven’t yet seen the film.
I’ve had mixed feelings about Star Wars: The Force Awakens ever since I learned J.J. Abrams would be helming the kickoff of the third trilogy, mainly because I hate him for trouncing the spirit of Star Trek with his reboot. (It’s just not fair for one man to direct both franchises!) Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon across three generations, and I feel like it has suffered enough through all the Special Edition edits and the creation of the unmentionable Prequels. This anxiety of difference among fans—our collective fear of being alienated again as an audience—no doubt drove a lot of Disney and Abrams’ decisions to produce something safe and familiar to what came before, more so (I bet) to comply with commercial imperatives than creative ones. It’s this hewing so closely to the source material, however, that is also The Force Awakens’ chief flaw.
So many of my diehard Star Wars friends have expressed an ambivalence toward the movie, but they’ve been unable to adequately articulate it. We admit to feeling goosebumps when we get a glimpse of that “junk ship” that hasn’t flown in ages as Rey and Finn make their escape from Jakku; we cheer giddily with Finn when he and Poe Dameron make a break for it on a stolen TIE fighter; we get just a little bit teary-eyed when Han declares “We’re home,” as if the enunciation of those words is the long-overdue amen to a prayer that’s gone unanswered for a decade. But in the shadow of the Starkiller Base, there’s this mendacity creeping over the good time we’re having, and we begin to feel a Snoke or a Palpatine plucking our heartstrings and leading us down a well-worn, dark path.
“My formula for human greatness,” wrote Nietzsche in Ecco Homo, “is amor fati—that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity: Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it—all idealism is mendacity before the necessary—but to love it.”
Our love of the eternal return in Hollywood isn’t anything new, and Star Wars is no exception to the rule. Search your feelings; you know it to be true. Within and without, Star Wars is about fetishizing a destined journey that’s already been completed before it started (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away). Star Wars‘ encapsulation by eternity is its very premise, and we accept that hungrily, to hear a story that is itself a retelling of a story Jung tells us we already know.
The critics hit this note several times already, but on dailynous.com, Eric Winsberg is more precise when he talks about the movie’s repetitiveness in Nietzschean terms: “Instead of The Force Awakens, it should have been called ‘Episode VII: The Same Old Hope.'” I recommend you read his Star Wars-ified quoting of the passage from The Gay Science about the eternal return (it’s hilarious) but for our own edification, here’s the original translation:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest of loneliness and say unto you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine.’
Well friends, the demon is here in the shape of the Mouse. If The Force Awakens is any indication, Disney, god among brands, offers to you an endless succession of Star Wars films into the foreseeable future, each with nothing new in it. You see, the man George Lucas had limits, on account of him being a mortal who believed in the boundaries of history, even if his most brilliant gambit was to take merchandising rights over film profits in order to finance his franchise into perpetuity, and even if his attempt to put boundaries on history meant the creation of the Prequel trilogy we all revile. The immortal Mouse, on the other hand, is not a man but a brand that transcends history, and we’ve already seen it lobby against and win over the limits of copyright law when its original IP risked falling into the public domain.
Disney now owns a monopoly in creative IP: its own, Lucasfilm, Pixar, and Marvel. It owns ABC, ESPN, Touchstone, and half of A&E and Lifetime, among hundreds of other multimedia brands. Disney’s existence depends on the continued existence of its catalog of fictions. In the All Things Considered episode Wolverine’s Death: Superheroes and the Cycle of Eternal Return,” Glen Weldon comments on another “[Disney]-owned, heavily licensed nugget of intellectual property,” who he says, “is one of the company’s flagship characters, and he fuels a vast merchandising machine that includes movie franchises, video games, toys, and clothing. If anything about him changes … The bottom drops out of the Wolverine footy pajama market.” In comics, you can kill Wolverine all you want, because he can always come back when Disney reboots the series. But in Star Wars, killing an iconic hero is a big deal, and it means something very different in terms of the brand and the narrative.
Han’s death is at the heart of the eternal return in Star Wars. The truth is, he has to die in order for all of this to work. Han’s death isn’t the same as the death of Qui Gon Jin or Obi Wan Kenobi or Mace Windu, or even Yoda or the redeemed Vader—all those good guys had to die because the plot demanded it. The Force Awakens, overflowing with blatant repetition of original trilogy story beats, doesn’t have a parallel for Han’s death, the death of a leading hero who has been with us for the entire story. This is because Han’s death is the only truly novel event in The Force Awakens, an event that simultaneously signals an end to history and a “beginning” to the eternal circumscribing of his story by the vacuum of Disney’s commercial scrutiny. Once Han Solo is dead, not only is the actor Harrison Ford free of his legacy, but the character’s story is closed, and he can return eternally in prequels without contradicting the present or future.
In terms of the narrative of The Force Awakens, Han has to die because he is asking for novelty in a universe where destiny always prevails. Vader was “the chosen one” and was always going to “bring balance to the Force,” it just took awhile longer than anyone expected. Luke’s destiny to become a Jedi was always inescapable, no matter how much whining he was going to do in the meantime. We can read every character’s story arc as fated in this way, even Rey and Finn’s, whose destinies are not to run away from the past and go forward into an as-yet-unwritten future, but to accept the burden of history and relive it forever in cinema.
Except for Han, who makes a decision to abandon history in the face of Ben Solo’s descent into Vader worship. Even though he knows it’s useless to intervene in the machinery of destiny, Han throws off the mantle of his identity as dashing cynical smuggler and becomes a father. When Han confronts Kylo Ren on the Starkiller Base, he’s not just asking his son to come home and be Ben Solo again, he’s asking Kylo to violate the very order of things in the Star Wars universe: to commit to an identity of his own by committing to difference, to choose amor fati over gnashing ones teeth in despair, the coming to terms with the eternal return that defines the “human greatness” of the Overman. “If an eternal return is a wheel,” writes Gilles Deleuze in his Nietzschean critique Repetition and Diffference, “then it must be endowed with a violent centrifugal movement which expels everything that ‘can’ be denied, everything that cannot pass the test.” And so Han must die.
It all sounds pretty ominous, I know, but it’s not all teeth gnashing. Even if our surviving characters are not quite Overmen, we as viewers emerge as such, and Han’s amor fati becomes our own. Something different has happened to the identities of the characters in this turn of the wheel. Rey may be an unapologetic doppelganger of Luke Skywalker, but she’s also unapologetically a woman, and there is nothing about her womanness that “others” the Luke Skywalker we are all familiar with. The starkly contrasting blackness of Boyega’s Finn against the sleek white of his stormtrooper armor is nothing more than an additional color in the desert of an eternally-recurring Tatooine-Jakku. We accept Finn as a hero not despite his blackness nor because of it, but because his nostalgia is as strong as ours: his skin becomes our skin. The hourglass of existence is turned over, yet we make progress even in our repetition of what came before.
I don’t know if the concept of amor fati offers my diehard Star Wars friends any consolation, given how they already feel about this seventh installment of the beloved space opera. Maybe repackaged cheap thrills and Abrams-style lens flares are all we have to look forward in the years to come. But maybe, just maybe, there’s hope these little differences will add up in the next two turns of the wheel.