Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Fresh Retro: Creed and The Force Awakens

Two of the most popular and critically acclaimed movies of the 2015 holiday season have been Ryan Coogler’s Creed and J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In an age when reboots and sequels make for a large majority of tentpole Hollywood movies, here’s two films that can’t really be called either. This is partly because both films take classic franchises that began in the 1970s and put us in the same world with some of the same characters, but with more of a focus on new ones. So no, these aren’t exactly original Hollywood movies, and part of their derivativeness is a cash grab banking on fans of the original movies to swoon over the old while embracing the new, but their financial incentives aren’t as cynical as most big Hollywood fare either (see Jurassic World or that new Terminator movie) because one, they’re made with clear passion and care (Creed’s a passion project for Coogler, and while Abrams didn’t initially want to make the new Star Wars, it was merely because he had such a soft spot in his heart for the originals), and also because they put the reliance on the inherited old worlds to excellent use rather than simply having them exist for nostalgia’s sake. Perhaps the most interesting way they this is by putting so much attention on the idea of inheriting a legacy of greatness and the challenge that poses (maybe the filmmakers are so keen on investigating this because that’s exactly what they’re doing by making these movies).

Before The Force Awakens gets into the idea of legacy via the return of an old hero who can explain the extent of it, it has to create a world from which that legacy can eventually become clear. It puts the world from the original Star Wars trilogy to good use because it's set 30 years later, long enough for the world and its original characters to become mythical. It's a fascinating way to deal with the aftermath of George Lucas' original trilogy because it situates the new characters in an environment where the original characters are like legendary battle heroes and the remnants of their achievements are simply stories that may or may not be true. If you want, you can even view the new cast of characters, Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren as Star Wars geeks. 
The movie at first treats the idea of legacy as something that dies out, that gets lost amidst the continual presence of evil. In a film full of dark ideas (it doesn't feel like it because of the sense of humor and fun dispersed through the entire thing), this may be the saddest of them, because it immediately makes us realize that the euphoric ending to Return of the Jedi, in which the villains are either destroyed or redeemed, wasn't an end to anything, and if a victory, only a temporary one that will quickly get lost in the shadows. 

In Creed, legacy isn't something that gets lost, but it is nonetheless treated as a problem, at least for its central character, Adonis Creed, son of Apollo Creed from the original Rocky film. Apollo's legacy of being a great boxer has been imprinted in the minds of the people, but for Adonis, this is not a source of pride or satisfaction but of angst and discomfort. He goes by Johnson rather than Creed because otherwise he thinks everything he does will be judged in light of his father's achievements. He also simply wants to create a legacy of his own rather than be known as the son of a great boxer. If there's a journey his character takes in the movie, it's coming to the realization that both are possible, and, in many ways, necessary. One should always strive to leave their own mark on the world, but if they've inherited another's legacy, they should honor it if that legacy is a positive one (as, indeed, Apollo Creed's is).

If there's a similarity between the two films and their treatment of legacy, it's that they both present characters who inherit a legacy of greatness, try to run from it, and then realize that this only possible if they're okay with disappointing both their own potential and the people around them who understand that potential. The obvious parallel to Adonis in Force Awakens would be Rey, who learns that her already diverse skill sets (scavenging, flying ships, mechanical skills, plus she's bilingual) pale in comparison to what she's actually capable of, and then tries to run away from it. Quite literally, actually, as we see her dash through the woods to simply escape physically and emotionally when she learns that some strange thing called the Force is calling to her. The fear that Rey exhibits over inheriting a legacy of greatness complicates a character who previously was all confidence and competence--and also throws the complaints that her character is too good at everything and not complex enough out the window. In Creed, Adonis doesn't express it so vividly, but it seems both characters are overwhelmed by living up to a legacy handed to them, probably because it's stressful and it makes the notion of failure more daunting because there are greater expectations.  

Besides Rey, Kylo Ren, one of the movie's major antagonists, has also inherited a legacy (he's Han's son and is born with the power to be a jedi) which he successfully runs away from in order to embrace the Dark Side and the legacy of his grandfather, Darth Vader. The nature of his situation is a little different, but he's dealing with pretty much the same issues.

These films treat legacies almost like objects, or even characters, concrete forces that propel people into or out of action. They respect it and wrestle with it and show its difficulties and its wonders. It takes intelligence and thoughtfulness to turn what could simply have been fan service into major themes of a new narrative. In age of cynicism about big budget Hollywood movies, this sort of sensitivity is worth embracing. Big movie's today feel too much like they're made by machines, but these two are ones where human hands, feelings, and ideas pervade them to their core. 

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