Buddhist Film Critic: Star Wars is All About Family Karma

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterSo let me start with the tiny bit of bad news that I have about the new Star Wars movie, because it really is pretty tiny, but still worth mentioning: The Star Wars saga has always been weak in two areas.

First, galactic politics are never clearly explained. In The Force Awakens, nobody bothers to explain where these good guys or bad guys came from. Very little of the story is given to sketching how the new villains, The “First Order” came about after the Empire was vanquished 30 something years ago in Return of The Jedi. We hear a little about how the new wannabe Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, came over to the dark side, but that’s all we get. We never hear how these awfully mean (and, yes, once again very British) folks took over most of the galaxy yet again. But hey, I can’t really explain the politics of my own country to anyone either, much less the politics of an entire galaxy far far away. So I will forgive this lack of narrative elaboration.

Second, the mental practices of a Jedi are never actually described or experienced in anything the audience can grasp. This is an especially important omission for a Buddhist dude like me, and a huge shame, I realized, because Star Wars has the potential to introduce meditation to the widest audience imaginable. How does a Jedi “train” mentally? What does a Jedi do to resist caving to fear and hatred, to defend justice and love? How does any of it work, internally? In all seven of these movies, including this one, anytime a Jedi enters anything resembling a meditative state, I feel like I am watching a bad new age spiritual infomercial. It makes me wish George Lucas spent a little less time with Joseph Campbell, and a bit more time with Joseph Goldstein. What are the Jedi doing to connect with the light of the force? Is it metta meditation? Visualization? Mantra? Qigong? What? Maybe they should hire Sharon Salzberg as a spiritual consultant for Episode 8.

That being said, The Force Awakens is excellent. Simply excellent. The writing is good all the way through, using nostalgia and the repetition of the themes of Episode 4 as an intergenerational strength, rather than as a formulaic weakness (although at times it could have used some more originality, for sure). Second, the casting is excellent, especially with the next generation of stars, stars who can all really act: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac. I even found myself wishing Adam Driver had been old enough to play Anakin Skywalker in the poorly-cast (except for Ewan McGregor) prequel series, because he would have been as perfect for that part as he is for Kylo Ren, aka Wannabe Vader. And finally, JJ Abrams’ filmmaking is great, incredibly diligent and respectful to its cinematic lineage. Everything feels like…well…Star Wars, with some technological boosts, but the same timeless aesthetic. Which is no small feat. And the filmmaking is also humorous yet contained, with no Jar Jar  Binks mistakes. Abrams understands that all the kids ever need to be happy is a cute new droid. And he delivers. BB-8 is my homie.

Most importantly, The Force Awakens makes clear that this story is all about the karma of a family over generations. It launches us into a universe where history repeats itself, but not exactly, where time has a cyclical quality, but isn’t a perfect circle, and where we can see the uniqueness of a new (more diverse, and gender-balanced) generation of characters emerging alongside the iterations of an extended family, a family playing its habitual patterns out over the decades. These themes are especially important to me as I work on my next book, which brings my love of another iconic movie, The Princess Bride, into conversation with the experience of intimate relationships, especially family relationships. The spiritual conversation between grandparents and grandchildren is especially important to me right now, and that same conversation is front and center in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. How do we inherit the confusion and wisdom of previous generations? Now that, for me, is the question.

Somebody just teach the new director of episode 8, Rian Johnson, about actual meditation though, ok? Honestly, that could really help the entire galaxy.

9 thoughts on “Buddhist Film Critic: Star Wars is All About Family Karma

  1. I really loved reading this piece.
    You brought up something that, I think, has been in my head for the last week. But, I could not articulate it at all. So thank you for that.
    I loved this movie and have had a hard time explaining why on a few occasions. The idea of family karma so fits I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed it.
    Well done. 🙂

  2. Yes, interesting and we’ll thought through. I recently watched a similar piece about the Matrix films and reincarnation, also by an enlightened American. Thanks.

  3. i myself have seen none of the previous episodes. meditation and mind control in a unique environment didn’t catch my interest either. the family lineage aspect has me wanting to start at the beginning and run through all the episodes. great review culturally, thanx

  4. The First Order is not in charge when the movie starts. They are yet another intergalactic gang like Kanji Club or The Hutts or those other guys that were after Han. They just rose out of the remnants of the Empire. So they had Star Destroyers and resources and troopers. The New Republic were in power… well not any more (they got blown up).

  5. Regarding your question “How do we inherit the confusion and wisdom of previous generations?” – this and the topic of family karma – I think your best bet is to look to cultures that actively maintain ancestral relationships – basically these would be all indigenous cultures. We westerners (even those who practice non-mainstream religions such as Buddhism) are woefully ignorant of what is possible healthwise and spiritually in connecting with our ancestors (which is dumbfounding to indigenous peoples). Check out Daniel Foor’s work at ancestralmedicine.org – I think you will find a lot of interesting subjects there that are directly related to karma, but in a non-Buddhist context. 🙂

  6. Regarding American politics.

    To paraphrase a recent comment was made by an Australian politician:

    “Thank god you got the religious crazies and we got the criminals (as early immigrants)”

    I feel that drives a lot of American politics.

  7. Hi Ethan. I had to remind my husband (and myself) that the violence was all happening in my own mind, ie: “you’re fighting your own mental afflictions”! ” For someone without THIS training, the violence it over-fucking-whelming and way too much for kids.
    Leah

  8. I’m probably too old for the Star Wars stuff to have soaked into my cultural/movie DNA, but you might have some fun looking into some of the Kurosawa movies – Ran, Throne of Blood and more – that clearly influenced Lucas’s aesthetic and cinematic style. Of course,now you would have two levels of appropriation and adaptation – Lucas’s of Kurosawa and Abrams’s of Lucas. I’m sure you saw Lucas’s diss of The Force Awakens, which he dutifully retracted the next day.

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