Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent, Day 23: Star Wars and the Life of Virtue

We went in two shifts to see Star Wars last night: first the big three girls had the full movie experience, standing in line in the cold to get their tickets, and then they came home to babysit the younger two while Darwin and I took Master Jack (age 7) to the later show. The big girls didn't want to have Jack along because he is a boy, and a younger brother to boot, and I knew that no matter how brave a seven-year-old dude is, sometimes he still needs to snuggle next to his mom during a scary part in the movie. And so it was.

I shall not spoil the movie for you. It is big and entertaining. It is superior to the prequels. It is visually stunning. It is also no spoiler to say (as has every major review) that you've seen this movie already. You will see plot points coming from 10,000 feet, and this first becomes obvious from the very scene after the yellow exposition crawls up the star field. No matter. A plot is a terrible thing to waste. It worked the first time, and it basically works here. So. Fun, funny, and technically brilliant, and by itself, not original enough to stick with you all that long after you walk out of the theater. What, then, is the difference?

Rey and Finn are the difference. The two heroes of the piece, she a young scavenger with a certainly-not-accidental resemblance to Natalie Portman (no spoiler; we've all seen the trailer), and he a Storm Trooper horrified at the job he's ordered to do. These two characters are the soul of the movie, and that soul is a virtuous soul. And God be praised, I mean virtue in the good, classical sense of a habit to the good. Our earliest glimpses of Finn come when he has to make a serious moral choice, under serious circumstances. Rey, also early on, demonstrates a strong sense of loyalty and faithfulness that will drive her actions through the rest of the movie. Once they meet each other, they immediately become moral lodestones for one another, not just strengthening the other when they're together, but becoming a compass for the other when they're apart.

This is a movie that celebrates friendship. Not just buddy-buddy friendship (though we have some of that too, and that bond, too, is delightful), but willing-the-good-for-the-other friendship, pursuit-of-the-good friendship. A friendship that takes joy in the other person. "Naturally," you say. "Of course friends take joy in one another." And let me ask you: did Leia and Han Solo really take joy in one another? They had a lot of chemistry, sure. And that chemistry was mostly bound up in throwing hate-sparks until they finally caught fire. Sexy, yeah. Joyful? Not really. And this joy is, to me, the stuff of great love stories.

Others disagree. I saw someone online complaining that Rey "friendzoned" Finn. Aside from the odious term friendzoning, championed by men who didn't get the sex they thought they were entitled to from the girl they thought was obligated to give it, this complaint boils down to the fact that our two heroes are not dripping sex appeal all over each other. And God be praised, what a refreshing change that is. That's not to say that there isn't any chemistry between them, because there is. But it's a slow-burning chemistry on a long and healthy fuse. C.S. Lewis has something apropos to say about it in his chapter on Eros in The Four Loves:
There may be those who have first felt mere sexual appetite for a woman and then gone on at a later stage to "fall in love with her." But I doubt if this is at all common. Very often what comes first is simply a delighted pre-occupation with the Beloved -- a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality. A man in this state really hasn't leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself. he is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned. If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, "To go on thinking of her." He is love's contemplative. And when at a later stage the explicitly sexual element awakes, he will not feel (unless scientific theories are influencing him) that this had all along been the root of the whole matter. He is more likely to feel that the incoming tide of Eros, having demolished many sand-castles and made islands of many rocks, has now at last with a triumphant seventh wave flooded this part of his nature also -- the little pool of ordinary sexuality which was there on his beach before the tide came in. Eros enters him like an invader, taking over and reorganizing, one by one, the institutions of a conquered country. It may have taken over many others before it reaches the sex in him; and it will reorganise that too.
(Change "he" for "she" if you like -- it works both ways in this movie.)

And this delight, and this pre-occupation, is evident in the way that the abandoned Rey, waiting for something or someone on the desert planet of Jakku, and the frightened Finn, without family or identity as a Storm Trooper, cling to one another and form a instant proto-family together. It's love at first sight -- not erotic love, but familial love. And it is good to see. In Finn and Rey's physical interactions, there is what I would describe, oddly enough, as chastity. They are not cold, nor are they asexual. Their interactions are very much informed by the fact that she is a woman and he is a man. And yet the sense of them genuinely wanting the good for each other is so strong that it transcends mere sex appeal. There is a purity, something unsullied, in the way they look at each other. (Much credit here to the clear-eyed actress Daisy Ridley, and to John Boyega for being equal to her gaze.) By contrast, Kylo Ren, the unstable Sith apprentice (or bad Jedi or Dark Side acolyte -- he falls somewhere in here on the scale of villainy) does not want the best for Rey, and although their interactions aren't overtly sexual, there is a different, more personal undertone of menace in the way he approaches her than he had in the exact same circumstances with a male.

Your standard Hollywood template of a relationship is that male and female meet and spark, one of them lies to the other, gets caught out, and has to spend the rest of the story rebuilding trust. I hate this storyline, with the fire of a sun sucked into a Starkiller. And whatever J.J. Abrams's flaws as a director may be, I love him and his scriptwriting committee for rising above this hackneyed romance line and giving us two characters who are trying to be virtuous with one another. The most striking, lovely moment (for me; I like this stuff) is when Finn tells Rey the truth about himself, unforced by anything except his honesty and his respect for her, and she looks directly at him, past the facts of his history, and says, "Don't go." And anyone who can see that scene and describe such a relationship as "friendzoning" deserves to fail in all romantic endeavors. IMHO.

Star Wars: go for the hype, stay for the virtue ethics.


6 comments:

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Your post makes me glad that I have finally decided to go see it tomorrow.

ralspaugh said...

Taking Gregory to see an early morning show in a few hours. Nice write-up; you've fortified me against the Abramsisms I shall have to endure.

Anonymous said...

You say it more eloquently, but in my simple brain it hit me too. The romance was almost an afterthought while the loyalty and concern for the good of the other was in the forefront. Finn is not the new Luke/Han and Rey is not the new Leia. They stand as welcome new characters in this familiar story we know and love.

Robb Minneman said...

I liked all the characters very much. I think Finn and Rey are a good couple for the screen, for many of the reasons you outline. I like Poe Dameron as a confident, capable, passionate leader of men. I like Kylo Ren as a villain; his motivations are entirely believable and yet you can still see the flaws. Plus, Kylo Ren is emotionally crippled. Seriously, the guy throws temper tantrums, and that's shown to be a flaw.

I also enjoyed the interactions between Han and Leia. Fisher and Ford know the back story of these two characters and communicate it with little glances and old mannerisms. They speak volumes without saying a word.

But more than anything I enjoy that Star Wars has brought us back to the world of moral choices. Like in the originals, moral choices matter. Finn makes a big moral choice early. Rey makes several during the course of the movie. Kylo Ren shows the downside of bad moral choices.

I think you're right, the plot is predictable. But I'm looking forward to seeing what comes of these characters, and I'm hoping for surprises in episodes VIII and IX.

ralspaugh said...

I like the flipped-script on parent-child relations. The family dynamics are the most promising future of the series I think. Interesting how that part panders to the old fans, who all have grown children now.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I've finally seen it, too, which means I also finally read this post in its entirety!

"Love at first sight" is a good description of Rey and Finn's friendship. And I'm quite the believer in love at first sight, with the caveat that I also believe in love at second sight, love at third sight, love at fourth sight, etc. ;-) When Rey and Finn are first thrown together and find that they "fit" better than they would have thought (one having been a self-sufficient loner and the other a cog-in-the-wheel from birth), I remembered my younger days of idealising friendship to the point that my own relationships seemed stale. I would have thrilled to have a friend like either one of them . . . and yet I would have wanted him or her only for my own pleasure and not for the sake of being able to will the good for a person worth loving.

I also love your description of Rey and Finn's connection as very chaste. They're so wonderful at being friends that I kind of wish they never become romantically involved!