The Dark Side of the Force: Star Wars, Junk, Capitalism (and Hope)


Blogging about Star Wars is somewhat of a tradition of mine; my previous blog was called “may-theforcebewithyou,” and I reviewed both The Force Awakens (2015) and Rogue One (2016) when they came out (I was on a blogging hiatus when The Last Jedi hit theatres). So, it only seems fitting that I say something about The Rise of Skywalker (henceforth Rise), the final (?) installment of the now 9-part Star Wars saga.

I grew up watching Star Wars, so my love for the saga is rooted in family, my childhood fondness for endearing droids, “the force,” never losing hope, etc., all the classic tropes for which the saga is known. And we like what is familiar and dear to us; the enduring power of Star Wars proves as much. Yet there were moments during the long-awaited Rise when I felt that the film’s evocation of the past, the familiar, and the nostalgic no longer hit the mark. None of the #throwbacks in Rise—Lando, Luke’s X-Wing, least of all Palpatine—really made me feel nostalgic. By dredging up the iconography of its past to define (or salvage) the present, Rise simultaneously advocates for a culture of reuse while flaunting conspicuous waste.

It might seem strange to apply a recycling metaphor to the Star Wars franchise, but let’s face it—the movies have always been about trash. I mean, literal junk. In Episode 4, the genesis of Star Wars, R2-D2 comes to Luke via the Jawas, who sell mechanical scraps. The Millenium Falcon is “a piece of junk.” Of course, there’s also the iconic trash compactor scene. But junk is valuable in the saga. The Falcon is precious. You can fix a broken ship using spare parts, janky as they are, and it’s often in the junkiest/jankiest places that you strike gold: Ochi’s ship on Rise, for example, is where Rey and co. find clues that help them get to where they need to go.

But when franchises like Star Wars start to rely on recycling past content, nostalgia begins to feel like a gimmick. Suddenly, the independent-scavenger mentality of finding value in scraps is replaced by the sameness of conveyer-belt manufacturing. Rise depends so heavily on its predecessors that it no longer feels “new.” Yes, the film introduced a number of new characters, the most memorable of which is Jannah, but in its darkest moments, Rise feels disposable.

What does Rise lose by resuscitating Palpatine and killing off all the main villains (I am not counting Kylo Ren as a villain here) of the first two sequels? It shows us that General Hux and Snoke (or at least, the idea of Snoke having a more interesting backstory) never mattered. Instead, there was a bigger villain lurking in the background and masterminding everything all this time. And frankly, the bigger villain is not Palpatine himself, but (and this is where I go off the rails a little bit) the Star Wars capitalist machine. When Palpatine faces Rey towards the end of the movie, he is almost hanging from a mechanical contraption that looks comically staged. Visually, it looks as if some twisted puppeteering is at work, and indeed it is: just as Snoke was Palpatine’s puppet, Palpatine is the Star Wars franchise’s puppet, dropped into the final film to tie together the saga’s strings. The fact that Palpatine’s dialogue very much resembles his lines from Revenge heightens his puppet-ness; he’s like a doll that repeats trademark lines when you push it. When he said “unnatural” and “do it,” I didn’t know whether to put my head in my hands or to laugh. (J.J. Abrams wrote/”rehashed” the dialogue for that scene, by the way; more on my beef with him later).

The irony of Rise is that the film, despite its “recycling” tactics, exposes the privilege (and wastefulness) of capitalist consumerism; you can afford to throw things away or be careless because you know you’ll be able to buy something similar later or even get it back. In some ways, modern technology has made us less afraid of losing things. But it’s also made us wasteful—wasteful of material objects and of ideas. Like, you can say that Rey’s parents were “nobody” in Episode 8 and then backtrack to say that she’s actually Palpatine’s granddaughter in Episode 9. Or, you can wipe C-3PO’s memory and then back it up later safely. It’s like accidentally deleting a photo and then finding it again in a file called “recently deleted” (I’ve done this). It’s like submitting a final draft of a paper via Google Docs and then going back to edit the document even after the deadline (I have not done this). Capitalism makes us apathetic.

Seeing Lando, Han, Luke, the X-Wing, Palpatine, and more in Rise didn’t always make me feel nostalgic; I felt exhausted. Don’t get me wrong; I think attention to history is vital, and I have boundless appreciation for the detail-oriented references in Rise. Show me a trick once, and it’s magic; but use it over and over, and it becomes a gimmick. As my former professor Sianne Ngai argues in her book Theory of the Gimmick, “gimmicks strike us as both working too little (e.g., as labor-saving “tricks”) but also as working too hard (overstrained efforts at getting our attention).” It’s a lot of effort to bring back a cast of old characters for Rise, but it’s also lazy. So many of the major turning points in this film occur because someone from the past makes it happen: Lando brings a massive fleet of rebels to fight the imperial fleet, Han’s memory-ghost has a moment with Ben, Luke stops Rey from chucking her lightsaber into the fire, Palpatine becomes the sequels’ new/old villain, etc. The rehashed lines from previous films, reused tropes, and revived characters feel like labor-saving devices that piece Rise together. This method of reusing and recycling does not promote sustainability; instead, it feels like regression. By having Rey be a Palpatine or a Skywalker, the film doesn’t allow the saga or its new characters to go anywhere new. We are stuck in the lineage of the past, forever lightspeed skipping between different allusions. Perhaps that’s just the fate of a film like Rise, which is tasked with the difficult job of bringing the whole saga to a close (for now). But I do think that Episodes 7-9 have given us the opportunity to see a different side of the galaxy in ways that are more nuanced and contemporary. I love that we get to see behind the mask of stormtroopers. I love that our understanding of the “force” changes with every movie, such as through the force bonding in The Last Jedi. I love that the protagonist is a strong, independent, and complex woman, played by the amazing Daisy Ridley. Episode 9 had the potential, maybe, to be a more daring movie.

But Star Wars is no longer just a movie. It’s a phenomenon. It’s a franchise. It’s Disney. It’s hierarchies of power. It’s a capitalist product that needs audience appeal to succeed (related: Scorsese recently wrote a controversial op-ed about Marvel’s capitalist tendencies). How do you watch a film and get lost in it when you know so much about its production and real-world context? It was difficult for me to watch Han Solo appear in the final movie while knowing that Harrison Ford probably did not want to be there. And it was weird to watch Carrie Fischer’s scenes knowing that Abrams had to build part of the plot around her leftover dialogue from previous movies. It’s also super upsetting to know that Abrams pulled nepotism cards to cast his pals in this film, at the expense of characters like Rose who got brutally sidelined, treated as disposable. Sadly, Palpatine puts it best: there’s something “unnatural” about Rise. The moments I loved most were the ones that felt the most human and original: like Finn (one of my favorite characters) slowly but surely realizing he is force-sensitive. Or Ben slamming his cheek on the Sith tomb and saying “ow.” Now would also be a good time to mention that I have a massive crush on Adam Driver, who brings such tenderness and humanity to Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. Which brings me to the #Reylo kiss, a big and controversial audience-appeal moment in the film. Some might loathe it. But Driver and Ridley are utterly convincing, and the sexual tension that has been building up between them since Episode 7 grows with every scene. At the end of the day, they are fighting the same enemy—Palpatine, the villain of the past who tries to feed off their dyad power, who symbolizes the ghost that haunts any film that follows successful predecessors.

Rise is many things; the end (for now) of a 9-episode saga, a gimmick, a love story, fan service, a box office hit, etc. Despite its flaws (and my harsh-ish review), it is also entertaining, moving, beautifully filmed, and supported by an incredible cast that gave the film the humanity it needed. I laughed, cried, and gasped. What I loved about Star Wars is still what I love about Star Wars—its soundtrack, its optimism, its empathy. It’s been incredible to grow up with the saga and see the characters of the original trilogy mature across different movies. Rise is flawed, but why shouldn’t it be? Perhaps, at the end of this review, I should also embrace the light/dark tension that characterizes every Star Wars movie. After all, what makes Rise problematic is also what makes it an apt representation of the complicated, ever-changing, imperfect world that we live in—one that wants to hold on to the past even as it lightspeeds into the future, one that is often exploitative but also admirably just, one that is effortlessly cynical but also boundlessly hopeful. Rise does a beautiful job of showing (yes, even through its #throwback cameos) that we do not have to be alone… that the force can bring people together, even in the darkest of times. So, on that note… may the force be with you.

Lost in the Woods / j’ai perdu le nord / 森林迷路

To my little sister’s chagrin, I have had “Lost in the Woods” from Frozen II stuck in my head since I watched the film on Saturday. Sung by Kristoff, who is voiced by the amazing Jonathan Groff, “Lost in the Woods” is the movie’s scene-stealer. In a sequel that ventures mostly into familiar territory, despite the titular song (“Into the Unknown”), “Lost in the Woods” is a surprising, charming, and hilarious tangent—one that showcases Groff’s impeccable vocals, is animated like an 80s’ boyband music video, and brings the usually-reticent reindeers to life as background singers. In a movie musical that seems built for the stage, “Lost in the Woods” is a refreshingly relatable ballad that is closer to Queen and Air Supply than Broadway. The song does for Frozen II what “I’ll be Back” did for Hamilton: surprise us with a musical number that isn’t like what we’re hearing in the rest of the musical (note: Groff plays both Kristoff and King George). So: the sweet boyband spot that the song hits, coupled with Groff/Kristoff’s undeniable charm, make “Lost in the Woods” my song of December 2019. And let’s face it: I am certainly feeling a little “lost in the woods” at the end of the decade!

I could go on about other reasons why this song rocks. The electric guitar twang, the multiple chordal shifts, the piano, etc. But what I really want to talk about today is “Lost in the Woods” in translation.

As a global monopoly/enterprise, Disney relies on translation to reach its international audience. It is no surprise that, when Frozen first came out, the 25-language version of “Let It Go” went viral on Youtube. I am a massive fan of “Libérée, délivrée” (the French version), and I find “随它吧” (the Chinese version) hilarious. So, I decided it would be fun to also look up the French and Chinese versions of “Lost in the Woods.” I’ve included all three versions below. The point of this post is to 1) have some fun, 2) discuss music in translation 3) and get to the bottom of what makes me like “Lost in the Woods” so much. Reading a text you like in translation helps you learn about why you like it—you’ll see!

Again, you’re gone, off on a different path than mine
I’m left behind, wondering if I should follow

You had to go, and of course it’s always fine
I probably could catch up with you tomorrow
But is this what it feels like to be growing apart?

When did I become the one who’s always chasing your heart?

Now I turn around and find I am lost in the woods
North is south, right is left,
when you’re gone
I’m the one who sees you
but now I’m lost in the woods
And I don’t know what path you are on
I’m lost in the woods

Up ’til now the next step was a question of how
I never thought it was a question of whether
Who am I, if I’m not your guy?
Where am I, if we’re not together forever?
Now I know you’re my true north, ’cause I am lost in the woods
Up is down, day is night, when you’re not there

Oh, you’re my only landmark, so I’m lost in the woods
Wondering if you still care
But I’ll wait for a sign that I’m on your path
‘Cause you are mine (you are mine)
Until then, I’m lost in the woods
I’m lost in the woods
I’m lost in the woods
Quand tu t’en vas
Que tu prends un nouveau chemin
Je ne suis plus rien
Je ressens comme un grand frisson

Je pense à nous
Je me dis que tout va bien
Peut-être que je me fais des illusions

Je ne sais plus quoi faire
Lorsque la vie nous sépare
Je suis comme un vieux bateau
Qui guette la lumière du phare

Je suis comme une boussole
Qui a perdu le nord, et le sud
L’est et l’ouest
Quand tu pars
Je savais lire dans le ciel
Mais là j’ai perdu le nord
Et bientôt l’espoir de te revoir
J’ai perdu le nord

Autrefois, notre amour était une évidence
Le doute n’avait jamais montré tant de ferveur
Je suis là, si tu veux de moi
Je suis là, pour t’offrir le meilleur
Pas des fleurs

C’était toi ma vraie boussole
Parce que j’ai perdu le nord
Je ne sais plus où je suis
Quand tu t’en vas

Plus rien ne me console
Et j’ai perdu le nord
Est-ce qu’un jour
Tu reviendras
J’attendrai tu verras
Ton vrai chemin
C’est avec moi
Car sans toi
J’ai perdu le nord
J’ai perdu le nord
J’ai perdu le nord
J’ai perdu le nord
我世界 日和夜

Note: I could not find the names of the lyricists who translated the French and Chinese versions. #NameTheTranslator. I also chose to use the Mainland Chinese version of this song mostly because the audio was more HD.

The first thing to note about “Lost in the Woods” is that the song is situated in the actual forest, i.e. Kristoff sings it when he is literally lost in the woods. And yet, the phrase “lost in the woods” mostly carries figurative significance; the idiom “out of the woods” (the title of a Taylor Swift song, by the way, did you think I wasn’t going to point that out?) means that one is no longer in a dangerous predicament. The rest of the song is deeply figurative, too; lines such as “you’re my only landmark” and “you’re my true north” suggest that Kristoff is lost in the woods because he has literally and figuratively lost Anna, his compass (“ma vraie boussole” in the French). So, the woods are merely the setting, and not the reason, why he is “lost.” Given the figurative function of the woods, how important are they, anyway, to the song?

It is fascinating to observe that “woods” do not appear a single time in the French translation of the song. Here’s a simple transliteration of the French version that I found online (note: “a big thrill” in the first stanza is more like “a great shiver”). Seriously—not even a tree. Instead, the song is titled after the idiom “perdre le nord” (to lose the North), which means to lose direction. So, the French translation takes after the original by adopting its idiomatic, figurative quality. In fact, most of the french translation is full of metaphors that don’t exist in the original. Instead of “is this what it feels like to be growing apart….” we get “when life separates us, I am like an old boat watching for the lighthouse’s glow.” The idea of watching for the lighthouse’s light is like “chasing your heart.” That’s actually beautiful. All in all, I find “Perdu le nord” quite a genius translation, given that North-ness is inherent in the original song—lines such as “North is South,” “you’re my true North” make “North” an important part of the woods anyway.

Compare what the French translators have done to the Chinese version, which keeps the “woods” in the song. “I’m lost in the woods” translates literally to “我在森林迷路“ (wo zai sen lin mi lu), which is quite fortuitous since “woods” and “路” (lu) share a vowel rhyme (ish). Interestingly, whereas the English and French versions repeat the same refrain, be it “lost in the woods” or “perdu le nord”, the Chinese version switches it up a little bit. It alternates between “在森林迷路” (lost in the woods) and “找不到出路” (zhao bu dao chu lu / cannot find the way out). Both end with the same character, “路”, so it works. The variation sonically/musically works in the Chinese, too—something about repeating “lost in the woods” over and over in Chinese feels odd (maybe because it isn’t an idiom?). Fun fact: the Taiwanese/Mandarin version of “Lost in the Woods” is titled 森林迷途, which also means “lost in the woods,”but uses 迷途(mi tu) instead of 迷路 (mi lu). The difference between both is negligible, but I personally think the “l” sound of “lu” works better when you’re singing that lllllong note…

Something I like to do when comparing works in translation is to see how my favorite line translates into different languages. I am obsessed with “up ’til now the next step was a question of how / I never thought it was a question of whether.” Listening to the French (Autrefois, notre amour était une évidence / Le doute n’avait jamais montré) and the Chinese (到現在 / 我想問如何找到未來 / 我從未想過這到底應不應該), I have a more nuanced idea of why I like that line so much. It’s not just the way it begins the second verse, musically; it has to do with the rhymes/diction itself. The rhyme between “now” and “how” hits a sweet spot for me, and I get that in the Chinese with 在 (zai) and 來 (lai). There’s even a third rhyme in the Chinese at the end with 該 (gai). The French version doesn’t quite hit these rhymes, but that’s okay. I personally also think the multi-syllabic nature of “évidence” in the French throws me off a bit, whereas the English and Chinese remain nicely monosyllabic at the end of the first line: “how” and “ 來 .” I think my ear is also looking for the repetition of “question,” which stands out because it’s a nice, crunchy word. There’s no crunchy repetition of any word in the French version of this lyric. In Chinese, the special character that is repeated is 未,which means “future” in the first instance (未來)and “have yet” (從未)in the second. This is super clever, but I almost feel as if it gets lost amid the other monosyllabic words repeated in the lines: “我想問如何找 /未想過這底應不應該.” Nonetheless, maybe I’ll appreciate the doubling more when I listen to it again later. Finally, I think another reason why I like line so much in English is that I just think the word “whether,” especially in contrast with “how,” is so great. I also like how “ferveur” in in the French rhymes with “whether.” So, all this is to say: comparing how a line you love lives in different translations is a productive way to get to the bottom of what makes it shine; and to appreciate how it transforms in other iterations.

As someone who loves to translate form and rhyme, I find song translations a work of art. It’s fascinating to compare how “Lost in the Woods” takes on a highly figurative life in French, and to see how the song operates in Chinese, which is a language that makes rhyming effortless.

Ultimately, regardless of the language we’re reading, we can agree that the feeling of being “lost in the woods” is universal. There’s a reason why Dante’s 14th-century Inferno still mesmerizes us with its opening lines: “In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself astray in a dark wood” (tr. Seamus Heaney). And, just as Dante’s Inferno has captivated translators and translation scholars worldwide, perhaps the many translations of Disney songs are what help the franchise hold on to its magic today.