Spoiler alert, in a sense
In the newest installment of Star Wars, “The Force Awakens,” I was struck by a minor detail that recurred throughout the film: the awkward aeronautics of the prized starship the Millennium Falcon, and its counterintuitive affinities with the ground.
When we are first (re)introduced to the iconic circle-with-spurs ship, it is referred to as “garbage,” and can be seen with drab tarps hanging off the gnarly (if stirringly familiar, to some) fuselage. It is only after a more desirable ship is blown up that the characters veer off and board the dilapidated Falcon.
When Rey (Daisy Ryder), the heroine of this new movie, blurts out that she is a pilot and can fly the Falcon, it is a relief for her newfound comrade qua ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), as well as for audiences who are gripped in their seats as Tie Fighters strafe and decimate the desert encampment all around them. As the Falcon lifts off at Rey’s control, memorable quadrilaterals of blue flame emitting from the rear, the ship rises, dips, and scrapes the sandy ground calamitously…before lurching up into the air again, if haltingly. In these suspenseful seconds it is uncertain whether the Falcon is going to fly, or crash. During these moments, the friction between craft and land is shown in illustrious digital detail — only to be disrupted by the Falcon’s impossible ascent into air, graceful as ever.
Later in the film, when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) shows up to take command of the Falcon, we feel at ease, at last. By coincidence, Harrison Ford is actually an established pilot — a pilot who has performed noble mountain rescues, and has crashed a helicopter (and survived). Possibly some of us know this as we see him take the helm of the Falcon; others may simply recall his expert piloting skills in the dicey asteroid belt midway through “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Nevertheless, all his prior experience does not keep Han from similarly banging up the Falcon, in “The Force Awakens.” During the final act of the film, we see Han and Chewy boldly embark on an all-or-nothing mission to land on the new and improved quasi-Death Star, the Starkiller — only to watch the Falcon come out of hyper-drive crashing into an alpine forest and barreling through a pristine snowfield, stopping only as its hull skids up to the edge and nearly off a precipitous cliff face. This is cutting edge science fiction colliding into good old-fashioned American naturalism. And yet still, the Millennium Falcon is able to fly again, undamaged, as the Starkiller explodes and the good guys escape into deep space, all worrisome friction left behind.
What is with these disjunctive scenes, wherein the ever-elusive Millennium Falcon impossibly abrades and crashes into various planetary surfaces, only to reemerge airborne and intact? How exactly is the spectacle of this perilous friction playing to a common (if unspeakable) desire?
These scenes are terrifying and thrilling moments in the film, perhaps in part because they may call to mind (unconsciously, even) recent commercial airliner debacles caught on smartphone video and shared online. To take just one example, consider the case of Asiana Airlines flight 214, July 6 2013, when a Boeing 777 touched down too soon at the San Francisco airport, grazing the seawall before flipping on the runway, breaking off its tail and bursting into flames. The “mishandled landing” ended up killing three people and injuring many others who barely escaped the flaming wreckage. Almost immediately, photographs and videos snapped by survivors on the tarmac went viral; similarly, photos and video footage captured by passengers waiting in the nearby terminal showed the scene from a distance. The unifying aesthetic — blasted runway, crumpled airliner — suggests a readiness to document and almost immediately widely share precisely such a spectacle: the high stakes of friction when it comes to air travel.
The Asiana accident and its digital aftermath evince a strange fascination with seeing commercial airliners after unintended impact. And as smartphone equipped passengers, we are prepared for this, ready to quickly record the niceties of our failed aircraft. The Internet is littered with thousands of similar scenes, widebody airliners askew and crumpled. And aren’t these the very vessels that lend to the Millennium Falcon its uncanny feeling of familiarity and cramped creature comforts? What is the Millennium Falcon, if not a glorified (if still intimately shabby) Boeing or Airbus? And so why do we relish in seeing the Falcon carom off sandy ground, trees, and snow, throughout “The Force Awakens”?
We know that air travel is statistically one of the safest ways to travel; but we also know that when it fails, the results are often fatal, and grizzly. The Millennium Falcon’s near-crash scenes in the “The Force Awakens” satisfy an urge and a desire to see the impossible pulled off: the wingtip chip on takeoff, the botched landing, the sudden plummet, the hard skid across solid ground…all the realities that haunt the everyday routines of modern air travel. We understand that the maintenance of friction upon takeoff or alighting is always a deadly risk — yet we enter into this gamble day in and day out, expecting things to work fine while also so easily mesmerized at the viral spectacles of flight disasters. “The Force Awakens” channels — or feeds into, or both — a new media trend wherein we devour such spectacles. This is the metaphysics of friction, a captivating surreality represented on screens both big and small: it is the failure of flight, and its eager consumption.