Directors: JJ Abrams and Dr. Peter Anderton, MS-MFT; Cast: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Max von Sydow, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker
Dr. Peter Anderton, MS-MFT, began his thesis of a correlation between Star Wars and major depression in 1999 upon the wide release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Sitting in the audience with his then-wife, who left to “go get popcorn” at the two-hour mark and never came back, Dr. Anderton noticed every actor’s line delivery was uniformly flat, disaffected, and fatigued. “Even when someone would scream,” Dr. Anderton writes in his published journal, Need Help, You Do, “the scream held a certain low self-esteem, as if they are regretting the sound they’re making before they even make it.”
Anderton used the abundance of free time following his divorce to further explore the similarities between the multi-billion dollar franchise and the three hundred-fifty million person mental disorder. Both are handed down through generations and tend to reoccur throughout a lifetime. Both appear in a person’s life at a young, impressionable age. Both tend to link to decreased physical activity and affect all aspects of the patient’s life. Star Wars mythology bears a mysterious phenomenon known as “The Force” which, like clinical depression, is diagnosed through biochemical causes, but similarly to doctors’ attempts to trace depression back to preordained chemical imbalances, the theories prove oversimplified and dissatisfying.
Star Wars embodies one of the central tell-tale signs of major depression: the complete loss of interest in things once found enjoyable. Beloved past-times like fighting with lightsabers and soaring through galaxies begin to feel like crushing routines to fill the day until transitioning from hypderdrive to hypersomnia to sleep for fourteen hours straight under multiple moons.
Upon the announcement of the encroaching seventh film directed by JJ Abrams, Dr. Anderton saw an unprecedented opportunity to collect data regarding the Star Wars-depression link. He received a Genius Grant to buy round-trip airfare to the production offices in London and pitch a behind-the-scenes documentary to JJ Abrams. In the doc’s earliest footage, Abrams looks up from an enormous stack of papers–many of which feature hand-drawn spaceships and scribbled notes like, “Which one is Luke again?”–to regard Dr. Anderton with irritation. (Dr. Anderton notes irritability as a common side effect of both depression and a studio setting a release date for a movie before a script is finished.) When it eventually becomes clear that Anderton is not a rabid fan trying to leak secrets to movie blogs, JJ agrees on-camera to let Dr. Anderton film with a wave of his hand and the word, “Yeah,” repeated fifteen times in one breath as he returns to his work.
Days later, Anderton and his camera crew keep to the background as the newly announced cast of Episode VII shuffles into a room with several chairs positioned in a circle. The day would constitute most of Anderton’s documentary, doubling as both a table read for the Star Wars script and a group therapy session for Anderton’s study. The footage begins, due to legal reasons, immediately following the reading. As JJ says, “The End,” cueing that one Star Wars song, whatever it’s called, and rolling credits, the actors all shut their scripts and look around. Silence lingers. The R2-D2 clock on the wall ticks away noisily. Someone, most likely Mr. Boyega, clears his throat.
The newer recruits to the Star Wars universe exchange looks, daring one another to speak first. Von Sydow, the classically trained Swiss actor, speaks with the gravity of a serious thespian. “What does ‘poo-doo’ mean?” he asks slowly. “Poop,” JJ replies. Von Sydow refrains from asking another question for the following two hours. More silence.
Driver raises his hand to ask a question. “WHOA! Careful, Adam,” JJ laughs, “You’re gonna slap somebody with the Force!” He’s the only one who laughs, but he continues to.
“I just had a question about my character,” Driver continues. “Did he name HIMSELF Darth Frown? Or…”
“No,” JJ responds, rubbing his eyes as he flips through a stack of notes, “the Emperor or somebody gave him that name.”
“But… does a ‘frown’ have a negative association in this universe? Like it does in ours? I mean… they don’t consider themselves bad guys, right? A villain doesn’t do what they do to be villainous; they have personal motivations that they use to justify their actions and points of view. But they give themselves names like…” he flips through some pages, “Darth Meanie, Darth Nonono, Darth Frustrated…”
“Hey, Darth Questions,” JJ interrupts, “It’s a little late in the game to point that out. We already have the action figures made.” JJ’s assistant quickly produces a Darth Frown action figure from a briefcase locked to her wrist and hands it to Driver. He stares at the figure’s lifeless eyes intently.
Here we see where the older generation of majorly depressed actors responds to their disorder with effort, but familiarity. Hamill sobs a bit as he rereads a page toward the center of the script, but no tears come. Fisher looks back and forth from the clock to the door in anticipation. Ford, silent except for his labored breathing, flips through each page of his script studiously. One of Dr. Anderton’s B-cameras captures, in close-up, a tiny paycheck stapled to every page of Mr. Ford’s screenplay, which he tabulates carefully.
Isaac, recently of Inside Llewyn Davis, stares at the floor. Eager to lift his spirits, JJ jokes, “Who needs an Oscar nomination when you get to have a laser-sword thing, huh, Oscar?” JJ laughs, but Oscar doesn’t.
Daisy Ridley plays a Jedi named Anhedonia who only fights the evil forces of the galaxy during manic episodes. On off-days, she self-medicates with cheap, easily attained liquor called “astrohol.” JJ asks her if she has any questions and she replies, a bit tersely, that she intends to get into character immediately following the reading.
Ultimately, Dr. Anderton’s unflinching case study into Star Wars-related depression is an enlightening argument for research toward a cure. Though it’s an exhausting trial to endure the film’s real time record, it inspires as much empathy in the viewer as you possibly can when the victims in question are receiving multiple new houses as side effects of their illness. But where does Dr. Anderton himself land on the spectrum of mental illness? In a revealing bit of narration at the end, Dr. Anderton professes a deep sympathetic sentiment towards current and future victims of Star Wars Episode VII, saying, “I remember how crestfallen I felt after the last Twilight book came out.”
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Eric Stolze hails from Southern Illinois. He studied film and creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and has since landed in Los Angeles. He tries to be sincere instead of cynical and sometimes succeeds. He tries to drink tea instead of coffee and fails miserably. He tries to pursue his passion for writing and directing films… let’s watch what happens.