A cool thing I discovered after seeing The Force Awakens a second time is that I don’t really care about anybody else’s opinion of The Force Awakens.
Really, though, you don’t care about my opinion of it, either. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you need to stop reading this right now. I’m still somewhat amazed by how well Disney & Lucasfilm have managed to keep the movie in everybody’s consciousness for months but still keep so much of it a surprise.
If you have seen it and have some criticisms you feel need to be addressed: eh, can’t help you there. When people talk about Star Wars being a “religion” to Nerds of a Certain Age, it’s intended to be derogatory of course, but there’s some truth to it. It’s more than a series of movies and their associated merchandise; it’s a phenomenon. In my case, it literally transformed my life. So when an experience so thoroughly triggers that feeling of unbridled delight that I haven’t felt in decades, I’m going to be a little dogmatic. Either you love it as much as I do, or you’re mistaken.
But if you did love it and just want to read another fan gushing about it, you’ve come to the right place. Watching it filled me with the kind of naked, uncynical, bean-to-bar exhilaration I haven’t gotten from a movie since seeing Big Trouble in Little China or Ghostbusters for the first time in 1986. For a few hours last Friday, I was transported back to Phipps Plaza in 1980 watching the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back and tearing up at the sheer wonder of it all.
A Long Time Ago
Of course, the down side to being picked up and transported back in time to being a wide-eyed nine-year-old in 1980 is having to get dumped back into the body of a 44-year-old in 2015. It’s alarming how dyspeptic and self-important we’ve all become.
It’s not just the wet blankets. We’ve always had those. For fun, read “The Empire Strikes Out” by David Gerrold from Starlog in 1980 and marvel at how much of it has survived and spread today. Neil deGrasse Tyson is on Twitter pushing buttons as unconvincingly as any of the people operating electronics in Star Wars. (To be fair, Gerrold’s question of how would a giant worm living in an uninhabitable asteroid be able to find food is actually kind of interesting on an academic level. Unlike the crusty old tired complaints about sound in space).
And Gerrold’s whole preamble should sound hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s on the internet in 2015. It’s the words of the martyr who knows what he’s saying won’t be popular among the “fanatics,” but he’s just got to share his complaints about the movie.
I’m not sure that I’ll ever understand the mentality of the “apathetic pan,” the need to inform as many people as possible that you don’t like something that’s popular. Or that it was good but not great. Or that it was fun but you have complaints that you’ll present as a list now. I’m not sure how to react to that, either, other than with a shrug and an Ayn Rand-ian “Oh well, sucks to be you.”
The whole phenomenon of “spoiler free reviews” really made it clear how far we’ve gotten away from engaging and analyzing arts and entertainment, and now just broadcast opinions as widely as possible. Last Wednesday, some kind of review embargo lifted, which meant every site on the internet was scrambling to be the first to post their spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens. It was a torrent of reviews that no one would read for a movie that everyone would see.
And I do mean every site. I’m not sure exactly why I’d want to know what the writers of a technology site or a video game blog thought about the new Star Wars movie, but I could absolutely find out, in written, video, podcast, and roundtable discussion format.
But who was the audience for these things? If anyone was on the fence about seeing the movie, they wouldn’t benefit from a positive review because tickets had sold out weeks earlier. Which also meant that people who’d already bought tickets wanted to know as little about the movie as possible. Which means that the critics couldn’t address anything of real substance about the movie for fear of “spoilers.” It’s talking in vague abstracts about a piece of art for which I have no context. That’s more search-engine optimization than film criticism.
I’m not cynical enough to think that it’s all SEO. A lot of it is genuine enthusiasm, the same reason I’m writing this. But that almost makes it more tragic: the idea of getting excited to see a movie and then rushing home to list all the problems you had with it.
Maybe it’s a side effect of being told for years that the stuff we loved was infantilizing and shallow? So we have to somehow prove that we’re able to appreciate The Muppets on a much deeper level. It’s not enough just to enjoy something; we have to be able to deconstruct it. If we’re not being analytical enough, it shows we lack discernment.
Part of it might be a by-product of Star Wars itself. One of the side effects of Star Wars’s unprecedented popularity was a fascination with how the movies were made. We all learned about blue screens and miniatures and matte paintings, and I doubt I was the only kid who went out and banged a wrench against a telephone pole support cable in an attempt to recreate the blaster sound effects like I saw in the “making of.” But instead of inspiring us all to become movie makers, it seems to have encouraged us all to think like movie reviewers.
Whatever the reason, it’s meant that even people who loved the movie need to qualify it somehow. “It’s not perfect,” or “it’s not as good as the first two,” or “it’s fine for what it is.” Which is kind of a drag, because I wish people could just lose their minds over it like I did.
I’ve already resolved to be less reductive about movies (and other art), trying to identify and compartmentalize the one thing that the entire work means. But it goes deeper than that. I’m realizing that I go into everything like an analyst instead of an audience. I’m devoting around 75% of my brain to the experience, and the other 25% trying to think of interesting things to say about the experience later. It’s like viewing every big event through a smartphone screen instead of being in the moment.
(The rest of this is spoiler-heavy. Please don’t read it if you haven’t yet seen the movie).
Have You Felt It?
The reason I bring all that up is… well, it’s to complain, mostly. But it’s also an attempt to help explain why and how I enjoyed the experience so much.
There have been plenty of outstanding movies released over the past few years which have had me completely enraptured by the experience and excited to see multiple times: just off the top of my head, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Avengers, Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
But the experience of seeing The Force Awakens — including the wait in line, the applause at the Lucasfilm logo and cheering at the opening titles, and the eagerness to go see it again the next day — was different. It melted away years of cinema studies classes and blog posts and Twitter comments and “thinkpieces,” and it reminded me that this is how I used to enjoy things.
It was such a profound sense memory that I think dismissing it as just “nostalgia” or “a remake” misses the point to an absurd degree. This seventh entry in a movie series is just a note-for-note recreation of that thing you absolutely adore! One review correctly identified the original Star Wars films as being a pastiche of cinematic history, but then faulted The Force Awakens for just “referencing itself.” As if a filmmaker in the late 70s referencing Akira Kurosawa films is acceptable, while a filmmaker in 2015 referencing an almost 40-year-old film that changed cinema history is too derivative. This is a movie made by Star Wars fans for Star Wars fans. That’s not a fault; it’s an inseparable part of the experience and why it works.
My friend Dave Cobb described The Force Awakens succinctly by saying “it’s not what it does, but how it does it,” and “it rhymes.” You shouldn’t need to pull out the old references to Joseph Campbell and The Hidden Fortress to understand that Star Wars has never aspired to be science fiction, but aspires to be modern mythology. Part of what elevates “an interesting story” to “mythology” is the notion of cycles: the heroes and villains are both participants in this story and manifestations of larger forces that work on a much grander scale. All of this has happened before, and it will happen again. By calling back to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, it elevates those movies to the status of legend and places itself firmly within that universe as the next crucial part of it.
I’ve seen the comment several times that this movie “erases” the prequels. It doesn’t, if only because it mentions clone armies and apparently has Ewan McGregor very briefly voicing Obi-Wan. But more than that, this movie gave me a new appreciation for how difficult it must’ve been to make the prequels a satisfying part of this story. I still can’t say I’m a fan, but I’m now convinced that it would’ve been almost impossible to make a compelling trilogy out of a story for which we all already knew the ending.
When I saw from the trailers that The Force Awakens begins on a desert planet, and from the poster that there’s yet another gigantic doomsday weapon, I expected the worst. One of my least favorite aspects of Return of the Jedi and the prequels was the way they kept going back to the same well over and over: not just another Death Star, but another trip to Yoda, another showdown with Darth Vader. And Tatooine was established in the first film as a remote, desolate backwater, but the story kept going back to it over and over as if anything interesting that happens in the entire universe happens there.
Seeing the concept put into action, though, made it feel familiar but not uninspired, resonant but not a retread. The thought that kept jumping to mind was, Holy shit, I’m watching a new Star Wars movie! For the first time since 1983, I was seeing a Star Wars story where I didn’t know what was going to happen, and more importantly, I cared about what was going to happen. Characters that had been dormant for decades had suddenly come alive again.
I’ve read plenty of stories (in the “expanded universe”) that attempted to continue the stories after Return of the Jedi, but they all felt somehow false. Much of that was just because so much of the stories themselves were silly. But I’m realizing a big part of it was simply that they were off in tone. It requires the balance of personal story, swashbuckling adventure, and galaxy-spanning mythology that’s difficult even for the creator to get exactly right. Hence the prequels’ fascination for showing the details of what happened in the past, without giving us enough investment into why it matters.
A Presence I’ve Not Felt Since….
The Force Awakens did often feel like a barrage of familiar images collected and mostly forgotten over decades of being a Star Wars nerd. That archway from the camp on Jakku is from that Ralph McQuarrie concept painting I had on my bedroom wall! The image of Kylo Ren approaching Finn and Rey in the woods in the dark is a lot like a reverse-angle shot of the cover of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye! But none of it felt inert. It was all being reconstituted and reimagined and turned into something completely new.
Those standout images — Rey sitting outside the overturned AT-AT she’s been living in, the starship wreckage on Jakku — are instantly memorable partly because they take the familiar and show it to us in a way we’ve never seen. (Unlike, for instance, the training drone and the holo-chess table in the Millennium Falcon, which are just references to the first movie). The iconic shot of the X-Wing fighters gathering into attack formation to attack the Death Star is now joined by the shot of the X-Wings flying over the water towards Maz Kanata’s tavern; they’re now both indelible images of Star Wars. Along with TIE Fighters silhouetted against a sunset and the Millennium Falcon swooping through the wreckage of a Star Destroyer.
We’ve already seen that it takes more than interesting spaceship designs to make a Star Wars movie that resonates. If there’s a single defining aspect of Star Wars, it’s that sense of a civilization that’s impossibly ancient. The most cursory take on that is the description of its being “lived in,” where advanced technology is old and dirty, but there’s more to it than that. It’s the assertion that everything fantastic to the audience is absolutely real — even commonplace — to the characters; that the things that inspire awe and wonder in the characters aren’t technology or aliens, but more primal and spiritual things like good and evil and the Force; and it’s the sense that the characters are part of a larger story spanning thousands of years.
Seeing familiar designs and story elements combined in unfamiliar ways is what makes everything feel more alive. Having so many sequences with spaceships flying around in the atmosphere doesn’t just make for memorable images; it makes them feel more real. (The movie even teases us with the first appearance of the X-Wing, loading it up and showing us the familiar cockpit displays, but not letting it take flight until their dramatic entrance over an hour later). The corniest analogy would be that the movies don’t take place in a vacuum, so neither should the spaceship battles. Suck on that, Dr. deGrasse Tyson!
The same goes for seeing all the familiar roles mixed up and recombined. The most surprising to me was seeing the least likely character take up the role of Obi-Wan from the first movie. Twelve-year-old me would’ve been completely devastated by the thought of Han Solo dying, but having it come around full circle made it completely satisfying. It even felt inevitable: it had to happen this way, because this is the best possible arc for both the character of Han Solo and for our new villain.
And again, it’s a perfect example of how The Force Awakens uses reference and reinvention to make a familiar scene stronger. I knew that that was going to happen because of course I did. It’s telegraphed by the bridge over a bottomless chasm, the moment that Han Solo chooses to go back, the young heroes watching from a distance, unable to help, and the final scene between Leia and Han before he leaves. But it was surprising when Obi-Wan let himself be killed by Vader, and it was surprising when Vader revealed himself as Luke’s father and Luke decided to sacrifice himself. This scene wasn’t about surprise; it worked because of the tension and dread that something terrible could happen because we’ve seen terrible stuff happen in scenes like this. And unlike the previous scenes, the point of the scene wasn’t to be a motivating event for Rey. Or for that matter, a defining moment for Han Solo. It was the defining moment for the villain.
Another perfect example: the “stand up and cheer” moment in Star Wars is when Luke Skywalker makes the shot that destroys the Death Star. In The Force Awakens, that’s just used for spectacle. Instead, the “stand up and cheer” moment is when Rey force-pulls a light saber to herself. The image isn’t just something we’ve seen before; it’s iconic: the sword lodged in the snow, a character desperate to reach it, the tension as it just barely moves and wondering will it happen in time? But here, it’s used in a new, even more powerful way: it’s the moment in which the reluctant hero acknowledges her power and takes on the role. (And even just thinking about it right now gave me goosebumps).
Like everybody else, I’d pieced together the bare skeleton of a story based on the images shown in the trailer and early merchandising material. That’s why it was so exciting to see all the ways the story didn’t conform to the version that’d been in my head. These characters had all been static since the final shot of Return of the Jedi, and I’d expected to see their stories continue with “Episode VII.” So it was delightful to be reminded that their stories had already continued and been going on in the 30-odd years I’d been away. An entire trilogy’s worth of adventures has taken place, and the weight and drama of it is all conveyed in the conversations between Han and Leia.
In Star Wars, evidently, the rule is “tell, don’t show.” The single, brief mention of the Clone Wars in A New Hope was more evocative than an entire feature film and two animated series. I watched The Empire Strikes Back again recently, and I was horrified to discover that it’s no longer my favorite of the series; the romantic comedy “banter” that seemed so charming now just came across as stilted and forced. But the dialogue between Han and Leia in The Force Awakens carried decades’ worth of subtext more powerful than the exposition of the lines themselves. These are characters who had loved each other for decades, but more significantly, had known each other for decades. The dialogue is about everything they lost, because that’s a driving element of the plot, but the subtext is about everything they still have.
And obviously, what makes that scene work is that they’re simultaneously playing the characters, the archetypes of the characters “princess” and “rogue,” and the actors who’ve spent the last few decades being superstars because of the roles they’re playing right now. But again, it’d have been foolish to pretend that anything related to Star Wars takes place in a vacuum. Being able to acknowledge all the history and cultural weight and cultural baggage, and not just be reverent to it but to build on it, is what I think makes The Force Awakens so astonishing.
There Is Another
I’ve seen the complaint that The Force Awakens is just a retelling of A New Hope. This is false. It’s a retelling of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and a little bit of Return of the Jedi. While simultaneously introducing three new characters (four if you include BB-8) who are already a crucial part of the whole legend of Star Wars. I desperately want to know what happens next to Rey and Finn, not just as “the next installment of Star Wars,” but because I’m invested in the characters.
If I’m being completely honest: as much as I’ve loved Star Wars, and as often as I dressed up as Luke Skywalker for Halloween as a kid, I was never all that interested in Luke as a character. He’s the protagonist. You like him because you’re supposed to like him, and because of whatever charisma Mark Hamill brought to the role.
In The Force Awakens, the equivalent is actually Poe Dameron. He’s the (infuriatingly handsome) ace pilot good guy who has adventures and is loved by everyone. And significantly: he’s a side character.
Our new heroes, on the other hand, are new. Finn is charming and funny and fallible and indefatigably enthusiastic. Rey is unassuming and effortlessly skilled and more than a little nerdy and more powerful than she realizes. Neither one of them really has a moral compass, because they almost unwaveringly point towards “good.” And unlike any of the earlier movies, they’re not motivated by the desire to be heroes. It feels more that they can’t help but be heroic, even despite their best efforts.
And really, you just can’t say enough about how fantastic Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are in the roles. Adam Driver is surprisingly good as Kylo Ren — surprising not as a criticism of the actor, but simply because Star Wars stories don’t typically allow for any characters to come across as multi-layered or conflicted, much less villains. One of the best illustrations of the confidence and maturity of this movie is the whole “Force mind-reading” scene between Kylo Ren and Rey. There’s no dialogue, just sound effects, camera work, and subtle changes in expression between the actors.
And I knew that Oscar Isaac could play a charming smartass after Inside Llewyn Davis, but it’s neat to see an actor so completely and thoroughly get what makes a character work. (For that matter, he was in Sucker Punch and applied what I call “The Carla Gugino Method:” taking a shit part in a terrible movie and making it memorable by being unafraid to get completely invested in it). Poe Dameron is so two-dimensional that he’s barely a character, but Isaac seems to get how and why a character like that is crucial for Star Wars. All of the bromance with Finn, and the “let’s figure out how to blow up the new Death Star” dialogue could’ve come across as hopelessly stilted as anything in A New Hope, but Isaac (and Boyega) are able to just run with it.
Which reminds me of the biggest revelation: a Star Wars movie that’s actually witty! All the banter between Finn and Rey and BB-8 that’s combining Star Wars exposition with a romantic comedy “meet cute” is genuinely charming, and not just something that I’m willing to give a pass because I’m getting to see spaceships flying through asteroid fields. The interplay with Han Solo as cranky old man and Finn trying too hard to be the swaggering hero: calling him “big deal” and yelling “That’s not how the Force works!” And the sympathetic nurse taking care of Chewbacca is now one of my favorite scenes in any Star Wars movie.
Even as a life-long Star Wars superfan, I couldn’t imagine having to take on something with as much cultural weight and baggage — not to mention the never-ending grousing and possessiveness of other superfans — and make something that fits solidly into the universe, builds on it, and sets it up as an inexhaustible franchise for the largest entertainment corporation in existence. But for me, The Force Awakens pulled it all off, and did it exceedingly well.
I’d thought that the part of me who could see a movie three times in four days, and who still got an electric tingle at the sight of the Star Wars logo and opening crawl, had died a long time ago. This movie proved that he’s still there, buried under decades of cynicism and hyper-critical nonsense. I love that it’s back. I love thinking of little girls and boys getting excited to dress up as Rey and Finn, and thinking of their enjoyment and aspiration to make great things, instead of just dismissing it as “corporate merchandising.” I love thinking about stories and not franchises, anticipation and not advertising, cultural touchstones instead of box office gross.
And most of all, I love being able to not give a damn whether it’s okay for me to love it as much as I do. Which means that this go-round is even better than it was when I was an insecure pre-adolescent. As Jabba would say: Yay for me.