THE FORCE AWAKENS gives new hope to a cynic

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens

“People will come Rey. This story, these characters; it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of all that once was good and it could be again.” – Field of Dreams (substituting Star Wars for baseball) 

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It’s exciting to care about Star Wars again.

I was 4 years old when I was first transported to a galaxy far, far away. The year was 1980, the movie was The Empire Strikes Back and I didn’t weigh enough to keep my seat from flipping up. My father bought my ticket and his friend vocally expressed how annoyed he was that a kid was tagging along for what was the movie event of the year. The lights dimmed, the curtain pulled apart, and I would be forever changed.

 

It’s now 35 years later and Star Wars and I have been through some ups and downs. A lot of people don’t remember the early 90s, but Star Wars was gone. Sure, it was a touchstone for a generation but by the late 80s, it was as relevant to my teenage years as big wheels and recess. By the time I was 13, to openly admit to playing video games would conjure dirty looks but the very mention of Star Wars was tantamount to having herpes. You’d be untouchable after such an admission. It was a dark time to be a nerd. So when Star Wars started to make a resurgence in 1991 I felt a mix of shame and hope.

 

The return of Star Wars started small—a super Nintendo cartridge here a pinball machine there. When the special editions were released in theaters in 1997, and the prequels were announced to be filming, I had grown beyond caring what the ‘cool’ people thought. High School was over and Star Wars was part of who I was. It’s the movie that made me dream and I was through denying my love. Star Wars became the olive branch that forged new friendships in my life. It was the lighthouse that connected me with like-minded dreamers. We watched that trilogy on the big screen and we were children again. All our worries were left behind. All our cynicism forgotten. Nothing could take that feeling away.

 

And then the prequels came.

 

I can’t describe what it was like back in 1999. The hype was unparalleled and there was electricity in the air. Star Warswas back and it was finally acceptable to like it. The public anticipation to Episode I felt like a vindication. Not only would the new films touch a new generation of fans but they would build upon the legacy of the original trilogy. But that’s not what happened. I watched the movie opening night and something didn’t feel right, and long after the credits rolled something certainly didn’t sit right. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to stepping into the Twilight Zone. I was given an ironic punishment. All my life I wanted Star Wars to be accepted. I wanted to recapture more of that magic. The Phantom Menace gave me light sabers, familiar characters, iconic sound effects, aliens, space battles, and robots that all looked great, but it was oh so soulless.

 

And don’t forget the music. Oh, what a cruel tease.

 

You can’t image how amazing it was to listen to John Williams Duel of the Fates a month before the release of The Phantom Menace and have your hopes raised and your imagination carried away with the perfection of that suite. John Williams brought his “A game” and it only made the mediocrity of the event so much more conflicting. The only thing worse than being disappointed with the prequels was the months of denial I endured after having seeing them. I kept trying to look on the bright side—that was an amazing duel with Darth Maul after all—but all I could think was that I everything I had cared about was a load of crap. I was an impressionable child who was deceived by pulpy schlock designed to sell me toys. Star Wars was the last vestige of my childhood I had been holding onto and now, i guess, it was finally time to grow up.

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Of course, I went to see Revenge of the Sith in 2005 and I enjoyed the occasional internet mash-up, but the reality was I had made my peace with Star Wars. I had kissed it goodnight and placed a pillow over its lobotomized face. And then more than a decade later something impossible happened. George Lucas, who sat on the rights like a greedy dragon, sold the franchise to Disney. “Oh boy. Here we go,” I thought. “Let’s bleed the I.P. for everything they’ve got. Let’s make a Star Wars every year forever until it loses all meaning”. I had become so bitter towards Star Wars and its ubiquity in pop culture that I was secretly hoping the new film would fail miserably. And yet I was curious. What if? What if it could be good? Clearly, Disney making a new Star Wars trilogy was a cynical cash-grab and yet they had done right by Marvel. The Avengers and the MCU* movies were always entertaining, occasionally surprising and often quite good. What if they could lend that influence to Star Wars?

But no. I wanted no part of it. I wouldn’t have my heart broken again. I accepted that there would be a new film, a sequel to ROTJ even, but I had my defenses firmly built up. And then I saw the first trailer (not the teaser but the actual first trailer) and my nostalgic heart started to beat. I didn’t let my guard down because who would want to be hurt all over again, but I did begin to take notice. Finally, that 3rd trailer came out, the one that starts quiet and finally builds with the classic Empire themes and I felt genuine excitement. I knew I was setting myself up a fall, but the force was calling to me. I just had to let it in.

So now, after all that, The Force Awakens is finally here and I’m feeling relieved. It may have been ten years since episode III was released, but it’s the first time in twenty-two years that I can say I’ve seen a new Star Wars film.

 

The Force Awakens feels like a Star Wars film. It feels right.

 

I have to applaud J.J. Abrams for accomplishing what I considered to be an impossible task: pleasing everybody**. There are multiple generations of fans who have been inspired by Star Wars. There are die-hard fans that prefer the prequels. There are those, like me, who were burned and had given up. How do you get everyone invested not only in coming back for episode 7 but also 8, 9 and etcetera? Sure you can build sets in the desert, you can shoot on film and you can recreate the Millennium Falcon but how do you make people invested? How do you get us to care? I’m going to make an oversimplification and tell you why I’m excited about Star Wars again: the characters.

 

Star Wars is continuing a story that concluded three decades ago and that means it needs to pass the torch. You have to introduce the new but pay homage to the old. And though the sight of Chewbacca, C3P0, Leia and Han Solo stirred my sentimental side the new heroes and villains actually captured my interest. Going in, they were a complete unknown, but they ended up being my favorite part of the film. Sure, the prequels cast some fine actors but my sympathy for them only extended so far. What’s amazing about The Force Awakens is how I immediately became endeared to Poe, Finn, Rey and BB8. Screenwriters Arndt, Abrams, Kasdan created some wonderful new characters that echo the attitudes and relationships of the original trilogy but have their own unique voice. This familiar spirit combined with some fresh characterization gave the charming new cast a lot to build upon. Not only are the new actors talented but also their chemistry with one another is unmistakable and it really harken back to what I loved about the original trilogy and what was sorely lacking from the prequels: a sense of friendship.

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It was refreshing for me to see the teamwork and enthusiasm of Luke, R2, Leia and Han mirrored so seamlessly in The Force Awakens. I was so invigorated to be once again invested in an adventure with a band of plucky, mismatched rebels that I instantly believed in these new heroes. They felt like real people. People with hopes and fears and everything in between. It’s such a simple concept of filmmaking and yet clearly one of the hardest things to pull off. If you can get an audience invested in the characters then you can get them to forgive a lot of little things. Once I found myself caring about Poe, Finn, and Rey the occasional lapses in logic didn’t matter to me. I was along for the ride.

 

And what a ride. The original Star Wars (episode IV A New Hope) had a simple, but very propulsive plot with a brisk sense of pacing. By comparison, The Force Awakens is as nimble as womp rat. The pace is so brisk you barely have time to catch your breath between set pieces. Much of the beats of the plot of The Force Awakens parallel the originalStar Wars and there is a lot to introduce, but as much ground as there is to cover the movie does it in an efficient and effective manner. The film also succeeds at paying respect to what came before, but I never once found myself annoyed by belabored fan service like with J.J.’s Star Trek: Into Darkness. The Force Awakens nicely balances the old with the new but in a much more successful execution than the prequels. It helps that the story is a continuation of the original characters and not a prologue or an awkward hand-off between a former and future cast like 1994’s Star Trek: Generations. The past story has influenced the present and there is definitely a strong feeling of investment in this narrative’s (once again) unknown future.

 

Much of this exciting, uncharted territory stems from the new villain Kylo Ren. Star Wars has always been a fable with familiar archetypes but also light on complexity. The Force Awakens is very much a return to a straightforward battle between good vs. evil than the Machiavellian shenanigans of the prequels but this time evil has definitely become more complicated. What’s fascinating about Kylo Ren is that, like the audience, he is familiar with how iconic Darth Vader was as a villain. I remember criticizing the design of the character when I saw the early advertising but within the context of the film his costume, speech, behavior and motivation have much more meaning than I had assumed. Ren is an unusual but captivating bad guy. Nearly every scene he was featured in flipped my expectations or assumptions. Oh all the characters in The Force Awakens he intrigued and surprised me the most.

I have a few complaints but they either boiled down to nitpicks or require further thought after I rewatch the movie. One thing I found curious was that The Force Awakens ends on a cliffhanger. I was excited by the ending but upon reflection I wondered it that ending would have been considered unforgivable just a few years earlier. I feel like serialized television in the last decade has conditioned audiences to not expect closure. Other issues I had stemmed from this type of storytelling. Some mysteries are never resolved, many past details are left ambiguous and some characters felt underused (or wasted) until you consider they are being set up sequels. Max von Sydow immediately stood out in this regard. I also had issue with some questionable CGI, a recycled third-act threat and the lack of details regarding the state of the galaxy post-Return of the Jedi.

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These are all forgivable qualms but there is a big problem I have to address and it isn’t even one I noticed until after it was pointed out to me. I walked out of the theater very satisfied but I’ve since wondered if, with a little bit of tweaking,The Force Awakens couldn’t have been even better. A strong narrative involves heightened stakes, characters facing challenges, overcoming them and growing as people. If you don’t believe the characters are in danger of losing then the stakes are very low and when the stakes are low there is no drama. That is the basics of storytelling but so many times you can get wrapped up in spectacle that you don’t realize you’ve lost your investment. I still get chills when Luke is in the trench at the end of a New Hope, but as much as I like Rey, I never really felt like she was in danger of losing by the third act. Worst of all, the big battle felt more like a backdrop to her personal conflict and that reminded me more of the finale of Phantom Menace than Return of the Jedi.

 

Rey amazingly accomplished more in one movie than it took Luke in three. I’m willing to let it slide (for now) because I think there’s more to her backstory than we know, but I would have liked to have seen more flaws in her character. Remember, as we all know the best Arnold Schwarzenegger movie is Predator because it’s the only film where he barely wins. Overcoming weakness and rebounding from your lowest point is what makes us love heroes and I really want to keep rooting for Rey. I just thought she was never really at the end of her rope. Here’s hoping she gets backed into a corner and gets her hand cut off in the next movie. The Matrix sequels got a lot less interesting when Neo couldn’t lose.

The most important thing I can say about The Force Awakens is with a run time of 2 hours and 16 minutes I didn’t want it to end. It was a return to a universe I loved. I wanted to spend more time in this world. I wanted to have more time with the old characters and get to know these new characters better. I wanted to see where the adventure goes from here. I walked out of the theater with a smile on my face. I can’t wait to see it again. I’m looking forward to what comes next but for now I’m relieved to once again be happy to be a Star Wars fan. It’s been a long, bumpy journey, but I think it’s safe to say J.J. did it. He pulled the car out of the ditch and got us back on the road. He made it okay to believe in the power of Star Wars again and, oh, what a wonderful feeling.

 

*Marvel Cinematic Universe

 

** Well, technically he didn’t. There are some cry babies out there but for the most part there’s something in this movie for everybody.

 

Reelization: Between the flat compositions of the staged prequels and the relatively straightforward filming of the originals, J.J.’s dynamic camera work and blocking was somewhat jarring but welcome. Also, for those that criticize his abilities as a director, one of the films most memorable scenes had a weight and a tension that I doubt a lesser talent could have achieved.

 

People will come Rey. They’ll go to the movies for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up at the cineplex not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at the box office as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you see the movie, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and the Force they lack. And they’ll walk into the theatre; sit in “Han Shot First” shirts on a Winter afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere in one of the auditoriums, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the film and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Rey. The one constant through all the years, Rey, has been Star Wars. Blockbusters have rolled by like an army of steamrollers. They have been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But Star Wars has marked the time. This story, this franchise: it’s a part of our past, Rey. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Rey. People will most definitely come. – Darth Vader

 

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