Star Wars: The Force Awakens (USA, 2015)

starwarsposterDirected by: J.J. Abrams. [As a disclaimer, I should start by stating that spoilers to the film follow, and also that this post might be my most incoherent, self-indulgent, nerd-rambling of a post I’ve ever done, and if you’d rather just skip it, I couldn’t blame you.]  More than most, there were a lot of emotions swirling around in advance of seeing this movie. Most obviously, this is a new Star Wars movie, and to a certain kind of person, there is no holier grail in all of modern Western (pop) culture. I grew up fanatically obsessed with Star Wars; I saw all three movies on VHS over and over and over (and according to my mom, I saw Episode IV on Beta endless times, so that must be buried deep in my primordial consciousness). When I was about 11 or 12 or so, they released the “Special Edition” versions of all three movies in theatres, which was incredibly exciting. This was definitely the most exciting movie event of my childhood (infinitely more exciting than the prequels, which came later), and yet even at that age, I had been so steeped in the original trilogy that I remember being pretty critical of the changes that George Lucas had effected on his now-mythical creations. While it was neat to see the deleted scene of Jabba the Hutt confronting Han Solo right after he shoots Greedo (and no, I don’t give a shit who shot first), it was also patently cheesy and cartoonish to see that crappy CGI rendering of Jabba. The inconsistency of mixing the original creations with these CGI renderings was offensive to me—I watched those movies because I wanted to believe for 2 hours that all of this was actually going on. I didn’t hate all of it across the board—the “enhanced” Death Star explosion was a bit more snazzy than the original low-budget 1977 explosion—fair enough. And I kind of agreed with Lucas that putting in bright, panoramic windows on some of the walls of the Cloud City to open it up to the grandeur and beauty of the scenery is a welcome change from the budget-restrained claustrophobia of the original. To me, the CGI straw that really virtually broke the CGI camel’s back was Return of the Jedi. Even though I would say that Empire was the “best” of the three, my sentimental favourite was always Jedi. I remember picking it out of the store when I was 5 because it was “the one with the Ewoks in it”, but what really made an impression on me was the first 30 minutes in Jabba’s lair. That was the scariest, creepiest, and weirdest 30 minutes of a movie I’d ever seen and I watched that movie over and over again just to see all of that stuff. I would always be yelling at R2D2 and C3PO not to enter, not to go inside what is clearly the most creepy, doom-filled dungeon in the galaxy. The addition of outright slavery, robot-torture, gangster-intimidation, sexual degradation, gladiatorial bloodsport, etc, to this universe, although uncomfortable, was narratively a really satisfying element (as long as I watched all the way to the end, where the bad guys get blown up and the good guys escape). The moment where Leia strangles Jabba with the chain he used to restrain her is so incredibly satisfying (in my opinion, all the more effective because of the stupid gold bikini, but that’s a discussion for another day). To add a bunch of CGI band members, change the soundtrack (which I loved even better than the Mos Eisley band music), add a few awful cutaway shots with Boba Fett chatting up some dancing girls, adding CGI tentacles to the Sarlacc pit, all of that shit was completely unnecessary and unforgivable, because that sequence was already perfect in my mind. Now, of course, my sentimental attachment to a certain movie is neither here nor there. But I maintain to this day that going back and tinkering with past works, especially to actively destroy and deny your fans access to the original works which they loved in the first place, the works which built the money and cultural adoration and money and money which Lucas will ride into eternity, is at worst tremendously arrogant and disrespectful, both to the fans and to the artform, and at best, fucking lame. As much as I agree with the artist’s “rights” to do whatever they want to do, I think there’s room in that discussion to mention responsibilities, especially when your creations have ballooned to the cultural importance that his have. But all of that aside, I was thinking to myself, “You’re the guy who directed American Graffiti—don’t you have anything fucking better to do than dick around with movies you’ve already fucking made? Don’t you want to, I don’t know, make some movies that aren’t Star Wars? ” Spielberg is great because he’s not fucking around with adding CGI shark fins into Jaws, he’s busy making movies. But that’s another gripe for another day.

And as long as we’re here hashing through my whole fucking life story here, I might as well continue chronologically with the prequels. This issue is kind of the major divisive political issue of pop culture today. Similar to the Format Wars in music (CD’s are lame because they just transport mp3’s, mp3’s are soulless because they  don’t have the warmth of vinyl, vinyl is for fucking hipsters, no vinyl is for fucking mainstream Jack White posers, cassettes are a valid arbitrary mp3 receptacle format, no cassettes are for fucking hipsters, no actually fuck all of the above because streaming is objectively the only sensible way to consume music in the 21st century, etc, barf, etc), the Star Wars Wars have, unbeknownst to me, become a pretty heated political issue, by which I mean, we’re not cutting each other’s heads off over what section of the Bible your family adheres to, or how much involvement you think the King should have in Parliamentary matters, but we are utterly passionate about this garbage. If you don’t get what I mean, the next time you’re at a party, start a conversation about religion, or even politics, with a stranger, and see what an illuminating abstract conversation ensues, and then try voicing some loud opinions about vinyl records and/or your favourite Star Wars movie. So the short version is this: I was pretty excited for the prequels, but was pretty underwhelmed by them. As they unfolded one by one, I was interested, and they appealed to my nerd instincts, but they utterly failed to capture my imagination in the way the original trilogy did. Maybe it was owing more to my personal development into a teenager from a child, but where the original trilogy inspired me to buy and pore over the Essential Guide to Characters, the Tales of the Bounty Hunters book and the entire Han Solo trilogy, the prequels didn’t even inspire me to check out the Clone Wars cartoons (which I hear are legitimately really great). To be fair, by then I was off Star Wars and into music, but I just took it as fact that the prequels were simply of lesser quality than the original. The dense CGI, the meandering and un-archetypal plot, and the awful acting were all pretty major points against it. Years later, I came across those stupid fan videos de-constructing those movies and Lucas himself, and I found satisfaction in them, even as I re-watched the prequels a few years ago, looking for some spark of childlike nerd-wonder. I could sense that, if I invested myself deeply enough, I would get there, but I was in my 20’s, and ultimately, who gave a shit? In the lead-up to this movie, I was made aware of a whole backlash to this form of thought, from people my age and slightly younger, for whom the prequels were the first Star Wars they saw, and I read this article making the case for the films, some points of which I agreed with.

All of that being said, when I first saw the trailer for the new movie, I was incredibly excited. I realized that, in a way, I’ve been waiting for this goddamn movie for my whole life (and if that doesn’t say something pathetic and profound about modern society I don’t know what does). Normally I wouldn’t want to know anything about a movie like this, but I couldn’t help myself, and those tantalizingly short glimpses of a future, post-Jedi world were so satisfying. What was surprisingly not satisfying was the clip of old Han and old Chewie. And this, I’m learning as I reflect in the days and weeks after seeing it (about 10 days ago), is at the centre of my dissatisfaction with The Force Awakens. I walked in the theatre knowing the BIG SPOILER, but I tried my best to put it out of my mind. And I walked out of the theatre, not brimming with satisfaction, but pretty happy overall with the experience. I realized that I was hoping for the movie to make me feel like I felt when I was a kid watching Return of the Jedi, and for a moment I tricked myself into believing that this movie had provided that. But as I sat on it and digested it, and as I saw some pieces of negative criticism crop up online, I realized that this movie, though infinitely more enjoyable for me than the prequels, was still pretty dull and uninspiring. This movie, even as it sets the record for how fast a movie can sell $1 billion of tickets, has been garnering criticism for pandering too much to the conservative anti-prequel fanbase, and re-hashing the “greatest hits” of the original trilogy. The more I digest what I saw, the more I have to admit that, even though I loved it, all of that shit is totally accurate. And ultimately, if I’m honest with myself, I’d have to admit that what made the film remotely good or interesting or exciting was the in-between points, the moments where it echoes the old trilogy, while simultaneously treading new ground with new characters. Let’s not mince words—the best parts of this movie are, in descending order, Daisey Ridley and John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver, and Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. (And, interestingly, this is basically an inverse of the pay of the actors, but that’s a whole other conversation.) That dialogue between Han Solo and Leia, hashing out cliches about their relationship, alluding to a broken marriage which “wasn’t all bad”, etc, I could have really done without all of that. And really, as I thought about it, I realize that, despite my childhood love of Han Solo, it was his inclusion in this that was the weakest aspect of the whole thing.

Let me back up a bit: there were a lot of things that were not great about this film. All polemical nerd articles aside, there were a lot of aspects of this movie that left me pretty disappointed. Even in the theatre, while watching, I found it weird how quickly and without explanation we’re right back where we started: an evil empire and a rebel alliance, just like before. In the opening credits, it doesn’t talk about the snazzy New Republic and trouble starting to brew,  but immediately we’re worried about a neo-fascist “First Order” and a heroic “Resistance” to counter it. And we go from there, plunging head first into the story of a Resistance trying to evade the evil forces from getting the MacGuffin—the map to Luke Skywalker—and then it’s a giant Death Star 3.0 wiping out planets again, and a shadowy Emperor figure, a supreme leader out of nowhere, hologrammed in to dictate nasty orders to the first-level baddies, and a neo-Vader played by the Lena Dunham guy, etc, etc, etc. It’s not just that we’re re-hashing a ton of old ground (which we definitely are), but I guess I was hoping for something…different. For starters, the nerd in me was really curious to see how they could account for a final sequel trilogy, given the fact that—hello!—the Rebel Alliance defeated the Empire once and for all, and the Jedi have, you know, returned as a force for good to restore balance to the force in the galaxy, etc. Ya know—all the shit that went down in Return of the Jedi. Again, maybe it’s my personal fondness for Episode VI talking, but I thought that those considerations merited some accounting for when plotting out a new series of movies. Instead, this new film takes as given that a splinter force of the Empire simply just survived and multiplied and started making new Storm Troopers and gathering resources, lead by some shadowy evil bad guy, simply because that’s what happens in these movies. What was I hoping for? I don’t know. From the trailer, I knew that there was a storm trooper with a conscience—already a really interesting dimension that the franchise had never really encountered before. And also a big badass lady storm trooper played by the tall badass lady from Game of Thrones (but who gets such little screen time, it honestly would have been better to not even bother). And also a sandy desert planet covered in the ruins of the old Empire. And finally, the rise of a new shadowy fascist power. All of these seemed promising elements. The screen shot of John Boyega, helmet off, drenched in sweat, completely desperate and humanly vulnerable in a foreign desert, was a really compelling jumping-off point for my imagination. I’m not sure what I was imagining, but most of what I was imagining had nothing to do with Han and Leia and Luke, except in a distant way, as some tantalizing leftovers from the distant past, like those dead husks of Star Destroyers lying inert in the sand dune. This film dealt with Luke in a great way by not dealing with him at all, and he was able to retain that elusive mystery. And I’m aware that a lot of these gripes, including the observation about Luke, will likely be elaborated upon in the upcoming movies, which will spend a lot of exposition telling us what the deal is with the First Order and what happened to the New Republic in the intervening 30 years, and who Snoke is, etc. But one blank that really didn’t need filling for me was the particulars of the relationship between Han Solo and Leia. That scene with Han and Chewie taking the Millennium Falcon again, and that big showdown in the hallway between the two different sets of gangsters trying to snag Han, and the big monsters that eat them all, all of that shit belongs in a fucking Doctor Who Christmas special, not in a Star Wars. And especially not when there’s all sorts of interesting, dark, weird shit this movie could be getting itself into. My imagination is failing me, and I can’t dictate exactly what I think should take the place of all the Han Solo stuff, but God knows there’s some enthusiastic fans out there spinning speculative fiction for free. As much as I hated knowing the spoiler—knowing that Han Solo dies—once I knew, it came rushing up to me like a repressed memory: of course Han Solo fucking dies. First, knowing how much Harrison Ford hated the whole thing, how much he wanted George Lucas to kill him off at the end of Jedi, and then seeing that he agreed to be in the new “movies” at all, were all kind of dead giveaways. And seeing how smiling and happy he was in the production photos, and how kooky and bizarre he was while doing the whole late-night circuit again, and seeing pictures of Harrison Ford as Han Solo on every damn magazine cover all over the place, the face of the new Star Wars. You can almost hear the conversation take place: “All right, I’ll participate in this stupid thing, we’ll milk this Han Solo thing one more time, as long as you pay me a shit ton of money, and as long as you fucking kill me, right off the bat. You get one more movie, and then I won’t have to hear about fucking Han Solo ever again!” Looking at it from this perspective, it kind of makes sense—the inflated screen time for Han Solo and his antics, the central place for his kid, Kylo Ren, and the passing of the mantle to Daisy Ridley, and the overall awkward fit that the film’s plot has, like a person wearing pieces of two or three different outfits, none of which fit very well, but for different reasons. For all I know, they had exactly the kind of movie I was hoping for, but they had to insert a giant Han Solo-sized chunk in there. Hell, I bet half the reason everyone hates the prequels is because there’s no Han Solo equivalent (although surprisingly, that wasn’t what rubbed me the wrong way about them; it was mostly the fact that they fucking sucked).

Is any of this relevant to anything? Probably not. The films are what they are, and at this point I’m just griping in the most guttural nerd-way possible. I should have begun with the disclaimer that YES, this is altogether a very good, exciting, character-driven, simple, action-adventure space-opera just like the original, and it sets the stage for some great drama down the road. And yes, it features a lady and a black guy in the central roles (and a Latino guy in a pretty big role), which his already infinitely more diverse than the previous films (which had a beloved lobster character but nobody, say, from the Middle East). And of course, it’s just a stupid movie. It’s interesting (and worrisome) how totally emotionally invested someone becomes—even a cynical SOB like me—about recapturing the feeling they experienced while watching space movies as a child. I sure don’t usually pick this many nits over many other things. And really, I’m still holding out hope to be really compelled and devastated in the next two movies. I get a sense that this heroic Rebel pilot Poe Dameron isn’t what he seems—after all, how did he survive that crash and safely get off the planet and reunite back with the Rebels? Mind you, if he was a double agent, then blowing up the Death Star (whatever it’s called) is definitely some “deep cover” shit. And then there’s the whole mystery with Luke Skywalker—maybe this weird Snoke guy is actually just Luke, who’s become a weird, twisted asshole bent on destroying everything. Neither of those things are likely, because a franchise of this heft can only get so “weird” and interesting, beholden as it is to action figure sales and the appeasement of the gossip media (witness the Harrison Ford circus this time around). Honestly, they should just get the fans to write these fucking things—the Jar Jar Binks theory was infinitely more interesting than any of the actual shit, just like the Harry Potter-is-insane theory is way more satisfying than the actual ending. At this point, if Episode IX comes and it’s just Salacious Crumb waking up from a horrible dream, that might be the best thing for it.

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3 responses to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens (USA, 2015)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

  3. Pingback: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (USA, 2016) | Offhand Reviews·

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