Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Yes, I realize that I am hopelessly behind the times. No true Star Wars fan should wait to see a long-awaited franchise relaunch until it is in a second-run theater, especially one with fannish children who are getting everything spoiled for them at school. I should probably turn in my nerd card. Credit me with avoiding all discussion of the movie for several months though – I think that is discipline worth admiring. I didn’t even know who Finn and Poe were until last week.
So movies are a bit slow for me right now. (Actually, this has been true for almost a decade.) Another thing that is slow is this blog. After a strong start to the year, I had great confidence for a resurgent 2016. Then I changed jobs. Then my wife changed jobs. Then my band started recording a CD. Then I signed up to coach two sports teams. Things are unhinged right now. My reading numbers are back up, but writing time continues to sink to new lows. Sorry everyone! Life may stabilize by mid-summer. (At which point I start planning a Japan trip, so who knows what excuses I will have then!)
Back to the review. I finally saw SW:TFA in mid-April, which is sad. At least I caught it in a theater though, which is more than can be said for pretty much everything else. Usually I don’t see famous movies until I’m stuck on a plane to Asia. I suppose it is also a broader indication of where Star Wars fits into my life right now. It’s no longer a midnight showing on opening night kind of thing for me, kind of similar to the way I swore off caring deeply about college sports a few years ago. I have too much in my life anymore to invest sizable parts of my psyche in things I have no control over. (Or things I derive no particular benefit from, deep Aggie loyalty notwithstanding.) So while I was intrigued by Disney’s major initiatives, I didn’t fire myself up too much.
My response to the movie? Not bad. Better than the prequels (of course) and pleasantly nostalgic, but nothing to rise above the limitations that Hollywood has chosen to subject itself to. There is plenty to like, but also plenty to criticize. SW:TFA is weakest when it tries to connect itself to the originals, and strongest when it marches off on its own. If Disney and J.J. Abrams had made a clean break with the first trilogy and just started something new, I think the movie would have been much stronger. I can understand why that wasn’t really an option though, so we’re stuck with some awkward ret-conning, weird continuity, and an unbalance between the past and future. Let’s dig into this more.
To be fair, SW:TFA is in a difficult spot. The movie has to reboot the universe, provide some form of closure with the past narrative, introduce new characters and institutions robust enough to support future movies, and do it all in a way that both mollifies old-timey skeptics burned by the prequels and excites the new, Clone Wars watching generation of fans. To make things worse, they chose to operate in the exact time window already covered by what is widely considered to be the best Expanded Universe story arc: Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. That’s a high bar to clear. It’s all too easy for someone like me to think back to Luke, Mara Jade, and all the fun of those three books while casting a baleful and suspicious eye at Abrams’ submission. (And mine was indeed suspicious. SW:TFA did not get the benefit of the doubt from me. Much as I wanted to be swept away in a glorious return to my youth, I’m too grouchy to let just anything move me.)
The bad, to be begin with. Almost everything bad in this movie relates to the trio of holdovers from the first movies. Leia is now a general in “The Resistance,” which by itself is not a problem. We expect her to be a general, or a senator, or a dictator, or something. This “Resistance” though, what is this crap? The New Republic has had twenty or thirty years to get its crap together, and the best they can come up with is some ragtag group of under-equipped guerrillas to take on The First Order? In that same length of time, the Empire crushed the Old Republic, disbanded the Senate, built the Death Star, and ran wild through the galaxy. I for one am disgusted at the pathetic progress made by this so-called “rebel alliance.” On a practical level, I realize that building institutions after a revolution is usually harder than the revolution itself; the only logical explanation for “The Resistance” is that the rebels failed to create a functioning government in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, and chaos reigns throughout the galaxy. The movie doesn’t say this though, so we are left wondering what on earth is going on.
Han Solo also disgusts me a bit. I suppose it’s plausible that he and Leia would have problems, but I just don’t see him as the kind of guy that would give up, pull out of the Republic, and go back to smuggling. I thought the point of the original trilogy was to show his true heroic identity; SW:TFA seems to undermine that entire narrative. Everyone makes the best of the hand dealt by the script, and Han is, as usual, the star of the show. That said, he loses the Millennium Falcon? I don’t think so. Make him a crap dad and husband if you must, but there is no way in seven frozen layers of Hell that he misplaces his ship.
Finally, Luke. All I can say is this: The Luke Skywalker who obliterates Jabba the Hutt’s organization, who beats down Darth Vader in a controlled rage, and who stands in front of the Emperor and all but spits in his dessicated face would never pack it in just because one apprentice turned to the Dark Side in a fit of adolescent spite. Whatever toilet bowl the New Republic finds itself swimming in, I cannot accept a Luke Skywalker who runs away. Part Two has a lot of explaining to do.
Most of the good is in the new characters. I’m not yet emotionally invested in anyone, but I do think it’s great that the protagonists are a black ex-stormtrooper and a very capable female Jedi. (Jedi to be, at least.) I’m sure there are cold, economic reasons for these choices, but putting minorities and women in the lead roles and giving those children in the audience someone they can identify with is exactly the sort of thing a can’t-miss-franchise like Star Wars should be doing. Finn stands on his own and avoids the black dude sidekick and/or black dude who needlessly dies tropes, while Rey is the kind of competent, strong woman that I can show my kids. Both of them have full agency, a complete slate of strengths and weaknesses, moments to help and be helped, and rounded personalities. More of this please, Hollywood. My daughter doesn’t care much about Star Wars, but if she did, she would have Rey in her life to love and emulate. (The same goes for minorities and Finn I hope, but I am less qualified to comment on that.)
I will also give SW:TFA credit for hitting most of the right emotional notes. Whatever issues I may have with things, the writers and director are impeccable with references to the past stories, little visual cues that fans will love (Rey lives in a toppled AT-AT!), and dramatic moments of nostalgia. Cold and cynical I may be, but it was all too easy to get sucked back in to the Star Wars magic. Abrams and crew managed this far better than the prequels ever did. In fact, something else went over better than ever: the dialogue. I never thought I would say this, but the dialogue in a Star Wars movie was memorable and snappy. Not since the opening scenes of Return of the Jedi have I been able to listen to people talk without cringing. The banter and jokes build up a well of goodwill that some of the more outlandish plot beats require. (I will call out two things: the stormtroopers who slink quietly away during Kylo Ren’s meltdown were brilliant. Second, it’s amazing to finally have Han Solo and Chewbacca going back and forth with the kind of witty lines they always deserved.)
Conclusions? Glad I saw it, will probably watch again some time, but didn’t change my life. I don’t think Star Wars will ever mean as much to me as it once did, age and experience have seen to that, so this and following films are probably doomed to be adequate. On a grand grading scale of Star Wars, this one probably slots into 3rd or 4 thplace, about on par with Return of the Jedi or Revenge of the Sith. Too many holes to be great, but not unwatchable like certain other of the films. I could ask for more, but it didn’t leave me in a rage. At least there is no Jar-Jar.