Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
seen @ Movieworld, Douglaston, Queens, NY


I don't know why I never got into Star Wars as a kid. (Just so we're on the same page: when I say "Star Wars," I'm referring to the franchise in general; when I say "A New Hope," I'm talking about the original 1977 film. And TFA, of course, stands for "The Force Awakens." Got it?) You hear and read so many stories about people who grew up with a Millennium Falcon model or stood in line for Empire on opening day with their older sibling or met the dude who played Alien #6 in the Mos Eisley cantina at their local sci-fi con and got his autograph or whatever, but that stuff never happened to me - and given what Star Wars has become, it strikes me as a little surprising now.

Could it have had anything to do with my older sister? Back then, I tended to look to Lynne for cues on what was cool, and I don't remember her talking a great deal about A New Hope or Empire when they came out. She certainly never had any of the merchandise. I do recall her telling me about Jedi when it was released. She described the Ewoks, thinking I'd like them. I think she even had that stupid Ewok song on 45!

Anyway, I saw Jedi, and I enjoyed it, but I don't think I had any sense of it as the cultural phenomenon it had become to that point - not that it would've mattered. I don't remember talking to my friends about it. We talked about other pop culture stuff. Baseball, yes. Pop music, television, comics, definitely, but Star Wars? Not really. It almost feels like a betrayal of my generation to admit how late I got into the game, because it's so deeply ingrained into our mythology, our identity.

But what can I say? I dreamed of playing right field for the Mets, not of flying an X-wing fighter. I never felt like I was missing out.

It so happens that I just finished re-reading Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the book about the so-called "New Hollywood" movement of the late 60s and the 70s, spearheaded by filmmakers like George Lucas. The chapter on A New Hope talks about Lucas - a film school brat who became the padawan to Jedi Master Francis Ford Coppola, who believed in total independence from the corporate studios with a passion. This was an attitude shared by many of the New Hollywood generation.

Lucas had gotten burned by the studios before on his previous films, THX-1138 and American Graffiti, so when he made the deal with Fox for A New Hope, he demanded a level of control that was unprecedented: rights to merchandise, music, sequels. He got it because sci-fi wasn't taken seriously back then, and no one expected the film to turn a big profit. Lucas saw Coppola get forced into making The Godfather for the money, and he believed by making what he called a Disney movie (ironic, no?), he'd avoid falling into that trap.

His filmmaker friends, however - people like Spielberg, Scorsese, DePalma - couldn't understand why he was making something so commercial, a movie that was the antithesis of the kinds of films they favored: thoughtful, personal statements. When A New Hope took off, the industry wanted more movies like it, at the expense of movies like Taxi Driver or MASH or The Last Picture Show or Bonnie and Clyde - and they never looked back. The chapter concludes with Lucas' peers bemoaning what Star Wars wrought.

Riders was published in 1998. Can we honestly say anything has changed since? I mean, here I am, writing about the seventh Star Wars film (I'm getting to it, I promise) in an era where movies like it not only rule the roost, they're expected to spawn sequels and spin-offs perpetually. 

Yes, I want to see this movie, I'm fan enough to admit that without shame, but if I were to be totally honest, a big reason why is so I can be part of the conversation, so I won't feel left out. This is not the same thing as going to see, say, Pulp Fiction, because everyone says it's an outstanding movie with X, Y and Z in it and A, B and C happens and it's worth seeing. I know next to nothing about The Force Awakens; in fact, I've gone to great lengths to avoid learning about it all year long. 

I don't expect it to be that different from 95% of the Hollywood genre movies from the past twenty years, but I want to see it anyway - because it's Star Wars. And because everyone's gonna talk about it. You'll recall the post I wrote a couple of years ago about feeling alienated from the new wave of franchise films. Well, I don't wanna feel alienated! At least not all the time!

My point, if I actually have one, is that I accept that I'm no different from the rest of the herd. I'm part of the target audience for Star Wars. I know that - but there ought to be a better reason to see a Star Wars movie than to have something to talk about around the water cooler on Monday. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

*          *          *

[The spoilers are about to begin. If you haven't seen TFA, now's the time to turn back.]

Nothing particularly special to say about my screening. It was a surprisingly big afternoon crowd at Movieworld - or perhaps, not so surprisingly. I wanted to see TFA opening night, preferably in Manhattan, but it wasn't to be. For awhile, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to even find a 2D screening (I wasn't terribly interested in seeing it in 3D), but once again, Movieworld provided. I'm really starting to dig this place. I was a little taken aback at all the pre-show ads that had TFA tie-ins. Sitting through them was almost like sitting through a trailer.

So. The movie. TFA.

Lemme see if I got this straight:

The bad guys are a well-organized army in which the ground troops are dressed in white armor and are called "Stormtroopers," the officers have British accents, and the leader is a dude in a mask, dressed in black, with superpowers and a laser sword called a "light saber." He answers to a higher authority figure. They have a doomsday device in the shape of a giant sphere that has the capability of destroying entire planets. The good guys are a ragtag bunch of rebels in which one of the major leaders is an older woman, and the protagonist is an ordinary person from a desert planet. 

The plot involves a cute little robot called a "droid," who "talks" in electronic blips that people seem to automatically understand, who has valuable information that the protagonist must get to the rebels. There's an old man who acts as a kind of surrogate father figure to the protagonist. There are hints that the protagonist has the ability to tap into a power called "The Force," which is connected to another, older character, a man shrouded in mystery, who may play a pivotal role. There's a scene set in a bar with a wide variety of aliens. The protagonist eventually hooks up with the rebellion, who figure out a way to destroy the doomsday device by exploiting a flaw in its design. The old man dies at the hands of the masked man in black, but the protagonist finally gains a measure of control over "The Force."

Oh wait, I'm sorry, I thought I was talking about A New Hope.

When he directed Star Trek Into Darkness, JJ Abrams made what amounted to an unofficial remake of an earlier Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan. (He recently admitted that he mishandled the plot.) Now, with TFA, Abrams has gone back to the Xerox machine, recycling many of the same story beats as A New Hope. Of course, it's not as simple as the way I described it, but while TFA didn't suck, I couldn't help but feel disappointed that not only doesn't it stake out that much new ground, but it hews so closely to A New Hope.

I didn't get much of a sense of progression from the events in Jedi. The bad guys look much the same, and there's not much of an explanation from the now-traditional opening crawl as to how they amassed so much power. I mean, I thought the bad guys lost at the end of Jedi, no? But here they are again, in their Star Destroyers and TIE fighters and white armor, like Episodes 4-6 never happened. If the words "Episode VII" weren't right there in the opening crawl, I'd almost think this was a reboot.

I dunno, I just couldn't get that excited about TFA. Yes, it was cool seeing Han and Chewie and Leia again, but their roles seemed little different than the last time we saw them, thirty-some-odd years ago. I might've cared more about Han and Leia's son and his heel turn to the Dark Side if I had actually seen it happen, and not have it relegated to backstory. Once again, I really wish that Abrams either re-cast Han, Leia and Luke and set the story closer in time to Jedi, or did without them altogether. We see very little of Luke here, but I'm willing to bet that he will become the new Obi-Wan Kenobi, so to speak, in Episode VIII. He, at least, seems different.

All of this said, I loved the new blood: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. Boyega and Ridley in particular felt real and believable, and they had a good rapport with each other. Boyega had an exuberance that was infectious, and Ridley was sympathetic without having the wide-eyed innocence of Luke in A New Hope.

Once upon a time, Star Wars was the trend-setter, the standard by which mainstream cinematic sci-fi was measured. Then the rest of the industry caught up. I didn't think TFA would be that different from most modern genre movies, and I was right. It was entertaining, with the added bonus of seeing familiar characters from earlier in the franchise again, and maybe I shouldn't ask for more than that. TFA will break box office records left and right and, like its predecessors, will be analyzed again and again, in great detail, by Fandom Assembled for years to come. I just wish it meant a little more to me than a diverting way to spend two and a half hours.

Seems like it ought to, somehow.

The Disney/Lucas deal from a Trekkie's POV
Five hopes I have for Star Wars Episode VII


  1. Off topic a bit, but have you seen 'Jodorowsky's Dune'? (I feel like I may have mentioned it in a comment to you before). It posits that had Jodorowsky succeeded in making his Dune, it would have beat Star Wars to the punch and been the big epic that redefined films and pop culture with completely different results. A premise full of hubris, no doubt, but interesting to think about.

    I am part of the herd for sure, and my enjoyment of TFA is 100% fueled by nostalgia and not great film making. Your analysis is top notch!

  2. Thanks.

    Lynch's movie turned me off to DUNE, but I've heard good things about JODOROWSKY'S DUNE from other film bloggers. I imagine you probably mentioned it too. May have to add it to the list.

  3. I skipped the spoilers bit because Janet, who was there on opening day (even phoned from the theatre to brag about their great seats and passing the line-up who hadn't bought tickets yet), says I will like it. I know I'll see it sometime. I saw the originals in the theatre and enjoyed the first two. I didn't like Ewoks or Vadar's post-death redemption. A bad guy should stay a bad guy was my mantra at the time. The day after I saw "A New Hope" I had to purchase a novelization - not because I was super crazy about the movie, but because I had to see what all those character names in print because I didn't know what the heck they were saying.

  4. Funny you should say that: I had a bit of a hard time following the new character names too, except for Boyega's Finn and Ridley's Rae (Ray? Raigh??).

    I like redemption as a story trope because it ties into the concept of forgiveness. What can be forgiven and what can't? That said, JEDI could've handled it better.

  5. I didn't read this, Rich, because I haven't seen the movie yet. Actually, I was telling my brother yesterday that I wouldn't really get it, just because I am a dinosaur who has seen only the original trilogy. I wouldn't know any of the characters or events, so this wrap-up film probably wouldn't mean much. I plan to reverse this error by making a little project out of watching the rest of the Star Wars movies in order, and then watch the latest!

  6. Well, it picks up several decades where JEDI left off, so you're not missing anything. The new characters in TFA are new to everyone. If you wanna watch the prequels, by all means do so, though you may wanna seriously consider skipping PHANTOM MENACE. You won't miss much!


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