The time is finally upon us. After George Lucas’ surprise decision to sell the rights to STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES to Disney, we finally get to see whether or not this baby has a few surprises left in her. And with all the excitement surrounding its release, THE FORCE AWAKENS is being called the most eagerly anticipated film of our lifetime. And if you are 16 years of age or under, that claim is absolutely true.
However, while this might be the most eagerly anticipated film of the century, it is not the most eagerly anticipated of my lifetime. No, I’m afraid that film was 1999’s STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE. And this means I’m going to have to go back in time to explain how I initially got excited about the STAR WARS franchise, how like the Jedi I felt betrayed by a petulant child and how perhaps we might be seeing a bright new future for the franchise.
STAR WARS came about shortly after I was born. Hence, the moment I started to gain an appreciation and fascination for the flickering images on the movie screen, STAR WARS was starting to capture the imaginations of everyone else in the world as well. People older than I were amazed at this new thing that had come seemingly out of nowhere, but for me it was even more important. One could not even compare or contrast the films that had inspired Lucas since even they were so different from what STAR WARS truly was. This was something entirely new and my discovery of cinema, of storytelling and of STAR WARS was intrinsically linked.
Even before my love of any other type of cinema, I became fascinated by science fiction, particularly these operatic adventures in space. And there was no greater pinnacle to that type of epic storytelling than the original STAR WARS trilogy. Through it, I absorbed all the copycats that were released, many of which I still love to this day. I was eventually able to look at the old serials, features and TV series that had served as prototypes for what was to come. I was hooked.
I entered my twenties and a short time later, so did STAR WARS. George Lucas, the man who had given us this amazing gift had gone back and added new footage and new special effects and best of all, I had a chance to see these films on the big screen for the first time in nearly fifteen years. What would these new special effects be? What kind of footage would be added? Would it be the deleted early Biggs scene I’d seen pictures of in books? I never stopped to think what the ramifications of these changes would be. Why would I? I had no reason to doubt George Lucas.
Then, I saw the films and right away, something seemed… off. I was not prepared to call it a mess back then, but while I was initially impressed with a few of the effects changes, others felt misguided. There was the Greedo scene that everyone talked about. There was the Jabba scene that lacks continuity and robs the character of his menace and mystique. There were little things that irked me like enhancing the echo effect as Luke and Leia are about to swing to safety on the Death Star. It all just seemed wrong. By the time the special edition of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came out a few weeks later, the friends that accompanied me to the original had no desire to repeat the experience. EMPIRE is the best STAR WARS has ever been, and the fact that very few changes were made to that film is a testimony to that. But even this felt off. Luke now screams as he falls, turning his leap of faith into a loss of footing. It was in many ways the feelings I would have towards the Special Editions altogether. By the time RETURN OF THE JEDI was re-released to theaters, I too stayed home and only checked it out much later on DVD only to find out that it was the worst of this new brood.
And yet I was hopeful because on the heels of the Special Editions, a new STAR WARS trilogy would finally be released. There has been talk of the prequels for ages. An old magazine from my collection trumpeted the proposed STAR WARS: THE BEGINNING way back in mid-1980s. At one point, Joe Johnston was briefly attached as director. But after a bunch of fits and starts, it seemed like it was never going to happen. But now it was. STAR WARS was back and this was surely something to be excited about. The hype was unbelievable because everyone was on this same bandwagon. There was very little of the internet scrutiny of today. People were excited in a way never before seen. And if those Special Editions were misguided, well we would continue to have releases of the unaltered versions alongside the new ones. I mean no one just flushes the last twenty years of fond memories down the toilet…. right?
You know the answer to this. Of course they do. Not only did it soon become apparent that Lucas would refuse to release or acknowledge the unaltered versions of the original trilogy ever again (most offensively stating the absolute lie that the film elements no longer existed), these new films were a big mess. From the opening crawl, things were looking dire. Instead of capturing our imagination with great battles or new civilizations, we were told that, “the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” Um, may the Force be with you?
It of course only got worse. Why do these first aliens we see seem a little racist? Did that robot just say “roger roger?” Oh my God, who is this annoying character that’s stumbling all over himself? It should be noted by the point Jar Jar Binks said, “Esqueeze me,” the entire audience, who could not have been more excited just fifteen minutes prior, audibly groaned. Yes, this was bad. And this was before the underwater city, before the introduction of Anakin, before the talk of midichlorians or that Anakin may somehow be Jesus and before any of the myriad of other details that turned the most anticipated film of my lifetime into one of the most heart wrenching cinematic disappointments.
And yet even then, I did not want to admit it was a failure. I saw the film with a friend of mine and each of us were trying to talk about the things we enjoyed and gloss over the things we didn’t. I was so excited to have a new piece of STAR WARS, it was hard to criticize what was in front of me (I should note that it is entirely possible I’m still experiencing some of that with THE FORCE AWAKENS, though to a much lesser degree. It’s a tough thing to shake, I tell ya.). I even went to see the film again, in the conscious hope that I would enjoy it more a second time and forgive the film’s flaws. I didn’t and I couldn’t.
It actually probably took a couple months before I really started to catalog all the problems I had with the film. The list just went on and on. And then, there were the things I did enjoy. That duel towards the end was a winner. Ewan Macgregor made a great Obi-Wan Kenobi. Liam Neeson also acquitted himself well (I was also a big fan of Natalie Portman, though sadly not in this film.). And the big thing was that I enjoyed seeing the STAR WARS universe on the big screen again. But that wasn’t enough to make it into a good film. As I revisited the film every couple years, my hate for the film grew. THE PHANTOM MENACE wasn’t just a disappointing STAR WARS film; it was a terrible film by any measure.
The prequels continued to stumble along, always promising entertainment that would never be delivered. This new trilogy had a stronger emphasis on characters than the one that came before it and still failed to give us even one fully developed character that we honestly cared about. The gradual arc showing Anakin’s descent into the dark side was bungled from the beginning by making him a whiny, petulant brat with none of the potential or greatness the stunningly inept protagonists kept referencing. When he does turn to the dark side, it is a moment of panic more than a carefully staged seduction. The prequels got better as they went along, but they were never truly good movies. The digital effects were given more detail but rather than grab the audience, it just seemed like the filmmakers were throwing more stuff onto the screen. The third film tried to make up for the woodenness of the first two installments by shouting “WAR!” at the beginning of the opening crawl. But by then, it was merely an act of desperation.
But how could this have happened? How could Lucas fumble this so badly and then arrogantly stand by these inferior films? How could he refuse to acknowledge the legacy of what had come before? How could he turn against us and how could I turn against him? Because let’s face it, it’s not like Lucas was some great villain. By all accounts, George Lucas is a wonderful human being. And although he was responsible for the tarnishing of STAR WARS over the last eighteen years, he was also responsible for birthing and developing it for the first twenty. It was his original vision that helped spark and cultivate my own imagination. If what eventually happened felt like a betrayal, so did my judgement of him.
A NEW HOPE
As cruel and two-faced as it is to say, George Lucas selling STAR WARS is probably the best thing that could have happened to it. This isn’t the first time this has been the case with a science fiction tent pole. Gene Roddenberry undoubtedly created something amazing and game-changing when he brought STAR TREK to television screens. But in his autobiography GET A LIFE, William Shatner states that the best thing to ever happen to the show was that it was cancelled in its inferior third season. Roddenberry’s vision for the cinematic STAR TREK was more in line with the first 1979 film, which while having its strengths was stuffy, overlong and only repaired years later in a director’s cut. Even the television series STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION is said to have only hit his stride when Roddenberry could no exert his mandates upon it. It’s a harsh dose of reality, but sometimes, parents need to let their children go. Where they used to raise and nurture, they instead begin to stunt and coddle. Lucas knew he was done with STAR WARS and after the venomous though not unjustified backlash from his fans, who could blame him? It was a signal that something new might come from this wonderful mythology still. And before a single word was written for the EPISODE VII screenplay, the venture already did some real good in the world. Lucas sold STAR WARS to Disney for $4 billion and immediately donated this enormous amount to charity. Like I said, by all accounts Lucas is a wonderful human being.
And so I was hopeful, but cautious. I wasn’t quite ready to fall in love again. I had been hurt before. I remembered the doe-eyed optimism of 1999 and the crushing heartbreak that followed. A lot of the early news was good. The new film would pick up decades after RETURN OF THE JEDI. It would unite several of the original cast members with a group of new characters to continue the franchise. There were also some questionable decisions made. There was for instance no reason the Extended Universe that had existed in novels, comics and the like could not continue alongside the new established cinematic canon (Paramount seemed to have no problem allowing just that with STAR TREK when they rebooted the movie franchise in 2010). But for some reason, Disney decided to discontinue this and seems determined to delete it from the record, like Lucas did the non-enhanced version of the original trilogy. This shows a lack of respect to something that was developed for over twenty years. And though I had only scratched the surface on the novels, a few of them were even better than the original trilogy.
Comparisons to STAR TREK are even more apt since the person Disney drafted to spearhead EPISODE VII was none other than J.J. Abrams, the man put in charge of dusting off the Starship Enterprise for Paramount just a few years prior. This was both intriguing and troubling. His 2010 STAR TREK was not a bad movie, but it also seemed to go out of its way in order to contradict the mission statement of the original series. Abrams was a lot flashier and action-oriented. The storylines from his two STAR TREK films (the second of which I liked more than the first, putting me in direct opposition with a lot of people it seems) failed to embrace Gene Roddenberry’s utopian view of the future, one that stressed the beautiful philosophy, “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.”
Once the ink started drying on his Disney signature, Abrams fessed up and admitted STAR TREK was really never his thing. But STAR WARS was and he was determined to do right by it. And it looks like he may have done just that.
I somehow managed to do something almost impossible in this day and age. I avoided all spoilers related to this new film, subtitled THE FORCE AWAKENS. I watched the first teaser and then the first trailer. And after that, I was done. No foreign trailers, no TV spots, no articles on the movies. I would occasionally hear character names being dropped like Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma and yet, I had no idea who these people were, nor did I want to until watching the film. I even got a Chrome extension that would give me the options of blocking sites where spoilers might be present. This worked too well since every site was talking about STAR WARS and I had to tell it that I had to be able to check into Facebook, YouTube and my email.
While I will not spoil the biggest moments of THE FORCE AWAKENS, this review will contain a few spoilers. They should be minor, as I am just sharing some of the basic plot points. But the consequence of these reveals is in the eye of the beholder. The best way to avoid spoilers completely is to simply stop reading. Go ahead, stop reading, bookmark the site, see the movie and then come back later. I won’t take it personally. No film should be spoiled, especially not one with the power to excite the audience as much as this one.
THE FORCE AWAKENS
As I sat in my seat, I was still wary. But as the theater darkened, all of that started to drift away. Lucasfilm logo – my arms started to tense up. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” – goosebumps made their presence known. The few seconds of black before the titles – an excited voice in my head squealed, “Heeeeere we gooooo….” And then that fanfare and my heart was pounding.
The years since RETURN OF THE JEDI haven’t been as peachy as we had hoped. An attempt to train a new generation of Jedi has ended in disaster, allowing the fascist First Order to rise from the ashes of the Empire. But there is also a Resistance continuing the fight the Rebel Alliance started. We are looking at a galaxy on the tipping point. The First Order does not yet seem to possess the power of the Empire and the Resistance is a scrappy bunch spoken of in hushed tones.
As the first sentence in the crawl tells us, Luke Skywalker has disappeared. But the resistance hopes to find him. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) is a fighter with the resistance gets information that might lead to Skywalker’s whereabouts. But sensing capture, he slips the information to a cute, round droid who speaks in beeps and bloops. This droid, BB-8, treks across a desert planet before it can give the information to the right people.
And right about now, you’re wondering which STAR WARS film I’m relating the plot to. Let’s get it out of the way quickly. Yes, there are huge similarities between the plot of THE FORCE AWAKENS and the plot to earlier STAR WARS films. This basic setup is right out of the 1977 original. In this film we will also be introduced to a hero who may be strong with the Force. The characters will meet through destiny masquerading as coincidence, just as in the original. There will be a villain with family issues. We’ll even have a Big Scary Thing that needs to be taken care of if there is to be peace in the galaxy. You don’t have to draw lines to the original, they draw themselves.
Some have looked at this as the film cowardly rehashing the same plot. It’s not an invalid argument, but I’m not sure I quite agree with it. There has always been a sense of symmetry across all the STAR WARS films. You could see it in the original trilogy. The student leaves home to return as a master later on and perhaps impart his wisdom on another adept. The father fails to prevail against temptation only for his son to succeed. People keep losing arms. There’s a lot of it. One of the prequels’ crimes was an overreliance on symmetry, even when it didn’t make much sense. Hence, Anakin builds C-3PO, the fate of Obi-Wan’s mentor mirrors the fate of Obi-Wan himself, Boba Fett’s dad inadvertently helped build the Empire, Chewbacca fought with the Jedi, certain shots directly reference similar shots in the original trilogy, etc. Kid versions of Han Solo and Greedo were originally to appear as well, though they thankfully didn’t make the final cut. There is even a detailed work explaining the “Star Wars Ring Theory.” It’s a fascinating read that sadly doesn’t make the prequels more watchable.
I do not think THE FORCE AWAKENS is trying to hit every plot point with a reference to earlier films. I do think it goes with the nature of the story in that history repeats itself and everything comes full circle. There is enough of a spin on the material that suggests it is going in riskier directions and I fully suspect (though I have no way of knowing for sure) that we will get more stories that stray from the familiar plot structure as the series and its spin-offs continue. In other words, I recognize the drastic similarities, I approach them with trepidation but ultimately I am not bothered by all of them… yet.
Besides, there are enough things that THE FORCE AWAKENS does right away that are completely unexpected. This is set up perfectly in an opening scene in which Stormtroopers are massacring a village. It’s a shockingly violent scene that you expect go in a particular direction, simply establishing the savagery of the First Order. And then, right in the middle of it, one of them stops, unable to fire on the populace. While we watch this army going about their actions as robotically as we are used to, one in the middle seems panicked and horrified and this refreshingly becomes the focus – not the huge action sequence, but the unlikely figure in the middle of it all experiencing an existential crisis. The opening serves as an exciting action scene, only to improve by transforming into an emotionally devastating sequence.
This trooper is FN-2138, soon re-christened Finn (John Boyega). He is one of a pair of thoroughly likable and exciting new protagonists in the STAR WARS franchise. He decides that he is going to try to escape the First Order, because while he fears their wrath, he refuses to do their dirty work. Finn has no desire to be a hero, he only wants to survive.
This gives him something in common with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a desert scavenger still haunted by a tragic past. She too seems to be waiting for something, what we are not immediately sure. But it turns out she may have the spirit and skills to be one of the most unlikely but valuable figures in the fight against the First Order. Rey, Finn and BB-8 are all brought together and the arc of their characters will be what the trilogy hinges upon.
There has been some criticism of the Rey character. Some have labeled her character a “Mary Sue,” a character who is deemed far too smart and capable to be relatable. And indeed Rey is capable. She is also someone who has developed a strong resume of survival skills over twenty years and she is cast early on as a figure that is strong with the Force. This would seem to explain how she can do everything from serve as a co-pilot to repair a spaceship. But a true Mary Sue would be virtually flawless, but Rey has quite a few emotional demons. Crippling fear and anxiety have left her afraid to poke her head out of the sand for even a moment. The gradual shedding of these fears will likely be a large part of what Rey will need to overcome in the next two installments of the series. So, capable yes, idealized no. It is no accident that much of the criticism is coming from male bloggers and screenwriters. In the original film we had Luke Skywalker, a teenager who within a couple days went from working on a farm to rescuing the most valuable prisoner in the galaxy and single-handedly destroying the most terrifying war machine ever constructed. No one seems to think of him as overly idealized. And yes angry internet people, I do believe it comes down to gender. Rey is a solid hero, her abilities make sense in the context of the series and it is refreshing to see a heroine who while people try to rescue her, she is quite capable of rescuing herself thank you.
Another character at a crossroads is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a servant of the Order and apprentice to the mysterious Snoke (Andy Serkis). Kylo Ren is powerful and ruthless, but he is not as respected as his predecessor, Darth Vader, a figure who he desperately hopes to emulate. He is prone to violent tantrums and is tortured between the lure of the dark side and the lingering vestiges of the light. This in itself does make him a lot like the Anakin/Vader character with one major difference. This is the Anakin storyline from the prequels handled in an infinitely more fascinating and nuanced manner. Kylo Ren is dangerous, but not the all-encompassing threat that Darth Vader was. He wants to fully embrace the dark side and is resentful of his past. The internal conflict this character experiences shows the fall from grace as a much more gradual motion with fits and starts. While we hope Kylo Ren will see the error of his ways, his struggle is enthralling.
And yes, we do have a few of the classic cast returning once again. Sadly, the story laid out for these characters lets us know in no uncertain terms that they did not all live happily ever after. Despite the smiling faces at the close of RETURN OF THE JEDI, Han, Leia, Luke and the rest all had their years of peace before hardship and struggle once again derailed their rosy future. And honestly, that hurts. After all, it wasn’t just a happy go lucky waltz through the cosmos that led to the close of JEDI. Our heroes earned that happy ending and the feeling that they achieved it left us all with smiles on our faces. Hearing about the dark times that lay ahead for them in the decades to come is a bitter pill to swallow. But it is important to note that THE FORCE AWAKENS doesn’t give our heroes a hard time as a mere plot device. The backstory is vitally important and strengthens the narrative. So, while I too was disturbed by the difficulties experienced by these characters, I cannot judge THE FORCE AWAKENS merely because it doesn’t conform to my vision of their future.
Besides, it is great seeing the old crew back in action again. They have the same old spirit, only now they are older, wiser and yes a bit more cantankerous, qualities they share with a lot of their original fans. Despite my commitment to being reverentially quiet during the showing of THE FORCE AWAKENS, I must admit that the kid in me wouldn’t stand for it. When the Millennium Falcon makes its first appearance, I squealed in childlike glee.
All the same, THE FORCE AWAKENS does have its share of problems. In the future the film sets up, there is the First Order and the Republic, a government one assumes contains members of the old Rebellion. I say “assumes” because we never really learn much about them. We learn that they are a ruling body, but how much power does the Republic have compared to the First Order? Which parts of the galaxy are run by each group? How does the Republic operate? Who is in charge? We are told they support the Resistance, but we do not know how. What is the relationship? This is probably the biggest question mark in a film that throws in all these nuggets of mythology. But the earlier films either never intended developed their mythology, gradually and sometimes subtly. In the case of THE FORCE AWAKENS, a good deal of information is underdeveloped and seems to have been placed there with the thought that if people really want to know about them, they’ll check out all the other product tie-ins that will no doubt expand the mythology for those who can’t wait for the next installment. From a storytelling standpoint, that is unacceptable.
I have mentioned the similarities to the original trilogy and how for the most part, this isn’t mere repetition. There are a couple exceptions to this. There is one major plot point involving one of the First Order’s most shocking acts that felt a bit cheap. It’s a cathartic, destructive event, no doubt meant to illicit the same sympathies we felt when the Empire destroyed Alderaan in STAR WARS or when they left our heroes beaten and bruised at the end of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. It’s meant to raise the stakes and give our protagonists an act of aggression to avenge. But it didn’t feel like STAR WARS, it didn’t feel like EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and it didn’t feel like THE FORCE AWAKENS. Instead, it recalled the ridiculous destruction of Vulcan from Abrams’ STAR TREK reboot. And the events and instruments that lead to this point in the story was the moment when I felt disappointed in THE FORCE AWAKENS, muttering to myself, “Really? Again?”
The film also contains its share of plot holes that while minor on the surface are far too problematic to ignore. Most troubling of these is Kylo Ren’s ability to repeatedly pop up right in front of our protagonists, despite being in completely different locales only moments before. As a matter of fact, the only moment when this character doesn’t seem to sense our heroes’ presence or spring up directly in their path is when it is more convenient for the screenplay for him to be clueless. Even in a series that relies on happenstance, this is an uneven and ridiculous aspect of an otherwise solid storyline.
And yes, this is J.J. Abrams’ film. Abrams shows a lot of respect to the original trilogy, keeping the basic spirit and directorial techniques. However, he also throws in a few of his own. Abrams for instance enjoys starting his scenes with whip-pans that settle on a focal point. There are several such shots in this film and a few that are identical to shots in STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS. Thankfully, Abrams is not interested in style over substance. He keeps things moving, but makes a conscious choice to slow down in order to foster character development. Each person is given time to breathe in a way the TREK films did not often allow. It is very telling that Abrams wrote the screenplay alongside original trilogy vet Lawrence Kasdan, a person who may be the unsung hero of this movie.
Abrams will not be handling EPISODE VIII; that honor being passed to Rian Johnson. This is good news. I am intrigued by a continuing STAR WARS franchise that respects the language built by Lucas while adding flourishes of an ever-changing roster of filmmakers. If Disney continues to allow this, it will give the films a sense of identity like we saw in Marvel’s Phase 1 features, qualities that have been lacking in subsequent Marvel films for the last few years.
I was asked if STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS gave me the same feeling I had when I was a kid. It didn’t, not because it isn’t a good film but because I’m not sure that kind of feeling is achievable at my age. There was no real precursor to the original trilogy and I was at just the right age to soak it all in. So no, I did not feel like I was eight years old again. I did however get the first great STAR WARS film in 32 years. I got a film with breathtaking adventure, refreshing imagination and absolutely no unlikable characters. And the great thing is that I could watch friends of mine who have their own children now. They could take their kids just like their parents took them between 1977 and 1983. And there is a whole new generation, one that is quite a bit more jaded and accustomed that I was at that age, who can still get their breath taken away by an adventure in the stars. And that’s something worth celebrating. Highly Recommended.
RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA
- What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals?
- In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?
The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.