I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens again yesterday – and despite what the post title suggests, I enjoyed it, quite a lot. The first time I saw the standard version, the second time in 3D – and 3D was much better. Here’s my thoughts – what they did right, what makes no sense, what I’m looking forward to in the next two movies:
It WAS Star Wars. The first time I saw the film, I raced from my previous appointment to make it to the theater on time, glanced at but skipped the popcorn line because I already felt like I was cutting it close, I scoped out the perfect seat – about a third of the way up, a little left of center, I was able to enjoy looking “up” at the screen very comfortably. I was prepared to be awed.
And awed I was. When the screen filled with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” the John Williams fanfare blared through the speakers, and the scroll began, I had a lump in my throat. Wanna know the other times I got a lump in my throat? Any time one of the original trilogy characters showed up in the movie – the first appearance of Han and Chewie, when Leia and C-3PO step out of the troop transport, when BB-8 finds R2 under a dust cloth at the Resistance HQ – even when Luke appears at the end.
[A note on the Luke appearance – it was a classic “Kevin Costner moment.” In the mid-1990’s, after he’d won his Oscar for Dances With Wolves, when Costner felt he could do anything he wanted, he seemed to have an ego made for the big screen. The movies, routinely panned, really weren’t all that bad – I half liked Waterworld despite the financial flop, and while The Postman wasn’t as good as the book, it was pretty decent post-Apocalyptic nightmare. I first noticed it in The Postman, and if you watch his movies from the period, you’ll see them in others as well – that moment that seems to exist for no purpose but to focus on the star, and make him look like a star. So, when Rey has crisscrossed the galaxy to get all the pieces of the map to Luke, when she has felt the “force awaken” within her and guider her to the one legend who could teach her in the “light” side of the force, when she has brought the lightsaber that belonged to Luke, and his father before him, is she really going to stand there dramatically, holding the saber out, saying not a word? It was a moment engineered to be a moment – which, in my eyes, kind of kills the moment.]
It did what made Star Wars so awesome in the first place. The original Star Wars, now known as A New Hope, was about a moisture farm boy living on a planet that, “if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from”; his smuggler friend; a princess from a destroyed planet; and a couple of service droids. It’s unclear where exactly Jakku is located, but it’s not hard to imagine that it is equally far from that bright center of the universe. [At first, I actually thought they were again going to Tatooine, which of course would have put Tatooine AS the bright center of the universe, as far as any plot is concerned. And while we don’t know where Disney will take the series from here, it’s interesting that we seem to be back to single climate planets, another proud Star Wars tradition.] The major characters of the prequel trilogy were full Jedi – including the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, a respected figure of a respected order in the Old Republic, not some crazy hermit living near the Jundland Wastes; the queen who would be the mother of two of our later heroes of the Rebellion; senators and chancellors. Sure, you have Anakin, originally son of a slave, and Jar Jar Binks, one-time buffoon who rises to the Senate in an unorthodox galactic Horatio Alger story – but “Ani” is the chosen one, his humble beginning almost a prerequisite for Lucas’s Christ-like vision for Anakin Skywalker (worst moment in the prequel trilogy: “There was no father. I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him . . . I can’t explain what happened.” Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan must have been the equivalent of wise men.)
The Force Awakens gives us new heroes who come from humble beginnings – the loner Rey on her Tatooine-like planet, Finn a stormtrooper taken from his family near birth who rejects the indoctrination of the First Order to join the Resistance. There’s more to Rey’s story, and that may ruin the idea that heroes can come from any beginning (I’m wondering if she’ll end up being Luke’s illicit love-child), but right now, it stands as a movie that shows that ordinary people may turn themselves into heroes when the occasion calls them. And since Han Solo won’t be back, it’s not hard to see Finn filling that role that Solo filled in the original trilogy, which was lacking in the prequels – the “everyman” who steps up when the situation calls for it, who will always be there for his friends.
Why you always wanna be so mad?: I’m not sure I get the idea of the Resistance. The Republic has been established, and is the legitimate government of much of the galaxy; if anything the First Order is the entity that is actually resisting the government. The Resistance is really more like a specialized military strike force in the best light; the explanation that the Republic tolerates them suggests that they’re more like American “military advisers” in Central America or the Middle East in the 1980’s – the Resistance is expected to advance the interests and ideology of the Republic, but if things go wrong, any connection to the legitimate government will be denied.
From a plot standpoint, the charm of the Original Trilogy was pulling for a scrappy group of Rebels who took on the Empire and won. “Right now I feel like I could take on the whole Empire myself” – and they pretty much did. Underdogs who win because they have Right on their side make great protagonists. The government continuing to battle the pockets of the old government, not so much. The whole idea of “The Resistance” came across as contrived.
Who wants to be a bad guy?: With the Original Trilogy, there may have been some appeal to either side; I’ve had an idea for a piece of fan fiction for years involving a young man who decides to serve the Empire as a stormtrooper, and explore how the “other” side may attract adherents without reference to the Light or Dark Side. The cosplay 501st Legion not only are among the coolest fanboys around, but you see them doing great charitable works all the time.
The First Order creeps me out a little more. It’s not the Starkiller Base (which just shows that the bad guys have this habit, like the great movie villains of old, of designing elaborate, deadly schemes with a fatal flaw by which it will all come crashing down); it’s not the way they slaughtered the villagers in Tuanul on Jakku; it’s really not even the way the First Order would take healthy infants from their families to indoctrinate them with their ideology and turn them into stormtroopers – heck, that isn’t much different from how Jedi would take padawan from their families if they sensed the child was Force sensitive. Nope, my real problem with the First Order was the rally before the Republic planets were destroyed – which just seemed eerily reminiscent of old Nazi film footage.
It’s one thing to want to be part of Vader’s 501st Legion and help bring peace to the galaxy through strength. It’s quite another to want to be a Space Nazi.
Where do we go from here?: Perhaps I’ll be surprised. But I don’t expect to be. (I know, that’s what makes it a surprise.) Rey’s and Finn’s backstories will be revealed, and while I have suspicions – especially about Rey’s origin – the backgrounds could go any number of directions without making any real impact on the overall story. The next movie, slated for a 2017 release, will focus on the Jedi training of Rey by Luke, and Kylo Ren’s final training as a Master of the Knights of Ren by Supreme Leader Snoke. Both sides are sure to include countless flashbacks and allusions to Luke’s failed training of Ben Solo, and even some references to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s failed training of Anakin Skywalker. I expect the next film to focus on the individuals, as both the Republic and the First Order were left crippled by the attacks of the other by the end of The Force Awakens.
As the films are best viewed in terms of trilogies, however, it will the be the third/ninth film that really finishes the tale – and in that, I have no doubt that Kylo Ren will find the Ben Solo within, and while Anakin Skywalker was not redeemed until immediately before his death, Ben Solo will “see the Light” and become a Jedi Knight, as his uncle and grandfather before him. It just writes itself.