[Editor’s note: Spoiler level yellow. General plot discussion and character analysis. One character death confirmed/denied. Proceed with caution, but also with wonder and goodwill.]
The Star Wars universe has some communication problems, my brother says at lunch. Later I think: yes, but not with us.
He’s talking about how in The Force Awakens, the seventh and newest episode in the long-running sci-fi fantasy series, the existence of Luke Skywalker, the main character of the original trilogy of movies that now constitute episodes four, five, and six, is little more than rumor for most of the galaxy, even though the movie takes place only about thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi (Episode VI). I add to his observation that it’s even weirder, really, that the Jedi order is treated with similar mystery in A New Hope, which takes place only about twenty years after the end of Revenge of the Sith, wherein the Jedi are still a major force in the galaxy until they’re mostly killed off in the last twenty minutes.
In whatever you call our own real-life expanded universe, though, the Jedi never went nowhere. You can call The Force Awakens a comeback because it’s been ten years since Revenge of the Sith and thirty-two since Return of the Jedi, which the new movie properly sequelizes. But Star Wars has lived more or less continuously since its 1977 debut; if there was a lull, even that is long since passed—maybe sometime around the late eighties and early nineties (amazing that the Mel Brooks movie Spaceballs was once considered too little, too late; now it has its own youthful acolytes—I’m sure I watched it more before I turned fifteen than any of the actual Star Wars movies—and it seems weird that it’s the only major feature-length parody of the franchise).
So here we are again as a new Star Wars movie, now revenue-maximized by Disney in a way that even the Lucasfilm empire never quite managed, breaks box office records, may even reclaim the number one spot on the list of the biggest blockbusters of all time not adjusted for inflation. I went and saw it on Friday night with my brother and his girlfriend and our cousin and two of my best friends from high school and a couple of lovely, nerdy wives. My daughter stayed home. She’s only two months old. By past Star Wars schedules, this would mean I’d already be planning to catch her up in time for Episode IX; maybe Episode VIII if she turned out especially advanced. But Disney has a Lucasfilm purchase to justify, so this new trilogy will be wrapped by 2019, before my daughter turns four. She can catch the next trilogy, I guess, or one of the Star Wars spinoffs planned for concurrent and presumably infinite release.
Is it selfish of me to want everyone to have to wait longer for Star Wars, like I did? I can tell you it’s at least hypocritical, because I hadn’t been waiting for The Phantom Menace all my life or even most of it, really. I watched original movies when I was a kid, but I didn’t really get into them until I was a teenager, until I got to be better friends with Rob and Jeff, the guys I went with on Friday, and Chris, who invited us all over one afternoon to watch the whole trilogy in a day, half a year before the special editions came out in theaters. When that happened, we saw them all multiple times, including Return of the Jedi twice in one day. So really, I waited two or three years for Phantom Menace. And I liked it! Still like it. Ask anyone I know. Ask the internet; they think I am so stupid for liking a movie. All three prequels, in fact; most people’s limit seems to be one or fewer, faint praise extracted grudgingly. I’m used to the phenomenon of panning a movie and having people get mad about it (whether or not they’ve seen the movie in question). But it seems like nothing I’ve ever panned has made as many people mad as my essay about how I love the prequels. I guess I understand the feeling; I remember a lot of people liked The Blind Side, and I was like, what’s wrong with you, world. Although I don’t think I specifically told anyone to fuck off over it.
We saw The Force Awakens at Crossgates Mall in Albany, New York. I’m from Saratoga Springs, about half an hour north. We saw it in auditorium two. It’s not the biggest or loudest screen in the capital district, but it’s where we saw the prequels—the same screen. The biggest and loudest screens are all charging more for the privilege of watching it in 3D, anyway.
We drove to Crossgates together, in Jeff’s mom’s car; it’s roomier than his Prius. Also lending our outing some suspense: Rob got into a car accident coming home from work to meet up with us. Actually, two car accidents. He got into a fender-bender, and after that was sorted out, he got back on the highway, and his hood flew up and smashed his windshield. Last time he almost died in the run-up to a Star Wars movie, the car wasn’t in motion: he was out at the mall buying us 12:01AM Phantom Menace tickets (online ticketing was still a crapshoot in 1999) and took an early-morning nap in a car with the windows rolled up, woke up gasping for air. It’s sort of a tradition now. If there’s another trilogy, maybe when the first installment comes out he can try to ghostride the whip.
We are not reckless people, I swear. Not so much anymore, anyway. Now we are people who drop off the kids, who take time off from work, who get a sitter. My mom watched the baby and later, she asked me which Star Wars movies she had seen. I could only say for sure that she saw Phantom Menace (everyone did) and Attack of the Clones. I think she saw Attack of the Clones but not Revenge of the Sith because by 2005 my parents were divorced and I think my dad took my sister to Sith.
My dad died in 2012, about a month after news of the Lucasfilm sale. Unrelated, I should say, if there was any question. He liked Star Wars, but not like that. He would’ve seen the new one, though, for sure. I feel like Alec Guinness bought him a lot of time in the Star Wars universe.
What little my mom remembered about the prequels she saw: Jar-Jar Binks. He makes an impression; yousa gotta give him that.
Unlike my mom, who is more into the Godfather trilogy (really just the first two—so kinda like one of those more militant Star Wars fans), I remember lots of times I watched Star Wars. I remember seeing Phantom Menace four times in its first weekend—once with my dad, I think. I remember seeing Return of the Jedi those two times because school was out for a snowday so we got to go to the noon show, too. I remember seeing Attack of the Clones in IMAX back when IMAX movies had to be cut down under a certain length to fit in the projectors. I remember seeing Revenge of the Sith again on Father’s Day and getting a free mini-poster that said WHO’S YOUR DADDY? on it with a picture of Vader. I remember watching Return of the Jedi in Jeff’s family’s tricked-out van that had a TV-VCR in the backseat. We were on our way to Rhode Island to see They Might Be Giants.
I understand that at this point, I’ve gone way beyond the first paragraph of personal stuff that Star Wars fan Ali Arikan begged everyone not to write. But I’m not trying to get all sloppy and sentimental about Star Wars. It’s a fact of life for me, moreso than some divine magic trick. The divine magic trick that keyed me into film was actually Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Star Wars was not, is not, a once-in-a-lifetime shot. It was not, is not, a first paragraph. It has become a way of marking time, slowly but surely, and with robots. The best way possible.
This is all to say: I don’t really need J.J. Abrams to remind me of Star Wars, specifically of A New Hope, by patterning his movie so closely after it. I’m reminded of Star Wars all the time. I’m reminded of Star Wars when I see any kind of wipe transition, or when I watch a movie that handles its mythology with less conviction, or, weirdly, when I hear the song “Wild Wild West” by Will Smith. I won’t be confused if I see a Star Wars movie without a planet-sized weapon that can destroy other planets. Abrams, bless his heart, seems to think I might be. The communication problem my brother mentioned—are there books in Star Wars, he asked; there are archives and holograms and even advertisements, but I don’t recall books—doesn’t exist on my corner of Earth. I like Abrams a lot—for real, I gave Super 8 the top slot on my 2011 list for this very publication. That movie limited his derivations through general Spielberg inspiration rather than specific continuation. His other movies have all been franchise joints, and his weakness as a filmmaker is a literal-minded approach to fan service. Fans don’t need to be served remixes of Wrath of Khan or A New Hope. Some of them might even think they do but it’s ok to not give them what they think they want.
Then again: I’m a fan, and I consider myself well-served by The Force Awakens. On Friday, and again on Sunday, it lit up the pleasure center of my brain. I don’t care much for the new Death Star, about which a bit character even asks “isn’t this just a new Death Star?” and poor Oscar Isaac has to firmly correct them by all but saying, “I understand your initial confusion, but as you can see, this new thing is much bigger and as such is much, much cooler than the Death Star. New Star Wars!” This would be great in a 30 Rock spoof. Maybe not so much in the real thing. But that’s a little thing (excuse me: a much, much bigger and cooler thing!) in a movie that introduces a bunch of great new Star Wars characters. I love Poe Dameron, the daring pulp hero played by Isaac with surprising and delightful swagger; even though his not being killed off in the first half-hour is a pretty clear cheat (and, as it turns out, a “fix” from an earlier draft), I am relieved for him to return. I love Finn (John Boyega), the stormtrooper who doesn’t want to be a stormtrooper, in fact wants to do the right thing, even if he’s going to bumble through it. And I super-duper loved Rey (Daisy Ridley), the Luke Skywalker equivalent who, in J.J. Abrams fashion, must live on a desert planet (not Tatooine, and he refrains from having Rey explain that this planet is much crazier and more desolate and in its way cooler than Tatooine). She is Force-sensitive, which leads to the kind of scene Abrams always nails with his pop-culture cover band: a short, simple bit where she tries out using the old Jedi mindtrick on a captor.
Rey also runs, jumps, scavenges, punches, and eventually wields a found lightsaber, hardly making a big deal of it. She’s been called a Mary Sue, but Ridley’s eyes take care of any lingering feeling that she might be more construction than character. Ridley she radiates such joy and, yes, fear and anger (which, you may recall, lead to hate and suffering) that she transcends her roots as a distaff Luke Skywalker knockoff. And if you’ll allow me a musty cliche premised on a foolish lack of default awareness of the female experience: I have a daughter now, and I’m so excited for her to meet Rey. That goes for Princess (now General!) Leia and Queen (then Senator!) Amidala, too, of course, but to think that my daughter may someday watch a Star War with a determined, scrappy young woman at its center makes me feel far more justified in my inevitable attempt to get her to sit on the couch and watch movies with me when she could be doing something more productive that will get her into a good college.
It’s that heedlessness that the new movie gets right. Abrams is great at throwing his (and other people’s) characters into breakneck actions sequences that are cleanly cut and too quick to pause for many questions about strict logic; in this way, he really does emulate his heroes Steven Spielberg and former Star Wars pilot George Lucas. Abrams also likes his actors and he seems to even like writing dialogue, which is a substantial change, it must be said, from Lucas, who appeared less engaged with those tasks with each passing prequel. If anything, Abrams and his cowriters are a little too excitedly busy, shuffling characters on and off of planets, teaming and reteaming them in different combinations. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo functions as an emotional anchor—and the movie does better by him, I dare say, than many of the originals, where he was hobbled by the George Lucas idea of what wisecracks sound like (not very wise, not very crackling). Even if it’s slightly lacking in moments of quiet beauty or weirdness (they’re there, but subservient to McGuffining), The Force Awakens rolls along like its new droid character BB-8—fast, smooth, adorable. BB-8 is not dissimilar to R2D2, but has a certain soft-batteried sensitivity—he’s faster but more vulnerable. R2D2 appears briefly, and he seems downright aloof by comparison.
I admit: I bought a bag full of plush BB-8 toys at the Disney Store before I even saw this movie – anticipation being part of the whole deal for this series. I want to buy more Force Awakens toys now, which makes me feel a little infantile, not to mention a tool of consumerism. But honestly, one reason I like this series is the toys; they feel more central here than they do to supposedly joy-based series like Transformers. Merchandising doesn’t seem like an imposition on the films’ integrity because, as I mentioned in that prequel essay, half the fun of Star Wars is imagining alongside it. This time around, Abrams has done a lovely joy imagining the people—rare is the sci-fi/fantasy movie where I want action figures of the human characters more than the weirdo aliens!—even if he pictures them in places and contexts that often look a lot not-so-new. “Always imagine new places” is something they say in Inception, and in that movie it’s a warning. It sounds to me like good advice to the next post-Lucas franchise custodian, Rian Johnson. I like J.J. Abrams but I love Rian Johnson; I can’t believe the guy who made Brick and Looper gets to play Star Wars in just eighteen months. Maybe I don’t need to wait three years in between movies after all. In the meantime, The Force Awakens is a great new toy.