at the movies: star wars: the force awakens

(Another year, another sequel with a colon in the title.  This blog will not back down and change its formatting for movie reviews.  Let the movie studios start giving their flicks one title apiece, that’s what I say.)

This is the new Star Wars movie.  Star Wars is a Big Thing.  This movie is the first in a new trilogy intended to return to the general space opera greatness of the first trilogy, which was almost entirely fun and had moments of real excellence.  To get there, of course, both the filmmakers and the audience have to set aside the second trilogy, which was set before the first trilogy and which was almost entirely dull and had both interesting moments and moments of real badness.  (Anyone wishing to hear my rant about the geraniums is welcome to ask for it.)  Ergo, this movie is automatically a Big Thing.  So of course I had to see it, and write something about it here.  Read more under the cut, because there is rather a lot, and also, spoilers.First, a caveat. I am not a giant Star Wars person.  I liked the first movie very much when I saw it the summer it came out.  It had scope, and wide open spaces and worldbuilding, and funny bits and a sexy hero. (No, not the idealistic blond. The hot smuggler.)  I was a teenager, and teenagers like Big Things.  Mystic mumbo jumbo dressed up in an interesting setting can seem fresh to teenagers, and even then the comedy and the action and the sass kind of helped the Big Ideas go down.  I saw that first movie probably a dozen times in the theater over the first ten years, and I remember it very fondly.  But it was all downhill for me after that.  I grew up, and once the characters I loved from the first trilogy were gone I completely lost interest.

The complexities of Star Wars fandom, the endless backstories and alternate histories, and especially the endless crazy names, the memorization of which is a crucial part of a deep appreciation of the canon, are completely lost on me.  If you are here in search of a detailed analysis of how this new canon relates to all the old canon, you are going to be disappointed.

When I saw The Force Awakens, I saw three things.  I saw a fairly good space opera, big and noisy and full of pretty effects but sadly deficient in plot and showing signs of having been cut pretty drastically at the last moment.  (Director’s cut, anyone? I bet there’s a version out there that’s about 40 minutes longer that makes a little more sense.) There were attractive and interesting characters and some good lines, and some utterly beautiful and highly dramatic settings—it’s pretty to look at in every sense of the word. If you like space operas and have never seen a Star Wars movie (and you have led a rather interesting life if that’s true), you would probably still enjoy this one.

Second, I saw a rather heavy handed rehashing of the major matter of the first film.  From major plot point to major plot point, this film revists the first one very heavily.  It’s far more than just a tribute or a reference, but short of a full on remake. There are not just new characters, but new kinds of characters (a powerful and independent young female hero, a Stormtrooper who is not with the program–they are the Girl and the Boy of the story– and a villain in training with great hair and an angsty temper), and some historical movement in the background, but the basic tropes are all recycled in a very deliberate way.  I’m not sure how I feel about this artistic choice, but it is widely admired in many circles.  I gather it’s supposed to suggest a cyclical view of history.

Third, I saw a movie that makes me alternately eager to watch the rest of the trilogy and rather worried about what I am going to see when I do.  I like the new characters and I want to know what happens to them.  I want to see more Star Wars-y ships and settings and critters. But I am scared to death I am going to see more of the core deep recycling and the historical theory.  If The Girl turns out to be Somebody’s Long Lost Sister I am going to have a temper tantrum and wreck some stuff with my light saber. Just a warning.

Thus ends the serious stuff. But of course there are a few notes.

  • My favorite thing about Star Wars has always been the creatures: the sentient aliens,  the “monsters”,  and especially the ordinary animals that occupy the margins of the imaginary worlds.  This outing has good examples of all three. Keep your eyes on the edges of the frames.
  • As always in the Star Wars universe, purity, testing, and the truth live in the desert, where heroes are found and forged. The desert in this film is also home to some pretty spectacular Ruins of the Past which remind us that Glory is Transient. Also you can have a spaceship chase in them.
  • I loved Han Solo as a young man, and I love how he dies here in his late prime at the hands of his seriously troubled son. (I did say there would be spoilers,  didn’t I?) Remember how I said that I hope Rey doesn’t turn out to be anybody’s long lost sister?  Well, I also hope Solo stays dead. He deserves that.
  • Chewbacca is still my favorite character. Rey seems to have inherited him along with the Millenium Falcon; take good care of the big guy, girlfriend.
  • Hey, there’s a way Rey could be somebody’s sister, or at least relative: she could be a Solo by-blow, or the descendant of one.  Or she could be a Kenobi.
  • Young Finn is a stalwart fellow.  And I am so, so glad he didn’t wake up when Rey kissed him at the end. Good way to resist a trope, people.
  • Bad guys, a note?  Death Stars, etc.? A bad idea.  Next time, try dispersing your forces. Although putting your latest Big Bad on a winter world does allow for a lovely outdoor plaza for your fascist rallies. And light saber fights look dynamite in snowy woods at twilight.
  • Also, young villians in training may wear helmets in imitation of their much more skillfully evil grandfathers,  but when they take them off, their hair looks fabulous. Not a great evil power, Kylo. Concentrate on your self control.
  • Finally, you know that great scene where Rey attempts the Jedi mind trick on the slightly snarky Stormtrooper?  That’s Daniel Craig in the armor. Great uncredited cameo,  that, and it’s already a fan favorite. This is my favorite fannish “backstage” Photoshop. Daniel Craig should star in a space opera.   That’d be something.
  • daniel-craig-star-wars-pic
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One Response to at the movies: star wars: the force awakens

  1. Kim says:

    Some belated points that may explain why you found this film “sadly deficient in plot” –

    On January 8th the Columbus Dispatch printed an article about John Swartz, a co-producer of the movie. Although I am not one bit interested in the continuing saga of Star Wars, I read it because Swartz graduated from the same high school as my daughter. He’s a young guy, only 31, and grew up a huge Star Wars fan. The article describes how Swartz was “involved from the start in helping Lucas, [Kathleen] Kennedy and eventually director J. J. Abrams to brainstorm ideas for the ‘Force Awakens’ script.” Swart says, “There were meetings about what Star Wars is, what it could be and what would we expect out of a new movie.”

    I don’t think that George Lucas has ever started ANY Star War movie with a complete script. When you’ve had so many other people help you write your movies, it’s easy to lose track of what is canon and end up with a choppy hodgepodge. And perhaps the reason why this film seems like a rehash of old major plot points can be explained by the fact that Laurence Kasdan is also listed as one of the writers of “The Force Awakens” – he helped write “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi” as well.

    The Dispatch article also mentions that John Swartz is involved with a stand-alone film, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” which is set to be released later this year. Yet ANOTHER Star Wars film title with a colon! (I think that’s become canon…)

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