Stop me if you’ve heard this one before
by Thom Yee
What if a child grew up without seeing Star Wars in the same way that society sees it? What if a child found far greater meaning in the other stories he grew up with? That child would be me.
I don’t get Star Wars. I mean, I get it, it’s not like there’s some abstraction that makes it hard to interpret or understand, and I can see how it’s vast array of post-movie product offerings — toys, books, clothing, ornaments, lifestyle accessories — have allowed it to become such a big deal, but I don’t get why it’s become such an all-consuming behemoth of an intellectual property or why it’s managed to gain fan warship at a level and with a reach so far in excess of any other franchise that doesn’t count the Bible or Dianetics amongst its works.
I should clarify that I first came into Star Wars with its sixth episode, Return of the Jedi, when I was about seven years old. And I only saw the first half. For a long time I still had no idea what a Jedi was or whether Luke was the Jedi being referenced in the title (he didn’t seem all that powerful in Jabba’s palace), and I didn’t have much interest in finding the answer to either question. If anything, I was mostly just disgusted by Jabba and his hangout of a fortress that felt more like some torture dungeon where people laughed at other people’s horrible deaths. It would be years before I would see any of the other installments, and even then it wasn’t until the late ‘90s that I actually saw all of them all the way through in the correct order.
While I’d seen the trilogy, noted the comicbooks and vaguely recalled mention of cartoons from the early ’80s, I never felt much towards Star Wars, not deeply at least, nowhere near what other people seemed to feel, but the one idea that excited me about the franchise was what comes next. And I meant really comes next, not some elseworlds-feeling novel, but a real movie. It was word of the prequels that got me to watch the original trilogy in an at all serious manner in the first place, but I, probably like most of you (even before we would find out how those prequels would turn out), wanted to see a sequel trilogy much more than a series of prequels. And now here we stand, at the foot of an all-new sequel trilogy after what felt like an eternity even for someone with my background, and now that I’ve seen The Force Awakens, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve finally passed, on into a very different world — still in a galaxy far, far away, but not quite as long ago as before.
What’s it about?
“Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed. With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy. Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke’s whereabouts….” Sh*t gets f*cked up from there.
The story of The Force Awakens really starts with the trailers that have been trickling out since the end of 2014. Without spelling out the entire story, without overhyping or overselling the movie we would eventually see, these trailers set out with the objective of wiping the slate clean after the bad taste of the prequels and promising us a return to what made the series great in the first place. And for me, watching these trailers was the first time I ever had any genuine emotion towards Star Wars at all, particularly after seeing the first teaser (above) that so effectively combined a strong sense of urgency with an equally strong sense of nostalgia for the series that I never knew existed inside of me. There are stories of grown men crying after seeing the second trailer and the moment when Han Solo, quite simply, said “Chewie, we’re home.”, and whether it was the first time we saw Kylo Ren’s lightsaber sprout crossguards, Rey’s speeder hurtling past a long-ago fallen Star Destroyer, or watching the Millenium Falcon being pursued through a field of ruins on Jakku as “Princess Leia’s Theme” played in the background, even I have to admit that I finally started to feel like I understood where the rest of the universe was coming from on this whole Star Wars thing.
One of the things that’s always made Star Wars so impenetrable for me is the way fans could so easily slip into referencing obscure and minute details of the lore, be they people or places, that would leave me wondering where (or what) is Coruscant or what is an IG-88 or did Greedo shoot first (and who did he shoot?). In a way I suppose those references aren’t that different than my own ability to speak of what the difference is between the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor or who Damian Wayne is and why he’s my favourite Robin, but there’s a few crucial differences: (1) the things I’m talking about are cooler and easier to recognize, and (2) 22-page comicbooks are much more accessible than novels with hundreds of pages of dense text and no pictures other than the cover. Up till now, Star Wars has largely been something I had a hard time caring that much about.
Having said that, I do completely understand why people hate the prequels. If I had to point out their one big, glaring, hairy-ass, collective flaw, it’s that they feel like movies where everyone involved hated being there. The prequels are exceptionally easy to pick apart, failing in key areas like acting and storytelling, and the whole series just feels miserable to watch because they don’t look like anyone’s having fun. They feel like the downer movies we know they had to be rather than the rooting-for-good, hoping-despite-knowing-better movies we needed them to be. What’s more, and this is where they lose all meaning, the key emotionality of the prequels was almost completely absent, and the emotional moments we would see on screen were utterly laughable. I mean, just imagine if you actually wanted to see Anakin and Padme stay together. Imagine if you felt genuine heartbreak at the thought of this noble but conflicted hero falling to the Dark Side. Even if the movies were no better than what we got on any other level, that core feeling would have been enough to make the overall arc of the six movies sing. But it wasn’t to be, and for a long time that was it for the series.
Also, trade federations? WTF? The f*ck were they even trading?
Is it any good?
So a smuggler, a scavenger, a traitor, and a rolly droid walk into a bar… and they get everyone killed. By the way, this is going to be a spoilers review because I sincerely doubt there’s anyone out there who, at this stage, both hasn’t seen the movie and has waited this long for our review before seeing it.
I don’t think you judge Star Wars movies based on how technically strong their screenplays are or how their detailed plots contain complexities that make you rethink important parts of your life, it’s mostly just a question of how successful they are in making you feel their greater themes. And I mean really feel it, down to your bones, as if you can feel the force on the level of a religious experience, as if you can look upon Darth Vader and know ultimate evil, or as if you can watch Poe Dameron fly and recognize that you’ve truly beheld the greatest pilot in the galaxy, because if you think about any one element too much, the whole thing could fall apart, at least without the assistance of reading or watching a whole catalogue of supplementary material to explain why certain things may, in fact, make more sense than you had thought. Like the scene I described above where you’d think that Han would have at least had the presence of mind to leave BB-8 back on the Falcon before walking into Maz Kanata’s bar.
What makes The Force Awakens work is a transcendent spirit, the same spirit that people must have felt when watching the original trilogy, that somehow lifts the entire affair above what’s essentially trashy genre fiction. Verbalized and visualized through the force that connects everything, all of us, together as we watch this story play out, we follow the classic, monomythical journey once again as we meet our lead character, Rey, orphaned from a young age on the planet Jakku (a squalor that may be even further from the bright centre of the universe than Tatooine) through sheer determination and pluck towards the hero she’s destined to become. Rey’s a character who’s been marginalized by a certain side of fandom with the “Mary Sue” label (a young woman who saves the day by being unrealistically good at everything), and though it fits on a superficial level, the combination of her scavenger background and what’s hopefully a back story with much more to be revealed makes it a tag that doesn’t ultimately have merit.
As much as The Force Awakens has been condemned, decried, lambasted and pilloried for its mirroring of the original movie’s (Episode IV — A New Hope) plot points, there are strong deviations from that movie’s script that become even more meaningful with such a deliberately drawn comparison. With Finn, this is the first time we’ve ever seen a storm trooper that was a real person with real human reactions, and his turn from the darkness to the light, though relatively untouched by the force itself, is a key part of why The Force Awakens works. Though he’s initially hesitant and fearful, when he’s eventually faced with the real danger of the new path he’s chosen away from the First Order, he consistently answers the call to adventure even though he really isn’t the hero of this story as much as he’s ultimately a sidekick. In his final confrontation with Kylo Ren, when he activates a lightsaber that isn’t even meant for him, he’s making the choice to do the right thing, the same way he ultimately does throughout the movie, even though he knows there’s no way he can win.
To me, that moment speaks volumes of an invisible force that binds us all together, not a magical, invisible energy field but the compulsion that we hope all living beings feel to do what’s right and that’s the moment when I felt like the movie was definitely on the right track. In the same vein, Kylo Ren as the conflicted villain, who, in a surprising twist, can’t help but feel the light side calling out to him. All throughout the Star Wars films we’ve been bludgeoned with the supposed seductive power of the Dark Side of the force, and to for once find out that that light isn’t so easily distinguished is a heartening element that could infuse the character’s ultimate fall, as will no doubt be chronicled throughout the remainder of these sequels, with the bitterness and heartache that was so missing from Anakin’s fall. In a striking departure from the over-choreographed battles of the prequels, the ferocity and undisciplined look of Ren’s lightsaber battle, first with Finn and then with Rey, speaks to the struggle the character is going through as he continues to deny the light side and the mixed emotions he’s feeling after killing his father.
His father, Han Solo.
It’s a moment that’s a little undercut by being telegraphed pretty badly, both with the length of the scene in which it’s contained and the broader knowledge that there’s always a mentor’s death in the hero’s journey, but it’s still a powerful moment in the movie. In the scene itself, it takes a long time to get there, but it’s still a rewarding scene that gives us the time to hope and continue hoping with that “no, no, no, don’t do it, don’t do it, no, no, no” feeling that we feel in the most compelling dramas even though we know what’s coming. It’s a loss that I was surprised I felt given that I really never cared about Han Solo before.
Like I said earlier though, if you break The Force Awakens (and Star Wars movies in general) down too much, it (and they) tend to fall apart a little, and the fact that you have to view these movies from a certain distance is what keeps them from being truly great. Your mileage may vary, but explaining questions like “Why couldn’t they just email the map that shows where Luke is?” or “Shouldn’t it be harder to escape with a Tie Fighter?” or “Is it really that easy to sneak around the First Order base that contains their greatest weapon?” It’s not that these questions hurt The Force Awakens so much as the answer being “Just ignore it, it doesn’t matter” being the answer keep the movie confined to a certain level and handcuffed to a level that can only be so good. There’s a question of morality that’s completely ignored when the Resistance destroys the latest Death Star, this time Star Killer Base, now built into a planet. Aren’t there life forms on that planet? Wildlife, an ecosystem, maybe even a race on the road to sentience? What right does the Resistance have to destroy that planet to save themselves? Alas, questions like these play in a space that the franchise just wasn’t built for.
So should I see it?
Coming out of The Force Awakens, the single element of the movie that left me most satisfied is that we still don’t really know what’s going on. On the one hand, that can be interpreted as symptomatic of serialized storytelling that’s intentionally decompressed and meant to take place over several major films and side stories, but on the other, the most fun I think a lot of us have with these stories is speculating and theorizing, trying to figure out who Rey’s parents are, why she was left behind on Jakku, whether or not Kylo Ren will ultimately fall to the Dark Side, or pondering the implications of a Supreme Leader who really is as big as the holograms make him look. The phrase, “Luke, I am your father” and the spoiler it represents is one that was ingrained in the culture before I ever had the chance to hear it in context, and to now find myself with the same sense of longing that original fans felt in having to wait years for resolution is something that I needed to feel to become truly attached to these stories.
It’s easy to be highly satisfied with what the movie represents or deeply dissatisfied with what the movie really is, and your assessment is going to depend largely on what kind of person you are. As the opening chapter in a new saga in the franchise, The Force Awakens needed to tell a certain kind of story with a pretty wide appeal to fans and newcomers, and it can at least be regarded as a success in that sense. But if you were bound and determined to not like the movie or to expect a lot from it, it’s not going to win you over and it doesn’t do a lot to move the space opera format forward.
Thom’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens final score
On the Edge
- Points to anyone who knows what I was referencing in the opening paragraph.
- Loved that Millenium Falcon intro. So understated!
- They brought in the stunt team from The Raid for that Rathtar scene and that’s it? That’s like hiring Tony Jaa and then expecting us to believe that Paul Walker could beat him in a fight.
- Lightsaber resistant or not, a nightstick is still a terrible weapon against a sword.
- Oh Daniel Craig. You were just poured into that stormtrooper armour.
- I also loved Poe Dameron, there just wasn’t much to say about him.