Last Saturday I watched The Force Awakens. This is the Star Wars film that was supposed to wash away the bad taste left over from the prequel trilogy. Between the reviews I’ve seen and my brother’s reaction, it seems to have achieved that quite well. Which means that when you walk into the theater to watch this movie, you know exactly what to expect. And that’s a good thing.
Spoilers from here on. Proceed with discretion.
The Star Wars films, the original trilogy, are just about the crown jewel of eighties nostalgia. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword, though, on a personal level and especially for a media franchise. Everybody wants their forever favorites back. Changing them too much will ruin them. Updating them for the present day will sour their underlying message about how everyone was innocent and optimistic when you were ten years old and not cynical and jaded like today. But nobody wants to watch a movie that’s just a retread of a plot we’ve already seen, we want originality. And most adult fans have kids, who they want to be able to enjoy the movies and feel the same about them as they themselves did at that age.
So the movies need to be nostalgic but relevant, continuity-compliant but accessible, and completely original — but without changing anything.
The Force Awakens wanted to recapture the original Star Wars feeling for its older fans, and recreate it for their children. A sweeping space opera, a battle between ultimate good and ultimate evil, and a generational family drama. You get to be invested in the new characters because of their relationship with and similarity to classic characters. You get to feel heroic and virtuous under a simply comforting system of morality that is as much about what people are as what they do. Lots of large explosions and very alien-looking aliens.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) is the young, female Han Solo you’ve been waiting for (or not; I don’t judge). She and Finn (John Boyega) provide the lightweight survivalist character element for the younger generation. Rey is a scavenger who was abandoned by her family in the desert, bartering for powdered food and sleeping in the wreckage of a star destroyer. Finn is a stormtrooper deserter, raised from infancy by the First Order. Nonetheless, they are remarkably comfortable trusting total strangers with their lives, because this is a space opera and not a psychological drama.
Harrison Ford plays old Harrison Ford, and excels at it. He’s old and snarky and he wears a ratty jacket and cheats everyone he meets, until he doesn’t. He’s a perfect lovable rogue who stops being roguish at all the right moments. Yeah, he steals the show. Did you expect anything else? Ridley and Boyega are perfectly endearing and relatable, but Ford carried the movie. He praises Rey’s piloting and mechanical skills and by the end of the film the torch is well and truly passed. Even the villain agrees that he’s the father she never had.
Baby Darth Vader is an interesting case, in that he’s not interesting. I mean. He’s both interesting and phenomenally dull at the same time. He consciously replicates the beats of Anakin’s descent into darkness. Sure, Darth Vader was doing great and he didn’t die until he listened to his stupid son and turned back to the light. Assuming the identity of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and leader of the under-utilized Knights of Ren, he dons a robotic suit and monologues at Vader’s melted helmet. But Darth Vader wore a mask because he couldn’t breathe without it. Kylo Ren wears it because he thinks it looks cool. Ren, it seems, is neither very strong with the Force, nor well-trained in it. It took us ages to figure out that Darth Vader’s mask hides a sulky teenager throwing a tantrum, but Kylo Ren puts it right out there from the start.
I enjoy him as a villain, although I doubt I’ll enjoy him half as much in the role of a misunderstood woobie.
I have little enough to say about Poe Dameron, Leia (General Organa!!) and Luke. I imagine we’ll get to see a lot more of them in Episode VIII, and there will be plenty to say about it then. I did enjoy Leia’s one-on-one interaction with Rey near the end of the film, however brief.
We got space battles. We got the Force, awakening. We got a grotesque villain to hate and a funny alien to dispense words of wisdom. We got the Millennium Falcon and Chewbacca. We got new characters being built up, while classic characters served as their mentors. We even got a Death Star, except this time it was a Death Planet, which is much bigger and thus more impressive. No, it wasn’t original; it was Star Wars. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) even gift-wraps the fannish experience for us in her inspirational speech to Rey: for a sense of belonging look to the future, not the past.
As someone who frequently feels like crap, I’ve developed all sorts of strategies for feeling less like crap, and they are mostly very effective. One of my strategies is fresh fruit. Because fresh raw food is healthy and decreases depression? No, not because of that. It’s because fruit are reliable. You can have all sorts of emotional reactions to all sorts of things, but a banana will always be a banana, no more nor less. It will never fail you, so long as you know what to expect. The Force Awakens is like a banana. If you walk in expecting the latest installment in a media franchise, you will not be disappointed. I give it the best grade that I can give a movie of this kind: it performs exactly as expected.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.