Few things excite me like John William’s Star Wars theme. Hearing those blasting trumpets and seeing that amazing yellow logo glimmering with all the scifi wonder of 1977 against the panoramic backdrop of a vast starscape, this is the stuff of magic. This familiar moment at the opening of The Force Awakens had me literally bouncing on my seat, as my embarrassed wife will attest. Needless to say, I had high hopes for this movie, especially as so many have raved over it.
My first observation was that I was glad to read a familiar, thoroughly cheesy intro with phrases like “the Sinister First Order” and “searching the galaxy for Luke Skywalker …” I could tell right off that this movie was going to be another great Space Western with clear-cut good guys and bad guys, almost like an extended Sunday school lesson but far more entertaining. Though it also begged the question, “Do I really want another melodrama?” I mean, we’ve already been through six movies cataloguing the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire and the eventual triumph of the righteous underdogs. Wouldn’t it be a little counterproductive to throw away all that progress and start over? Surely that’s not what the film is going to be, is it? Of course not. The Imperial days are over. It’s time for a new period, a new conflict, new themes, and new wonders. I mean, there’s a whole galaxy to explore.
Of course, my fears turned out to be spot on. I won’t dare call the movie a remake, as apparently there’s been a touchy debate on the subject, but it was at least a “soft reboot,” strongly reminiscent of A New Hope. I’m almost certain the making of the film started with a conversation like this:
“So those prequels didn’t turn out too well, and we’ve got way too much money on the line to risk another box office bomb. So let’s just follow the proven formula of Episode IV. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in a lot of Episode V, because that one also did well.”
This wasn’t necessarily a bad idea as The Force Awakens succeeded at fitting right into the Star Wars universe. The filmmakers clearly went to great pains to be true to those 1977 designs and motifs, even with retro screen visuals and flashy lights on the walls that serve no purpose. Awesome. They knew exactly who their target audience was: people like me who had grown up with a religious zeal for Star Wars, who had been hurt by the prequels, and wanted to return to the comfort of their beloved galaxy from long ago and far away with pseudo-religious overtones, inspiring the inner-heroes within.
And yet, for me, this movie was too familiar: another lost droid holding important information, another sandy planet with a trapped, young Jedi in the making, a new galactic empire (with virtually no explanation as to its roots or financial backing), a new Darth Vader, a new cantina full of monsters, a new Yoda-figure, a new Death Star, new Yavin’s to blow up, and so on.
I get that they wanted cohesion with the earlier episodes, but with so much budget and technology, why not get at least a little more creative and show some non-earth-like terrain? I mean, every single habitat in the Star Wars universe so far has a direct counterpart on earth. Why not show us a planet with a pink sky where it rains sulphur and the trees look like giant frog eggs, and there’s half the gravity of earth? What’s with Hollywood’s obsession with boring desert planets? Don’t get me wrong: Tatooine was beyond cool in 1977, when Star Wars pioneered the possibilities of scifi cinema. But in 2016, have we now reached the outer limits with nothing left to do but pander to nostalgia? Why not take that pioneering spirit further?
And now I’m going to completely contradict myself in adding that it was too bad that the filmmakers didn’t learn from all of the mistakes from the prequels, namely the use of CGI characters. I know I speak for many when I say we just don’t want them. We just don’t love them. They’re just … no good. The use of puppets is one bit of Star Wars nostolgia that should never be compromised.
I was able to overlook all of these disappointments but one that hit too hard: the reintroduction of Han Solo. We discover that, as a seventy-something year-old-man, he’s long-since left Leia and backslid to his smuggling days. I can also imagine the conversation that led up to this choice: “What do we do with him? He can’t just be happily married. Where’s the conflict in that? And he certainly can’t have attained some level of maturity and sagacity in his old age. That would just depress our audience. The Han Solo they knew and loved was a rough, sarcastic smuggler, so that’s what we’re going to give them.”
Which reminds me of a rumor I’d heard about Cookie Monster. Perhaps it’s just an urban legend, but as the story goes, there was a time when Cookie Monster overcame his urge for cookies and grew a liking for fruits and vegetables, encouraging children to eat more healthy. Audiences were enraged, insisting that Cooke Monster was betraying his true nature, and, accordingly, the familiar Cookie Addict soon returned. In large, our world rejects the concept of progression and insists on unaltered, platonic ideals.
Han and Leia’s relationship and characters had developed over three wonderful movies, in which they’d both passed through the refiner’s fire. Contrast their flippant attitudes in Episode IV to their softer, more altruistic, and genuinely loving attitudes by the end of Episode VI. It’s sad to just throw that all away for the sake of a new conflict, and it came at a cost.
Sure Han and Leia had some token lines exhibiting their wisdom of age, but these, for me, fell flat, as they had so little to show from the last thirty years. For example, consider Han’s lines about the reality of the force and the Jedi. His testimony might have meant something if I could see that the Force had influenced his life for good, making him who he was. But it’s as if all he really said was, “I used to think Luke had a stunt double, that it was all a bunch of simple tricks and nonsense. But I was wrong. He totally does he own stunts. True story.”
Furthermore, what good is a testimony of the Force in a galaxy where the effects of the Force can be so obviously observed? Which brings me to my next observation: the supplanting of the principle of faith. In Episode IV, when Luke is introduced to the Force by Ben Kenobi, the Force is presented as a belief system. It requires faith in an unseen power. Luke has to develop this faith through acts of courage as he chooses to let go of his imperfect judgment and trust in a higher power. The process requires a loving mentor, gruelling tests, and deep spirituality.
However, in The Force Awakens, the new Jedi in the making, Ray, develops her “gift” in the same way that young Anakin did in Episode 1: dumb luck. Without any real mentor, any real knowledge, no apparent belief in a higher power, and no leap of faith, she simply maneuvers her way through adventure after adventure with inexplicable ability, until, at last, she realizes (don’t ask me how) that she has Force powers. She then proceeds to develop this gift as one would develop a knack for martial arts. No need for the dispelling of doubt or the learning of a transcendent principle such as “Luke, trust me” or “do or do not” or “judge me by my size, do you?” She just gets the force.
What does this say about our audiences? Is a belief in God now no more than an extension of our abilities? Do we now worship ourselves?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but there used to be something special about Star Wars, something different form your usual swords and sorcery. I don’t really see the filmmakers at fault as, once again, they did a great job in giving audiences what they want. What disturbs me is that this is, apparently, what audiences want. Philosophy, religion … those are so 1977. Just give us lots and lots … and lots … of action.
Action: what you do when you don’t have a story. Because without action, characters would start talking, and when characters start talking, they start exploring ideas, and when characters start exploring ideas, they start making decisions based on their own volition and not as compelled by extreme circumstances, and when this happens, you’ve got a character-driven story instead of a plot-driven story, and this would undermine the very foundations of melodrama, which the audience paid good money to see. Thus the characters were seldom permitted to complete two sentences in a row before being interrupted by an explosion.
My wife argues that this is exactly how the original movies were. I believe she’s half-right. Yes, my bias will always be with the Star Wars of my youth. And yet, before the MTV generation, stories, in general, were slower, more thoughtful, more character-driven. Before the dark times … before CGI.
I don’t mind some thematic action here and there, especially when the world has been well built, the stakes have been set, the characters have been established, the journey has been made, and the goal is within reach. But when the story is action — scene after scene of over-the-top fantasy violence against impossible odds with unbelievable, unqualified success — this is not to be confused with a story. It’s gratuitous. It’s tedious. It’s boring. I don’t want to watch superheroes, who, in virtue of their birth, can do what I’ll never be able to. I want to learn how I can become a Jedi. Otherwise, what’s the point? The Star Wars I still love had so much more to offer than mere entertainment value.
There was so much action that there was little room for character. Ray, for example, didn’t actually have character. She was a concept of uncompromising good. In that she was likable, but she wasn’t a character. Aside from a vague memory from childhood, she had little to no background, no friends, no culture, little to no personality, and once again, no time to think, talk, or make a decision that wasn’t absolutely forced. Notwithstanding, she was an amazing acrobat, martial artist, mechanical genius, and … somehow … pilot?
Hooray for girl power.
Fin was another interesting concept — a conscience-pricked, deserting storm trooper — but again, with almost no background and no time to make a less than extreme decision, he was two-dimensional at best.
As plot was so important to this movie, it was too bad that the main plot — to find Luke Skywalker — really had no weight whatsoever. Characteristic of sequels, this device was a shameless fallback to previous setups, dogmatic instead of self-evident. I mean, what do we care if there’s no more Jedi? I might have cared in a previous movie, but in The Force Awakens, what even is a Jedi? Just another action hero? We’ve got plenty already.
And what’s with the silly “map” that leads to Luke’s hiding place? If he wanted to be alone, why did he make himself into a geocaching game for treasure hunters, putting part of the map on one droid, part on another? The concept of a map in space travel is silly to begin with. All you would need are coordinates. I hear that a lot of missing information can be found in the novelization, but if the film is an independent art form, I would think it should be able to stand as such.
While there were some intriguing scenes, my brain had had enough by the time we reached the completely unnecessary action sequences at Han Solo’s smuggling station. Or were we in someone else’s smuggling station? I lost track of who was smuggling whom. I really wanted to walk out of the theater and likely would have done so if I weren’t so curious about how this film was going to redeem itself and why so many people liked it. In large, I felt that the story didn’t really even start until Han Solo was killed by his Generation Y, schizophrenic son, Kylo Ren. Finally something new and interesting!
I thought the story would begin a moment earlier, when Han tries to persuade Kylo to step down from his pedestal of evil, and Kylo appears to soften. I thought, “Wow, this is unprecedented. A new Darth Vader has been painstakingly set up to reign with blood and horror, and now he’s just going to renounce it all? Talk about character! This is wonderful. I’ve never seen anything like it. This must be why everyone likes this movie.”
Then I thought better. “Wait, no, this is obviously a false climax. He’s going to harden again, the good guys and the bad guys will polarize, and there will yet be many long sequences of storyless action.”
Of course, the visuals were amazing, the sets breathtaking, the acting superb. I even loved the impossible physics. I’m all for a fantastic universe so long as there’s a fantastic story to go with it. And the music … ah, the music. It was there, and yet it wasn’t there. John Williams’ masterpieces are a quintessential part of any Star Wars film, and I don’t think he failed to deliver this time. Yet I didn’t hear anything that really stood out as new or particularly moving. I think he did as bast as he could for this movie. The problem was that the movie (1) had no new ideas, and (2) was so fast-paced and scatter-brained that the only suitable music was long sequences of your average twentieth-century high-tension riffs, mixed in with some occasional classic Star Wars themes.
And … that’s pretty much it. Thanks to this film, I think I’m done with Star Wars for good. I have no desires to see any more sequels nor any other PG-13 melodrama so long as I live. Though I had hoped for something new and inspirational, as Star Wars used to be, as Soloman put it, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Apparently this is true in other galaxies as well.
My conclusion: at least for my generation, Star Wars has fulfilled its purpose, and it’s time for us to move on. It succeeded at inspiring us to think of the big and beyond, to develop and master ourselves as Jedi Knights amid an epic war of good and evil. But for an old man trapped in a young man’s body like yours truly, I’ve found nothing more to be gleaned from this galaxy that never was. I see little value in recreating and dragging on a story that was already finished … unless of course the artists doing so truly have something better to add, but I doubt this will ever happen with this franchise, as there’s way too much money to be made from gratuitous fantasy violence.
Again, I blame the audiences. It’s only too plain: we don’t want inspiration anymore. We don’t want to become Jedi anymore. We just want mind-numbing escapism.