Happy 2016. I can barely believe it, but I have now seen Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Twice. After more than 32 years of anticipation, the sequel to Return of The Jedi finally exists in this galaxy, unlike the prequels, initiated in 1999, which, well, if you ask me...don't.
The prequels don't exist because I refuse to acknowledge their existence, much less debate whether a certain computer-graphic-generated character featured prominently in them is or is not an evil undercover Sith Lord. Who cares? It's better if he doesn't exist at all, so I have decided that he doesn't. I will decide who and what fictional characters "exist" in my own fictional universe, as should you. You must do what you feel is right, of course.
This review will tell my story of finally seeing the new film and processing the experience, but it won't ooze with fanboy worship or lavish gushing praise on those responsible for realigning the tracks of a long-beloved but wayward series, thus restoring equilibrium to the universe. Well, maybe a little. Nor will it be a picky geek's perfectionistic rant at everything that didn't meet his exacting expectations. Well, it might contain at least a wee bit of both. This is Star Wars, people, and I grew up with it. I had the bedsheets. Is objectivity even possible?
What is film criticism anyway, other than informed (or ignorant), substantiated (or fabricated), entirely subjective reactions based on opinion and perspective? I think it's safe to say you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
My lovely wife was away for a visit with her family, and so my dear Dad arrived for a Man Weekend, wherein we crammed four movies--the original trilogy (despecialized, of course) and the new film--into less than 24 hours of concentrated, Force (coffee)-enabled viewing, but the Force wasn't strong with Dad. Though he seemed to like them, he's never been a fan of sci-fi or fantasy and didn't quite make it through all the old films without nodding off here and there. We can try again if you like, Dad!
At the local theater on opening day, Dad and I made it through half an hour of commercials for everything under the sun, much of it licensed by Lucasfilm, and another 30 minutes of trailers for animated kiddie stuff. I was impressed by the theater's repetitive emphasis on the prohibition of cell phone use during the movie. Some people really do need to be hammered with repeated blasts of obviousness, so I welcomed it.
Let's cut to the chase. I had a great time. I felt giddy like a child. I'm 39 years old and remember seeing ROTJ in the theater at age seven, so it was pretty hard to contain my enthusiasm. But I was also pretty stoked in 1999 when the first prequel debuted, and that night remains the greatest cinematic disappointment in my life, but attempting to hold myself in check wasn't working this time around. I had a good feeling about this.
Suddenly that iconic score erupted into the room, and an old yellow font appeared, scrolling upward and away, at a familiar angle into the depths of outer space. Even at a second viewing, seated between a dear old friend and the love of my life, I literally bounced with excitement and smacked them each on the knee. Luke had disappeared? Leia was a General? Something called the First Order was rebuilding the Empire?
The new cast was great. A strong batch of fresh faces, some more familiar than others, all skilled actors with charisma, panache and chemistry to spare. I loved the decision to cast a young black man and white woman as central characters and potential love interests. I loved the ideas of a stormtrooper with second thoughts. Of a lone girl living in the foot of a long-toppled AT-AT Walker, scavenging her way though the bowels of an abandoned Star Destroyer, somehow picking up some pretty sweet piloting skills along the way.
I loved how the film was surging with its own new chapter of heroes and villains and reasons to invest in interesting new characters with mysterious unknown histories and yet brimming with delightful asides to the old days, paying homage to what has gone before but hurling forcefully (it's the right word) into its own new path of legend. As an often cynical viewer of movies, I loved the sheer joy, comradery, optimism, humor and hope that the film projected, mostly without resorting to syrupy inspirational cheese. Star Wars has always been all about hope.
Of course it borrowed a lot from the original trilogy. Daring rescues. Expert pilots, scrappy bands of resistance fighters, laser-blasting battles, scowling baddies and fascinating, creatively-designed creatures. The Millenium Falcon, chased by tenacious Tie Fighters inevitably shot down by inexperienced gunners in swiveling turret-pods, and yet another Death-Star-type thingy blowing up even more planets full of innocent people only to get attacked (again, by X-Wings) and blown up (again) for a third rebel victory over a big ball of evil that blows shit up. There's that.
And the questions. Of course there are questions.
If you realize that one of the main reasons so many of us hated the prequels involved the overuse of obvious CG, why not eliminate it? Why obscure Simon Pegg, Lupita Nyong'o or Andy Serkis's plenty-expressive faces and powerful performances with unrecognizable masks of computer graphics? Why create a "Supreme Leader" character out of an obvious mountain of computer graphics and name him something as silly-sounding as "Snoke?" Why attack Han, Chewie, Rey and Finn with a cartoon squid-monster that looks like it escaped from the recut, animated special edition dance-number from Jabba's palace in ROTJ?
I was so excited to finally see Han and Leia interact in character on screen again that I was able to forgive the sort of sentimental plot-summarizing dialog they were saddled with. If they had separated, why were they telling each other about what had happened between them? Didn't they know this already? Wasn't there a more organic way to reveal these plot point to viewers?
Why did Ben see Han as such a bad father if he hadn't even left until Leia sent them both away? Who was Max von Sydow's character, and how did he know all about this? Is he The Other Granddad? Meaning he's Han's dad? And why did he have a Jedi robe? Does that mean Han had Jedi in him without knowing it and will appear in Hologram Land with the old crew in Episode VIII? He's on the cast list. If Luke had been gone for so long, couldn't he hang out with Han one last time? Couldn't Luke Skywalker actually be in the movie and have lines, as the teaser teased?
Who is this new lead stormtrooper lady? She looks super cool, indeed, but she does and says little and goes out like a chump, just like Boba Fett. Couldn't we have at least seen her fight someone? At least she's not dead. Surely she'll be back to prove that she poses more of a threat to the Resistance than the risk of being blinded by her extreme shininess.
If Chewie continues to kick as much ass as he did in every episode (including and especially in Episode VII), when will Leia finally realize she must retroactively award him with that medal he earned but failed to receive in Episode IV? I mean what does a Wookiee have to do to get some respect in this canon? Hasn't he earned the Falcon's pilot seat?
And what's with his newer, less scruffy-looking, more slicked-back look, with no gray hair, somehow less-expressive eyes and suspiciously CG-looking mouth? How did they manage to make Chewie look younger? Less cool. And...more fake? Wookiees don't get facelifts, do they? He should look about the same but with more gray hair. And Han had never fired Chewie's crossbow in four decades (or more) of their intergalactic adventures and close calls together? Really?
You can criticize the film all day long for issues like this, but the bottom line is that they are minor, and this movie was the anti-prequel. I think The Force Awakens and those who made it understood why the prequels failed to capture the imagination of multiple generations seduced by the power of the originals and successfully created the antidote.
Despite minor failings, I think it nailed the feelings that we all longed to feel again. The awe of experiencing beloved characters (real actors in actual on-location shoots) with a lived-in, worn-down, actually-used aesthetic. A world with plenty of action, excitement, familial drama and reasons for grumpy old sci-fi fans to once again yell WOO-HOO!
George Lucas said that J.J. Abrams (director), Kathleen Kennedy (head of Lucasfilm at Disney) and Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter on V, VI and VII) "wanted to do a retro movie. I don't like that." Continuing his tradition of bashing his own fans for loving the movies that he gifted us with so many decades ago, which he's been slowly taking back ever since, like the kid who gets mad and takes home the ball so nobody else can play, Lucas sounds dissatisfied. I'm not even going to touch the "white slavers"-taking-his-children metaphor Lucas attempted but wisely aborted.
Lucas went on to say that The Force Awakens is "the kind of movie [fans have] been waiting for," but he wants to emphasize that the saga he created was supposed to be something other than what it has now become in others' hands; he thinks it should be "a soap opera...not about space ships." It seems to me that it's always been both a soap opera and about space ships. After all, he's the one who demanded increasing concentrations of them in just about every shot in each one of the films.
Lucas didn't sound excited at all, but can you really blame him? Even for a fortune he will mostly give away, he gave up his baby. He's no longer in charge. Nobody wanted to use his ideas. Most of us hated the prequels, and dammit...the "white slavers" are doing it wrong. It's got to hurt his ego and make him long for glories of yesteryear, but based on his track record with the series, none of this should have surprised him much.
He sounds decidedly un-stoked about the entire thing and, comparing what happened to a divorce, he's just "going to have to take a very deep breath and be a good person and sit through it and just enjoy the moment because it is what it is and it's a conscious decision that I made." Yikes. I hate to say he deserves it for forcing the prequels on us and refusing to let us purchase pristine theatrical versions of the unchanged originals for all these years, but he probably does.
We can all move on now. Rian Johnson is shooting Episode VIII, and I'm inclined to think that bodes well, having seen his excellent film Looper. I look forward to being able to purchase VII in a few months, in all its unaltered, high definition, theatrical-release glory, and without any stupid cartoon crap added, thank you very much.
Thank you JJ, Kathleen and Larry. Thank you Harrison, Carrie and Mark. Thank you John, Daisy, Oscar, Max, Lupita and Adam. Thank you everyone else, the army of behind-the-scenes creatives who helped make it happen. Crass commercialization and global stormtroopers of marketing aside, it's obvious that millions...billions?....of us longed for a triumphant return to this beloved universe. Oh, and thank you too, George. We all love playing in your sandbox.
But I'm still wondering, still pondering a lingering disappointment that trumps all my other beefs. I'm really bothered, even angered by the absence of someone who, when The Force awakened, truly belonged there with us among the crowds.
So I ask you Disney, once again...WHERE THE HELL IS LANDO?