I was disappointed with Star Wars The Force Awakens. When you’re saying and elongating the word “what” with an artificially heightened pitch, try to understand that what I’m going to write next isn’t meant to convince you of anything. I’m not taking the contrarian point of view for the hell of it. I genuinely walked out of the theater bummed out. Not angry, just deflated. The reasons, I think, have more to do with who I am as a person than the movie itself. If you haven’t watched the movie yet, stop reading.
It was just A New Hope
I don’t know when it dawned on me that The Force Awakens was basically a remake of A New Hope, (I think it was when Han took the kids to the cantina and I realized he was Obi -Wan) but once it did my excitement and interest dwindled dramatically. Instead of enjoying the film for what it was, I kept hoping that the film would somehow diverge from the script. It never really did. If they were going to play it that tight, they should have included a close-up of Kylo Ren toeing Han’s body gently before stomping it off the catwalk. I read up on how they decided to ditch the continuity of the expanded universe. Fine. Before I saw the movie, I thought it was a smart choice – a way to create uncertainty about the story lines. I didn’t read theories. I willfully avoided spoilers for this film. I was ready for anything. And then they gave me one of the two Star Wars stories I already knew. I wish Chewbacca ran down to the catwalk – somehow dodging all the blaster fire – and f*cking powerbombed Kylo Ren before Ren decapitated him, because there’s no way I would have seen that coming. The Force Awakens is the current iteration of Guns N Roses, but at least Axl Rose isn’t trying to fool anyone.
Star Wars is Jurassic World, but it’s also not Jurassic World
Jurassic World successfully rebooted the Jurassic Park franchise earlier this summer. In looking at what made the film successful, Grantland’s Bryan Curtis wrote:
The filmmakers decided, correctly, that people basically weren’t that interested in a new movie. They wanted to watch Jurassic Park again.
While this excerpt wildly oversimplifies the dino-movie’s success, it makes a key point about the conscious direction of that film: it wasn’t so much a sequel as an update of the original. Why was the Jurassic Park franchise able to do this so well? Its main attractions aren’t humans. In arguing against the park’s genetically cross-bred dinosaurs, Chris Pratt’s Owen says “They’re dinosaurs. Wow enough.” It’s a not-so-subtle commentary on the franchise itself: the dinosaurs will always be the draw. Pratt might have been an entertaining aspect of the film, but he was just as expendable. Either of the Helmsworths would have been fine.
In my opinion, this kind of updating didn’t work nearly as well in The Force Awakens because continuity matters in the Star Wars universe in a way that is completely unimportant in Jurassic Park. Yes, it was pretty cool to see the same T-Rex that appeared in the very first film, but that distinction hardly matters. He/she/it is not a character. A T-Rex is a T-Rex. Star Wars was built upon its main characters. So much so in fact, that we all went crazy back in ’99 for the advent of three movies that would feature younger versions of only a small handful of those characters based on the implicit promise that the three films would explain how our beloved characters got to 1977 in a galaxy far, far away. What I got (continuity-wise) from The Force Awakens was aged Han and Leia, the Falcon, some Easter eggs, and a nebulous reference to the acquisition Anakin/Luke’s blue lightsaber. But it’s the why that bugs me…
The Star Wars movies are and always have been kids’ movies
I simply stated that I was in the minority in regards to my feelings on the movie the day I saw it. The two sections above are my primary gripes about the story telling choices, but there is another concern that’s entirely on me. I had a brief chat conversation with a former student who helped to clarify my feelings. He enjoyed the movie and had this to say:
Maybe it’s just different perspectives, because the original Star Wars was always in the past for me. This is the first time I get to see the story in a cinema experience.
He’s right. But his insights only made me sadder. It pointed to something I had never considered going into the movie: though the The Force Awakens was and is marketed to everyone (including but not limited to Subway patrons and those possibly interested in purchasing a Chrysler vehicle), isn’t for me at all, it’s for my kids. And because I am a cynical jerk, I can see all the machinations and they rankle me.
The two new main characters are a woman and a non-Caucasian male who represent both a dramatic turn in the franchise’s casting practices and two generally under-served target demographics. Rey is the next in the line of the Katniss Everdeen survivor/savior archetype, but was never promoted as the protagonist in any of the trailers. You call it a twist, while I will call it a bait-and-switch because if we see a kid from a dessert planet holding a lightsaber, what is happening here becomes too obvious. When Han Solo fell into the dark abyss, I thought not of Obi-Wan, but of Optimus Prime who died in the aftermath of the first battle in Transformers: The Movie. He died so that Hot Rod might become Rodimus Prime (and plus too so Hasbro could sell Rodimus Prime and G2 toys). It’s true: Rey’s mentor must leave if she is going to come into her own, but it’s just as true that we can’t completely love her if our first love is still around, wise-cracking from the co-pilot seat.
Episodes I-III weren’t for me, either. I was already 19 when the first one dropped and 25 at the time of the last. I never understood how my students could claim them as the best Star Wars movies. I do now. I didn’t realize it at the time because the three movies promised to connect the Darth Vader dots. I was all-in on that. Are Episodes I-III great? No, not by any stretch. I loved the palace door opening to reveal Darth Maul. I hated the Jedi fight in the arena. The love story was necessary, but eesh! Say what you want about the prequels, but at the very least, they tried to tell a different story. And maybe more than anything else (Jar Jar notwithstanding), that is why they are despised and maligned. Maybe that’s why The Force Awakens got an impossibly high approval rating during the first few days of its release. Maybe the only thing most Star Wars fans want from Star Wars movies is minor variations of the same things they already know and love. Maybe it took A New Hope 2.0 for me to understand that. I don’t know. I guess I’m just not one of them. I guess I’m in the minority.