Some Thoughts on The Force Awakens

I was nine when the first Star Wars movie came out. I remember that night quite clearly — a giant screen and an astounding sound system at the old Montclair Triplex, with my friend Raymond. I didn’t really know what we were in for — there’d been hip for some months, but I hadn’t really been paying attention, though I do remember Kenner promoting four action figures quite heavily on Saturday morning teevee (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca). I never owned any — my thing was Micronauts.

At any rate, I loved the film. So much so, that Raymond and I his out in the cry room between showings so we could see it again. And then I went home and built with my Legos as much as I could from the movie. (My dad was actually impressed at what I could do.) The Empire Strikes Back is still my favorite (it’s dark, and the bad guys win, which always strikes me as right), but there was that nine-year-old magic with the first movie in the summer of 1977.

There was no magic with The Force Awakens. And that’s as it should be too. But The Force Awakens is good dumb fun.

George Lucas was at his best when he was making a mash-up of Kurosawa artiness with the sensibilities of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials from the mid–1930s. These are not deep films — they are action movies (along the lines of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels), about clever but simply written characters who, through much travail, save the universe from complete and utter evil. There was a little more depth to the Star Wars IV/V/VI than that, but not much. (The prequels could have fit this mold quite nicely, but instead Lucas tried to make one of those gazillion-reeler silent films like Intolerance, and he simply is not up to that kind of film-making.) They were good dumb fun about people in a universe that didn’t have to make sense.

And Force Awakens is that kind of film. It could easily by cut up into 15 minute chunks and watched as a serial. The dialog is the kind of clever you’d expect, a little self-referencing but not the turgid and pondering exposition of the prequels. Everything that happens in this film needs to happen. (SPOILER ALERT: including Han Solo’s death at the hands of his son, Kylo Ren). Kylo Ren is the perfect emo dark lord, and Adam Driver gives that role an adolescent ferocity we needed to see written into (and coming out of) Hayden Christiansen’s Anakin Skywalker. I also really like the character of Finn — the stormtrooper with a conscience who defects, quite accidentally, to the Resistance. He’s something new, and very different, a kind-of Han Solo (who’d rather run from The First Order than fight it) but stays out of love and loyalty to the people he’s just met. (Well, really, just for the cute, skinny and force-addled scavenger girl Rey.) The First Order is what it is supposed to be — a threatening totalitarian army staffed and led by a bunch of pale, arrogant baddies speaking in the kind of English accents all real film villains are supposed to have.

A couple of quibbles. Supreme Leader Snoke looks far too much like Gollum for my tastes. (My hope for the Supreme Leader is that his holographic projection really is just a holograph, and he is, in fact, Jar Jar Binks.) And you’d think the bad guys would have figured out (a Death Star or two ago) that planet-sized super weapons were costly extravagances that always work better on paper than they do in the actual universe, where Rebels always seem to find the exhaust port or the reactor core and blow the thing to smithereens.

But these are just quibbles.

Abrams has made a derivative film — again, when Flash Gordon has to save Earth from the clutches of ming the Merciless again, there’s only so many ways you can play with that theme — but he has’t made a copy. It’s a fun film. Yeah, nothing terribly unpredictable happens, and while it would have been nice to have spent a little more time with Finn, General Hux, and the intriguing Captain Phasma, my guess (or at least hope) is we’re getting a setup for the roles the characters will play in future films. However, I remember the intense setup we got for Boba Fett in Empire (including a pre-release of his action figure!), and it turns out he was a bit player who was largely irrelevant to the films.

The one thing this movie left hanging is the overall story arc of sequels. If the arc of the prequels was the fall of Anakin Skywalker, and the arc of the main films was the redemption of Anakin Skywalker, then what kind of arc are we looking at with these films? It may be the fight will be over the legacy of Anakin Skywalker — a fight between his son Luke (maybe) and his grandson Kylo — but clearly Rey has a provenance that will be important to the story and may well figure in all this. I have a suspicion (or two) as to what that might be, but as friends of mine have not yet seen the film, I will keep it to myself.

One final note. Jennifer and I saw Force Awakens in 3D in a theatre with a fairly unimpressive sound system. So I came away thinking music wasn’t as well used in this movie as it could have been. Or is that just me?

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