Lukewarm Takes #4 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was originally going to be the inaugural entry in Lukewarm Takes. It was, after all, the top grossing film to come out after I left film criticism in May of 2015, and in many ways the most culturally significant. The two tend to go hand in hand but Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a cultural relevance that goes beyond its enormous box-office gross.
Because everything in our pop culture universe is political and divisive, Star Wars: The Force Awakens became a hotly contested object of controversy between rational-ass adults and screeching little alt-right baby men, who held a months-long temper tantrum over the fact that the mega-bucks sequel featured charismatic and dynamic women and minority characters at its core rather than those universally beloved flowers of rugged white masculinity, Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen.
The man-babies of the alt-right launched a boycott against Star Wars: The Force Awakens that was so successful in tamping down attendance that the movie could do no better than out-grossing every other film in American box-office history, although, to give these proud guardians of masculinity credit, the movie was less successful domestically, and lags behind Avatar and Titanic in terms of all-time worldwide box office. Third place? Uh, I believe that’s known as The Bronze and the movie The Bronze was a huge box office flop (I even covered it for My World Of Flops). So that means that The Force Awakens scored Bronze at the box-office, and since The Bronze was a huge flop, that means so was The Force Awakens. Checkmate, you libtard SJWs! Better head back to your safe spaces, snowflakes, because I just used extremely faulty logic to argue that a very successful movie wasn’t successful. And also emails!
I suppose I chose Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice to start the series and my journey back into new movies because I felt more comfortable writing about something that was universally deemed atrocious than something that might be good. But I suspect I also held off on seeing and writing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens because I knew that watching it would be an emotional experience. I wanted to be ready for it.
I knew that watching The Force Awakens would be emotional not because I have any special fondness for Star Wars. I don’t. I’m definitely on the low side of Star Wars love, particularly for someone of my gender, age, former profession and current geekiness level. Yet I knew that The Force Awakens would be a big deal because if you’re even vaguely invested in pop culture, the first new Star Wars movie in ten years, and the first new movie to feature Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher as Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess (now General!) Leia in 32 years, is a huge deal.
If you’re an American boy born any time between 1970 and now, you don’t need to be introduced to Batman or Superman or Ghostbusters or Star Wars. I’m not sure how, but there’s some part of your brain that is born knowing and caring about all of those things. Some people are born without this gene, and consequently are shunned by their peers and ostracized by society, particularly when they brag about how they also don’t even own a TV.
So even though I’m not much of a fan of Star Wars as whole, watching it in 2017 powerfully activated nostalgic pleasure centers I didn’t even know existed. Forty minutes into the film, a warm rush of dopamine entered my blood stream and my stupid grown-up-baby brain gushed guilelessly, “Oh my God! It’s Harrison Ford as Han Solo and whoever it is as Chewie!” and my heart swelled. It genuinely fucking swelled! A lot! Major swelling! And I have very mixed-to-negative feelings about Harrison Ford these days because he seems like such a checked-out asshole of a human being. Yet I still had a powerful emotional response to an actor I don’t even particularly like re-entering a franchise I’ve always been lukewarm on.
That’s how powerful nostalgia can be. I assume that my response was the rule rather than the exception. I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be to see Harrison Ford return to the Star Wars universe if Star Wars is your entire world.
Then, when Carrie Fisher returned as Princess Leia a little later, my stupid boy-brain had the exact same intense nostalgic rush that I did when Han came back. Only this time the feeling was even more intense and bittersweet because of who Carrie Fisher was as a human being and as a writer and as a feminist and someone who wrestled so poignantly and publicly with mental illness that she gave the rest of the us the courage to be open about our own struggles.
As The Best Show cleverly satirizes, the phrase “badass” has become overused to the point of meaninglessness these days. Instead of singling out something world-class audacious it’s become praise for accomplishing anything (I made a badass turkey sandwich this afternoon, rye bread and everything!), but Carrie Fisher was legitimately badass. It’s subsequently badass that co-writer and director J.J Abrams chose to honor Fisher by making a character that had been a subject of widespread nerd masturbation thanks to the slave-girl bikini costume she wore in Return Of the Jedi into a warrior, a soldier, a leader. He made her something much more than a Princess.
Fisher’s appearance in The Force Awakens moved me almost to the point of tears because she was part of that awful stint in 2016 when all of our heroes died unexpectedly (David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Prince, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds) and then Donald Trump was elected President.
So it’s unexpectedly poignant to see this remarkable woman, this accidental science-fiction icon, play a leader of the Resistance when the American people face an evil the likes of which hasn’t been seen since World War II, and happens to inhabit the Oval Office instead of enemy territory.
Before watching The Force Awakens I had underestimated how much the movie would be about the passing of time, both thematically and meta-textually. When Han Solo and General Leia finally share the screen for the first time in longer than much of the audience has been alive, they share a look that words cannot do justice to. It’s a look that conveys wordlessly but powerfully just how much history exists, both between these fictional character and the actors playing them, and the audience.
When Han and Leia gaze at each other again the past becomes an almost physical presence. There’s a magic to the moment that has nothing to do with the writing or the direction and everything to do with the relationships that we have to these characters, and that they have to each other.
But I am getting ahead of myself, because Ford doesn’t even appear in The Force Awakens until over forty minutes in. His introduction is exhilarating and oddly powerful but it also feels distracting, because Han Solo seems to have hopped into the action from another movie altogether.
That’s because, in a very real way, Han Solo really did jump into the narrative from another movie, or rather another trilogy of movies; Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi.
Until Han enters the fray, The Force Awakens focuses on a group of dynamic new characters, including Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Han and Leia’s son, who went over to the dark side at the behest of the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and now wears a ghoulish black masks and spends his days cos-playing as his grand-pappy Darth Vader, who, I don’t want to give anything away here, but seemed like a real jerk.
Han and Leia believe that there is still some good in their son, and that he can be led away from the dark side and Kylo Ren’s Oedipal dilemma and Hans and Leia’s relationship form the film’s surprisingly satisfying emotional core.
On the hero’s side, The Force Awakens introduces John Boyega as Finn, a stormtrooper who, like Billy Jack in The Trial of Billy Jack, has a crisis of conscience when he’s asked to massacre a village full of innocent residents, and turns his back on an evil war machine that asks him to kill without mercy.
Finn joins forces , at various points in the film, with Poe Dameron, a dashing pilot played by Oscar Isaac, Rey (Daisy Ridley), a mysterious young woman with mysterious powers, droid BB-8 (voiced by Ben Schwartz and Bill Hader), a scene-stealing ball droid so awesome he should be called BB-Great and eventually with Han Solo and General Leia and Chewie and C-3PO, who is a shitty, shitty robot who should not be in these movies on account of he’s so fucking annoying and pointless. Seriously. Fuck C-3PO. Fuck him straight to hell.
The genius of Star Wars’ groundbreaking special effects was that George Lucas and his gifted collaborators were able to make an entire exciting, exquisitely detailed fictional, fantastical universe look visceral and real. The fatal flaw of Lucas’ prequels, meanwhile, is that they were similarly able to conjure up an entire exciting, exquisitely detailed fictional, fantastical universe, but it all looked hopelessly fake.
Where Star Wars very clearly represented the sweat and labor of a group of craftsman and artists and creators, the prequels felt like they were created entirely inside a computer. Yoda is a great example of how updating the technology of Star Wars killed its soul. As a puppet performed by one of the greatest puppeteers of the past half-century (Frank Oz), Yoda benefited from an exquisite sense of old-school craftsmanship. Turn Yoda into a jumble of ones and zeros and computer code like everything else in the prequels and suddenly his charm and appeal dissipate and he becomes just another empty spectacle in a film full of them.
The brilliance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it goes back to making an entire exciting, exquisitely detailed fictional, fantastical universe look visceral and real using CGI but not relying on it so extensively that the whole film has a distractingly unconvincing, ersatz, computer-dictated feel, the way the prequels did.
The original trilogy of Star Wars movies had a texture and a feel that was imitated countless times yet remained unique to its particular universe. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has that infinitely imitable but never duplicated texture and feel. The magic of Star Wars is the world George Lucas created forty years ago out of foam and rubber and steel and child-like imagination as well as state of the arts special effects.
So what Abrams and his gifted, tradition-minded collaborators did was not world-building necessarily. The Force Awakens doesn’t build a world so much as it rebuilds the world Lucas created. And here’s the crazy thing: J.J Abrams is much better at recreating the world of Star Wars for contemporary audiences than Lucas was during the prequels.
The world loved the original trilogy. They wanted that “young George Lucas feel” from the sequels and understood the painful irony that old George Lucas is, ironically, no longer capable of giving his movies the “young George Lucas” feel. The best he can muster is the confused, overreaching, admirable-in-some-ways old George Lucas feel. Despite the gaudy grosses of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, don’t nobody want that, to the point where Disney and J.J Abrams took a look at the sequel ideas the father of Star Wars came up with and said, “hard pass.”
Part of The Force Awakens’ young George Lucas feel comes from the way the movie fetishizes dirt, heat and sweat, everything that makes a world feel lived in and old and more than a little grimy instead of shiny and new like the prequels. But if the movie’s visual aesthetic hearkens back to 1977 the movie’s racial and gender politics feel refreshingly contemporary.
The prequels felt pretty racist in a way not really excused by the film’s roots in the science fiction and fantasy prequels of a less enlightened era (I write, adorably pretending that racial progress has been made!) So at the risk of outing myself as a hopeless Social Justice Warrior, I much prefer having memorable new black and female characters in the leads instead of Hayden fucking Christensen (who, full disclosure, I actually thought was quite good in Revenge of the Sith) and turning Natalie Portman into a dead-eyed android robotically delivering George Lucas’ dialogue. I like that Boyega has real sexual chemistry with both Ridley and Isaac and that this might be a Star Wars universe where that gets explored further.
The Force Awakens introduced a handful of exciting new characters worthy of being Star Wars protagonists and antagonists and brought back the core of the old movies in a way that both honored and built upon their legacy. And I suppose I have such low expectation for Harrison Ford these days that I’m pleasantly surprised if he seems even remotely invested in what he’s doing.
So I wasn’t expecting Ford to be as playful and engaged as he is here, or to spend as much time onscreen. True, Ford does at times seem a little embarrassed and self-conscious to be a sixty-something old man running around in a jacket he probably had to get back from the Smithsonian and firing a space blaster while running around alongside a Wookee.
But if there’s something ridiculous about Ford in this movie (and there undeniably is), there’s a lot that’s wonderful and poignant and emotionally satisfying and ultimately heartbreaking as well. The film does right by Ford, and he, in turn, is uncharacteristically invested. The film similarly does right by Mark Hamill, who is second billed but is just a little late to turn up, to put it mildly.
I had the strange honor of doing a Random Roles interview with Mark Hamill for some weird little independent movie he was in the day news broke of George Lucas’ mega-billion dollar sale of Star Wars to Disney. I asked him how he felt, and he said, understandably, that he had no idea how to feel, because he had no idea where he’d fit into the new Star Wars universe, if he fit into it at all.
Hamill seems like a lovely human being, and a true geek, but he probably never could have envisioned that in the new order, George Lucas would be out, while The Force Awakens would treat Luke Skywalker as something approaching a God.
The Force Awakens gives Luke Skywalker the Poochie treatment. Whenever he's offscreen (which is pretty much every frame but the last) all the other characters can't stop talking about how important he is, and what a legend Luke Skywalker is, and how they'd all love to track him down and attain some of his incredible power and mystery, but he's just too enigmatic and unknowable of a Jedi.
And then Hamill shows up, looking like a feral version of Obi-Wan Kanobi. For a character many fans hated as a bland brat at one point, The Force Awakens really goes out of it way to mythologize the holy living shit out of Luke Skywalker in a fashion that's heavy-handed but also works, in part due to the goodwill Mark Hamill has accrued.
The original Star Wars was a loving riff upon the science-fiction pulp of forty years earlier. The same is true of The Force Awakens but this time the filmmakers aren’t paying tribute to stuff like Buck Rodgers or Flash Gordon. No, they’re lovingly paying tribute to their own iconic past while building the foundation for an enormously promising and, needless to say, enormously lucrative future.
In the last column I jokingly threatened to give up on newish movies and this column after the third strike that was xXx: Return of Xander Cage (the first two were Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Suicide Squad). Well, I’m pleased to announce that, thanks to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I’ve rediscovered at least some of the child-like joy I’ve experienced watching movies through the years. So I may start featuring more of these “good” movies in this column. It turns out I like watching them even more than I like writing about bad movies. Well, sometimes, at least.
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