The Return of Star Wars Strikes Back

HERE BE SPOILERS

newworld

I’ve just emerged from my first screening of Episode VII, and the last 2.5 hours are a bit of a blur. I literally have a headache from all the emotions welled up inside of me, and I’m desperate to digest it all—to remember it all, even—so I need to write about it. This won’t be a review per se but rather my reactions to it all.

First, my credentials:

I’m a big Star Wars fan—as big as they come. It’s not that I think I’m a bigger fan than you are, it’s just that the franchise has affected my life as much as a person’s life can be affected. Though when the originals were released, I was still just a twinkle in my father’s eye, I had the good fortune of growing up in the 90’s when the Special Edition came out, so my introduction to the saga came on the big screen, three consecutive Fridays with my old man.

From day one, I was all-in. Following the movies, I went on to read practically every book in the Expanded Universe (EU) at that time (more than seventy novels), play every video game, research every website. I sat in my room for hours studying the Jedi code and trying to move objects with my thoughts. I bought the toys, wrote to the cast, and delved into the prequel hype as it unfolded into the twenty-first century. That’s all I’ll say on the prequels.

Ultimately, as an adult, I chose to pursue the path of a storyteller, and I credit that choice—as many do—to Star Wars above all. It’s even stated in my bio on this blog.

So I’m a particular kind of Star Wars fan. For some people, Star Wars sounds like THIS.

But for me, Star Wars sounds like THIS.

Which is to say, it’s emotional for me. Everything from the characters to the music to the hero’s journey archetype has shaped a huge part of who I am. I can’t go five minutes without quoting the films. It’s kind of sick in a way—Star Wars has pervaded my thoughts and feelings to the core—but that’s who I am, for better or worse.

So, though I tried along with everyone else to temper my expectations, it was inevitable that my excitement for The Force Awakens was through the roof. I watched the two or three primary trailers, but otherwise I read nothing, watched nothing, spoke to no one, and even kept my own speculations to a minimum. Partly in order to survive the wait and partly to keep my first viewing experience pure. Because, if you haven’t felt it, Episode VII is pretty special, and it’s the last time a Star Wars movie will feel like this. It’s been ten years since the last movie, but it’s been more than thirty years since we saw Luke, Leia, and Han. Moreover, Disney will be pumping a new Star Wars adventure down our throats every year for the rest of our lives. The anticipation and suspense will never reach the heights that the approach of Episode VII has brought. The stakes will never be higher, and the questions never bigger. How will Disney and JJ handle the filmmaking? Will they learn from past mistakes? What has become of our beloved characters (now that the Expanded Universe books have been declared non-canon)? Moving forward, these questions won’t exist, and before long Star Wars will have the worn out feel that Marvel is beginning to have, in my opinion. (Fun movies, but y’know.)

Anyhoo.

I could never have been ready for when the movie finally began (no 20th Century Fox fanfare?!), and it was a strangely surreal experience. When the opening crawl worked its way onto the screen and the story kicked off, my heart burst, especially at the first sentence and the core premise behind the film.

Luke Skywalker has vanished.

How perfect. This simple sentence, by itself, carried me to the end of the film and kept me on the edge of my seat—on the edge of tears—throughout. It’s a great example of what this new movie went on to do so well. A cynic might call it Fan Service, but I say that the new filmmakers (+ Larry Kasdan) have reconceived the Star Wars galaxy by building it upon a new mythology, and that mythology comes from the original trilogy. This is again perfect, because at the end of the day, I’m there to catch up with old friends. There has been a thirty-year gap in the knowledge of our beloved heroes, and the suspense of discovering their fates is more than any chase scene or shootout can hope to achieve.

In the first sequence, we meet Poe Dameron, the ace pilot, followed by Finn, the moralistic Stormtrooper, and then—and most importantly—Kylo Ren, resident bad guy. From the very beginning, Episode VII’s story beats mirror that of Episode IV, beginning with Poe hiding his secret plans in a BB-8 droid. These secret plans lead the way to the vanished Luke Skywalker, who, if found, could bring about the rise of the Jedi and a return to peace and justice in the galaxy. It was a bit jarring just how blatant the parallels were, but you know what? Even the pretentious adult Me wasn’t bothered. There’s a new generation of Star Wars fans here, and all I really want is to experience the original magic one more time. The best way to do that is by retelling the same old story, right?

Next we meet Rey, a scavenger on Jakku (essentially Tatooine), who soon meets BB-8 and is then thrust from obscurity into the Resistance’s fight to save the galaxy from the evil First Order (aka Empire). Rey and BB-8 then run into the fugitive Finn, and the three of them team up in the hopes of getting the map to Luke Skywalker into the hands of the Resistance (aka Rebellion).

These new characters are worth examining for a moment, as they are the core trio of heroes meant to inherit the galaxy from our old pals. This is the new generation, and again we have two guys and a gal, except the common hero traits are broken down a bit differently between them.

Rey is the orphan destined for greatness, though she is not a damsel in distress at any point in time. She’s the tough one. Finn is the do-gooder with a mysterious past, intent on running, and Poe is the hotshot pilot with a thumbs-up always at the ready.

Episode VII maintains a strange dynamic between the old and the new, and the bulk of that balancing act is between the old and new characters. We go into this movie aching for news of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Garindan, etc., but of course we have to meet and judge the new faces accordingly. Unfortunately, the newbies aren’t properly developed characters—we’ve only just met!—and with only a few seconds to spare between chase sequences, there’s never any time to get to know them properly–certainly we can’t know them as intimately as we know the old characters.

Poe is as flat and paper-thin as a character can come. Don’t get me wrong; I still like him! Oscar Isaac is impossible for me to dislike, but other than a snarky line or two, the character amounts to nothing more than Infallible Pilot #1. He by far gets the least screen time of the new trio, which doesn’t help his case.

We’re told that Finn has a backstory, but we don’t know anything about it other than that he was taken from his home as a child and trained to be a Stormtrooper. The fact that he maintained a moral compass is intriguing, but it’s not explained, and really it’s the kind of thing that requires explanation because we’ve never seen a Stormtrooper defect before. The question of Why is Finn a defector and not the others is absolutely crucial to the character. Still, from a mythological standpoint, it’s awesome to see a Stormtrooper story in the spotlight. They are human after all! It adds depth to the galaxy, and again I can forgive the weakness.

Rey is the biggest of the new characters, with the most screentime and biggest moments. She’s the real hero, now, complete with latent Force talents as well as a mysterious past of her own. Unfortunately, her own past is also mostly unexplained. I say mostly because, unless I’m mistaken, we can infer a small but important truth about her. In a prophetic vision, we see little Rey being abandoned on Jakku by someone in an unknown transport, someone for whose return she’s been waiting ever since. Yet Han looks at her with a glimmer in his eye, doesn’t he? And there’s no way it’s a coincidence that the Millenium Falcon ended up in her backyard. Sure, the plot-needs drive this new story more than anything, but I think it’s a safe bet that Han had some hand in Rey’s abandonment, and the fact that she has Force powers makes it highly likely that she’s related to the Skywalker clan somehow.

And this brings me to an important point about these new Star Wars movies. With the originals, these sort of fundamental questions were always answered in the movie in which they were raised. The information evolved over the course of the movies, but we were given a backstory for Luke, including the stuff about his father. Each of Episodes IV, V, and VI felt mostly self-contained, whereas Episode VII is clearly setting up new storylines to unfold over several movies to come. We have untold backstory, unanswered questions, and even a MONSTROUS cliffhanger at the end. Some of this is fine, but if there’s information necessary to connect to the characters, I think it ought to be in this first movie, and—mostly for Finn and Poe—we did not get that, and the movie suffered for it.

On the other hand, we got everything we needed for Kylo Ren (who, if I heard Han right, is actually named BEN). Kylo is the most engaging new character by far. Let’s go down the list.

Looks cool? Check
Sounds cool? Check
Son of Han & Leia? Check
Luke’s former pupil? Check
Unpredictable/scary? Check
Complex? Check

We’ve seen, in the past, the dark side testing our good guys, but how about a bad guy being lured by the light? Absolutely fascinating. Kylo is obsessed with the legacy of his grandpappy, Darth Vader, and is bent on doing whatever he must to equal his ancestor’s evil glory. He even has a miniature version of Vader’s hat, yet despite all this, the tug of the light side nags at him, thanks in part to the unconditional love of his parents. He throws tantrums. He slaughters allies. He’s visibly struggling, but that only makes him cooler. And Adam Driver is awesome, as always.

Anyway, as I’ve said, I want new Star Wars so that I can catch up with my old friends. Show me Luke. Just let me see the man and I’ll buy $100 popcorn, I don’t care. My tears are all queued up and ready to roll.

When Han and Chewie burst on the scene, it was a definite thrill, though less exciting since they were featured in the trailer. It was also a bit of shock to learn that Han was still a loner after all these years (Chewbacca notwithstanding). While it was explained that after Kylo messed everything up for everyone Han and Leia couldn’t keep it together and therefore returned to what they’re good at—smuggling and rebelling, respectively—it’s depressing to arrive thirty years after Episode VI and find that Han Solo, legendary hero of the Rebellion, is just a two-bit swindler in his old age. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good, depressing storyline, but from a storytelling standpoint, it felt lazy—or at least easy. Also, it wasn’t played as a tragic end to Han’s once-promising life. It was played more as, “Same old Han! What a scoundrel!” Either way, the filmmakers made up for it by giving Han an interesting story. His son is the dark side’s bannerboy, and he’s on bad terms with Leia, his love. Harrison Ford put up a pretty touching performance, too, which helped, but I can’t help feeling that Han’s story could have used more to really support the emotional impact of his ending. At the end.

This was a pretty great scene, and if you’re a big Star Wars fan, you knew before the movie started that this might happen. Harrison Ford wanted it to happen 35 years ago, and now that the characters are old, their deaths are right around the corner, right? That’s what old people do; they die. Once the scene was set up, you knew in your gut that it was going to happen, even before the starlight winked out overhead. As soon as the music stopped, and Han walked onto the bridge, you knew he was dead—which from a storytelling standpoint is fine, because you had to come to grips with the fact that his son was going to murder him, Marcus Aurelius style, and that is the core of good drama: not finding out what happens but rather experiencing what happens and being moved by it.

This choice was also a super-elegant development to Kylo’s inner conflict and to his character, and if Han has to die, let it serve the greater story, which this did. Kylo is so intent on being the unstoppable evil and exorcising the good in himself that he decides the only way to embrace his inner evil is to remove the temptation of the light—the temptation of his father’s unconditional love. There is a truly great story in that, and we feel it at times throughout the movie, though, again, more time for development would have gone a long way. Still, if you weren’t sobbing when you saw Han Solo impaled by his son and dropped off into the local bottomless pit, then you might not have a soul. Our great hero, arguably the best part of Star Wars, dropped like a turd off a cliff. And you better have been moved to see Chewbacca’s rage—oh, sweet Chewbacca!—who goes on to ravage the Starkiller base, though Chewie’s grief (nor Leia’s) did not go anywhere close to as deep as it ought to have. Chewie owed Han a freaking life debt. If I’m Chewie, I go on a murder spree so severe that I literally drown in the blood of my victims, because if I’m Chewie, I can’t go on living with Han dead. Because of honor as well as love. Rey is great, but she’s no Han, and it was uncomfortable to me watching her step into his shoes at the end, alongside Chewie. Anyway, who knows what backstory will be revealed to connect her to Han.

It’s a strange thing, having Han Solo die in a Star Wars movie. The tone immediately changes. Every Star Wars movie ends on a hopeful note, even Episode V, but with the recent memory of Han’s butchering, it’s hard to shake the grief, as a viewer. And even with John Williams pushing us to happier thoughts, there’s not much else that can happen to revive the tone at that point. Actually, there is one thing that could bring me out of it: Luke Skywalker.

So after the climax (which I’ll get back to), Rey returns to the Resistance base, mourns very briefly with Leia, then gets on the Falcon and blasts off with Chewie to find Luke at last. This is the moment that has been set up since the very first second of this film and the moment we’ve been waiting for the last 35 years. Give. Me. Luke. I don’t care that the pacing is getting awkward, that after a huge emotional climax I’m suddenly feeling another adrenaline rush for an encore emotional experience that might make the story feel a little off balance but I DON’T CARE AS LONG AS I GET LUKE.

Rey lands on an island on an ocean planet—scenery that feels surprisingly upbeat—and walks up a thousand stone stairs, looking around for the last Jedi, and finally, effing finally, she finds a cloaked figure staring out into the distance, and the figure turns around—slow down, my beating heart—and yes, of course it’s Luke, and he looks beautiful, somewhere between his old self and Obi-wan Kenobi. A beautiful beard, and a mess of hair, and those blue eyes of his are bloodshot. Why? Oh my God, because Han is dead, and of course Luke has felt it, as Leia did. And who’s this girl, holding up Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber? Luke knows who she is, I’m sure, and she’s on the verge of tears, though she doesn’t quite know why, and Luke’s on the verge of tears, and my tears are flooding my lap, and—the single best decision the filmmakers made—neither of them says a single word, and that’s the end of the movie.

Mixed feelings about this final scene. It’s, of course, my favorite scene, because all I wanted was Luke, and I got him, and he was beautiful. But that’s all I got? And that’s where you end a movie? It’s a real tease, an intentional one, and I don’t really appreciate that. Granted, if Luke gets real screentime, the movie would have to last another couple of hours, so I’m sure Episode VIII will be his film, but still, it’s painful to lose him so soon. But at least the scene was done right. No corny lines. Great acting. So many questions that need answering. Ai yai yai!

What have I missed? There’s so much I skipped because it wasn’t very resonant, and you might notice I skipped what was sort of the climax of the movie. A classic Star Wars three-pronged attack to a) destroy the shield generator, b) bomb the whatever-facility, and c) blow up the new Death Star/Starkiller Base. They set all this up as usual, with a roundtable debate among rebels, an X-Wing VS TIE fighter showdown, an exploding space station, etc., etc. but none of it mattered to me in the slightest bit. In the wake of Han’s story, of finding Luke, even the final lightsaber battle was relatively unimportant. Sure, it was cool to see Finn give it his best shot, to see Rey exhibit her talents in what was actually a great duel (not too flashy, not boring at all), but as I’ve said, the new characters didn’t command my emotions in this film. It was all about the old, and I believe that the filmmakers knew that.

JJ tried to balance it out, to give us everything, and I think he did the best he possibly could. Regular film critique doesn’t apply to this movie. This isn’t a movie. It’s a Star Wars movie. It’s a total miracle that this movie could come together on any level, because you know there were 100 stipulations of what had to be included, and then it had to make sense and be fun and be emotional and nostalgic as well as fresh and new. For instance, take BB-8 out of the movie and nothing changes, but they had to have a quirky droid. BB-8 is cute, and I’m not complaining. Just illustrating the point that it’s a folly to analyze this movie as you would any other movie. And JJ deserves full marks for pulling off what he did. There is plenty left to be desired in this movie, but I think this is the best Star Wars movie we could have gotten, and the most hopeful possible outlook for the future of the franchise.

People are asking me if I loved or hated The Force Awakens, but those aren’t really options for me. It’s not a matter of loving it, in the same way that I don’t love or hate myself, as a whole. I am me. It is Star Wars. I experience it, and it becomes a part of the ongoing progression of my being. It has strengths and weaknesses, but I accept them all together, because I love Star Wars. The best answer I can give is that this movie is indeed Star Wars, and that’s all I needed, really.

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One thought on “The Return of Star Wars Strikes Back

  1. Radwan Khuri says:

    A genius of a fan and a writer……

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