I love Star Wars. Mind, I love me some Trek as well. Yes, you can love both. Stop erecting the trenches, already. So, it goes without saying that my wife and I hopped out to see the newest installment at our earliest opportunity. Hell, before the big day, I decided to do a Christmas gift for the two of us by turning us into proper Sith:
I’m a geek with Photoshop. This should come as a surprise to exactly nobody.
So, let me tell you my thoughts on the seventh (DUDE, SEVENTH!) installment of the chronicles of space wizards and laser fights. But as we’re still ensconced in the first week of release, I’m keeping it as spoiler-free as I possibly can. Consider this a quasi-warning, however. If you wish to stroll into this cosmic spectacle in the theater near you completely free of baggage, then I invite you to wait to dive into this. Otherwise, let’s get started.
Now that I’ve had a few days to digest my experience, I can glean some tasty bits for you lovely people. Firstly, let’s just break the ice here, though I’m sure you’ve heard this being yelled from the top of the digital mount: This is very much a Star Wars movie in the vein of the original trilogy. You can rest easy if you’re an OG fan. If you’re coming fresh into this universe, you can certainly do much worse for introductions to the club.
That being said, there are a lot of people following up that sentiment and decrying the film for feeling like a re-tread of A New Hope (ep 4). They are absolutely right. And that was, hands down, the smartest thing the filmmakers could have done to launch this new trilogy.
What the detractors have forgotten in their zeal to assign blame is that the tactic used here simultaneously satisfies two schools of thought. Firstly, it allows fans to slip comfortably into things; an old comfortable chair that’s been reupholstered. Sure, this is going to irk those that were hoping for something new, but they’re ignoring that this isn’t a one-to-one translation. There’s elements of the spine of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in there for those with a willingness to go on a story-craft treasure hunt. What’s more, the film splices them in with a casual ease that deserves more recognition.
The second school of thought that gets its due is the idea OF stories. I’ve yet to see any review that’s commented on the similarities between SW4 and SW7 also acknowledge the simple fact that both are honoring the tradition of The Hero’s Journey. Long time fans know by this stage that Lucas laid out Episode 4 as a by-the-numbers translation of that ancient narrative. With The Force Awakens, you get both the nod to the predecessor AND the time-tested Hero’s Journey through the lens of modern vernacular tailored for a new generation. What some would call cribbing, I call brilliant stratagem.
Think of it this way: there wasn’t so much hype (the usual ad-ocalypse and merch avalanches aside) as there was much hand-wringing and worry from the geek circles in advance of release. There was so so much to get wrong. We’ve been hurt before. JJ can’t be trusted with the franchise. On and on. The mere fact that this film—with all the new territory it had to cover—felt so inviting and familiar while giving us fresh spectacle is indicative of a director and writing team that were just as worried and stressed about getting it right as the fans.
Is it perfect? Hell no. But if we could take a quiet moment, and peel back the veneer of nostalgia, we’d be lying if we said the original trilogy was perfection in celluloid form. I could go on about my nit-picks with the film: scenes that should have been trimmed or expanded, characters that were not used to their full potential, leaps of logic, etc. But the hard truth of the matter is I could easily do that with 4,5, and 6. A key gripe I see popping up is the idea of unanswered questions in episode 7. Sure, fine. A New Hope left us with plenty as well. Maybe it’s less about niggling answers, and more about the fact that we grew old enough to realize to ask questions in the first place.
In the vein of being that smiling fan from childhood to now, I want to focus on the three biggest things that work, because JJ deserves full marks on that score. Yes, this movie has his fingerprints all over it, but they are the hallmarks of a fan exploring the universe rather than someone just trying to shoehorn in his own tropes for career continuity.
Firstly: Kylo Ren. Kylo’s the promise delivered: a force-user that is genuinely threatening rather than being propped up as a threat. Here’s where I get lynched by the mob. Darth Vader never scared me. Ever. His villainous mystique is largely aesthetic. His presence is punctuation; he is a threat because auxiliary characters perceive him as such. I love me some Vader, and sure I chalk things up to limitations of the tech at the time, but even his display of powers isn’t the stuff of lore and legend as they’re presented.
With Kylo, you get what is, I believe, the first true taste of why the Dark Side is feared and to be avoided. He’s unbalanced; unhinged at times. He’s fixated. His use of the Force is both effortless and jarring. There is a palpable vibration to what he does that makes me believe that what he is doing warps reality around him a small amount. His psychological hang-ups and slavish devotion to a “perfect Vader ideal” backing his powers only cements the presence of fear.
It’s balanced in one perfect moment with a display of what the Light side is truly capable of. without spoiling it, you’ll know it when you see it in the film’s climax. That one pure moment did more for me to raise the esteem of the now-legendary Jedi than the first six movies ever could. It’s simple, it’s brief, and it’s absolutely the definition of what we’ve been told for years about the Light. Yoda is smiling from the blue beyond.
Secondly, the dialogue and characterization: This, I think, is what elevates this movie both to that weird realm where things “feel” like Star Wars OT, and sets it apart. It’s easy-going, organic, and not afraid to laugh at itself given the extreme circumstances we’re being asked to buy into. It’s precisely the quality that made us love the originals. Folks can espouse about ancient religions and techno-babble one moment, and then be cracking wise and be stumbling humans the next. The Force Awakens knows this pedigree, and builds on it with a dash of modern dialogue timing, and quick-delivery one offs thrown out by a cast full of the kind of love and life we’ve been waiting YEARS for.
Boyega, Daisy, Driver, Isaac – and more. All newcomers hold their own side by side with returning powerhouse actors, and they feel right at home. We’re damned lucky to have them.
Lastly, and near and dear to my heart, is the lightsaber fighting: I’m a fencer. I’ve never liked lightsaber fights from a technical standpoint. There’s great beats in the original trilogy (as aided and abetted by Bob Anderson, who shall be missed), but by the time we get to the prequels it’s just this ongoing giant glowstick rave-fest sans EDM.
The Force Awakens gives us the most realistic—a term here used in full knowledge of the ridiculousness of applying it to combat with laser-swords—version of what happens when wielders go head to head, trained or no. The weapons finally have a weight, a messy lethality, and consequence. Searing cuts are gained the longer the fight goes on, just as one would expect from a prolonged fight utilizing steel instead of contained energy. The smooth insta-kill is abandoned. These weapons are dangerous, powerful, and as readily an implement of torture as they are a luminous guillotine. They wear the combatants down. They take real effort to use. It’s sublime, and it’s about damn time.
Addendum: you can now shut up about the tri-saber. Trust me. It works.
This review isn’t going to sway minds. I get that. If you like the film, you like it. If not, then not. If you couldn’t care less, then your apathy will remain unmoved. But here’s the great thing: in all fairness, this is for me. When it comes to something so subjective, yet loved, we get the rare opportunity to realize a truth that is as powerful and pervasive as The Force itself:
Never shall I have to defend my geeky fandom. It’s mine, for me, and of me. The attacks will, like the aim of a stormtrooper, be off target.
I shall leave you with a silly meme I cranked out this morning. May the Force be with you.