From the previous blog in this series:
The ironic thing is that everything Lucas had pointed out, from the Tone Poem structure to the old movie serials influences, helped shine a bright new light on The Force Awakens which allowed me for find my way to enjoying it. Which brings me, finally, to my new review.
Opinions can change.
Sadly, past statements usually are treated as an unchanging piece of our firmament, the words of long ago regarded as eternally fresh. People like to leverage your past statements as a way to vet what you have to say now. If they like how you’ve revised yourself, it’s referred to as nuance. If they don’t like what you have to say, it’s held as dishonesty.
This seems a weighty way to start a movie review. There’s a reason for it, though.
I wasn’t particularly kind to The Force Awakens when it first came out. As the title of this blog series suggests, that has changed.
“A Good, Wholesome Adventure”
At a glance, The Force Awakens‘ mission statement is “to have fun.” This was surprisingly anachronistic for Star Wars by December 2015.
The prequels are tonally serious; they’re dealing with the collapse of civilization and loss of freedom. Even though The Clone Wars started with a lighter touch, the sense of dread increased as it marched inexorably toward its inevitable resolution. (Lucas also used the series to back-fill story and character development given only a glance at times in the prequel trilogy, but that’s a topic for another time.)
I enjoyed it all. I really, really loved a lot of it.
My initial reaction to The Force Awakens was wrapped up in a whole lot of factors, covered earlier in this series. Worth repeating is that during the lead-up I was steeped in too much Star Wars for my own good. It colored my expectations and my reaction to the material. Also worth repeating is that the amount of implicit and explicit disrespect heaped on Lucas as a filmmaker during the run-up to The Force Awakens grated on me.
As a self-appointed Star Wars Expert (still true) and ardent Lucas Apologist (still true), refreshed in the great miasma of esoterica released through the years, I was prepared to dissect the new film from every possible angle.
What I didn’t realize is that I was making the same mistake that the prequel bashers before me had made. I was setting myself up to dictate what made something “worthy” of being Star Wars.
So that’s where I started. Here we are now at the end of my personal journey. This is what I think of Star Wars: The Force Awakens now.
The Force Awakens is a charming film, filled with fun and excitement. It’s imbued with the emotional resonance I remember Star Wars having when I was a kid. It’s nearly impossible now to remember those halcyon days when it wasn’t about mythology and intricacy, but just “a good, wholesome adventure” as Lucas cited in the original The Making of Star Wars special.
From a technical standpoint, The Force Awakens is an achievement. The cinematography is wonderful. The shot compositions, camera movement and color palette feel at home in Star Wars. The editing is amazing; the pace is swift without being relentless. The script is clear, straightforward and accessible. The characters are charismatic, distinct, and memorable.
To be sure, this is a JJ Abrams film, not a George Lucas one. Part of this journey has been accepting that this is actually a pretty wonderful thing. Though I was enjoying Lucas creating a masterwork over decades across many media, the only way Star Wars grows is if new blood gets injected.
The Empire Strikes Back is what it is, because Irvin Kershner put his stamp on it. Return of the Jedi is what is it is, because Richard Marquand contributed.
I’ve come to love the storytelling flourishes Abrams pulls off. Rey’s introduction is several minutes without a word from her, yet we know all about her and the life she leads. There are small, subtle moments, such as Poe’s look of surprise/amazement at the magnitude of the military preparations as he’s off-loaded into the Star Destroyer at the beginning.
Rey is a vibrant lead character. Kylo Ren’s villainy is a more human one than we usually get in Star Wars; his anger management issues are a refreshing touch in a narrative series where the villains are typically so controlled and deliberate.
I rejected Finn’s silliness at points. But he was a compelling character maturing through his actions, and he serves a solid story purpose. I caught flack for pointing this out long ago, but he’s actually what Lucas was trying to achieve with Jar Jar. Though I’m more fond of Jar Jar than most, Finn is certainly a more successful expression of that character type.
I adore BB-8. Maz Kanata delighted me.
Getting back to my love for meta theories, The First Order is a commentary – intentional or not – on the rabid Star Wars fanbase itself, angrily resisting any change to the world as they thought they knew it. I point as an example for this to the fans who reacted poorly to the idea of the old series of books and comics being invalidated by Lucasfilm/Disney.
The Great Thaw
Naturally, there were plenty of things I picked on when the film first came out, otherwise my journey isn’t very interesting. Warming up to them had a lot to do with my growing acceptance of the film.
To give you an idea, I picked on the horns for the opening fanfare. (I still do, honestly). I was picking on the instruments and conducting of a sliver of a piece of a film score. I actually had to “get over” the LA Philharmonic’s treatment of 10 seconds of music to admit that the rest of the new score is actually quite wonderful.
Starkiller Base is a huge sticking point for a lot of people. It was for me at first. Then, as I thought about it, it works because of the very nature of what The First Order is: a cadre of villains not trying to build a future but restore a past they’ve idealized and fetishized. It works thematically.
I’ve already commented on the meta nature of Han’s character earlier in the series, and it was realizing that which ameliorated my original complaint about his scene with the Rathtars. I originally hated that scene. “Han doesn’t need a motivation to look for Luke,” I decried. That missed the point. The point was that Han was out of tricks, and the galaxy was done with him.
Besides, if I can look the other way on an overlong sea-monster sequence in The Phantom Menace because it was full of Qui-Gon character building moments, I can roll with this. I can roll with it even if only because this scene plays with considerably more excitement, and a “monster moment” is part of the DNA of Star Wars.
Once I “got there,” I saw the nuance of his portrayal in The Force Awakens, as opposed to the chip I had on my shoulder about his regression to immaturity. He is very much what every Father fears: the reason their kid chooses poorly. Then the moment where he tenderly forgives his son, accepting responsibility at the final moment for what he did to help push him down a dark path, is a dramatic moment worthy of this epic series.
I harped on ship design – a fetish of mine – for a while. Then I realized it, too, speaks to the nature of the galaxy. The heroes we knew failed in their mission to refresh and restore the galaxy, and the ships reflect that. Yes, it also serve a marketing purpose of making the film accessible and friendly to fans. I’m fine with that.
(Except for the Resistance troop carrier. Seriously, screw that ship design, it’s awful.)
But I really, really focused on every little thing I didn’t love. I ground that axe until it was a sharp blade and swung it at anyone who defended the film. And I dug in my heels as I spent countless hours discussing it.
Looking back, I think that there was a part of me that didn’t want to like The Force Awakens, no matter how much I claimed that I did. I was a Lucas Loyalist, and to love something that didn’t have his express involvement and blessing undoubtedly weighted my criticisms.
In short, I became the sort of fanboy I hate being. I feel like I owe an apology to my buddy Shawn, who took a great deal of abuse in the first week on behalf of the film.
Once I stepped back, I saw that Lucas built something so enduring that The Force Awakens works as a part of the saga regardless any shortcomings I may find in it still. I (and other fans) looked the other way with a lot of choices Lucas made because it resolved well. I enjoy his filmmaking style, and understand his art. I like to think I understand him as a person through it. (For the record, Revenge of the Sith remains his greatest work, and the best of the series.)
I’ve learned my lesson. I learned to live with certain shortcomings with the previouse six, even as new issues cropped in as they’ve been continually revised through time. Looking for Abrams to achieve perfection in a way that Lucas doesn’t think even he attained becomes reductive and tiresome.
I think that this journey I took with The Force Awakens will help with my reception of the further episodes, and anthology stories, and help me keep things in perspective. Lucas walked away, and I’ve got to get over that. He made the decision to let someone else make Star Wars, and they made a pretty great start of it.
Even if it did include a helicopter shot at the end.