Ah, the new Star Wars! It’s finally here, and one has to decide whether one wants to talk about the movie at all, or just the phenomenon and what it all means. I decided I'm going to write an essay about the phenomenon, and we’ll just talk about the movie here. The good news is, at the beginning I thought “We’ll just talk about the phenomenon, because the movie itself hardly matters,” but in the end, the movie matters. That is, it justified its existence, gave us a bunch of nice new moments [as well as, yes, several new versions of old ones], and is, all in all, quite good.
I think you must agree the thought of making a new Star Wars movie presents an incredible challenge. Do you kind of remake it, and hope to please, if not excite? Or try something different and risk it being disliked [not to mention losing billions of dollars to Disney/the world economy]? I don’t know if I could have dealt with the pressure. I have had my doubts about JJ Abrams… my sardonic line about him is that he is “the right director for these times.” But he and producer Kathleen Kennedy [and whoever else] reveal themselves as very, very smart with the way they handled any myriad number of decisions. You watch the movie on one level as nothing but a feature-length reference to another revered film, and their achievement is that the film itself wins you over, and it pays service to all the history, then goes on to justifiably become its own film.
And we have to acknowledge that Abrams was essentially handed the keys to this monumental cultural event, and chose—although he in no way had to—to put a woman, a black man and a Latino in the leads.
But before we begin, let’s lay out some categories we’ll refer to going forward. Everything in this film falls into one of five categories:
1) Reference to the first film, but in a new way
2) Reference to the first film and complete recreation of the moment from the first film
3) New thing that references the first film through our knowledge of it
4) New thing that references the first film through contrast with it
5) New thing that makes a wonderful new addition to the first film and series
Of course we open with the “long time ago,” yellow Star Wars title, the crawl, and tilt down to a planet, which seem shockingly, anachronistically SLOW compared to the pace of films today. Then we have a category 1 moment as a the silhouette of a triangular imperial cruiser eclipses a moon, referencing the super-long cruiser in the famous first shot of the first film, while also being its own gorgeous shot. This rebel fighter Poe puts secret info into a droid, BB-8, who runs off into the desert. A stormtrooper, Finn, kills a man and gets marked with blood [which also serves to identify him among all the others] and seems to have a sudden turn of heart about killing. Poe is caught and taken to new bad guy Kylo Ren, and we have a category 3 when he snarks back to him “It’s hard to understand you with that apparatus.” Both Poe and Finn are taken to the ship, where they meet up, escape, and return to the planet, where they are separated. We then meet Rey, scavenger on the planet who ends up in care of BB-8. She soon meets Finn, and they eventually realize that the droid has valuable info.
So at first, it’s surprisingly slow compared to modern films, and you wonder how much of that pacing is what MAKES it feel “like a Star Wars film.” But then you notice Abrams’ expert skill, never better, of delineating characters and making you care about them. He has a slight variation on the same thing we associate with Joss Whedon. You notice that we have a little section with Poe, a little one with Finn, and then with Rey. We have symbolic touches like Finn changing when he is marked with blood, and Rey literally putting on a rebel fighter’s hat. He has deliberate [but not overly in your face] moments in which Rey reveals herself as not at all in need of being saved by a man. An example of a certain kind of basic, shorthand character storytelling genius? When in danger, Finn grabs Rey’s hand to protect her, which she always questions. Then, when they decide to escape together, she offers him her hand, which he takes, showing us they have cemented a bond. So there’s a lot of basic [but effective] comic book symbolism: marked with blood, putting on a hat, people clasping hands.
The introduction of the Millenium Falcon is a nice, ingenious moment. There’s a good moment after Rey has demonstrated a perhaps force-powered moment of piloting, in which Finn and Rey are just REALLY excited and thrilled with each other. Earlier, we saw Finn and Poe REALLY like each other, and it’s just such a different tone from most current movies, in which our characters usually have a bunch of conflict until they decide to team up and forge a begrudging respect [witness the forthcoming Batman v Superman, which we know the arc of already], and it wins a LOT of goodwill toward the film, and these characters. I was quite, quite surprised to find, not long in, that I CARED about these new characters, and I count that as quite an achievement on Abrams’ part. Say what you will about him, he has a great command of storytelling techniques and character-building devices.
Another huge coup is that Han Solo is actually Han Solo, the character, not Harrison Ford playing a knowing version of the character. There’s no winking, no quotation marks, and his banter with Chewbacca is as amusing as ever, and authentically on-tone [e.g. “This is not how I thought this day was gonna go”]. There are numerous ways in which you can see the old characters handing it off to the newer characters, but by and large, it works. Han also has a fairly major role, another nice bonus that was not at all necessary. Leia doesn’t fare quite as well [and Carrie Fisher somehow conveys that she’s not all that thrilled to be back], but she was always a bit of a reactive character anyway. I’d be interested to see if she has more to do in the next one.
SPOILERS > > >
So you may have heard that the villain, Kylo Ren, is Han and Leia’s son. He was trained by Luke, but apparently went all dark side and killed all the other recruits, sending Luke into exile. It’s a decent enough way to involve the original trio in the current proceedings, but what I find interesting—and unusually smart—is that while our 70s/80s heroes had a dad gone bad as a protagonist, reflecting the sense of the time that youth was the “new hope” who had to overcome an older generation who had fallen to rot, our contemporary villain is a spoiled, angry, entitled brat child who thinks he deserves more power and attention than he deserves. When he doesn’t get his way, he throws a massive tantrum, and Abrams throws in some quite successful narrative curveballs in having him easily bested, both in Force mind power and skill with a lightsaber, by the naturally-talented Rey. It was quite a surprise to have his ass kicked so decisively by the end of the film, and it makes one curious where this character will go. Abrams has been quite clear that he purposely left lots of room for these characters to develop, and it’s a pleasant surprise to find our villain perhaps the most fascinating character in the whole thing, dangerous not so much because of his power, but because he’s an immature, out-of-control child.
I was also surprised that the first film is wrapped up so completely. Not only does Rey kick Ren’s ass, but the new, badass death star is blown up, although in as low-key manner as possible. What will the villains do now? They seem pretty well beaten down—but I guess that’s the point. We really don’t know where it’s going to go, and that’s a very good thing. Although I suppose it’s a recreation of the first film—which seemed quite self-contained and which had Luke as a triumphant hero at the end—and we might well expect a similarly downbeat second film, followed by a return to triumph in the final section.
< < < SPOILERS END
So, numerous early reviews described how it “feels like a Star Wars movie,” and I was wondering what that meant—considering that the original trilogy “felt” like Star Wars movies, and the prequel trilogy did not “feel like” Star Wars movies. What it seems to mean is: certain technical elements like the opening crawl and various wipes as transitions, near-constant John Williams music, a return to the sense that it is inspired by 30s and 40s serials, numerous practical effects and no over-reliance on digital effects, and plucky, amusing, optimistic characters of comic-book complexity. There is also the repetition of certain beats from the original, some of which are literal recreations of moments from the first. The most obvious occur in the new cantina, in which we have certain shots that are literal recreations of shots from the original film, except with new aliens in place of the old ones. It was obviously too much for some, and the complete recreations are kept to a tolerable level, but still… on first viewing, I was a bit shocked at the sheer number of beats stolen from the original.
Anyway, at the end, I feel like you have to choose whether the amount of stuff recreated from the original make it just a copy, or the amount of new stuff justifies its existence. I fall on the side of the latter, not minding the rehashed elements, and finding the new elements, characters and directions to be quite ingenious and compelling. It is far and away Abram’s most accomplished work, running with his strengths and tamping down his weaknesses, which is even more impressive when you consider the creative and economic odds he had stacked against him. It’s not perfect, but it’s quite, quite good and ingenious in several ways, and although I'm normally all for complaining and harping, this time I say we just enjoy it and be happy.
You already have, you know it.