I’m not sure Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens offers a single moment of visual beauty.
Nearly every frame of the movie is neat, to be sure; that’s JJ Abrams’s specialty, it’s why people hire him to cocreate the pilots of TV shows and episodes of multibillion dollar film franchises. But Abrams is a film wonk, and he’s made a wonk’s movie.
This is the era of the wonk — witness the rise of Nate Silver, vox.com, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Silicon Valley.
One of the interesting things about the wonk is that he’s very, very easily sold. Wonkishness makes people feel something. It isn’t love or joy, but it’s close enough to fool profitably many of us. The difference between rapture and escape, or relief, can be difficult to perceive. Especially When We’ve Waited This Long, and Been Hurt Before.
Remember, this is a first draft. I am, as the kids say, a little emotional right now.
On the other hand, I watched 60ish minutes of the prequels the other day, just to refresh my memory. And while their dialogue was still embarrassing and the acting (by a cast that looks pretty damned good on paper) still inexplicably bad, George Lucas’s prequels are absolutely gorgeous to look upon — unnecessarily so.
Hapless as they are, they seem in a way bigger than they are.
No, not ‘epic.’ Don’t abuse that perfectly fine word.
But then, on the other hand…
The prequels are not, I think, great or even necessarily good films. But beneath their overstuffed plot is a really good story: A scared little boy with frightening talents is manipulated (for cynical religious-political reasons) into betraying and destroying nearly everyone who’s ever cared for him — including his sensei, the older brother he never had — all the while thinking himself noble. He ends up the servant of a man he hates. His children will hate him, but they will risk their lives to save him anyway. Children are always the ones made to pay for their parents’ crimes.
The original films were about kids fighting to wrest control from their corrupted parents; the prequels showed how the parents lost their souls.
In other words: the prequels, like the Silmarillion (indeed, like Lord of the Rings) or the Matrix sequels, complicate the fairly simple story of the original tale, situating it in a larger history and in the process diminishing it somewhat. They rob it of its purity.
The Force Awakens aims to restore the purity of the original story.
For reasons that I think we can safely call ‘mercenary,’ the makers of TFA have decided that the right way to do so is by remaking all of Episode IV and the Oedipal bits of Episodes V and VI. The Force Awakens, then, is the ‘Good Parts’ Version of Star Wars, with more inclusive casting, better technology, and (mostly) snappier dialogue.
As I write, it’s snowing outside, sort of. Miserable pissing wet sleet. Something to do with El Niño as I understand it. Anthropogenic climate change and instability.
The third act of TFA takes place on an ice planet with a gun in it. The planet is a weapon cleverly named ‘The Starkiller,’ because in the first draft of Lucas’s The Star Wars, the hero (Luke S. — Lucas, get it?) was named Starkiller. It is much bigger than the Death Star. It is basically the Death Star. When the heroes blow it up, they fly down a trench to do so.
The Force Awakens has an ice planet in it because Empire Strikes Back has an ice planet in it, and ice planets are pretty cool. Lightsabers in a forest in the snow are very, very cool. And so’s inclusivity! In this movie, the lightsabers are wielded by a black guy, a plucky young English girl, and the tall skinny guy from Girls with the weird face and very flexible speaking voice. They are three very good things about this movie.
Kylo Ren, who is an Original Trilogy character’s son instead of their parent or mentor like the protagonists of the prequels, dresses like grandfather Darth Vader and talks to Vader’s burnt helmet. When he meets and kills his dad, Han Solo, he does so on long thin bridge above an impossibly deep chasm of no immediately obvious purpose. That confrontation, by the way, is quite moving. Adam Driver and Harrison Ford did excellent work here.
We can do this all day, but let’s not.
Parts of TFA are shot-for-shot remakes of parts of the original trilogy, and that’s not offensive, or shouldn’t be. You shouldn’t be offended. It’s arguably lazy, and inarguably cynical, but so what? It’s only a movie.
More bothersome is the fact that a team of Disney employees and contractors correctly ascertained that what moviegoing audiences want most out of Star Wars Episode VII — what you want, whether or not you can admit it — is a shot-for-shot remake of parts of the original trilogy, with modern (somewhat boring) visuals and (not at all boring) cast.
And how do we learn to want?
I don’t much care about the ‘mythology’ stuff hinted at in the movie — everyone, remember that JJ Abrams is the cocreator of the hollow letdown called Lost — and honestly, on second viewing the dogfights seem characterless and pro forma and the middle bit with the gangsters is a waste of time which shows us nothing we don’t already know. But it’s a perfectly pleasant movie. I liked it.
What it isn’t, which the often-horrible prequels often are in spite of themselves, is beautiful and strange. The final duel on the volcano planet, the underwater city, the throwaway scene amidst the tree-sized phosphorescent mushrooms, Anakin’s creepy Dark Side eyes, Amidala’s costumes, the spit-and-duct-tape construction of Anakin’s pod racer, the Neo-Tokyo vibe of the Episode II chase scene, the slender aliens who create the clone army, the immolation, the POV shot of the mask descending onto Anakin’s face, the final tableau with its familiar twin suns in a radically new emotional context… So many moments in the stupid blasted frustrating prequels invite you to bask in their useless beauty.
And y’know, there’s even one scene in those prequels with a beautiful idea to share too: the Anakin/Amidala conversation on the ark in Attack of the Clones, where he uses the Jedi’s call to compassion, ‘which (he says) I would define as “unconditional love,”‘ to justify his forbidden love for her — neatly encapsulating the entire emotional arc of the prequels in a single line. That scene is clunkier than any scene in The Force Awakens, yes. Lucas writes terrible dialogue.
But I saw TFA for the second time less than two hours ago, and I can’t remember a single line of dialogue from it.
I remember there being a lot of plot. I remember that plot feeling very, very familiar.
I wonder(ed) why I enjoy that feeling of familiarity so much.
This isn’t an argument for novelty. No argument at all, really.
But the original Star Wars represented a giant leap of faith by a guy with two films under his belt — one of them a nostalgia piece about high schoolers and cars. George Lucas then poured all his savings into Empire Strikes Back. The Phantom Menace was the most expensive independent film of all time. Attack of the Clones was a massive public-facing experiment in purely digital storytelling. And Revenge of the Sith tried (perhaps foolishly) to depict one of the most iconic relationships in modern film in painstaking detail, in the middle of a story about subversion of democracy by (in the words of the original Star Wars treatment) a ‘gang of Nixonian thugs.’
George Lucas built his career on a series of massive risks, in service of an idiosyncratic private vision which he stubbornly insisted on at great cost to, among other things, his health and happiness and marriage and public image. Millions of people think he’s a meddling tasteless fool. Yet you watch the first six Star Wars films and he’s right there, all of him, his obsessions and weird story ideas laid bare. The prequels are about his relationship to the original trilogy, in a way.
They’re about (as the man said) seeing things from a different point of view.
The Force Awakens, near as I can tell, is about growing up watching Star Wars and wishing there could be more, more, more of it, and now you have a quarter of a billion dollars to spend and so there can be.
I really liked The Force Awakens and I bet my son’ll love it when he sees it. I hope the other kindergarteners don’t spoil the ending for him.