‘Twas the week before christmas and all through the nation, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, because everyone was at the movies watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Duh DOY!
So, you know the abstract idea of “going to the movies”? From George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon to Gone With the Wind to The Wizard of Oz to the first Star Wars, cinema has been an abstract communal experience that gifts rare touchstones in people’s lives. As a cultural experience, Star Wars: The Force Awakens defines that abstract term of “going to the movies” for the decade thus far.
Brief, obvious history lesson: Star Wars is built from mythic, legendary, jungian stories embedded into serial adventure bedtime stories. With a hearty diet of Akira Kurosawa Samurai films, Flash Gordon, and John Ford westerns, George Lucas cracked the code. The first film was some sort of apotheosis of storytelling. That hero’s journey myth was done as glorious as possible at that point in time. THEN The Empire Strikes Back added another legendary element: Shakespeare. The Empire Strikes Back has it all. That was it; you can’t top it in this world anymore. BUT, you can return to adventures in that world and reconcile with its legend. Enter director J.J. Abrams.
The Force Awakens is the film Abrams was put on earth to make. His first Star Trek film was more Star Wars than it was Trek influenced. Super 8 was a Spielberg homage a la ET and Close Encounters. He played in the Mission Impossible Franchise. He helped create the TV sci-fi mystery Lost. ALL of these are re-purposed pieces of his childhood. So what better to re-purpose than the pop legend of cinema itself, Star Wars!? However, in this instance he seems to be reconciling with the very idea of re-purposing and re-creating.
More than most films, I want to leave this a complete surprise. The plot you need not know but I’ll throw you a few pieces of Abrams Star Wars dessert. And that’s what this film is, a delicious ode to the world of Star Wars, and its place in cinema.
The new action figures in a galaxy far far away:
A lonely girl named Rey (Daisy Ridley) scavenges a deserted planet. Walking across John Ford’s The Searchers desert landscape, she’s searching for something bigger than herself: belonging. She’s one of the best heroines of the century. Then there’s John Boyega as Finn, a member of the new order (the new empire). Finn’s a stormtrooper whose allegiance to evil shifts as he looks toward the light. Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, the Chuck Yeager pilot of the galaxy and a leader of the resistance. Darth Vader’s number 1 fan is Kylo Ren, a dark side demon Jedi working for the new order. As with all great bedtime fairy tales, these characters become intertwined with something grander than themselves.
Abrams takes these new characters, puts them in this world and plays with them like a 5 year old—smashing them together, but with utter joy.
Familiar faces do show up and are thankfully more than fan service while also having thematic relevance. Hello Han Solo!!!!!!! Abrams is not a perfect or original filmmaker, and he doesn’t have a masterpiece in him, but this…. is his “masterpiece,” if that makes sense. At its worst (still entertaining), this film leans on the past and says goodbye to old characters while systematically setting up its new characters for a new generation while hitting the beats it needs to please large audiences. At its best, it is an energized piece of pop art about myth, and Abrams lands on the latter more often — specifically in the first 30 minutes and last 15.
Some will negatively describe this as a greatest hits and plot retreading of Star Wars, and ya, it is on a plot level, but also, it’s aware of that and becomes about that. Let me explain further:
In a sentence, I’d say the film is about stumbling into the footprints of myth and then turning around only to realize you’ve become that myth. That describes the film’s story, theme, and characters. So, Abrams re-purposing of his childhood melds perfectly because the film is literally about old vs. new and then reconciling with that change. Abrams isn’t a filmmaker of “weight” but he uses this push/pull dichotomy in to entertaining and emotional effect.
Old practical effects are all over the film while CGI is obvs used as well (pssssttt the former is better). The young characters clash with the old ones in both funny and heart wrenching fashion (bring tissues). On a meta level this film is wide eyed — probably too wide eyed — that it gets to be a Star Wars movie. On a social level it’s a popcorn look at postwar baby boomers who have left a broken, confused world for the milennial generation. Emotionally it’s resonant in cultural & social constructs that you would never expect in a Star Wars film.
There are times when it relies on nostalgia too much — both in emotion and in plotting. Abrams lacks the visual inventiveness that even Lucas’ prequels had. The imagery here is entirely from Star Wars, so it’s mostly rehashing, save for Abrams’ energetic camera fetishes. I’d critique it as a film about the memory and recreation of star wars rather than what Star Wars was pulling from. The Force Awakens works only in the context of Star Wars, but it smartly never lets you forget that we’re in this world.
George Lucas was influenced by the films/pop culture of the 30s & 40s when he made Star Wars. The Force Awakens is inspired by…. Star Wars. The moments when it veers from the Star Wars canon — namely the 2nd act — has contrived events used to solely connect the past with the new and features an underwhelming set piece. Abrams does well in crafting fight choreography but the aerial dogfights begin to feel like watching a video game cut scene.
Abrams simply doesn’t have the film vocabulary to make this a cinematic marvel, nor does he have the pretense to channel Spielberg or Lucas like he wants, but hot damn he has the enthusiasm to make a movie that goes to 11. Whatever limitations he has, he makes us look past them with his love for these characters. Kasdan has given him the perfect script because it plays to all of Abrams’ strengths, and none of his weaknesses. Abrams, even with his faults, is able to create palpable energy like few other filmmakers can. It should also be said that the most important moments of the film ARE cinematic myth making of “shakespearean” descent.
The thing that Abrams needed to nail for this to work was the new characters, particularly Rey and Kylo Ren, and he pulled them off in iconic fashion. (Edit: this film’s devotion to character and their own stories makes it a much stronger and more rewatchable film than Rogue One.)
dat samurai iconography oh hell ya
So… The Force Awakens is Star Wars but it also isn’t quite “STAR WARS”. It knows this and by the end it’s reconciled with the fact that it’s become our new Star Wars, along with the characters, story, and theme. Jurassic World attempted a similar meta thread, but this film has more potency glued together in story, character, theme, and culture.
As I said, it fits JJ Abrams auteur streak of re-purposing like a glove. I’m getting really sick of reboots/preguels/sequesjfnadbfabag but this one seems to have purpose in its 1st and 3rd act. He has so many toys here that he and writer Lawrence Kasdan seem amazed that they get to juggle them all. And you can feel it. Again, speaking of that abstract cultural term of “going to the movies,” this film is the biggest example of that this decade (social media has a lot to do with this).
The Force Awakens is an enthusiastic ode to old fashioned cinema that shoots out JOY into the audience for 2 hours and 15 minutes. All Abrams wants is for you to have fun and to lean in to feeling what this world means; I admire the simplicity of that. I laughed about 20 times. My eyes watered. I wanted to cheer. I would like to be Daisy Ridley’s Rey when I grow up. I would like to be John Boyega’s Finn when I grow up. I would like to be Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron when I grow up. I would like Adam Driver’s evil Kylo Ren to perish in a slow death.
I wholeheartedly adore this messy smorgasbord of Star Wars and I’m aware that a lot of the enjoyment is the “cultural event” of it all. It’s noticeably flawed, but it’s unbridled entertainment mechanized like a jukebox playing the greatest hits of Star Wars — some of which are just covers — while others sound as glorious as the first time you heard them.
If pressed to pick, I would choose Daisy Ridley as MVP. Kudos to Abrams & co. for finding her. Although, holy shit Adam Driver as the villain is something to behold. Not since the Joker, Hans Landa, and, well, earlier this year with Immortan Joe, have I seen evil manifest itself so charismatically. Director Rian Johnson is now in the cockpit. Star Wars, whatever it meant to you, is back.
Grade: Cultural event included? A-