THE FORCE AWAKENS is to the STAR WARS franchise what SCREAM 4 was to the SCREAM franchise, a half remake/half continuation of the series that hits all the expected notes. But while SCREAM 4 felt like a desperate attempt to wring whatever cash was left from a dead franchise, THE FORCE AWAKENS is the real deal, a heartfelt love letter to the original trilogy of films that is so wonderfully, gloriously and sloppily in love with itself and the universe from which it was birthed that you can’t help but marvel at its nearly crushing self-absorption. Yes, spoiler alert, I was swept away by its lovelorn adoration for the original trilogy, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me at times. There’s a level of narcissistic self-love that’s acceptable, even laudable, but at a certain point, it gets to be a bit much, like watching someone masturbate to their own sex tape.
THE FORCE AWAKENS, in many ways, had it easy. All it had to do was be more Original Trilogy than Prequel Trilogy. Personally, I never saw the point of the Prequel Trilogy. I mean, I know the reasons Lucas stated for making these films, that they will somehow complete the story told in the Original Trilogy, that they will expand upon the mythology, give us new and interesting characters, and wonderful fresh vistas and experiences. But once the dust settled and all three installments were released, it became clear to all watching that those pre-release promises were not quite fulfilled. Sure, we now knew the step-by-step process Anakin Skywalker underwent on his voyage from promising young Jedi to Darth Vader, but something just felt off about the whole thing.
For me, it was “the tone”.
See, this expansion of the mythology only damaged the sense of wonder the Original Trilogy provoked. Remember when the Jedi were mythical pious warrior monks? Now they’re a paramilitary/bureaucratic group of stoic blowhards unpermitted to feel any emotion other than self-righteousness. Remember the mystery and dread invoked by Emperor Palpatine? Now he’s a self-aggrandizing politician who becomes a cackling lunatic. Try to hold on to your respect for wise old Yoda as he screeches and yelps, bouncing around the room like a homicidal wad of Flubber. The oft-whispered about Clone Wars? Well, we see the start of the conflict and the end of the conflict, but everything else is just left for the animated series to detail. And Anakin Skywalker?
The Anakin Skywalker of the Prequel Trilogy is damn near intolerable. He’s a self-absorbed, petulant little shit that bitches and moans for nearly half his total on-screen time. We’re supposed to be invested in this character on an emotional level, but he is so poorly constructed and insufferably petty that it is literally impossible to identify with him. The Prequel Trilogy is so dead set on painting Anakin as your typical disillusioned, damaged teenager that Lucas actually has him walk into a school and start killing kids. There are attempts to humanize him, like when his mother dies in his arms and Little Orphan Annie goes nuts, cutting down a whole pack of Sand People. It gives him a secret pregnant wife who is destined to die and uses that as the final motivation for his descent into evil, but nothing Lucas can muster up manages to escape the personality vacuum that is Anakin Skywalker.
And this is what I mean by “the tone”. If the Original Trilogy was watching three films to see good triumph over evil, the Prequel Trilogy was watching three films just to see some asshole get his limbs chopped off. The Prequel Trilogy sucked all the fun out of the franchise, replacing it with vagaries of intergalactic politics, trade route disputes, an inside job war dreamt up and executed by a man wanting to expand his executive power (9/11 Truthers would be proud), black and white moral arguments about personal responsibilities, explanations of why sand sucks, and pathetic philosophical deepities like “why is Padme so beautiful? Is it because she’s so in love with Anakin? Or is it because Anakin is so in love with her?”
Worse, it complicates the narrative of the original trilogy, almost to the point of distraction. Obi-Wan tells Luke that he hasn’t gone by the name Obi-Wan since well before Luke’s father died, which isn’t true. Despite spending a lot of time with R2-D2, Obi-Wan doesn’t remember ever owning a droid. Little moments like that stand out as a reminder that no matter what Lucas says about having this all planned out in advance, nothing really was. If it were, we most definitely wouldn’t have nearly as many cringe-worthy incest scenes in the Original Trilogy. How much does this all screw with continuity? Just ask yourself this: if you really wanted to hide Anakin’s children from him, would you leave Luke, Anakin Skywalker’s son, with Owen Lars, Anakin Skywalker’s relative, on Tatooine, Anakin Skywalker’s home frickin’ planet?
But now we’re free from all of that. For the first time, the franchise can look forwards instead of looking back. Lucas is out, his role as franchise lead stripped away from him. In steps J.J. Abrams, man whose entire career has been informed by Lucas and his New Hollywood cohorts, Spielberg and Coppola. In an attempt to add gravitas to the proceedings, Lawrence Kasdan, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACKS screenwriter, makes a return to the franchise. Fresh faces, many of them out of the mainstream, are hired to play leading roles. Practical effects and gorgeous sets are built, replacing some of the plastic unreality of the Prequel Trilogy. Everything is set to move forward, everyone is excited, the movie comes out and what do we get?
Well, it’s basically A NEW HOPE with a little bit of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK tossed in for good measure. No shit. This is quite literally A NEW HOPE, beat for beat. From the bored desert planet dwelling hero-in-waiting whose run-in with a droid leads to adventure, to a beloved figure meeting their maker as their friends watch on, to the attack on a planet destroying weapon of mass destruction at the films end… You’ve seen this before. It’s STAR WARS. Comfortable, old STAR WARS.
In the same way a cover of a great song can reveal depths hidden behind comfortable familiarity, THE FORCE AWAKENS demonstrates the universal appeal of the STAR WARS franchise while still being its own entity. It gives us memorable characters in Rey, the tough, scrappy heroine abandoned to a desert planet by unknown parents who longs for both grand adventure and a quiet, peaceful life, and in Finn, the Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance fighter. Rounding out the newcomers are Poe, the ace pilot of the Resistance and near-instant hetero-lifemate of Finn (their bromance was a highlight of the film) and BB-8, a glorious little droid that immediately invokes the kind of amused adoration one normally feels for a dog. The Dark Side here is represented by Kylo Ren, the troubled young Sith with a bad case of Darth Vader fanboyism. One of the more interesting villains the STAR WARS franchise has ever offered up, Ren is the kind of guy who wears Sepultura t-shirts to church in an attempt to appear hardcore. He can manage to throw people through the air, stop laser blasts in their tracks and is handy with a lightsaber, but he is unfinished, caught in-between the light and the dark sides of the Force. The most interesting bit of his characterization is that he is more Anakin than Vader and he knows it all too well.
And there is (of course) Leia, the ex-princess-turned-battle hardened Resistance general, and Han Solo, the smuggler-turned-war hero-turned smuggler. One of the best things about THE FORCE AWAKENS is how it handles the introduction of these old characters. There is no dramatic build-up, no moment when they subtly break the fourth wall to recognize their own importance to the franchise, no royal fanfares. They just exist in the universe. They’re a part of it and Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher relax back into their roles as if time stood still and waited for them to be on screen again. Unfortunately, I wish we spent more time with them together. It’s revealed somewhat early on in the film that Kylo Ren is actually Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son. There’s a very interesting thread of story line between Han and Leia that never really gets its due. This is a couple that has, for all intents and purposes, lost a child and that loss drove them apart. We get the impression that these people have not seen each other in a very long time. I would have liked more time with them together, more time to see them side by side, talking to one another. But this isn’t really their film. They’re merely a part of it.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a STAR WARS film that has left me anxiously awaiting the next installment. THE FORCE AWAKENS definitely has me excited for what comes next because this film, unlike A NEW HOPE, will definitely have a sequel. When Lucas made his original film way back in 1977, its box office success was not a guarantee. Lucas made a film that worked as a singular entity and then was granted the opportunity to build a larger story from its foundations. With THE FORCE AWAKENS, there was never any doubt that we would be getting two more films. As a result, Abrams and Kasdan filled this film with tantalizing hints of larger mysteries yet to be solved. From Rey’s Force-fueled visions and her sudden growth in power near the films end to the look she receives from a long-lost hero on a planet far, far away... this film gives us a taste of a story yet to come and this time we don’t know how it ends. We aren’t counting down to a rendezvous on Mustafar. My hope is that THE FORCE AWAKENS is where the callbacks end and the real journey into uncharted territory begins, but if it isn’t, if we still tread on comfortable ground and revel in the memories of our childhood, I think I could live with that, especially if it is done with this level of love and care.
I am a believer in STAR WARS once again and man, that feels great to say.