I’m sure you’re interested in more hot takes on my ass and preparing for a pilonidal surgery but instead I’m going to talk about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Obviously there will be spoilers.
There is a problem with people of a certain age writing about Star Wars. For many of us, there is no time before Star Wars, no time we don’t remember having seen it. It’s sunk deep into our bones, soaked into our souls, flavoring the stories we’ve told ourselves and the play we’ve shared with others. So when a Star Wars movie or tv show or book comes out, it’s hard to separate our sense of self from what we’re consuming. It’s hard to accurately judge the product because there’s so much established emotion, context, hope, love, and projection going on. There are high standards to meet, but enough love and good will that a mediocre product can still be lofted up as long as it hits the right notes. The Prequels didn’t hit the right notes, for a number of reasons.
“Star Wars: Rebels” does hit the right notes, albeit on a smaller and more intimate scale. Please read more behind the cut.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” hits enough right notes that it floats up to the “acceptable” mark. While fun and fast paced, and doing a lot of great stuff, it’s still a shallow, mediocre movie that relies more on call backs and nostalgia than it should… enough that the “in jokes” feel lazy and pandering. It’s an uneven movie, where Han Solo and Leia Organa’s fractured, painful relationship is hinted at deftly but who Han Solo is now decades later is still a cipher… and Leia even more so, considering how little screen time she got. This incomplete exploration of who Solo has become means that when he’s killed it’s… not a very emotional moment. He’s some old guy, a barely passable smuggler, but who is he really? Other than a shitty father and partner.
“The Force Awakens” basically recycles the plot of the original movie. There’s a droid with a secret message, a young person from a desert planet who has to realize their (magical) destiny, a group of scrappy rebels have to take down a big round weapon by firing at a specific vulnerable area. Like Han Solo, Finn is a former member of The Empire/The First Order whose instinct is to flee from danger and get to safety but who rises above that instinct to act heroically. Like Luke Skywalker, Rey is a scrappy youngster on a desert planet with a magical destiny who is instrumental in fighting a corrupt regime. Like Leia Organa, Poe is skilled, self confident, charismatic, and trusted. And pretty. Unlike the original trilogy, however, the central threesome include two People of Color and the woman is front and center instead of shuffled off to the side. This is a fantastic, and timely, development.
What “The Force Awakens” does much better than the original trilogy– even better than the prequels– is put women fully into the story. The protagonist is a woman. She goes on a voyage of self discovery and personal growth. She saves the cute boy, brings him home. There’s no “but you’re a girl!” moments. Abrams even manages to not portray her in a creepy powerless voyeuristic way as she changes her clothing. There are women in Maz’s oasis (and Maz herself). There’s Captain Phasma who brings up the exciting possibility of other women Troopers, as Finn brings up the possibility of other PoC Troopers. There are women pilots in the Resistance, and I’m not going to lie, I teared up when I saw them. What “The Force Awakens” does much better than the original trilogy (or the prequels with one lone black man, Samuel L Jackson, and a shot of weirdly racist alien designs and accents/patois) is show the variety of humanoid characters with different skin tones and facial features. In the original movies and Expanded Universe the Empire favors humanoid beings in a metaphor about racism, while keeping all the humanoid beings pretty white-looking in a very special form of actual racism. “The Force Awakens” features protagonist Finn, played by an English man of Nigerian ancestry and supporting hot shot pilot Poe, who is Guatemalan born of Guatemalan and Cuban parents.
There were excellent parts to the movie. When Kylo Ren is trying to pull the lightsaber out of the snow and somehow failing, and then it zips over into Rey’s hand? The entire theater burst into cheers and applause. It’s good at getting people to care about, to care for, to root for, Rey and Finn and Poe. But how much of that is because we’re primed by previous movies to do so? If I weren’t so invested in the Star Wars franchise, would I want to watch it again the way I do right now? Would I care as much, despite the flimsiness and implausibility of the story? I don’t know.
But I do know the prequels crushed me, left me profoundly disappointed. “The Force Awakens” left me wanting more. I know there will never be a perfect Star Wars movie, but I’m hoping the next one will be better, will be closer, will rise above this one.
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