*THERE ARE NO SPOILERS HEREIN*
It’s only a movie, after all.
I’m trying to imagine what would have happened if Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens had been released on May 19,1999. Trying to imagine how different the last 16 years would have looked from a cultural point of view.
Of course, that’s pointless. The prequels, perhaps the most eagerly awaited pop event in recent history, came and went and they were, after all, just movies. They had their detractors (harsh and slightly aggrieved) and they had their defenders (vehement and slightly aggrieved). But after the frenzy that accompanied the release of The Phantom Menace, after all that camping out and speculating and poring over the trailer and deciding that it was going to be either THE MOST AMAZING GODDAMN THING EVER or THE WORST PIECE OF SHIT IN HISTORY AND HOW DARE GEORGE LUCAS HOW DARE HE, audiences got mere minutes into the actual movie and realized that this wasn’t going to solve hunger, bring peace to the world or raise the dead. It was a sometimes thrilling, sometimes clumsy piece of filmmaking from a guy who hadn’t directed in decades and who’d decided to mostly please himself.
That inclination led to two more films and a pattern that repeated twice. The first wave of reviews for Attack of the Clones basically amounted to, “OH MY GOD THANK FUCK THERE’S A SHIT TON OF ACTION BEST SINCE EMPIRE 5 STARS” followed by a wave of annoyed grumbling over the romance and the plot and the acting and basically everything but the action. The overwhelming praise for Revenge of the Sith felt even sweatier and more compensatory. “BEST SINCE NEW HOPE OH MAN THIS WHOLE THING WAS WORTH IT THANK FUCK THANK FUCK THANK FUCK” was soon followed by….well, not much of consequence. The main legacy of the prequels isn’t the movies themselves, but an extended and slightly ridiculous argument that rages on in comment sections and forums all over the internet dot com.
And really, the prequels were worth it, just not for the reasons most people wanted. They basically changed the visual palate of mainstream filmmaking, though there is debate as to whether it was for better or for worse. By Episode III, Lucas had swung what was once a bluntly classical style into something nearly abstract, snatching and rearranging elements with the Hand of God to create his fussy, stunning tableaus. Much as Akira Kurosawa seemed, by the end of his career, capable of directing the weather, Lucas created an infinite sandbox in which he could just MAKE weather. At times this feels airless. At times it feels so liberated from anything resembling reality that you feel like you’re watching the birth of a new kind of visual storytelling. As, you know, STORY storytelling, they’re equal parts utter failure and startling, brilliant recontextualization. We knew going in that watching the genesis of Darth Vader would only end in the darkest of victories. And, like, think about that. That’s fucking WILD. Three big-budget sci-fi action movies leading up to the saddest possible ending. Jesus, we all knew Lord of the Rings couldn’t end with Frodo getting up to the edge of Mount Doom and going “Nah, fuck it,” but Peter Jackson wrung some suspense from the situation. Here, though, the writing was on the wall. The entirety of Episode III was basically a death march. And while it was often grimly compelling, it felt (to me) bit perfunctory. Yes, yes, here’s Order 66, okay, here’s the saber battle you’ve been waiting for, here’s the family tragedy that kicks off the movies you’ve already seen, yep, remember this ship from Episode IV?, yep, yes.
The acting and the dialogue were…variable. Let’s just say that. Even within the same performance. Even within the same scene. Clunks were heard.
I’m glad the prequels exist, and I throw them on from time to time. There’s some terrific action and some really gorgeous filmmaking in there, sequences that remind you exactly what tradition Lucas came up in. He was one of the film brats, after all. He hung with Coppola, De Palma, Spielberg, Scorsese. He knows what he’s doing and when he doesn’t, the sheer foolhardy ambition with which he hurtles into the wall can go splat or it can knock down the wall. I like tension and meta-narrative in my art. I like watching artists work. And the prequel trilogy was essentially George Lucas using the everyone’s favorite movies as a springboard to learn on the go. That’s the kind of irresponsibility I can get behind.
So, like, okay, that happened.
And now this is happening.
Now J.J. Abrams, a pop culture figure who has become as instantly divisive as George Lucas among a certain subset of internet people, has been entrusted to deliver the long-awaited Episode VII.
I do not have the vantage point of years to talk about The Force Awakens. I’m talking about it from the wise, considered distance of a couple of hours. I can’t really talk about what it means in a larger sense.
What I can tell you is this: The Force Awakens is absolutely fucking wonderful. Not “wonderful for Star Wars,” just wonderful. It’s the first film since the original trilogy to capture the sense that up there, in the stars, there’s a wild-ass adventure waiting for you, yes, YOU, and you’d better hop to it. It’s designed to pin you to your seat until you can’t stand it anymore and just go goddamn bananas. And it does just that.
It’s a work of art made with love. It loves the history and iconography of Star Wars, and it loves the audience. So much of The Force Awakens feels like an embrace with an old friend who’s grown in rich and beautiful ways. When you see familiar faces in The Force Awakens, it’s nothing so simple as fan service (though anything this ridiculously pleasing could be called fan service). It’s showing you what a few decades and a lot of heartbreak can do to someone. The lines on their face. The twinkle in their eye. The melancholy in their smile.
Along with all that, it has a terrifically reckless youthfulness coursing through it. It’s full of people thinking on their feet, doing ludicrous, foolhardy things because they’re in a scrape and they don’t have the luxury of time. The whole movie, though it’s marvelously controlled, has that energy. It’s a kind of debonair velocity, almost like it’s performing parkour, gathering momentum with every potential stumble. It’s all forward motion, go go go, until it stops and takes a breath and you remember that holy shit, you CARE about the characters in a Star Wars movie again. And then it’s off to the races once more.
And good fucking lord that last light saber duel. It remembers that scale is fine, but what makes a great action scene is full-blooded FEELING.
I’d intended to really dig into the plot (which is a joyous remix and recombination of a million elements of classic Wars) and the characters, old and new, but The Force Awakens inspires in me something sort of childlike and silly: I don’t want to ruin it for you. I want you to see it and I want to TALK to you about it. I’m DYING to. I’m practically bursting to talk about this stuff with someone, to discuss the whiplash plot twists, the complications of parentage that haunt these characters, the million tiny details that feel at once dusted-off and fresh-popped. I watch the prequels like a bystander to something fascinating. The Force Awakens reminds me that I’m still a fan.
Look, it’s REALLY hard for me to analyze this film. My reaction to it comes from an almost disturbingly primal place. There are plenty of movies that hit my pleasure centers with reasonable accuracy, but few that ever feel like I dreamed them.
And it’s not like there’s nothing to analyze! An interracial lead couple in a Star Wars movie! A backstory for the Black lead that’s essentially about escaping slavery! The fact that Lupita Nyong’o’s character (who is one of the film’s highlights and scored its biggest, lustiest laugh from me) isn’t some weird gross caricature of African-ness, as had been feared! The fact that, well, it’s a Star Wars film that seems to have had some thought put into the racial elements at all! The fact that the female lead doesn’t need saving and also isn’t some ludicrous warrior-princess cipher, but a fully formed character! Hell, the movie even passes the Bechdel Test!
I tried to keep it together, but I couldn’t.
Fuck it. Everything works. I’m just so happy. Seeing it made me happy. Remembering it is making me happy. Not even happy - grateful. Never has a title been more apt; something truly has been reawakened with this, some collective myth-pop dream, something that binds all of us fans and welcomes in the new blood.
Ah, calm down, Keith.
It’s only a movie, after all.
Only a big, beautiful, thrilling, touching, wonderful movie.