‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ welcomes us home

(image: Walt Disney Studios)

Since anything I write here about the film itself could be interpreted as a spoiler (and despite the fact that half of the world seems to have attended midnight showings, there are still many people who will hunt me down if I ruin even the smallest thing), I’ll instead use this space to illustrate the ups and downs of my life as a Star Wars fan.

I was born only a few months before the debut of Empire Strikes Back and was probably too young to see any part of the original trilogy upon release, yet I have no memory of a life without Star Wars. I do very distinctly remember laying on the living room floor some random morning with my Star Wars sticker book alongside my toy lightsaber (it was red but that’s okay) watching Return of the Jedi. I remember quite a few mornings like this.

Among the framed pictures in our house were two of me dressed as Luke Skywalker, one in the white clothes of A New Hope (back when it was called only Star Wars and not Episode IV) and one in the all black of Jedi. Last year, I posted a picture on Facebook of the Star Wars pillow case I slept on most of my pre-adolescenct years, the rest of the time being on a Transformers one. I even recorded both Ewok movies and as a kid was thoroughly disturbed by the amount of death in The Battle for Endor. In fact, it’s possible that my early love of the original trilogy avalanched into my general interest in science fiction.  I became a Star Wars and science fiction fan way back when you got ridiculed for enjoying such things. It may even be because of Wars that I eventually adopted my Trekkie dad’s love of the other Star franchise. Star Wars is the cause, everything else is effect.

On the dark side, the beginning of the film feels like a retread of the beginning of the first. Image: Walt Disney Studios.
On the dark side, various sections are almost exact copies of Episode Four.
(image: Walt Disney Studios)

My first chance to see the original trilogy in the theater came in 1997 with the release of the three Special Editions. I was there at all three openings, first showing after classes ended, with my friends at the front of the line on the stairs of the Waikiki Twins theater. While everyone else complained about who shot first or Jabba looking weird or too many CGI creatures filling the frame, I loved them. Finally, after a dozen years and at least as many viewings I was getting to experience these movies with the big picture and sound that they were meant for. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a kid again. No. I didn’t want nostalgia. I wanted to love them for what they are and who I was at that time.

Needless to say I was absolutely thrilled when the prequel series was initially announced. My older, more mature self imagined a dark and tragic tale of how Anakin Skywalker became the most iconic villain of my generation. It was going to be intense and brutal, at times horrifying, a space-faring version of MacBeth, and it would all be so awesome. I couldn’t attend The Phantom Menace until well after the first reviews came in but I knew they had to be wrong. Those who talked about how Anakin was an annoying brat and the pod race went on too long with no sense of danger and this horrible new Jar Jar Binks character and how the whole thing felt boring and soulless, those people were spurned fanboys who were never going to enjoy this new trilogy simply because it wasn’t the old one. These were people who were going to use their nostalgia as a cudgel against anything which violated the perfection of their memories. Then I saw the movie myself and… it was… okay… I guess… a bit of rust on the universe and its creator but that… should be fine… the original series hit its high point in the second film so this new trilogy should as well, right? Attack of the Clones, that’s where the intensity and darkness will begin. Instead it was…. My girlfriend and I, both of us university student writers, groaned through almost the entire thing. I clung to Revenge of the Sith as a last, lingering hope of salvation but my days as a devotee of the franchise were over.

On the light side: the sense of scale is immense, when there is a sense of scale. Image: Walt Disney Studios.
On the light side: the sense of scale is immense, when there is a sense of scale.
(image: Walt Disney Studios)

Star Wars joined Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, and GI Joe as one of those things that the combination of age, sophistication, and rapidly diminishing returns had killed. Next came X-Men: The Last Stand, and Spider-Man 3 to bury my favorite superheroes, and then, finally, in 2009, J.J. Abrams’s collection of cliches, lens flares, shaky cameras, and complete lack of character, logic, or pacing in favor of whizz-bang battles and big explosions turned Star Trek into a heaping pile of rubble. By the time Disney purchased LucasFilms in 2012, I didn’t care. My heroes were dead.

I avoided news about Star Wars films in the same way other drivers pass an accident: don’t look, don’t look, okay one quick look, damn, shouldn’t have looked. I didn’t want to know anything about these new installments. I avoided information on the cast, the characters, the theories, everything. I did see that J. J. Abrams, the man responsible for ruining one of the greatest science fiction franchises of all time would now get the chance to do the exact same thing with the one that I grew up loving, along with the fact that Rian Johnson, director of one of the best original science fiction films this century is directing Episode VIII, but damn, I shouldn’t have looked at anything about VII.

I was that friend, I’m sure you all have one, who for months responded to every hyped Facebook post about how Phantom Menace looked great too. Even as the excitement built to an inescapable level, I managed to avoid seeing any trailers for Force Awakens until a screening of The Martian forced me to watch it. Yes, I felt that tingle beneath my flesh, chicken skin we call it where I grew up, heard the voice in my head scream in joy, but I also remembered feeling that same way for Phantom Menace and Star Trek and Watchmen and all those other movies over the years which burned my heroes and smeared their ashes across my crestfallen face.

I would not let them hurt me again.

On the dark side: Kylo Ren.
(image: Walt Disney Studios)

Not this time.

Not after Mad Max: Fury Road showed what can happen when a filmmaker wipes away the past in favor of a bold future, Jurassic World proved nostalgia is a crutch for those incapable of being original, and Terminator: Genisys tore apart twenty years of lore in a desperate attempt at relevance. The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, Zack Snyder’s attempts at DC adaptations, and Abrams’s own misunderstanding of Star Trek taught me that nothing good can come from expectation, unless it’s by Marvel Studios. But I never loved any of those things the way I loved Star Wars. They were effects, Star Wars was the cause.

In all honesty, if it weren’t for my obligations as a film reviewer, I wouldn’t even have seen The Force Awakens. The films and franchise that I loved shouldn’t be any further desecrated. Early word of how this new film is the continuation the original trilogy put little cracks into my hardened shell, but those people writing such praise, those are hopeless fanboys who are going to fawn over this new trilogy simply because they’ll love anything if it has Star Wars written on it. Those are people who probably thought the Christmas Special was campy fun or that Star Trek was “cool.” People whose nostalgia blinds them into thinking the flawed is perfect for how it reminds them of some idolized time. I walked into Force Awakens prepared to hate it… and prepared to receive all the hate of the aforementioned rose-tinted glasses wearing superfans who can’t stand anyone who doesn’t share every ounce of their blind infatuation.

I left the theater with a slight tear in my eye.

On the light side: Kylo Ren
(image: Walt Disney Studios)

If this were not opening week, I would write a more substantive review about the various elements of the film, the way I try to write with most others. I’d talk about the qualities – the sense of scale offered in seeing downed spacecraft in comparison to the individuals walking through them or running from strafing laser fire, the emphasis on character, the gritty quality of practical effects over their CGI counterparts, Oscar Isaac’s roguish energy and the enjoyable banter between characters, the richness of the lore, the hints at Stromtrooper training and motivation, and the nice intensity of certain sequences. And I’d talk about the flaws – the baffling lack of scale during two key scenes, the fact that all but one character are basically new versions of the old characters, the sometimes poor CGI, the illogical stupidity of certain actions and events, the inconsistency of firing lasers into the dead end of a corridor and never seeing them impact, the fact that Stormtroopers still can’t shoot, the abundance of obvious statements which add nothing to the film and the occasionally annoying attempts at banter between characters, the groan-inducing winks at the original trilogy, the film comes far too close to becoming a remake of A New Hope and at times exploits our old emotional attachments, and a new addition who could become the next Jar Jar Binks – but those will come later, when even the most minor detail wouldn’t constitute a world-shattering spoiler.

For now I will say, generally, that Force Awakens is easily its best when it disposes of feel-good nostalgia and retreaded “homages” to the old films and instead charges forth as a continuation of the story we all know so well. I will also say that, thankfully, Abrams rids himself of all the signatures – lens flares, shaky cam, logic-breaking time travel – and lets the film look more like Empire Strikes Back than the franchise has since 1980. Star Trek was clearly the work of a filmmaker who knew nothing about the spirit or sensibilities of the franchise. Force Awakens is the opposite. With all due respect to my Trekkie dad and friends, if Abrams had to sacrifice Star Trek at the altar of Star Wars, it now looks like a worthy trade.

There is a lot I would say about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

On the light side: Oscar Issac, even if his character is just Han Solo again.
(Picture also illustrates the threat of revealing any spoilers on opening day.)
image: Walt Disney Studios

For old fans, spurred and hopeless alike, it may take a while for our established feelings to fade and to view this new entry on its own merits. I believe it to be excellent. This may be because I grew up as a Star Wars fan or because I grew out of being a Star Wars fan, but I believe it’s because the film is a very well made, well-paced piece of sci-fi fantasy that feels like a living, breathing world. It definitely isn’t perfect. But it definitely is Star Wars. And Star Wars never was perfect. No matter what memory may tell you.

Rough ends and all, there were times during Force Awakens when I couldn’t help smiling simply for being in this universe again. Not as it was. Not as I was. As we are now. There’s no need to relive the past when you can enjoy the present.

Star Wars fans, after all our ups and downs: Welcome home.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.

One comment

  1. Excellent read for a review that reveals nothing but your stars and your own nostalgia 🙂

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