It’s one of my earliest memories. I was four. My mother had some friends over. I was complaining and begged her to put on a movie. She was getting frustrated and offered what, at that point, were the staples: Toy Story, Lion King, Secret of NIMH, any number of direct to VHS viscera seeping through the edges of my cultural experience. I didn’t want any of it, I demanded something new. She put in a black cassette to placate me, and on that opening orchestral punch I was transfixed. She sat to read the opening scrawl to me then returned to her friends. From then on, I treated movies differently, and honestly I believe it to be a combination of that experience and my own obsessive re-watching of the Lord of the Rings making-of discs that turned me into the media addict I am.
What I’m saying is that I can’t be impartial. I mean I just can’t. I include that anecdote to help shed this mantle of critic this format affords me, and allow you, reader, to continue reading this article knowing this is not some objective judgement of a film, because it can’t be. If I am writing about Star Wars, it will always be tinged with the subjective biases of a fan.
I was not part of the original wave, and frankly unless you saw the original 1977 classic in the theater neither are you. We are a world where it’s impossible to discover Star Wars; we are raised in Star Wars. We are all natives of a Galaxy far, far away and we can’t shake that, so please let us stop pretending that’s not true. Culture fundamentally changed in 1977, for better or worse. So here I am, yet one of millions of Star Wars Natives, adding yet another voice into the already cacophonous noise that is the discourse about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
If you don’t want spoilers this is not the article for you. If you want a review, this is not the article for you. If you want those, the entire internet has become a shrine to the damn thing so literally go anywhere else, you’ll find something. This site has a review if you need it. If you want something from me: It’s not as good as the originals but it was never going to be. It’s not as bad as the prequels but it was never going to be. As a 2010s style action flick it’s good. Very good.
But it’s not Star Wars.
Perhaps I need to back-track.
Star Wars is a film that we tend to forget is deeply tied to the films of the past. It has so shaped the world after it, it’s easy to ignore how it was shaped by everything before it. Large stretches are graphed piecemeal from television cereals, Hollywood schlock sci-fi of the 50s, Western histrionics and the world-changing introduction of the Samurai code by way of jidaigeki and Kurosawa into the American market. George Lucas, as a “geek” growing up in the 50s and 60s, absorbed all of this, and would eventually match these influences with a good ounce of philosophical sociology from Joseph Campbell as well as some hard sci-fi design ripped straight from Kubrick and Asimov. He was not Tarantino, though, he was not doing this to experiment and play with tropes and genres. He was just stirring the pot to tap into something at the core of his own psyche. Nobody wanted to fund the thing, the film was so bizarre an undertaking. Ultimately though, when it hit theaters, we discovered that he was tapping into the core psyche of… pretty much everyone. The sequels, famously directed and written by others, were still rooted in his stories and he was still on set every single day helping develop his universe. The series was a fever dream developed by Lucas since age twelve that accidentally tapped into the cultural zeitgeist that turned it into a phenomenon.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a film made by a fan of those films for one of the largest corporations on Earth after a solid 40 years of merchandizing.
I’m sorry, that might sound rather cynical. The new film is fine. As an action sci-fi flick, it’s pretty good actually. It’s fun. It’s got the action and the banter and the effects we all enjoy so much about a good ol’ Star Wars flick. I mean just read the reviews, people love it. I’m in a minority for merely liking it rather than loving it, I get it. I’ve been there before. The film is solid and I’m honestly fine with it getting good reviews.
But then people bring up the line “the soul is back”.
That bothers me.
Star Wars, for many, is fun, high-flying, swashbuckling action sci-fi. It’s a series of some great blockbusters, and yeah they are that but that original trilogy is so much more. Lucas made them because he had to. He used the trilogy to work through not only his own cultural experience but also the feelings and woes of his entire generation. Seriously, watch them again: the trilogy functions as an almost perfect exploration of the baby boomers learning to accept the flaws of their parents, forgive the mistakes of the past and grow from them. Luke saw his own face when facing the shadow Vader on Dagobah for more reasons than just foreshadowing.
The Force Awakens doesn’t have that. Lucas’ films were obsessive and singular, both omnivorous in influence and totally unique in construction. The Force Awakens is an action film. It feels like Star Wars but it isn’t Star Wars. It is the banter, it is the fun but it doesn’t have the soul because the soul was Lucas’.
Let’s talk about the prequels.
Right. I lost half my readers.
The prequel films are terrible films. Obviously that is not a controversial statement. They are poorly directed, terribly acted, with terrible dialogue and CGI that has aged about as well as milk. It’s not because of substance.
The prequel films were not made for the films. Watch them again, it is my personal belief that the hate those films summon up is in some small part due to how much those films subvert fan expectations (with the exception of Revenge of the Sith which finds a way to be both the best executed and the stupidest). The Jedi are mystical but inadequate, our heroes cause the rise of the Empire, it plays with a grey area of The Force. That’s all intentional. Lucas, over the course of three films, turned from the maverick producer of Star Wars and Indiana Jones into the purveyor of dreams who not only had no idea what he was doing but was even sabotaging his own works, and I think that’s partially because of how different they were in terms of narrative. To many this is a warning against hubris: Lucas should have given up the property to the fans and let it work on its own. Lucas should never have made them, and The Force Awakens is the remedy for every wrong he wrought.
And it makes sense, really. I mean who could ever come back to a franchise they started thirty years before and actually succeed in both exploring the deep-seeded ideas of the franchise but also make a great film in its own terms. Maybe it’s impossible?
Mad Max: Fury Road is everything the prequels wanted to be. It not only sends the audience back into the world of the original Mad Max films but subverts expectations and deepens the franchise as a whole because of it. Fury Road is not a joyful return to the pageantry of yesteryear, nor is it just a fun action film set in the Mad Max-verse. It’s a deeply personal work where George Miller is letting the dream world he had in his head come into actual corporeal existence.
The prequels don’t suck because of what Lucas wanted to do or wanted to say, they suck because he spent thirty years not directing and the powers that be surrounded him with yes men and handed him every key to the kingdom. Miller’s been working since Mad Max. Miller also loves having people around him to argue with. Lucas hadn’t directed a film since the original Star Wars. But we, the fans, pointed the blame at what the films were. We refused to take Lucas on his own terms, and we demanded a new series that captured what we thought Star Wars was really about.
The Force Awakens is not the story J.J. Abrams needed to tell. It’s a blockbuster that gives us the superficial things we loved about the original trilogy. For everybody who sees Lucas’ original films as great science fiction entertainment, The Force Awakens is perfect. It’s wildly entertaining and well designed. It’s not Star Wars though. It’s not personal, it’s not idiosyncratic, and it’s not the dream coming to reality. It’s another of a series of sci-fi films. That’s it.
Go forward, readers. Go see it. Love it. Talk about it on social media. Let it make all the money. I do not care. It’s fun. It’s damn fun. But for the love of Christ do not talk about “soul.” If you say the “soul” is back then you are saying all the soul of the originals ever had was a sense of humor and some practical effects. You’re saying that all of the cultural milieu and personal baggage that resulted in those films doesn’t matter. You’re saying the very real human investment needed for those films is inconsequential.
If all Star Wars is to you is a series of fun action flicks then the new film will itch the spot you really needed itched, but something is missing and I cannot get over it. The Force Awakens is a fan film with a budget. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but please, I urge you, don’t treat it as anything more. The moment you begin to treat this thing as the equals of the originals, than you are retroactively making that trilogy no more important and meaningful than The Avengers. I’m not willing to do that.
The Galaxy Far, Far Away still exists to me. It’s Lucas’ Galaxy, and it’s real. It’s deeply personal and it’s rich and it’s lively. It does not exist in The Force Awakens. Instead, it’s just a place to set a movie.