Star Wars: The Nostalgia Awakens!

Star Wars image from Gizmodo

Of course I have to review the new Star Wars film. Yes, even though you’ve probably already seen it, or otherwise are going to go see it no matter what I say. We tend to think of critics as consumer advocates and guides for what films to see or not see, and that is certainly a part of it. However, there is another aspect to it as well. Criticism of artistic works such as films is also about looking deeper into the meaning of the work and why it either succeeds or fails. So, yes, while nothing I say will have any impact on the film’s already massive box office take, I still have plenty to say about The Force Awakens and why it’s a good movie.

Oh, spoilers: It’s a good movie.

To be clear, there is simply no way that any film with the Star Wars logo can possibly top the original trilogy that started it all. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were the products of that magical “lightning-in-a-bottle” set of circumstances that all happened to line up just right. The technology for film special effects had just improved to the point where such an outlandish story could actually be filmed, the actors all had a great chemistry together, George Lucas was at a stage in his life where he was just the right kind of crazy, and he was able to have his then-wife, Marcia Lucas, edit the films into the masterpieces they are.

Having said that, Star Wars has been in a bit of a creative slump for many years. The prequel trilogy, while it has its fans, was a massive disappointment for most. Other Star Wars-related media, such as TV shows and the like, elicited a mass public response of “meh”.  The franchise has felt like it’s just going through the motions and milking the merchandising train to survive. The magic just hasn’t been there. It’s felt like the people in charge just haven’t cared. And I’m not saying any one person in particular was to blame…

Hey, how'd this picture get in here?

Hey, how’d this picture get in here?

…but the series really did need a fresh set of eyes to pump new life into it. Enter Disney, the company that has spent the past few years transforming itself into an empire of creativity and a leviathan of joy. As we’ve previously discussed here on Cat Flag, since Disney bought Marvel Studios it has found a formula for big-budget blockbuster comic book films that so far seems unstoppable. Meanwhile, it has ignited the imaginations of children everywhere with the mega-hit Frozen and backed some of the most talented and popular YouTube personalities through its Maker Studios subsidiary. If anyone could save Star Wars right now, it would be Disney. So while others seemed surprised, confused, and nervous about Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm three years ago, I was actually rather grateful.

It was also really telling that Disney decided to put the new Star Wars film in the hands of J.J. Abrams, the man who previously was in charge of the Star Trek reboot. Abrams is 49 years old, meaning he would have been a boy of about 11 when Star Wars first hit theaters. He almost certainly grew up playing with Star Wars toys. Maybe he even wore Star Wars pajamas at night, who knows? The point is, Abrams is a long-time Star Wars fan, and that means that he knows what it was that made Star Wars so appealing to people in the first place. Watching The Force Awakens, it shows.

Star Wars image from Screnrant

So let’s get something out of the way right at the beginning. The Force Awakens looks and feels like a fan-film. A big-budget, massive spectacle of a fan film, but a fan film nonetheless. Its plot is predictable and it clearly panders to our nostalgia for the original trilogy. However, in the context of a Star Wars film, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The series started out as George Lucas’s attempt to make a Flash Gordon movie, the film adapted elements from Westerns, samurai movies, and WWII films, and the plot was famously inspired by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory that all mythical heroes follow a common “Hero’s Journey” story arc. Star Wars has always been a predictable nostalgia-fest from the very beginning.

Understanding that helps to underscore where The Force Awakens truly works. It has the difficult task of being a “bridge movie” between the old trilogy and the new one. It must introduce new characters and elements while answering the fans’ questions about what became of the old characters and elements. It manages this balancing act quite well, giving us a compelling set of new heroes to follow whose on-screen chemistry works well together and a new villain who is markedly different that the villains of the previous films. At the same time, it brings back almost all of the old cast but resists the temptation to make them the center of the story. This is undeniably a film about new heroes and their adventures, while the old heroes mainly sit in the background acting as mentors. Harrison Ford, in particular, does a good job as the lovable cantankerous old guy who barely tolerates the young ‘uns around him but grows to genuinely want to see them succeed.

I can’t emphasize enough that it is the characters who make the movie work. Daisy Ridley (Scrawl, Youngers) is completely relatable as a girl just trying to get by with a dead-end, low-paying job in the middle of nowhere while desperately clinging to a hope that is quite possibly misplaced. Even more compelling is John Boyega (Atack the Block, Imperial Dreams) as a Stormtrooper with a conscience who is trying to escape the villains. Heck, I even loved the cute robot, BB-8. Here I was thinking I’d hate that ball that clearly exists to sell toys, but instead I actually ended up caring about it and hoping it made it through the film. Now that’s good screenwriting if I’ve ever seen it.

No, The Force Awakens is not as good as the originals, because nothing can be as good as the originals. Yes, the plot gets clunky at times, and some of J.J. Abrams’s annoying habits are back in full force. (Do you have any idea how big outer space actually is, Mr. Abrams? Your movies make me think you don’t.) Yet a combination of great characters, great acting, good writing, and a director and editors who know how to make great action scenes more than make up for the film’s weaknesses. And yes, even though I tried not to, I cried and clapped when I saw the Millennium Falcon again! At last, this is the movie Star Wars fans have been waiting for. The Force is strong with this one once again.

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One Response to Star Wars: The Nostalgia Awakens!

  1. Pingback: Does “The Revenant” Live Up to the Hype? | Cat Flag

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