I’m Going to Talk About Star Wars (finally)

It’s been nearly two months, and if you haven’t seen it, I have to assume you don’t want to. Cool, have fun with that. You’ve probably skipped past this post anyway.

But if you’re still here, I have some thoughts about Episode VII that I want to talk about and I figure it's been enough time not to spoil anything... even though there are no spoilers here (I don't think).

However, I will be diving into it a bunch, so if you haven’t seen it, don’t read this.

Here’s the first trailer to separate out the opinion stuff:

OK, first of all, I loved this movie. This is what I’ve been waiting for since the first time I saw Return of the Jedi. It had all the fun movie-loving energy of the original. Because…

This was effectively a $200 million+ fan flick. But then, how could it not be? This generation of filmmakers grew up on Star Wars. JJ Abrams was 11 when the first movie came out. Talk about an influential time. But where he showed his genius as a filmmaker (not as a director, per se, but we’ll get to that later), is that he understood what this movie needed to be.

I’ve been saying for years that all EpVII needed to do was not suck. Seriously, that’s all it had to do. But it brilliantly was so much more. It was a glorious palette cleanser, a gentle hug that it was OK to love Star Wars again and not only that, Star Wars is cool again.

Was it the best movie of the year? No (that was Mad Max hands down). Was it even the best Star Wars movie? No (I’d say 3rd or 4th best). Is it nearly a beat-for-beat remake of A New Hope? Sure, but that’s wildly missing the point. Abrams and his team realized, or probably personally felt, that we were all betrayed with the prequels, and if they really wanted to re-launch this multi-billion dollar franchise right, they not only needed to give the fans everything they wanted, but vastly more important, give us everything we needed. And what did we need? A fun space fantasy with interesting characters and a good story. Also light sabers and Han freaking Solo.

With the seeming effortlessness (belying impressive skill) we got it.

So that brings up the question… how did we not get this before? Easy:

George Lucas loathes his audience

Let me explain. Let’s take another director everyone loves to hate: Michael Bay. His 21st century output is riddled with mind-numbing visual vomit seemingly directed by a horny 12 year old. But here’s the thing… notice how they’re all like that? Like, really consistently like that. Say what you want about the result, but you can spot a Michael Bay movie in less time it takes Shia LaBeouf to make that mewling sound his face makes when his mouth is open. So yes, Bay certainly thinks his audience is pretty dumb, but he has a razor sharp focus on that. I don’t like his movies, but you can’t deny his skill as a filmmaker. He has a voice and with it he is crafting a movie for a specific audience. Or to put it another way, he clearly cares a lot about making sure his audience gets exactly what he thinks they want out of his movies. You may not be that audience, but it’s clear he nails it because his movies always make a McDuck-ton of money.

Lucas lost that, if he indeed ever had it. Lucas, quite obviously, doesn’t care about his audience at all. He’s making movies for him, which in itself doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but when it’s clear he lost any sort of self-objectivity, and doesn’t have anyone around him to act as a sort of filter, it becomes a problem. (To put it a different way, every writer needs an editor, or as Stephan King says "Write with the door closed, but edit with the door open.")

The result is a sort of outward contempt that there even is an audience, that they’d want anything, and how dare anyone question him on what the right thing is.

This why the prequels failed so miserably. The lack of a cohesive or interesting script, the bland staging, and lack of anything that could be considered interesting from a directing standpoint all comes from that contempt. You could also call it blind arrogance, the effect is the same.

Basically, the entire prequel series could be summed up with “I know more about this than anyone, and if they don’t like it, that’s their failing.” Are there examples in cinema history that that sort of determination has worked? Yes. But it’s exceptionally rare.

This is why he fails as a filmmaker. If you don’t care what the audience thinks, why are you making movies for an audience?

The Perfect Foil

J.J. Abrams is the perfect foil to this. Probably more than any working director, he seems to care too much what the audience thinks. As flawed as the Star Trek reboots were from a Star Trek perspective, you can’t deny their effectiveness as movies. Abrams knows how to get you to feel exactly what he wants you to at exactly the right moment. Sure, other filmmakers are far better at crafting stories, but Abrams knows how to craft a movie.

The merits of that are for a different article, but it made him the perfect director for The Force Awakens. He gets the feelings right. Star Wars was always about a grand love of action/adventure movies, and the “cheap” thrills those movies provided. TFA has that in spades. It’s a grand story told well, with memorable characters, excellent set pieces, and incredible emotional moments. That part where Rey gets the thing then does the thing still gives me chills.

This is all why it doesn’t matter how similar it is to A New Hope. Of course it was. It needed to be. It's the movie saying "I know you were hurt before, but it's OK to love again." Originality can come with the probably-infinite additional Star Wars movies we’ll get from now until the end of time (a good thing, I say).

For now, like I said, all The Force Awakens had to do was not suck. The added bonus that it knocked out of the park was rebooting the franchise so spectacularly that not only was Star Wars a thing people wanted to see again, but it made people forget about the sewage that was the prequels (they don’t even need to be canon anymore they’re so easily forgotten).

Which is to say, yes, I loved the new Star Wars movie, and I can’t wait to see more.

(Also, yes, as you can see from the opening photo, I went to the premiere. That was a good night.)

countrybread's picture

I thought it was a little overrated. Story-wise, it seemed lazy and made less sense than the prequels. I like the Rey character, but Ridley and Boyega have no chemistry. And the Kylo Ren actor was a miscast. No way someone that ugly and whiney could be the son of Han & Leia.

utopianemo's picture

Nothing made less sense than the prequels. Episode 1 had a virgin birth that no one in the movie(or the theater, for that matter) seemed to think was any big deal.....as if immaculate conceptions were as common as heat rash.

SimonTC's picture

They certainly made a big deal about the "virgin birth" in the film.
Apparently paying attention in the age of ADHD is a lost art.

MatthewWeflen's picture

I think TFA was too fast and too loud. I wanted it to slow down for just a minute or two so I could absorb things. That said, I agree that Abrams can create likable characters with aplomb, and visually it is an absolute feast.

The "Star Trek" reboots are garbage. Their stories and character motivations make so little sense that it rips me out of the story. The first is slightly better than the second, but they're both visually appealing garbage.

The difference must be Lawrence Kasdan, as well as Abrams' actual affinity for the material. If he had a conscience, he would have turned down Star Trek in favor of someone who could do it justice.

Geoffrey Morrison's picture
RLM did a great Mr. Plinkett video on the reboots:

SRW1000's picture

I genuinely wish that I could share in your love and enthusiasm for The Force Awakens, but the film left me utterly cold and devoid of emotion. It fits in well with most of the ancillary stories that were created in the various books, comics, and video games that Disney recently dismissed as non-cannon. You know, the kind that just had a generic plot doctored up with Star Warsy stuff.

Sure, it was filled with all the obvious tropes and trappings of a Star Wars movie: ships (now with new paintjobs!, aliens (now back to men in obvious rubber suits - so retro it's cool again!), space battles, light sabers, blasters, stormtroopers, The Empire (err, First Order), the Rebellion (err, Resistance), etc. Throw in a few of the old characters for good measure, fill it with action, and voila: Star Wars!

But it didn't feel like Star Wars. It's impossible to get into all of the negatives without spoilers, so let's keep it general.

The film was lacking in scope. Never before has a Star Wars film felt so small or lacking in wonder. No new worlds or tech to make it feel grand. No new character archetypes to excite the audience (simply changing race or gender doesn't count). No surprising plot elements, but just a paint-by-number storyline that hits pretty much every generic point that any studio shill could come up with. No inspirational acts, just characters moving from point A to point B to point C to keep propelling the film going to it's inevitably bland conclusion.

Then there's the realization that the three main characters from the prior movies have all been reduced to a bunch of losers. That happy group celebrating at the end of Return of the Jedi? Pretty much a bunch of failures after that point. Maybe Leia accomplished something? Hard to say, since her character was reduced to little more than a clunky expository device.

As far as J.J. being a skilled crafter of movies, I keep thinking back to the parallels he draws with the Mystery Box he got from a magic shop as a child. It was filled with the promise of all kinds of mystical wonders. It was a box he left unopened, because the contents weren't the point, it was the anticipated surprise of what it held. He's carried that concept over into all of his movies.

Well, having seen that movies, and having been let down by the TV series Lost, which exemplified that philosophy, it's safe to say that we know what's in the box. A bunch of clichéd, plastic, rehashed tricks that we've all seen before. Not the kind that it takes the accomplished hands of a master to flourish into a grand spectacle, but the gimmicky kind that any kid can use to impress his friends. For two minutes. After which time they are immediately forgotten.

I was thrilled to hear that we would be getting new Star Wars films when these were announced a few years ago, and remained optimistic that they would continue to expand the universe we were ushered into decades ago. That didn't happen with this film.

I hope that the amazing financial success doesn't breed more of the same. Maybe the next films will more resemble Star Wars than a Pirates of the Caribbean movie set in space. Perhaps Rian Johnson can put the movie series back on course.

Tangential's picture

Why people rave about TFA. I did enjoy it, but was left a bit bored having seen A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. I get what you're saying about it all it had to do was not suck given the prequels. However, I've not seen them only the originals so I needed a bit more than a mere wiping of the slate clean.

thehun's picture

The fact it was "ANH 2" was enough to rate it as "suck" . SRW1000 really nailed it IMO.

StudioApt HT's picture

TFA is much like JJA... polished but largely unoriginal.

I won't say I won't watch them, but the sheen wears off all his movies so quickly. Even with the captivating qualities of Super 8, it was not long before I realized, "Oh, so this is how you make a Steven Spielberg movie." That in itself isn't an affront to the industry, I suppose. It's too bad, though, that good mimicry seems to be his main thing and not more.

What CAN be hurtful is on a more personal level. When the roles were reversed and the story retold in the "I have been and shall always be your friend" scene in Into Darkness, I wasn't amazed by the cleverness. I was upset that somebody thought it would be a neat idea to (1)borrow the moment that to this day still has emotional impact for me to try to give his movie some gravity and (2) steal that moment, trash it, and then try to convince me that that's the way the story goes from now on.

Similarly, if you're going to populate your Star Wars reboot (ahem... sequel) with the original characters played by the original actors, then you better well not kill off the sacred heroes of our youth in front of a cardboard backdrop. With silly jokes and hollow scenes. It hurts so much to say there is no more Han Solo when I see only Harrison Ford playing him. And that wasn't really Ford's fault.

Of course, it's not just J.J. Abrams, but the movie industry as a whole:

"The problem with the scientific power you're using is it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge yourselves, so you don't take the responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you knew what you had, you patented it, packaged it, slapped in on a plastic lunch box, and now you want to sell it."