What We Talk About When We Talk About Star Wars

Final-Poster-of-Upcoming-Star-Wars-Film-ReleasedStar Wars, nothing but Star Wars,

Give me those Star Wars, don’t let them end.

Star Wars, if they should bar wars,

please let these Star Wars stay.”

 

The return of Star Wars this past month to theaters, social media, box-office record books, the pop-culture landscape, every advertising tie-in imaginable, and seemingly many of our very lives and existences splits my psyche right down the middle of its vast, troubled heap of conflicted and paradoxical multitudes.

I’m a lapsed/recovering/relapsing Old-school Star Wars geek; the same age as J.J. Abrams; and sharing the same “When I was 11 years old, my parents took me to see…” personal mythology as so many Gen X geeks, nerds, and fan-things. (An origin-story scroll automatically regurgitated in countless posts, blogs, and reviews lately.)

And if we’re gonna go the whole “Hi, my name is Locke, and I’m a 49-year-old Star Wars man-child” route, I’ll admit that in recent years I have taken to downloading a handful of Star Wars  novels (usually dealing with the darker, Sithier side of the Force and the Empire). Reading these usually-poorly-written, now-non-canonical, books has acted as both a late-night palate cleanser between headier literary endeavors and a regressive middle-aged hit of the sort of fizzy comfort drug that formed a huge and heated part of my youthful identity, filling so many of my junior-high notebooks and so much of my daydreaming pre-pubescent head space.

oscar-isaac-as-poe-dameron-in-star-wars-episode-vii-the-force-awakensSo yes, that 11-year-old part of me still loves to talk about Star Wars, as I have been for the past few weeks online and in person with other geeks. In addition to pondering Big Questions like Who are Snoke and Rey?, we’ve been pouring over The Force Awakens and joyfully bickering and bantering about ultra-nerdy things like… Why, when one jammed, did neither Rey nor Finn notice the Falcon also has an upper gun turret? Or why would the Resistance send mostly X-Wings to attack the Starkiller Base’s weak point when everyone knows—despite Poe’s badass, midnight-black ride—they’re primarily cover and protection fighters? (You want to bomb something, you send your bombers, your Y-Wings! #YNoYwingLove?) And is BB-8 totes adorbs or just a pandering, R2-ursuping, trophy-droid created to sell new toys?

But (and you knew I had a galactic “but” coming), there’s an older, grouchier, cynical part of me that wants to holler (as have, in the past, George Lucas and Mark Hamill), “It’s just a movie, people!” Yes, it’s a very fun and entertaining movie, and yes it is the highest-fastest-biggest-mostest grossing whatever in box-office history, but still… settle.

share_1200x627The Force Awakens is “good”—if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be talking about it. It’s “good” in the way it had to be, as in “better than the Prequels.” It’s “good” in precisely the way Lucas himself described it after his first, bittersweet, visiting-privileges, court-mandated custody-viewing: “It’s very much the kind of movie [the fans have] been looking for.” Mee-yowch. Hours after my first screening, I described Abrams’ The Force Awakens as “A great DJ doing a masterful remix of all your favorite old tunes.” Weeks later, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes—another grown-up fanboy with both geek cred and realistic adult perspective—put it more succinctly and aptly: “It was like an excellent cover of a song you love.”

I often use “hack” on a higher level than most. For me, hackiness—a solid grasp of the visual and kinetic basics without any pesky thematic creativity or visionary insights–can be elevated, through diligent craft and skill, into something that can, for a bit, replicate mastery. (For example, I’ve often described Ridley Scott as a masterful hack.) Abrams, too, is a hack, but a super-charged one—a hack who really and truly works at perfecting his craft and delivering absolutely pleasing, almost note-perfect artificial entertainment.

Abrams’ high-functioning hackery certainly works to a large degree with The Force Awakens. For the most part, he and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) keep things moving along at a dazzling clip. The storytelling is relatively clear and logical (if you give them a pass on the whole “Where in the galaxy is Luke Skywalker?” McGuffin), neatly stuffed with both action and humor without feeling frantic or spastically desperate as so many of these films do these days.

star-wars-force-awakens-han-solo-chewbaccaThis is still a film for young people, but to his credit, Abrams gets the appeal of the original films (as well their Saturday matinee cousins, the Indiana Jones movies): We kids loved them because they were aspirational, about grown-ups having (mostly) grown-up adventures and making (mostly) grown-up wisecracks. This time around, there are no poop jokes, no cutesy Muppets or alien Teddy Bears. And best of all, for what I believe is the first time in his cinematic career, Abrams positions characters near ledges, cliffs, and precipices yet at no time succumbs to his go-to “action” move of having someone dangle off something. (Fall, yes. Dangle, no.)

The Force Awakens is also the first time in the franchise’s history that a Star Wars film has featured uniformly solid performances from its actors, including Harrison Ford’s don’t-give-a-shit weariness (even if we all know it’s not acting but just Ford’s innate, exasperated Ford-ness), and the earnest enthusiasm (and thespian chops) of Star Wars newcomers Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, my beloved Oscar Isaac, and especially intense Method-man Adam Driver. Even Carrie Fisher—whose lack of performing work in recent decades couldn’t help but raise concerns—was terrific in her small parts, giving Leia wonderfully sad and honest human warmth during the few minutes she was on-screen.

star-wars-force-awakens-06_612x380Abrams has claimed he didn’t want to make a “fan-fiction” film, but as a life-long Star Wars super fan himself, how could he not? For better or worse, like so many of us, his core sense of cinema and cinematic storytelling (not to mention his perception of what the Movie Industry is for: blockbuster popcorn-escapism) was shaped by Star Wars when he was a young teen.

And so, at its best and worst, Force Awakens unspools as if someone filmed 12-year-old you playing with all your Star Wars toys and LEGOS, acting out all your favorite scenes, and then added several-hundred-million-dollars-worth of special effects. (It offers up so much fan service, Disney should have charged by the minute. And I say that as a fan who was completely satisfied with the service and probably would have paid the fee.) Always a skilled impersonator/impresario, Abrams gets the base-line, inner-kid, adventure-time, entertainment appeal of the original Star Wars trilogy–and of course has nothing new whatsoever to say about or do with it.

The only Abrams-esque ploy I found irksome in The Force Awakens is that in his desire to make the kind of Star Wars film he (and commutatively the rest of the fanverse) remembered and craved, Abrams jumps the film and its old and new characters through multiple narrative hoops in order to get back to the status quo of A New Hope in 1977. (While, as many have noted, rewarming ANH’s plot.)

It’s a lazy cheat we’ve seen used repeated to varying effect in 2015 with Terminator Genisys, Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and Jurassic World. By “going back to the franchise’s roots” with films that are technically narrative sequels but feel a lot like remakes, studios and filmmakers both pander to older viewers while sprucing up and tricking out creaky properties for younger generations.

star-wars-force-awakens-script-lawrence-kasdanThe problem is that in order to get back to zero (or back to “Episode IV”) Abrams tosses into the trash compactor any potentially interesting character or political growth in the 30-some-year interim.

What he and his inner-youngling want is a ragtag Rebellion fighting the mighty Empire, with a new young apprentice from a remote desert planet squaring off against a literal Darth Vader cosplayer. The first three films were all about restoring The Republic, and yet Abrams quickly and conveniently blows up the New Republic much as he blew up the planet Vulcan in Star Trek, choosing to simply wipe off the board any pesky narrative complexities he doesn’t feel like playing with.

We never understand what the New Republic was or how it functioned, while the relationship between the doomed Galactic government and General Organa’s Resistance is also fuzzy, other than Abrams wanted to bring back an underdog Rebellion. As for the evil First Order, it’s intriguing how it differs from the Old Empire: angrier, more hateful, more ideologically fevered, and younger-skewing—more like the upstart Nazi Party than the old-guard German Army. Palpatine’s Empire wanted power; Snoke’s First Order seems more interested in purity. (At least Abrams puts his Triumph of the Will visual reference where it belongs, with the bad guys, rather than A New Hope’s Riefenstahlian Rebel celebration.)

Unknown5-1088x650Technically, it’d be the First Order that’s the small, outlawed, hunted resistance force, trying to claw out a foothold against the bigger, better-funded New Republic. Yet, on-screen The First Order looks exactly like the Old Empire, with bigger, cooler toys. (No idea how they funded all those technical upgrades—are there Galactic Koch Brothers out there?)

We’re still dealing with a murky, holographic Big Bad with a giant planet-killing weapon in what feels like a very small galaxy. (Where everyone who matters happens to be related to each other, and you can watch the destruction of a distant solar system from your front porch.) It’s still all TIE-fighters and Stormtroopers and at least one Star Destroyer.

(I like to pretend that’s the First Order’s only Star Destroyer; the only one they could afford. “Do NOT bring it back all banged up!” However, as the Village Voice’s Amy Nicholson astutely pointed out, now that thanks to Finn we know Stormtroopers are people—brainwashed child-soldiers, in fact—doesn’t that make it harder to casually dismiss killing them with adventurous glee and smug jokes about their wretched aim? When Finn makes his escape, isn’t it likely he’s turning around and blowing up fellow Stormtroopers he’s known and trained with since youth? After all, it was a similar death of a comrade in the opening sequence that spurred Finn’s defection.)

star-wars-the-force-awakens-star-destroyerSadly, the same goes for the original characters. Granted, later sequels may (one hopes) provide more emotional layers to what Luke and Leia have been going through personally since Jedi, but given the current cinema’s lust for all things young and fresh (I’m looking at you, BB-8), I’m not holding my breath.

Luke, Leia, and Han are all given short, thin script-service as to why they each essentially abandoned any personal growth they’d experienced throughout the Original Trilogy, but it feels like a cheap and dismissive way of setting the characters back to their earlier incarnations, with a few extra wrinkles and lots of movie-thin sadness and regret. It’s the emotional version of blowing up the New Republic. (Though the humans got off easy–poor R2 was literally turned off between films, left under a dust cover while that upstart hussy BB-8 rolled around stealing everyone’s hearts.)

All that said, The Force Awakens is still a swell entertainment that should be treated as an enjoyable theatrical escape. Yet it means so much more to so many people, from hyperventilating fans to ecstatic Disney accountants. I’m happy for my friends of all ages and generations who’ve been rolling in satisfied, holiday-season bliss over this new film, especially those who get to share it with their young, impressionable children. And as one of those 11-year-old super Star Wars fanboys in 1977, I know much of the current Star Wars mania is born of fans’ desire to experience that youthful happiness again—whether they first felt it in 1977, 1983, the ‘90s, or the ‘00s.

John-Boyega-in-Star-Wars(Even as jaded as I am after years of writing film criticism and attending press screenings, I found myself abnormally excited for The Force Awakens preview a few weeks ago; double-checking my alarm before trying to sleep, and approaching that morning’s commute with the sort of over-preparation and back-up planning usually reserved for getting to the church and/or maternity ward on time. Though at my second viewing of the film a week later, with my 10-year-old nephew in tow, I nodded off a few times—as usual, during the big “action” scenes.)

Let’s be honest, we live in a cultural age increasingly devoted to shallow wish fulfillment, often rooted in our formative fantasies. Fans over 25 love The Force Awakens because, as Lucas noted, it’s carefully constructed to give them exactly what they want—of course they (sure, “we”) leave the theater high on the experience. And because that “want” includes the desire to feel 11-year-old awe and joy again, when the authenticity or value of that “high” (or this movie) is questioned, super-fans naturally revert to a prickly and defensive pre-teen temperament, stomping and yelling as if someone was trying to yank their toys out of their hands. (As a teen, I remember my indignant rage when I eventually ran across New Republic critic Stanley Kauffman’s 1977 sneering, dismissal of Star Wars as “a corny, unexceptional film for men who miss adolescence” – Sputter! Gasp! How dare he?!)

1-JJKathy-NO-LOGOI enjoyed Force Awakens quite a bit, maybe even—in the dark, warm post-coital afterglow of the final credits–loved it for a bit. But in addition to my generation’s sometimes crippling addiction to nostalgia, I know what my Star Wars love amounts to these days: pure hobbyism, every bit as pleasingly obsessive but no more important or noble than meticulously building model trains, collecting stamps, or painting Napoleonic tin soldiers.

It’s good to love things, but behooves us all to know why we love them, especially things so carefully and perhaps cynically constructed to make us—or rather our loud, needy inner child– love them. If Risky Business taught us anything, it’s that while it’s fun and exciting to fall in love with a sexy call girl, never forget she was sent to steal your heart—and your crystal egg—by Guido the Killer Pimp. This pimp just happens to be sporting mouse ears.

Our nostalgia for Star Wars is real; our ongoing, growing jones for well-made escapism is real; and as I’ve said, The Force Awaken’s entertainment value is solid. But beyond that, as a society we crave things like Star Wars for more than just the fun of two hours in the theater: We embrace the idea of a communal culture, a shared mythology; things we can all love and talk about and enthuse (or “squee”) over. (Preferably something other than terrorist attacks and climate disasters.)

kylo-ren-star-wars-force-awakensWhile Star Wars certainly has its own hard-core, insular fandom (says the guy currently reading a crappy novel about the construction of the first Death Star), it’s also probably one of the most broadly inclusive, ubiquitous cultural touchstones of our time. (I’ll gladly entertain challenges from The Bible, The Beatles, and Harry Potter, the latter of which tends to dominate the imaginations of the under-30 crowd.)

All that has led to a self-perpetuating Event Euphoria this past month. We needed to see the new Star Wars because we were so excited about it. We were so excited about it because we needed to see it. (As I’ve often said, hard-core fandom is more about the communal act of being fans of something than the thing itself.) Masterfully spurred along by Disney’s carefully timed release of teasers and trailers and the months-in-advance ticket sales, it all quickly reached a tipping point where enjoying the very “shared-event” nature of the thing became almost as thrilling and satisfying (not to mention nearly mandatory) as the thing itself.

Abrams and Disney also did an impressive job of leveraging amped-up spoiler-fear to great advantage. Abrams has always been nutty about spoilers (press screenings of his second Star Trek film took place not weeks or days in advance, but literally the same night the film was opening on limited IMAX screenings), but Disney made it work beautifully in service of The Force Awakens’ box office.

starwars5669d2535a572_-_h_2015By stressing how important it was that no one “spoil” the new film’s “big secrets,” the studio rallied the already whiningly obsessive anti-spoiler crowd into a fervor, so much so that many fans’ blogs trumpeted the “spoiler-free” nature of their fawning reviews. It’s a tried-and-true method of driving early box-office sales, re-purposed for the know-it-all Internet age: “You have to get out and see Star Wars right away in the theater before someone spoils it for you!”

(As always, I note that if knowing in advance a few fairly predictable plot points—or seeing the film on anything less than super-size IMAX 3D—somehow ruins or even diminishes your film-going experience, then maybe the film itself wasn’t all that worthwhile in the first place.)

Disney is, of course, the undisputed master (or shall we say, Supreme Leader?) of harnessing (or shall we say “exploiting”?) this sort of genuine enthusiasm. Cartoon mouse aside, the majority of the Disney Empire is built on co-opting the “magic” of existing tales of our cultural childhood–from fairy-tale princesses to The Muppets and the Marvel heroes, and now the cosmically dysfunctional Skywalker family–and then selling the newly-Disney-branded “magic” back to us.

harlotFor all their faults—and they are legion—the Prequels, like the Original Trilogy, were technically and creatively independent films. George Lucas was an awful director of actors and writer of dialogue, but, for better or worse, he was personally passionate about making those films exactly the way he wanted. Maybe in hindsight that wasn’t such a good thing—Lucas isn’t the first cultural visionary whose vision eventually ran him aground—but at least we knew who and where those films and their ideas were coming from.

As much as Kathleen Kennedy’s present-day Lucasfilm insists it’s its own entity and not just another Disney subsidiary, and as much as Abrams says he was given complete creative control of The Force Awakens, Star Wars, as both a corporate and creative entity, now exists outside the parental protective walls of Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. As such, it’s subject to the same laws of commerce and shareholder satisfaction as any other franchise commodity—something you can be sure Kennedy and Abrams consciously or subconsciously never forgot.

The-Resistance-Star-Wars-7-Force-Awakens-X-WingAnd while Lucas saw his Skywalker Saga as a closed narrative with a beginning and an end, Disney doesn’t invest in limited experiences; it wants something it can keep producing for decades, even centuries (with all the copyrights viciously extended). So you can expect the Skywalker Family to keep cycling through the same rise-and-fall tales of seduction and redemption in perpetuity, a la a daytime soap opera. A hundred years from now, Rey and Finn’s (or Ren and BB-8’s) great grandchildren will still be struggling to resist the Dark Side’s siren call.

Abrams love of Star Wars is clearly real and personal, but The Force Awakens is still him playing with someone else’s toy—a toy his rodentian overlord sees as yet another fiscal acquisition (albeit, an enormous and enormously lucrative one) to fill the theme parks and store shelves next to the princesses and Pixar characters, the Muppets and Marvel superheroes.

Like the fish in the old “what’s water?” joke or the frog in the slowly-warming pot, we may occasionally notice when the level the flood of Star Wars marketing, merchandising, and media noise gets a little too loud and pushy and starts to feel less like a reflection of all that childhood fantasy and more like a full-blown exploitation of it. But for the most part, we swim in it so much, so deeply we barely notice it.

Star-Wars-Force-Awakens-Rey-Finn-BB8-runningWhen I was 11, I went bananas at any random media mention of Star Wars, from editorial cartoons featuring Vader and the droids to special guest appearances on The Donnie and Marie Show. I assume kids today would scoff at such archaic limitations—these days, Disney rules their worlds from dawn to dusk, inundating them non-stop with Star Wars imagery and iconography cross-promoted over every imaginable medium.

Entertainment Weekly recently gushed that the new Force Awakens players like Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and BB-8 “somehow already feel iconic.” Well of course they do—Disney has been working overtime for the past year to make damn well sure of it. (After all, when hasn’t iconography depended on a good marketing drive?) Much as at the height of the Empire’s rule, this holiday season Stormtroopers were everywhere, shilling everything from luxury cars to light-and-dark-side makeup, while BB-8 was equally ubiquitous, the new droid’s very existence generated by the need to sell new toys. (My saddest holiday sight: A retail toy shelf the day before Christmas stacked with unsold R2-D2 toys; the BB-8s long-since sold out.)

When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, its larger mission was to build a franchise that supports a licensing empire—after all, merchandising sales for youth-related films more than triple their box-office profits, but you gotta have the beloved film first. No matter how you shake it down, Lucas’ Star Wars films exist because he wanted to tell those stories. Disney’s Star Wars films (including the upcoming side-story “Anthology” movies, carefully worked into the next four years’ theatrical release schedules) exist because they are a good corporate investment.

star-wars-the-force-awakens(This Christmas, 2015, it was wistfully amusing to remember how in 1977 it didn’t even occur to Lucasfilm and Kenner to make any Star Wars toys until after the film was a massive summer hit. That lag led to the infamous Early Bird Gift Certificate mailer we young fans got that Christmas of ’77 telling us our toys would be coming soon —“Wow, really? A piece of cardboard under the tree?! For me?! Yes!!” The actual Luke, Leia, R2, and Chewie figures arrived in a non-descript cardboard box a few months later. Such a quaint and innocent merchandising oversight would never happen again.)

Because of all this, no matter how much I may enjoy watching The Force Awakens on its surface and spending geeky hours pondering the goofy minutiae of its continued world building, underneath it all, I still see the film itself as a construct of corporate will; a simulacrum of a beloved cultural artifact, like Abe Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents. Star Wars fans’ Event Euphoria experience of the past month may be real and rooted in genuine emotions, but we should never forget that Disney has very carefully orchestrated the experience, making sure it happened.

star-wars-force-awakens-kylo-renI know many friends who feel nothing but gratitude for the corporation having done that, for Disney and Abrams having given us fans this cinematic gift. And there are many others who snap that we should stop overthinking things and enjoy a fun movie. But I can’t shake my natural distrust of corporate entertainment. Like most, I like a little escapism, but get nervous when indulgence becomes insistence, funded and forced on us by a giant multi-media entity that reaps billions from selling that very escapism.

Or in other words, “I have a bad feeling about this…”

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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