WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
A long time ago, in a galaxy, far far away.
Actually, it was just one year ago. December, I think (No, it was the day after Thanksgiving). The first teaser for the new Star Wars flashed across my computer screen. “There’s been an awakening...” I couldn’t agree more. My childhood came roaring back, unearthing that buried magic and mystique I had last sensed in the '80s.
My first thought was, “Cool! Black guy in a Star Wars leading role!” The second was, “I can’t believe my kid and I are gonna both watch a Star Wars movie for the first time. Together.” And this past Saturday, we did – in blurry periphery, side-splitting headache, IMAX 3-D.
Was it the best movie of all time? Of course not. I’m not even sure if it was my favorite movie of the year (considering The Big Short, Mad Max, Straight Outta Compton, and Trainwreck). Was it the best Star Wars film ever? Strike two (but, it’s definitely up there with IV, V, and VI). Did it live up to the hype? Home run.
There was plenty to poke at. Some say it’s too long, others say too short. Why hype up Mark Hamill on the movie poster and Luke’s voice in the trailer, if he doesn’t even have a speaking role? Total letdowns: Captain Phasma, Supreme Leader Snoke, and the Kylo Army (or Knights of Ren?). And, wait, so who are Rey’s parents?
Of course, these are the same frustrating issues that dog first chapters of all trilogies. Must leave room for the story to unfold, but still gotta satisfy an opening punch. It’s easy to get caught up in the specifics, because that’s what nerds do with nerd movies. But, you have to keep the big picture with Star Wars - because it’s not just about one plotline or a singular narrative. It’s - quite literally - a universe of stories woven together through the fabric of people (Just like our galaxy, right?).
I think Daisy Ridley was Abrams’ smartest decision. As Rey, the British actress captures the heart of Star Wars adventure and sci-fi fantasy, sharing the same curiosity and wonder as the moviegoer. Plus, Ridley is like Keira Knightley 2.0, beautiful and fascinating to watch, but not sexualized or subjugated to stereotypes. She was exactly the character we needed in the Star Wars canon.
My second favorite part of Episode VII was J.J.’s stylized perspective on familiar scenes. How cool to see slightly different angles of routine tie-fighter chases and lightsaber duels, making them feel completely new and pure altogether. I’ve gotta say, though, that this was also a potential backfire. Abrams has a way of making outer worlds relatable – not such a long time ago. Under George Lucas’ direction, Tattooine and its inhabitants felt bizarre and separate. In The Force Awakens, Jakku could have been shot on location at Burning Man.
At first, I hated Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, and wished he’d kept the mask on. I couldn’t shake his GIRLS character (weird to see him keep his shirt on for more than an hour). But, his ire in the forest fight scene changed all that. Before I knew it, I actually somewhat sympathized with Kylo Ren’s plight, and his anger felt more visceral and honest than Anakin’s - or maybe even Luke’s - ever did. Casting Driver for that combustible angst alone makes sense.
I’m glad Han Solo is dead. I mean, I’m thoroughly pissed, but for Harrison Ford’s sake, I’m happy. What’s more, it keeps the story moving, we now take Kylo Ren seriously (as does the rest of the universe), and we have a pivotal turn to remember the seventh episode by. Plus, – as if we didn’t love that wookie enough – Chewie’s impulsive retaliation was one of the film’s shining highlights. My kid jumped up and shouted, “Yeah! He got mad!,” and laughed.
“What’d you think?,” I asked him as we walked out of the theater. “It felt long,” he said. I’d seen this coming, judging by his groans that washed over the Han/Leia reconciliation scenes. Then he followed up with, “But, I liked it!” And I did too. I loved The Force Awakens. I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t wait to watch it again. How is it that there are still stories left that two people, 30 years apart, with different experiences, can relate to and enjoy the same?
To me, that is the movie’s greatest achievement: walking between worlds, dancing through paradoxes, and making a lot of money in the process. This film is on its way to be the most successful movie of all time, while staying niche and nerdy. It answers fanatical zealots and speaks candidly to 5-year-olds. J.J. Abrams held an enormous, contradictory responsibility to stay true to George Lucas’ legacy while foiling it at the same time. He had to simultaneously appease the geeks, film critics, and the mainstream, global, cross-cultural, audience – especially after 12 months of buildup, gratuitous merchandising, and the same “exclusive,” magazine interviews. And you know what?
He did it.
We got home, and I nursed my IMAX headache on the couch while my son stabbed me repeatedly in the abdomen with his Kylo Ren lightsaber. We may as well have been on a bridge. I cradled his face with my hand and realized that the awakening wasn’t just mine, but a new generation’s. J.J. Abrams had failed me again. Suddenly, the galaxy didn’t seem so far, far away.
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