Monday, March 21, 2016
Thoughts on THE FORCE AWAKENS, episode I: The Phantom Lucas
So. The Force Awakens.
I liked it. A lot. I loved a lot of the things in it.
But I don’t think I loved it, overall.
It’s a weird thing, seeing Star Wars just keep on truckin’. I had mostly made my peace with the notion that when Revenge of the Sith ended, the story in which I’d been so invested ever since I was six years old was finally done. I mean, sure, there were novels galore and animated teevee stuff and the like, but the core tale was complete. But then, a few years ago George Lucas decides to sell the whole kit-and-kaboodle to Disney, and they immediately greenlight an entirely new trilogy. Even as I’ve read reports on production, and watched the various trailers, I have to admit to having felt a certain level of disconnect. It just doesn’t feel to me like the story is continuing. The Force Awakens is billed as Star Wars Episode VII, but to me it has the distinct air of being Star Wars: The Next Generation, Episode I.
And that’s fine. It really is. Maybe Star Wars: The Next Generation can eventually win me over, just as its Star Trek forbears did. We’ll see. After seeing The Force Awakens three times I must admit that my reaction is not quite as glowingly positive as it is for many other observers.
Maybe that’s partly because I actually like the Prequel Trilogy, and thus I have no particular emotional need for this movie and its follow-ups to atone for sins that I don’t think Episodes I, II, and III ever committed in the first place. I’m not looking at The Force Awakens through Prequel-colored glasses. I didn’t really need anything from The Force Awakens at all, other than to tell an interesting and original story and do it well.
That’s where my problem with the film lies. Its story isn't interesting enough. It's a clearly recycled story, and while it did do a lot of things well, it didn’t tell that story as well as the first time I encountered it. It further hurts that the story The Force Awakens retells is the story from the very first ever Star Wars movie, A New Hope, with tropes from the other two Original Trilogy films thrown in (with what felt to me a stiff dose of Joss Whedon and Firefly for good measure).
I don’t want to beat the movie up too badly on this point, because it’s certainly true that pastiche of earlier genre films (as well as novels and comics) was a big part of the genesis of Star Wars in the first place. But the things that went into the first pastiche in the 1970s weren’t nearly as big a cultural icon as Star Wars is now, and when a story gets as self-referential as this one does, it can get problematic. I did find the storytelling in The Force Awakens problematic at points, especially the first time I saw the film, and I started a post about my concerns...
...but then an interesting thing happened. I started hearing from a non-trivial number of people that the movie actually improves upon a second viewing, as certain plot points are clarified a bit and as certain scenes take on additional emotional resonance when you know they’re coming. The latter point there is not without precendent: Roger Ebert himself used to argue that Casablanca is actually more effective the second time out, when you see the film’s first act knowing the source of Rick Blaine’s cynicism, and I’ve found that more than a few novels are better on a second read (including my beloved The Lions of Al-Rassan). I’ve heard people often say of certain beloved stories that they wish they could see or read it again for the first time, but I’d rather have the first two or three experiences back. The more you look, the more you see, and I am happy to report that this is most definitely true for The Force Awakens. I liked it substantially more when I saw it the second time. The third viewing? That one left me loving the things I already liked, and a little grumpier about the things I didn’t, because the things I didn’t are mostly small things, matters of exposition, that could have mostly been dealt with by adding a few lines of dialogue here and there.
So, let’s get to it.
It seems like everybody is about “ranking” these movies, but I don’t much go for that; any ranking of the Star Wars movies I have goes like this: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, all the rest, in no particular order, and I love the rest. There are no Star Wars movies that I dislike, and I am long on record as not hating the Prequels. When I say that I think The Force Awakens is about as good as The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, I actually don’t mean that as any kind of insult.
Where to begin, then? With George Lucas, of course.
As the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney was being publicized, it came out that Lucas had actually started working on developing his ideas for Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. I guess once a Star Warrior, always a Star Warrior...but then Disney decided that it wanted to go its own route, and basically told Lucas: “Thanks for your service, we’ll keep your ideas on file, but we’re going in our own direction.” Which meant that any established “Expanded Universe” continuity was out the window, and any remaining ideas that Lucas had were jettisoned, as well.
Now, I’d frankly be quite interested to hear what Lucas had in mind. I assume he was going to continue with the adventures of the Skywalker family, because as he noted in an interview with Charlie Rose, he had always seen Star Wars as a family saga, first and foremost, with generational concerns and heredity and drama between fathers and sons and so on. I saw some people poo-poo that notion, but Lucas is speaking truth here, as anyone who actually knows anything about Star Wars (and, particularly, its development in its earliest stages, back in the 1970s) can attest. Lucas’s earliest drafts contain a lot of that kind of thing, and it’s worth remembering that at various early stages, Star Wars was subtitled, “From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker.”
I’ve no idea where Lucas was thinking about going with the Skywalker family (or even if he was), but I assume that he was doing so, keeping the main saga about this one family. With The Force Awakens, there is some of that, but the feeling is somewhat muted, as we only know the parentage of one of the new characters: villain Kylo Ren, who is a Skywalker on his mother’s side (Leia), but is also a Solo. Now, the film hints very strongly that newcomer Rey is a Skywalker as well, but nothing is confirmed, which I found a bit irritating. JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan seem to be under the impression that there have to be familial secrets to only be revealed at key points, and they seem to think that leaving Rey’s parentage unresolved is some kind of incentive to keep coming back. We’ll get back to that point later, though.
As I note, Disney’s current approach to Star Wars seems to be, quite simply, to put out a movie with the Star Wars name on it every year until they start flopping. That will happen, eventually, but who knows how long it will take. And no, I’m not rooting for that to happen, but it does signify a change in Star Wars, to an ongoing, open-ended thing, instead of what it once was: a core story surrounded by a lot of other “satellite” tales. We know there’s a current trilogy of “Saga” movies on the way – the seventh, eighth, and ninth episodes – and three “anthology” films, each of which tells a separate and self-contained tale within the Star Wars mythos. Thing I wonder is, if the films are still making money once those have all been released – and barring a significant drop-off in quality, there’s no reason to think that’s likely to happen any time soon – will Disney just move us right into Episode X? And what then? Another thirty years down the road for the characters?
I don’t know. But I honestly am bothered by the shift to Star Wars as an open, unending thing. But then...what’s another term for a serialized tale that doesn’t really end at any point, that just keeps moving the conflicts down through newer generations?
I read some people poo-poo-ing George Lucas’s notion that Star Wars was originally conceived as a soap opera, but there’s a good chance that’s where Disney’s ultimately going with it. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it is something that is at odds with how I’ve always viewed Star Wars. I don’t think that Lucas ever intended the entire story to be open-ended to this degree. We’ll see.
Before I end Part One of this review, there’s something else George Lucas said in that Charlie Rose interview that I think bears addressing. It’s the now-infamous “white slavers” line, in which he says that he partly felt, when he sold the franchise to Disney, that he was selling his “kids” to “white slavers”. He laughed and immediately moved on to something else, clearly having realized that he’d made a bad metaphor there, but the moment did bite him in the arse when the interview was made public, and he had to issue an apology for it. Some other folks on the “We’ve hated Lucas for years” bandwagon seized the bait, obviously, in a predictably ugly bit of “Oh, shut up George, you got your four billion” and the ongoing insistence by every Lucas-basher in the world that he still needs to atone for not only the sins of the movies he wrote and directed that they didn’t like, but also the movies like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which he merely produced.
When I first heard that “white slavers” quote – and really, that was a staggeringly tone-deaf metaphor for Lucas to use – I figured he was taken aback by Disney’s pedal-to-the-metal, “Star Wars movie-a-year for the foreseeable future” approach. Having seen the interview and heard that quip in context, I think it’s much more innocuous than that, word choice aside. I think he’s just voicing the same feeling that anyone who has ever willingly parted with something they loved, something that was a part of them. I think of Forrest J. Ackerman’s legendary science fiction memorabilia collection here, which he had to start selling off late in his life to finance medical treatments and such. I imagine that whenever you spend your life doing a thing, and then you sell the fruits of it and the ownership of it to someone else, even if you trust them completely, there’s still going to be a feeling of betrayal, that you’ve let down the collection or the movie franchise or whatever it is. I think that’s a very human and normal thing for George Lucas to think, and it’s too bad he said it such a terrible way.
That’s where I’ll leave off here. The review continues in Episode II....