Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Star Wars Subjectivities: The Force Awakens

An exercise in nostalgia? A beat-by-beat repetition of A New Hope? An honest attempt at bringing Star Wars to a new generation? The Force Awakens is all of these, and much more.

Let’s take a subjective step back in time, first. Reader, I had been burned by a Star Wars movie before. Having not seen either A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back in theaters, when The Phantom Menace came out, I moved heaven and earth to be there opening day. New Star Wars! Even in a broken seat in a theater that was sold out, I was excited.

My excitement did not last, for reasons that are probably another essay entirely. Suffice it to say, The Phantom Menace turned out to not be for me. A subsequent viewing, again, has shown that a couple of pieces of the movie are good, are worth my attention, but as a whole, no, the movie is not a movie of my heart. Your mileage may indeed vary.

And so I was bound and determined to see The Force Awakens and see if the memory of that experience with TPM that was bad for me could be excised, redeemed, revalued.  I was stirred by the music and was glad to see Star Wars on a big screen for the first time in over a decade. The experience went well until a sequence on Jakku, thanks to a technical glitch in the projector, wound up being repeated several times (the pursuit through the ruins of the Star Destroyer).

Now that we have that all out of the way, let’s actually talk about the movie itself and my relationship with the actual text, as it were. It clearly is reaching back to Episode IV from the get-go. A shadow of a large ship, obscuring a planet is much more the visual language of Star Wars than of the prequels. Shots of what appear to be Stormtroopers set us up to see one of our protagonists, although we don’t know it. A mysterious meeting on the planet does not tie to the original trilogy, or the Phantom trilogy, but instead presages Rogue One, instead. Finn, having a crisis of confidence in the attack on the settlement, too, shows that this is more than just a repeat of earlier films.

And yet some of the visual language is there. BB-8, a heroic droid in the mold of R2D2. The arrival of Kylo Ren in a shuttle on the planet is clearly in the Vader mold. (Which of course, is entirely Kylo’s point.) When we switch to Rey and her story, and of course the very idea of a droid finding her on a desert planet, is so quite obviously homage to A New Hope. But then, with Finn finding her, that nostalgia gets a new lease on life when they are plunged into a physical chase, and then a spaceship chase.

And so the movie goes. Beats and references to previous Star Wars films (and very deliberately mostly A New Hope) are mixed with a sense of the new. There is a lot of nostalgia here, visually, musically, and in character. But it is not all nostalgia. Yes, Rey dreams of a life beyond Jakku, a life beyond scavenging wrecks of starships. And adventure finds her. And she does, in short order, run into two scoundrels and if she wasn’t already wrapped up in the adventure, she sure is now. Poe and Finn escaping with the Tie Fighter is very reminiscent of the Millennium Falcon escaping the Death Star. But on the other hand, the Millennium Falcon run through the wreckage on Jakku (the one I saw several times as mentioned above) is much more sui-generis, and is a spectacular piece of film work.

But how did all of this make me feel? In the end I can objectively look at the film, its characters, settings, visuals, and music, but what did the film make me feel? The Phantom Menace had made me feel, even if it wasn’t its intent, that maybe Star Wars wasn’t for me anymore.

The Force Awakens, when I watched it, and when I have subsequently rewatched it, has convinced me that Star Wars is very much still for me. Space Fantasy was one of my early power chords in SFF, and Star Wars is perhaps one of the best examples of Space Fantasy. The Force Awakens helped me to remember my love of Space Fantasy.

And that love is on every level.

An updated set of characters mixed with the old that have real chemistry (the absolute joy Finn and Rey have after escaping Jakku and talking a mile a minute at each other). Or the fun that is BB-8, the most charismatic droid in Star Wars (even more so than R2D2, I’d argue). Or the politics and bickering in the First Order. The weird complicated person that is Kylo Ren, for all of his postering and bluster and menace. And of course, Han and Chewie again. They are the same characters as they were, but they aren't; they have more mileage, they have gone further and farther. And they anchor the movie to the original trilogy.

And action scenes. The practical effects that are in much of The Force Awakens give it the same sort of timeless quality, and feel to the original trilogy, as opposed to too much of The Phantom Menace. And so the action sequences, be it space ships or a firefight in a freighter, have weight, and feel and heft. And the movie gives us a variety. Chases, escapes, lightsaber duels, Finn stepping up and trying to fight the First Order with a lightsaber he doesn't quite know how to use, but he knows how to fight. Monsters in a space ship. And a daring attack to destroy Starkiller base.

Music. The music brings me right back to the original trilogy and leans into the aforementioned action scenes. I may not be a music-head like many others for a variety of reasons, but I can be stirred by music. And John Williams is on his game with The Force Awakens. The pulse-pounding music of action scenes is excellent and so are the subtleties. Like, for example, the light use of the Star Wars theme when Solo steps into the cockpit of the Falcon for the first time.

And just the visuals. I've mentioned some of them already. Let me mention a couple more: The brilliant look of the arrival of the X-wings at the temple to save the day. The costuming and look of characters like Phasma, the "let's make the subtext text and then some" look of the First Order (yes, harkening back to the Original Trilogy but on steroids). The *love* the camera has for the interior of the Falcon. (Look at the framing and lighting and composition of the "Chewie, we're home" moment.) As some one who is keenly interested in all things visual, it kept my attention, and love, throughout.

The promise of this movie might not have been fulfilled in the subsequent two movies, to my view. That, however, is not my remit to say any further on, here. Undeniably, for me this movie alone stands, and stands quite well indeed.

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I'm just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.