Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Saga Continues: Why I Admire The Force Awakens

My curiosity about The Force Awakens was mild.  I was more skeptical than anything else.  And yet, when opening day crept up on me, I found myself getting excited.  Finally, sitting in the cinema as the opening crawl started the film, I was captivated in a way I had not expected: After all these years, I am still deeply connected to Luke Skywalker's story.

I was too young to see the original Star Wars in the cinemas, but just old enough for The Empire Strikes Back.  I was nine for Return of the Jedi.  I had my share of the toys and books, and I'm pretty sure I had Star Wars underwear, too.  My infatuation was gone before puberty hit, but the iconography and mythology never lost their potency.  Star Wars references have always been there--not just because they are fun, but because they are meaningful.

Now, witnessing the continuation of the mythology as a middle-aged man with a soft spot for nostalgia? Finding that the story is not over and that new characters can pick up where the old must end? The complexity of emotions is striking.

Yes, The Force Awakens is a product.  Yes, they are trying to make money and reboot an old franchise.  That's all true, but there is also love and art in it.  The Force Awakens respects the mythology and the iconography.  It doesn't pander. The fan service is a way of paying respect to the original trilogy, to remind us that that is where this film owes its dues.  It may be excessive at times, but that is a minor complaint.  Like so many others, I found enough freshness, fun and authenticity to satisfy me.  More than that, my childhood connection to Luke's story has not merely been awoken, but also developed in a meaningful way.

The more I reflect on the film and compare it to the original Star Wars, the more I understand why it feels right. The original trilogy is all about destiny.  The characters talk about it enough, but more importantly, it is shown through coincidences.  In the original Star Wars:
  • Leia's ship is waylaid right next to Tatooine.
  • The Empire doesn't fire on the escape pod carrying R2-D2 and C-3PO at the beginning of the film. They presumably know that it could be carrying droids, but they let it go because they don't detect any life forms.
  • R2-D2 and C-3PO split up on Tatooine, only to be captured by the same group of traders.
  • The second unit Luke's uncle wants to buy from the traders breaks down, leading him to buy R2-D2 instead.
  • Luke and his uncle happen to need droids at that moment at all.
  • The Empire doesn't notice there are life forms on the Millennium Falcon, giving the good guys a chance to sneak past the stormtroopers on the Death Star.
  • The Death Star has a design flaw that allows it to be destroyed by a single fighter pilot.  What young Jedi-to-be could ask for a better opportunity to prove his or her worth?
All of these coincidences and absurdly fortuitous circumstances (and more) help nurture the audience's belief that Luke is following his destiny. He was meant to find R2-D2.  He was meant to study under Kenobi.  He was meant to blow up the Death Star.  It just had to be.  If the film had relied exclusively on exposition to tell us about Luke's destiny, we might not believe it; but when we see all the pieces just happening to fall into place, it feels right.

So it is with The Force Awakens.  I was first critical of its heavy reliance on coincidence, but now I see it as a necessity. 

I'm not the first to observe that there are many similarities, deep as well as superficial, between The Force Awakens and the original Star Wars. You could criticize the writers for that, but it's not like they were trying to hide it.  All the criticism means is that some people don't want a movie that is so similar to the original Star Wars.  And that's fine.  Not everybody wants it.  Not everybody is going to appreciate it.  But for the rest of us, it's exhilarating.  

As it happens, I think Rey is a lot more compelling than Luke in the original Star Wars, which relies more on exposition. We are told (by his uncle) that Luke has a lot of his father in him, and we are told (by his aunt) that most of his friends have already gone off to join the academy, and we are told (by Luke) that he wants to join the academy and do something bigger and more exciting with his life, and we are told (by Obi-Wan Kenobi) that Luke's father was a Jedi who had been killed by Darth Vader. Exposition sets up Luke's inner conflict, telling us who Luke is and what he wants.  All we really see from Luke at the beginning is that he is loyal to his family:  He races after R2-D2, because he does not want to disappoint his uncle.  Then he races home, heedless of the danger, to find his aunt and uncle killed by the Empire.  He only agrees to join Kenobi when he has nothing left on Tatooine.  These acts are important, but don't go very far in establishing Luke as a young Jedi-to-be.

Compare that to Rey.  We see her struggling to survive on Jakku.  We see her isolation.  We see how she wants to feel close to the old legends, putting on an old fighter pilot's helmet as she sits alone, eating her meager rations outside an old, fallen AT-AT.  We see her make a difficult choice:  to give up a fortune in order to protect a droid, her new and apparently only friend.  We know she doesn't belong where she is and that she has a great deal of inner (and outer) strength.  Sure, in many ways, Rey is a sort of Luke Skywalker reboot.  In fact, the two films are structured around their respective character arcs in remarkably similar ways.  There's nothing wrong with that.  The Force Awakens takes the time to bring Rey to life, to let us believe in her, and that's what counts.

Nobody goes into a Star Wars movie as if it were just another action-adventure.  The expectations are too high.  The mythology is too ubiquitous.  And that, I think, is what makes the success of this movie so impressive and worthy of respect.  There are plenty of complaints one could make about the film.  It is flawed, and it can be fun and interesting to go over everything that does or does not work.  But the more interesting question to me is, what makes this so satisfying for so many fans--fans who have long felt mistreated, and who can be hyper-critical of how Star Wars properties are developed?  I think it's about destiny, and that is more a feeling than anything else.  The Force Awakens makes us feel the way a Star Wars movie is supposed to make us feel:  like the hero is fulfilling her destiny, and the Skywalker saga is alive and well and up to date.

Some say this film only works as a promise for new films.  On the contrary, I think it is a solid stand-alone film. Of course we're being set up for more, but there is a clear beginning, middle and end to this story.  If the next Star Wars films are disasters--or even if they never come about by some bizarre twist of fate--this will remain a compelling addition to the mythology.

My nephew--he's not yet ten years old, but he's seen all seven films--he says this new one is the best so far.  His previous favorite was Return Of The Jedi.  One day he'll grow up and realize that there is no topping The Empire Strikes Back.  But when it comes to second best?  The Force Awakens may not be that good, but it might give the original a run for its money.  I'm looking forward to seeing it a second time.

Some additional thoughts on character development below.


***SPOILER ALERT***

Some complain that Kylo Ren is a weak or inconsistent version of Darth Vader.  His apparent inconsistency did bug me for a while. At the beginning of the film, his power over the force is impressive.  By the end of the film, he's not a very intimidating adversary.  In fact, he doesn't seem to know what he's doing.  How is Finn able to stand up against him in combat at all?  (Some speculate that Finn must be strong with the force, but I don't buy that.)  And Rey could actually defeat him?  

Then I considered the characters.  We only see Kylo Ren having strong command over the force when he's wearing his mask. Maybe, when he takes it off, his insecurities take over.  He clearly lacks self-control and self-confidence.  When Finn raises his light saber against him, Kylo Ren is unmasked.  He wields his light saber with the angst and fury of a petulant child, not the caution and focus of a Jedi.  He's no Vader, and he knows it.  Ren is emotionally unbalanced enough so that Finn is able to put up a fight, if only for a short time.  When looked at that way, it is not so surprising that Rey--who is much more self-assured, has learned to defend herself on Jakku and is apparently much stronger with the force than her opponent--is able to beat him.

There is another Finn moment that didn't sit well, but which makes more sense to me now.  I initially thought that, at the beginning of the film, Finn's primary goal was to help Poe escape, even though Poe said that Finn was doing it just because he needed a pilot.  So when Finn seems like a coward later on, and runs away from the resistance, I thought it was out of character.  I think I was just misled by my own desires:  I wanted Finn to be selfless, to be only interested in helping Poe escape.  That was my mistake.  Of course Finn just needed a pilot.  He was happy to help Poe escape, but that was not his goal.  He'd risk his life to escape the First Order, but he doesn't see any sense in trying to fight a war.  He was never out to help the resistance.  So he comes clean at the cantina and decides to split--to get as far away from the First Order as possible.  That all works for me.