I didn’t think I would even go see this movie.
Yet here I am on a Monday night, penning the intro of what turned out to be the most complex review I’ve ever written on my blog. Dreamed up at 1 a.m., patched together over several days, written and re-written and edited, here is my experience of The Force Awakens.
It’s February 1997. I am 13.
My grandmother is at the end of an excruciating battle with cancer. One of my best friends is starting a descent into the world of drugs and alcohol. I’m experiencing the beginnings of what will become an anxiety disorder.
I could really use a few positive messages in my life.
My parents take me to see Star Wars: A New Hope, the Special Edition in theaters.
For a couple of hours my problems disappear, and I’m mesmirized. A caped villain, a desert planet, a young adventurer who loses his family. A princess, a Death Star, unlikely alliances. It’s exactly the story I need, both for escapism and to bolster my own courage.
I’m particularly drawn to a man my parents say also played Indiana Jones, but I don’t remember Indiana Jones being this irresistible!
As exciting music ushers in the credits, I stand up and feel like I could run out of the theater, run all the way home—or maybe even fly. I can’t wait for the next two movies.
On the way home in the back seat, something occurs to me.
“Hey Dad,” I say. “Do any of the three main characters die by the end of the trilogy?”
He pauses. “Uh, do you really want to know? It’ll spoil a lot of exciting parts.”
“Yes, tell me.” I don’t hesitate. I need to know if these protagonists end sadly or happily, because I’m already identifying so closely with them. So many things in my life have disappointed me lately. If Dad says one of them dies, I won’t see the other movies.
“None of them die,” he says. “They all survive.”
I nod to myself and sit back, relieved. Weeks later, we see the Empire Strikes Back, then Return of the Jedi. As the characters smile and hug at the Ewok party I feel a warm sense that maybe, in the end, life will be okay after all.
Ending Well For All Involved
I explained in a previous post that Star Wars has played a unique role in my life. Resting in the sweet spot between childhood and adulthood, it holds both the magic glimmer of being a kid and the hard-edged toughness of coming into the adult world.
Over the years, I’ve returned again and again to these films. They’re well-written, well-paced, with great themes and likeable characters. Above all, I come back to these movies to fill up on that refreshing sense of something ending well for all involved.
Plenty of movies utilize tragedy and death to communicate truth about life. I love and learn from those films. But when you’ve had a really bad day (or year!) or you’re just plain scared of the future, it’s good to have a familiar childhood story to tell you that happy endings can occur even in the face of long odds—yes, even if that Death Star is operational and your friends on the Endor moon are walking into a trap! True, Obi-Wan and Vader both bite it, but not our three main protagonists. Not the three people we’re supposed to identify most closely with. They overcome challenges and face an exciting future of finishing off the Empire and figuring out a new galactic government.
While some criticize movies with such happy endings, I think there’s an important place for them in our lives—that is, unless you have no soul, in which case you’re excused. Star Wars has been mine for many years.
It’s 2014, and the cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is announced on May the Fourth.
My husband is shocked that I’m not happy to see Harrison Ford reprise Han Solo. My years-long crush on him is legendary.
“Not excited?” he says.
I stare at the online news article. “They should leave the original cast out of it and make a whole new story set in the far future.”
“You don’t want the original cast to come back? You?”
“I would love to see them again, but something will go wrong,” I say. “Any time someone makes a sequel of a resolved storyline, they re-open the characters’ conflicts and undo all of the closure the last movie worked so hard for. I hate that. I’ve seen it happen so many times and it makes me furious.”
“Like what? What could they do to Star Wars that would ruin closure of the original story?”
I try to think of the stupidest possible idea. “Well, like, what if Han and Leia were estranged or something? Remember The Mask of Zorro? When they made the sequel, they had this horrible plot where the two main characters get divorced, just to invent more tension.”
“Hm.” His tone says what I already know—I’ve given a pretty extreme example that will likely not come to pass.
“But really, they could kill one of them,” I say. “Like, what if they killed Luke or Leia? Or Han Solo?” We both know Han’s death is the worst thing that could possibly happen in my Star Wars universe, worse than Luke going to the dark side or Emperor Palpatine developing a dating life. Jaron still looks skeptical. “I’m just saying, when it comes out, you should pre-screen it for me.”
“Right,” he says. Then adds, gently joking, “and if Han and Leia are estranged and he dies a horrible death, you can boycott it.”
And then the movie comes out….
A Fun Flick
Before you jump to the conclusion that I hate this film, let me state plainly that I don’t. In fact, I think it’s quite good. In fact, I’m downright impressed with some of J.J. Abrams’ choices.
So let’s start by outlining what was good about The Force Awakens, shall we?
1. We’ve been rescued from the degradation of the prequels! Thank the Maker, someone has thrown a rope into the pit of shame dug by the prequels to rescue this beautiful franchise. An entire generation of kids knew Star Wars movies as poorly-plotted piles of CGI vomit, starring actors who drifted around like they were stoned and sat on couches to argue about politics. Jiminy Christmas, what a disaster!
The new films give us engaging characters with clear motivations and intelligible plotlines. Also personalities. I mean, that always helps.
Gone is the overuse of CGI. They didn’t green-screen us to death, but let the actors run around real sets doing real things with real stuff, and it felt really really real.
Also, I didn’t see plot holes the size of a sarlacc pit. The dialogue wasn’t laughable. The romantic pair didn’t involve a murderer in need of therapy. Yay!
2. It caught the tone of the original movies. Not to keep ragging on the prequels, but they never “felt” like Star Wars. The ships appeared more futuristic than in the originals, the settings felt sterile and emotionless, even the music was too different.
In this film, they went out of their way to make the visuals and sounds remind you of the old movies. We saw a desert planet, and the Millenium Falcon. Even the inside of the new Death Star looked like the inside of the Empire ships in the OT (Original Trilogy). And the music was definitely a call-back to some of the OT’s best-remembered scores.
They also went out of their way to mirror events and themes from the OT. Rey begins as a humble desert dweller who longs for something more, just like Luke. Finn is the reluctant sidekick who eventually becomes loyal, just like Han. Luke has pulled an Obi-Wan Kenobi and accidentally created a powerful Jedi who turns on everyone. Oops.
Which brings me to my next point…
3. The Father/Son theme. Let’s be real, the Father/Son theme is actually a huge part of what makes Star Wars Star Wars. Abrams’ handling of it is very smart. He made it feel new by having the son be the one on the wrong side of the conflict, but also made it familiar by tying Kylo Ren to the original Luke/Vader duo.
4. Interesting villain. It’s cool to see a young villain who struggles with uncertainty about his role as a Sith. In Ben/Kylo Ren, Abrams has created the character Anakin should have been in the prequels—someone who feels like a real person, whom you can picture as once having been a good man, but who is capable of profound evil. It’s no wonder he seeks to tie Ben to the character of Anakin by having Ben idolize him.
(But seriously, HAS ANYONE EVER TOLD THAT KID THAT HIS GRANDPA REGRETTED ALL HIS CHOICES?)
5. We care about the characters. I like Rey and Fin. I understand what they want. They have flaws without being annoying, they have character arcs, they’re each on a journey. This is basic moviemaking 101, and it went well in this film.
6. Female Jedi. Female Jedi. Female Jedi. Okay, Leia was technically a Jedi, but this is different. Rey is the main Jedi protagonist. At last, Star Wars lets the best and the brightest of the Jedi’s future belong to a woman. She’s the parallel to Luke Skywalker—and is, in fact, his daughter, a fact so obvious to me that I won’t even spend time defending it. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you look into logic and how movies work. Also, she doesn’t wear sexy-time clothes as her supposedly everyday gear, the way so many action hero and superhero female protagonists do.
7. It’s funny. I laughed out loud more than I expected to. Han Solo had some great lines, and Finn nailed the balancing act between troubled and angsty and hilarious. Classic Star Wars knew how to mix the silly with the serious, and J.J. Abrams took that mantle up.
Did it miss the mark on anything?
I confess that, from a storytelling perspective, it did lose me in a couple of places.
1. The plot. It fell just a tiny bit short of what I wanted. It wasn’t awful, and it wasn’t disappointing, it just had an edge of “meh” to it. After Rey and Finn meet and escape their pursuers, I felt like the next 40 minutes consisted of things that weren’t essential to the plot. The attacking squids, Finn’s ruse about being a Rebel, and a few other things could have been removed with virtually no change to the direction of the plot. I was pleased when the final ordeal of escaping the Death Star started—but it was actually less inventive, fresh, and eventful than the original Death Star escape in A New Hope.
2. A few departures in tone. Occasionally, it did waver in maintaining the tone of the originals. For one, it was too self-referential of the other movies. The OT entertained us based on its own strength, with no history to support it, and this one relied on the history to make us love it a little too much. It thus felt a tad less inventive than the original spirit of Star Wars.
Also, the OT presented Jedi strength as an acquired skill through much blood, sweat, and tears. That was one of the enjoyable things about the original plot. In this film, Rey is ready to fight a Sith Lord with no training. It didn’t quite make sense, and lacked the richness of watching a character go from green to confident over time.
I thought it was a little weird to involve Han Solo in the father/son Jedi/Sith paradigm. In the original, he was always an outsider to those dramas. He was the worldly character in contrast to Luke and Leia’s spiritual role with The Force. If anything, I thought Leia should be the parent in the Jedi/Sith dichotomy of TFA, but that’s just me.
But We’re Not Done
Oh. Wait. This review keeps going? Observational Ginger…are you telling me you had a major problem with this film?
You did! You had a major problem with this film, otherwise you’d be wrapping up by now. What is it? Spill!
Okay. There are actually two of them. Let’s get the first one out of the way.
*Rolls up sleeves*
There is no imaginable universe in which it is okay for us to see Han Solo die–let alone die a violent death for no reason at the hands of his son.
Han Solo isn’t murdered! He lives to the fullest extent of his days, being awesome, and then dies quietly in his sleep.
Now listen, it’s unreasonable to say—
HE DIES AN OLD MAN WARM IN HIS BED, DAMMIT!
I understand that many Star Wars fans accepted his death, but I’m not among them. There is no argument in existence that will make me okay with watching any of the original three protagonists die in a Star Wars movie, let alone my favorite character. People have tried everything to convince my nerdy little heart not to feel this way, but it’s like convincing Jabba the Hut to go on a diet. It ain’t gonna happen. You can argue this with me if you want—you know, if you enjoy pushing against immovable objects.
Han Solo’s death is, tragically, an unforgivable sin in an awesome movie. It’s the reason I almost didn’t go see the film.
You may remember, though, that Jaron and I mentioned another mistake this movie might make. It’s with a big, long sigh that I inform you the movie made that mistake. It made that mistake so hard it’s as if J.J. Abrams heard our conversation and decided to make a caricature of my concerns.
Walking Character Arcs Backwards
My biggest movie pet peeve is when a sequel creates tension by undoing whatever progress or resolution the characters gained in the previous film. It’s as if scriptwriters want to take the story back to square 1 because they know they can write it from there, but aren’t sure they can write it from square 12, or wherever the last film left off.
Abrams did this with the original trio from Star Wars.
Luke began the OT living in a remote area, unhappy with his life. The trilogy chronicled his gradual rise in power and confidence until he became a Jedi knight. But now in The Force Awakens…he’s back to living in a remote area unhappy with his life. His confidence, along with the hope that he’d rebuild the Jedi order, have been swept away.
Han Solo began the OT as a wandering smuggler with no real direction. Throughout the OT, he becomes heavily involved with the Rebellion to the point where his life has a bigger meaning. He builds a relationship with Leia. But now in TFA…he’s again a wandering smuggler with no real direction. Although he still has connections to the old Rebellion, he’s not active in that life anymore, and his family is just a sad memory.
Leia began the OT as a political figure in the fight against tyranny. Throughout the OT, she develops a relationship with her brother, is made aware of her family heritage, and is promised by Luke that she’ll become a Jedi too. But now in TFA…she’s back to being a political figure with no family around, and nothing seems to have materialized with her Jedi training.
So while the characters’ actions in the OT affected the political situation in TFA, any of their personal arcs become null and void by TFA’s opening scroll. It feels like the drama and hard work of three movies got thrown out the window.
I hate to use the “L” word here, and I’m sure Abrams fans will nail me to the wall for this, but–that particular aspect of the writing felt lazy to me. It relied on points of tension that were already established, worked through, and resolved in previous films. But the previous films got us to care by writing the characters’ problems from scratch. Why couldn’t Abrams do that this time? Take them into a new adventure with new points of tension. Or, better yet, make everything about the new characters and leave the old ones out entirely!
Who really wants to see Han and Leia estranged, Luke a failed and broken shell, his daughter a lifelong orphan, and HAN SOLO MURDERED BY HIS OWN SON? I felt like Abrams was trying to manipulate our emotions. It’s like he thought if he took everyone’s favorite bits of character development from the OT (Luke’s transformation, the romance, Han Solo himself) and put those things in danger, he could get us to care right from the get-go without doing much work.
It felt not only lazy, but disrespectful to the original franchise, as if he was using it like a tool to feed this new movie without really considering what its original trajectory was. As a writer and a Star Wars fan, I’m actually offended by that.
Sadly, as good as this movie was, as much as it was awesome and fun and a wild ride, these mistakes create a level of angst that actually outweighed my enjoyment of it. The very thing Abrams counted on to secure my loyalty to the film—the inclusion of the original characters—was the very thing that made me object to it. I left the theater feeling heavy, like it was the biggest irony ever—a Star Wars movie that catches the right tone but undercuts itself by deconstructing the foundational plot lines of the franchise to begin with.
Is It Canon?
This is perhaps the biggest question that friends of mine want to know: does the Observational Ginger consider Episode 7 canon?
My definition of canon is demanding. The most important thing is for a sequel to be dead-on in catching the tone and the implied projection of the future plot from the original, and we’ve already identified ways in which this film falls short of that in my mind.
Plus, I don’t generally consider something canon if it’s released long after the original and done by a different creator. The fact is, TFA isn’t part of the original work. It was written and directed 40 years later by a different team in a different era of movie-making. It can still be a fun, amazing piece of cinema, but you can’t really argue that it’s obviously part and parcel with the writing, film style, and original story intent of the trilogy that started 40 years ago.
If anything, the Extended Universe (Star Wars books, etc.) has more claim to canon based on how quickly it followed the original movies, and I’ve never considered that canon, either.
And here’s a more personal reason. Because the originals functioned as my feel-good story, tacking on estrangement and tragic ends to my favorite character negates the entire reason that Star Wars is important to me in the first place. In that way, accepting the new movies as canon would be, as C.S. Lewis says, “cutting off the branch you are sitting on.”
So what IS it?
What is TFA if not canon? I like to think of it as an interpretation. A fun interpretation. An interpretation by someone who obviously likes the originals a lot, however much I feel he disrespected some aspects of them. I think directors have a right to create their own “take” on a classic film, just as writers have the right to their own “take” on a classic fair ytale.
I draw the line, though, when people suggest a new director’s interpretation must be taken as canon by everyone. I’ve said this before, but I believe that after a piece of cinema (or a novel, or a play, or what have you) becomes a widely-loved part of mainstream culture, it begins to belong to everyone. It becomes immortal, in a way. After that, no one storyteller has the right to tell the entire culture how they must add on to that story in their minds. They have a right to present their own interpretation, but that’s about it.
And, as I’ve said before, I hold this belief with sober humility as someone who wants to write novels. This belief will affect how I approach my own work should I ever be published.
The other morning, as I’m getting ready for work, I think of Han Solo’s death and get teary-eyed in the shower.
“I win the Pathetic Trophy” I think to myself. “I’m a 32-year-old woman crying in the shower over the death of a fictional character from a space adventure film.” Truly, this rivals the day in Jr. High when I shut myself in the closet and cried into a pile of dirty clothes because my crush wouldn’t say hi to me.
Then I realize I’m not crying over the loss of Han Solo. I’m crying over the loss of my comfortable membership in the Star Wars club of popular culture.
With everyone I know and all the critics praising the film unreservedly, I feel utterly alone in my certainty that it’s problematic and non-canon. I had this certainty about the prequels, but then, so did most Star Wars fans.
I value being part of groups and communities, and I’ve always treasured the easy, joyful camaraderie with other Star Wars fans once we discover each other. I now imagine a future in which each one of these friendly transactions will be punctuated by my caveats about my difference of opinion over the new film, followed by exhausting conversations in which I lay out the equivalent of this blog post over and over and get argued with. The fun of the Star Wars community may be very altered for me from now on.
I feel as though, to quote Cheryl Strayed, it’s “the end of an era that has lasted all of my life.”
I tend toward the dramatic, though.
So here’s my conclusion about this film: it was fun and feisty and had a lot of good points, but it wasn’t perfect. Let’s treat it like the Extended Universe. If you feel it’s canon, then I’m glad you’re having that much fun with it! If I don’t feel it’s canon, you’ll be polite about that and nerd out with me about the originals. (No one will ever speak of the prequels again). Everyone’s happy, and all will be well.
After the Viewing
We come home from the theater. A million thoughts are reeling through my head. I’m both pleasantly satisfied at how fun the film was, and really torn about all the problems. I also feel wretched about Han Solo’s death, which I closed my eyes for and tried not to listen to, but ended up crying over anyway.
I have the absurd desire to hug the original movies. I don’t know how you hug a movie. It exists as a visual projection on a screen, so this need of mine will probably go unmet. The best I can do is to slide the old, battered box set of The Star Wars Special Edition that I got at age 14 off my bookshelf and snug it tight against my chest. Jaron looks at me like he’ll have to call the funny farm in the morning.
He goes up to bed, and I promise to be right behind him. I remove the VHS of “Episode IV: A New Hope” and look at Han Solo’s smug, smirking face on the front. I smirk back at it.
“Well, we both know what really happened,” I say to him, feeling 13 again in the best possible way.
We go to bed. That night at 1 a.m., I wake up as fully as if it’s morning. I lie around for a few minutes, and all the confusing thoughts of the evening finally coalesce. I reach for my computer in the dark, and begin this review.