Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why Can't I Get Excited About the New Star Wars Movie?

We're mere hours away from the premiere of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," the first movie in that franchise in 10 years and the first time an entry has been directed by someone other than George Lucas since "Return of the Jedi" premiered in 1983. Star Wars fans are more excited than they've been in nearly 15 years about the possibilities of a new entry in the series.

Honestly, to me, it's just another Wednesday.

As I've seem my nerd friends on Twitter geek out over TV spot after TV spot, or Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher's adorable press circuit interviews, all I can feel is...a bit of indifference.

How could this be? How come I can't summon barely anything more than a "meh" for one of the biggest cinematic events of this millennium? It's honestly a surprise to me. I want to explore a bit.

Well, there are some concrete reasons. Three years ago, after news that George Lucas had sold the franchise to Disney broke, I laid out my basic objections to the whole idea of more Star Wars movies.

I still can't get around my basic belief that Star Wars is done. In 1977, it was a joyously goofy expression of pop culture imagination. In 2015, it has so thoroughly conquered our pop culture that summoning that same joy seems, to me, to be a task close to impossible. It's a copy of a copy of a copy at this point--and remember, it was a (masterfully made) copy to begin with.

But, honestly, this objection seems to be a little too academic to really stand in the way of me and the geekvana so many others are experiencing.

Maybe part of it is self-segregation. When I was growing up, identifying as a nerd--and celebrating Star Wars, Star Trek, and all other glorious expressions of nerdery--was enough. But at some point between the box office dominance of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Big Bang Theory" becoming the world's most popular show, just being a nerd didn't cut it anymore. When it came to Trek and Wars, you had to pick a side. And I had to go with Trek. Star Wars, much as I loved it, was too universal to be a signifier of identity for such a unique individual as myself. Star Trek, with its earnest "space policy" goofiness, seemed more my speed.

But that, again, doesn't seem like a very good reason. I was plenty ecstatic before (and, to be honest, a little bit after) The Phantom Menace came out in 1999. As I write this, I can see Star Wars Lego minifigure stickers of Han Solo and an Ewok at my desk. You may notice this blog includes a pic of Lego Darth Vader. Disinterest in Star Wars is probably not the problem here.

Is it that I think the movie won't be good? That hardly seems right, either. J.J. Abrams has made plenty of enjoyable sci-fi movies, both within his effort to reboot Star Trek ("Star Trek") and outside it ("Super 8"). And, anyways, that's not even the issue--there are plenty of reasons to be worried about "Batman v. Superman," and I'm still pretty excited about that one.

Perhaps it's the way that Abrams has gone about trying to revitalize this franchise. Figuring out a way to continue "Star Wars" after the saga was pretty well wrapped up in "Return of the Jedi" was never going to be an easy task, but it appears Abrams has--safely and disappointingly--steered toward the route with the least possible risks.

"What makes 'The Phantom Menace' great, and what makes me think that Lucas hasn't lost his touch, is that instead of trying to build on the world he built in the first trilogy, he creates an entirely new one," my 17-year-old self wrote in his high school newspaper, the Brebeuf Jesuit Arrow, in a thankfully non-linkable piece.

Hey, I wasn't the only reviewer to be excited about the Phantom Menace. (Roger Ebert said it was great!) In the 16 years since, I've realized that my conclusion was terribly wrong--but I don't think my observation was.

Abrams has apparently let the pendulum fall far, far back into the opposite direction. "The Force Awakens" appears to take place in a universe thematically identical to that of the original "Star Wars," filled with TIE Fighters and X-Wings, windswept planets and Storm Troopers, adorable robots and scrappy rebels, as well as fearsome cloaked figures with glowing red swords. Is it really possible that so little has changed in the Galaxy after the fall of Emperor Palpatine? What are the chances that the fate of a vast Republic will depend once again on an oddly shaped piece of smuggling space "junk," the Millennium Falcon? It appears Abrams is going for the nearly scene-by-scene remake he tried with "Star Trek Into Darkness"--a canny strategy to hit the nostalgiac nerves of light and hardcore fans alike. But this time, will there be any time warp, any new tone, to make it something undiscovered?

When he considered how to bring back to life the quite dead Star Trek franchise six years ago, he faced a similarly challenging task. But there's something about Trek that is always begging to be reimagined. It was "rebooted," of sorts, when it was first brought to the big screen in 1979--and then promptly rebooted again three years later, when Nicholas Meyer brought a lighter, seafaring-themed (and very Star Wars-influenced) sensibility to the franchise with "Wrath of Khan." And then again for the "Next Generation" time leap and, finally, with Abrams' alternate universe take. While the old-school Trekkies still gnash their teeth at it, I admit I was thrilled when Abrams took the age-old characters and updated them into a new, more current world.

But Star Wars fans don't want to see the franchise rebooted. They want to return to the original experience--and Abrams seems to be doing his best to give them their wish, quite literally. That often can be a mistake.

To go back to Star Trek for a second, it was purporting to be a history of Earth's future. Because it's our world, there is always more to explore.

With Star Wars, it's in a reality created and confined by its artists. This is a compliment--I think it's a big reason why it works so well. Trek had to convince us these things would really be out there, someday--but the things in Star Wars just exist, on their own. But pure imagination has its own constraints as well. If Star Wars is about storytelling, then does its universe even exist after the story is over?

And that's maybe my ultimate problem with this. "Return of the Jedi" will always *feel* like the end, to me. I know plenty of Star Warsians feel it's one of the lesser movies, but what can I say--it's the one I fell in love with. (I still think it's the best, but that's something to tackle in another post.) To me, Star Wars will always be this arc chronicling the beginning of a rebellion against an evil oppressor and concluding with that oppressor's downfall. (Paired with a much less satisfying arc explaining how that oppressor took power.) Finding out that, apparently, that final act was only the first victory in a series of battles between these forces just feels wrong.

(And yes--I KNOW this is exactly what George Lucas did with "The Empire Strikes Back." Let's move on*.)

What is it with Hollywood's inability to just let things end? Why does ever good thing have to be pumped dry, in direct violation of the oldest law of show biz--"Always leave 'em wanting more?"

I felt great at the end of "Jedi" because I thought the Empire was defeated, just like I felt sad at the end of "Toy Story 3" because I was overwhelmed with the message that sometimes friendships have to end. To learn neither was true feels like retroactive emotional robbery. And--no no no no NO, I cannot accept this. The story of Star Wars ends with Darth Vader throwing Palpantine down an energy shaft, just like the story of Toy Story ends with Andy and Woody parting ways because that's that.

To accept these new and unwanted entries requires an emotional reformulation--and since I don't want to do that, they just become, well, movies. Maybe good movies--maybe I'll enjoy the hell out of "Awakens"--but I'm not putting the weight of my Star Wars love onto it. It'll be happy if it's good, and if it's not, it won't offend me particularly more than any bad movie does.

I'll definitely going to see it though. Of course.

*: See first comment.


  1. I also know that what I'm saying is in direct contradiction with the literary so-called expansive universe--beloved by many, unread by me. And even though those works were only recently "uncanonized" by the top brass at LucasFilm, I feel they were always working on a different level than the movies, simply because of the difference in medium.

  2. Given three years and two movies between this post and now...any thoughts?

    Because it looks like TFA was about what you feared (to the point that even the characters in the movie comment on how this has all happened before!) and TLJ tried to be something new and was...less well-received than the former.

  3. Hey there, thanks for reading, I appreciate it.

    To answer your question--I feel like most of the Star Wars movies they've made have been decent, but none of them have convinced me I'm wrong that it would have just been better if they hadn't made any at all. They all kind of feel awkward, like they're straining for a reason to exist.

    Force Awakens was a rip-roaring good time, but felt very derivative. Rogue One was a creative idea, but was hard to really get into. Last Jedi was probably the best of them, but it works better in my head than on the screen--I like how it challenges the Star Wars mythos but I kind of think the Star Wars mythos doesn't want to be challenged. (I haven't seen Solo yet.)

    I'm heartened by the news that Disney is holding off on the spinoff movies, and wants to focus on the new original trilogies. As long as these movies *have* to get made, I'd rather they be original and new.