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It's the Star Wars movie we need right now, but not the Star Wars movie we deserve
This morning I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens in theaters. It was everything everyone expected. It lived up to the hype. However I'm not writing this post to join the chorus of accolades; there will be enough of that and indeed there already is. This post assumes you enjoyed the film and are ready to move on to a healthy level of scrutiny. So keep in mind that as I talk about the flaws of the film, I do so earnestly from the perspective of someone who genuinely enjoyed the movie and will probably be back to the theaters to see it again. With that said, there were a couple of things about this film that bothered me.
Star Wars is something that a lot of people have very strong and passionate feelings about. For years it was carefully controlled and guided by George Lucas, another thing altogether that people have strong and passionate feelings about. Since Lucas sold the rights away and the mantle was picked up by J.J. Abrams, it's fair to say that people were nervous he might add too much lens flare, or otherwise not get things right. I'm simultaneously pleased and conflicted to say that J.J. did get it right. Conflicted only because he didn't actually make a new movie at all. The Force Awakens is a play-by-play, carbon copy of A New Hope, down to the smallest detail. Some have even gone so far as to call it plagiarism. I simply call it "playing it safe."
My roommate, who has not yet seen the film, just asked me as I was writing this if I thought the new film was better than Episode Four. That's a question I can't really answer, because it is Episode Four. This film had about as much new material as The Hangover 2 did. It's an exact replica of the original film, just with younger characters and bigger objects.
But that isn't really what bothers me. The new film was exactly what the masses needed most after the disaster that was the prequel trilogy. They had felt betrayed by their beloved director. How could the same man who gave the world Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Darth Vader be the one who made Anakin Skywalker, Jar Jar Binks, and midi-chlorians? Alas, as the years went by, Lucas spiraled further into delusion and denial like the hapless CG-junkie that's he's revealed himself to be. And the fans felt the sting of betrayal. The galaxy far, far away had been forever tainted. A Force Awakens calls back to the earlier days of greatness. It pays homage to its roots because it is its roots, with little more than a new face.
However, just as Kylo Ren couldn't shake his Dark Side heritage, the film couldn't shake some of the series' darker memories itself. I'm talking about Hayden Christensen's acting, newly manifest in Daisy Ridley. I know that people are going to praise her performance, and while I do believe she is leagues apart from Mr. Christensen, I still saw sparks of the dark side in her. And I don't mean the force.
In fact, I'm sure that both she and Abrams will be praised: Ridley for her acting, and J.J. for including a strong female lead. I don't buy it though. The first felt forced at times and the latter felt like affirmative action. If feminism in the 21st century has taught us anything, it's that a surefire formula for accolades in the film industry is to have a fiercly independent female lead. People think it's refreshing to have a damsel who's not in distress, who doesn't need a man to save her, and who proclaims her independence at every turn. I don't have a problem with a strong female lead, even though I think it's already become an overplayed trope years ago. But I do have a problem when the only motivation for that choice is pandering, and when the so-called strength of that lead wanders into overcompensation territory, as if it's apologizing for years of other films.
Case in point: Rey's insistence that she doesn't need Fin to hold her hand on Jakku. It was meant to highlight her independence, but it felt robotic, unrealistic, and needlessly rude. That's not how people interact in the real world. And her change of heart toward Fin, later in the film, comes too fast. It makes the character seem flaky and inconsistent. And when Fin is trying to do all the things a conventional male hero is supposed to do, she loves him for it. Now, granted, an argument could be made that Abrams was trying to reincarnate the same cocky, push-and-pull chemistry that Leia and Han perfected years ago into a new generation. But if the prequel trilogy taught us anything, it's that you can't force romance. No matter how many times Anakin said he loved Padmé, we never believed it, because tell-not-show storytelling is never believable.
There are other examples, too, that are a little more glaring, other glimpses where you see her channeling her inner Christensen. Watch Rey's expression as she becries Solo's death. The scene is parallel to when Luke is upset over Obi-wan's death, with only one little thing different: she's only known Han for a matter of hours, whereas Uncle Ben was family to Luke. Yes it sucks, but she's clearly over-acting.
But all of these minor quibbles are still dwarfed by my real complaint with the new film. My main complaint is not really about the film, not anything in it. I had this complaint long before ever seeing the film. My major gripe is about the fact that film exists in the first place. Because its mere existence invalidates the Prophecy of the Chosen One. No, invalidate is too soft a term. It utterly and completely destroys it. In layman's terms, it removes the need for any of the last six films and renders them all pointless.
The Prophecy of the Chosen One was an ancient Jedi prophecy that foretold the coming of a being who would forever bring balance to the force. This being was revealed (and confirmed) to be Anakin Skywalker, who "forever" destroyed the Sith and eliminated the influence of the Dark Side when he took out the evil Emperor Palpatine and sacrified himself as well. This prophecy was the entire point of the original three films, and further reinforced by their prequels.
The trouble is that if evil has been destroyed for good, and the prophey has been fulfilled, that doesn't leave room for any future villains or really any room for future films or literature. Peace is boring. Peace isn't dramatic. Star Wars is popular because the wars make things interesting. I'm ignoring the hoardes of expanded universe novels when I say that Return of the Jedi was meant to be the end. But I have yet to hear any satisfactory explanation as to why the Prophecy of the Chosen One isn't proved to be complete garbage by the re-introduction of the dark side after the fact.
Just to wade through the pedantry a bit, no, the phrase "bring balance to the force" does not simply mean to equalize the number of Jedi with the number of Sith. Lucas himself has confirmed that it meant the elimination of the Sith, and the dialogue in the prequel films supports this. The Jedi believe that the only truly "balanced" state of the Force is when the Dark Side is totally absent. The other main argument, or should I say rationalization, is that balance is inherently temporary. Well, what was the point, then? Why bother prophesying anything if it's all going to be meaningless 30 years later?
All these retconned delusions serve to do is spit in the face of the original story. The Force Awakens is more than just an innocuous reboot -- and it is a reboot in the truest sense of the word, not a sequel. With all its careful orchestration, tribute, and nostalgia, it repents of the the prequel trilogy, but only by selling the soul of the beloved original trilogy.
It had to do that, and I understand why. Although the heritage of the Jedi, explored thorougly in the Knights of the Old Republic, is rich and lasting, it isn't as marketable as Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. It had to be a sequel, not another prequel. What people needed was redemption from the Hollywood disasters that were the prequel films. And that's exactly what they got. But, unfortunately, underneath it all, no one seemed to notice that this redemption came with a price. The original trilogy was now all in vain, as we start over with fresh faces.
And the reason that's a problem is because, at its core, the original story (prequels included!) was good. If you don't believe me, watch any of the What if Star Wars Episode X was good? videos on YouTube. The heart of the story was always pure, even if it did end up with a fat body and an ugly face. And although this new story is great (how can it not be when it's a copy?), I am disappointed that The Force Awakens threw the baby out with the bathwater. The good story-telling that Lucas intended was the Star Wars that we deserved. But Star Wars: A New Hope, Mark 2 was what the people needed.