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The Cult of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I was in the 7th grade when Star Wars debuted, but I didn’t see it till I was in the 8th grade.  I don’t remember how I convinced my father (he was suspicious of the worldly picture shows), but I did.  We drove all the way out to Hawthorn Mall and found a line stretched all the way around the theater.  I fully expected my father to turn around and drive home, but he didn’t.  We got in line and waited.  I couldn’t believe it.

…and then they sold the last tickets to the people in front of us.

Aaaaaaaaarrrrrrggghhhh!

To my amazement, my father said, “Well, I guess we’ll just buy tickets to the next show and wait.” I was stunned.  You don’t know what a miracle that was.

The movie was a miracle, too.  At 14 I WAS the target audience and Lucas completely transported me to that “galaxy, far, far, away.” I know the story is simple and the special effects dated, but Star Wars remains one of my favorite movies of all time.

So I come to the 7th movie, “The Force Awakens,” as a fan.  All the purists mourned when Disney bought the franchise, but I thought, “How could they do any worse than Lucas?” He had completely botched the second trilogy and the only good thing to come out of that series was the title of a bluegrass song by the Great Bear Trio, “Flaming Torso,” named after Hayden Christensen’s stubby, legless, Darth Vader torso, burning away on the planet Mustafar.

The spoiler-less summary of “The Force Awakens” in a nutshell?  Well, the Force awakens!  30 years after Luke blows up the Death Star, the Jedi have disappeared, and another Nazi-esque “First Order” has emerged to dominate the galaxy.  Only the Dark Side of the Force seems to be active.  A rag-tag resistance is trying to destroy the First Order’s “Death Planet” (a Death Star on steroids) and to find the last of the Jedi, the elusive Luke Skywalker, who is hiding out in some uncharted part of the galaxy.

(a couple of bright spots!)

It is clear that J.J. Abrams said, “Let’s go back to what made the franchise great — let’s go back to the original Star Wars.”  And for the most part, I really think he did that. There are fewer digital special effects (which seem too obvious and overdone in the second trilogy) and it was shot on good old fashioned Kodak film.  As with the original series, the new main characters are relative unknowns, so we aren’t distracted by celebrity characters like Jimmy Smits and Samuel L. Jackson.  The unknowns that they do choose are pretty good!  The new franchise heroine, Daisy Ridley as Rey, (who has never been in a movie before) and her counterpart, John Boyega as FN-2187, or Finn, are absolutely believable and solid actors.  These are not Hayden Christensen unknowns — these are Harrison Ford unknowns.  The other quality Abrams resurrects is humor!  The movie is fun!  Oh, there is plenty of darkness along the way, but none of the oppressive darkness and humorlessness of the second trilogy (could anybody have been less funny than Ewan McGregor’s Obi-wan?  Oh, ya.  Hayden Christensen.  He made dead nuns and babies seem like Johnny Carson.).  But you understand my point: this movie isn’t just exciting and scary, it’s exciting, and scary, and fun.  Han and Chewy are back to their delightful bickering and Rey and Finn have some pretty impressive comedic chops.

My critique of this movie may be significantly muddied by the people sitting around us (more about them, later), but the more overt connections to the original movies were, I think, a bit heavy handed.  Each time a character or theme from the original series was introduced, they handled it like one of those “big reveals” on those home makeover shows.  The first one absolutely got me (the reveal of the Millennium Falcon — I might have cheered involuntarily), but after that, they seemed disruptive, snapping me out of my suspended disbelief.  Han Solo and Chewy!  Cheer!  R2D2!  Cheer!  C3P0! (Tepid cheer.)  I’m not sure how they could have done it any better, but it felt staged — like a comedian explaining his jokes.  And then there was the basic story line, which was never very inventive in the first place. We have more evil Darth Vader types, a sinister politician, a big super weapon, and noble resistance fighters.  It’s a good story — I like it, but sometimes it felt like they weren’t even trying to think outside the box.  When the resistance fighters (including Fishhead Admiral Ackbar!  Cheer!) gather around the hologram of the “Death Planet,” they find a weakness, of course, and it’s not alot different than the “exhaust port” weakness they found in the original Death Star.  As Han tells them what they must do (surprise, surprise, hit the new exhaust port) his non-verbals are almost apologetic: “Sorry people — you know what’s coming. No real point in going over this one again — it’s just like the first movie — but I suppose it needs to be said.  We’re hitting that exhaust port thingee or whatever it is…okay?”

(he seemed to have a twinkle in his eye)

Despite these hiccups, I enjoyed the movie.  I went with my adult son and a college buddy and his boys who happened to be passing through town. It was dangerous to invite them (our sons had never met, they might have hated Star Wars, or worse, they might have pretended that they liked it) but we took our chances.  My son was delighted to find out that my buddy’s sons had not only watched all the originals in preparation, but that their only stipulation was that we arrive early enough to watch “all of the previews.” My son said, “I like these guys.”

I was feeling a bit of boyish enthusiasm, too, but enthusiasm seems qualitatively different than what the people around us were feeling. The people around us were feeling… feeling… I don’t know what they were feeling. Hysteria?  Religious frenzy? Group psychosis?

Instead of the typical movie chatter, people yapped from beginning to end.  The couple sitting behind us were particularly obnoxious with a Captain Obvious kind of running commentary: “They are battling each other!”  “She’s using the Force!” “They are getting on the ship! “Oh sh**!  Oh sh**! Oh sh**!”  The people in front of us were holding full discussions and convulsing with excitement.

Let me explain: The Stewarts and Stephens cousins lay claim to having invented the finger scramble.  The finger scramble is a physical expression of excitement or joy that you might experience when opening a big Christmas present, when getting ready to leave on vacation, or upon hearing that Heath Ledger isn’t actually dead (my daughters would finger scramble that one, anyway).  I made a video to demonstrate finger scrambling, but I haven’t figured out how to post videos to wordpress, yet so this will have to do; you put the tips of your fingers together and enthusiastically wiggle them. You can finger scramble with another person too — it’s surprisingly satisfying.

(I think the people at this wedding might have been sitting in front of us.)

The people in front of us were doing entire body scrambles — it wasn’t just nerd behavior, it was practically cultic. There were 15-20 people (adults, chronologically anyway) who apparently knew each other.  In the anticipation of the beginning of the movie, they all linked arms and grabbed and grasped at each other and patted each other and bobbed up and down and whispered and squealed and glanced back and forth as if they were 7th grade girls waiting for an appearance by Justin Bieber.  They didn’t just squeal at the big reveals, either, they squealed when the screen went dark, they squealed when the opening “Star Wars” logo appeared on the screen, they squealed when the opening crawl started rolling… I thought they would never stop squealing.  I shushed them once.  My buddy thought it was all an act, but the four guys right in front of us kept fawning over each other and actually sat on the edge of their seats (not just metaphorically, but literally) for 75% of the movie. The five of us were a little creeped out.

It’s old news to talk about big time college and professional athletics as  religious experience.   All humans are religious and if we don’t worship God, we will find something else to deify.  We are happy to transfer our glory, laud, and honor to something banal, like guys running around with a pigskin while wearing helmets and tights.  But I’d never seen it at a movie theater before.   Had Harrison Ford walked into our theater and said (like Tim Allen did in “Galaxy Quest”), “It’s all real!” the people sitting around us would have shouted, “WE BELIEVE!!!!!”

So I recommend the movie, but wait till the fanatics have had their fill. You’ll have to risk hearing an accidental spoiler or two on your social media feed, but maybe in a week or two all the true believers will be at home playing with their Star Wars action figures and lamenting the long wait until the next sequel.

(Darth Vader 2.0)

 

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