(A much-delayed review.)
We watched Star Wars Episodes IV, V, and VI over and over and over again. I was probably 5, or 6, or 8, and it feels like that’s all I ever saw, curled up on the grey couch in our low-ceilinged basement. Outside, suburban Seattle drizzled and traffic lights crawled. In the basement, though, we had adventure: X-wing fighter pilots on the move, snowstorms on Hoth, Princess Leia in her infamous golden bikini. Would I have chosen to watch these movies if my brother hadn’t monopolized the VCR? Probably not. But movies exert a magic, no matter if you intend to like them or not, and these ones became the fabric of my childhood.
Episode 1: The Phantom Menace came out in the year 2000; I was 9. Too young to be bothered either with Hayden Christensen’s relative level of hotness or the horror of Jar Jar Binks (and cringeworthy acting), I was more consumed with the spectacles of femininity I took in from Queen Amidala: her arresting lipstick choice (that stripe!), the stiff pageantry of her costume. I convinced my parents that I MUST be her for Halloween. I hunted down the appropriate costume, I wore a headdress, I painted my lips as best I could. As usual I spent the night sprinting door to door through the steady rain, costume obscured by a raincoat, hair and makeup increasingly disheveled. That summer, I went to space camp.
But although I had a thing for the Princess and the Queen and space travel, it turned out I wasn’t a Star Wars fangirl after all. I missed Episodes II and III. Life went on. I became preoccupied with more earthly endeavors—ballet, books, going to the beach.
Then signs of Episode VII: The Force Awakens began to emerge this fall, and even though I could barely remember the name of Luke’s home planet, I too felt that nostalgic tug to the Force. Preparation for full re-immersion commenced. (I wanted to watch all 6 movies chronologically, but iTunes rental is $20 a pop, so I sprang for Episodes III and Episodes IV—a mix of new and old, the introduction and conclusion of both sets of plot lines.) The re-watching was a bit boring, a bit painful. The old Star Wars turn out to be surface stories: all (simple) plot and no feeling. The highs (destroying the Death Star) are not made real by the lows (Anakin murdering all the Jedi trainees; Luke losing the only family and home he’s known; Vader blowing up Leia’s home planet due to her resistance). Grief and complexity have no place in the Star Wars universe; it’s a world of motion and momentum. That’s why the Episode IV scene of Luke looking out at the double sunset—one of the only moments of quietude in the entire series—stands apart, is so loved.
So on to Episode VII. It’s a more human movie. It’s a mash-up of all the previous character archetypes and plotlines. It’s basically Episode IV with better visuals and slightly better writing.
But when a nameless Stormtrooper smeared a handprint of bright red blood on the pristine white helmet of his comrade, my brother—seated next to me as we watched in the movie theater—whispered, “That’s the first time they’ve ever shown blood in Star Wars.” I felt a little thrill. In adulthood, it is the darkness in a movie that calls to me. Star Wars has never been truly dark, and has never made its own contrived darkness feel anything other than empty. (Whether that was an attempt to stay PG or a reflection of George Lucas’s own tendency to humor over depth is unclear.) Here, though, was a flash of pain that felt probable. So when the same Stormtrooper later removes his helmet in distress, it’s a sign: behind the smooth, hardened exteriors of our notions of good and evil, light and dark, lie consciences that agitate under the strictures of these stark narrative contrasts. Thank God. This iteration of the Force is flexible.
Because movie audiences today are not satisfied with just sharp plot and shocking special effects. No: we want sharp plot and shocking special effects undergirded by a grittiness, enhanced (and not undermined) by the realism of emotional depth. We want to be convinced that danger is real, that love is complex, that pain is present. All too often, our own lives clip along in the smooth, stifled tones of an Instagram filter, a muted routine of nameless gyms and neutral office desks, darkened bars and sterile apartments. Texts and small talk. Takeout and two-night-stands. In our blockbuster entertainment, then, we ask for vivid, messy color. We ask for consequences.
In The Force Awakens, the consequences are clear (perhaps, even, too clear). There are enough familiar faces to keep fans filled with nostalgia, enough shakeups to give us new heroes to admire, laugh with, root for. A new droid whose beeps elicit the kind of emotion I usually save for cute puppies. A new strong female protagonist to inspire the next generation of girls—and this time no golden bikini to bother with. A new baddie to rally against. The beats are the same, just better.
But is “better” good enough? It’s been discussed in critiques and reviews ad nauseum, and as time has softened the hype, consensus is that it will do. Nothing groundbreaking, just part of a science fiction continuum.
Is there even such a thing as an “original” story anymore? It’s hard to know what that would even look like.