Goofy idea postponed yet again (at this rate I may never do it!) because, as you may have seen on the Twitter, later last week I was finally one of the last sentient creatures roaming the surface of the planet to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m gonna ramble on about that a little bit today. In the interests of the last few entities wandering around out there who haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m going to keep this as spoiler-free as I can, including especially the part where Jabba the Hutt turns out to be the new head of the Jedi.
One of the interesting things in waiting so long (in the safe damp darkness underneath the rock where I live) to see the movie was that I got to see a bunch of reactions to it before I went myself. Overall the tone of these seemed to be positive, although there is/was a significant minority of negative outcry as well. So I was ever so slightly sceptical as the stupid preshow smartphone games and previews finally ended and the iconic Crawl O’Text began to make its stately way up the screen.
My first reaction, honestly, was relief. Star Wars was back.
I should explain. Through my teens and into my early twenties (not quite a long, long time ago but verging upon it) I was an enormous Star Wars fan, perhaps to a somewhat excessive degree. I absolutely loved the original trilogy of films, and could have done most of the dialogue from memory. I had Star Wars posters all over my walls, played all sorts of Star Wars games, and was frequently kitted out in Star Wars t-shirts. I was deeply invested in the franchise, to say the least. Then Phantom Menace came out, and some friends and I rented out a VIP screening room to watch it on the first possible day. The movie started. I still keenly remember sitting there trying to convince myself that the movie wasn’t shit, and eventually failing. I had looked forward to a new Star Wars movie so much, and it was awful.
As a result I waited for the reviews on Attack of the Clones, heard it was shit, and so … never saw it. I never even considered seeing Revenge of the Sith. The movies sold tons of tickets so I just basically filed away Star Wars as a franchise that was no longer ‘for me’ and put it away in the ‘fond memories’ category. Time passed and I thought about Star Wars less all the time (probably a good thing) until the news started to trickle out about new movies being made, and then The Force Awakens came out.
As I said, with some scepticism I (eventually) went to see it, and again, wow, Star Wars was back. Part of it was (of course) the return of familiar characters like Han Solo and Leia, but they also just got the overall tone and feel of the movie very nearly exactly right. I’ve seen the movie criticized for ‘playing things too safe’ and being too much like the original trilogy and I guess especially A New Hope, but for me a movie that looked and felt like the Star Wars movies I had loved was exactly what was necessary. Maybe the next two movies will take more ‘risks’ but I hope they don’t do too much, because fundamentally the Star Wars setup works pretty well.
One of the things I enjoy is that you have characters who are clearly Good, if somewhat flawed at times, and characters who are clearly Evil, and the story the movie tells is essentially a conflict between these. I think part of the enduring appeal of Star Wars as a setting is its (usually) unapologetic presentation of a confrontation between Right and Wrong and an overall narrative that suggests that, in the end, evil will be defeated. I think that’s a story that twangs something very deep inside us, it’s a story we’re sort of culturally primed to like, and part of why stories like Star Wars and Robin Hood and King Arthur and Beowulf are the ones that we keep coming back to.
That’s not to say that you can’t tell a good, compelling, ‘shades of grey’ story, obviously you can and I enjoy them immensely at times. (Battlestar Galactica was almost entirely shades of grey, by the end, and it was a fantastic series) At the same time, I think that not every story needs to be grey, that there’s an undeniable appeal in a story that gives you clear Good Guys and Bad Guys.* In a lot of ways, I think we ultimately want it to be true that there are truly good forces in the world, and that in the end the bad things in our society and our world can end up being defeated.**
That’s one of the things fiction can do very well: provide an inspiring or comforting vision of the way we would like things to go in the real world, something we can look at or read and think ‘yes, this is the way it should be‘. Perhaps it can be that way in the real world. Perhaps we can make it that way. I think, at times, fiction can be an aspirational text, the goal we’re aiming for, and in a very loose way Star Wars can be that for some people. Certainly I think there are examples there that can excite, motivate, and inspire you, if you let them.
I think that was part of the reason that teenage me got so into Star Wars. It was an ultimately positive vision, and I tend to like those. As I’ve said before, right now I think we get more than enough examples of it being difficult to find unproblematically good figures in the world and plenty of examples of what is wrong going unconfronted or uncorrected that it’s nice to not get that in my fiction as well. I think the new movie, in this particular way and in a lot of others, remembers what was really fun and good and enjoyable about the first trilogy of films and gives it back to you. I guess you could say that’s not very daring or ambitious, but I think it’s also very welcome.
Ok, I’ve already written a lot about this movie and I’m not going to go on very much more about it, but I want to address one of the most loudly-expressed objections to what we got in The Force Awakens at least a little.
I read a lot of criticisms of Rey’s character prior to watching the movie, primarily that she is a ‘Mary Sue’ – (briefly) one of those (often very annoying) characters who have every special talent, can do everything and handle anything. In my opinion, it doesn’t hold up. Rey does get to do a lot of cool things in the movie and is at the forefront of most of the action. However, that’s because she’s what we call the main character, or the star of the show. So of course she’s leading the way, that’s what main characters do. You can’t go into (say) an Indiana Jones movie and complain that Indy does everything; that’s what protagonists or main characters do.
<Gonna get slightly spoiler-y here for a second>
Rey also does exhibit a fairly wide range of talents, although again in part that’s just a hero being a hero. However, even by the movie’s internal logic, they make sense. She’s good at fixing starships because she’s been taking them apart her whole life. Presumably that’s also why she has an idea of how to pilot one; she’s done the equivalent of growing up in an enormous junkyard and therefore having a basic sense of what to do with a car. She turns out to be really good at it because of the Force. I mean, you can hate that as an explanation but it’s imbedded in the Star Wars setting. Luke was a great starfighter pilot with no training because of the Force and does probably 98% of the things he can do because of Space Magic. Same deal with Rey, in fact if there is a criticism here it’s that it’s quite so close to Luke’s story.
<spoilery stuff ends>
I suspect some of the criticism of Rey comes from people trying to justify being unhappy with a female lead. That’s immensely disappointing and distressing, for reasons that I trust I don’t have to lay out here. She’s a great character, well acted by Daisy Ridley, and I’m already looking forward to the next part of her story.
All right, that really is it for this week, except to say that if you are one of the remaining sentiences out there on the planetary crust who hasn’t yet seen The Force Awakens, I’d recommend it as a good time. Thank you for indulging what became a more than slightly bloated, fanboy-ish gush of a post. Normal service will resume next week.
* – Yes, of course I’m aware that it’s possible to problematize Star Wars by thinking about innocent bystanders on the Death Star and that ordinary citizens might possibly like the order provided by the Empire and so on. I think it’s clear, though, that this isn’t the vision the story is intending you to pick up. It’s fun to read against texts and unravel things, of course, but you also have to be aware that that’s what you’re doing.
** – Avoiding spoilers, but of course in the original trilogy and in this new movie these victories don’t come without various kinds of sacrifice. That’s generally the way the narrative goes in these kinds of story though, isn’t it, and (without getting too anthropological) I think it’s another useful part of the message. Evil can be defeated, but not trivially, not without commitment. That’s one of those things that you sense is true as soon as it’s suggested to you.