On Star Wars: The Force Awakens

It is impossible for you to have missed the fact that there is a new Star Wars movie coming out. Even for a holiday (shopping) season, the advertising blitz is tremendous. Brands like Subway and Cover Girl have jumped on the bandwagon, there are newly written novels retelling the classic trilogy and even one fruit vendor has Star Wars-branded oranges. I walked past a table at a Chapters recently that was covered in entirely new Star Wars material. Not that merchandising is new to Star Wars, but now that Lucasfilm (the owner of Star Wars) is owned by Disney, the merchandising has ascended to, well, Disney levels.

With all of the merchandising out there and with all of the hype surrounding this new film it is no surprise that some people are calling for the largest box office opening weekend ever. And that isn’t hard to imagine. But the question remains: will it be good?

I may need to remind you that there are actually six Star Wars movies and not just three. I may need to remind you because the second and non-classic trilogy that was released starting in 1999 with the Phantom Menace, wasn’t very good. In fact, those movies are so bad that some Star Wars fans choose not to acknowledge their existence. I myself deny the existence of Episodes I, II and half of III, and that is only because of some truly spectacular lightsaber fights in the third movie.

It is necessary here to clarify the nomenclature. The classic movies, the movies of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Darth Vader, are the middle films of a nine-part series. Although today it would probably be released over several seasons by HBO, in the 1970s the entertainment industry worked differently and what was deemed the most interesting trilogy of the series was made into three films. So the classic trilogy, which are also the films first released, are Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi in 1984. Episodes I, II and III, and entitled The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), respectively. These latter films are the non-classic trilogy and are the films that are often ignored for the sake of preserving the quality of the Star Wars cinematic universe. So it remains to be seen if the final trilogy, that is, the new trilogy coming out now – and the three additional Star Wars films that Disney is making – are not just good, but that they are good enough. And good enough in the Star Wars universe means something very particular.

This is a movie that has an incredible amount of pressure on it, not just because it heralds five more movies to come but because it is the continuation of three legendary films. These are films that are staples of pop culture references, that by all rights your parents should have shown you when you were young, not to make you a fan but to introduce you to something important, the same way they would explain what the Cold War was or why your uncle was acting that way at the last family reunion.

The challenge is that becoming an instant classic isn’t enough for this film; it has to be instantly iconic. It somehow has to be great in its own rite while also seamlessly blending with the originals. It has to have its own memorable and appropriately epic moments that cannot be forgotten. Whereas the original trilogy didn’t instantly enjoy its cult status, this one must instantly attain that status.

In facing this amount of pressure it is nearly comparable to the other Disney big ticket franchise currently putting out massive movies: Marvel. That Marvel is owned by Disney, and the success of its Avengers and the like, bodes well for Star Wars, but there are some key differences. Where Marvel and Star Wars both have iconic characters and epic action sequences, Marvel movies often meet and exceed expectations by not only being action-packed but by also being funny. Humour is almost unknown in the Star Wars films and would be at odds with the usual mood of the Star Wars universe at large. That means that there is no cheating when it comes to how this movie has to be good.

The burden for this film being good falls mostly on two people: co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and co-writer and director J.J. Abrams. Lawrence Kasdan wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, which is extremely good for The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams provides for some more interesting food for thought.

J.J. Abrams is a talented director and he loves giant twists and plots needing giant twists. While he is perhaps best known for being the writer and producer on Lost (I mentioned loving giant twists) and Super 8, he recently directed the reboot of Star Trek. But in doing so he didn’t make Star Trek films. This is because Star Trek is usually rooted in a deeper philosophy and explores interesting questions of social and moral significance. Instead what he made were two Star Wars films, films that don’t speak to greater significance but just are what they are; a mashup of mystic samurai, cowboy gunslingers and WWII-style aerial (or space) dogfighting. It is the difference between science fiction and space opera.

Abrams has shown that he is far better at the latter then the former. This is proven in his previous projects and especially in Star Trek: Into Darkness. When he turns landing on a hostile alien planet into an opportunity for a quick lovers’ quarrel with a wittiness that falls flat I cringe. But when he unveils a major plot twist at the climax of the movie that is a reversal of traditional roles for its hallowed characters in a way that is cathartic for the audience and meaningful for for the characters then I get excited. That Abrams is now directing Star Wars plays to his strengths and hopefully he can avoid contrivances and focus on clean storytelling with his signature big twist, albeit a grounded one. Star Wars is, after all, a series that revolves around a big twist. So in a very real way Abrams is the perfect director for Star Wars. But can any movie with any director be as good as this movie needs to be? The only thing that remains certain about this movie and its director is that if it is bad, J.J. Abrams will forever be known as Jar Jar Abrams. Let’s all hope that doesn’t happen.

Cover image provided by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Studio. 

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