It’s been fun and a little frustrating, as the decades pass and “Star Wars” fandom changes, to view the movie series and everything associated with it from the perspective of an original fan.
There are millions of “Star Wars” fans who never saw the original trilogy in a theater, like I did, and didn’t know what it was like to wait three years to see if Darth Vader really was Luke Skywalker’s father. In today’s world of continually-in-production genre fare, from Marvel’s movies and TV series to now Disney’s “Star Wars” sequels and spin-offs, there’s never ever again going to be years of wandering in the wilderness, wondering what was happening with the characters and story you enjoyed. Want a “Star Wars” fix before Episode 8? Well, you can see Episode 7 again in theaters now, of course, and you’ll be able to watch it on disc and streaming in a few months and you can keep in touch with the extended Skywalker family through animated and, someday, live-action shows on TV.
So it was fun to watch as the younger crowd caught onto the saga – unfortunately for them, sometimes via the prequel trilogy – and went back and discovered what had come before and made it their own.
Thats the best thing about the strongest genre stories, of course: That with decades of history, fans of “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” or any other series or movie or book or heck, I dunno, audio drama like the newly produced “Doctor Who” audio episodes, fans can jump in at almost any starting point.
It’s also frustrating because it’s easy to get spoiled and forget (I promise this isn’t a “get off my lawn” rant) that the genre – science fiction and fantasy and horror and comic-book-based shows and movies – hasn’t always been such a huge part of pop culture. I remember well getting odd looks (not from my family, thank god) and hostile comments for my avid consumption of genre fiction going back 50 years.
Now it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t consume some kind of genre work, from TV’s highly-rated “The Walking Dead” to HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Who that has Netflix didn’t have an opinion on “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones?”
As I’ve said before, my son knows Batman and Wonder Woman and Finn and Kylo Ren and Captain America and Black Widow as much from their constant cover appearances on the magazines we subscribe to as much – more, really – than their source material.
So what started out as an entry about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which I saw last night, has turned into a rumination on pop culture and waiting and not having to wait.
While one of my first thoughts about “TFA” was that it felt like old-school “Star Wars,” almost to the point that it felt as if it had been shot back-to-back with “The Empire Strikes Back” in the late 1970s, fans won’t have to wait forever, like we did back in the day, to see it again or get at least hints of what happens next time.
That’s good, because “TFA” has me wanting more, and I’m not sure I expected it to.
Don’t get me wrong. While the prequel trilogy left me mostly cold, the original trilogy left adolescent me in high anticipation of what would happen next.
“Star Wars” (later dubbed “A New Hope”) was a high-water mark, right up there with “Jaws” two years earlier, in moviegoing. It didn’t have much contemporary competition for the love and loyalties of fans. While “Close Encounters” was released a few months later, the other genre movies of 1977 didn’t have much to offer fans. I mean, seriously: “Damnation Alley?” “Island of Doctor Moreau?”
By May 1980, my friends and I were standing in line outside a 900-seat Indianapolis theater to see “The Empire Strikes Back.” We repeated that three years later with “Return of the Jedi.”
You’ll never know how long three years could seem.
So while I wasn’t avidly anticipating “TFA,” I was looking forward to it. Not quite as much as your average new Marvel movie, to be honest. When I turned out 90 minutes early for “TFA” last night, it was less about eagerness and more about not wanting to sit someplace where people would cough on the back of my head.
That worked out pretty well and so did the movie.
“The Force Awakens” did everything it set out to do. Maybe a little imitative of the original movie – secrets hidden in a droid, family estrangements to the extreme, intercut X-Wing and lightsaber battles – but director J.J. Abrams could do a lot worse than use that same template.
(I’ll go very light on the spoilers here, by the way.)
As anybody who has read this far knows, “TFA” takes up 30 or so years after “Return of the Jedi.” I think the most interesting thing about this choice, besides the fact it lets actors like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher play Han and Leia in totally sensical aging mode, is that the story lets us know that the events of that time – Luke’s defeat of the Emperor with help from his father, Darth Vader – have almost faded into the stuff of myth. The names Skywalker and Solo are familiar but hazily-remembered by people on isolated planets who heard stories told not second-hand but hundredth-hand.
So while the movie very rightly so focuses on a new generation of characters like Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the “old” cast is introduced gradually. Very gradually, in some cases.
There are callbacks and references to the events of the original story, with little jokes about Han’s troubles as a smuggler and the prowess or not of the Millennium Falcon, but there’s no doubt the movie is carried by and its heart is greatly invested in Finn and Rey and Kylo Ren.
There’s a great part for Harrison Ford as Han Solo and a number of old favorite characters are back, but this is the story of the new characters and it serves them very well. The movie is a series of funny scenes followed by thrilling scenes followed by heartfelt scenes followed by huge spectacle and it all really works.
When George Lucas’ “Star Wars” came out, people commented on it’s “lived-in universe” feel. The prequels, set at an earlier time, felt too scuff-free to me. Too full of palaces and pristine rooms and opera houses where at least it seemed understandable, if not desirable, to hear about trade delegations and midichlorians.
The new movie covers some familiar geography, from a desert planet to a snow-covered planet to one that turns out not to be a moon or even a Death Star but a big honkin’ Starkiller. But it plays with the iconography. There are Imperial Walkers, those lumbering, four-footed transport vehicles, and Star Destroyers but they’re as often as not half-buried where they fell after some long-ago battle.
I wonder if some of these settings, some of these moments, will become as iconic as those from the original films have become. There’s an enormous interior, with one of those dizzying catwalks that the “Star Trek” spoof “Galaxy Quest” made fun of, that sees one of the movie’s most dramatic confrontations played out. I’m already wanting to get another chance to peer into its darkest depths but know that I won’t be able to look away from the drama being played out in the foreground.
I’ve mentioned the main characters but a quick word about some of the secondary characters. And that word is: they all feel right, from Oscar Isaac’s pilot Poe Dameron to Fisher’s General Leia Organa to Lupita N’Yongo’s mysterious Maz. The prequels stuck us with main and secondary characters that never felt right. I’d go so far to say that “TFA” has a better supporting cast than the main cast of the prequels.
Still, there’s a lot about “The Force Awakens” that remains a mystery to me after just one viewing. What’s the story of Chrome Stormtrooper Captain Phasma? What about the spooky visions in the junky little room where Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber was stored? (They made me think of the creepy Dagobah cave/tree in “Empire” where Luke confronts the Dark Side and his destiny.)
What will happen after that sad and thrilling final scene?
So many questions, or at least intriguing mysteries. I don’t know if they’ll be answered in Episode 8, which will continue this story.
I do know, however, that we won’t have to wait three years this time. Disney has scheduled the next sequel for May 26, 2017. And less than two years is better than three. After all, who wants to wait anymore?