not in our stars, but in ourselves
Before you even think about reading this review, here are a couple of caveats. I am no monster, and I have no intention of providing any major spoilers. Nevertheless, it might be a good idea for you to hold off reading this until you’ve seen the movie. This should be common sense, but you know what they say about how uncommon that really is. Besides, I’d hate to ruin anyone’s fun by inadvertently mentioning something that they would have preferred to experience for the first time while sitting in a theatre – and so, if you think you’d rather avoid knowing anything at all, about anything to do with anything that happens during any of the two hours and fifteen minutes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I’d recommend closing this tab and doing something else instead. Like going to the movie theatre.
All right. Everyone who’s here has seen it? Good. Let’s get going.
I’ll begin even before the beginning: when my boyfriend and I arrived at AMC Loews Boston Common 19, at about 7:45 p.m. Our show was at 9:00 p.m., and while we knew we’d have to get there early, I personally was amazed by the throngs of people. For those of you who know this theatre, you know that it’s on Tremont Street, across from the Boylston T stop. The line of people waiting outside in the rain stretched from the doors of the theatre, down Tremont Street to Boylston Street, back up the other side of Tremont Street, and petered out somewhere around (or just beyond) the T stop. Fortunately for us – and especially for my impatience – they were letting people in 90 minutes before their screening was set to start. We were therefore able to wait inside, among the rest of the 9:00 crowd. Now, I’m certainly passionate about plenty of things, but none of them have the kind of following that the Star Wars franchise has. Very few of the people I saw looked like they were old enough to have been alive when the original trilogy was released: the average age had to have been 22 or so. It’s a sign of something that even the disaffected youths of the ’80s and ’90s (plus some definite teens and tweens, born sometime in the ’00s – oh god) have latched onto a film series that has, somehow or other, resonated deeply with millions of people from all generations, despite dated special effects, despite some questionable directing, despite hokey dialogue, despite – or because of – everything. It was really quite lovely, when the trailers finally ended, to hear the cheers and applause when the traditional prologue, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” arose on the screen. We’ve become awfully cynical, collectively, and it was quite heartening to be among so many people who were so unabashedly enthusiastic to see the next chapter in the saga.
And so, onto that saga. Approximately thirty years after the events of The Return of the Jedi, the galaxy is a very different place. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) disappeared without a trace, and both the Resistance – aided by the Republic – and the First Order – aided by the Dark Side, basically – are anxious to find him. He’s the last Jedi left, and the First Order wants to eliminate him. Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) finds a map leading to Luke’s whereabouts, but he’s forced to store it in his BB-8 droid before he’s captured and tortured. BB-8 goes bumbling into the desert of Jakku, where he’s rescued from a parts collector by Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s been waiting on Jakku since she was a child, hoping her family would come back for her, and barely keeping body and soul together in the meantime. After his torture, Poe is liberated by Stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega), who’s determined to get out of the killing business and run away somewhere, anywhere. He needs a pilot, so he takes Poe. The two become brothers in arms pretty quickly, and Poe renames FN-2187 Finn. Finn is happy to help, but not happy to return to Jakku. Poe insists: he needs to retrieve BB-8 and bring it back to Resistance headquarters. They crash on Jakku, and Finn seems to be the sole survivor. He trudges along and eventually encounters Rey and BB-8. When it becomes clear that the First Order is after BB-8 – and them, by extension – they just manage to escape. From there, it’s onto all kinds of battles between good and evil, of brushes with the Force, of planetary collapse, and of daddy issues – mainly those of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the man who would be Vader.
You know, it’s funny. The harshest critiques of The Force Awakens have been, I think, from hard-core Star Wars nerds. As one example: when my boyfriend and I were leaving the theatre, we were accosted by a fellow audience member – one carrying a lightsaber – who asked us what we thought. My boyfriend said, without any hesitation, that he’d loved it. The fan seemed taken aback, and he immediately told us that he had “very mixed feelings” about it. I wonder if the entire franchise hasn’t been so mythologized and revered that some of the more hard-core fans have a difficult time sitting back, relaxing, and just letting themselves enjoy a couple of hours of fun sci-fi. It is fun. The Force Awakens recaptures the excitement and action that the original trilogy, in turn, had recaptured from old Hollywood serials. This is a movie made for the purpose of entertaining as many people as possible. If that means it loses points for “fan service,” well, that’s just too bad. The entire cast – from the newcomers (Ridley, Boyega, Driver, Isaac) to the returning vets (Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher) to the smaller but important roles (Max von Sydow as a village elder, Lupita Nyong’o’s motion-captured face as a pirate queen) – is as game as can be. There are jokes! Gags! Thrills! It really does preserve an endearingly old-school quality, all while looking fresh and new and faultless.
And about that cast! J.J. Abrams was smart to hire two relative unknowns as Rey and Finn. For one thing, Ridley and Boyega are terrific, and their relationship onscreen is often adorable: where we had the three-way flirting among Luke, Leia, and Han in the original trilogy, we have Finn with an obvious crush and Rey with a growing appreciation for his courage and loyalty. It’s sweet, and Ridley and Boyega play it beautifully. If it blossoms into romance in the next two films (because of course there will be two more films), I won’t roll my eyes as hard as I usually do at these things. However, it’s smart to cast two lower-profile actors in these pivotal roles because it allows us to focus solely on what they’re bringing to the characters as characters. This will make them stars, of course, but there’s no “star quality” to distract us from the film. The story hews closely to Rey and Finn’s experiences, and I feel that those experiences would have been poorly served by two celebrities. Most importantly, though: they’re both really good. As a feminist, too, I am compelled to add that it was a massive relief to see a central character who was female, but who wasn’t A Female Character. She was a human. She wasn’t sexualized, or gaslit, or treated as inferior because of her gender; she was just a kickass person. Other nerd writers, take note.
Now, here’s the thing. I did enjoy the movie very much. It’s well worth the $12 to see it in a theatre; it was all well done; the performances were delightful; BB-8 is basically a robot puppy and I want 12 of them (plus about three real puppies for each droid); and so on. However, I do feel a deep, yawning pit of ennui whenever I see twists and turns that leave us hanging on the edge of a cliff until the next sequel. I find that style of filmmaking dishonest and boring, but it seems to be the only way to do these big-budget sci-fi/fantasy/superhero movies nowadays. The Force Awakens didn’t handle those wait-until-the-sequel! cliffhangers any worse than any other franchise; indeed, it handled them rather well, all things considered. But I hate them. I am old-fashioned, and I am a fuddy-duddy, and I find something reprehensible in the concept of spending however many hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie that’s designed to guarantee enough return on investment to justify spending additional hundreds of millions of dollars on another movie that’s designed to guarantee enough return on investment to justify, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum, ad infinitum. I’m not opposed to sequels at all, but I think the events in one movie – not the box office – should be the reason for another chapter. If the cliffhangers were removed or altered in The Force Awakens, the film could still have led to a sequel – but it wouldn’t have been begging the question so recklessly. Alas, these are the means of production. Fossils like me just have to accept it, or else stick with TCM.
I don’t want to have to do that, because as I say: I did have fun. I’m glad I saw it on opening night, when the fans were clamoring to see the new baby. I’m glad it’s made a star of Ridley and Boyega, and that it’s given the delectable Oscar Isaac an even higher profile. (My boyfriend claims I squealed when Poe first appeared onscreen. Entirely possible. Have you seen him?! Poe DAMNeron, more like. He is A Handsome, and I enjoy looking at his dreamy face.) Not all the dialogue was great, but I won’t hold that against it. I won’t even hold the obvious setup for a new cinematic universe against it: that’s the industry, incorporated in this case by the Disney juggernaut. The Force Awakens is just one movie, asking us to like it, and I sure did.