January 04, 2016

A few brief notes on The Force Awakens

Star Wars was awesome, man.  It is my favorite Star Wars movie, in fact for me it's really the only Star Wars movie, because it is awesome.  

What made it awesome?  This has been overthought.

Obviously, the action played a role, but there are lots of bang bang movies, and as Ebert noted in 1977, "there's hardly any violence at all in Star Wars (and even then it's presented as essentially bloodless swashbuckling)."

The plot?  Nah.  Ebert:  "The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas." Canby:  "The story of "Star Wars" could be written on the head of a pin and still leave room for the Bible."

The characters?  Well, as beloved as the original characters have become, no one really thought of them as well-developed at the time.  In hindsight, Lucas got good performances from three rookie actors, and the vets Guinness and Cushing did a great job.

Star Wars won no Oscars for stunts, script, or acting (Guinness nominated).  It did win Oscars for:

  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Sound
  • Best Effects, Visual Effects
  • Best Music, Original Score
These really did set the film apart at the time, and helped make it such an immersive experience.  Canby:
The true stars of "Star Wars" are John Barry, who was responsible for the production design, and the people who were responsible for the incredible special effects--space ships, explosions of stars, space battles, hand-to-hand combat with what appear to be lethal neon swords. 

True as far as it goes, and it is good to see Jodorowsky getting his due after all these years.  

But I say Star Wars would have been successful even if the special effects had been a little less spectacular.  I say you could have made the movie with Star Trek TOS special effects and still gotten a great movie.  Why?  Because of that other thing they got an Oscar for:

Best Film Editing

Best Film Editing

Best Film Editing

The genius of Star Wars, which to this day remains unsurpassed (I guess, probably...I don't know, I don't see many movies), lies in its pacing, its steady escalation, its ability to always find another gear and keep surprising the viewer until the big explosion at the end.  

The other movies in the franchise don't have this.  My sophisticated movie friends enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back, but I had trouble staying enthused; by the time Return of the Jedi came around, with its wampas and walkers and woodland creatures, I really felt Lucas had lost the thread.  And I wished that, some day - some day! - they would quit catering to the toy market and make another movie that moved the way Star Wars did.

The Force Awakens is that movie.

There are a hundred things I didn't care for in The Force Awakens, but who cares.  Ebert wrote this in 1977:

Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When the ESP people use a phrase like that, they're referring to the sensation of the mind actually leaving the body and spiriting itself off to China or Peoria or a galaxy far, far away. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it's up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them. 
"Star Wars" works like that. 
And so does The Force Awakens.  The editing is there, the pacing is there, and the story rushes forward, punctuated by fights, explosions, wisecracks, and the diverting conniptions of the most punchable dark lord ever to grace the silver screen.

Of course, despite superior special effects and pretty good acting, The Force Awakens cannot quite match the original.  Much has been recaptured, but not all. There are stretches where detachment and analytical reserve go missing, but they do drop in from time to time.  Both Ebert and Canby used the word "innocent" in describing the original movie, but we cannot use that word anymore.  We know too much now, there's too much fucking backstory.  Mandalorians, midichlorians, shaddupalorians.

Abrams and Disney have been criticized for The Force Awakens' debt to the original Star Wars, as if it were wrong to copy the biggest movie ever made, as if just anyone could remake that film, as if no one has tried.  It brings to mind C.S. Lewis' response to Eliot's criticism of Hamlet:  
If this is failure, then failure is better than success. We want more of these 'bad plays'.
Or to paraphrase Barry Goldwater, imitation of perfection is no vice.  More, please.


Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

I don't strongly disagree with what you wrote, but I have to say that The Force Awakens was only the second-best of the two movies I saw in a theater in 2015. It was also the second-best franchise sequel/reboot I saw last year. The best was Mad Max: Fury Road.

January 5, 2016 at 9:20 AM  

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