To say that I have been a lifelong Star Wars fan is something of an understatement. My family grew up with the films. I played with the Kenner toys. One of my second cousins actually worked at 20th Century Fox, so I saw an early Empire Strikes Back screening, had an “Meet the Ewoks” press kit, and still have the original movie posters.
Growing up, my relationship with the series took a different turn. I got to meet, and in some cases, hang out with many of the cast members. I went to a film premiere of Episode I and dinner with some of the cast. I got to hang out with Mark Hamill at a party. Peter Mayhew introduced me to his wife when I ran into him again some years later at a convention. I didn’t just love the films, I got to experience them on a different level.
That’s not to say that I didn’t lose faith in the series for a while.
The 1997 Special Editions introduced questionable and dated CG changes. No matter what revisions these films tried to push, Han Solo would always the one that shot first (and impact of that action should not have been lessened as it only crippled the initial growth of the character). Then the Prequel films with their clunky dialogue, bland direction, and wooden performances pulled out of a really talented cast (an accomplishment in itself) wore on my cinematic senses with every subsequent installment. To further the annoyances of this era, each home video release brought more unnecessary and ridiculous changes, littering practical effects with CG laden gloss, and a Episode III-level “Noooooo” added in for Darth Vader in the last revision of Return of the Jedi seemed to be just one more middle finger from George Lucas to the fans.
I feared that I had outgrown these films, and this was no longer a series for me.
It wasn’t until I reluctantly gave The Clone Wars series a try years later that I believed that something interesting could be created from these characters and storylines. Disney bought the series in 2012, and released Rebels, which felt more Star Wars than anything else had in recent years. When the announcement that a seventh chapter would be released, reuniting the original cast with a new one, and more practical effects gave me cautious hope for this one. In a “Year of Star Wars“, would 2015 lead up to one amazing and defining moment to celebrate the granddaddy of great popcorn flicks?
Oh, yes. It most definitely did.
Though missing the original 20th Century Fox fanfare, the large titles and sweeping John Williams score filled the theater for the first time in a decade. Viewers were immediately drawn to new characters of Poe, Finn, Rey, and BB-8. Personally, I thought the new cast was wonderful. John Boyega (Finn) and Daisy Ridley (Rey) have spent the last year being “mega fans” themselves, right alongside the audience, and it’s been interesting watching them come out of nowhere to lead one of the rapidly growing highest grossing film of all time. Oscar Isaac added a sense of natural levity to the film (something again missing from the Prequels), and watching Finn grow from an AWOL Stormtrooper fumbling along as he learns to think for himself, and the tough, yet vulnerable Rey made me warm up to these characters. As an actual practical effect, BB-8 had a sense of fun personality, reminding me more of a loyal dog devoted to his master. I missed the humor aspects of Star Wars. I was glad to find some quotable lines again.
There’s also the matter of Kylo Ren, the new Darth Vader wannabe in this new trilogy, and in the truest sense of the description. Many critics have found him too “emo” for his seeming temper tantrums and insecurities. I actually found him more complex and interesting than expected. Here is a character that for whatever reason desperately wants to be “bad”. And yet he lacks a sense of self control, and in many cases, shows signs of mental instability. Considering his lineage, his motives are even more unclear. He is a complex character, one that I want to know more about, and by the end of the film, I grew to hate his villainy. An effective mark of a successful villain.
There’s also the matter of what I call “fan service”: The original trilogy elements. I felt a certain sense of childlike glee at seeing the Millennium Falcon take to the skies again, as well as the reintroduction of Han Solo and Chewbacca. For someone who claimed to not like the role of Han Solo, Harrison Ford slipped effortlessly back into the part, something I wasn’t sure how the role’s return would be handled considering how seemingly tired and “off” his characterization of Indiana Jones was back in 2008. This is perhaps one of Ford’s best acting performances in years. As the film progressed, Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2, and eventually Luke graced the screen once again, and it wasn’t handled as a cameo or a simple shout out. Each had their role in the film, whether for several scenes or just a few minutes. But this was definitely Han Solo’s film. For me, it felt like a reunion with old friends, and in retrospect given my personal adventures over the years, it actually was.
The film was fast-paced with plenty of action scenes and space battles. Lucas had derided the film as being “too retro” and how Star Wars “was never about the spaceships”, which is laughable considering how he managed to cram CG craft into practically every single scene of the Prequels, in addition to the numerous retroactive edits of the original trilogy. Seeing actors interact with props, sets, and actual locations helped make the galaxy seem more real again.
There were some genuine heartbreaking moments as well. As I delve into “spoiler” territory, there is a horrible realization that the “happy ending” of Return of the Jedi, with the heroes cheering together was never meant to last. The connection of Luke, Han and Leia to Kylo Ren’s past destroyed everything that they worked for, broke apart a family, and sent the three heroes on their separate ways. Jedi‘s ending canonically is now a temporary lie. And in Han Solo’s attempt to reconcile with a lost son, the smuggler who spent a life managing to escape everything, let his guard down in an act of vulnerability, and paid the price for it. No one likes losing their childhood heroes.
Were there flaws to the film? Of course. Some have called the film a “reboot” (when it most certainly is not) due to its familiarity to the original 1977 film. This looks to have been done intentionally, and not out of laziness. This is Disney’s way of reassuring the fans that they are “back to basics” after nearly two decades worth of needless additions and revisions alongside flat storylines and acting. The series needed to get back on track, blending familiar territory with new storylines, new characters, new questions… and I’d argue that it had to be done. There is a lot to ask about the past and future, and none of these answers have been revealed yet.
Not that it all worked perfectly. I am surprised that the New Order (and by proxy, the filmmakers) went with “Starkiller Base”, which in effect is a third Death Star (with the first two attempts obviously having worked so incredibly well for them). Another disappointment was the much hyped character of Captain Phasma. For all the build-up casting hype of Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie, Phasma joined both Darth Maul and Boba Fett in the category of “cool looking, but effectively useless villains” (and yes, I know their backstories are far more interesting in expanded content. I’m speaking cinematically).
The film ends on a cliffhanger; a meaningful and powerful shot that won’t be answered for at least another year and a half. And once again, we are faced with questions. “Less is more” in the film, which in turn opens up discussions like these. My own thought is that both Han and Luke know exactly who Rey is, because you could see the sudden familiarity in their eyes, and these moments were subtle, but intentional. There is also a hint of Han being asked twice in the film “Who is Rey/what’s her story”, and that answer was cut away from before he could answer to the audience. Again, the long and expository dialogue of the Prequels isn’t here to spell out things, and it leaves people room to talk. And wonder.
So ultimately, we’re left with a great film with likable leads, old friends, a return to form, and a lot of questions. Hopefully we’ll get some of these answers when the eighth story releases, and now that Disney has established its attempt at goodwill with returning to familiar themes, I’m ready to see where the new story threads will take the viewer next without the comforts of familiarity guiding them. Luke Skywalker has much to answer.
For two hours, I was reminded of the impact of how a galaxy far, far away has intertwined itself in my life, and got to revisit both old friends and fond memories.
Not bad for $12.