I was seven years old went I went to see the original Star Wars. My parents and I stood in line out on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington DC along with hundreds of others, as the nation went insane for space opera. This family movie night was a rare occurrence for us. I think it was the only time we ventured out to the theater together, me my mom and dad.
Remember that this was back in the 1970’s before the age of perpetual entertainment, or distraction depending on your point of view, where we find ourselves now — an infinity of movies, games, books, and videos in the devices in our pockets. Popular entertainments were harder to come by back then, slower to roll out, and slower to catch fire with the national imagination. This was the dawning of the age of the blockbuster. Rocky, The Exorcist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman and of course Star Wars would all become crazes during the decade, touchstones of popular culture.
There’s always been marketing of course. It’s show business after all. In the beginnings of the film industry there were posters and print ads, followed by radio and television advertisements. Today the marketing is an omnipresent machine, hitting every conceivable medium non-stop. Blockbusters these days come pre-delivered simultaneously to just about everyone everywhere at the same time. We already know what we’re supposed to be interested in and fascinated by. We already know what we yearn for and fear to miss out on. So it’s practically inconceivable that you could live in any nation with electricity on planet Earth and not know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened this week. As I write this, the film has already made more than $500 million dollars during its opening four-day weekend. It’s projected that it will soon become the biggest movie of all time, eclipsing the record held by James Cameron’s Avatar and its $3.1 billion worldwide gross. The Star Wars franchise is now an intergalactic money printing press that has been running non-stop for the last forty years and will presumably continue to do so for the rest of my life – and my son’s. He’s 4 now. The life expectancy calculator says he has 79 years to go. He didn’t go with me to see this newest incarnation of the series, he’s still a little young, but I predict he’ll be in a good spot to see the next sequel. And the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that…far into this century.
Which brings us to the film itself. Let me start by saying that if you’re worried about spoilers, don’t be. I won’t be analyzing the plot specifics. Second let me say that I liked The Force Awakens, I really did. I thought it was a fun ride. If I was using an alphabetic rating scale I’d say that it was a B+. But I also couldn’t help but have an experience of near constant Déjà vu during the film’s two hours and sixteen minute run time. I had been here before it seemed.
Directed by J.J. Abrams, The Force Awakens manages to walk a tightrope of expectation, being at once entirely familiar and somehow new at the same time. Disney spent $4 billion dollars to buy the rights from George Lucas. That’s a big bet for sure. Abrams seems like the perfect choice for the reboot of this franchise since he has previously proved himself to be adept at re-energizing dated sci-fi properties, as he did with the Star Trek series which re-began in 2009. And Abrams has also demonstrated that he can be an outstanding mimic. Just as he was able to make 2011’s Super 8 look and feel almost exactly like a Spielberg film from an earlier time, so he has been able to replicate the look and feel of those classic first three Star Wars films, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi respectively, distilling their essence into a new mold. I think you can safely predict that Disney will be way in the black in a few years once you add up all the revenue not only from the new films but also from the ancillary action-figure, video game, and miscellaneous merchandise streams.
The thing about The Force Awakens, certainly for a person like myself who experienced those films upon their initial release, is that it’s going to give you some serious Déjà vu. Wait, did I say that already? It’s like the movie exists in a parallel universe where things are just slightly different from what they are here — the same way that The Hangover Part II was less a sequel than it was an alternate version of the original film. As you watch it, you’ll be asking yourself “haven’t I seen this already?” And the answer is yes – sort of.
Certainly the core themes of good and evil, heroes and villains, the light and the dark sides of The Force remain, whether it’s the Empire vs. the Rebel Alliance, or the First Order vs. the Resistance. And there again are the familiar, now weathered, faces from the first series that we have come to love, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Leia, Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, C3PO, not to mention the trusty Millennium Falcon, all surely to produce cheers and outbursts of applause from the crowd.
Every scene seems to be an effort to deliberately remind you of a scene from one of the earlier films, thus tapping into the veins of the nation’s collective nostalgia. However it should also be noted that great effort has been made to introduce a new vital series of characters to infuse the old paradigms with some fresh blood. And indeed the effort all the way round is a largely successful one.
When Star Wars came out, it was virtually unlike anything that had preceded it. By now its influence has seeped into the collective unconscious. Every science-fiction film that has followed owes it a debt, including The Force Awakens. Star Wars has become a kind of metaphorical language all its own. You could say “He’ s a regular Darth Vader,” to just about anyone anywhere and they would know what you mean. Perhaps in forty years you’ll be able to say Kylo Ren or Rey or Finn to someone and it will have the same effect. And the fan reaction/obsession that occasioned the release of the first film back in 1977 was surely unlike anything that had preceded it as well. It was the birth of the fan-boy, the spiritual forebear of Comic-Con and the big-bang of pop culture fanaticism.
Star Wars:The Force Awakens for me seems like an imitation of that first Star Wars that I saw long ago with my parents. Likewise the enthusiasm that surrounds this new incarnation of the beloved series seems like an imitation of the enthusiasm from that earlier time, almost a mandatory obligation now, a sort of pledge of allegiance. But that’s okay. My friend Rick Phillips called The Force Awakens a “re-makewell,” which I thought was a pretty good way to describe it all — part sequel, part re-make and done well. For me it can’t surpass the original of course, but The Force Awakens is a worth successor in the Star Wars legacy and I imagine that the new generation will someday look back on it with joy.
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