Monday, November 23, 2015

Reflections a month away from THE FORCE AWAKENS

We are now less than four weeks from the release of THE FORCE AWAKENS. Less than four weeks until the STAR WARS saga finally moves forward into EPISODE VII, a chapter I honestly never imagined we'd get when I was a kid, and that's just the beginning. There are at least six further films planned at the rate of one a year, and all indications are that Disney is planning on milking that cow for as long as it will produce.

I've been thinking recently about how my age bracket is probably the last generation that will have experienced a childhood where STAR WARS was mostly a dead franchise. I was born just a little too late to see any of the original trilogy in theatres. In fact, I'm pretty sure my first exposure to the world of STAR WARS came not through the movies, but through MUPPET BABIES. That series often edited in stock footage from STAR WARS and other films, such as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. In fact, there was an entire episode devoted to the Muppet Babies making their own version of STAR WARS, complete with Obi-Rolf Kenobi and Animal Vader.

I'm pretty sure I first saw the original Star Wars in first grade. That would have been around 1986 or '87. I was getting into the franchise, just as it was on its final merchandising legs. Oh, you could still find the toys in the clearance aisles of the stores, but pop culture was moving onward. Star Wars had made its stamp and it was about to lie fallow. It's something akin to what AVATAR occupies in the popular consciousness now - it was a major hit and a massive technological leap forward, but it had faded from the cultural conversation.

I'm sure that some will dispute that claim, but they would be forgetting that the Kevin Smith CLERKS scene where Dante and Randall discuss STAR WARS and the contractors on the Death Star was so notable in 1994 because at that point NO ONE was talking about STAR WARS. People weren't walking into stores to buy Boba Fett T-shirts or Darth Vader coffee mugs.

That was pretty much the state of the franchise for my entire childhood. Sure, when I was in 6th grade, the first book in the Star Wars Extended Universe, Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, was released. Because that series of books was a trilogy set five years after RETURN OF THE JEDI, it was easy to accept it as Episodes VII through IX. Even then, the Extended Universe was a playground for the hard-core fans only. From 1991 to 1999, it was pretty much the only game in town for fans seeking new material, but you could never claim that had the same impact on the wider culture as the features. During that time frame, the sci-fi franchise that was really flying was STAR TREK. By the mid-90s, there had been three TV series in recent memory and a recently-launched feature series with the NEXT GENERATION cast.

The sixteen years between JEDI and THE PHANTOM MENACE represent a state that the franchise hasn't been in since. The prequels sparked a new generation of young fans who are now probably as old as I was when THE PHANTOM MENACE came out. (And actually, the time between those two films is equal to the time between THE PHANTOM MENACE and THE FORCE AWAKENS.) As I reflect on that, I can't help but feel like the films ahead of us might be too much of a good thing.

What made STAR WARS special when I was growing up was that those three films were really all we had. (Yes, I know about the Holiday Special, the Ewok films and cartoons and the Droids cartoons.) From the time I was seven until I was ten or eleven, I must have checked the films out of my local library at least two or three times a year. My library somehow had lost its copy of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, so I saw that less-frequently, while the first and third films were burned entirely into my memory by repeated viewings. I also regularly watched FROM STAR WARS TO JEDI, a behind the scenes video that I'm certain helped stoke my interest in filmmaking.

And then I remember taking a break from the films for a few years. I'm not sure how long, but it was long enough that when the USA Network started running the movies during Christmas of 1993, the novelty had returned rather than it being "just another viewing." I also found that because I hadn't worn out EMPIRE, it eventually shifted to being the superior film in my mind. Up until then, I'd preferred JEDI for its faster pace and awesome action. It has speeder bikes, that amazing three-way climax, which includes an intense lightsaber duel and an assault on the Death Star. Plus, the Emperor is one of the great villains of film and no man of my generation can deny the impact of Leia's bikini on our young minds.

Thanks to Kevin Smith, it became cool to rag on JEDI in favor of EMPIRE, and that's a side of fandom I've long grown weary of. EMPIRE probably is the better-made film, but JEDI's often more fun to watch.

And I can even enjoy the prequels. They're not perfect films, but I hold fast to my belief that anyone who believes they are "the worst films ever made" really needs to see more movies. Prequel-hate is something I find both fascinating and utterly irritating. Psychologically, it's fascinating to study how a viewer could have such a strong tie to a work of fiction that mere disappointment triggers a rage at the films and its creator that persists years after the fact.

The original trilogy made an impact on its audience in a way that none of the sequels or prequels possibly could. STAR WARS impacted so much of modern filmmaking that newcomers to the series now have likely already been exposed to media informed by and progressed from the original films. A gentleman I work with recently told me he showed the first film to his 7 year-old son and was shocked by how slow the film felt. That's quite a contrast from the original perception of the films pace, that it moved at a breakneck clip.

It was always inevitable that future audiences would come to STAR WARS more jaded than the generation that grew up on it. The fact that an additional six films will join the canon over the next six years also seems likely to rob the mythology of its mystique. We cannot miss something that refuses to go away, particularly something that has such a long merchandising reach.

I can't help but wonder of overexposure will rob the films of the scarcity that made them so coveted. The fact that audiences waited 16 years for a new chapter in the series is surely a factor in the passion that made the negative reactions to those films so intense. With other franchises that turn out entries at an assembly line pace, it's rare for feelings over a particular misfire to linger so badly years later.

And that's a concern when I find it hard to believe ANY film could satisfy the build-up that most fans have given it in their minds. I'm doing what I can to temper my own expectations, but I'm well aware that a letdown here will be more difficult to rationalize. At least with the prequels, they were distinct visually from the originals. Despite efforts at continuity, their aesthetic was unique enough that it was easy to accept them as something only tangentially tied to the originals.

But the new films will actually feature an older Luke, Han and Leia - the three characters and actors most synonymous with STAR WARS. As excited as I am about that reunion,I realize that by its very nature, it makes a misfire harder to ignore. JEDI sent them off with a happy ending and a galaxy of possibilities. THE FORCE AWAKENS is going to be in the position of showing us the trials they faced in the intervening years - and perhaps will even force a re-evaluation of how uplifting the future was at the end of the original trilogy.

As dark as the prequel trilogy got, it was clearly a tragedy from the start. We knew that the babies were going to be sent into exile, we knew the Jedi would be wiped out, we knew that Palpatine would seize power and we knew Anakin would be evil. If the new films break up Han and Leia and have one or more of the main characters become the villain of the series, will it taint the more beloved chapters?

I don't think the answer will matter much to the 24 year-olds who were eight when the prequel trilogy began. No matter what happens, I'll be fascinated by how the new chapters are received by fans in my age range as opposed to younger fans who came of age on the second trilogy and the CLONE WARS TV series. It also occurs to me that a viewer who was 12 in 1977 would now be pushing 50. This would have also put them in their early 30s upon the release of the prequels - still at the right age for the desecration of their childhood love to tap into the right rage. Is it so easy to get mad about these things when they're 50?

And as a 35 year-old fan who doesn't hate the prequels, will nostalgia blind me to any of the new movie's flaws? Or will it make me that much more unforgiving? I'm purposely trying to go in with tempered expectations, not because I think the movie will be bad. It's more about trying not to put the film on the screen in direct combat with some sort of idealized vision of how I think the story should go.

And we have less than four weeks until we'll know. Exciting.


  1. I am 57. So the originals were a revelation (along with ISuperman). I only saw Phantom Menace in the cinema - I've never seen the second one all the way through in one sitting.

    I don't hate them. I just think they are very poor.

    I too am trying very hard to restrain my expectations, I hope they'll get it right.

    I do not require perfection just "quite good" would be enough. Effective character development through exciting action scenes, is that too much to ask :-)

  2. I think everyone invested enough to care had more or less roughly mapped out Anakin's tragedy in their own minds even if they didn't realise it.
    For me, Anakin's fall had become a Shakespearean epic in my head by the time all the waiting was over, meaning what we got was the very definition of unmatched expectation...

    and yet I defended it. Vigorously. Despite knowing the moment that Republic pilot opened her mouth that something felt off... the woodenness of it all... I saw it a second time and convinced myself it was much, much better than it was.

    Time's provided distance and objectivity on all three. They're very flawed films, fun and awful in equal measure. I still love kick-ass Yoda even though that sequence seems to draw derision these days. I read somewhere that anger is a product of unmet expectation; if that's true, the Prequels are the proof, but they're far from the worst things ever committed to film. We all just had such high hopes.

    The major failure for me is that I never believed in Anakin's fall or his relationship with Obi Wan. His emotional journey wasn't constructed carefully enough and his motivations for turning to the dark side never felt sufficient.

    Rise of The Planet of The Apes' depiction of Caesar and Koba felt to me like a paradigm for how Obi Wan and Anakin's relationship could/should have played out; two close friends forced to go separate ways and ultimately coming into conflict because their ideologies have branched away from each other over time.

    I last saw Episode IV/A New Hope/Star Wars (calling it anything but Star Wars also meets with derision in some circles) about 4 years ago, and was shocked how well it held up. It's pacy and much funnier than I remembered. I've downloaded the Despecialised Edition to watch before TFA, so it'll be fun to see it again without all the gubbins George shoved back in.

    1. I don't know if I'd really want Vader's fall to represent Casear and Kuba only because Vader signs on with the ultimate evil. That feels like more than a simple ideological difference. I'd have liked a little more depth to his corruption than we got, but I don't think Vader is the kind of villain that lends himself to the sort of sympathetic depiction that, say, Magneto gets in the X-MEN movies.

      Really the hardest part of all of this is that Vader shows very few signs in the first two films of having any shades of grey in his character and even what's there in JEDI isn't much. Reverse-engineering Anakin's fall into something sympathetic when that's the end point is a pretty difficult task.

    2. See, for me, that would make his fall even more tragic... and gradual. I got more sense of a true friendship gone horribly wrong from one Apes movie than the three prequels.
      What begins as a simple idealogical difference between the two closest friends in the galaxy accelerates across three films as they grow away from each other, to the point where Anakin signs on with the ultimate evil because he's become so deluded that his is the right way. Palpatine not only allows it but encourages it. By the time he might realise he's come too far to turn back, his very ability to examine himself has already been surrendered. Luke's emergence plants a seed of self-realisation that grows until it fractures Vader; as much as he's submerged Anakin, he's forced to acknowledge his old self for the first time in decades because his progeny is standing there in front of him, trying to kill him.

      For me, that's why his story remained so powerful; for being untold. All we had were hints; the dialogue, the look on Alex Guiness' face. Enough to ensure each of us took a slightly different story away with us. In many ways that's its genius, but it's also the source of so much of the anger. Nothing matches what we see in our heads.
      I've never been angry at the Prequels but a kernel of disappointment remains because of what they could have been.

  3. Are Han, Luke, and Leia the most synonymous? Maybe with the older generations and ours (I was born in 84, so I identify with what you're talking about with the original trilogy not being readily available growing up). But with younger generations, I think Vader is the most synonymous. Every kid that I saw dressed up as a Star Wars character for this past Halloween went as Vader. Go to any store and Vader seems to be all over the merchandise.

    I don't know what that has to do with your larger point, but I just think it's interesting that Vader is so popular, even compared to Luke, Leia, and Han.

    I'm trying really hard to temper expectations as well. I tend to like Empire the most but there's a ton to like about Jedi, much of that being the ending. So I'm also worried about how it will affect that original trilogy. But it's really hard when you watch a well made trailer and that John Williams score plays. But as with the prequels, which I very much don't like, I think the original trilogy is so uniquely ingrained in my mind that nothing can touch it.

    Side note. You can almost write this same article for Batman and Batman v. Superman. And I'd pretty much have the same reaction.

    1. That's a good point about Vader. I guess it speaks to the point that EVERYONE loves a good villain.

      I'm sure I'll do a BATMAN V. SUPERMAN preamble too. I've done so many Superman articles over the years, but never really explored my Batman fandom. I'm pretty optimistic about the film, having liked MAN OF STEEL.

      With Batman and Superman, though, there's so much out there with each character that a bad entry is a lot easier to shrug off than with STAR WARS. I don't care much for GOTHAM at all, but it's easy to ignore. Ditto with the weaker aspects of the Burton/Schumacher films (and SMALLVILLE and LOIS & CLARK if we're talking Superman.)

      Obviously I'd like BvS to not suck, but even if it's a total waste of film, it's not really going to hurt all that much for me because I can go find "my" Superman and Batman in plenty of other places. Plus the fact that if you give it another decade, someone will try again.