Friday, May 17, 2024

Stop Treating The Force Awakens Like Skunked Beer

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Being part of the Star Wars fandom is interesting right now. After over thirty years without a decent movie in the universe, or at the least a movie where you don’t need to rely on the supreme stupidity of every single character for it to make sense, we are now in Star Wars saturation heaven. The current shiny shiny is most definitely still Rogue One, though the announcement of The Last Jedi is starting to take priority.

And of course, both are reopening the dialogue on that old, tired Star Wars movie. You know…The Force Awakens (TFA).

When it first came out, TFA’s reception was mostly positive, one issue notwithstanding: the plot closely mirrored A New Hope. There were countless articles, podcasts, and youtube reviews on this, including my own piece where I couldn’t decide if it was even worth being mad about. I called it “uninspired, on a fundamental level,” and when you sit back and think about the larger strokes…it kind of is. If we’re going to be asked to accept an almost identical premise, at the very least could we have had some explanation as to how The First Order had gained enough power to where they could build Starkiller Base, while the Republic was so terrible and falling apart that The Resistance (who I assume operate outside the law) was needed to tackle this?

At the time, I concluded that yes, it’s frustrating to think about, but it was such an ultimately enjoyable movie that who cares? It’s weird to me, then, that I feel as though I need to make this point again. But lately, it’s as if the second half of that sentence is no longer considered acceptable. That we’ve now all hit this point where we can agree that TFA’s “lack of originality” has deemed it a flawed and middling movie.

This attitude was perhaps most famously introduced in this season of South Park, where an entire subplot revolves around getting characters to admit that TFA wasn’t as good as everyone said. Ever since Rogue One’s release, it’s only been heightened. In fact, that movie, which I considered a land of missed opportunities (and which even its fans agree could have used another draft), is being lauded for its “boldness” in “trying something new,” while in the same breath its flaws are waved away because “you don’t watch a war movie to care about characters.”

I don’t want to start a competition with TFA and Rogue One, by the way. Enjoyment of media is not a zero-sum game. But I do feel as though the negativity towards the former is becoming closer and closer to gospel within the fandom, and it’s worth taking a step back to remember why it is we appreciated it then, and why we can still look fondly at it now.

We really did need the palate cleanser

I know that the Star Wars prequels are easy targets. I also know that through the incredible work of supplemental media, such as Star Wars: Rebels, many people find a lot of enjoyment out of them and the character study of Anakin Skywalker that they provided. I personally can’t find much pleasure there, but I truly don’t want to deprive anyone of it if they’ve found it. However, what I can tell you is that there was a large, large fanbase who walked into the theaters for TFA apprehensive that we were going to have another prequel experience. That we were going to watch cardboard characters sit on sofas and calmly chat about politics (not that those scenes aren’t amazing).

TFA hit the notes it needed to in this regard. Yes, it played it very safe, because of course Star Wars fans would like a tested Star Wars formula. But it wasn’t the plot, it was the feel that landed so well. Characters spoke like actual people, there were fun campy-ish effects at times, and its action was exciting, without overly relying on lightsaber dance battles.

It took a full half hour in the theater for me to be able to relax and realize that the *quality*, for lack of a better word, was going to remain consistently strong. Even the rathtar sequence, J.J. Abram’s gift to small bladders everywhere, was enjoyable enough fodder. Every other scene? It was just good. Well-constructed, well-acted, and created emotional engagement. After three movies built around a love story where genocide was a quite lil’ quirk, this was not just welcome—this was needed.

The characters aren’t similar at all

I know I’m not alone in praising the strength of characters in TFA. However, there is a growing trend of likening the cast to the original trilogy. I’m sure you’ve seen it before, whether calling BB-8 the new R2, or pointing out how Maz is basically Yoda (wait, wouldn’t Luke be the Yoda?).

To some extent, I can forgive it. Han did have a mentor-ish role, so comparing him to Ben Kenobi doesn’t seem so terrible. But it’s really about there I draw the line. Especially when it begins to get into the “trios.”

It starts with the Rey/Luke comparisons. After all, they are both the heroes on the journey who grew up on a sandy planet, wear tan and are force sensitive. And okay, I kind of get this. In terms of role in the narrative, Rey is the “new Luke.”

But it’s not as though she’s similar to the guy in any way. Their personalities don’t exactly resemble each other, and their guiding motivations are polar opposites. Luke was desperate to get “off this rock” and have a good ol’ adventure, while Rey was desperately clinging to the familiarity of her surroundings thanks to her abandonment issue. I guess they’re both somewhat optimistic? And dislike fascism? Wow, they’re practically clones.

“I see no difference.”

“Poe is the new Han” is less head-scratching to me in principle, because Poe is basically a blank slate. Sure, why not make him Han! He doesn’t strike me as especially Han-like in anyway, other than that he’s a hot dude who’s a good pilot, nor is he really a rogue/scoundrel type, since he’s one of the Resistance’s most loyal and devoted soldiers. Still, part of what makes Han so endearing, especially in Empire Strikes Back, is that he’s not a rogue/scoundrel at all either, even if he fancies himself one. So fine, I’ll fight this comparison less, and that has nothing at all to do with some headcanons involving the nature of Leia and Poe’s relationship. However, it is worth a note that Poe is just not that fleshed out. He could become just about anyone in The Last Jedi and we’d be none the wiser. 

Though, in terms of plot-function, it was Han who flew Finn to Starkiller Base, so doesn’t that make Han the new Han, Finn the new Luke, and Rey the new Leia? Maybe these comparisons are arbitrary or something.

Even so, let’s talk about Finn, because no one knows what to do with him. The most popular argument I’ve seen is that he’s the new Leia, which I’m guessing is only the result of the other two fitting more easily into the Luke/Han archetypes. Um. If anyone at all can explain to me how Finn remotely resembles Leia, in terms of plot-function or personality, I’m all ears. To me, Finn seems more like a fully realized character in his own right, with his own tale to tell.

Wait! I just remembered that Poe was tortured by Kylo Ren, who’s the new Vader, just like Leia, so he’s the princess, Finn is the new Luke for rescuing him, and Rey therefore is the new Han because she flies the Millennium Falcon!  

That does bring us at last to Kylo Ren, who is unequivocally the new Vader. That’s the point. He wants to be Vader. He is a try-hard who is desperate to convince himself that he is this embodiment of some dark side ideal (which Vader never was either, of course…did Kylo Ren sleep through the jedi class where Luke mentions his dad turning back?), to the point where he commits patricide just to prove this.

What makes him fascinating as a character, and utterly unlike Vader, is that we’re seeing his struggles on-screen. His entire decision to join the First Order was heavily motivated by his issues with his parents, and Snoke (yes, he totally is the new Emperor) seemed to have taken an interest in him for specifically that reason. Kylo Ren’s not some “tortured bad boy” given how horrific his actions are, though I could see why the longer you think about him, the more Edgelord™ he becomes. Still, he’s also a far cry from a corporate bureaucrat in a robot suit who happens to be related to the protagonist, tries to recruit him to the company, and ultimately comes to the realization that “hey, I don’t want to see my son dead.” Remind me why Vader has the fandom reputation that he has again?

You know who’s more worthy of worship? Literally anyone else.

The story similarities only go so far

This is actually a point I’m surprised I’m making, since there’s no arguing with the whole “droid on sandy planet runs into unlikely hero gets caught up in rebellion blow up planet-destroying base yay!” summary. There’s plenty of people who take this further, expanding so the summaries include things like, “opening shot features a Star Destroyer, quickly followed by stormtroopers rushing in and shooting,” and so on.

But we here at The Fandomentals often point out that a story is not a discrete list of things that happen. Yes, the checklists between A New Hope and TFA are similar. If you want to know exactly how similar, there’s always Plinkett’s review (which includes some super-terrific commentary on diversity). Heck, even the political contexts are similar. But the character motivations—the lifeblood of any narrative—are wildly different.

At its heart, TFA is a family drama starring Leia, Han, Luke and Kylo Ren. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the ways in which this makes me break down into gross sobs. But my own feels aside, it’s made quite clear to the audience that Leia, Han, and Luke all blame themselves for Ben Solo’s turn to the darkside, and the way that guilt manifests shapes how they act. Leia doubles down on her job, Luke goes into hiding, and Han resumes his hobby as the galaxy’s worst smuggler. It is Han, Leia, and Kylo Ren’s actions that most heavily dictate the plot, with Rey and Finn sort of getting swept up into the Resistance.

This is not to say that Rey and Finn don’t have their own arcs. Rey goes through the large beats of “reluctant hero set on a magical destiny”, and her own strength of will sets her inherently at odds with the chief antagonist, who struggles to be the perfect antagonist. It’s a bit Zuko/Aang-ish, if I may borrow such a fandom example.

Finn, meanwhile, is a survivor, breaking through the ranks of violence to carve out his own space. There’s a moment where he wants to just get away and hide from everything, but the kindness he felt from both Rey and Poe ultimately lead him to choose otherwise. It’s quite moving when you take a moment to consider it.

So… How does any of this compare to A New Hope? I guess we can boil it down to “the main protagonists want to get the droid with fascist-defeating information to the group that can use it,” but the reasons for the follow-through and what happens after are not remotely the same.

Look. TFA is the kind of thing that can only happen once. If The Last Jedi is to Empire Strikes Back what Star Trek Into Darkness was to Wrath of Khan, then I’ll be the first in line to criticize it. (Oh crap, does this mean Abrams already pulled that stunt?) But there is a reason we enjoyed it, damnit, and there is most certainly a reason to feel optimistic towards Episode VIII. It really wasn’t lacking in originality in its heart, though it’s fair to say it did not take risks.

The Force Awakens  is not that six pack of beer in the back of your fridge that’s gone off since you had your first refreshing can, I promise. I’m not trying to argue it’s a fine wine, either. Instead, let’s think of it like a frozen piece of wedding cake. No, eating it now will not be as good as your wedding, but we can appreciate that it was the cake we wanted at the time, and it’s not as if it’s bad now. Let’s just spring for some ice cream on the second anniversary, though.

Images courtesy of Disney

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