James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

Review (Theatrical): STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Short version: if you want to go and have a good time, avert your eyes from this savagely uncompromising review of what played like a child’s model kit—half-assembled, covered in misapplied decals and sticky with goopy globs of airplane glue—of a Star Wars movie.

Seriously.

Fair warning.

Spoilers ahead.

If, however, you’re inclined to read exactly how and why this stinker of a corporate product fails as both an entertaining standalone movie as well as an effective “Episode 7” of the epic cinematic franchise, wade on into the turbid murk that is my reaction to this smug, cynical first entry of the now Disney-owned sequels to a beloved, modern-day mythological saga.


 

In May of ’77, I was eleven and already a confirmed sci-fi nerd—that was life growing up in the space age. As what one might call a “primary fan” of this movie series, you do the math—of course I loved it. Before I turned twelve in August, I would see the movie ten times.

Was it that good? Maybe. You just couldn’t go out and buy a movie in those days. A rich and kinetic experience like the first Star Wars, which at the time felt like lightning in a bottle, demanded additional viewings.

STar wars line 1977

Billions of dollars and six additional, canonic feature films later, George Lucas has sold his trademark brand to Disney, which will now continue sequelizing, merchandising, and theme-park monetizing the brand into what has become a genuine, multigenerational world religion of prepackaged corporate myth, if one ever more diluted from its essentially pastiche origins. Needless to say, Star Wars represents a multimedia storytelling empire grown from the indie-roots of its by-contrast modest progenitor, a single, popular filmed entertainment that moved a lot of tickets to kids like me.

A rip-snorting movie-movie. That’s all the original really was. But a good’un, as we say here in South Carolina.

All year the buildup to the new movie’s release has foamed and frothed in a heady, inescapable mixture of genuine affection and anticipation from longtime fans, if a love nearly subsumed by a tsunami of media attention, Hollywood PR nonsense, and an insane penetration of product tie-in merchandising. (At least the fantastical setting of the stories don’t lend themselves to product placement James Bond-style, but don’t rule out some future corporate synergy style narrative mashups where, say, the new, young, hip Star Wars crew hyper spaces across the rainbow bridge into Asgaard to check in on Thor and Loki.) As for the new entry’s merits (or lack thereof), the first of these corporate offspring of the original Lucasfilm trilogies, which is logo’d worldwide as Star Wars: The Force Awakens but credit-crawled with its more proper Episode VII appellation, opens in a familiar territory, and despite an appealing new cast, never much leaves that space.

What did anyone expect? It’s J. J. Abrams, doing what he seems to do best: delivering a competent corporate confection stuffed with fan service and dolloped on top by creamy, rapidly melting nostalgia for the magic of our shared cultural youth.

jj_abrams_starwars_george_lucas_consume_theylive_a_by_halhefnerart-d9kfnq0To revisit the original movie’s charms now feels like a comfortable, if unchallenging, attempt at reentry to the surface of a faraway planet called childhood, in a remote corner of our own personal galaxy to which no adult can fully return. That’s right—no matter how many times the films are screened, the toys collected, the extended universe comics and novels scrutinized, you can’t go home again. But I digress.

More than merely scrutinized and critiqued, its fantastical milieu has proved a pop-cultural springboard for what clearly includes the trappings of a veritable religion. Maybe not for this old-school fan. But for some. That’s mass media for you. I wrote a novel about a fictional rock band modeled on the Grateful Dead, and whose fandom seemed to take on many aspects of a genuine religious movement, one complete with liturgy, sacred texts, oral traditions, and on down the line.

But back to the so-called “Episode VII” of another vital cultural industry that arose out of late 1960s San Francisco in the form of Lucasfilm Limited and Industrial Light & Magic. The Force Awakens, as a reboot of the franchise—that’s what this is, by the way, a remake/reboot rather than a genuine and organic narrative continuation of the ongoing saga—features a trio of exceedingly appealing movie stars: Daisy Ridley in the gender-bent hero heeding the call to adventure; John Boyega (Attack the Block) as a brash post-adolescent turncoat who’d rather embody valor, loyalty, and cheeky, Han Solo-esqe asides toward a greater cause than the nihilistic and rapacious destruction of his stormtrooper unit on board a star destroyer that looks clean and new; already established high-profile lead actor Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year, Ex Machina) as “the best pilot in the galaxy,” and who also displays valor and loyalty and spunk; and the new generation’s villainous answer to Darth Vader (complete with mask and red light saber) portrayed by Adam Driver, late of a featured part alongside Isaac in the Coen Brothers rather Stygian folk music tragicomedy Inside Llewyn Davis. 

Other than Driver’s fleshy lips and otherwise sallow, grotesque visage peeking out from his high-throated, black villain’s costume (nice hair, by the way), all deliver with charisma and spunk what are, charitably, some of the most underwritten characters in the history of this franchise. Thank goodness the story structure includes virtually all of our surviving favorites from the original trilogy.

Somewhat.

Sure, the featured returning cast member is the biggest and traditionally most reluctant-to-return star of them all, Harrison Ford, but the contrivance employed in shoehorning him and his beloved smuggler’s freighter, the Millennium Falcon, back into the main storyline strains even a forgiving viewer’s tolerance for plot holes. Leia Organa, separated from her one time beau, is a General in the rebellion, or Republic, or whatever has happened in the time since the Empire was beaten for second time in three movies. (Oh, right—Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was a rehash of the first movie too, come to think of it.)

As for Luke Skywalker, well—he’s missing. They bring back the original hero, and keep him off-screen.

For the entire plot.

My reaction to the last J. J. Abrams STAR TREK movie.

My reaction to the last J. J. Abrams STAR TREK movie.

Right—the plot of this one, you ask? Just go and watch the first one, or rather, the fourth one, Episode IV, what we called Star Wars but what younger people know as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. (In the modern spirit of pastiche called mash-up, this new chapter comes also complete with liberal easter-egg style samples from the first of the sequels, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.) Gender and racial and family swapping of roles aside, it’s all the same—a neophyte must be initiated into the ways of the force; an outsider to it all will doubt the more mystical tenets of the legendary Jedi and Sith wars, but a believer and witness will impart the truth; light sabers will be wielded, though none, it should be noted, by any actual Jedi masters.

Jedi_Film_Nerd

Like all J. J. Abrams movies, the busy narrative moves at a pace designed to cover over tremendously egregious plot holes and contrivances, but when all is nearly said and done we enjoy the best cinematic moment of the whole film—the only one, unfortunately—featuring the character we all really came to see. What Luke has to say about his obviously troubled interim since we last saw him vanquishing the evil that had so overtaken his father and much of the galaxy (not that it was even worth it, not if these evil pig-fuckers have been allowed to re-acquire this amount of power—I mean, really, this time they have a version of the Death Star that kills not just planets, but whole systems along with their freaking stars—seriously—and that must have taken ten times the resources to construct from this twice-beaten Empire).

But Luke will have to wait—the big reveal from inside the Bad Robot mystery box this time is that the best stuff has been saved for Episode VIII.

Sign me up!

I’m not kidding. Of course I’ll be there.

Ready to get in line for Episode VIII

Ready to get in line for Episode VIII

But really, three days later I’m still quite unnerved and disheartened about the corporate product I sat through, feeling as though pale digital imitations of the images that made my childhood imagination once soar, the movie playing like a simulation of a copy of a copy—cue up the Baudrillard; “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.” Besides not even featuring a memorable, new John Williams musical motif (not that I noticed; insult to injury) this is a film that never penetrated to the soul of my narrative-loving self on any meaningful level.

That happens to me quite a bit these days.

It’s not a mystery inside a box: that kid turned into a person who would go on to spend decades studying the various tenets and levels of storytelling, so in adult form he’s no easy lay—not after writing ten novels and almost as many screenplays, fifty short stories, all while accumulating a Death Star-sized pile of grim life experience. Since that young kid in a rural South Carolina town first felt changed by the magic of Star Wars, now nearly forty years ago, he now sees life, and art, quite differently.

So again . . . maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think SW: TFA accomplishes what Star Wars should—this time around, the proceedings lack a spiritual dimension. This too often feels like any other recent movie in which a young person gets superpowers and must both prove herself by facing down an even more powerful enemy, making it like every other puddle-deep hero’s journey imitator of Star Wars (and its own classical mythology precedents). Look no further than the trailers running before the feature, one after another teeming with aliens and explosions and spaceships and conflict and preparations for conflict and outright apocalyptic warfare that all seem to run together, frames bleeding into frames like the film melting into the projector at the end of Two-Lane Blacktop, a vision of modern Hollywood filmmaking consuming itself in a bleakly orgiastic, Orouboros-like frenzy of self-immolation and money. Sound and fury, signifying little.

Look: I’d give this reboot a break if the damn movie had an otherwise interesting story to tell. But it doesn’t, and going forward with these characters, the challenges don’t seem mysterious enough—at least one of the more shocking elements of the villain’s backstory has already been revealed, Rey’s Force abilities already seem quite highly developed, plus they have already kicked the First Order’s ass in a way that ought to stick, and the “new emperor” uber-villain seems like a generic leftover CGI creature from LOTR or Harry Potter. Luke gets to tell us how it all went so wrong in training the new guy who turned bad, so that’s something. Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Anakin, however, must surely be disappointed.

But I suppose these movies aren’t being made for me, are they? A fifty year-old man?

Yep yep.

Yep yep.

By now it’s obvious I didn’t much care for this moviegoing experience, which left me feeling every inch of my age and cynicism toward Hollywood blockbusters, if not modern civilized life itself. To find out how this movie plays for its intended audience—the next generation of eleven year-olds primed to cheer on heroic archetypes, old and new—you should close this review and go find one of those kids with her eyes alight, taken by a parent intent on passing on a sacred tribal tradition. Ask that child what she thought about the new Star Wars movie. In the end, that reaction is probably much more legitimate and “fresh” than my churlish pontificating. May you all enjoy it more than I did.

 

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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