Show of Force
It is giving no secrets away to say that, growing up, I was a huge nerd. I am, let us be honest, still a huge nerd, which is why you are reading these words on the pages of a decade-old blog instead of the pages of Entertainment Weekly. But in some fairly important ways, I was a different kind of nerd than most of my peers, which may explain why TV and movie news on the internet makes me emit a defeated sigh instead of a squee or whatever the fuck it is. I loved comics, but that was a largely private obsession; I was crazy about Dungeons & Dragons, but was largely indifferent to fantasy; and, most critically, while I read a good amount of science fiction, the two greatest touchstones of modern geek culture, Star Trek and Star Wars, never really did much for me. I saw Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in theaters, and I liked them, but they didn’t spark in me the kind of lifetime fascination they did for so many other young men of my generations. And Star Trek did absolutely nothing for me.
So George Lucas’ billion-dollar empire never quite got its hooks into me. When the ballyhooed prequels were released, I paid them no attention; I saw them years later to no good end and to this day, I couldn’t tell you which one was which or what happened in any of them. When the big reboots/sequels finally happened a few years ago, I was really more annoyed than excited, and more indifferent than annoyed. But thanks to my recent acquisition of Showtime in order to watch Twin Peaks, I discovered that both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story were available for my viewing enjoyment, and I’m not one to turn down free entertainment unless it has the name ‘Michael Bay’ attached to it.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is, I suppose, technically a sequel — episode VII of the original nine-part triple trilogy — but it seems an awful lot like a reboot. This shouldn’t be a surprise, coming from J.J. Abrams, who has made a tidy little career out of repeatedly riffing on both his own and other peoples’ creations, but what really struck me about it was how much it hits every single story beat of the first film. Practically every plot point was reified from the original Star Wars, and not in a way that really improved on anything; it was more of a soft restart than any kind of original work. I suppose this isn’t inherently a flaw, particularly if you loved Episode IV, but since I didn’t particularly, it all seemed a little pointless. (It also begged an awful lot of questions about how, for example, the Empire — or, begging your pardon, the First Order, because the Rebel Alliance seems to have a really hard time effectively governing — seems addicted to making giant super-weapons with a huge and obviously exploitable flaw.)
Some of the new characters in The Force Awakens were moderately interesting. (One of them was decidedly not Poe Dameron, an utterly flavorless part that might as well have been played by Oscar Isaac with his undoubtedly huge paycheck taped to his forehead.) John Boyega is fine as the rebellious stormtrooper Finn, but we are given almost no information whatsoever about why he chose to turn against the Empire or why he alone of all his brothers in arms seemed to develop a conscience; one could argue that this is still coming given that this is just the first of three films, but that seems like an excuse for lazy characterization. And like most of the new creations, they aren’t given much space to breathe because the iconic figures of the first trilogy are still around, providing vital fan service and eating up valuable time that could otherwise be spent on giving us something new.
The sole exception is the character of Kylo Ren, the son of Leia and Han Solo who has been seduced to the dark side. While he benefits from the fact that villains are always more interesting than heroes, he’s also clearly the best-developed, and, with the exception of its final scene (which is hugely effecting and exciting even though you can see it coming from a mile away), provides the handful of truly effective scenes in the movie. Adam Driver is the only member of the cast who seems to think that there’s any point in trying to actually put in a good performance, and while I’m not prepared to say he’s right, it does at least provide us with something to watch in between all the CGI. He’ll probably learn to stop trying eventually, but until he does, he’s displaying the only depth and complexity the movie possesses.
Rogue One, on the other hand, took me completely by surprise. Unburdened for the most part of the weight of the mythos, it let its own characters have space to move and develop; its special effects were more sparingly and expertly deployed, and its sets had some of the old thrill of the unfamiliar; and its decision to tell a small, focused story instead of a sprawling space opera really paid off. Some people might complain that its throwback war-story construction and tone is a bit too dark for the franchise, but it really worked for me — it gave the action scenes some weight, and it at least elevates it above the children’s-story level of the rest of the canon. It wasn’t perfect; a lot of the performances were clunky, the dialogue was as unsophisticated as the rest of the series, and the pacing seemed a bit askew to me. But it managed, in its best scenes — including, I’ll admit, the penultimate moments when Darth Vader goes absolutely apeshit on a corridor full of rebel cannon fodder — to do something for me that I haven’t experienced in over 30 years: I felt excited about a Star Wars movie.