Storm Troopers and Kylo Ren

All images courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd/Walt Disney Studios/Bad Robot Productions

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

| published January 8, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Generationally speaking, it’s difficult to approach the Star Wars series without baggage or personal history. Indeed, other than for those who are newly minted moviegoers, a category in which most people will be age five or younger, it is not possible to have no opinion and no experience with the great epic as envisioned by series creator George Lucas. By now even the youngest fans found their footing through DVDs or Blu-ray, or by watching those ancient VHS tapes on their shelves of parents or grandparents.

A movie series with seven films, the first of which came out in May 1977 (as simply Star Wars), it has become arguably the most famous film franchise in movie history, and the most profitable; the entire series, so far, has a combined box office total of roughly $4.5 billion, a figure which will likely keep ticking upward this year. Star Wars was then—and is now—the brainchild of director, producer, and writer George Lucas, whose success with American Graffiti enabled him to challenge the Hollywood establishment in the mid-1970s by recrafting a long-dormant genre, the action-adventure-swashbuckler, and merging it audaciously into the realm of science fiction and fantasy.

It was not an easy task: Lucas endured an epic struggle to get that first movie made, attempting to overcome problems with sets, equipment, weather, and harsh conditions in Tunisia, where much of the first film was shot. Lucas went over his original budget of about $8 million, and in the end the movie cost $11 million to produce. But within days of its opening in theaters across the U.S. on May 25, 1977, it was evident that the movie was already swelling in importance beyond anything 20th Century Fox had expected. To date, the first Star Wars has raked-in $775,400,000 worldwide—which, adjusted for inflation, equals roughly $1.3 billion.

On paper at least, the storyline contains more as-yet-developed episodes from what is generally regarded as a nine-part series, based on Lucas’ original working outline. Lucas himself directed the original Star Wars (later rechristened officially as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), and went on to direct all three prequels (Episodes I, II, III). Other directors of past episodes have included Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) and Richard Marquand (Return of the Jedi). The prequels, the first of which (Episode I: The Phantom Menace) was released in May of 1999, all went on to shatter—or nearly shatter—box office records. Only James Cameron’s Titanic would maintain its grip on the title “biggest box office hit of all time,” and by every account Star Wars: The Force Awakens has already toppled Titanic.

An entire new generation, now bathed in the light of this newest movie, will now wait in expectation for the next films in the epic series, Episodes VIII and XI. This will no doubt spawn another vast wave of sales of DVD and Blu-ray copies of the earlier movies, and may even require that some folks dust off those old VHS copies and (heaven forbid!) Betamax tapes to offer up a refresher course to the young tykes in any given household.

For purists, like me, it was that first movie that set the tone, established the language, and forged the cultural rules which apply in that Galaxy, far far away.

Like fellow Thursday Review writer Michael Bush (Michael Bush reviewed the film two weeks ago; see our Film & TV Page for his comments), Star Wars is part of my cultural DNA. But because I am of a certain generation (translation: old guy) I can easily trump his childhood fixation, one formed because his older brother Jay had an all-consuming love of the Star Wars galaxy of ideas and concepts.

You see, I was one of those people who stood in line on May 25, 1977 to see that first Star Wars. Oh, we didn’t get to see the first showing of the movie, which as I recall was an 11:00ish matinee that morning (at a theater that doesn’t even exist anymore!). We had to wait in a modest line for the 2:30 p.m. showing. So I can’t claim to have seen the movie the instant it opened. But the obsession I formed—along with that of my inner circle of friends—was successfully seeded that very day. Like many people, I went to see Star Wars numerous times. My count remains 11 theatrical viewings of the 1977 release—a piker’s score, compared to some friends who saw it 20 or 30 times. We became early “investors” in Lucasfilm, the now famous production company which in 2012 Lucas sold to Walt Disney Pictures for a modest $4 billion.

That same circle of friends—with variations depending on the time—returned in groups to see the next two movies, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. When the Empire Strikes Back was first released on May 21, 1980, it was shown for the first few days only on specific wide screens, and rarely in multiplex theaters. Since my hometown of Jacksonville had no 70 mm projection systems which met the criteria at that time—meaning we would have to wait in agony one full week to see the movie—several of us called in sick to various jobs and piled in my car for a 2 hour 15 minute drive to Orlando where we could see it the moment it opened, at a 12:15 p.m. showing. I still have that ticket somewhere. We sat in a theater which was only about 30% full for that first showing on a weekday; when we exited the place a few hours later, there were dual lines which stretched along the sidewalks around the entire building. The parking lot was so filled to capacity, and so gridlocked from the endless crush of incoming cars, that it took us 30 minutes just to drive off from the property.

Three years later, many of that same group of friends (some had moved away to faraway places) stood in an enormous line estimated to contain more than 2,000 people. It was noon on May 26, 1983, only days after Return of the Jedi had already opened. Once inside the theater—a stand-alone theater adjacent to a huge mall—we were barely able to even sit together as every seat was taken. People were trading seats in order to stay with friends or family. Once outside, the enormous mall parking lot had become a combination of vehicular gridlock and pedestrian chaos; lines had formed even in the traffic areas, and policemen were attempting to shepherd moviegoers systematically into neat lines around the mall and along the sidewalks which wrapped the vast parking lot. Getting my car out of that mall parking lot and out of the area required more than an hour.  In my lifetime I’ve only been in two traffic jams worse than the “Jedi Incident”: shortly after the end of a stadium concert featuring The Who and Joan Jett in the “Tangerine Bowl” (1982), and in the winter of 1994, when an overturned semi-truck shut down a vast stretch of interstate highway in downtown Atlanta at evening rush hour.

In short, it’s a personal thing: I’ve paid my dues to be a member of the original Star Wars Old School Fan Club, if such a thing exists.

The point, of course, is that I was deeply satisfied with Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the movie's ability to reboot the franchise in a familiar and comforting way. Director J.J. Abrams, working with writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, made a specific and very conscious effort to bring the series back into focus, and to align its themes and subplots to be in harmony with the first Star Wars film and its immediate sequels. This may sound easy enough, but after the relative disappointment I felt after seeing the prequels—all fine movies, all well-executed, but all chiming a somewhat dissonant chord to the original template and mode of Episodes IV, V, VI—the new experience with Episode VII has brought the package home, as it were. Harrison Ford as Han Solo

In case you’ve been asleep for the last month, here's the plot in a nutshell: 30 years have passed since the total defeat of the Imperial forces and the passing of Darth Vader, the chief antagonist and the architect of much evil and pain through three episodes. But evil lingers in many places, and soon it appears that a new full-on confrontation will erupt between the Rebellion (also called The Resistance) and the military legions of the First Order, a newly reenergized army of Stormtroopers and general evildoers helmed by an arrogant and self-aggrandizing General Hux (played by Domhnall Gleeson) and a Vader-like ultra-angry Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a dark lord schooled by Supreme Leader himself. Ren and Hux compete shamelessly for the attentions and favor of the leader, but we come to quickly understand that where Hux is the political pragmatist and manipulator, Ren is a less-than-disciplined enthusiast of Vader—his fits of extreme rage result in lots of smashed control consoles, melted weaponry, and wrecked furniture.

Han Solo and Chewbacca make a stage entrance just in time to reclaim their beloved Millennium Falcon spacecraft, and, as always, take part reluctantly in all manner of rescues and good deeds, including fighting off bad guys. A new, endearingly cute droid is introduced—this one carrying part of a massive holographic map which leads to the exact location of the long-missing Luke Skywalker. Skywalker, we learn early on, needs to be found, for it may be necessary for him to lead a new generation of Jedi in the future battle with evil. Princess Leia, now a commander in the resistance, seeks to organize all these efforts, and along the way has some important screen time reunions with Han Solo.  Several new characters are introduced.

Granted, some of what Abrams and the folks at Walt Disney Studios have done is in the name of cash: the more inclusive the generational span one makes this film, the greater the likelihood that people of all ages will flock to see it, and they in turn will tell others to go see it (just as we here at Thursday Review are doing). Moneymaking potential aside—and make no mistake that this movie may break every Hollywood record—Abrams and company have hit the mark.

There are blemishes, not the least of which is some unclear motivations by some of the key characters. Example: it won’t spoil anything to say that a crucial, and apparently now central, new character is Finn (played by John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who suffers a crisis of conscience early in the movie and flips to the good side, helping to lead others toward a pivotal outcome. Nice plot device. But it would have been helpful to have offered some deeper look into how and why he made that choice. Another example: Kylo Renn (Adam Driver), the apparent product of what we understand was a relationship between Princess Leia and Han Solo. Renn’s intense fascination with evil and the Dark Side is never fully explained, nor—for that matter—even questioned, except for a hint that he is deeply conflicted by some unresolved Oedipal issues with Han Solo, and that he has serious limitations to his anger management. Again, less was not more. We needed a better look inside this opaque character who calls Darth Vader his grandfather, and Han Solo his father. Perhaps this will be explained in later chapters.

One other flaw which made me squirm a bit in my seat right away: one of our chief protagonists is a young woman named Rey (played with aplomb by Daisy Ridley) living on a scrap heap planet who stumbles upon a droid of apparent importance to the powers-that-be. Salvage collector and hoarder by day, she somehow—in the space of about 20 minutes of story and screen time late in the film—transforms herself into a skilled Jedi master with a galactic-class proficiency with the light sabre and a master’s degree in moving objects with her mind. In the world of Lucas, even the most gifted warriors require weeks, even months, of difficult training, and it can take years to reach the level of skill necessary to best the immensely powerful bad guy in direct mortal combat. This one storyline lapse alone strained the narrative, but not quite to the breaking point. I suppose the writers can clear that one up in some later sequel also, but it seems a stretch.

Still, the movie worked well for me, despite some flaws—even the one which appears the most frequently on the web: shallow scriptwriting and occasional cornball dialogue. One comment on the IMDB website called the movie “eye candy, not brain candy.” For this, I refer all Old School fans back to square one. The first Star Wars received almost the same complaint—even more so, depending on the critic. In the mid-1970s, Lucas wasn’t writing what he hoped to be a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s thought-provoking masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (though some at 20th Century Fox at first assumed that was the idea); Lucas was writing a swashbuckler-adventure yarn in the vein of the cheesy Saturday movie house matinee serials. And Lucas certainly wasn’t interested in sci-fi for the sake of sci-fi. He regarded his epic as a fairy tale infused with elements of action and adventure and morality, with a coming-of-age story embedded at the center. Instead of sword fights on brigs and clippers and Errol Flynn swinging across the set on a rope, there would be lasers and light sabers. The result was a script with admittedly weak, even at times awkward dialogue. Go back and watch it again—and not for the joy of quoting lines two seconds before they happen—but listen to the writing with fresh ears, and you’ll hear some cornball language.  Still, Star Wars became an instant classic.

Not that this bit of movie history excuses Abrams or the other writers. Clearly, there are those who feel the movie fell short—and most notably for the issues mentioned above. Still others feel that Abrams has hung the moon, and there are plenty of folks who feel that the circle is becoming complete—especially since this installment reintroduced so many characters and creatures from the original episodes: Chewbacca (played again by Peter Mayhew), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker as a consultant), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford, who apparently got the highest salary for his appearances in the film). Even Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker makes a brief but key appearance, and it would appear we’ll be seeing him again in future chapters. From a nostalgia standpoint, the movie is a winner.

So the debate will rage for a while even as the movie rakes in the box office cash and seems destined to become the granddaddy of all moneymakers. In the meantime, my opinion still stands—albeit a personal one: this movie was a load of fun, and well worth the ticket price to see in the theater. Paying homage to the first three movies (Episodes IV, V, VI), The Force Awakens brings the story tantalizingly close to forming a complete circle, and does so while maintaining fidelity to the overall epic as envisioned George Lucas decade ago.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Michael Bush; Thursday Review; December 26, 2015.

Welcome to my Secret Lair: SPECTRE, the Latest Bond Thriller; Michael Bush; Thursday Review; November 26, 2015.