By Tom Holste
Aug. 5, 2015
Coming this Christmas (Dec. 18, to be precise), a little, obscure independent film is going to be released, even though you haven’t heard of it. It’s called Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
I’m kidding, of course. Probably every man, woman and child in America, as well as most of the rest of the world, has heard about the upcoming Star Wars movie. Indeed, there might be people in Third World countries who have heard of The Force Awakens. The return of classic movie characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia – characters who many of us grew up with – is creating a fever pitch of excitement. This may be the most highly-anticipated movie of all time. It certainly is for me.
And that’s why I’m now trying to do everything in my power to make myself less excited for the film.
The last time I was this excited for a film was before the release of the first of three Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. I was a bit excited after that for the next couple of films in the series, hoping that the series would recover and return to form, but I was a bit more wary each time. Nothing matched my excitement for the first prequel – and nothing matched the extreme letdown that I felt.
While I believe that my criticisms against the more recent films are valid, I’ve come to realize that it would have been impossible for anyone to make a movie that fulfilled all my wildest dreams. I wanted movies that would affect me in the same way that the originals did, but I was no longer the same person that I was the first time around.
In the first place, I was a child when the originals were released. And children don’t really “watch” movies so much as they experience them as important life events. I wasn’t analyzing the script or the acting or the filmmaker’s choice of camera angles. The original Star Wars movies happened to me the same way that “going to preschool for the first time” happened to me. By the time I saw Phantom Menace, I was no longer that person. I was someone who could note that Ewan MacGregor did a mostly good Alec Guiness impression and that George Lucas was really pushing “You assume too much” to be the next big catchphrase like “I have a bad feeling about this.” (It didn’t happen.)
While I like the analytical person I’ve become, and it would be unhealthy to try and stay in the same emotional and mental place for all of one’s life, part of me really wants the new films to make me an 8-year-old kid again – and that’s something that the new movies can never do, because I’m not a kid. I’m an adult with responsibilities and concerns, among them figuring out how to take a family of four to see the movie in December without breaking the bank. The best that any movie can do is entertain its audience. It can’t take away all the years that happened in between installments.
Secondly, the original 1977 movie was a surprise. Released at a time when no one expected outer-space films to do well, comprised of a largely unknown cast, it was expected to sink into obscurity. But then word of mouth got around and people found out that it was a really fun film. Sci-fi films of the era tended to be (in the eyes of many) boring, pretentious and overlong. No one had ever seen a sci-fi film that had so much humor and heart, or that moved at such an incredible pace.
The Force Awakens cannot surprise us like that. It comes after nearly 40 years of other filmmakers trying to make films exactly like Star Wars to duplicate its success. Not only that, but we now have certain expectations of this specific film series created by all the other films. Perhaps the trickiest part for the filmmakers will be knowing how much to echo things that have already happened so that it feels like a Star Wars film without hearing complaints about the story being clichéd or the filmmakers giving in to manipulative “fan service.” There’s very little way that The Force Awakens can take us off guard the way the original Star Wars movie did.
Indeed, the only way that Awakens really could take us off guard is if it showed itself willing to shake up the status quo. There have been rumors of one of the characters from the original trilogy dying, or another character possibly having switched sides to fight with the bad guys. If either (or both) of these things happen, that would be the gutsiest thing that the filmmakers could do – and it would probably also be the point met with the most negativity.
Lucasfilm already has a cautionary tale like this under its belt. In the late ‘90s, fearing that the Star Wars books had become too safe and predictable, the publishing team decided to shake things up by having Chewbacca heroically die saving Han and Leia’s kids. On paper, it’s a smart move dramatically, and it freed up writers from having to deal with a character that didn’t work very well in prose (“Chewbacca growled angrily,” “Chewbacca moaned softly,” etc.). But the fan reaction was livid and never-ending.
After being bought by Disney, one of the rules established by Lucasfilm is that there would be a new canon, and that none of the earlier events portrayed in the books or comics had actually happened anymore. Sure enough, the trailer released in April shows Chewbacca alive and well. But how much suspense can there be in a story if certain beloved characters are always safe? The very thing needed to make the audience react with the same shock that they had when they saw Ben Kenobi get killed in the original film is probably the very thing they can’t do for fear of ticking off the audience.
So the new movies can’t make us kids again, and they probably can’t surprise us in the way the others did. But they could still possibly be very good movies. And I need to prepare myself for the fact that this is the most I can reasonably expect from them.
If the film is the best it could possibly be, it could be like Toy Story 3, which revived a beloved franchise many years after the original movies, and did so to great success and acclaim. It was the biggest box-office hit of the year and it won an Oscar for Best Animated Movie. (I was thrilled when Michael Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3, was brought on board for Ep. VII, and a bit worried that he was removed after writing the first draft.) If the film is as bad as it could possibly be, it could be like The Phantom Menace, a boring slog that’s illogical beyond even reasonable suspension of disbelief, with terrible dialogue and rotten acting (although the excellent director JJ Abrams has never created anything as bad as that).
But there’s also the possibility that it could be middle of the road, like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Needlessly Long Title. The acting, dialogue and pacing were much better than Phantom Menace, but there were time-wasting subplots, needless politicizing, and new supporting characters that failed to resonate. And this was made by many of the same people who had done the original movies.
So, on the one hand, I’m excited that Lawrence Kasdan is on board for the new movies. Kasdan wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark) but was absent from the prequels – and it shows. Kasdan seems to be the one largely responsible for giving the original trilogy characters much greater depth and complexity than they originally had, while expanding the mythology and fleshing out the universe. Yes, he was building off of Lucas’ ideas, but Lucas seems to work best when collaborating with others, like Walt Disney. Lucas suffers when trying to do everything on his own.
(In Lucas’ defense, he did ask Kasdan, as well as Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, to be involved in all the prequels, but they all turned him down, subscribing to the auteur film theory that says that the movies would be better if Lucas did everything himself. If ever a series of movies existed to smash the auteur theory to pieces, it was the prequels.)
So, as I said, I’m excited that Kasdan is involved. But I’m also a little nervous that he might actually be the weak link in the chain. Just as Lucas and Spielberg didn’t have enough distance and perspective to make Star Wars and Indiana Jones what they needed to be again, perhaps Kasdan has the same problem. He also hasn’t had a non-Star Wars critical or commercial success in years. Fanboys have been endlessly complaining about the choice of Abrams as director, but I think Kasdan might actually be the bigger wild card.
At any rate, having huge expectations has never worked for any movie-going experience that I can personally recall, or that I’ve seen in others. Being a huge fan of the Narnia book series did not make me more receptive to the recent films; it made me more frustrated about the changes. Guardians of the Galaxy was so heavily hyped for me that by the time I saw it, my initial reaction was: “Yeah, so what?” (I’ve since warmed up to it.)
Conversely, I spent a year hearing horror stories of how bad Amazing Spider-Man 2 was, but when I finally saw it, I was actually pleasantly surprised. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s the only Spidey film so far to really capture the character’s sense of humor, a much-needed trait for us to like the character when he reverts to whiny Peter Parker. There were perhaps too many villains, but there was a point to each of the villain subplots that actually affected the characters and stories as a whole. And the death of a major character near the end of the film – which I had been told was handled laughably – was actually portrayed with great poignancy.
The difference between ASM2 and the other films I mentioned? I went in with rock-bottom expectations for ASM2. I had stratospheric high hopes for the others – and those hopes were crushed, as they only could be.
So I’m allowing myself to be excited for various things about the new movies, but I’m trying (some days without much success) to avoid getting myself too excited. The only way I can really enjoy The Force Awakens is if I don’t pin all my hopes and dreams on it. It’s a movie – no more and no less. Expecting anything else is just a path to the Dark Side.