Sunday, December 20, 2015

Better than the prequels? Droid, please. The Force Awakens is better than Return of the Jedi.

The original trilogy is sacred. I get it. Trust me, I really get it. If you have read my thoughts on the Star Wars universe recently you would know that this franchise is closer to a religious experience for me than something merely worthy of being deemed "movies". I love Star Wars so much that I can recognize that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are rather poor films and yet revisit them over and over and somehow have fun doing it. The massive, jarring flaws are something I can laugh about and shake off rather than ruin it for me. Why? Because Star Wars, that's why. 

Return of the Jedi is roughly a top 30 of all time film for me and worthy of the perfect score I give it, so please understand that I am not meaning to throw it under the bus here. I love the damn film so much, it is soaked in nostalgia for me to the point that when I watch it I can practically feel my seven year old self sitting right beside me the entire time. That's just it though, the crucial point I am going to try to make here revolves around a word I just used: nostalgia. 

When I left my first screening of The Force Awakens, I knew I was totally in love with the movie but some little flaws nagged ever so slightly at me. The plot is essentially a rehashing of A New Hope for a new generation rather than anything breaking any new ground. The story has a few rushed moments that, perhaps, should have been given a chance to breathe just ever so slightly more. After literally years of anticipation, what an unfortunate thing, to recognize that The Force Awakens is indeed flawed and not the definition of perfect cinema from start to finish. 

Then I got home, sat down and wrote my glowing review of the film while watching A New Hope again in the background and it occurred to me: nothing about Star Wars has ever been perfect. Nothing. Even the masterpiece (and my second favorite film of all time) The Empire Strikes Back has its tiny details that when held up against The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia or Citizen Kane won't quite match up. 5 year old me never held the saga to an impossible standard and neither does 31 year old me because they are joyous, amazingly entertaining pieces of cinema that remind me of being a kid. Nostalgia. Soaked in nostalgia. 

As I was chatting online with a buddy of mine discussing the wonderful merits of the new film, I started to fall more and more in love. I kept picturing (don't worry, this will remain spoiler free) that scene on the bridge that is so masterfully handled in regards to emotion and dialogue and in every technical way imaginable. I could picture the way the light poured through the door Rey and Finn had opened and illuminated only the characters that truly mattered in that moment, a shot that could pass as framed art and I would try to outbid everyone in the room to make sure it was mounted on my wall. The absolutely spectacular way that new characters are introduced and fleshed out while so much of the film still felt like a window to the past, with the faces we cherish and the ships we have flown in so many times being featured as well. I mean, I knew I would smile when I saw Han, Luke, Leia and Chewy on the screen again, that was obvious, but I had no idea that I would be totally won over by the charismatic swagger of Poe Dameron. The charming comedic timing and bravery of Finn. The combination of vulnerability and strength on display in the eyes and heard through the words of the gorgeous and admirable Rey, a character that I CAN'T WAIT to introduce to my daughter when I take her to see it in a couple of days. The screenplay of The Force Awakens beautifully showcases the past, present and future, something that is far more difficult to accomplish than I think most will give it credit for. 

Flaws? What flaws? Suddenly I couldn't even remember any little gripe I may have had. All I kept thinking about was the practical effects, the stirring action sequences and the way a lightsaber looks against a backdrop of slowly falling snow at night. And this was all after just one viewing.

The very next day, only hours later, I went to see it again. The second trip to the galaxy far, far away was like I was sitting in church hearing a sermon that made me want to jump to my feet and cheer. I literally couldn't find a flaw if you paid me money to point it out. Nothing. I was lost in the experience, I was melting at the mythology and the worlds being built, the tragedy, the comedy, the spectacular spectacle of it all. I heard every word and I picked apart every sublime shot, the production design, the costumes, the lighting, the framing, and the artistry of the blend of advanced special effects and the old fashioned touches that made the original trilogy feel so real despite obviously being fictional fantasy. The chemistry between Oscar Isaac and John Boyega. The feeling we get when Han and Leia lock eyes, a warmth that turns us into a puddle in our seats. Witnessing the devastation of the Starkiller on display, with the red glow pouring in and reflecting off the mask of Kylo Ren during a sequence I could watch on repeat for the next five weeks and never once get tired of it. 

Theater experiences like this, my second viewing of The Force Awakens, just don't happen very often. The closest comparison I could make this year was the excitement and wonder of Mad Max: Fury Road, but that was derived more from the shock of the films brilliance and the rip roarin' ferocity of the action keeping me on the edge of my seat for two straight hours. Fury Road made adult me giggle with glee but it didn't really have the time machine effect that The Force Awakens does, as while I always enjoyed the Mad Max franchise growing up it was never essential. For the first time in my life, since I was born one year after the original trilogy had completed, a true Star Wars film had been released in the cinema and tears were falling from my eyes at the galactic beauty of it all. I never wanted it to end.

Just days before the release of our new journey, I watched Return of the Jedi again and what a tremendous film it is. Still one of my all time favorites, but I mention this so I can point out how fresh that experience still was and still is now. Okay, here is where I get people saying I am ridiculous, that like a high school boy with raging hormones I am moving too fast. I know it is coming, and I understand it, but hear me out: 

The Force Awakens is a better film than Return of the Jedi.

So you disagree. Fine. Can I ask why? Before you answer, it has to be more than just specific moments that you grew up loving that are more important to you. Jabba's Palace, The Sarlacc pit, the speeder bikes, the attack on the second Death Star and the final showdown between Vader, Luke and the Emperor. I know, I love them all too. They are iconic. All of those moments are why Return of the Jedi remains one of my favorite films of all time. If this were a question of which film means more to people, which film has the more memorable moments NOW, it wouldn't be a contest. It would be absurd to bring it up. No, I am saying it's just a better film all around. The craft of The Force Awakens is more impressive, with camera work and gorgeously lit shots that are probably the best ever done in the series, excluding the Vader and Luke showdown in The Empire Strikes Back that still remains second to none. The acting is across the board better and I don't think this is even debatable, and nothing that happens in The Force Awakens is silly to the point of feeling juvenile. Nothing.

I get the idea of Star Wars being something that should appeal to kids, but I have always been slightly bothered by the fact that after the giant leap up in maturity between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, for whatever reason a regression took place and we suddenly are watching Ewoks climb on top of tree stumps so they can throw rocks at the heads of stormtroopers, which by the way, the fact that such an attack is successful in stopping fully armed soldiers is difficult to grasp. Listen, I love the battle of Endor too, but some of it feels awfully close to the exact same type of material that people complain endlessly about during The Phantom Menace. When we met Jar-Jar Binks, the character was decried for being nothing more than pandering to a single digit aged audience with the intent of selling toys. How are the Ewoks any different? I recall reading that the creatures on Endor were originally written to be very different but were later changed because, essentially, the idea of having adorable teddy bears to sell on store shelves was more profitable and thus a better idea.

This isn't a statement on the concept of greed and the creation of characters in hopes they appeal to kids on Christmas being evil. BB-8 is going to sell like god damn hotcakes and as well he should. He is an ingenious creation, a robot that can convey emotion in a way that would make R2-D2 proud. I hope Disney makes every dollar they can off of toys like him and the films themselves because thus far, they deserve it. All I am trying to point out is that a film like Return of the Jedi is flawed too, no matter how high of a pedestal we want to put it on due to nostalgia.

Again, let me reiterate, this isn't an attempt to tear down Return of the Jedi. I could never do such a thing. This is an attempt to build up The Force Awakens to where it deserves to be talked about. I keep seeing people ask, is it better than the prequels? Droid, please. This is on another level entirely than all three of those films. This is on a level with, yes, the original trilogy. It belongs in the exact same conversation with all three of the beloved entries, and for me it surpasses the final piece. It's a big, bold, beautifully flawed film that resonated with me profoundly, especially with a second viewing. 

I get nostalgia. I love so many films because of it. Someday one of those films will be The Force Awakens, when I look back at the Starkiller, the bridge, the snow and that absolutely perfect ending and smile the way I do when I talk about the crucial moments in the originals. Someday it will feel far less silly and sacrilegious to mention the four films in the same breath. What J.J. Abrams did here is masterful, and that's all I really wanted to say. People can call me a fan boy, say I am just spouting hyperbole here, that I am overreacting early to a brand new film and I will eventually cool down on the experience. 

"Remember when everyone thought they loved the prequels too?"

Yeah, I do. I did. This is different though. It really is. The Force Awakens is something truly special, and if you didn't quite feel that the first time through, watch it again. Just let go and let it in.

"There's been an awakening. Have you felt it?"

That quote says it all. Star Wars is back.


  1. Stellar review and I think we're in total agreement. TFA has its issues, but when it's as instantly-iconic as it already is, I found it so, so very easy to forgive those criticisms.

    1. Thank you so much Jordan, I really appreciate it. Last night I went to see this for the third time already and I honestly don't even have criticisms anymore. It isn't that it is a perfect film (it isn't), it's that I cannot even muster the energy to care about any imperfections. TFA is just such a joy, to recapture the energy and charm of the original trilogy, and the pacing is so fluid and wonderful that I am completely immersed and entertained from start to finish.

      For me, this belongs right there with the originals. It's just such a wonderful film.

  2. When watching it in the cinema, I turned to my husband, without taking eyes off the screen, and said: "This movie is sooo awesome!" Like, three times. I didn't want it to end, either. (Although there have been thoughts of repeating elements from the older movies, but you know what? It worked then, it works now!!!) :)

    1. It absolutely repeated elements from A New Hope, without a doubt, but my argument is that this was a smart move rather than a lazy one. People lost faith in Star Wars after the prequels, and it isn't an easy situation for a director to step in and try to win people back, and the ability for this screenplay to balance introducing new characters and making us care for them while also warming the hearts of so many with nostalgia is tough to do and was handled wonderfully.

      I spend so much time picking apart films, and there was something about The Force Awakens that brought me back to being a kid watching the original trilogy when I would have never searched high and low for plot holes or scrutinized using the same beats again or nitpicked the smallest details to tear something down. It is just pure, blissful joy at the cinema, something people need more of in their lives.