To be a Star Wars fan is to resign yourself to a life of arguing about Star Wars. Did Han shoot first? Are the Ewoks adorable or merchandising run amok? Did the Special Editions ruin the original trilogy? Are the prequels total garbage or admirable for attempting to move away from outer space fairy tale and into a headier discussion about corruption and the death of democracy?
Hours upon hours have been devoted to arguing these questions, and nothing much has changed since Disney made George Lucas an offer he couldn’t refuse. Just as there were those who couldn’t stomach the prequels there are now those want nothing to do with the new Disney-controlled era of the franchise. The prequels sucked because they didn’t feel like Star Wars, and now these new Disney movies – Force Awakens, Rogue One – stink because they feel too much like Star Wars. Or so the general argument goes.
I have previously praised both Force and Rogue, but here on the eve of Last Jedi’s release, I thought I’d revisit them to see what I missed. Is Rey a Mary Sue? Is Jyn nothing more than a token female badass, Hollywood’s favorite new flat character type deployed by male screenwriters eager to prove how woke they are about feminism? Is Force Awakens just an empty-headed riff on New Hope? Does Rogue One’s plot hole-filling story actually weaken instead of strengthen New Hope? And what do we even do with this?:
None of that particularly mattered to me upon first viewing the films at the time of their release, but now? Actually, still no. I love these movies, and here’s why:
THE FORCE AWAKENS A NEW, OLD HOPE
What I Said Then: “If it all seemed too similar to A New Hope I genuinely didn’t care because I’d look over at my young nephew and see how much he was loving it. Like him, I wanted to see how this story with Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren played out. I was transported to a galaxy far, far away in a way I haven’t been with any Star Wars in a long, long time.”
What I’ll Say Now: My word, it is kind of startling how hyper-competent Rey is at absolutely everything she does. Instantly a better pilot than Han Solo AND a better (or at least equally capable) Force user than Kylo Ren? Plus, Leia hugs her, a girl she barely knows, at the end instead of Chewie, whom she’s known for decades? What’s the deal with Finn suffering a crisis of conscience over blood on his visor one minute and then gleefully mowing down his former fellow soldiers the next? Maz just happens to have Luke’s lightsaber? Deus ex R2-D2 and magically turning back on for no reason. Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux is the least convincing Hitler stand-in since The Producers, but at least there that’s part of the joke.
I could go on. There really is quite a lot to nitpick (or legitimately criticize) here. However, what’s that old Roger Ebert about nitpicking movies? Basically, if you’re doing it that means the movie’s not working for you. Because as Ebert did say, “If a movie is really working, you forget for two hours your Social Security number and where your car is parked. You are having a vicarious experience. You are identifying, in one way or another, with the people on the screen.”
The Force Awakens still works in that way for me. I notice the various nitpicks because they have been repeatedly pointed out over the years in countless articles and YouTube videos. However, there is still a power to the film which resonates today, largely because the new characters are worth watching and J.J. Abrams’ various mystery boxes are masterfully revealed (remember back when we didn’t actually know who Kylo Ren was?).
Granted, the plot is largely a retread of A New Hope, but not in a flat out uninspired, Jurassic World kind of way. It feels more like it’s reshaping a mythical story for a new generation. While this at times teeters over the line to mere wishlist checking (e.g., gotta have a cantina scene, a good trench run finale, etc.), it also offers several new spins on the familiar, such as gender-switching our new Luke (Rey) and giving us a new Darth Vader (Kylo Ren) who is tempted by the Light Side instead of the Dark.
Replacing the Death Star with, well, a Super Death Star that kills three planets instead of one feels just as lazy now as did then, but the final act also manages to deliver one of the all-time most powerful moments in Star Wars history:
Verdict: The Force Awakens remains, for some, a lost opportunity. Faced with the chance to relaunch the world’s most iconic film franchise, Disney and J.J. Abrams chose to cut + paste new characters into a thinly veiled retelling of A New Hope. The prequels, however poorly executed, at least displayed more ambition. As Lucas said, in the most shade-throwing way possible, Force Awakens was one “made for the fans.”
I still struggle to see why that should completely invalidate Force Awakens, though. If anything, Force‘s depressing depiction of a Star Wars universe where nothing much has actually changed since peace never lasts and war is never far behind feels more attuned to the cyclical nature of world events than any kind of update on Return of the Jedi’s super-happy-fun ending would have us believe.
There was a different story they could have told about festering corruption and the struggles of the New Republic to fend off extremism and separatists, and that would have been in keeping with the prequels and inevitably serve as a showcase for Luke, Leia and Han. Instead, they told us a fairy tale about an impossible girl longing for adventure and identity and gave us new characters acting out familiar, but somewhat different beats. Now that they’ve done that they can finally go somewhere completely new in Last Jedi.
ROGUE ONE REMEMBERS THE “WAR” PART OF “STAR WARS”
What I Said Then: “Rogue One is like a Howard Zinn version of a Star Wars movie, shifting its focus away from the leaders and archetypal figures over to the grunts. It shines the briefest of spotlights on those heroes of war who don’t get to be at the victory parade, the non-chosen ones who ultimately make Luke Skywalker’s hero’s journey possible. It is a heist movie stacked on top of a war movie, and though it suffers from excessive table-setting in its first third (as well as from a puzzling Forest Whitaker performance) it is ultimately a stunning achievement of franchise filmmaking, bold and stirring in the ways most others are predictable and condescending.”
What I’ll Say Now: I was once as skeptical about Rogue One as everyone else. It seemed like the question to an answer I never cared to ask – how did the Rebels get the Death Star plans Leia has at the start of New Hope? I don’t know. Who cares? The backstory of the MacGuffin doesn’t matter to New Hope.
[This is where you and I might part on how much time we’ve spent pondering Star Wars since I understand a great many have always wanted to know how the Rebels got the plans.]
Then behind the scenes reports of reshoots, rewrites, and a director being quietly pushed aside earned the film the dreaded “troubled production” label. Sigh. This was always going to be a stop-gap to tide us over between Force Awakens and Last Jedi, but couldn’t it at least be a good stop-gap?
Imagine my surprise when Rogue One blew me away. It still does now. Those who understandably bemoan the Disney-ification of Star Wars tend not to give Rogue One enough credit for just how dark it is. Not only does it concern itself with the personal (Jyn losing her parents) and psychological (Cassian losing his soul for the Rebellion) cost of war in a way no Star Wars ever has before, it also drops the hammer in the most brutal way possible: everyone dies! Literally everyone, other than the various cameoing characters from New Hope. Moreover, Rogue One shows us just how close the Rebels were to defeat, breathlessly taking us right up to the moment that Darth’s big ass ship chased after the Rebel’s comparatively tiny ship in Hope’s iconic opening.
Could Disney have done something more interesting with its first Star Wars spin-off? Sure. We didn’t actually have to revisit this particular part of the saga. A universe as vast as Star Wars doesn’t need to keep coming back to Darth Vader. However, after the damage done by the prequels returning Darth to a bogeyman figure seen sparingly actually restores a lot of his power as a cinematic villain.
Of course, the true stars of the story are Jyn, Cassian and their glorified Suicide Squad, most memorably consisting of Donnie Yen as a Force-sensitive blind man with the instant classic mantra “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.” Upon rewatch, Jyn’s failure to truly function as a dynamic character is more apparent, and Forrest Whitaker’s, um, constant whisper-yell (?) is more annoying. However, the characters are each working on their own path toward some kind of personal redemption, and when that redemption only comes via death in service to a greater cause it’s gratifying (they pulled off the heist!) but devastating (death-by-nuclear-bomb, while huddled together on the beach, makes for such moving imagery).
Verdict: Better than it has any right to be.
What about you? Has your opinion of Force Awakens and Rogue One changed at all since they came out? Let me know in the comments.