Roads Not Taken: My Emotional Journey Through “The Force Awakens”

After seeing Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens almost a week ago (I was at the Chicago press screening) it’s taken me this long to process it. When the movie ended, I sat in my chair and felt conflicted. I felt like the kid who had opened all his Christmas gifts but didn’t quite get what he wanted.

Like many Star Wars fans, I’d been waiting for this installment of the Skywalker Saga for decades.  Sure, the Prequels were fine but I wanted to know what happened in that galaxy far, far away in the post-“Return of the Jedi” years.

And when you look at the marketing campaign that the folks at Lucasfilm/Disney put together, it was obvious that Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams knew what buttons they wanted to push, and what audience they were trying to reach. They wanted to reach the fans of the Classic Trilogy, the ones who grew up with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and the rest of those iconic characters. In short, a fan like ME.

So why did I have such conflicting emotions once the credits started rolling? Why was I not flush with joy as my fellow Star Wars fans who left the theater with me? Why is there a contingent of “fans” who are declaring their hatred for the film? And finally, how do I feel now that I’ve taken the time to sort out my feelings about the film and have seen it a second time? Here’s my 2 cents (or Republic credits if you’re not in the Outer Rim) WARNING – SPOILER TERRITORY AHEAD!:

Read more after the jump!

TRUST YOUR FEELINGS, YOU KNOW THEM TO BE TRUE

The one thing that “The Force Awakens” does best is hit you on an emotional level. There will be times when coincidences occur, the narrative seems to drag, and the “science” doesn’t make any sense, but you ignore all that for the most part because the movie hits you in the FEELS, and that’s when Star Wars is at its best.

When we first see Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, he’s doing hero stuff. He’s handsome and daring. We like him almost immediately. Same goes for Finn, the stormtrooper with a conscience, who is at the center of most of the film’s comedy. So of course we’re gonna root for these guys and hope that they survive whatever the bad guys throw at them.

Speaking of the Bad Guys, The First Order, the latest iteration of the “evil galactic Empire,” is almost shockingly cruel. And Kylo Ren, the baddie that is this generation’s Darth Vader, is stunningly powerful. (I didn’t know the Force could freeze blaster bolts in mid air. Deflect? Yes. But suspend until you decide you don’t want to anymore? Whoa.) So I instantly hated these guys, and was a bit afraid of them.

For all the advance press that BB-8 was getting leading up to the movie’s release, I expected the little droid to be annoying. I was floored by how friggin’ adorable that little soccer ball was! (Now I want one of those remote control BB-8 toys. Score one for merchandising!)

And when Rey – this generation’s Luke Skywalker – saves BB-8, and even decides to hold onto the little droid when giving him up would mean she gets to reap a huge reward, I knew that I’d like her and root for her, too.

So when it came to introducing the audience to the new generation of heroes in the Saga, Abrams did so expertly. I cared for them. I wanted to learn more about them. I wanted them to succeed.

It’s what he did with the classic heroes that I struggled with.

ALWAYS IN MOTION IS THE FUTURE, DIFFICULT TO SEE

Okay, I’ll confess that I’ve been writing Episode VII in my head for the last couple decades. I mean, what Star Wars fan hasn’t? I devoured all the post-Jedi comics and a good chunk of the Expanded Universe books. But we can all agree that in most accounts the following happened after the Battle of Endor:

Luke Skywalker rebuilds the Jedi Order.

Princess Leia and Han Solo get married.

Leia goes on to lead the New Republic.

Han Solo goes on to become a general in the New Republic’s military.

Imagine my surprise when none of that happens in The Force Awakens. If anything, it felt like we ended up in the “darkest timeline” of some alternate Star Wars universe.

Princess Leia Organa is now the General who leads the Resistance in what appears to have been an endless war against the First Order.

Han Solo is no longer serving the Rebellion (or the Republic) and has gone back to his smuggling ways.

And Luke Skywalker hasn’t rebuilt the Jedi Order, he’s simply disappeared.

What the frak, J.J.?!

This is most likely where a lot of the backlash against the film comes from, considering that the Expanded Universe gave fans a vision of the post-“Jedi” future that was a bit rosier and comforting. And while the Star Wars Story Group salvaged a few aspects of the EU for this new “canon”, a lot of it was jettisoned and that pissed some folks off.

(I was never married to the EU myself, finding the quality of the stories to be mediocre all too often. And the continuity got so damn complicated, it was almost as bad as the “X-Men” comics, so no tears here.)

(Well, except when it comes to Mara Jade, but that’s a topic for another day.)

It took my buddy and local film critic David Fowlie to open my eyes to what J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan were doing thematically in the film. A theme that hit me a bit harder than I expected…

…life doesn’t always turn out the way you imagine it will.

GLORY DAYS WELL THEY’LL PASS YOU BY

If you’ve never had a day when you looked back on your life and thought “gee, I wonder what things would be like if I turned left instead of right?” then I don’t think you’ve lived. And when it comes to the audience that “The Force Awakens” was crafted to appeal to, well we’ve lived a bit.

Who didn’t have dreams of being rich and famous, or traveling the globe, or – ahem – actually working on a Star Wars movie? Dreams of what could have been ended up giving way to what life actually had in store for you. Yeah, I’m talking about myself here, but I think pondering these things is universal for those who have gotten to a certain point in their lives. In our youth, the world is full of limitless possibility, but as we get older we see those possibilities diminish with each passing year. And we wonder what could have been.

That’s what “The Force Awakens” made me think about, what could have been were it not for life getting in the way. What if I had taken a chance and took that job that paid very little but could have led to greater opportunities? What if I had given that one relationship a real chance instead of being afraid to commit? What if I’d really committed to becoming the artist that I wanted to be in my youth? Yeah, as I ruminated over my feelings about the movie, I also thought about those kinds of things. Why? Because I saw my heroes in a place that I never expected them to be. And on each of their faces, I saw regret and a longing for what could have been.

Like I said, it hit me…

Right.

In.

The.

Feels.

THE DARK SIDE OF THE HYPE (AND THE LIGHT)

As for the naysayers who say that it didn’t meet their expectations, well folks, it’s not like we haven’t been here before. As we learned with the run-up to “The Phantom Menace”, Anticipation + Relentless Marketing = Unrealistic Expectations.

But after I saw it for the second time and finished processing all the emotions the movie stirred up, I’ve come to accept a few things: “The Force Awakens” has the best acting of all the Star Wars films across the board; Harrison Ford gives what is his best performance as Han Solo in any of the films, yes even the classic trilogy; the script is one of the tightest of the Saga, coming right on the heels of “Empire”; and the death of Han Solo gave us a moment that we have never experienced in the previous trilogies, namely a “NOOOOOOOOO!” moment where the audience cared as much about the death of the “old master” as the other characters in the movie did. I’ve seen it twice. It still hurts.

I take comfort knowing that Jedi Master Luke Skywalker will factor into Episode VIII. That there is a new generation of Star Wars heroes to root for. (Rey is going to be such a badass!) And that until the day comes where you no longer draw breath, there’s always time to finish what you started.

Rian Johnson, you’ve got a tough act to follow.

I give “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” a Geek Factor Rating of 3 1/2 thermal detonators (out of 4).

 

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