Ok here we go.
Back when I used to write about more video games than just Dark Souls I would joke that all my articles were about games that you had already played. Writing about the new Star Wars movie has the same sort of feel. Nothing I can possibly say will:
Change anyone’s perception of how the movie went.
Materially change the position of the movie in the overall cultural landscape of the modern world.
Serve any purpose but to feed my own self-centered need to be able to read my opinion over and over again.
But, I’m old enough to have actually seen the original Star Wars in its original form in actual movie theaters in 1977. While I have never been a huge fan of the films it’s not hard to understand the context from which fan anger over the evolution of the series originates. So I’m here to give you the old man take on why the Star Wars movies are important. Why only one of them is really any good at all, and why the new one is a hopeful sign that there might be a second really good one some time in the future.
What Effects Movies Were Like in 1977
To understand Star Wars you have to understand what fantasy movies were like in 1977. Since everything is on Youtube, I can use a couple of simple examples to illustrate my point. If movies were video games, then a modern movie these days would be like, say, Fallout 4.
Here is what Fallout 4 looks like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5aJfebzkrM
That looks pretty good even with the shitty Bethesda face animation.
Here is what movie effects looked like in 1977, before Star Wars: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=it0sf4CMDeM
Special effects technology in 1977 ran the gamut from cheesy stop motion and scale model effects all the way to … horrible matte composites combined with cheesy stop motion and scale model effects. It’s hard to overstate exactly how primitive things were.
Star Wars pioneered several different kinds of optical, motion camera and compositing techniques that completely changed how movies could look. It’s impossible to really describe what it was like to sit in the theater in 1977 and watch the Millennium Falcon fly around, see those laser swords swooshing back and forth, or watch the pilot-eye view of the X-Wings flying into the trench. It was dork heaven, and it had a large psychological and cultural impact on a lot of young dorks between the ages of 12 and 21. Star Wars was a visual and technical feast that brought a whole new world to life and the rest of the elements of the film were just good enough to keep the movie watchable even today. Personally I would not say that it’s good, per se, but you can’t deny its place in film history. As we’ll see you also can’t deny that in retrospect it’s a small miracle that Lucas managed to construct such an enjoyable combination of speculative fantasy world building and a collection of characters that you actually care about.
The Only Really Good Star Wars Movie
People who know me know that I think The Empire Strikes Back is by far the strongest of the Star Wars movies. For me the film is the only one that both refines the already breathtaking technical effects of Star Wars and also manages to grow the original set of characters in interesting ways. After Empire you had the feeling that ILM could put anything imaginable on the screen in front of you and you might have also hoped that the next movie in the series could continue to develop and grow the storyline in further interesting directions.
Alas this was not to be.
Starting with Jedi (which is actually OK through about the first half) and moving through the remastered original trilogy and on into the Prequel series Star Wars evolved from reasonably intelligent action/dramatic space-opera into a series of overblown, horribly written, visually terrible and cynically packaged cash grabs.
You don’t need me to tell you the obvious. All of the later movies make you question how the original Star Wars ever ended up being as good as it was. By the time Revenge of the Sith came out in 2005 there was precious little evidence that Lucas was competent to do anything with movies besides make merchandising deals for them.
At least that’s what I think. I think this is partly true and partly a result of the fact that I was between the ages of 18 and 35 when Lucas decided he’d make the Star Wars movies for twelve year olds forever.
A New Hope
Which brings us to the new movie, awkwardly called Episode VII, when really Episode IV would have made more sense. In a weird meta-circular way I also think that Episode IV makes more sense because Episode IV was retroactively called “A New Hope” (a retitling that I never liked, of course) and in a lot of ways I think the new movie provides a new hope for the series. I have no hard evidence with which to make this argument, I only have my own experience in the movie theater watching the movie. But here are a few random thoughts.
First, JJ Abrams is about my age, so he knows what it was like to be 12 years old and sitting in the dark watching the Millennium Falcon scream past you on the screen. More importantly, he understands that beyond that technical achievement, which he can’t duplicate in 2015 (he just can’t), what made people care about the original series was the likeable cast of characters thrust into the larger spectacle of galactic warfare. You can tell that the emphasis of the film will be on the people rather than the galaxy from the first sentence of the text roll:
Luke Skywalker has vanished.
No bullshit about trade agreements or the political maneuverings of a make-believe Senate that you give no shits about. Luke Skywalker has vanished. That you care about.
What is good about this movie is all about character, tone, competent writing and most of all a competent sense of visual design. The film looks like an actual place might look rather than like a cartoon mashup of Autocad design elements pooped into a frame of film. It uses digital effects where they make sense but avoids doing so in such a way that you notice them. This is all done with a level of good taste and a compositional eye that Lucas apparently lost sometime in 1982.
Complaints that it is “mostly a remake” or a slightly disguised mashup of the original trilogy are not without merit, but mostly miss the point. I think the series needed a mix of old and new to recalibrate itself and prepare the move the story forward into its next phase with its new population of characters. Is it a stretch for us to just happen to run into the Falcon, Solo, Chewbacca and all the rest? Sure. But it’s not as bad as the awful time loop story that JJ used to get old Spock into the new Trek movie.
I think the scene that most exemplifies what I liked about this movie comes near the end of the long light saber fight between the Darth Jr. character and the two new protagonists, Finn and Rey. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think Rey summons the light saber from across a field, making it fly out of a snow bank, through the air and into her hands. As all of this happens and the sword finally lights up her face, the music behind the scene swells up into a huge crescendo centered around the original theme for Luke (“the Force theme”) from Star Wars. Then we get back into the fight and she kicks some more ass.
There is no way for a 50 year old Star Wars nerd to watch that moment and not be taken over by multiple waves of nostalgia for all of the bits of the original trilogy that are referenced. On the other hand, I don’t think the movie is only trading on this nostalgia. The moment works because Rey is, in her own right, a character strong enough to make you take her seriously when that music plays under her big moment. If Lucas had tried to pull off a moment like that in the prequels (maybe he did, I really don’t know what happened in those films anymore) you would just snicker to yourself and not really believe it because this is a man who got a boring performance from Samuel L. Motherfucking Jackson and you simply can’t buy his bullshit anymore.
But to me Abrams has credibility because he spends the entire film saying to you: “It’s OK, I got this”, and then showing you that it’s OK, he has it. For me the movie works because for the most part the characters work. They are well-written and mostly well-acted. And, as I already said above, the movie is well filmed. The frames are not busy. The visual language is interesting. The places look real when they need to and fantastic when they need to. Abrams gains your trust by being good at making movies. I will forgive the movie various foibles related to plot points that make no sense because plot never mattered in this series anyway. What matters is that you watch these people you care about fly around this make-believe galaxy and swing laser swords at each other and the whole thing is done well enough that you mostly believe it.
A New Hope indeed.