Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

January 2, 2016

So I Watched The New Star Wars Movie The Other Day

I don't see a lot of films in the theater, but I got to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens the other day when I rolled off of a plane at 2 AM and couldn't sleep. I figured the big franchise effort would either shut my eyes or wake me up for the rest of the day. There was a 9 AM showing at a huge screen a country backroad 10 minutes from my house. So I indulged.

Of course I watched Star Wars when I was a kid. I was obsessive for the period right after the first movie, and consumed a lot of magazines about the movie and its antecedents and basically anything that was offered until the second movie came out. The second movie I watched a hideously inflated number of times at Muncie's downtown movie theater, the old Rivioli, with its balcony full of teenagers making out and its gag-item vending machine in the men's bathroom. That was a blast. It was a routine. I saw most of those Empire showings with my friend Dan Wright. I had a decent general allowance and in the summer was afforded an additional modest sum of money reserved for getting and consuming art because I lived the life of a spoiled middle-class kid, at least in those respects. The movie cost $1.00 or at most $1.50 at the first showing every day. Totally affordable. It was fun. That's a fun movie. The third I saw near the last day of middle school; there were no crowds. The prequels I saw in various big movie theaters in Pennsylvania and New Mexico, again without much of a crowd at any showing. I remember being stunned when George Lucas felt the need to explain the Force. I remember Jimmy Smits in a space convertible. I was confused when Yoda gave up fighting in that last one, like there was some sort of internally motivated rush to go into hiding far before I had been convinced the day was lost. Star Wars fans have fought harder and to greater self-injury arguing Yoda trivia on message boards than Yoda fought in that movie. Never trust a puppet to save the universe.

imageStar Wars wasn't the first nerd thing I encountered or the one about which I was most passionate, but it was the nerdiest part of the culture that I shared with the most amount of people. Star Trek and comic books and Dungeons and Dragons and Dr. Who and Monty Python all felt like things that about 15 people in my hometown of 80,000 experienced. Everyone knew Star Wars, though. There was a small group of popular girls that sat 15 rows behind us at Return Of The Jedi. Most of our parents saw the movie, too. I never felt the hostility that a lot of nerds did about their consumption of fantasy junk; no one in my immediate group of friends did. But even I could tell the difference between Star Wars and the rest of it. No one I know got really obsessed with Star Wars they way they might with the X-Men comics or videogames or even Star Trek. We didn't read the comic books, and we read a lot of comic books. I don't know that any of my friends gave the expanded universe material a shot. None of my friends college or before have mentioned the new movie on Facebook or in conversation.

I thought the movie was fine. It felt like clever and well-produced entertainment content. The movie was extremely handsome. Visual sumptuousness makes first viewings pleasurable and future viewings possible. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac and Harrison Ford (still; watch Age Of Adaline) are three of the 20 or so most charismatic actors working and it's fun to spend time watching them run around and chew scenery. The lead was charming and emotionally credible, which is so hard and so important. The bad guy was resilient and scary, Carrietta White by way of Columbine, although truth be told the actor was slightly more frightening in that last Noah Baumbach picture.

I am privileged enough in my lifetime to have had so many film and comic book and prose-novel characters look like me that bonding to characters that don't, like Menolly of Harper Hall or Kitty Pryde, was an easier, less-loaded option for me than it was for others. I'm thrilled that there is an array of characters in that movie for kids to play that want to play and embody those characters without having to make a potentially difficult leap. I don't know what kind of chumpdick you have to be to resent that. On the other hand, I'm also curious by grown people as desperate for on-screen approbation from a fantasy story as a kid might be, knowing full well that also speaks to my position of privilege.

One thing that's interesting about the reaction I've seen to the movie itself is how badly some people seem to process information onscreen in an age we see so many movies that this should be kind of easy for us now. Never has the act of consumption been so heroic, men and women leaping to praise or to demolish at their keyboards, eager to take a side. I've been sent to maybe ten articles that I've read in full. Nine of them seemed to be from people complaining about things that don't exist, or based on asserted plot points that clearly don't exist according to what happened in the movie. I'm particularly disheartened for the people that have these feverish, narrow, political points that force them to process art according to an internal scorecard. What a chore. You'd miss everything good about anything good doing that. It's like missing the forest for a cord of stacked wood you ordered to be there a week early.

I miss some of the George Lucas parts. I mean the ones from that first movie, mostly, the stuff that was informed by old film. The fact that it was informed by old film, that was something, too. But mostly there was a mood in that first movie that was very much of those times. I thought Luke Skywalker's impatience at being forced to live in a small town more affecting than Rey's frustration at being an orphaned refugee: the former seemed extremely 1977 and the other something of a bland story construct. In 1977 the generally beat-up spaceships and raggedness of folks' belongings allowed you to reverse-engineer in your imagination a universe diminished by war. I got no sense of what these additional years of conflict had done to the universe-at-large; it was like everyone was wearing their parents' clothes, and only the nice stuff. One weird thing I liked about the first movie is that Darth Vader represented something of an outdated, outmoded piece of technology himself, a swordsman in an era of really big guns, and thus was sort of naturally sympathetic to the threat he was trying to expunge. It's much harder to make those kinds of connections in a movie that has no chance of having to stand alone, that's one-third of its eventual total length. What they did do at certain points of this new movie was usually clever: I liked the signifiers with the bad guys that blended in horror at Vietnam-era atrocity and '90s mass-grave making with the usual Third Reich tut-tutting. The vast majority of bad-guy officers seemed purposefully young, their grasp at order and power represented in far more banal terms than I would have guessed going in.

So hey, that was a pretty good 150 minutes. I can't live in someone else's fantasy construct at my age and with my life experience, and that extends to speculation and digging for clues and having an emotional reaction to commercials. An article this long is an indulgence, and there's very little here that anyone would need to take away. I miss being a part of that world, though, just as I miss a lot of the friends I had that didn't make it this far, that didn't see a movie I bet they would have enjoyed.
posted 3:35 pm PST | Permalink

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