So, 38 years ago, the same month that my first published science fiction story appeared in the semiprozine Unearth, I watched Star Wars on the opening day with several dozen members of the Washington Science Fiction Association. People cheered and screamed and clapped all through the show. Leaving the theatre, we all knew what had witnessed the birth of a new mythology.
A few years later, I sat at a table at the Hugo Awards ceremony. At the next table sat Gary Kurtz, producer of The Empire Strikes Back. We all applauded loudly at his expected win. I did not expect to win because before the banquet started, Robert L. Forward had already commiserated with me about my losing the Campbell Award to him. I therefore had not even bothered to dress up. Imagine then my amazement when Somtow and the Star Wars franchise were both winners that night.
It can be seen that this series of movies has always put in an appearance at key moments in my career. When I returned to Bangkok in late 1977 to try to realize my youthful ambition of “revolutionizing all art” in Thailand, I came to a Star Wars-free world because the Thai film industry was having a protracted fight with the government, who wanted to encourage the local film biz by charging an outrageous tax on foreign films. In Manila, giving a concert, Bruce Gaston and I snuck away one afternoon to see Star Wars in a dreary suburban theatre, turning down our taxi driver’s offer to provide nubile women for the evening. I surprised Bruce a bit by being able to recite the entire dialogue along with the film.
I didn’t care for the third film much; the first of the prequels was okay, exciting sort of, but I didn’t even bother to watch Nos. 2 and 3 in the theatre. When I finally got around to catching them on video, I found them decidedly dull. But today, driven by a trailer that managed to revive all those decades-old emotions, I dropped everything to take my son to a sneak preview of No. 7. Everyone’s already saying it’s the first good one since The Empire Strikes Back, and that’s pretty much true, so I don’t need to review it. Though I will.
The explosion of the Star Wars mythos into our collective consciousness was transformative. There are the things that everyone talks about, such as the way the universe looked used and dirty for the first time, or the Joseph Campbell wholesale plot borrowing, the deadpan wit. And of course how Star Wars dragged the nerdy world of science fiction fandom into the bright (and unforgiving) light of the mainstream. Also seriously discussed in the SF world was how science fiction film had caught up with 1930s space opera (this became even more explicit after Leigh Brackett was brought in as a writer) ... and the hope that perhaps one day science fiction film would manage to reach the 1950s and even 1960s ... which now, with series like The Man in the High Castle, is happening right on that same 50-year-delay schedule.
Less talked about perhaps was the way in which Star Wars heralded a full scale invasion of Asian sensibilities into American culture, for Star Wars was of course almost a scene by scene remake of Kurosawa’s film The Hidden Fortress, and what is “the force” if not some Zenlike thing, and who is Yoda if not some kind of Shaolin master, and so on.
The darkness of Empire deepened the mythos; the silliness of Return broadened it and lowered its denominator. Despite the strident toy-selling of Return and the aw-shucks revelations about Darth Vader’s “heart of gold,” the trilogy as a whole was one of the most important icons of the culture of the second half of the twentieth century.
The same couldn’t really be said of the prequel trilogy. Binge watching it on blu-ray is kind of fun, only because the “real” trilogy leaves one wanting so much more. Indeed we found those films’ “lack of faith disturbing” in their inability to trust the vision, and go instead with size, effects, and spectacle. It took a seventh film, made without the original visionary, to return us to the original vision.
But we who saw that first film 29 or 100 times, who memorized the dialogue, are a lot older now. Those ten year olds have had lives and loves. Some have even read Joseph Campbell and understand the tricks. We are jaded and we are tired, but The Force Awakens does have the ability to function as a sort of emotional Viagra for the child within.
Yet it’s impossible to watch it with quite the sense of wonder that one had then, and J.J. Abrams knows this; what he has directed is as much reboot as it is invention. Every button is pushed — even the controversial Kessel Run one. (We all really know that “the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs” was a huge science gaffe, but later Lucas tried to finesse it by claiming a level of irony that is not at all apparent no matter how many times you view the clip. Actually the savvy science fiction audience in the 1977 opening I went to booed raucously at the parsec boo-boo. ) Abrams not only brings back the infamous line, but riffs off it. There’s other infamous resurrected lines, too, and a few new ones that will become infamous over time.
As for the plot, it’s essentially the same as A New Hope, except with a black dude and a way cute female warrior instead of a bunch of white guys. There’s a sort of Mega-Death Star that uses entire suns as fuel, except we never quite learn why when the sun goes out, the temperature on the planet doesn’t drop to around absolute zero and why everyone’s still breathing. But then no one cared about spaceships thundering through the vacuum of space either, or fighter pilots using atmospheric banking maneuvers when there’s no atmosphere. It’s just part and parsec of the fun.
The mellowing of the audience and the filmmakers showed right in the first few seconds of the film. The familiar fanfare sounds, and just before the big theme starts up, on that final triplet of the fanfare, we get something I don’t remember hearing before ... a rallentando. It’s an almost imperceptible touch of espressivo in the music but to a musician it immediately tells us that this intense cup of java is going to be sipped through the whipped cream of nostalgia.
The cream on top lards every loving reference to the first trilogy. The prequel trilogy is pretty much ignored. Thank God those pesky midichlorians are never mentioned. Once we learn that Luke Skywalker has been missing for decades and that the standard mcguffin stored in a cute bot is a map to his location, we pretty much figure out that this will be a family saga and that there will be descendants. It doesn’t take long to figure out who is descended from who, though one mystery is left hanging — hopefully we will be surprised in the next part, but I doubt it.
For the emotional climax of the film, our storytellers choose a variant of the “I am your father” scene from Empire. Joseph Campbell and the blueprints left by the previous stories lead us to expect exactly what does in fact happen, but it’s well done nonetheless, even tear-jerking. Indeed, the new villain, the Darth Vader successor, is nuanced, very much of our time. He’s petulant, cruel, and dashingly handsome — a very effective new mix of elements. Harrison Ford is the only original actor whose return is more than a cameo and his presence lends a kind of authenticity to the entire piece.
In the 70s, diversity in casting meant giving a few lines to aliens, but that’s not enough in 2015. It’s refreshing and satisfying to see the “Luke” position in the plotline taken by a woman (Daisy Ridley) and to have the turncoat stormtrooper seen as black man. One might hope for, say, a gay couple as military leaders in the next installment, but that’s maybe too much to ask for. A bounty hunter with a Scottish accent was pretty amusing, as well. (Was it Scottish? It went by so quickly, and giant octopuses were running around eating people so I soon forgot him.)
Okay, so not a single surprise in the whole movie, really, except the surprise that the team got away with it. It really did feel like Star Wars. I felt like a kid again. Well, a very analytical, over-intellectual kid to be sure, who couldn’t help analyzing each moment for its Jungian overtones, but as much of a kid as one can still feel like at my age.
Let’s hope the “special edition” doesn’t ruin it....