Back to Basics (And Why This is One of the Best Things About New Star Wars)

Cap 100By Alexander Shaw

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE FORCE AWAKENS

 

Here are the three biggest issues that seem to keep turning up in the criticism of The Force Awakens…

  1. It’s just a remake of Star Wars
  2. Kylo Ren is a Weak Villain
  3. Rey is a Mary Sue

Let’s take these three as major positives.

For the first you need to jump outside your age and go back in time. If you’re 45 years old and were there for the original in 1977 then you will simply have to peel away everything that came after and focus on that initial feeling. If you are any younger you’re going to have to somehow go zen and forget the prequels, Return of the Jedi and even The Empire Strikes Back.

Think about that big, blank canvas. Part of it beautifully covered in the epic first outing, with courageous heroes and dastardly villains rendered almost unilaterally in black and white, though not, notably coding either extreme solely in the positive or negative. Evil white Stormtroopers were fascinating, as was swaggering black-vested Han Solo.

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Take a look at this Kenner 12 figure card back from early 1978, less than a year after the movie launched, when the first action figures hit shelves. Obviously today they would have had them ready months before the movie launched but Star Wars was the line that changed everything about the way movies and merchandise were sold together as Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987) so acerbically made note of. Compare it to the last cards of the Return of the Jedi line six years later when eighty more figures had been added, and that was in the years before Hasbro rendered every single background character in plastic.

Do you see what’s around those first figures? Space, blackness… potential. Highlighting their special, singular quality.

Abrams and company could have presented us with a deep and complex, moody, gritty, real-feeling story designed entirely to please people who wanted to see Star Wars finally do something new (as though TFA didn’t) and render The Force into shades of grey rather than simply dark and light.

But like it or not, that’s what the prequels were ham-fistedly attempting. Remember the legions of robots controlled by space traders who didn’t ever really feel evil? The allegedly pure and true-hearted Jedi who turned out to be a bunch of confused cultists kidnapping children. The troubled hero who wound up murdering them all. Shades of grey all round, poorly defined with blurry, greenscreen edges and a distinctly less than triumphant result. By all means it was complex, so complex in fact that a movie about badass knights with laser swords, gleep glop aliens and space magic got weighed down in trade disputes and political chicanery the likes of which will never EVER interest children (or most adults) before the first title crawl had run its course.

Now they didn’t actually have to run the same lines as A New Hope or incorporate the elements of Empire and Jedi in there in a way that made this story feel quite as familiar. It could just have been a simple story that we hadn’t seen Star Wars do before, like kids attending magic Jedi school/no, wait a bunch of unlikely heroes band together to overcome their differences and take down a common enemy/no, wait how about teenagers getting scary new powers/no, wait, there is literally NO NEW SIMPLE STORY! Nothing that would not have entailed “Well this is just Brideshead Revisited with a Star Wars re-skin.” But is it really so BAD that they did this? Most people don’t seem to think so, judging by the astonishing box office numbers, bolstered by people going back to see it again and again, or the exceptionally high critical response that puts it only just below the first two which broke the mold and then improved upon the stellar original.

Of course it’s not binary; straightforward or complex/remake or something entirely new, OF COURSE it’s going to get darker and deeper and more ethically intriguing, but from the very start, for adults who need to remember what it was like to be seven, for seven year olds watching their first Star Wars on the big screen and everyone in between we absolutely need that black space, those stars and that potential at the edges of a bunch of bright, appealing and clearly good or clearly bad characters. The brand, even more than its audience needed, in one magical word; simplicity.

And that’s exactly what we got.

The series has been brought back to the time when you can hold one goody in your right hand and a baddy in your left and have that baddy yell “TRAITOR!!!”, then obsess over his unrevealed identity, his deeper connection to Finn and  their clearly rich back-story, all the while making GIFs and memes and… oh wait, that’s a new thing, our imaginations are hooked into the social network so we’re all playing together now, 24/7.

This, above all other things needs to be taken into account. No other Star Wars experience in the past has had us so connected. Even the early internet rantings that organised petitions for Peter Jackson to direct Episode II, now in a move of supreme irony echoed in the petitions to get George Lucas BACK for Episode VIII cannot come close to the level of play we have at our minds and fingertips, toys, video games, toys IN video games, Lego, Nerf, pictures, comic strips, video mash ups, fanfic, cosplay, poetry, fusing and elaborating concepts and fan theory after ludicrous fan-theory… not to mention think pieces like the one you’re reading that examine the fabric of society and find it riven with stars, clickbait on every conceivable detail and countless hours of to-camera personal reviews and of course quality podcasting; from now on, play will never be only about the action figures and pretending to be Han Solo and Darth Vader in the schoolyard.

BUT we have that basic story to elaborate on, not one that twisted and turned and changed what Star Wars was at its heart.

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On to complaint number two. Now it’s hard to put this into words but the best way I can manage is…

“Kylo Ren…. Waaaaaaaaaaaah!”

That’s it. He disappointed some of us. Not everyone by any means, he’s hugely popular and sparking off some truly fascinating conversation that would have left the 70s Vader-talk in our vapour-trails. But almost all of those fans mistaking character weakness for weakness of character failed to see the symbolism.

He’s the Star Wars series itself given new lease of life; despite his perceived unforgivable crimes, there exists in his future the potential for something more.

There is so much about Kylo Ren that is worth discussing and not simply (tragically) dismissing that I can’t go into here. Consult our Force Awakens podcast for more. Suffice to say, the idea that he’s not enough of a threat is ludicrous. He took away one of our dearest friends onscreen. A lifetime idol for so many. He nearly killed Rey and may have badly hurt Finn.

Ain’t nothing more dangerous or threatening than that.

But then the argument becomes that he wasn’t worthy of that… what do I call it, deed, honour, crime… murder? It was something so unutterably terrible and such a senseless, premeditated waste that some of us may never fully recover. I still have torrid dreams and waken bunched up inside, or torn apart if you will.

This is some of that greyness, some of that complexity hinting at greater amounts in the future, this is exactly why it’s not simply a remake of Star Wars. This and point three come together to cancel one another out. Culturally it isn’t; psychologically it isn’t, the events that take place lead us to a different road. And if the worst happens and Episode VIII is a perceived Empire remake of commensurate quality with The Force Awakens, what a happy day we live in that THAT is a cause to lament.

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Third and finally Rey is a Mary Sue. Damn you Max Landis for throwing this poisoned cookie to the dickwolves. I’m sure someone else would have made this insight-free assessment but why did it have to be you?

A: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

B: If she seems too empowered, frighteningly so to some of you, Good.

Because we have had thousands of goddamned years of male heroes displaying godlike skill, frequently after a few chats with their Merlin character and a fucking training montage, like these are the only cinematic or storytelling tools beyond an unseen background with military training that can prove a person is justifiably skilled. You’ll notice nobody mentioned Poe was perfect, and with that chin and those eyes… sorry I was having a Finn moment there.

star-wars-entertainment-weekly-019That’s another thing I love, love LOVE, by the way. THAT was the bromantic relationship that fans got starstruck by. At least the ones on my Twitter feed.

But back to Rey, brought to life by the delightful Daisy Ridley, if she’d had more teaching or we’d had more explanation for her technical knowhow or survival abilities (you know, beyond having had to survive for some thirteen years on a technological scrapheap) do you honestly believe the men out there who feel uncomfortable with seeing a woman occupy that Johnny Template spot they’ve grown so cosy parking their identity inside their whole lives would have laid off her? What else would have been the problem with Rey?

I don’t care. My brain doesn’t work like that when presented with a female hero that feels so right for this moment. And I’m not alone in that, on the Rotten Tomatoes poll for favourite character she has stormed ahead of all the rest. All I do know is that I tried many times to get my daughter to love Star Wars like she does Harry Potter or the Avatar animated shows. She liked Artoo, Wicket and Leia, though Han was kind of a lovable pig and Luke was a bit whiny but ultimately brave and hopeful, a quality she responds to. She didn’t love Star Wars until Rebels came along, speaking her language. Now, thanks to this movie she LOVES Star Wars, and her favourite character is Rey. She adores Finn and Poe and BB-8 and even wept for Kylo and desperately wants to see what happens to him. By contrast she feels Vader is needlessly cruel and a bully and she downright detests Anakin.

When I was a kid, meeting a Star Wars fan was special. It was the late 80s by the time I was fully on board and by then boys loved Thundercats, Ghostbusters and eventually Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. I can’t remember a girl in my class who loved any of the above, except one girl who liked She-Ra and Transformers and seriously now, why did I not hang out with her more in the closing years of Thatcher’s Britain?

Now we have girls in Rey cosplay (because seriously FUCK that gold bikini), buying action figures, looking at how Princess Leia has become General Leia over the years and pondering on that life. And beyond the little girls grabbing their first lightsabers you’ve also got generation after generation of female fan either longtime or new converts, coming back out with fists held high, feeling this universe now crackling with feminine energy at a balance it has never achieved before, and one that can only further approach equal standing as the years go by.

They may not have needed a confident, capable, strong, charismatic, lovable, vulnerable, honest and absolutely adorable female hero in place of the white male standard to actively love this film, it has so much more going for it, but you can be damn sure now that they’ve got her she will be empowering for decades.

Every day in my Twitter feed I see fan art rendering Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo, BB, Phasma, these awesome new characters in ways that are so damn cute and sparky and imaginative, they just add more to this growing tableau of appreciation.

This is not something that could be achieved with an overly convoluted first film, hell-bent on fleshing out far too much of the universe as it stands or setting up a series of shocking twists and dark actions, bellowing “This ain’t your poppa’s Star Wars” across the parapets. No, instead it went backwards somewhere comfortable that felt right to begin again. The playfulness is key, the childlike energy at its core, underpinned by the promise of deeper darkness to be dealt with. PS: Supreme Leader Snoke was kind of ridiculous, and I’ll assure you now with my zero inside knowledge, he’s not just a Palpatine repeat.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Han Solo (Harrison Ford) Ph: David James © 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved.

We long-term fans will hopefully live considerably shorter, less significant lives than the children of The New Force, it’s our job to be Han. We take them by the hand and open the door. They’re the ones walking through it and we’re just lucky enough to be along for the ride.

And I mean that even if you’re not a parent. You don’t actually need to be a father figure, just a seasoned fighter, in this case Poe. You get Finn where he needs to be, pass on the mantle of hero, and if you’re lucky you get to come back and be a badass of the skies too.

And if you’re confused and angry because things didn’t turn out the way you hoped and you’re looking for someone to blame while you smash things… well I don’t have to tell you who you are.

Star Wars will outlive every one of us. There is a peaceful acceptance in knowing nobody reading these words will be alive to see the last movie in the saga. What Han recognised in Ben Kenobi’s actions is that for new generations to have an equal chance at changing things for the better, they need that fresh pathway presented to them.

But Han brought something new to the table, something we didn’t feel he was even capable of previously, something that like us, could only come from a deeper personal connection… and it’s the same thing that kept Harry Potter alive.

Love.

 

Alexander Shaw Writes Books

New CenturyTrio 700X330

 

Author: Alex Shaw

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