Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Star Wars" and Cynicism

I've been trying to write a post about "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" for a few months now, but I've never really been able to write something that I was OK with posting, and ultimately, I think it's because I always end up sounding cynical.

I truthfully have mixed feelings about the new movie. On the one hand, I can't wait to see it. I haven't been this hyped up for "Star Wars" since "Revenge of the Sith". On the other hand, I have a lot of reservations about J.J. Abrams' capabilities as a writer and director, and it's not hard to cut together a good "Star Wars" trailer, so I tend to take them with a grain of salt. However, as soon as I start going down the path of talking about all of the things that bug me about what I've seen so far, I start to hate the way it all sounds.

It isn't fair for me to be cynical about this next movie, because honestly, the cynical part of me wants it to be terrible. J.J. Abrams is exactly the sort of "Star Wars" fan that has done nothing but whine about the franchise since "Return of the Jedi". Since I was a kid, all I ever heard from those fans was how much everything sucked. Ewoks sucked, the Special Editions sucked, Jar Jar sucked, the new puppets sucked, the lack of puppets sucked, Anakin sucked, etc. and why oh why can't they just make a movie like they used to!

And now Disney is doing exactly that. Old cast, old methods, a plot that seems to be a carbon copy of "A New Hope" but with different names and places, and disregarding almost anything that has transpired since J.J. Abrams was a kid (unless it happened to make millions of dollars).

A lot of people see this as a love-letter, but at my worst, I see it as the product of a jaded "Star Wars" fan. The sometimes-implied notion that "back to basics" is what "Star Wars" needed all along completely misses the point of "Star Wars" for me.

This movie being terrible would be very vindicating. A testament to how the cranky old fans were always wrong and that their desire to "save 'Star Wars'" was always just about them not wanting to admit that maybe "Star Wars" never needed saving in the first place. That they were just mad that it wasn't pandering to them anymore.

And even if the new movie is bad, it won't really hurt the "Star Wars" canon for me. The next director, Rian Johnson, inspires a great deal more faith in me than Abrams does. He's an old fan, but he's brimming with imagination. "Looper" impressed me by being a time travel movie that had a pretty simple plot, but managed to feel incredibly unique. Who randomly puts telekinetic powers into a movie about time travelling hitmen? Rian Johnson, that's who. And it doesn't stop there. Every movie he has made is unlike anything I've ever seen, and all without straying outside of convention. "Brick" was a film noir set in a high school. "Brothers Bloom" was a quirky caper comedy with a genuine heart and a gut-punch of an ending that still finds a way to be enigmatically optimistic so that it doesn't sour the overall tone of the film. It's the same kind of magic that made "Star Wars" work from the beginning. It's that kind of "chocolate and peanut butter" logic that makes perfect sense when you see it, but it takes a genius to come up with it in the first place. And hearing him talk about the job, it just sounds like he's exactly the sort of person I want handling "Star Wars". If J.J. Abrams botched this, it wouldn't really hurt "Star Wars", it would just hurt Abrams and all of the fans who thought that this was what "Star Wars" needed.

I can't really lose. Even if this movie sucks, I'll still get to be smug about it from now until the next movie comes out and saves the day.

And yet... I don't want to hate this movie. I want to love it. I want all of the things I'm hoping to see to be brought to life. And despite my issues with Abrams, he's consistently very good at directing actors in a way that George Lucas never was. He's not so good at writing and his movies almost always have incredibly disappointing third acts, but maybe collaborating with Kasdan will make the difference.

I have dozens of reasons why I might hate this movie. I'm worried that the third act will just be blowing up yet another spherical super weapon. I'm worried that the movie will tie itself into a convoluted knot to explain why the good guys are still underdogs even though they won in the last movie. I'm worried that too much of the movie will be about making winking references to the original movies, or worse, thinly-veiled put-downs directed towards the newer canon. I'm worried that Abrams is hiding the fact that certain characters might have the last name Skywalker or Solo just so he can give us a convoluted "surprise" reveal like he did with Khan in "Star Trek Into Darkness" that isn't actually surprising and often requires a lot of pointless plot gymnastics to justify. I'm worried that the incredible and imaginative production design I'm used to will be reduced to just replicating things that were in previous movies, are remarkably similar to things that were in previous movies, or are just realizations of old, unused concept art. If there's more stuff like BB-8, I'll be fine.

But there are some things that would make me giddy as a schoolgirl. Finn turning out to be a clone would be an amazing revelation, especially if he's actually Force-sensitive (the implications!). Luke's "exile" turning out to be less about doing the hermit thing like Obi-Wan and Yoda and more about training the new generation of Jedi in secret would be nice. I'm hoping Captain Phasma turns out to be a sort of Stormtrooper Javert; Lawful Neutral to a fault. The Knights of Rey turning out to not be inherently evil, but a group misled by Supreme Leader Snoke (the new Emperor, basically) would be an interesting angle. The possibility that Finn isn't Force-sensitive, but Rey is would be cool because then you'd have a Force-sensitive character who doesn't use a lightsaber and a non-Force-sensitive character who does use a lightsaber.

In general, I'm just hoping that there's more to this movie than it seems. That there are real surprises hidden inside Abrams' "mystery box" this time around.

However, one thing I've decided is that even if the movie is terrible, even if all the "surprises" fall flat and it's just a cookie-cutter rehash, I don't intend to be cynical about it. I'll probably rant about it for a blog post or two, certainly, but I don't intend to fall to the dark side like many of the fans before me. I won't spend the next decade complaining about everything it did wrong. Hell, I'll probably still watch it whenever I decide to marathon the series, because even bad "Star Wars" movies tend to have something worth watching. And I won't have to put together a "fan-edit" to make it "the way it should have been". I won't act like the series has been ruined. I won't look forward to "Episode VIII" any less. And I won't be a jerk to the people who inevitably decide that this is their favorite movie in the series.

In a little over a week, I'll be going into a little theater near my hometown with my girlfriend, my brother, and some friends to see it on opening night. We will have a great time no matter how bad it might be because it's "Star Wars". And I'll probably go see it again the next day, even if I hated it, because it's "Star Wars".

Young children (but not super young children... the movie is rated PG-13, parents) will be seeing "Star Wars" for the first time next week. Good or bad, they'll hopefully walk out of that theater wanting to swing lightsabers, fly the Falcon, and feel the Force. They'll go home and dive into all the old movies and cartoons and they'll become a part of a fandom that, in spite of its darker side, still loves this franchise because of the way it connects all of us through our collectively captivated imagination.

How could I possibly be cynical about that?

May the Force be with you.