Probably the only other sci-fi film that’s been looked forward to with as much rabid anticipation as Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But because of Episode I, fans are looking forward to it with both ecstatic anticipation and creeping dread.
I think there’s some wisdom to this guy’s argument that The Force Awakens is bound to leave hardcore fans feeling let down. Not because it’ll inevitably suck, but because (let’s just use me as an example) that at 43 years old, no matter how good the movie is, I’m not going to be filled with the same heightened state of wonder I had at age five. I’ll just be literally incapable of it from a physiological and psychological standpoint. It’s a natural part of aging that probably keeps the world from being a much more bonkers place than it already is. Though it could be argued the world actually is being run by people disengaged from reality living in a constant childlike state of make-believe. That would explain everything from America’s reluctance to embrace gun-control to whatever’s going on in the Middle East with robots bombing children.
The inability for The Force Awakens to inspire that same childlike wonder is also a natural part of addiction. Trying to attain that original high is the reason Star Wars merchandising is such a huge industry. You keep mainlining new sculps of Boba Fett figures but you just end up feeling numb inside.
And I think some fans are going to be letdown only because it’ll be the end of speculation. They’ll know if director J.J. Binks actually pulled it off. They’ll know if Luke has really gone over to the Dark Side. They’ll know if blah-blah character is blah-blah thing from blah-blah-blah. What’ll be left to care about?
But I’ll go further in saying that The Force Awakens isn’t even a sequel to Star Wars.
At least not the Star Wars from my childhood. The one that was not called A New Hope when I saw it (see above). I’ve come to realize mine is a very specific perception of the film. So specific that I’m open to the possibility I’m alone in this perception. My Star Wars has little to do with five out of six of the existing films and absolutely nothing to do with the batshit free-for-all that’s the Expanded Universe (of which I’ve only read, in graphic novel form no less, the arc that continues from the end of Return of the Jedi where Luke really does turn to the Dark Side in order to defeat a reincarnated Emperor clone and one shark is jumped after another).
One thing I am sure of, my dislike of the Prequels isn’t specific to me. For fans of the Original Trilogy, it surrounds us, penetrates us and it binds us together. I’ve heard from some that Episode I even ruined, or at least dampened, their enjoyment of the whole franchise. But the reason for my dislike might be more unique. The Prequels specifically ruined my enjoyment of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Not because how spectacularly bad the Prequels are tainted everything they touched, it’s that they made me realize the universe in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi is divergent from the one I personally experienced in (for the sake of clarity I’ll call it) A New Hope. This is something I already knew on some level, but the Prequels really hit the point home.
Even when I was a kid The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi left me cold. More so than I would admit to myself. At the time my blinding love for Star Wars prevented me from understanding exactly what it was I didn’t like about the films. I chalked it up to being mildly disappointed my hero and role model* Luke didn’t get the girl or that Empire ended on a WTF cliffhanger or that the Ewoks were unbearably cheesy. It was something more fundamental.
In the universe I experienced watching A New Hope, Obi-Wan and Vader were the last two Jedi. There was no Yoda, there were no Sith, Luke and Leia were obviously not related, and the Emperor wasn’t some kind of space-Sauron but just some dude. Sure, an “evil” dude by all accounts—something between Hitler, Stalin and whoever the worst Ceasar was—but just a man. Which is somehow much more truly evil than a guy in a nappy black robe who’s controlled by some kind of cosmic black magic.
For example, in A New Hope Vader is a brutal and undeniably scary nemesis, but Grand Moff Tarkin is a much more chilling villain. You get the sense Tarkin really believes he’s acting morally, for the greater good of the Empire and its citizens. He’d probably admit he’s detached and unsentimental in the expedient way he deals with the Rebels, but he sees the Rebels the same way the Oval Office sees ISIS. His Death Star is America’s drone strikes. In this film you get the sense he’s an extension of the Emperor (since the Emperor is too busy to show up on screen, all you get is a sense) and the Emperor is a similarly pragmatic and unflinching colonial bureaucrat more than a psychopathic tyrant.
The film is shockingly low in expository dialogue about what exactly the political situation in this galaxy is. By way oblique comments and the way people react to the presence of Storm Troopers in Mos Eisley, the audience extrapolates the Empire is a totalitarian regime (Owen and Beru’s fate pretty much solidifies this impression). But exactly how the Empire operates, how it treats citizens, what restrictions on freedom and what level of taxation it imposes is never stated. We assume it’s pretty dire since there’s apparently a significant rebellion underway. Clevery, Lucas made the officer’s uniforms look a bit like Nazi uniforms so we immediately have visions of concentration camps and genocide. It’s an effective short-form, the Hollywood “black hat” updated for 1977.
What we don’t know, however, is if there are concentration camps, or if the Empire is committing genocide, or why the Rebels are rebelling at all. For all we know the Rebels are radicalized jihadists trying to overthrow what was a relatively just and benign government that only abolished the Senate and built a Death Star in a last-ditch response to years of terrorist activity.
Now, that is a fan theory I am not seriously putting forward. But my point is the political situation in the galaxy of A New Hope is subtle and complex and has a ring of authenticity to it. The political landscape changes beginning with Empire Strikes Back, where it transforms into a dumbed-down good vs. evil struggle. The Emperor isn’t an off-screen character, we see him well enough to know he’s a creepy old Satanic looking wizard guy. By Return of the Jedi, the circle is complete and all subtlety and nuance is dead. He’s an evil space wizard. He has no complex human motivations, he’s just Evil—an embodiment of the Dark Side.
As well, before The Empire Strikes Back I had the sense the “Dark Side” was more of a metaphor. Simply a phrase the Jedi would use to describe people using The Force for nefarious gains and not a separate thing as it seems to have become in Empire.
Vader saying to Luke “If you only knew the power of the Dark Side” is a whole different kettle of fish than Obi-Wan describing to Luke how Vader had been “seduced” by the Dark Side. The former is literally making the pitch, “Hey, come and make a conscious life decision to be the living embodiment of evil. No justifications, no metaphors. Become literally evil. C’mon, son.”
In contrast, being “seduced by the Dark Side” is never believing you’ve become evil yourself but simply that you’re using this immense power you hold to more easily achieve your goals and, hey, what’s the big deal anyway? It’s not like you’ve become evil. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that.
Forget about the Prequel character Anakin for now. That name was never mentioned in A New Hope and Vader and Luke’s father really are two different people as far as we know. The idea that Vader was actually seduced by his own innate cruelty coupled with immense Jedi power is much more interesting than he’s fallen prey to something like an evil cosmic entity from Star Trek.
As it’s portrayed in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the Dark Side is like a spell that apparently changes Vader’s entire personality (from what looks like, at the end of Jedi, a pretty affable guy full of joviality and without a hint of cruelty in him) and which Luke is able to magically remove at the end of the film with a little less effort than a Catholic exorcism. But it’s not even like it’s a spell that gets cast upon you, it’s a conscious opt-in (to become a tyrant’s henchman for reasons unexplained in the original trilogy) and suddenly opt-out of just in time to save your long lost son.
This is pretty muddy, having-it-both-ways storytelling and part of the reason the Prequels had no option other than to be even muddier in trying to explain Anakin’s conversion. Trying show his journey from irrepressible blonde munchkin to the hulking masked psycho who crushes a man’s larynx in his fist before tossing him like a rag-doll into the wall, then date-rape drug interrogates his daughter and amputates his son’s hand is a herculean task. It’s like watching Little Orphan Annie turn into Regan MacNeil.
It’s a nearly impossible transformation that would’ve been helped if Jake Lloyd had the Damien-like uncanniness of a Culkin brother. But, as we know, he didn’t**. And even if Jake Lloyd did have a touch of the Anti-Christ in him, his character’s turn to the Dark Side would still be muddy. The Dark Side is at turns either that evil cosmic entity that possesses good people to do really, really bad things—like slaughter children—and also a conscious decision to “turn” to the Dark Side—because who doesn’t want to choose to slaughter children?
But more importantly, once the Force evolved from a its Taoist roots (everything is connected, there’s light and dark within everything) to a simple Jesus/Satan allegory (the two opposing Forces of literal good and evil) the Star Wars tale became a very different type of story set in a very different universe. And that’s the universe of The Force Awakens.
That isn’t to say I’m going to skip the film altogether or that I’ve preordained I won’t enjoy it. Not at all. I’m even kind of looking forward to the possibility of Darth Luke. But I’ll be seeing it not as the continuation of the hands-down favourite movie from my childhood, but merely yet another sequel to a couple films I honestly only kinda-sorta liked when I was a kid.
* Luke is a pretty terrible role model. I’m pretty much convinced in the new movie he’ll be a bitter old MRA bent on destroying the galaxy because his sister friend-zoned him 30 years ago. The reason he’s not on the poster because he’s “gone his own way”.
** I clearly didn’t mean adult Jake Lloyd, who ended up being true freaky.