“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a big deal. Our long awaited “Episode VII” has steamrolled records on advance ticket sales and IMAX scheduling, and is expected to make at least $1 billion at the box office. Viewers cannot get enough “Star Wars.” In the days and weeks following its late December release, a noticeable portion of the world population will be turning out for the same two-hour epic because of its unique, powerful place in our collective imagination.
“Star Wars” is the heart, soul and liver of contemporary science fiction. Even if you haven’t seen “Star Wars” but have seen some work of sci-fi made since, you’ve sort of seen “Star Wars.” Similar to how anyone who has seen a contemporary sitcom has seen “Seinfeld,” or if you’ve read a coming-of-age novel you’ve read “The Catcher in the Rye.” Everything in that vein made in the last 39 years has borrowed from it.
It’s not that every “Star Wars” film is perfect or even necessarily good in the traditional way that “Casablanca” is. It’s something completely different from that. “Star Wars” is a unique multimedia saga experience that transcends many of the traditional notions of simply “good” movies and “bad” movies.
The original film, since renamed “A New Hope,” was an instant, enduring classic. It perfectly fulfills our need as story lovers for a heroic journey, but also fleshed it out with an absolutely groundbreaking universe.
Luke Skywalker is the classic everyman. We’ve all had that feeling of being a moisture farmer on the cusp of adulthood starring at the double-star sunset and dreaming of more, of answering a higher power’s call to do some greater good.
Han Solo perfectly taps into the other side of our personal fantasy. He’s the reckless badass space cowboy. He’s every action hero ever, tempered by his latent heart of gold, which matures with the trilogy.
Princess Leia is a little bit of each of them with a little more steadfast idealism. She is the essence of the Rebel Alliance in a plucky, narratively heroic fashion.
Between the three of them, you have depictions of heroes any kid could dream of becoming – and in space!
“Star Wars” gave us Darth Vader, the essential dark knight; the ultimate villain. He’s the looming destructive shadow of a human being, brought to life by James Earl Jones’ booming voice.
Vader is faceless, unchanging and “more machine than man,” as Obi-Wan says. He ensured heavy, severe breathing would mean shadowy, powerful malice for years to come. And Vader’s visible villainy makes the Emperor, when he’s unveiled as the behind-the-scenes wicked string puller, all the more perfectly evil.
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda are the ultimate mentors, called out from hermetic retirement to fulfill a final mission training the next generation. They’re Jedi wisdom: old school, self-controlled, enlightened space chivalry. Every other thing Yoda says is an axiom.
And these are just the major characters. “Star Wars” boasts an expansive ensemble ranging from Lando Calrissian’s cyborg assistant to Jar Jar Binks. Each is worthy of an in-depth analysis. The world building at play (not even touching upon the expanded universe that Disney is rebranding “Star Wars Legends”) is rich and astounding.
That’s the epic backdrop against which Luke’s heroic journey (and/or Anakin Skywalker’s) is set. That very same ethos of sprawling world building leads us to the more controversial elements of the “Star Wars” universe. We generally know them as “the prequels.”
The prequels are loaded with camp. There’s your long C-SPAN-with-aliens section in the Galactic Senate of “Attack of the Clones,” the weird redubbing of “The Phantom Menace” and the clunky dialogue throughout. But the prequels get an unfair rap for essentially just continuing the “Star Wars” mission.
The fantastic imagination of “Star Wars” creates brilliant originality, but by extension, inevitably includes elements of camp. The line between the two is simply too thin to realistically expect “Star Wars” to fulfill its mission without some fumbles.
Think of the garbage masher scene in “A New Hope.” It’s totally bizarre, but it works! Think of Obi-Wan leaning backwards and becoming one with the Force while Vader pokes at it like a simpleton. Think of Luke turning off his targeting computer and using his feelings to blow up the most dangerous super weapon in existence. Remember the breathtaking, offbeat sublimity of the Death Star’s crackling explosion.
There’s a similar kind of sublime feeling in the entirety of Yoda’s existence; the way that he’s a Muppet but also an old warrior wizard hero while, furthermore, sort of a dirty old man.
There’s also the bar fight when Obi-Wan cuts off the thug’s arm and the alien bar band, Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes, whom pauses for a few seconds before awkwardly resuming playing. Or just the fact that there’s a space alien bar band. It’s a brilliant touch – hilarious and totally outlandish.
From a storyteller’s perspective, the weirdness we see in the prequel trilogy is either the same surreal quality that earned “Star Wars” our love in the first place or at the very worst a logical, natural and almost inevitable result of it. Let’s not forget that our heroes fly from the mouth of a giant space worm in the middle of “The Empire Strikes Back.”
My point is that “Star Wars” is a ludicrous set of stories riffing off the most essential, classic tropes of storytelling while simultaneously creating a ton of its own. That’s beautiful. It’s hilarious. It’s a marvel to behold.
It’s why we love “Star Wars.” It’s also kind of why we sometimes hate “Star Wars.” It spawns debate about novelty, storytelling, what works in a movie and what doesn’t work in a movie and in which setting. While parts of the series may very well make you indignant, that’s part of the experience, too.
We can argue about whether or not Jar Jar Binks should exist for pages and then decide that he’s actually a Sith Lord because “Star Wars” is an interactive experience. It’s a contemporary mythology we all get to be a part of.
“Star Wars” is a space opera. It doesn’t try to be scientifically realistic. It doesn’t even always try to be narratively realistic; it’s a fantasy. While it’s make-believe, it’s also the earnest kind of make-believe. It’s wholehearted, but sometimes it doesn’t achieve what it was going for.
You have to look at it as something of a children’s or a family series. It’s a massive, powerful fairytale. But it still conveys so many intensely personal, universal, ageless aspects of the human experience. Younger series like “Harry Potter” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” do something similar.
The recurring themes expressed in music by John Williams are heroism, love, loss, faith, sacrifice, family, freedom, duty and friendship. And there are some dark moments too. Watch “Empire” and note that after Vader tortures Han, our space cowboy says, “He didn’t even ask me any questions.”
When we talk about “Star Wars” we talk about wonder. We talk about a shared, mystical experience. “Star Wars” is a saga people bond over. The themes, tastes and appreciations we see in “Star Wars” are some of the very ideals that make for the most sacred and valuable of human relationships.
I personally have already made plans to see “The Force Awakens” with at least four different groups of friends and family. There’s simply no single series that could so effortlessly appeal to my parents with the same force as it does to my college-age friends and my little brother.
I have huge faith in Disney and J.J. Abrams to do the series justice. It’s fitting that “Star Wars” will be taken on by the same multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate that has owned and administered the childhood classics of the last four generations.
Abrams, as well, was an excellent choice for a director. You can see him in 2009’s “Star Trek” or “Super 8” demonstrating a nearly perfect balancing of heart and thought with the action and humor necessary to make it palatable.
But even if “The Force Awakens” is a catastrophe (which I doubt it will be) it will still be hugely important. Even if this resembles the prequels all over again, it will be great in its own “othergalacticly” offbeat, bizarre, unique, absolutely “Star Wars” way.
Even if you hate “Star Wars,” it’s not going away. It’s more than just a series – it’s a mythology. You can criticize the movies, extensively. Hell, they deserve a lot of it. Sometimes “Star Wars” is bad, but it’s always great. It’s always an imaginative journey and a common experience. Even to utterly eviscerate how the films are composed is to be a part of that culture.
So for the last few deniers, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
Christopher McDermott is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.