So “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.
I’ve written before about a litmus test I have for movies called the “bound-ahead” test; if a movie inspires me to take several stutter-steps ahead of my companion on the way out of the theater, so that I can turn around and excitedly chatter at them while walking backwards, waving my hands and saying Astute Critical Things (“Did you see THAT?!!?!?”) the movie was good. The bound-ahead test is simple and instinctive and I trust it quite a bit.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” did not pass the bound-ahead test. Because instead of bounding ahead, I waited until I got out of the theater before jumping about three feet in the air, letting out a earpiercing screech, then running in tight circles with my arms extended like an over-sugared child pretending to be an airplane. Then I ran in wide, looping spirals around my companion the whole way out to the end of the parking lot, screaming things like, “I TOLD YOU JJ COULD DO IT!” and “DIDN’T I TELL YOU JJ COULD DO IT!?!!!??” and ” HOLY SHIT, I CAN’T BELIEVE JJ DID IT!!!” back at my unfortunate companion.
What can I call a movie that so thoroughly broke my most reliable litmus test? How about: faith, rewarded. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a triumph, not just of storytelling and script and cinematography and score, but of single-entendre art, art not wrapped in defensive layers of snark and in-jokes and cynicism. It is a genuine, balls-to-the-wall adventure story, told with sincerity and a palpable desire to Do Things The Right Way: with script, not CGI; with a story honed to near perfection on the front end, not sliced into acceptable shape with editor’s shears on the back end. You can see that commitment everywhere: in the casting of infectiously enthusiastic, near-unknown John Boyega in the main role; in the tiny physical details, like the unappetizing bread Daisy Ridley cooks by stirring a fizzing dry mixture into a bowl of water with her finger; in the way that planets and sunrises and spaceships are treated as objects of awe, not just backdrops for expensive explosions. Gone are the rich man’s concerns that pervaded the atrocious prequels: trade routes, galactic parliaments, geneology, taxation. Here, characters are motivated by simple, human drives: Hunger. Thirst. A wish to do the right thing. A longing to regain your lost family or to rescue a friend in trouble. The desire to drive a spaceship really, really fast.
Speaking of that last one, how cool do you think you’d be able to be about driving the Millennium Falcon? Do you think you’d be able to play it down? Keep a straight face? Act like it was all old hat? Me neither. And neither can these characters—after narrowly escaping a pursuing horde of TIE Fighters by swerving through the wreckage of an abandoned Super Star Destroyer, Finn and Rey nearly collide in the center of the Falcon in their excitement to confirm to each other that yes, they really did just do that.
“Did you SEE that?!!?” Finn shrieks, neatly mimicking the question that we in the audience, delirious with adrenaline, are asking ourselves. Finn and Rey are true audience stand-ins; like us, they are genuinely excited by exciting events, and scared by scary ones. This is not the Star Wars of Acting Cool. In the prequels (which after this I swear I’ll stop mentioning them, because this movie has effectively negated their existence) bored celebrities mentally updated their resumes while telegraphing their profound contempt for this nerdy lightsaber-and-Jedi-cloak nonsense that we, the commoners, were paying to see. (And who could blame them? If you were Ewan McGregor, hair in a rattail, sharing a green screen with a squealing, simpering Jar-Jar Binks, you’d lie back and think of England, too.)
But in Abrams’s chapter, ironic distance is verboten; Boyega’s extraordinary, Golden-Retriever-like enthusiasm gives us permission to drop our guard as jaded moviegoers and admit that yes, we would like to fly the Millennium Falcon really fast, please. It would be cool if we could get our hands on one of those lightsabers, too. Maybe we could hang with Chewie? And slowly, over the course of the movie, all our wishes are granted, sometimes in surprisingly painful ways. Here are Han and Leia, grown into an achingly felt détente across the gulf of years spent fighting and fucking and disappointing each other in various ways. Their reunion feels at once tender and incredibly sad—in a single glance, they communicate decades of water under the bridge. We, sitting in the audience, can’t help but reflect on the decades of distance between the Younger Us who watched Han and Leia embark on their ticklish, sparky romance, and the Older Us who know, through painful experience, that time ends up subtracting as much as it adds, and eventually takes it all. This movie, while it gives us permission to access the giddy excitement of our youth, also gives us license to grieve what’s permanently lost in that river of time. When Leia advises Rey to accept the fact of her family’s death and give up hope of their return, we sense the weight and presence of lived experience, a stream of biography that we’ve just happened to catch four glimpses of as it flowed past. This is truly character-driven storytelling; Abrams, Kasdan, et al have allowed their characters to develop honestly, to age, to make mistakes and reflect real frailties.
The world of the movie, too, is damaged and dented, a scratched and windblasted world of spare parts and battered surfaces. The tantalizing promise made by the previews has come true: here, space is a dangerous frontier, a place where you can truly get hurt, not a gleaming CGI amusement park full of artificial thrills. “The Force Awakens” opens with a civilian massacre: suddenly, I’m reminded of the scene in “A New Hope” where Aunt Beru was reduced to a flayed, smoking skeleton; of the casual deaths and dismemberments available right alongside the booze in the cantina on Mos Eisley. Star Wars, at its very best, offered a world where loss and pain and death were real and terrifying, with the added twist of the Force, weaving the living and the dead together in a seamless braid of energy. The Force was hope; it was an afterlife without the requirement of a God; it was a beautiful and Zen-like philosophy of life that offered meaning without flinching away from the ugly realities of death and loss. The prequels broke the promise of the Force. “The Force Awakens” brings it back. If you made it all the way to this weekend in one piece, or even a few battered pieces held together with string and spit and hope, your faith is about to be rewarded.
Hold on tight.