Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Force

Full disclosure: Star Wars, as an experience, wasn't really part of my childhood vernacular. I think my parents—my dad, probably—sat us all down at some point and showed us the original movie. In some ways, this was likely along the same lines as "sometimes we go to church," or, "yes, you have to learn fractions": just another thing to teach your kids so that they grow up to be well-rounded adults.

I have a distinct memory of being utterly confused by the trash compactor scene in Star Wars: I had somehow missed their descent down the chute, and I was flummoxed by the eel-thing that seemed to live there, and frankly, the whole idea of compacting a room full of wet garbage was just weird enough for me to not really grasp wtf was going on. As the movie went on, already-familiar pop culture icons like Darth Vader shared the screen with ideas that seemed to make no sense, like blowing up a moon-sized space station by firing into an exhaust pipe. (I mean, say what you will about George Lucas, but he honored the shit out of the sanitation department in that movie.) I remember walking away feeling sort of confused, and maybe a little let down—that was what the hype was about?

I don't remember if there were follow-up home screenings of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I was sixteen when the prequels started coming out, and I remember leaving the theatres with that same sense of let-down-ness: was that it? A bunch of dudes in housecoats flipping around with light sabers, interminable political "drama," and Natalie Portman dressed in either parade floats, or a midriff-baring fighting ensemble? This was what everyone had been waiting for?

Actually, no. I know now that the prequels are widely regarded as terrible, but at the time, I wasn't sure enough in my own critical voice to make that statement. In the face of high school nerds, who wield a powerful nerdery indeed, it seemed impossible that the prequels might not actually be any good. And, in 1999 (much like today), the hype machine around these movies was absurd. Besides, there were always the old movies to fall back on, with Lando and Boba Fett and the cantina on Mos Eisley. You know: the good ones. The blemish of the prequels couldn't mar the original trilogy; if anything, it heightened their importance, making them even more precious.

In 2010, I lived with my parents for a summer, and I undertook a crash course in film and pop culture: I watched Michael Fassbender's Hunger and the X-Men movies, I watched a jillion Westerns and Hitchcock flicks, and I watched classic cartoon. I rented out half the video shelf of the local library, figuring that, if they thought these were worth spending taxpayer dollars on, I should probably see them. It was that summer I decided to revisit the Star Wars universe.

Again, they failed to imprint themselves on my heart. But at least this time, I could kind of figure out why. As a pop-culture phenomenon, Star Wars isn't designed for 26-year-old women who are killing time before they have to go wait tables; it's meant for people who can obsessively comb through the entire universe, learning the names of various minor characters, robot models, and alien races. It's meant to introduce the Western and the Ronin and the Opera and the Love Story to kids and tweens, to show them that stories, no matter where they're set or who they star, often have the same skeletons under their skins. It opens up metaphysical questions around good and evil, and the choices we make about those forces, but leaves the concept of God or a church well outside the frame. It is storytelling 101, each building block neatly lined up beside the next one, and just different enough from anything that had come before to seem fresh and important.

Which brings me to The Force Awakens. A girlfriend recently asked me, "On a scale of zero to ten, how many fucks do you give about Star Wars?" I conceded that I give three fucks: one for the sheer intensity of the pop-culture phenomenon; one for my husband, who loves these movies; and one for my curiosity about if these new installations are going to live up to the original trilogy, or bottom out like the prequels did.

I would love to spoil The Force Awakens for you, but I will not. But I'll say this: the new movie is fun. It doesn't really matter if you're heavily invested in either the original trilogy or the prequels—as long as you have a passing knowledge of characters (which is pretty standard in 21st century life), you'll be fine. This movie is darker and more explosive that the loins from which it sprang; it's also funnier, more beautiful, and more feminist than anything that came before it. It is silly and serious, important and also a trifle, and very fun to watch. It's definitely a 21st century Star Wars, but I think that makes it better: it fits into the original canon but doesn't try to match it beat for beat.

If you want to introduce your kids to Star Wars, don't start with the Force Awakens. Start with the original trilogy, and let them (maybe) be bored and confused. Movie-making has changed dramatically in the last forty years, and going from Star Wars to The Force Awakens shows exactly how much. But same bones of story—family, adventure, new romance, ancient forces—are still vibrant and present across all the movies. The old ones are still relevant, even as they get a little creaky; the new one, despite its whippersnapperish peacocking, is more than able to hang with its ancestors.

Oh, and it goes without saying: skip the prequels. Nobody's kids need to see that.