First, my review
Initially, I had intended to just write a review of The Force Awakens but as the internet is already bursting with those, I’ll do it from my very specific viewpoint as a fan of the prequels.
When it comes to The Force Awakens, I am of two minds. My inner 13-year old says “that was awesome” while my older, wiser, but unfortunately more cynical self says “ooooh dear, they really messed it up”. In short, I enjoyed the experience, but I also disliked a lot of it.
What I liked: I thought it was a thoroughly enjoyable movie. In terms of pure popcorn entertainment, it certainly delivered. I also want to express my admiration of the new protagonists, Rey and Finn, both of whom turned out to be awesome, relatable and fun characters.
What I didn’t like: all of the concerns I expressed in the article I wrote in May have not only been realized, but surpassed. Visually, the film’s appeal is almost entirely based on nostalgia rather than imagination. Even the new creatures felt like inferior versions of old ones. For example, the new Stormtroopers look less intimidating than the originals and Kylo Ren looks like an early rejected draft of Darth Vader. Nothing was specifically improved upon in the design department. It felt like the designers were so insecure about what exactly a Star Wars movie should look like that they just stuck with what they already knew. In fact, this is CONFIRMED by art designer Doug Chiang’s earlier remark that, quote, “the terrifying part is we don’t have George”.
I also didn’t like the much-ballyhooed return to ‘practical effects’. The puppets and rubber masks were frankly embarrassing in this day and age, when CGI can bring creatures on screen that are so much more believable than Admiral Ackbar. In fact, even this movie itself contains some CGI creatures that obviously looked better. But, hey, most of my friends keep telling me that the 1980 rubber Yoda puppet was more expressive and realistic than the 2005 CGI version. Clouded their judgment, the Dark Side has, if you ask me.
But in particular, the plot of the movie is more derivative than I had even thought possible. The story is so blatantly unoriginal my jaw dropped at times. Every element was a direct copy of something from the original trilogy. The worst offense was Abrams’ insistence to return to the Death Star plot device for a third time! People complained when that concept was rehashed in Return of the Jedi, over 30 years ago. They even complained how the droid control ship in The Phantom Menace echoed that story thread too much. Now they’re doing it again?
Even the one ‘shocking’ event that everyone is talking about (I won’t spoil it here) is really just a spin on an event that occurred in the original Star Wars film.
J.J. Abrams is a genius at making movies that make you go “wow, awesome!” while you’re in your theatre seat, but as soon as you start thinking about it afterwards, you find all kinds of things wrong with them. The Force Awakens is definitely in that category.
I’m not going to be cynical, I’m not going to be cynical, I’m not going to be cynical…
Ohhhww… Okay, it’s pure nostalgia-pandering. The story doesn’t matter, it doesn’t have anything to say, it doesn’t have anything to add to the Star Wars universe, it’s just a fun thrill-ride in which nostalgia plays the same role that over-the-top CGI effects play in Michael Bay’s Transformer movies: a straightforward way to make your movie cool and get bums in seats. In itself, that doesn’t offend me, because it’s harmless and it is fun.
But while it’s a fun movie and I had a great time with it, at the same time, there is something about the whole event that really annoys me. It’s not so much the film itself, but the fans’ reception of it.
What I miss about the prequels
The ubiquitous bashing of the Star Wars prequels has become practically unavoidable. You just can’t have a conversation about these movies without someone bringing up the same old talking points that I’m not even going to repeat here because if you are the kind of person to read this blog, you know what they are. So don’t expect me to go into Jar Jar or the acting style of the prequels, because frankly I’m done with those topics.
I will only briefly state that I find nothing wrong with Jar Jar, and if there is one character that is both pointless and annoying that tags along with the heroes, let me just say it’s Chewbacca in the original trilogy. Seriously, he just roars and complains and doesn’t do much more than that.
Anyway, while this universal prequel-hating is all the rage, The Force Awakens is getting rave reviews across the board. People are hailing it as some sort of masterpiece and, frankly, it shocks me. Are people that easily manipulated? I understand that if you’re a fan of the original trilogy and you don’t care for the style of the prequels, you’ll prefer this one. I get that. But the sheer lack of criticism here is frankly hypocritical when you take into account how these same people picked apart every little detail of the prequels.
Well, I prefer the prequels over The Force Awakens. In fact, seeing this movie has cemented in my mind that I generally prefer the prequels over all the others. That is because The Force Awakens delivers an updated remake of the original trilogy and does it so well that it makes it painfully clear how the prequels differ from the other Star Wars movies. And in doing so, it is brought home to me why I miss the whole tone and feel of those films.
So what is it that I love so much about the prequels that this new movie doesn’t have?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. This movie opens and you find out that there is a New Republic, there is a First Order and there is a Resistance. The First Order are the remnants of the Empire and the Resistance are the good guys who fight them. That is all the politics we ever get in The Force Awakens.
I’m absolutely no fan of political messages in movies (especially since they tend to be crappy messages), but I loved how the Star Wars prequels handled politics because it was done with style and dignity and it added an enormous amount of depth to the plot and to the universe itself. In Episodes 1-3, I get a real feel of the galaxy, its culture, its customs, its inhabitants. We see how people live, how they form societies. We see how the Jedi Knights interact with the Republic, we learn about the way the Force works and we see enormous amounts of new creatures, locations, vehicles in every single scene. These films are bursting with clues about the universe.
Not only that, but the way the politics worked in the plotline was brilliant. The galactic senate was a beautifully condensed version of an entire civilization that had become decadent and corrupt. The way Darth Sidious played into that was executed with careful intellect, nuance, subtlety and interesting historical echoes. When the Sith’s plan finally comes together in Revenge of the Sith, there’s a real sense of payoff to years and years of evil planning and scheming. That makes it powerful and heartbreaking and I think it speaks to our times as well.
Politics are really just one facet of world-building. The prequels are a brilliant exercise at that. It goes beyond the workings of the Republic. Sprinkled throughout the trilogy are little hints at a vast and epic timeline of history, full of grand deeds and terrible betrayals. In the original trilogy, the word Sith wasn’t even really used outside of the novelizations. Darth Vader and the emperor were just bad guys with Force powers. The prequels gave rise to the whole concept of the Sith. heir history, their philosophy, their modus operandi… Sure, many of those things were really fleshed out in the Old Republic games and books, but the prequel trilogy planted the seed and gave those ideas a legitimacy within the Star Wars canon. This created the feeling of the Star Wars galaxy being a story on a truly epic scale, with much more going on behind the scenes.
I remember when I visited the Star Wars exhibition in Brussels some years ago. Near the entrance to the exhibition, there was this giant timetable chronicling the history of the Star Wars galaxy: the discovery of hyperspace, the founding of the Republic, the wars between the Jedi and the Sith, etc. It saddens me to think that Disney has really just thrown all of that out of the window. Sure, there was crap in the Expanded Universe, but I think most people will agree that the real crap mostly came from the stories set after the movies. The Old Republic era is beloved by prequel fans and OT purists alike. The reason for that is that these stories provide a backbone to the Star Wars universe. They’re like The Silmarillion of a galaxy far, far away. To me, that’s important and exciting. Far, far more so than whether or not Han shot first.
The Force Awakens seems averse to the very concept of world-building, making it more of an adventure movie, but less of a fantasy movie. The movie feels very small-scaled, even more so than the original trilogy did. It felt like the universe really only consists of little groups of good guys fighting little groups of bad guys, but none of it has a sense of grandeur. By contrast, the prequels felt like history and prophecy unfolding before our eyes. There was a grand, epic scale to the Clone Wars and the fall of the Republic and a larger-than-life, operatic feel to Anakin’s fall in the midst of all this. All of that is completely lost in the new movie.
The prequels get a lot of hate for their perceived over-reliance on CGI. Other people than I have pointed out with empirical evidence that there were tons and tons of practical effects in the prequels, but I think that’s beside the point I want to make. I’m opposed to this idea that practical effects are inherently better, and I say that as a huge fan of eighties fantasy films. In fact, I think The Dark Crystal, Legend and The Neverending Story are all better films than the original Star Wars, at least when looked at purely from a present-day standpoint.
My point is that George Lucas was always about pushing the technological envelope. In the original trilogy, he did things with special effects that nobody had ever seen before. That is part of the reason why people were so impressed with these movies. When he made the prequels, George didn’t decide to sit on his laurels and simply continue on in the same vein. Instead, he went out to push the envelope even more with the greatest tool that was available to him at that time: digital technology. It only makes sense that he would do that: he’s a risk-taker, a visionary and an experimenter. The prequel trilogy did wonders with pixels. They were among the very first movies shot on digital cameras. That in itself was a bold move.
What does JJ Abrams do in The Force Awakens? He deliberately decides to shoot it on 35mm film. In this day and age, the only reason why a director would do that is because he’s a technophobe who can’t stand the fact that the technology of the medium is moving on (sorry, Christopher Nolan, but it’s true). Digital cinema today simply looks better than 35mm does. That’s a self-evident and objective statement. Maybe in 2002 it didn’t, but surely today it does. As soon as The Force Awakens opened, I noticed the slight grain in the picture. It wasn’t bothersome, but it was so unnecessary. Why would you move back in progress when you’re making a Star Wars movie, of all things?
The prequels had lots of imagination and creativity on display in their designs of creatures and ships. By the way, people complain that the whole “used future” ethos was lost, but that is not true. It is absolutely there on Tatooine and Mustafar, whereas Coruscant and Naboo look appropriately clean and pretty, and so do the designs of royal ships and senator’s apartments. That only makes sense.
In the same way the designs became more ambitious, so too did the whole take on lightsaber combat. The lightsaber fight in A New Hope was downright pathetic and even the most ardent fan will have to admit that. I love the duels in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but mostly because of the emotion of what’s going on. In terms of the actual fight, I think the duels in the old trilogy looked pretty clumsy because they were wielding the lightsabers like they were heavy medieval swords. I think that’s wrong. Lightsabers are energy weapons. They’re supposed to be incredibly lithe and quick.
In the prequels, lightsaber combat was taken to a level nobody could even anticipate. The three-way fight between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and Darth Maul was a magnificent setpiece that combined impressive acrobatics and choreography with interesting set design and the most exciting music track of the entire saga. Then the confrontation between Yoda and Dooku surprised us again in Attack of the Clones, and the duel in Revenge of the Sith is probably one of the great visual masterpieces of our time. Famous art historian and critic Camille Paglia — an actual intellectual — has said as much.
Watch that little video, it’s not long. I agree completely with Paglia in this regard. By contrast, I hardly even noticed there was a lightsaber fight in The Force Awakens. There was one, but it was pedestrian and boring and even clumsier than the ones we used to get in the older films. It didn’t bother me, but boy, do I miss Mustafar.
Something to say
As I wrote in my article back in May, one of the reasons I love the prequels was the fact that Lucas didn’t fall into the trap of superficial nostalgia, but took risks. He did this with all the unique characters, creatures and locations ILM conjured upon the screen, but he definitely did it with the story.
You can go and nitpick every little detail about the plot and complain how this doesn’t make sense or that is contrived, but when it comes down to it, the truth is that every one of the Star Wars prequels had a unique and original story to tell within the framework of the larger saga, and when taken as a whole (as the haters are wont to do), the prequel trilogy actually tells an incredibly ambitious and fascinating tale. It’s mythology, mystery and tragedy in a space fantasy setting. If you feel it wasn’t executed well, I think that’s fine (although I would obviously disagree) but anyone has to admit that at least it was different and personal.
The stories in those movies were part of a mythological project, just like they were in the original trilogy. When you put all six of them together, you get a grand arc: the story of how one generation goes through life and screws up, and the next generation faces the same challenges and finds a way to repair it. All of this is expressed on both the intimate scale of the Skywalker family, and the galaxy-spanning epic scale of the fall of the Republic and the war with the Empire.
What does The Force Awakens do? It doesn’t continue that grand arc. It doesn’t take it to a new place or comment on it. Instead, it just repeats the most popular part of it. That’s why I say this film has nothing to say except that Star Wars is cool.
It’s strange. Everyone complains about Hollywood’s sequel/remake mentality, but when an auteur like Lucas comes out and actually does something personal and different with his intellectual property, everyone rushes out to bash him long and hard enough until he retires. Then when an obviously corporate remake of their beloved original is released, suddenly that’s a masterpiece. I guess it makes sense that if you revere A New Hope in a religious way, you’ll see The Force Awakens as the second coming, because that’s exactly what it is: the second coming of A New Hope.