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Star Wars: The Force Awakens Feels Like The First Time

Do you remember the first time you saw Star Wars? Were you fortunate enough to see it in the theater?

If you have never seen Star Wars, think back to your first kiss, first dance, or your first car. Yes, it was that good.

Leaving the theater that fall afternoon, I had a grin on my face I could not shake off. I am certain it was even bigger than the one I had after my first kiss if memory serves (Tiffany, if you are reading, I’m sorry but it’s true). I was ten years old when Star Wars was released in 1977 and eternally grateful for the timing of this event, full of wonder and imagination for all things concerning outer space and science fiction. The excitement around this movie was palpable, and it was excruciating to wait my turn to see the film. The timing was also fortuitous for another reason: the lack of media and accessibility to the film was actually a plus. Television commercials, newspaper ads, and magazines were the only hints of what was in store for me. There were no YouTube trailers, social media sites, and not a single tweet about it – can you imagine? I was virtually oblivious of what to expect.

I vividly remember two events about the day I saw Star Wars. First, I remember seeing a tall teenager wearing bell bottom jeans standing behind the door to the restroom before the movie — he startled me. As I walked by, he asked me if the movie was starting. I shook my head no, and passed him. I didn’t understand why he was behind the door, and asked my aunt (who took my brother and me) about this. She guessed he was probably waiting in the restroom in between shows to sneak in with the next crowd for free. Apparently the velvet rope and ticket-taker technology had not been invented at that time. I asked her if we could do that, too, if the movie was good. She said no. I remember this conversation because it seemed like a no-brainier to me at the time. Oh well, opportunity missed.

The second thing I remember was how excited I was the moment the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” appeared on the screen. Everyone in the audience cheered, a phenomenon I’d never experienced before. Then, the storyline scrolled up the screen. I tried my best to read and make sense of it, but the words drifted away, yielding to the Imperial Star Destroyer firing on the Tantive IV Rebel Blockade Runner. I was dumbstruck. I still recall that feeling — it was magical, exhilarating, and even a little scary, all at once.

The excitement didn’t fade after the movie credits. Through sequels, toys, clothes, video games, Halloween nights, and tons of books, Star Wars and good vs. evil became the de facto influence on my youth. We all wanted to be Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, or Darth Vader. With just a hint of imagination any branch, whiffed-ball bat, or yardstick was immediately transformed into a light sabre. I’m guessing our family’s Star Wars-related purchases combined to put braces on at least one on George Lucas’ kids. Without the prescience to realize our folly, the toys and merchandise are now long lost or broken. However, I imagine with some certainty, if I moved enough stuff around in my parents’ home tomorrow I could find a loose Star Wars puzzle piece, playing card or Lego. I would wager my dad’s garage is not unique in that regard.

When news broke in the late nineties that they were bringing Star Wars back to the big screen with three more film installments, I was ecstatic. I looked forward to the feeling of nostalgia I thought was imminent. After all, it was still George Lucas and the same cast of characters with new and exciting creatures yet to come! What could go wrong?

Without listing all the shortcomings of the next three films — Episodes I: The Phantom Menace, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith — to put it mildly, the trio was underwhelming. They were not terrible, mind you, though they lacked the feeling of excitement and wonder that was special in the beginning. The prequels were ripe with superfluous special effects punctuated by random and confusing bits of story sprinkled in between explosions. This was quite a departure from the original trilogy, which put emphasis on the lore, story, and development of the characters we know and love, above the special effects.

Action and special effects were a large  part of the original films, but not overstated. In the first three, before each character was exposed to battle or action, we learned a little about them. For example, Luke on Tatooine, Han Solo, and Chewbacca  in Mos Eisley, etcetera. These small vignettes were lost on the second trilogy of films or, at best, unremarkable. Add poor casting of the characters, for example Jake Lloyd, who played the boyhood version Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker). Ugh, he reminded me of Oliver from the Brady bunch, but a less talented actor. Hayden Christianson followed as the teenage Anakin, slightly more animated than the cardboard cutout movie stand of his image you’d see at the movies. I have tried to block this out of my mind, but I think Anakin had a braided tail to go along with the flat top when he was a young man? I hope I am wrong. Now enter stage left: the walking, talking part lizard, part moose, who  sounded like Roger Rabbit with a slight Creole nasal twang, and you have Jar Jar Binks, the lowest point in the depiction of these less-than-thrilling characters and dialog. The humor and campiness of the original were nowhere to be seen, and they fell flat. Most of the time.

Regardless of shortcomings, I enjoyed the films, and appreciated the story. They remain an important part of the Star Wars lexicon. The second trilogy of films had memorable subplots and characters in tow, including the backstories of the Empire, the Rebellion,  the Clone Wars, Boba Fett, Anakin, Yoda, and Chewbacca, just to name a few. Ewan McGregor was admirable as a younger Obi-Wan Kenobi (despite the horrific dialog he was forced to recite), Liam Neeson portrayed an impressive Jedi Knight, and Natalie Portman was… well…Natalie Portman. However, the nineties shows fell short of the original films’ excitement and appeal. Maybe it was because of the emotionally flat screenplay by George Lucas? Maybe the computer animated imagery (CGI) made the films feel too hyperbolic? Perhaps the lackluster appeal was due to the tidiness and sterility of the new films, as the earlier versions were raw and grungy. The originals trilogy projected the feel of a Western in outer space, and the newer movies? Not so much. Maybe I’m older, more reserved, and not in the frame of mind to put myself back in that place of wonderment and excitement?

Nope, I still am young enough at heart, it turns out.

J.J. Abrams brought his directing chops and teamed with co-writer Lawrence Kasdan for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, bringing back the excitement, character chemistry, and familiar touch of humor more prevalent in the original films. It’s no surprise that Kasdan, who had screenwriting credits for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, had a major role in the screenplay for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m not going to give you any sort of blow by blow, or even divulge any spoilers, because this film needs no help. It stands on its own, even if you have never seen the others. So, I will just let you in on some of my observations in relation to the other films and my overall impression.

WOW!

From the moment the film started until the ending credits I was transformed back to the original films and that feeling of wonder. J.J. Abrams must have a real love and respect for the original three episodes, because this film was a wonderful homage to them, while having a fresh new story and characters.

One of the things we all remember about Star Wars was the fact that it wasn’t well-known Gene Hackman playing Han Solo, or already-popular Sissy Spacek playing Princess Leia. It was young Harrison Ford, Mark Hamil, and Carrie Fisher — relative unknowns existing in a world even more mysterious than they were. As kids, we grew up right along with them, from movie to movie. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the new cast of characters are not household names. Sure, Han Solo was again played admirably and with typical charm by Harrison Ford. Carrie Fisher played the Princess (now a General). Various droids made their cameos as well. These new characters, with the help of Lawrence Kasdan’s pen, were endearing and at times gripping.

Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, and John Boyega, who plays conflicted Stormtrooper Finn, were genuine and well-cast. I have no idea where Rey procured her English accent in outer space, but as a self-confessed Anglophile, it worked for me. Finn’s tension, established early on, was both plausible and well thought out. Oscar Issac, who plays Poe Dameron — a stellar pilot from the Rebellion — instantly commanded attention. His rapport with Finn was engaging. I have a feeling British actor Boyega’s future will be bright. With just sixteen acting credits to his name, it seems this is just the beginning for him, especially on this side of the pond. I look forward to watching these actors grow up, on and off screen. Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren, the resident villain in this story. His height and screen presence make him a perfect fit for the part.

Staying true to the original, the scene cuts and long shots were also vintage Star Wars. The characters, robots, and imagery was much more raw and unkempt. Gone are the shiny ships and perfectly aligned army of droids. The disheveled nature of the backdrops only accentuates the charm of this film. The transition from Return of the Jedi to this film was seamless. I could give specific examples, but I just don’t want to spoil it. I intentionally stayed away from too much media for a reason, and I want you to have the same experience of going in oblivious. I will divulge one tidbit because I cannot resist: Power Droid made a cameo… as if I could not smile any wider.

Another concept that played in favor of this film, unlike the prequels, is the way Kasdan and company managed to compartmentalize the story in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The film was not bloated with multiple plot lines, locations, motives, explosions and over-the-top characters/personalities. The movie stayed in its own lane. The Phantom Menace left you wondering what the heck was going on.  J.J. Abrams knew what The Force Awakens was supposed to convey, and he stuck to those tenets. The movie is much better than Phantom Menace or the other prequels for this reason, if no other.

Before I become guilty of not staying in my own lane myself, I will summarize this film as a great success, and successor, of the Star Wars films before it. I just could not find anything egregious enough to criticize off the top of my head. I am sure once the euphoria wears off, I can find something less than amazing, but what purpose would that serve? I found myself smiling throughout, cheering and rooting for the characters, both good and evil. When I walked out of the theater and past the restroom, I contemplated for just a moment the idea of hiding myself behind the door until the next showing started. Yeah, it’s that good, just like the first time.

Special thanks to Stacie at Met Cinema in Oakhurst for the hospitality. If you are not a member already, please take a look Movie Heroes, Inc. and help support our local theater.

Frank Ignagni is the author of Riding the Apocalypse and lives in Coarsegold.

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