Why are people so excited about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — the same people who felt burned by the prequels more than a decade ago?
It’s all in there in the red hilt and the snow in the dark forest and the wide-open desert and the X-wings over the water and, oh yeah, the Millennium Falcon.
But let me back up.
As has been well-documented, George Lucas drew on all kinds of sources for “Star Wars,” but especially the movies of Akira Kurosawa, the classic samurai adventure “The Hidden Fortress” in particular.
Obi-Wan Kenobi stood in for General Makabe Rokurōta (Toshiro Mifune); the droids were a bit like the two peasants in Kurosawa’s epic; a princess had to be rescued in both; that sort of thing.
Further, the Jedi knights were a bit like samurai, from the sweep of Darth Vader’s helmet to the light sabers, which, like many samurai blades, had no large crosspiece as exists on, say, Western swords.
Except in November 2014, the first teaser for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” arrived on the Internet. Just over a minute and a half, fans were treated to a panoply of mysterious images: a desert (were we back on Tatooine?), a droid that looked like a soccer ball flying across the ground, and a squad of X-wings.
At the 50-second mark, a mysterious figure in black staggers as if wounded in a forest and fires up a red lightsaber — only to have two smaller beams shoot out from the sides, as if forming a Western sword’s crosspiece.
This character did not have the bearing of a Jedi, and the saber itself was a visual signal, perhaps, that, in opposition to the Jedi’s calm and focus, this character was a crusader, a fanatic looking to rebuild an empire.
You could practically hear the Internet let off of a low whistle before the sound of a million fist-pumps as the trailer smash-cut to the Millennium Falcon, with John Williams’ immortal score obliterating eardrums.
It sounds like a small, nerdy thing — the sort of detail about which only an egregious geek would care.
But to many folks — possibly well over the age where such things should excite — it screamed mystery and menace and the very small amount of weirdness that had been missing from “Star Wars” for, oh, about 30 years.
In 2002, I wrote in the American-Statesman a cranky essay about why nobody who grew up with the original “Star Wars” trilogy liked the prequels.
Sure, George Lucas’ dialogue was terrible and the direction wooden. But it was more than that.
From the plot to the visuals, the prequels were airless creatures. Every square inch was filled with CGI gunk, every human clearly acting in front of a green screen. There was nothing tactile about these movies and any sense of mystery. What Lucas cultivated so brilliantly in the first three films — especially “Star Wars” and “Empire Strikes Back” — was absent from these three overexplained, video-game-looking things.
But what a difference 13 years and fresh blood makes.
The hype for director J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which opens Thursday evening, is deafening, and instead of a vague dread, fans who grew up with the originals are wildly optimistic that these movies will restore something of a sense of wonder.
I haven’t seen the movie. I have no insider knowledge. I have seen the same trailers as everyone else. But I submit that this optimism is because the images we have seen from “The Force Awakens” give every indication that Abrams has, very self-consciously reversed almost all of the prequels’ problems.
Where CGI density was once the norm, open space rules the frame. Where plot points were once overexplained, a sense of mystery — of a story untold — has returned. Where the prequels traded in unfortunate accents that recalled ugly stereotypes, women and people of color are front and center.
Dig the new breed.
Finn, Poe and Rey
The first and loudest signal that “The Force Awakens” is both your parents’ “Star Wars” and very much not can be found in the first person we saw in the first trailer: a black, British actor named John Boyega in the armor of an imperial Stormtrooper. His character, called Finn, looks scared out of his mind, as if something has gone very wrong.
This is a big shift. The original films didn’t bother to de-helmet any of the Stormtroopers — except when Han and Luke were aboard the Death Star — and the prequels dehumanized the troops on both sides of the Clone Wars entirely (one side was droids, the other was identical clones).
Here, the Stormtrooper has a human face, a conflicted one, and most importantly, one that doesn’t look like any of the British character actors who populated the Death Star back in 1977.
The guy we’ve seen piloting an X-wing is Poe Dameron, played by the increasingly everywhere dramatic actor Oscar Issac.
Our man’s birth name is Óscar Isaac Hernández. His mother is Guatemalan. His dad hails from Cuba. And from his brilliant turn in “Inside Llewyn Davis” to “Ex Machina” and the HBO series “Show Me a Hero,” he might be able to do pretty much anything in front of a camera. And Issac is the first Latino player in a “Star Wars” movie, other than a minimal role as Bail Organa from Jimmy Smits.
As for Rey, she is played by virtual unknown Daisy Ridley. We first see her on speeder bike, racing across the desert. Another trailer shows her lowering herself into the belly of a downed Star Destroyer. She is an adventurer, and, while Leia certainly could take care of herself, Rey isn’t Leia redux.
“Rey isn’t born into privilege,” Ridley said in a recent Rolling Stone piece. “My cousin’s daughter said something about wanting me to be another princess, and I’m like, ‘No! Girls don’t have to be princesses! They can be, you know, scavengers!’”
We’re a long way from the prequels’ trade delegates with their yellow-peril accents, let alone that Jar-Jar fellow.
Show us something familiar we have never seen before
Even in the original “Star Wars,” about which there was no hype, moviegoers saw familiar tropes. From my 2002 review: The scene in the bar is just like any number of bar fights in a western. That guy in the black armor with the deep voice kind of looks like a samurai, too. The plot isn’t too different from your standard swashbuckling adventure tale. Those dogfights in space look straight out of a World War II picture, laser beams and swirling constellations aside.
The prequels ditched that methodology in favor of a slick, friction-less space opera that sometimes seemed to be “Star Wars” in name only, as if Lucas had no sense of why fans liked the originals so much.
Now, Abrams already has a universe we know and love, much in the way viewers in 1977 would know all the genre tropes above. He does something different: He shows us things we already know in a new context.
The good guys are still using X-wings, and the bad guys are still using TIE fighters. But instead of all their battles being in space, we see the X-wings flying over a body of water, with fights being within a planet’s atmosphere. Familiar, yet new.
We see the Falcon in a lightning-fast dogfight over the wreck of that Star Destroyer. Instead of a boy named Luke Skywalker in desert gear, it’s a gal named Rey. Familiar, yet new.
Elsewhere, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the mysterious figure in black with the hilted lightsaber, talks to Darth Vader’s melted helmet, pledging allegiance to a fascist cause. Later, he addresses the First Order — aka the remains of Empire — troops in a canny echo of the final scene of “Star Wars,” as Leia hands out medals.
Again, this sounds like minor details and, in fairness, details are all we have seen so far.
But this is Disney we’re talking about, which owns and operates the most popular movie franchise of several generations. No way they aren’t sweating the small stuff. And sweating the small stuff is how something moves from OK to good and from good to great.
It’s all about that space
Here is a comment I made back in 2002: “There’s no room to breathe in ‘The Phantom Menace.’ When you’re not flying along into battle or being bombarded with an incredible amount of visual and expository information, (the movie is full of) airless digital action which seems to admire its own CGI density in the mirror.”
Contrast this with, again, the very first thing we see in the first trailer: a vast, tactile desert. Another shot shows Stormtroopers in a transport, the camera shaking as the vehicle buffets.
Elsewhere we see Finn and Rey running away from an explosion. The Han Solo we see on the Millennium Falcon looks weathered, his blaster ancient. But the set he is standing on is obviously real, with a real depth of field. The effects look practical rather than digital.
This is a “Star Wars” you can reach out and touch. All that space in these shots, all the physicality, gives our brains room to perceive. The prequels never let us fill in the details ourselves, never felt like something you could hold in your hand.
But your imagination needs room to move as well. From 2002: “(The original trilogy presented) a universe that’s been lived in, with a long and tumultuous past. You can see it in the Millennium Falcon’s decrepitude and the middle-of-nowhere landscapes of Luke’s farm and the nearby town. … Luke’s story is pure potential energy. The first trilogy left fans with the feeling that absolutely anything could be taking place just off-screen, that there was a vast universe waiting for their interest.”
Which brings us to the most important piece of dialogue we have thus far heard.
In the trailer, as John Williams’ score hits a particular passionate note, Rey says to Han (we think): “There were stories about what happened.”
“It’s true, all of it,” Han says. “The Dark Side. The Jedi. They’re real.”
The boom you hear is everyone’s imagination being set fire again.
With a handful of lines, Abrams implies he has undone all of the prequels’ ponderous detail. We are back in the realm of an untold story, of the power of myth.
To Finn and Rey, the original trilogy might as well have taken place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We are back to the potential energy of Luke on Tatooine, of not knowing exactly what is going to come next. Not for nothing has secrecy been so strong around the movie: The fun of “Star Wars” comes not just in what you see on screen, but what you cannot see elsewhere in this far-away galaxy.
This movie just might work after all. See you in the theater. Chewie, punch it.
More on ‘Star Wars’
Check austin360.com for updates on “Star Wars” throughout the coming week. And look for a review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in Friday’s Austin360 and online, as well as a guide to the new characters.
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