More noise than signal

Star Wars, Nothing but Star Wars, Give me those Star Wars, Don’t let them end.

Repurposed from the show notes for my podcast, Fuds on Film

We’re kicking off Space Year 2016, so that can only mean it’s time to get out of our flying cars, have our robo-butler get the popcorn and prepare to blather about Star Wars.

It’s normally difficult to know where to start with, when talking about anything Star Wars related. After all, it’s so integral to modern pop culture and for folks of a certain age, their entire life, that there’s a temptation to assume it’s all common knowledge. Recent events, however, have given us an easy jump-off point – please don’t send me death threats. I’m genuinely happy that so many people, including by weight of probability you, gentle reader, have found such joy in J.J. Abrahms’ film, joy which you can share with your family and friends, and the rekindling of a love affair that’s had a few tough stretches. Be secure in the knowledge that nothing I can write here should touch that wonder, and also that there’s nothing at all cinema-related that’s worth sending poison pen emails over.

Please bear that in mind, as I join the ranks of the few for whom this film was a bit of a damp squib.

That said, as previously tweeted, there’s a fairly strong case for this being, entirely objectively, the best Star Wars film ever made. I’d even be one of those making that case, and the precipitous drop in my regard for the franchise is more previous steward George Lucas’ fault than Abrahms or the new Disney overlords. Even with that said, where others found a magical experience, I saw a content plan. I suppose if I’m going to explain this properly, I’m going to have to go back to the start. I’m sure this mirrors most of those middle-aged fans, so apologies if this is far from novel.

In truth, I can’t remember the first time I watched any of the original Star Wars films. I was born in 1979, but as far as I can recall the films and, in particular, the toys, have been with me my entire life, to a first approximation. By the time I’d be old enough to understand them, at least A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back would have been shown on the primitive broadcast television, which for younger readers was like a shit version of Netflix stuck on shuffle play, and “taped” on the equally primitive Betamax system my dad erroneously backed.

What I’m getting at is that I was a fully paid up member of the club of younglings running about with the cardboard inner tube from a roll of tinfoil making lightsabre noises and claiming to be other people’s father in a raspy a voice as my little throat was able. And I loved it. Lucas, for his faults, is the greatest worldbuilder that cinema has yet seen. The energy and enthusiasm he imbued the original trilogy made any impressionable kid want to sign up for a tour in the Falcon, and wield mysterious magic powers. How could you not? These were overarching grand concepts of underdogs against a great evil, the sort of narrative that’s been used to sell actual shooting wars to us for as long as there has been wars. That it’s used in this instance for one a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away didn’t diminish its’ effectiveness.

We all move on, of course, apart from the resurgence of the Special Editions of the original trilogy, which I wholeheartedly welcomed. After all, it granted me an opportunity to watch my favourite childhood films in a cinema. Who wouldn’t want that? The first reel of A New Hope, clunky insertion of Jabba aside, gave us some hope for the restoration and continuation that’s consumed most of Lucas’ career. The ropier effects were tided up, and the soundtrack massively reworked. The Special Edition of A New Hope seemed, on balance, to be a great start.

Then we get to the Cantina scene, and the now infamous attempt to bizarrely alter Han Solo’s character by having Greedo shoot first in a nonsensical cacophony of garbage special effects. This was undeniably idiotic, although I cannot subscribe to the same hatred that many of my ilk over-reacted with. Any of the sadly numerous people claiming that this “raped their childhood” have, I hope, now rather got over themselves and their diminishing of actual serious crimes by comparing them to a minor change in one second of a kid’s film. Ludicrous behaviour, as often exhibited by fandom.

The rest of the Special Editions followed a similar one step forward, one step back philosophy, although the utterly superfluous dance scene inserted into Return of the Jedi was perhaps the clearest signal yet that Lucas might no longer be interested in making the same kind of films that a generation had become a fan of.

That said, for all bar a lunatic fringe, we could safely ignore these excesses and return to our original films which surely would soon be available in cleaned up form without these zany additions. (Of course they weren’t, which is surely another opportunity for Disney to hoover up a load of money left on the table with a new Blu-Ray release.) We are then brought to the prequel trilogy, of which so much has been written that there’s little point giving you more than the edited low-lights.

The Phantom Menace is, of course, indefensibly dull, and gave us Jar-Jar Binks, an idiotic character designed to appeal to children. Which he did. So there’s not a great deal of point getting worked up about it, really. Of course, many people did. But while this should have been taken as a a realisation that these kids films are not necessarily designed to satiate an adult audience, instead we stamped our feet like the whiny, entitled audiences we’ve become, and so he was sidelined in the next two films. I don’t intend this as a defence of the CG annoyance, but as a pointer towards how unrelentingly hostile a fanbase we have been towards something we proportedly love.

My response to The Phantom Menace was, initially, that of many. Slight anger, followed by disappointment, followed by moving it out of my head-canon of films. What I really should have been doing didn’t occur to me until halfway through Attack of the Clones, where the risible dialogue could no longer prevent my adult critical faculties from kicking in on a franchise that my long-held childhood enthusiasm had suppressed. Attack of the Clones wasn’t a particularly great film, and, if you stop to think about it, neither were the original trilogy. While we’re here, Revenge of the Sith was more enjoyable than the other prequels, for sure, but still of little impact on me.

That was the grand effect that Lucas’ prequels had on me. They removed a childish fog from my brain and forced me to a conclusion that all of these films, prequels included, are decent films for kids but hold little to no water under adult scrutiny. This, sadly, is the sort of thing writing about films for as long as I have forces you to come to terms with. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and without it there’s not much of a reason to think about Star Wars at all.

Which brings us to the modern day, with The Force Awakens, a film that going by the box office returns you have already seen and so need little introduction to.

We should start off by saying we are delighted that so many people are delighted by this film, which seems to have provoked the reaction in many the reaction we had when we were in love with the film as younglings. We’re not trying to harsh your mellow on this, but you’ll have to forgive us for taking a different view.

It’s tough to talk about our gripes without descending into spoiler territory, which we don’t shy away from in the podcast. For the sake of anyone stumbling across these notes and in the statistically unlikely case you haven’t seen it, we’ll avoid those here. Suffice to say, we have a number of reservations about the world that J.J. is setting up, largely about the total lack of progress since the events of Return of the Jedi. Indeed, in all but name this is a reboot, taking the essence of A New Hope and a bit of Empire Strikes Back and putting the universe back into a comfortably familiar state with a bunch of comfortably familiar characters that largely echo the Solo, Skywalker(s), and Vader roles with perhaps the smallest bit of cross-pollination. We can see why, given the franchise purchase price, Disney would want to play it safe, but it’s still disappointing that given the wealth of directions the now obsolete Expanded Universe had taken, this film is nothing more than a reset button. We have some other issues, largely with the rather underwhelming roster of evil-doers that Team Lightside find themselves up against, and specifically with Adam Driver who fails to convince as, well, a human being, frankly. He looks more computer generated than Jar-Jar.

With all that said, on a technical and possibly even objective level, this may well be the best film in the series. Unfortunately for us rapidly ageing lads, having had the nostalgia shorn from the franchise after the obnoxious prequels, it’s tough to connect with this on the emotional level we’d hoped to. Without that, it’s just a largely competent space opera that occasionally turns into promos for future films in the franchise. Maybe the content plan they’ve got cooked up will surprise us, but at this early stage it seems like they’ll follow a familiar trajectory. Which is fine, we guess. But we’d hoped for something new, not just fan service. TFA does not deliver.