A Star Wars Story.
One of the quirks of my cinephile upbringing was that, despite Star Wars coming out the year before I was born, I didn’t see it until I was eighteen. At the time I was preparing to major in film at a program focused specifically on non-narrative experimental filmmaking, and we were actively scorned for caring about popular films or indeed any popular art. (I only lasted a year before they gave me the heave-ho, partially for liking Led Zeppelin, although that was a symptom, not the disease; it was thus that I became a literal film school reject.) The desire to fit in didn’t supersede my personal taste, but strictly in terms of the kind of movies I was seeing at the time, and not having grown up with Star Wars like everyone else my age, watching the original trilogy for the first time on VHS, in one sitting, with a bunch of people who were watching me watch the movies and gauging my responses, was the wrong introduction. There is a possibility that even with a better one, Star Wars never would have really been my thing. But with the company I keep, and the evolution my taste underwent with the concurrent erosion of insecurities over it, I’ve long envied the joy people get from Star Wars. It wasn’t until The Force Awakens and Rogue One that I finally felt it.
This came as a surprise. When Disney acquired Lucasfilm with the intent of cranking out new Star Wars films I had a range of thoughts, from “ah, shit” to “guess it’s a good thing I don’t really give a fuck” to “I hope they don’t insult the Star Wars fans.” Because even though I’d never felt it, I knew that the joy of Star Wars fandom was a pure and special thing that should be respected, out of kindness if nothing else. And so, despite the occasional irritation at the omnipresence of marketing and related chatter, it came to be that years of not quite getting it melted away and I greatly enjoyed The Force Awakens, and then a year later enjoyed Rogue One even more.
In concrete terms, the filmmaking in these new films is nothing extraordinary; indeed, it never has been. The compositions mainly showcase the production design and visual effects, although those are admittedly well worth pointing out. From an editing perspective, the first Star Wars film was a game-changer within popular American cinema but the techniques employed were pioneered by Eisenstein and popularized the decade before in the worldwide New Waves. However, in keeping with a series involving an invisible yet omnipresent and extraordinarily powerful Force, Star Wars’ intangibles are nonpareil. The films’ ability to induce awe are self-evident: they have, in millions of people. The exciting parts are exciting (non-fan though I may be, I’m not made of stone: Han Solo coming in at the last minute to clear the way for Luke is, for lack of any worthy comparison, Han Solo coming in at the last minute to clear the way for Luke. That’s the apex of the kind of movie moment that is), the suspenseful bits are intense, the endings cathartic.
One tangible element, that I think ties these two hemispheres together, is the casting, which in every Star Wars film (including the prequels) has been almost universally outstanding. (Take that “almost” as you will.) Most famously, the original series was buoyed by inspired choices, from the central trio of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher to the army of British film and theater luminaries led by Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, to voice-casting James Earl Jones to be Darth Vader. Time and again thinly (to be kind) written characters on the page were transformed into robust, vivid, unforgettable icons. The Star Wars films stand as one of the great arguments on record that it’s the end result, the whole, that counts, rather than the the sum of the component parts.
This brings us, at last, to The Force Awakens and Rogue One, both of which are marvelously cast, and which draw the bulk of their emotional weight from that. I’m not sure if it was a long-delayed awakening to the wonders of Star Wars, or whether it was Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, or if the latter were my guides to the former. I’m not sure if it’s even relevant if it was Donnie Yen or the Force itself that made me believe, but the important thing is by the end of Rogue One, I did. The closest I can come to putting my finger on a reason why is that everyone in both movies looked so utterly thrilled to be in a Star Wars movie.
That excitement is the key, for me. There’s been some criticism of them as fan fiction but I would counter that that’s their greatest strength. George Lucas is certainly entitled to be ambivalent about his most famous creation, and there’s no reason on Earth, or Coruscant, that he should bend to his fans’ every whim. On the other hand, the ebullient nerd joy pulsing through every frame of The Force Awakens or Rogue One is so refreshing and energizing. It wins over even grumpy shitheads like me. It slips the bonds of these movies’ origins as (at best faintly) cynical cash-ins and gracefully affirms one of the highest truths in popular entertainment: a thing ceases being a commodity the second fans get their hands on it. Only then does it take its true form. When pop works, it’s a beautiful thing to behold.