Saturday, November 29, 2014

Enthusiasm Awakens for the Force

In case you didn't know, a new Star Wars movie is coming out in 2015 titled "The Force Awakens" and JJ Abrams is directing it. For some people, this is a really big deal. For others, another Star Wars movie is coming out. The first trailer dropped (in a big way) and I feel it necessary to weigh in. Below I've included my thoughts on not only this new trailer, but a chronicling of my love/hate relationship with all things Star Wars.

I represent a middle ground, a group of Star Wars fans who have grown to be a bit more jaded and cynical about the Star Wars saga. A group of fans who hold the Universe created by George Lucas very close to our hearts. Well, maybe not the whole universe, a but a big part of it. A group who feels stolen from and does not want to acknowledge the prequels. It isn't that I don't love Star Wars, but like someone who was hurt in a relationship, I'm very weary of being hurt again.

I grew up on Star Wars. The typical child who had everything from bed sheets to underwear with Star Wars on it. Born in 1977, I was just a baby when the original film released, regardless once I saw it, it changed me like so many others. The force was strong with this one! My earliest memories of Star Wars come mostly from the toys instead of the movies. Sure sure, I have oodles of memories of watching the movies repeatedly, but the toys provided a true expanded universe where I could play-out what I watched on screen as well as whatever I dreamt up. It wasn't just me playing with these toys either, all of my friends were also fans. My cousins, friends, and I would get together and have massive battles with our figures, vehicles, and playsets. Great memories were formed during these times. Better, a communal bond through our love of Star Wars formed with imagination.

My generation, keep in mind, did not have the simple pleasure of streaming our favorite movies and series whenever we wanted. We couldn't instantly share via social media. Yes, we could re-watch the original trilogy via Betamax, LaserDisc or VHS. We could tell our friends and family about what we saw, but nowhere in the capacity we can today. VHS was my drug of choice. It is easy to forget that not everyone had the luxury of owning a home video player in 1980s, unlike today where it seems everyone has a device that is able to stream. I remember my family having to rent both the player and movies at our local video rental store until 1988, when we got our first VHS player. By that time all three movies in the original trilogy were on VHS and available in a set. The pre-special edition Star Wars VHS set if you will. Friends and I would watch the movies daily. I recall a period of time where a friend and I would try to watch all three movies each day (or as many as we could on school days). This went on for months. Whether at my house or his, we'd watch the movies over and over and over. We learned the movies backwards and forwards. We developed our own language using lines from the original trilogy to imply our emotions. For example when a friend was upset over something, an easy quote would be "Cannot get your ship out?" taken from "The Empire Strikes Back." Another example of a communal bond through a shared love of Star Wars, this time with language.

In 1997, as part of a 20th Anniversary, the Star Wars trilogy was re-released in theaters. The re-release of these titles was huge to me. First, being too young to have seen "Star Wars" or "The Empire Strikes Back" in theaters when they initially released. This became my chance to experience three of my favorite movies in a darkened theater on the big screen as many times as I wanted. Second, there was an unmatched amount of craze around these releases. Fans of Star Wars made these re-release event(s) a real treat for fans of the franchise. Everything from lining-up for hours to buy tickets for the first possible showing, then lining up for hours ahead of that first showing so that you can get the best seat. There were some amazing memories and new friendships started in those lines. An experience that has changed altogether. Today we buy our tickets online. We have the ease of also selecting our seats ahead of time. While I love the ease we have today, you can't deny we have removed the more personal side of waiting in line. Standing side-by-side for hours, if not days to get the best seat. Standing next to other Star Wars fans just as eager as you created something special in the fanbase. This is another, wonderful example of a shared communal bond through Star Wars, now with culture.

The experiences created before seeing the re-releases is much different than the experiences after seeing the Special Edition re-releases. Each film featured updates or enhancements. New shots or sequences added. Some were minor, like the blur under Luke's landspeeder being replaced with a more accurate shadow, while others were very noticeable. For instance, having Han shoot Greedo first in the Mos Eisley cantina, altering one of the more memorable moments in Star Wars lore. Each of these enhancements played a small part in the Star Wars I grew up with changing from just being movies. More so, these re-releases represented me learning (as an adult) the branding of Star Wars and how it had little concern about my fandom. If George Lucas wanted to celebrate "Return of the Jedi" and Star Wars fandom, he wouldn't have added a whole new musical number with CGI performers to the Jabba the Hutt lair sequence. He took a scene that scared little kids (in a good way) and made it an eye-rolling moment.

There's an apparent change that came with Star Wars following 1995. It was the final VHS push to own the original trilogy. From that point on, Star Wars was about expanding and the next phase of the franchise, the Prequels. Hindsight is everything here. I won't lie, there's plenty to enjoy in all three of the Star Wars prequels. Stuff that I enjoyed as each film went into production all the way till it released in theaters. Characters, vehicles, and plot points. That said, I wish they didn't exist. Much like I mentioned with the Special Edition 20th Anniversary re-releases, experiences created before seeing the prequels is much different than the experiences after seeing the prequels. After is total sour grapes.

The prequels represent a huge slide in the wrong direction. First and foremost, the films are overall bad. Fan or not, there's really no arguing this point. Even Lucas knows it. Second, I'm hard pressed to find what qualities they offer outside of branding new toys, school supplies, cartoons, video games, etc. Third, the prequels in three movies, unsuccessfully expand a 10 second lie Obi Wan tells Luke Skywalker about his father. We've all heard the saying "less is more" and the prequels are a blatant example of exactly that. I liked Star Wars better before George Lucas filled in all the backstory. Honestly, all the details about how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader take away from his villainy. Search your feelings, you know this to be true.

The prequels were like a being stuck in an abusive relationship. I just kept coming back for more, regardless of how they treated me. I saw each of the prequels three times on opening day. 100% planned. Regardless of whether the movie was good or not. A tradition I started with "The Phantom Menace" and I decided to follow suit with each of the following prequels, "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith." Who could blame me? The original trilogy before the Special Edition re-releases was so good to us. Like an abuse victim, I kept thinking things would get better. I remember watching The Phantom Menace on second viewing and my brain kept defaulting to how bad the movie was. Instead of returning my tickets for the next two showings, I willingly went back, for the love of Star Wars and making it work.

Thing about abusive relationships, it takes the abused a long time to realize how they are being treated. That moment for me came after all three prequels had released on DVD. I planned an all-day viewing party with friends, all six Star Wars movies in-a-row. During that all-day event, there was no hiding that the prequels offered no redeeming qualities to the original trilogy I grew up with. The prequels only diluted the original trilogy. They provided hilarious laugh track while you watch, but little else. It was then I decided that I would no longer consider the prequels "actual" sequels to the original trilogy. They are expanded universe that is there, but I do not acknowledge them. I believe it was Drew McWeeny over at Hitfix, that suggested we think of the prequels as nothing more than Luke's fever dream in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but even that is being nice.

Moving forward, George Lucas tried to eliminate all memory of the original trilogy before the 20th Anniversary Special Edition alterations. Outside of a DVD set that came out in 2008, it is really hard to see true original cuts to the original trilogy. These actions only further infuriated me. This is a period where I only saw was red when it came to Star Wars. Star Wars had become a song that was overplayed on the radio, or in Jabba's lair. It was a trend that everyone was now into. It moved beyond pop culture. What was once special, was longer special to me. It was tainted. Looking at a Darth Vader, I didn't think about how badass he was. How Vader could actually temp the audience to joining the dark side of the force, instead I thought about what cry baby George Lucas made him out to be. There's documentary titled "The People vs. George Lucas" which does an excellent job of illustrating further why I saw nothing but red during this phase of Star Wars.

There's a turning point to this relationship. It begins with, no more George Lucas. That is such a weird thing to type. I don't like typing that. He's created (and tarnished) some of my all time favorite movies. Regardless, Disney came along and purchased the rights to Star Wars from Lucasfilm. In the process, Lucas stepped down having anything to do with future installments of Star Wars. Disney announced that they'd be making a new trilogy. A trilogy that would follow the events of Return of the Jedi. Disney also announced a world of new spin-off movies that would further expand the Star Wars universe. Truth be told, I remain extremely hesitant on all of this news. We are all still in major what if mode, but some strides have been made that seem to be awakening the force inside of this lifelong Star Wars fan.

First step was Disney went out and hired JJ Abrams. I know this move doesn't appease all. Plenty of people have issues with JJ's style, I do not share those sentiments. I like JJ, quite a bit actually. I like what he did with "Star Trek," even if that didn't please a lot of hardcore Trek fans. JJ has always said he's a Star Wars fan and it shows. He's one of the kids who were 8 or 9 when the original Star Wars blew the doors off. Like me, it changed him and now he's making a new installment. An installment now made by that first generation of kids who were affected by Star Wars. A generation who experienced first hand a communal bond between imagination, language, and culture all stemming from Star Wars. It is a great thing to have JJ helming a new piece to the saga.

That brings me to a second important step in the right direction, sequels. Prequels and our need to flesh out the origin of every character we love might be good for business, but it is bad for storytelling. The Force Awakens represents a new future for Star Wars and while the sequel does see a return of old characters like Luke, Han, and Chewie, the teaser released lets the audience immediately know we have new characters to follow. Something that is important to add here is the hiring of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Kasdan feels like another stride in the right direction. He represents a logical bridge from the original trilogy pushing us forward into new adventures. Adventures that will hopefully create new iconic characters along the way.

It is worth mentioning A Force for Change as another piece of positive momentum. The charitable UNICEF initiative from Disney, Lucasfilm, and Bad Robot not only provided a benefit worth supporting, but two videos that created much needed enthusiasm for Star Wars fans wondering how a new movie would shape up. This is another reason why I like JJ Abrams. While it was totally calculated (like all of his marketing moves), I appreciate that he made sure to show that practical effects are being utilized in the seventh Star Wars movie. Doing so was not only a nice gesture towards fans while also rekindling the idea of a communal appreciation for Star Wars but an important one. Fans got a sneak peek at X-Wing being used on set while also donating to a good cause. Donators will be able to proudly wear their Force for Change t-shirts as an identifier to other fans.

Before talking the trailer itself, I want to address the idea of The Force Awakens teaser trailer premiering in theaters. I love this idea. It is awesome that Disney uses Star Wars fandom in a unique way. It calls back to when I was a kid. When trailers debuted in theaters for the first time, not online. It comes from a time JJ knows all too well also. When if you didn't see a trailer, the only consolation was hearing those who had describe it. Plenty complain of JJ's so-called Mystery Box approach. Rest assured he has the interest of fans at heart when he tries to limit what we know about a given film. Less is more. Unfortunately these days, where piracy is rampant, Disney chose to release the 88 second teaser online and theaters simultaneously. The decision did feel like a parent caving little by little after telling their child no, yet it was the right decision. Disney got ahead of any leaked versions and released a full HD version. Whether you made an extra effort to see the trailer in a theater with a group of Star Wars fans or caught it via your social media feed, you saw the best version in that particular format.

About the teaser itself, I found it to be a real nice table setter. The setting and look is familiar, yet we have new characters at the forefront. A cast, which I failed to mention earlier, but is also a nice point of forward momentum Disney seems to have made since purchasing the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilm. John Boyega is an exceptional talent who is sure to become a household name after the film releases. The same should be said of Adam Driver and Oscar Issacs, who both starred in a recent folk drama by the Coen brothers "Inside Llewyn Davis." There are six specifics shots in the teaser all tied together by a piece of voice-over and some very familiar music. The voice-over sounds like it is Andy Serkis, but I could be mistaken. If I were to pick one shot that grabbed me the most, it has to be actress Daisy Ridley atop of a speeder. Mostly because it seemed like a jab at the pod race in The Phantom Menace. More importantly this sequence showed that A, we have a woman as a central character and B, the look and feel is on point. Of course, seeing a squad of X-Wings moving in formation and the Millennium Falcon dog fighting with Tie-Fighters tantalized just like it was supposed to. This teaser pushed all the right buttons. Simply, it awoke my enthusiasm and it feels great. In fact, let's watch it again right now shall we?

There's an ongoing communal bond Star Wars fans share that is very important. JJ Abrams and company are tapped in to that bond and on the right track. They created an avenue for fans to gather together and share seeing the first footage for The Force Awakens with an eager crowd. Will it payoff? Only time will tell. As stated earlier, I remain very hesitant. We've still got ourselves a year, so I'd pump the brakes. Still, as I've pointed out numerous times previously, Disney seems to want to tap into what made Star Wars great, not what has made Star Wars or Lucasfilm a great deal of money. Which is so freaking important. Partly because they want the Star Wars franchise to make money over a long haul. Also, because they want to excite their fanbase with what seems to be an equal amount of nostalgia and maturity.

More and more, I'm starting to think JJ Abrams is more than able to make a suitable installment into the Star Wars saga. I don't expect him to make a movie that lives up to my childhood. No one can. "That's impossible!" Though I do believe he's capable of making a film that will leave me with a more positive outlook towards the future of Star Wars than the prequels ever did. At least, let's hope so... otherwise