The second-hand rapture of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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Illustration by Rebecca Cho

Ben Roden
Asst. Features Editor

Let me get this out of the way: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” isn’t a great film. The effects are impressive and the acting is solid, and there are hip little jokes where you’d expect hip little jokes to be, but in all the ways that really matter – at least in all the ways that should matter – our latest trip to “a galaxy far, far away” is a remarkably underdeveloped one. But here’s something strange: despite the film’s flaws – and there are piles of them – I simply can’t help but love “The Force Awakens,” and I’ve devoted four weeks and three full-price viewings trying to figure out why. The latest installment of the saga succeeds because it plays by a set of rules unique to Star Wars. “The Force Awakens” isn’t a great film because it isn’t really a film at all – it’s a magical, vivid fever-dream of mass nostalgia.

From the moment John Williams’ fanfare blared and the giant yellow text began to scroll, “Star Wars” became a part of us. To a greater extent than any other film, and perhaps any other piece of fiction, “Star Wars” is woven into American thought. Don’t believe me? Ask someone about the first time they saw “A New Hope.” Notice the sudden reverence; the dreamy distance of eyes and voice. Even for those with little interest in the subsequent films or in fantasy cinema in general, a re-telling of this moment takes on a deeply affected, almost religious air. Like The JFK assassination or Armstrong’s moonwalk or 9/11, it’s one of those “where-were-you-when” events, something that not only emblazons itself on the imagination, but crystallizes surrounding memories. You don’t just remember where you were when you first saw Star Wars, you remember who you were.

There are moments when “The Force Awakens” flirts with this same kind of magic. From the slipshod interior of the Millennium Falcon to the shriek and drone of a TIE fighter, “The Force Awakens” synthesizes components of the original trilogy so thoroughly that at first, we believe the feats of the original have been accomplished anew. Unfortunately, the very best parts are borrowed from films three decades old. What we take for discovery is the mere stoking of extant embers. “The Force Awakens” doesn’t show us anything new, it just lets us relive our memories in glorious high-definition.

The filmmakers must have realized early on that no amount of creativity was likely to supplant the power of memory. Given the near-universal panning of the Star Wars prequels, it was perhaps a smart move to begin the new saga with bare-bones nostalgia. The result feels less like a new story than some sort of billion-dollar fan-fiction Mad Lib, a beautifully appointed template reliant upon our reminiscence to complete a fragmented and inorganic narrative. This film only works because of what we’re asked to bring along. Why does Rey think to use a Jedi-mind trick on her Stormtrooper captor? Because under our breath, we’ve been trying them on schoolteachers for years. Why are our heroes innately skilled with a lightsaber? Because of the afternoons we’ve spent twirling Wiffle bats in the backyard. The surrogate structure that makes “The Force Awakens” such a satisfying fan experience is what undermines its impact as a piece of fiction.

 JJ Abrams’ film feels like something special, not because it’s new, or brave, or inventive, but because it allows us to dig into an itch that the Lucas prequels were able only to clumsily paw at. “The Force Awakens” impresses as a singular cultural moment, but unless the franchise manages to balance the need for nostalgia with confident and adventurous new narratives, Disney’s stewardship of the franchise won’t amount much more than empty facsimile. In 1977, Star Wars asked us to hope. In 2015, Star Wars just hopes we’ll remember.