There was no way to control my excitement and anticipation as the release date for The Force Awakens drew near at the end of 2015. I tried but this was the first time in thirty years Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, Artoo, and Threepio would be together again in a new adventure on the BIG SCREEN. As the credits rolled and the lights in the theatre came up…I wasn’t feeling what I wanted to feel. David, Kalie, Jeff, Hannah, and I all stood around in the parking lot after our initial screening staring at each other until Hannah finally said what I was feeling too, “I kind of hated it.” It didn’t feel like Star Wars to me. The absence of Lucas’ vision was painfully evident. BUT I’ve carried this resentment long enough. It’s time for me to let go and celebrate what’s right with The Force Awakens.
Now, I stand by my criticisms of The Force Awakens and the Disney Canon in general. I think there are significant and legitimate issues worthy of critique in what Disney’s given us in place of the Expanded Universe (if you’d like, here’s a whole post about it). I also believe informed critiques are a good thing. It’s because I love Star Wars that I’m critical of all I feel falls short of what the Star Wars Saga should be. I’ve always felt the unquestioning love of everything with the Star Wars label on it seems a thoughtless approach to art that’s meant to affect us emotionally and guide us spiritually, as Lucas’ Original and Prequel Trilogies did. Still, losing myself in the negative isn’t healthy. Holding on to resentment and anger only poisons the one who can’t let go. I don’t want to live that way. I want to open the door to enjoy the Disney Canon as best I can. Three things in particular have led to this epiphany – my students, internet trolls, and the sheer joy of speculation.
Last term Hannah and I concluded the inaugural run of our Star Wars & Contemporary Myth-Making course. We walked our students through layer upon layer of theological, literary, mythical, thematic, and musical analysis of Lucas’s six films and a few episodes of The Clone Wars. In addition to heavy class discussion, they wrote reflection papers focusing on articles exploring different facets of the Star Wars Saga or they analyzed parts of the films themselves. We then pushed them out into the broader world of Star Wars, namely the Expanded Universe and the Disney Canon, for their final project. Their assignment was to write a three-to-five page paper analyzing whether or not the work they examined was entertaining and, far more importantly, whether or not it provided spiritual instruction in the same mythic way Lucas’s work does.
Of the seventeen students we had, twelve chose to write about The Force Awakens (much to our chagrin). Was part of the reason because it took less time to watch and analyze a two hour movie than read a 300+ page novel? Sure. But many of their papers were profound, featuring both deep insights and passionate deconstruction. I can go on and on about why I don’t like The Force Awakens but, obviously, it spoke to our students. Reading about what they saw and connected with made me want to revisit the film myself. As I read their papers I came to see a similar unspoken thread weaving through them – this was their Star Wars movie. Maybe, just maybe, Disney isn’t making Star Wars for me anymore. And you know what? That’s okay. I’m a product of my age and time. Star Wars will always be Lucas’s work for me. The Expanded Universe will always be the rest of Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, Lando, Artoo, and Threepio’s story. The Truce at Bakura will always be what happened after Return Of The Jedi and Return Of The Jedi will always be my favorite Star Wars film! And I’ll always be a little snobby and dismissive of what’s coming down the line now :). But there’s a new generation of Star Wars fans rising and this is their story.
With this new dimension to the story, there is no longer any guarantee that a newbie to Star Wars will start with A New Hope or The Phantom Menace. This pains me a little (or, if I’m being honest, a lot), but it’s the way things are. For many a newbie, The Force Awakens or even Rogue One was or will be their first Star Wars experience. That’s something special, something that will forever shape their understanding and experience of Star Wars. One of our students pointed out in his paper that The Force Awakens was the first Star Wars movie he could remember seeing in theatres. In addition to making Hannah and I feel old, it underscored just how important this film is to the next generation (unintentional Star Trek reference aside) of Star Wars fans.
Watching our students come alive to Star Wars (especially the half of the class who’d never seen a single movie before taking our course) was a special blessing. Reading their insights through the term, seeing them take what we were trying to teach them about art and analysis and pealing back the layers of the films to explore their depth and emotionally connect with Lucas’s saga was one of the most rewarding moments of my teaching career. And watching them take their budding love of Star Wars and pour themselves into Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren’s journey in The Force Awakens was a revealing experience. I felt compelled to re-watch The Force Awakens, wanting to see it through their eyes, letting their papers color my experience of the film.
This embracing of other’s opinions brings us to internet trolls. A few months back Jeff wrote a post titled “Your Snoke Theory Doesn’t Suck” in response to language he saw bouncing around the fandom that he felt wasn’t conducive to the spirit of creative speculation in Star Wars. As he was simultaneously besieged by support and trolling, I wrote a piece agreeing with him. I received a lot of positive feedback…but I also got some pretty hateful responses too. In fact, for the first time in the history of this site, I had comments I chose not to post. There were people vitriolically attacking other people’s comments and people who were maligning my students and their experience of Star Wars as I discussed it in the post with derogatory, pejorative language. While I love a good debate and free exchange of ideas I will not allow hateful, unfounded ranting especially at the expense of my students’ experience and the opinions others express on this site. Sorry, you don’t get to play here if you’re going to play like that.
As I saw the responses to my piece, both positive and negative, I began to reflect on my own negativity towards The Force Awakens. While I certainly never attacked anyone who expressed their love of The Force Awakens nor did I presume my experience of the movie was the “correct” one (both of which are regular tactics of your common internet troll), I was allowing my negative reaction and critical analysis to color my entire experience of the film. I was seeing negativity first, thus putting more negativity into the world. I’m not okay with that. I’m also often frustrated by the people who dump hatred on the Prequels, unable and unwilling to see their beauty, intelligence, power, and worth. I certainly don’t want to become the next generation of that sort of angry, isolated, bitter fan. Is The Force Awakens anywhere near as good as Lucas’s work for me? No. It can never be. But that doesn’t mean I need to focus on the negatives I see whenever I look at the film nor does it mean there’s no good for me to see in it.
And if I refuse to see the good in The Force Awakens I’m closing myself off to the anticipation and speculation about The Last Jedi and the future of Star Wars! I can’t even BEGIN to estimate how many hours Jeff and I lost on the phone or Hannah and I burned during our prep mods as we excitedly speculated about what The Force Awakens would entail. Nor can I tell you how many times I made Kalie watch the trailers with me as I deconstructed every scene. This sort of speculation is a HUGE part of the fun of Star Wars (or any nerdy saga experience). We have The Last Jedi coming out this year and I want to jump into that discussion!!! I want to lose hours again with Jeff on the phone (as Kalie lovingly makes fun of us from the couch listening to my seemingly endless end of the conversation) and with Hannah and our students at work talking about what could happen! I can’t have that sort of fun if I’m hung up on all I didn’t like about The Force Awakens. Rather I want to take what’s fun about The Force Awakens and celebrate it! I want to let that fun and excitement guide me into The Last Jedi. Life is too short to poison with needless negativity. I stand by my critiques and my criticisms but there is no reason to let them dominate my mental landscape. What good comes from that? Life can be dark enough as it is. Only with positivity and optimism, hope and love can we transcend the darkness. I want to always put as much positivity out in the world as I can, Star Wars perspectives included!
With this spirit in mind, I sat down to re-watch The Force Awakens tonight. While I saw it nine times (I know…I kept trying to find a way to love it) in theatres, I’d only ever been able to bring myself to watch it once since I bought the DVD. As I watched tonight, whenever I felt my old, familiar critiques rising I’d simply breathe them out as I would any sort of negative or distracting thought during meditation. Do you know what happened? Free of my expectations and my resentments, I was finally able to enjoy myself!
To begin, even on opening night, I loved that scene when Rey and Finn are escaping Jakku on the Millennium Falcon and, with the bottom gun turret locked, she flips the Falcon and puts it in a dead drop so Finn can shoot the TIE fighter now above them. That scene makes me cheer out loud EVERY TIME!!!! Hell yes! I LOVE IT. On a similar note, every time I watch the scene where Rey calls Luke’s lightsaber to her from the snow on Star Killer Base, chills shoot up my arm and I get tears in my eyes. It’s such a powerful scene. There’s so much going on! She calls the lightsaber to her for the very first time from the snow, just as Luke did for the first time on Hoth. The music swells and that familiar theme begins and there are so many feels. So these were things I’ve loved since my first viewing, even in and around the parts that frustrate me.
I also love Rey! To finally, finally have a strong, female Force-user as a protagonist – a protagonist, I’ll add who never feels like the “girl hero” or the “female protagonist” but simply the hero – is as important as it is unique in Star Wars. Rey’s character is layered and her ability to use the Force with such unprecedented natural power raises SO MANY questions that need to be obsessed over. And seeing her take Han’s captain seat in the Millennium Falcon as she, Chewie, and Artoo go off in search of Luke…yeah. That’s a powerful scene. I’ve loved all of that since the first screening too.
In fact, all the characters – Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren – are interesting to me and I’m excited to see how their stories evolve as Star Wars under Disney’s stewardship becomes their story. How do you not love Finn’s loyalty or Poe’s humor and bravado? I appreciated all of that with so much more freedom tonight.
I also like the inclusion of characters like Lor San Tekka and Maz Kanata. Here are people who see, believe in, and understand the Force who aren’t Jedi or Sith. This opens the door to a new type of theological discussion in Star Wars. On the theology note, I love, love, love, when Han, Chewie, and Finn are sneaking into Star Killer Base and Han asks how they’ll get in. Finn replies, “So…we’ll figure it out. We’ll use the Force!” Han gruffly chides, “That’s not how the Force works!” The implied theology here is excellent. So often we think of God as some wish-fulfilling genie but, in truth, the Divine doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) work that way. I looooove how this one quick dialogue exchange underscores that point.
Maz herself is a fascinating character too, obviously. I’m intrigued by all she has the potential to be in this next generation of Star Wars stories – mentor, watcher, information broker, threshold guardian. And, visually, I liked how The Force Awakens gave us a combination air and land battle at Maz’s palace with the ground troops fighting as the fighters strafed the area. I’ve never seen anything quite like that in Star Wars before.
Also, I think tonight was the first time (free from the combinations of anxiety, shock, expectations and/or resentment on opening night and in subsequent viewings) that I’ve fully appreciated the emotional power of Ben killing Han. Obviously it’s moved me before. Obviously I’ve cried. But I felt it in a new way tonight.
Lastly…moof-milker. C’mon!!! How was that not the catch-on quote from this film?!? Everyone likes to say, “Tell that to Kanjiklub” but where are all the “moof-milker” quotes?!? It’s hilarious!! Best throwaway line of the film for me, by far.
So, I think, time has helped. Admittedly, it’s taken me awhile to get here – a year and a half. But I’m finally ready to enjoy The Force Awakens for what it is, meeting it on its own terms, and not demanding anything more of it. Honestly it felt good to sit down and watch it like this – ready to appreciate it for what it was and not upset that it wasn’t what it could be or what I wanted it to be. It felt good to let go of my resentment and to try to live in the light. And, while I stand by my critiques, I am happy to say I honestly enjoyed watching The Force Awakens in my own way. Now let’s bring on The Last Jedi!