The Force Breathes Easy

ďWhat if it isnít any good?Ē my wife Sarit asked me, and I had no answer. For the past several months we were all deluged with Star Wars. Every new trailer was an event. Every rumor was a breaking news story. I grew up with Star Wars merchandising, owning most of the action figures and many of the toys. Heck, I was a card carrying member of the Star Wars fan club and even for me this hype was a bit much. Star Wars oranges? Star Wars makeup? Still, I was counting the days until Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted. But, during all the buildup, Saritís question lingered: What if it isnít any good?

You see, I had been through all this before. In 1999, I could not wait for Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It was the first new Star Wars film in 16 years. We fans gobbled up each new detail, and speculated on what secrets the movie held. The anticipation gave way to a massive letdown. The Phantom Menace, and the other two Star Wars prequels, were all hits at the box office, but that did not stop the popular perception that these films were disappointments. The perception was not without merit. The prequels had beautiful and convincing computer generated imagery (CGI). The stories boasted some fine performances and skillfully set the elements in the place to get the plot where it needed to be. However, the prequels also had some wooden performances and clunky dialogue. They seemed too reliant on CGI, giving them an almost antiseptic feel. Even worse, the only attempts at humor came through annoying characters and failed miserably.

Would the new film be different? George Lucas was no longer directly involved. J.J. Abrams directed and worked on the script. Abrams directed the two most recent Star Trek movies, earning credit for reviving that franchise. While I enjoyed those films to some degree, I felt Abrams played too fast and loose with the core Trek concepts and characters. It had only a superficial connection to the Trek of Roddenberry, Shatner and Nimoy. With Star Wars I felt a little more optimistic since Abrams wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan, who had co-written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi many years ago. Of course any concerns I may have had did not stop me from buying my tickets in October.

As the big day drew near, the early reviews were positive. My childhood friend David came up from Richmond with his wife and two baby boys. David and I saw Return of the Jedi in 1983, and here we were, back again with more weight and less hair. We arrived at the Uptown Theater bright and early on December 18th. Times had changed, and I donít mean since 1983, but since 1997. When a different friend and I arrived for the re-release of the original Star Wars 18 years ago, the first show was at 10:30 in the morning. We arrived three hours early to make sure we got tickets and the theater was packed. This time the first showings were the night before and we all got our tickets online. We saw remnants of the bigger crowds, but ours was much smaller. It was still enough for a news crew to come by. They even interviewed David. We both had put in for leave that day and wondered if anyone had called in sick, only to have their boss see them on the TV news.

While the day lacked the electric atmosphere of Star Wars past, it did not matter when the lights went down. It was ... great!!! The new film kept the core elements of the original trilogy, while building in new stories and characters. It looked closer to the original trilogy, with a used, beat-up feel, and used the CGI judiciously. The pacing was strong, and it was funny without trying too hard for laughs. The main quality the prequels lacked was a Han Solo type character, an insolent smart aleck who could cut through the seriousness of the Jedi and the Force. Who better to bring that quality back than Han Solo himself? [OBLIGATORY SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE NEW STAR WARS YET, (1) WHATíS WRONG WITH YOU? AND )2) STOP READING NOW]. Harrison Ford may have had qualms about coming back to the role that made him famous, but onscreen he seemed to be having fun. He is well into his 70s, but he still has the gruff charm to remind us why we loved him, and Han Solo, in the first place. [SECOND SPOILER ALERT: SERIOUSLY, IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE NEW STAR WARS YET, I AM WARNING YOU. STOP READING NOW]. That is what makes Hanís death such a touching, powerful scene. There is a real human connection with him, and it hurts when he is gone.

David and me at the Uptown minutes before Star Wars.

When I left the theater that morning I felt relief. We were not disappointed this time, and I did not have to answer Saritís question. Abrams and his team did make some mistakes. Rey, one of the key new characters, develops Jedi skills much too quickly and with no training. Even Luke Skywalker needed some teaching before he was controlling objects and peopleís minds. Speaking of Luke, I could have used a little more, such as him talking. I get that the search for him was the crux of the plot, and that there needed to be room for Han to be the wise old hand who guides the new guys. Still, once Luke is found, it would be rewarding to learn what he has been up to and what connection he has with Rey. One scene would be sufficient. Maybe this is nitpicking, maybe not. Regardless, it was not enough to detract from enjoying the movie.

The Friday morning showing was only the first part of my Star Wars weekend. Part II came the following night, at the synagogue where my wife teaches. Every so often they have a movie Saturday night, and this time, in conjunction with the new movie, they decided to show the original. I was happy to help out and supply the DVD. The school had its best Saturday night crowd ever and will likely show The Empire Strikes Back next time. Kids who were not even born when the prequels came out, let alone the original trilogy, are discovering or rediscovering these films. Sometimes I need to remind myself that the first Star Wars debuted 38 years ago.

The best was yet to come. My wife and I drove up to Cherry Hill, NJ that night. The next morning I went to see The Force Awakens again, this time with my wife, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephews. My niece Leah dressed as her namesake, while my nephews AJ and Danny came as a Stormtrooper and Jedi respectively. This time I could just enjoy the ride, as all of my questions had been answered. At times I watched the kids more than the movie. As I saw the light flicker on their faces, their expressions filled with delight, I knew the new film was a success. Star Wars had fully passed along to the new generation. The circle was now complete.

With my brother, niece and nephews after the Sunday showing in NJ.

Adam Spector
January 1, 2016

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