Friday, January 08, 2016

Star Wars: My Crush on Harrison Ford Reawakens

I have now seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens twice and I place it as my third favorite film in the Saga (Empire is first, A New Hope is second).  Those of you who find that blasphemous can stop reading now.  Those of you who haven’t seen the new film should stop reading to, as this will be full of spoilers.

My Star Wars fandom is somewhat more than casual, yet somewhat below obsessive.  As a kid, I had some of the toys, the trading cards, iron-on t-shirts. I was 5 years old when A New Hope came out - it was the formative filmgoing experience of my childhood. I consider myself very lucky to be born at the right time for that to wow me. As a pre-teen, I developed a crush on Harrison Ford around Empire and Jedi, so I had a lot of posters and pin-ups on my bedroom wall (and even the ceiling - see pic below).  I saw the original films multiple times in the theater and bought the VHS tapes and then DVDs.  I didn't like the prequels. For me the humor, good writing and acting of the original trilogy was missing in the prequels. I only watched them once. The drama of these films was lessened since we all knew the outcome would be Anakin becoming Darth Vader. In my mid-30s, I met my boyfriend Dave who is a very big fan and that has made my fandom grow to where I again have a lot of Star Wars t-shirts and even attended the Star Wars Celebration last year in Anaheim.  

So I was really eager to see the new film. We got tickets for a midday screening on the Friday it opened, and we saw it in 3D at the Rave cinema in Westchester. As we took our reserved seats, we were a bit concerned as there were parents with 2 children under age 5 seated behind us and the little boy was kicking Dave's seat.  And then as they were arranging themselves, the mom accidentally dumped part of her bag of popcorn on Dave's head. We had a bad feeling about this. We got worried our experience might be compromised, yet the show was close to sold out so there was nowhere to move. The mom apologized profusely and got the little boy to stop kicking the seat.  As the movie rolled, the kids sometimes blurted out questions and were occasionally afraid, but in the end, they were so happy and excited.  I went up to the parents after the movie and told them how much I enjoyed sitting in front of the kids. It really made me remember being 5 and seeing A New Hope with my parents and the excitement I felt.  Between that memory and seeing the aged trio of Hamill, Ford, and Fisher on the screen - well, it just felt like the Circle of Life.  I was a bit verklempt.

I didn't want to criticize the film at all after the first viewing. I just wanted to bask in the emotions it brought up and the joy I felt. As the days passed, I read reviews and talked about it more with friends, and then we went back for a second viewing this week, about 2 weeks after the film opened. This time we saw it in Dolby Vision at the El Capitan- Disney’s flagship theater in Hollywood.  We went to a late show on a Tuesday night and there were only about 20 people in the theater. The El Capitan also has some models and costumes in the basement. They are worth a look, if only to prove that Carrie Fisher isn't fat - her outfit is very petite.  There's also some cool life size Lego figures of Kylo Ren, Rey, and BB8 in the lobby. Before the show there's a laser light saber show that had some hokey charm, kind of like a Waltzing Waters show. The sound and picture were amazing here, but the theater was overly air conditioned to the point of being uncomfortable. I wished for a tauntaun sleeping bag. The staff member I spoke to about it said they are having trouble regulating the temperature because the new projector is much hotter than the old one. Still, I would recommend seeing the film here for the quality projection and the overall experience - just bundle up.

It is Harrison Ford that makes this film. He is the force that binds it together.  When he and Leia reunite, I cried. When he died, I sobbed.  I felt like I rediscovered my crush on him, although he's in his 70s now.  We had a long cooling-off period, Harrison and I. Fifteen years ago, I even wrote this scathing article about him called "Note to Harrison Ford: You Can Go Back to Making Bookshelves Now" in which I suggested he might prefer puttering around his workshop and rediscovering carpentry (the way he made a living before hitting it big with Star Wars), since he was picking such terrible movie projects and basically phoning in the performances (Six Days Seven Nights, Hollywood Homicide, What Lies Beneath, etc). 

Force Awakens rediscovers the sense of humor and goofiness of the original films and gives Harrison a solid script to work with. Thank you, Lawrence Kasdan! Empire is my favorite film because of his writing, and once again here we have dialogue that is believable and fully developed characters to deliver it.  The new heroes - Finn and Rey - are both multi-dimensional. I found myself rooting for them and wanting to know more about them. And their possible romance is intriguing as well.  As in Empire, not all goes well for our heroes and we are left with many questions, leaving us eager for the next installment.

Another thing I loved was all the new creatures and the use of practical effects.  I can't get into films that have too much CGI - it makes me disconnect. Some of the CGI really worked here, however, particularly the character of Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o). She had a lot of warmth and humor to her, although her saloon was far too reminiscent of the original cantina.  A CGI character that didn't work as well is Snoke, who reminded me of a cartoonish Harry Potter villain. The Emperor was much creepier.

In general, I was disappointed that so much of the film was a retread of the earlier films - yet another Death Star with a fatal flaw, a mission beginning on a desert planet with a droid with an important message that must be delivered to the Rebels, another wintry planet, another forest planet, a place that looks like Coruscant but isn't, etc.  It's too bad the originality of the new characters couldn't carry over into more original situations.  It would also have been nice to see C3PO and R2D2 get more use, although C3PO’s opening line about his red arm really cracked me up. There was missed opportunity for more comedy if there had been more interactions between the old droids and BB8.

In my first viewing, I wasn't really impressed with Kylo Ren.  I had trouble thinking of Adam Driver as anyone but his character in Girls.  He does bring the same sense of awkwardness to this role.  Upon thinking about it more and after the second viewing, I actually really like this villain because he is conflicted and neurotic. I love his tantrum scene and his conversation with his grandpa’s helmet. When he commits patricide, it's shocking and powerful.  

Unfortunately, I don't feel Han's death got the respectful treatment it deserved.  They should have let Chewie mourn more and embrace Leia when he sees her - instead he walks right by and she hugs Rey who she has never met. Chewie is involved in a lot of action and has a bigger role than in past films, yet he is robbed of an opportunity to show true grief.  I suppose it's always possible Han didn't die and is hanging from a vent somewhere, like Luke did at the bottom of Cloud City. A girl can dream.

Why do I place Force Awakens above Return of the Jedi? Well, it’s a close call, as I do love Jedi. For me, Jedi lost momentum once the Han Solo rescue was completed. I loved Jabba’s palace and the creatures there and the sail barge action. I thought the ewoks were cute, but I can understand why hard core fans hate them. Clearly, they paved the way for Jar Jar Binks. I found myself not that interested in another Death Star space battle. And Harrison Ford didn’t seem interested either. It’s no secret he asked George to kill off his character in that film. He had so many other opportunities at that point in his career and he really seemed like he would rather be doing them. And since he was my main attraction in the films, I felt it and it kept me at a bit of a distance when watching Jedi. In Force Awakens, he seems happy to be there and reenergized by the role and the good dialogue he gets to deliver. It feels like he has come to terms with the importance of these films in his life and all our lives and he wants this one to succeed. He was even so much more relaxed in his interviews promoting this film, like he’s at peace with the universe. He had to have more fun with this film than he did with Kingdom of a Crystal Skull - and so do we all!

The John Williams score is strong as one would expect. Rey's Theme is the standout track for me.  The opening crawl and fanfare gave me chills. There's a lot of fun easter eggs for hard core fans, like the reappearance of the remote and the chess game on the Falcon. Fun is really the word for the movie - it may lack the depth of A New Hope and Empire - but it's damn fun! There’s so much action and such a fast pace. BB8 is just a happy fun ball. How adorable was it when he went down the stairs? I even find myself wanting a remote control BB8. He's just so cute and clever too.  

It's unlikely to happen, but I'd love to see Harrison Ford get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He conveys so much with his glances and crooked smile. He radiates class and gravitas when he says, "It's true. All of it." And we can see his tender side in his interactions with Leia (I wish she had more to do). We remember all the fun he brought to the saga through his humorous lines, like when he tells Finn that "women always know the truth", and even in the silly fight with the gangs and the monsters when he's taken the Falcon onto his freighter.  It’s tough to picture the next film being as strong without him being at the center. I know he has signed on to be in the next film, but it’s unclear what that will mean. It might be a brief cameo like Mark Hamill’s in this film.

My parents saw A New Hope before taking me to see it, to make sure it wouldn't be too scary. My mom skipped the second viewing and just let my dad take me. She said the only thing she liked about the film was Han Solo, that he was pretty cute.  And by the time Empire came out, I agreed with her. Our shared crush on Harrison Ford was something that we had in common, even in my teen years when it seemed we didn’t have anything else in common. My parents have passed on, but after seeing this film I found myself thinking about them and feeling grateful that they introduced me to Star Wars. I think my mom would still think Han Solo was pretty cute - and so do I.  

For Generation X, this is the saga of our lives, so it's quite emotional to come back to it and see the original actors again. I am willing to forgive a lot of plot holes for an experience that is so rich and nostalgic, yet fresh and well-crafted too.  

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