The Force Awakens: Better than The Phantom Menace, and, yes, A New Hope

Eliot HochbergMovies, Opinion1 Comment

Star Wars The Force Awakens review

tfavanhAt this point, if you haven’t seen Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I don’t know what to tell you. You don’t care about Star Wars. Or you were stationed in the Arctic, and I’m sorry that you were. If one of those is true, don’t read further. Go and see the movie, or, you know, don’t, but don’t get mad at any spoilers.

Ok.

As with any movie that breaks box office records, The Force Awakens (TFA) has received a lot of coverage. And it’s made a butt-load of money because, let’s face it, if it were even mediocre, it would have done well. The fact that, for those who like Star Wars, it isn’t mediocre but indeed great, is the reason people have gone to see it again and again.

However, I’ve gone beyond that statement. I think it’s the best of the movies so far.

Now, there’s been a lot of teeth gnashing about how TFA has recycled bits. And there are many folks, probably people who felt burned by The Phantom Menace (TPM), who weren’t going to be happy with anything other than something totally different. Which to me is silly, because this is Star Wars, it’s a space opera, and space operas recycle plot points over and over. J. J. Abrams has done a much better job of explaining this, so I won’t go into detail.

As for why TFA is better than TPM, well, I would think that is obvious., Just in case it isn’t: first, it has pretty close to the same story bones as TPM. Two main characters crash land on a planet. Kid on a desert planet has latent force powers. He destroys a big ship with some good piloting and a lucky shot. There are a lot of parallels, but the differences are in the characters and what they do.

TPM is a lot of galactic plotting, intended, one assumes, to mimic films like The Lion in Winter, or some of the 1950s royal court intrigue films. Which could have been fun, but arguably even if done well, isn’t really what made A New Hope (ANH) great. ANH is swashbuckling on a galactic scale, with a small group against a huge Empire. TPM is a bunch of confusing backstabbing and back room dealing without even the benefit of it all happening in one place that you can get your brain around. Not to mention all of the undermining of the mythos that was created for Star Wars in the first three films. That said, TPM could have been an ok film with a different director. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of galactic intrigue and scheming, per se, but your characters have to really chew up the scenery, make their intentions clear, and express their emotions of power or distress in a way that glosses over any difficulties in understanding the underlying plot. And while Palpatine’s motivations are pretty clear, everyone else is sort of in a no-man’s land of intention, and is directed so blandly as to not have any character at all.

But what about ANH? Is TFA really better than that film?

First, let’s concede a few things. ANH did for sci-fi something that other films hadn’t done. It brought realism to an epic, galactically- scaled movie that no other film had before. I can only think of two films that really approached space in a way that was as good as Star Wars in its realism: 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Silent Running. But both of those films really only addressed the solar system, and a very small version of humanity and human presence in space. Star Wars was the first grounded film (despite it being a space opera) with a realistic universe teaming with life that didn’t necessarily have to be humanoid. It inspired viewers to consider the larger galaxy as though it really existed, despite the magic of The Force, and the unrealized and unrealistic laser weapons the characters used. And because of that, people who saw it in the theatres (myself included) give it a special place in movie memory.

What if, however, ANH were released today? Would it have the same impact? Obviously, given its history, it’s hard to judge. But let’s assume that it was made with today’s standards of special effects, both practical and digital. Would it be as beloved? I don’t think so, although it certainly would be popular.

First, Luke is whiney. He was whiney then, and he is now. Next, for all the menace that Darth Vader embodies, he’s just a big guy in a helmeted suit, with Force powers. Fearsome, to be sure, but not dynamic. A little flamboyant, even, with his cape and flared helmet. Also, kind of two-dimensional. That’s not to say that two-dimensional characters can’t be popular today; it happens all the time. But it seems to me that ANH would be an also-ran if released today against The Hunger Games or Independence Day or Jurassic World. The latter two are on par as far as character depth. In many other ways, they would trounce ANH.

Enter TFA.

Again, there are many similarities between TFA and ANH, they are much closer than either is with TPM. But the differences, ah, the differences. I could argue that the depth of these characters highly benefits from the history that the whole Star Wars series has laid before it. For those who’ve seen all the movies, it certainly does. But imagine a 12 year old kid seeing ANH – the original Star Wars – in 1977, and a similar 12 year old seeing TFA now, but without any knowledge of anything else Star Wars. In both cases, that child would see a movie that hints at a past. Connections unexplained but significant. Characters with ties to each other, and tragedy happening right in front of their eyes.

In ANH, you have a mysterious princess struggling against an evil overlord. We all suspect she’s not innocent, but she clings to the law to protect her and despite this, a planet with masses of people is destroyed despite her protestations. We see a young man struggle with his longing for adventure, who sees his aunt and uncle killed, and then, with nothing holding him back, follows that adventure, only to see the man who is the only connection to his father and his future struck down by that evil overlord. The young man makes friends with a scoundrel, and then becomes the hero of the day by defeating the bad guys with the help of the scoundrel, but the loss of good friends.

By contrast, in TFA, we have a more complex set of characters. An estranged couple who watched their son become evil, an unhappy situation which split them up. That father is killed by his son in an attempt to save the still-loved son from himself. A young woman yearns for her family to return to her, only to be forced away from the only place she knows and coerced into joining a galactic battle that isn’t hers to fight. And a young man forced to be a soldier who must, against all odds and reason, stand up for what he believes is right no matter the cost, who falters, but in the end finds his moral footing and helps save the young woman, perhaps at the cost of his life. And the villain, the evil overlord, who is unsure of himself, his power. He puts up a good front, and is strong with The Force, but he is erratic and uncertain, and lashes out as a defense mechanism.

So yes, each character in TFA has a parallel in ANH. But each character in TFA has more depth and detail than ANH. That is partly a sign of the times; especially in TV sci-fi and fantasy, viewers expect more from their characters, even if the stories are still far-fetched. In my view, we have Battlestar Galactica to thank for that, and to a lesser extent, Game of Thrones. Audiences demand more from the stories they care about.

That doesn’t take away, though, from the fact that TFA is better than ANH. It’s like saying double chocolate is better than chocolate. Which it is. But you’re not going to refuse chocolate. In this analogy, by the way, TPM is maybe a sorbet, or some kind of tofu ice cream. It looks like something you want, but as you consume it, you realize it’s not something you want to have again.

This is not intended as a dig on A New Hope. That film will always have a special place for me, as I’m sure it does for many viewers. But, being true to the click-bait title (sorry about that), The Force Awakens is better, in spite of or maybe in addition to its similarities, because the characters are deeper, more varied, and have more potential. It’s the space opera for people who’ve had enough space and opera to want something more.

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Eliot HochbergThe Force Awakens: Better than The Phantom Menace, and, yes, A New Hope