I went to see the new Star Wars movie with Ariel. She liked it, in that well-adjusted way she has of simply liking things in their entirety. I liked it too, though I had the usual list of questions, like why the storm troopers even bother to put on that armor. With or without the nitpicking, the movie is great fun. There’s a whomping good chase scene early on featuring the Millennium Falcon (I guess that might be considered a spoiler, but there’s no way you didn’t know it was going to happen). From there the whole film is a blast of clever echoes of the 1977 original, if not an outright remake.
It’s a brilliant tactic, making you want the movie to be predictable, but I still noticed my attention wandering a couple of times toward the end. It’s partly that while we sat there waiting for Star Wars to begin, we’d seen previews for nine other movies, eight of which involved the world being destroyed in slightly different ways (the ninth was Kung Fu Panda 3, and even that wasn’t a total relief). I like to watch things blow up as much as the next guy, but I went into this Star Wars with my capacity for awe already half used up. And of course it wasn’t just the previews: the fatigue has been coming on for nearly 40 years now. Hollywood has learned to simulate nearly everything, but it hasn’t learned to simulate that evening in May 1977 when, almost for the last time, we walked into a movie theater not knowing what to expect.
Those of us who were around for the debut of the original Star Wars don’t necessarily like to admit how it affected us. A few can truthfully say they never liked it; the rest of us worry that people will think we didn’t notice how we were being sold a dumb kids’ movie. So let’s be clear: the John Williams score was astonishing, especially at a moment when people were flocking to see Saturday Night Fever and big symphonic movie music was presumed dead. The exotic locations and the space-junk mise-en-scène were really mesmerizing. Above all – quietly now, because no one likes to be laughed at by kids – the sheer velocity of the action was a blast of high voltage applied to synapses that had never experienced anything like it. My friends and I left the theater that night in an underpowered stick-shift Pontiac Astre, but in our heads we were still skimming the Death Star, and as we climbed the first hill toward home even that sad little car seemed ready to jump into hyperspace. That had never happened before, has never really happened since. We knew that what we’d just seen would do for movies what the Beatles had done for music.
Oh well. A few decades went by, theaters filled up with comic-book apocalypses, and in due course we realized that Star Wars had done for movies what MacDonald’s had done for hamburgers. This new film tries to overcome that, by looking backward as hard as it can toward 1977. The nostalgia, thick as it is, stays mostly coded into the plot and dialog and sets – or so it does until Carrie Fisher shows up. Somebody decided, intelligently enough I suppose, that if Han and Chewie were going to spend their middle age playing with guns, then it must be Leia who would bear the weight of the passing years. In this film she steps into each of her scenes wearing exactly the same facial expression – one that says where did the time go? And how did things ever turn out this way? You tell us, Princess.