I have been hesitant to write about the latest Star Wars film. To begin, I did not develop an enjoyment for the universe until very recently when my husband insisted that I watch through both trilogies in preparation for Episode VII’s premiere. Secondly, everyone and anyone has been discussing the film in earnest, online and in person, for the last few weeks. What more could I, a complete newbie, really offer to the conversation?
At the same time, however, I write a blog about the intersection of high and low culture, and what better fits the description than the question of how to classify or understand the Star Wars movies. Now, as the dust settles from JJ Abrams’ initial overwhelming success, several brave (or cynical?) voices can be heard arguing that Episode VII isn’t as great as we think it is–that the film is nothing more than unoriginal entertainment saturated in gimmicky nostalgia.
But the word “great” is fairly vague; what do we really mean when we talk about “great cinema”? It’s similar to asking what is “great art?” That is a massive question, and one that I do not feel well equipped to answer, but I do want to counter with one observation: perhaps it would be better to explore the idea of “great cinemas“? What I am suggesting is that comparing a film like VII to an art film like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless would be like comparing apples to oranges. Even attempting to judge a film based on similar films of its genre is problematic because genre is such a fluid, abstract notion. This leads us back to the question of defining a great film, but the intention of my detour was to remind us that comparison is not the answer to determining greatness.
So what then do we do with Episode VII? As some have suggested, have we been swept up in a collective but delusional fervor for a movie that just isn’t good? Are we blinded by our fandom?
As somebody with very little invested in seeing the Star Wars universe succeed. (Though I do enjoy the films.) I would argue that yes, the latest episode of Star Wars can be described as great. By acknowledging this, I am not suggesting that the film should be considered high art, but neither does it exist as mere vacuous entertainment. One of the primary critiques leveled against VII is that the film is simply a regurgitation of Episode IV: A New Hope. The film is indeed a mirror of the original Star Wars film, but to suggest that Abrams is engaging in mindless mimicry is a naive accusation to level at such a seasoned director. Rather I suspect that Abrams is using VII as a bridge film–a film that is leading us from an old familiar place to new frontiers. VII is not a copy of IV but a response. A line that hints at this occurs during Maz’ conversation with Rey where she tells Rey that what Rey is waiting for to return is not coming. Instead Rey must leave the past behind and create a new future. We, like Rey, must walk away from our previous feelings of betrayal (aka towards the prequels). This new era of Star Wars promises to wash the sub par away and replace it with something better (and less racist and misogynistic)–our newest hope. The nods to familiar landscapes, familiar characters, and familiar scenarios are assurances that the new generation of Star Wars filmmakers are rooted deeply in a proper understanding of the world. But the last scenes of the film with Luke and Rey offer a different assurance that we are about to be ushered into something new. A new chapter is unfolding, and Abrams’ job was to return us into the rightful tradition of the original storytelling. This may seem simple, but his task was actually fairly challenging after the devastating impact of the prequels’ failures. His directorial choices set the stage for the films to come and reshape the attitudes of skeptical audiences worldwide.
In fact, I think the overwhelmingly positive reaction of audiences is a huge indication of the greatness of this film. Star Wars fans are an extremely critical, intelligent, and diverse group of individuals with very high expectations. Both this demographic and thousands of others who went to see the film have experienced similar levels of delight and thrill, rallying passionately behind Rey and Fin–two lovable, complex, and fascinating hero protagonists unlike any protagonist that we have seen before, especially within the Star Wars universe. We cannot be so cynical as to brush away this film as mediocre entertainment with no artistic value.
All this being said, I make no guarantees for the future of the franchise. Lucasfilm intends to release one Star Wars film every year for the foreseeable future, copying Marvel’s business model. Financially, this may make sense, but I suspect that the universe may lose some of its magic as it becomes a regular fixture in our lives–like Disneyland after a year with a season pass. For now, however, let us be grateful for Abrams’ work on Episode VII, a film that fully deserves its designation as great.