Why The Force Awakens is the Death Magnetic of Star Wars films (Spoiler Free)
The best thing about The Force Awakens is its adoringly reverent reproduction of all of the elements, beats, and now iconic moments of the Star Wars trilogy we loved.
The worst thing about The Force Awakens is its adoringly reverent reproduction of all of the elements, beats, and now iconic moments of the Star Wars trilogy we loved.
Bear with me, because what I need to tell you in this spoiler free review of Star Wars The Force Awakens, a movie you will see regardless of whatever you read anyway, is best cracked open by merging two fanboy languages.
AltPress friendlies like Andy Biersack, Kellin Quinn, Pierce The Veil, and my old dear homies in Fall Out Boy know this: it’s only a matter of time before I’ll bring up Metallica in any conversation. But my love of Star Wars comes somewhere close.
When Metallica released their most recent studio album, diehards and critics were overjoyed. This felt, smelled, looked and of course, sounded like Metallica.
The Force Awakens is the Death Magnetic of Star Wars.
Watching Kylo Ren swing his devilish red lightsaber in the snow (in 3D!), at a special press screening of The Force Awakens on the Walt Disney Studios lot, I felt the same way as when I heard “All Nightmare Long” for the very first time. Gratitude, relief, nostalgia, and fresh energy, all with my lifelong fan experience.
Let me tell you what works about The Force Awakens, before I tell you my problem with it. The movie is already Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, in less than one day of Disney/Lucasfilm’s review embargo being lifted, and it deserves it. It’s good! (Fun fact: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith also is Certified Fresh).
A few critics have said The Force Awakens is the second best Star Wars movie, behind only The Empire Strikes Back. I even saw one review declaring it the best Star Wars movie ever. Look, I share the overall enthusiasm. But critics, yer force drunk.
These reviewers will “sober up” and feel differently at some point (perhaps with the release of Episode VIII? I’ve loved Rian Johnson since Brick. Fingers crossed). It’s a good movie. But let’s be careful not to get carried away by “Star Wars” the thing vs. The Force Awakens, the movie. Trust me, as I sat down and the music cue kicked in and the title crawl began, I felt the force awaken, too. I mean, I am alive.
I will add my own two cents to the hypberbolic storm with this: Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a Top 5 Star Wars character. Yep, right there with Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, and whomever we will argue should get that other spot (Yoda? Leia?).
Ridley is everything we love about a Star Wars hero—brave, innately kind, curious, strong, filled with a hopeful optimism. As the father of a little girl, I’m overjoyed with Rey.
Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren—fantastic. I want to cosplay as Kylo Ren as I type this. Ren is [remember no spoilers!] everything we want from a Star Wars villain—ruthless, cunning, driven, multifaceted, obsessive and ultimately, a wounded lost soul nevertheless tragically entitled, whose vanity drives him to the Dark Side.
We get new Han Solos in both Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), brilliant, wonderful and naturalistic actors whose talents (on strong display previously in Attack The Block and Ex-Machina, respectively) lend an earthy reality to the story even more so than Abrams’ celebrated return to practical effects.
Like the Solo we know, Finn is a reluctant hero. He’s got a moral compass, which gets him involved in the action in the first place, but he senses the whole thing is too much bigger than him, and looks for any opportunities to duck out of the way. Ultimately, like Solo, his affection and loyalty for new friend(s) brings out his valor.
Poe gives us Solo’s rogue charm, irresistible charisma, and invincible wisecracks—no matter the danger or the pain, he’s nobody’s victim, talking smack through torture like James Bond, Tony Stark or Wade Wilson.
We get plenty of Solo from the real guy, too. Harrison Ford showed up to work. There’s nothing phoned in about this revisit to the role that made him famous before he was Indiana Jones, the President, or Jack Ryan. He’s worn the Star Wars legacy like an albatross for decades, but never fear, because he embraces it here.
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Carrie Fisher is warm and tempered, adding war veteran gravitas to Leia’s feisty, wily, and unstoppable steadfastness in adversity. Despite a criminal lack of major screen time, Fisher manages to add a whole new dimension to her overall presence, with a twinkle in her eye we recognize. Ford and Fisher get to play characters who have more or less reverted to who they were and what they always knew, but are still filled with hope and possibility about becoming who they wanted to be. The two actors together communicate this more powerfully than anything in the script itself.
Other familiar faces, including the two most famous droids, are more or less cameos. For my money, I’m fine with this. I didn’t need extended chitchat from C-3PO, who was more or less the less insensitive and jarring—but still very annoying—OG Jar Jar Binks. Yeah, I said it. People like to complain about Lars Ulrich’s drumming (I think it’s perfect for the band’s sound). Well, I don’t like annoying comic relief characters in Star Wars. Give me those fun lines from Han/Poe or Yoda/Maz, and I’m good.
The directing is phenomenal. The actors are given perfect showcases and the action is more powerful than you can possibly imagine (sorry, couldn’t resist.). Seriously! I’ve never felt more inside a Tie-Fighter, Star Destroyer or the Falcon—ever. Ever.
I have and will continue to defend much about the “lost years” of Metallica. There are some undeniable deep cut sleepers once you unburden yourself about Napster, or whatever. Two fans rerecorded St. Anger and put it on YouTube and it rips. There’s a direct parallel between that and something like The Phantom Edit.
I’m an apologist for more aspects of the prequels (and Revenge Of The Sith entirely, with few reservations) than most of my contemporaries. The Clone Wars series, rightly canon, is as worthy as any prequel, too. Love him or hate him, Lucas was doing what he wanted, always, fan service be damned—just like Metallica.
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The Force Awakens rights the stylistic wrongs of the prequels just like we wanted it to. The dirty, dusty, visceral realness of practical effects and real sets rules—seriously, just seeing smudges on a Star Destroyer’s floor as Storm Troopers march? All the yes. There are moments of levity and fun.
But for better or worse, nearly everything about The Force Awakens works as a perfect overlay of the original trilogy:
The First Order/Empire is ruled by Supreme Leader Snoke/Emperor Palpatine. An army of stormtroopers is led by ruthless warmonger General Hux/Grand Moff Tarkin, and a caped, black-masked, red lightsaber-wielding devotee of an arcane nearly forgotten religion named Darth Vader/Kylo Ren, with his own agenda. The Empire/First Order demonstrates the power of their new weapon, Starkiller Base/The Death Star, by wiping out a planet/system. Eventually, rogue smugglers with hearts of gold Han Solo and Chewbacca decide to throw in with the rebels.
There’s a MacGuffin hidden in an adorable droid who speaks in a series of beeps named BB-8/RD-D2, who gets marooned in the desert but adorably insists on completing his mission. There’s a rogue-filled cantina filled with music, a feisty little wise yogi with deep knowledge of history and The Force and a wise recluse with much to teach to an orphaned dreamer from a desert wasteland. The Starkiller Base/Death Star’s shields must be brought down, before it crushes The Rebellion/Resistance, so a weakness can be exploited by Admiral Ackbar and X-Wings and the Millennium Falcon to destroy it once and for all, all while a new student of the light side of The Force duels saber-to-saber against Vader/Ren.
In a couple of scenes, we gaze upon the holographic image of Vader/Ren’s crusty, ancient looking, creaky voiced master, Snape/Palpatine, and we wonder what he’s all about, where he lives, where he came from and what his role truly is beyond Supreme Leader/Emperor. We wonder: “What’s a Sith Lord/Knight Of Ren?”
There are battles on a desert planet that isn’t Tattoine, in snow and ice that isn’t Hoth, and in forests that aren’t Endor, along with that climax on not the Death Star.
There are other moments of perfect matchups and coincidence, but I promised no spoilers. We do get to see the best/worst family heirloom-ever again: Anakin’s blue light saber. You know, the one that fought so many courageous battles in The Clone Wars. The one that chopped off Mace Windu’s arm so the Sith could finish their ascent to power. The one that slaughtered a bunch of Jedi “younglings.” Awk-ward...
Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets (the original trilogy, so to speak) changed metal, rock, hardcore and punk forever. Metallica also changed the way bands did business (volumes have been written about that elsewhere). George Lucas did the same thing for moviemaking and blockbusters (ditto). The maverick, renegade, DIY stubbornness behind-the-scenes was nearly as powerful as the art.
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In 1991, Metallica released what would become the biggest selling album of the Soundscan era. Yes, bigger than Adele, Taylor, ‘Ye, Em, Blink, 1D, Green Day, anyone. Metallica (aka The Black Album) sold 16.2 million copies in the U.S. alone. To put that in perspective, each year it continues to sell roughly the same amount as the new Bring Me The Horizon album has sold in total. Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail To The King borrows so liberally (and lovingly), the title feels like a winking admission.
Star Wars gave us so much in 1977 and for each new generation that followed. The Empire Strikes back gave us Hoth, Cloud City, Lando, the Emperor, Boba Fett (no, the Christmas special doesn’t count), and freakin’ Yoda! Oh, and the greatest reveal in Blockbuster movie history. Return Of The Jedi gave us Jabba The Hutt, the Rancor monster, Force lightning, a green light saber (and Ewoks. D’oh).
Death Magnetic sounds like Metallica, the way we remembered them, the way we wanted them, the way fans demanded them. The riffs, the solos, the rippers, the ballad, the instrumental, the epics, it was all there, right down to the old-school logo on the cover. It was awesome! Sure, the mastering jobs sucks. A few of the songs probably could’ve been shorter. Hetfield should’ve double tracked his vocals… But it’s Metallica! It rules! I love it! … When was the last time I listened to it…? Hmm.
I will love Star Wars forever. I will love Metallica forever. Metallica will never give us Master Of Puppets again, nor should we expect them to. Star Wars, at least this year, won’t give us another “No, I Am Your Father.” But should it have to? No.
That is the job of new storytellers, with new mythologies to build, who are inspired by but not married to everything or anything we’ve known before. The best part about pop culture in this galaxy, right here, is there’s room for it all.
The Force Awakens rules thanks to the introduction of characters like Rey, Finn, Poe, Ren, and even this movie’s version of Yoda (not the real Yoda; this movie is Force ghost free, ya’ll), but it remains to be seen what other filmmakers will do with them, which is an exciting prospect. It rules because it’s fun to watch Han and Chewie. There are no revelations, no surprises, or new things to obsess over in The Force Awakens, beyond that crudely constructed cross light saber we’ve seen all year.
Please, do go see The Force Awakens (as if you wouldn’t anyway) and revel in the fun nostalgia it delivers. It’s a Star Wars movie! It’s nothing more, but it’s nothing less.