Friday, April 29, 2016

Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi ...

When discussion in the Star Wars Minute Listener's Society Facebook group turned to definining moments in the Star Wars saga, it reminded me that prior to the release of The Force Awakens, I had mulled over what it would take for Episode VII to knock it out of the park.

My main hope, contemplating the arrival of the first new Star Wars film in 10 years -- and the first to advance the chronology in more than 30 -- was for the filmmakers to score a "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi" moment in the film -- an image and/or line transcendent enough to become an indelible part of film history -- one encapsulating all the elements of personality, history, theme and plot that bring a science fiction or fantasy movie to life. 

Empire, of course, has "No -- I am your father." Jedi has "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." But "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi ... you are my only hope" is possibly the greatest McGuffin in all of film -- mysterious, personal, instantly sympathetic, pulling us and our young hero inescapably into the action that follows.

My response to TFA was tremendous, and I considered it a whole-hearted success from my very first viewing. But I hadn't thought to measure it against my original bar until reminded by that Facebook discussion.

So how did the movie do, on those grounds? Is there such a pivotal, captivating, transportive moment?

As much as I love the film, I'm inclined to think the answer is, "No." And I suspect that's a big reason why it's dismissed as derivative by a certain corner of Star Wars fandom. There are tons of things in TFA that we've never seen before. But they're all part of the general flow of the story. None of them stops the action and hits you on the head with an understanding that film history is being made here. "Help me Obi-Wan" does that. "I am your father" does it so well that even people who've never seen a Star Wars movie know about that line.

The moments that define Episode VII don't have that same ability to stand on their own without context.

"I'll come back for you. It'll be all right!"

Rey licking her plate in the shadow of the fallen AT-AT's foot.

"Hey, I'm not the one who chased you down with a stick."

"The droid ... stole a freighter."

"The one I'm pointing to."

"You are the Han Solo who fought with the Rebellion. You knew him."

"This was a mistake!" / "Huge!"

"I never ask that question until after I've already done it."

"It's true. All of it."

"You. You're afraid ... that you'll never be as powerful as Darth Vader."

"It would take a miracle to save us now," followed by the cut to those blast doors opening up to reveal Han and Chewie.

Rey prowling in a circle around the defeated Kylo Ren.

Line for line and scene for scene, I think The Force Awakens is easily playing in the ballpark of the original trilogy. But its high points don't reach quite high enough to make that leap from art to archetype.

In a way, I wonder if that was actually a smart move, maybe even a deliberate one. By having TFA demolish so many records and fulfill so many people's expectations (though obviously not everyone's) without breaking any obviously new ground, they set Rogue One and Episode VIII up to go even bigger -- if those two movies top the artistic success of this one.

Whatever you want to say about TFA's lack of originality, there's nothing in the Rogue One trailer to suggest that it's going to be a retread of any Star Wars story we've seen before. Did it just sort of happen that way as a fluke? That strikes me as a bit unlikely.

Surprisingly, I'm fine with there being no "Help Me, Obi-Wan" moment in TFA. It shows that you can have a terrific Star Wars movie without resetting the bar for pop culture. My desire for the movie to reach that lofty achievement didn't come to fruition ... but then, Leia never ended up meeting Obi-Wan, either.

Instead, she met Han and Luke, just as we met Rey and Finn and Poe.

TFA, it turns out, was not our only hope.

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