Anghus Houvouras on whether Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the new Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull…
Fandom is forgiving. History has proven this again and again. A cultural phenomenon like Star Wars is an interesting experience because fans are forgiving to a fault. Kevin Smith once called The Phantom Menace ‘the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back‘.
Applying actual criticism to a Star Wars movie is like trying to critique a time machine that transports people back to the most magical moments of their childhood. It’s like trying to Indian leg wrestle Terry Crews: You’re not going to win—and not just because Terry Crews doesn’t skip leg day. It’s because nostalgia is stronger than reason. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is pure, unfiltered, black-tar nostalgia.
No one was crucifying The Phantom Menace immediately upon its release. In fact, most people were struggling with the idea that the new Star Wars movie was terrible. How could something we wanted for so long be so awful? Critics were giving 3 and 4 star reviews out because it was a hugely popular Star Wars movie and no one wanted to point out that the Emperor not only wasn’t wearing any clothes, but that he was taking a hard piss from the top of the castle.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t a bad film, but it’s certainly the kind of super-safe nostalgia romp that feels more like a highlight reel of previous installments than its own unique cinematic experience. The more I thought about The Force Awakens, the more it reminded me of another recent experiment in nostalgia:
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
When I was a young lad, I was much more into Indiana Jones than Star Wars. Searching for lost treasure, punching Nazis, and getting friendly with the ladies always seemed more interesting to me than the Force or lightsaber duels. For me, I was much more excited by the prospect of a new Indiana Jones movie than anything to do with a Galaxy Far, Far Away. Much like Star Wars fans with The Phantom Menace, I was forgiving of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I watched that terrible pile of hot garbage and left the theater with a smile on my face.
My brain was pointing out the obvious: the story was terrible. The special FX weren’t all that special. Harrison Ford looked like he was being kept alive by machines during most scenes. Nuking the fridge. That terrible sequence in the jungle. Shia swinging like Tarzan. Jesus Christ, what was Spielberg thinking? But my heart kept silencing those dissenting voices. ‘Come on… it’s INDIANA JONES!’ my heart would say. ‘But it was terrible’ my brain would reply.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens evoked a similar battle between my head and my heart. There were so many moments where I cringed. The scene where Han Solo first appears is so terribly staged. Woefully written with embarrassing levels of convenience wrapped up nicely in an unconvincing action sequence featuring monstrous Rathtars. None of it felt like Star Wars. And yet, it’s still Han Solo and Chewbacca back in action… extremely limited action. Or the moment you realize the movie is going to feature yet another variation on the Death Star. At that moment, my eyes rolled so hard I could see my brain—and it wasn’t happy. Another Death Star? Seriously?
Seeing the X-Wings make another trench run to blow up a new Starkiller base might be the most unoriginal thing I’ve seen since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. And yet, our heart forgives because it’s Star Wars. Because it evokes fond memories for better, more original films. It’s that time machine to our past that makes serious criticism nearly impossible. How do you tell someone something that made them feel like a kid again is an unoriginal cliché ridden mess? For me, there’s little difference between The Force Awakens and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Both are messy films that veer wildly from ‘entertaining’ to ‘absolute trash’. The key difference being that we have enough space from Crystal Skull to openly acknowledge that it isn’t very good.
I don’t know how the coming months will treat Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Whether this time next year we’ll be still be listening to our heart and basking in the afterglow of our newest journey into the Star Wars Universe or listening to our brain tearing the film apart for its glaring flaws.
Only time will tell.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker and the co-host of Across the Pondcast. Follow him on Twitter.