After we found our seats in the movie theater, the woman sitting next to me and my two boys (five and eight) looked over at us and smiled. “Are your kids excited?” I told her yes, they were. “I think I was your older son’s age when I first saw Star Wars," she said. “I hope they love it as much as I did.”
I’m not a true Star Wars fan. I didn’t hate these movies—although I have completely forgotten The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith—I just never felt any particular passion for them. As I drove my boys to The Arclight theater in Sherman Oaks, I had to call my ex-husband so he could tell me the Cliff Notes. I appreciated the series’ impact, but the movies seemed overblown, ponderous, not to my taste—like an overdone steak with Bleu cheese.
I dismissed the The Force Awakens frenzy on Twitter. I didn’t want to spoil other people’s fun, but my general attitude was, “Oh, guys are so silly.” I'd exempted myself from the discussion and didn't really want to see it. But, along with sacrificing one’s body, sleep, sex-drive, independence and sanity, another thing a mother must endure is watching movies she’d have no desire to see if it weren’t for the sake her children.
But something happened when I entered the theater. It buzzed and vibrated with anticipation. There was a sense of belonging, of communion and strangely, of support. The excitement was contagious. At that moment it hit me: The Force Awakens was going to make me eat my hat even if I wasn’t wearing one.
The lights dimmed—no one really paid attention to the previews, just get to the main event, already—then faded to black. People started clapping and whooping. That unmistakable logo flashed up on the screen and the familiar, soaring music blasted through the speakers. Everyone burst into spontaneous applause, gasps and grateful laughter. I scanned the theater and I felt everyone’s bliss surrounding me, a quasi-religious experience. The hairs on my arm stood up. As I whispered the expository scroll to my five year old, I felt a slight catch in my throat. What the hell was going on? Why did I care about this movie all of a sudden?
I loved The Force Awakens. My boys and I went back again. Two times in one week. I feel as uncomfortable and guilty as when, as Yankees fan, I jumped full-force on the Mets bandwagon during the World Series. Yes, I am a Janey-come-lately. I understand your disdain. I acknowledge it, and I accept full responsibility.
Not only did I think The Force Awakens was great for a Star Wars movie, it was up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I saw five times in the theater the summer it came out. Both movies shot me out of a cannon and never stopped moving. Both never sacrificed fully-rounded characters for action. The script was lean and quick. The filmmakers handled the exposition with grace and efficiency. The slower, more dialogue-heavy scenes only enhanced the speed and excitement of the action scenes that followed. I caught up on 30 years of backstory in under three minutes.
The Force Awakens didn’t fall prey to the relentlessly solemn, self-important and dreary tone that seems to be the current fashion in other action movies. J. J. Abrams created a deft balance of light and dark—entirely appropriate considering its theme. And almost every character—not just Han Solo and Chewbacca—got to have his or her comedic moment in the sun, so to speak. The Force Awakens respected the reverence of its fans, while never taking itself too seriously, just like Raiders.
And speaking of Raiders: Harrison Ford. The audience cried out with pleasure when Han Solo and Chewbacca burst into the Millennium Falcon. I certainly surprised myself by laughing and clapping. For me, Harrison Ford always was the heart and soul of those movies, and he was back in true form. I don’t think I was alone in feeling I was reconnecting with an old friend, even more poignant because Han Solo actually was old this time. Curmudgeonly, irreverent, smart, sly and sarcastic; a good mask to cover up his sensitivity and vulnerability. That crooked, ironic smile. The perpetual loner and outsider. Perhaps, he connects to those of us who feel the same way in their own lives. In a world that often seems to run on incomprehensible rules (for example, the perpetual teenage state of being), he is a rebel who charts his own course and gets by on his intelligence, his wit and his ability to improvise. For his constant companion, he chooses an odd, loyal, hairy creature who speaks a language few people but he can understand: an imaginary friend come to life. Han Solo helps those of us who feel we might be a few steps out of rhythm with the rest of the planet at least pretend we are attractive and singular instead of just being alone. Again, I felt a catch in my throat.
And when Han Solo, dying on the Starkiller Base’s vertiginous bridge, reached out and stroked the face of the son he lost to the Dark Side, my eyes welled up again. I am neither a father nor a son, but I do sympathize with that often difficult, conflicted relationship.
Fathers don’t carry a baby in their body for nine to ten months. Their feelings for their children often manifest later than mothers. When struggling with the concept of what it means to be a man, how does a father teach his son what he’s not sure he understands himself? He loves his son, but he’s competitive with him. Historically, fathers often left their sons for the majority of their childhood while they worked, but then were resentful when their sons wanted to distance themselves psychologically from them as well. I see with my own own boys how difficult it is to raise good men. It’s confusing. Signals are often crossed. Messages are mixed. Even if there is a backlash against the term “manly,” many still look down on men if they cry. (You only have to listen to last week’s scathing criticism of Obama when a few tears involuntarily ran down his cheek as he talked about first graders gunned down at Sandy Hook. This from the same people who have alternately accused him of being too remote and professorial on every other issue). I’ve seen for myself the stay-at-home fathers in my sons’ schools unconsciously ostracized by moms at social gatherings, as if we still don’t know what to make of them.
The struggle between fathers and sons is a dominant theme throughout the Star Wars series. The wish for connection and understanding verses the battle for control. A longing for each other, however perverse and fraught. Abandoned sons, unknown fathers. Love and death inextricably linked. Luke helped lead “the Rebellion” against his yet undiscovered father. The audience saw the conflict even reflected in the color of their costumes. As clear as black and white. Both fathers and sons are lost in space looking for the gravitational pull of the other.
Kylo Ren wore a mask to disguise the fact that secretly he was a scared boy. The filtered, altered voice hid any vocal nuance and hesitancy. It shielded the eyes that brimmed with tears. But when the mask came off, Kylo Ren was Ben again. A boy who missed his father but felt reconnecting was capitulating to weakness and failure. I looked over at my older son after Han Solo tumbled off that bridge and thought about the inevitable struggles he will face as he navigates manhood, and I felt my chest tighten.
I loved Rey, too. As a woman, I felt validated. She was the opposite of a helpless victim. She didn’t want to hold Finn’s hand when he tried to help her escape. She overpowered Kylo Ren’s Dark Force with her righteous one. She impressed Han Solo with her abilities. Leia noticed a younger, shimmering reminder of herself. Rey was a “princess” also, but not in the classic, passive, Rapunzel mold.
Alone on Jakku, she learned how to make her way and survive in the desert wasteland. A weaker person would have perished from thirst, famine and maybe worst of all, loneliness. She hardly talked to a soul until BB-8 appeared, but she had a purpose which kept her company: to survive until her “family” came back for her. She carved a wall with chit-marks for each day that passed, like prisoners do in their jail cells to keep from going crazy. She taught herself how to scavenge. She taught herself how seemingly random objects she found fit together to make something useful to her.
In a series that has been dominated by male characters, it was refreshing to have Rey, like Finn, expand the diversity of the Star Wars “world.” I loved seeing Leia’s role deepen as well. C-3PO called her “Princess Leia,” but then immediately corrected himself:“General Leia.” It was a nice, subtle, but significant touch.
In addition to Anakin/Luke and Han Solo/Ben relationships, The Force Awakens also touched on what happens to daughters when their fathers abandon them. When George Lucas ignored how Leia felt about being Darth Vader’s daughter, it grazed sexism. There was loneliness in Rey’s eyes as she waited for whomever she thinks would come rescue her from Jakku. Because she had spent almost all of her life alone in an uninhabitable world, she was stoic, serious and mature beyond her years. But she was still a young woman, full of feeling and longing as hard as she tried to hide it. When she met BB-8, Finn, Han Solo and Chewbacca (her non-related family) and left the limbo of Jakku, she learned to trust and rely on people other than herself. Even moments of happy surprise, relief and delight began to flash across her face.
Whether Luke is her real father or not, The Force Awakens tied them together intrinsically. I saw them begin to bridge their two isolated worlds—one formerly from the desert, one now atop a rocky island—in the final moment of the film. Rey held out the lightsaber to Luke. It’s the start of a connection, an understanding, an alliance and perhaps even a family. I can’t wait to see how their relationship develops in Episode VIII.
My five year old—perhaps too young for this movie—curled up and fell asleep on my lap. His warm little body lay across mine, his head pressed up against my neck. My older son sat two seats away from me, transfixed by the images on the screen, the blue light of the final battle flickered on his attentive face. It seemed to me, from the alternating cheers, laughter and rapt silence, that everyone watching The Force Awakens was enraptured. We were transported back in time, before life got complicated. This was a “long ago, far away” world both exotic and familiar. We were lost in the uncertain vastness of space, looking for our home. This was an adventure grounded in the search for family and identity based in real human emotions of fear, longing, sadness, love and regret. We were a bunch of strangers sitting in a shopping mall theater in Sherman Oaks, California, all travelling together on the same journey.
We clapped, we stayed until the Bad Robot tag. No one wanted to leave. Like a great production of Shakespeare, I didn’t have to understand every plot point or word. The writers, director, producers and actors did, and they made its meaning fluent. I left The Force Awakens feeling I had an experience that was bigger than myself, a universal one that the moviemakers passed on to my kids and all the kids in that theater, the way legendary tales have always been.