Note: There are what some may consider some VERY MINOR Star Wars spoilers in this post.
There’s a movie opening today that’s a new entry in a franchise that nobody really expected, which looks absolutely terrible but which will probably make gobs of money anyway.
I’m absolutely thrilled that that movie is NOT Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I’ll babble more about that in a bit.. But first, there actually are two other films that dared to stare into the Star Wars abyss. Now there are two reasons behind doing so, and neither is self-loathing or hated of the people who made your movie. You’re either rolling out something radically different from the big gun in hopes that people looking for an alternative to the big crowds come your way, or you’re clinging to the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, and people who can’t get into the Star Wars showing they showed up for pick your movie instead. And it seems like today’s other releases are leaning on both those strategies.
Honestly though, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip needs help along the lines of every print of The Force Awakens having been lost in transit. After the first two films in this series both did north of $200 million, the third dropped to only $133 million. Still, that was enough to run the CGI rodents out for another go-round. There might be parents with very small children who figure this might be a better choice than the more tense and violent Star Wars, but I saw plenty of little kids at the theater last night with lightsabers and BB-8 toys to make me think chipmunks aren’t going to beat Jedi as the go-to family choice this weekend.
The much smarter play here is Sisters, the latest pairing of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. An R-rated female-centric comedy is a strong bit of counter-programming against a PG-13 geek tentpole. Even though Star Wars has a huge contingent of female fans, and even though The Force Awakens has a strong and dazzling female central character, its audience is still heavily male. So releasing something like Sisters against it feels like a smart move. The last time Fey and Poehler teamed up was Baby Mama, which, while not setting the world on fire, was fairly well liked and doubled its budget. It also opened in the much less crowded month of April, not against a presumptive box office juggernaut. Still, there very well could be enough people who want something different than spaceships and have too much self-respect for chipmunks who’ll be glad for the alternative.
But this weekend will be all about The Force Awakens. As it rightly should. I had one small moment of hesitation at the very beginning, as this was the first core saga Star Wars film to open without the 20th Century Fox fanfare (the animated Clone Wars movie did as well). So that familiar rhythm of beginning we’ve been accustomed to for almost forty years was missing, and it felt like the movie rushed in and started before we’d actually prepared ourselves. It was a little disorienting.
That quickly went away, and what followed was a pitch perfect blend of Star Wars nostalgia and new ground being staked out. The original characters feel like old friends coming home for Christmas, especially Harrison Ford, who fits back into the role of Han Solo as comfortably as the weathered jacket the character wears. And the new characters are fitting and welcome additions, with almost instant chemistry between all of them. There are no Jake Lloyds or Hayden Christensens here; everyone hits the ground running, and you’re actually going to look forward to seeing more of them. Daisy Ridley’s Rey in particular is a strong addition, in no small part because it’s great to see Star Wars offering another bold, assertive, active female character. But she’s not just Leia 2.0. Nor is Kylo Ren Vader 2.0. There are definitely callbacks, echoes, but the new characters are newly and fully realized, feeling fresh, but also like they belong.
And after the artificial green screen sheen of the prequels, it’s great to see a Star Wars film look as tangible as this one. There are actual locations, practical physical effects everywhere, and the sense that the actors are inhabiting a real place, even in the scenes where you know they logically can’t be. Even the effects that are CGI aren’t flashy or showy about it. Everything feels like a natural and necessary part of the film, not an ILM demo reel.
But most of all, this feels like Star Wars, in both big ways and small. It’s got the grand backdrop of a galaxy in turmoil. It has compelling personal stories against that backdrop. It has the almost throwaway bits of world building, like scavengers rushing out to gather the debris of a just-crashed ship, or the stories in the faces of the denizens of a galactic watering hole, or the implied history in Han’s banter with some rivals. There’s fun and excitement and emotion and suspense and basically everything you want in a movie, Star Wars or otherwise.
In my post yesterday, I ticked off all the things I hoped The Force Awakens would deliver. And it nailed all of them. It’s the best thing to have the Star Wars name on it since May of 1980, and deserves to be in the company of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. I know we had a similar glow back in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, but this feels like a different kind of high. That was the junkie finally getting a fix. This is church on Christmas Eve. The king of the franchises has returned in grand style, and I can’t imagine a more wonderful Christmas gift.