It took me four viewings to fall in love with Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens.
"But Danny," you ask, "if you didn't love it immediately, why see it three more times?" Because, inquisitive reader, upon my first viewing, I was certain I enjoyed it and could love it, but I was also certain there was something in the way of that. I couldn't quite articulate what it was, but I had a start: I was disappointed the movie was so familiar. There are the obvious reasons it was so familiar, the reasons talked about ad nauseam at this point, but there was something else--something deeper. Because I enjoyed what I enjoyed so much, I had no problem seeing it again, even if it was as I was trying to discern what I didn't like.
After four viewings, though, I figured it out, and it finally allowed me to open my heart to the movie.
First, let me take a step back and say that Star Wars, not just A New Hope, not just the original trilogy, but the entire franchise has, to me (and to many of us, I'm sure), become a well-worn pair of pants. It has holes, some permanent stains, and may even be growing out of it a little, but I'll never part with it. Every time I put it on, I feel comfortable and right.
My problem with Star Wars: The Force Awakens--the problem it took four tries to truly understand--is that it's a pair of pants sold like that. I mean this both figuratively, and somewhat literally. My original pair of pants took me decades to get to that point of comfort, holes and all, and The Force Awakens, like Abercrombie & Fitch, tried selling it to me that way, holes and all.
The first time I saw TFA in theaters, I held the pants in my hand and scrunched my nose: it certainly looked like my pants and felt like my pants, but... it wasn't my pants.
That was the immediate, knee-jerk reaction: something was off and I was disappointed. There were again, the obvious reasons, and there was the hitherto unexplained reason. I walked out of my first screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens disappointed with it as a movie, but knowing it was going to be a Star Wars story I would love.
Is this the fault of J.J. Abrams and the folks at Lucasfilm and Disney? Yes, but not entirely. Just like it's the fault of the media, but not entirely, and just like it's my fault, but not entirely.
I don't believe Abrams and Co. set out to create a mere facsimile of those well-worn pants, jack up the price, and fool us into buying something new. I truly believe they all thought they were making a new pair of pants and just using familiar elements (why do I believe this? More on that in a bit). Much has been written about The Force Awakens and the references it made, the motifs it repeated, and even the story beats reused from the previous films. Immediately for me, the reuse of story beats was the hardest pill to swallow, but that was before I was aware of the worst offense (in my mind). Whereas the things listed above are the figurative manufacturing of distressed jeans, there's the (somewhat) literal part that really got under my skin.
In the first thirty minutes of the film, when it's hustling to set up its world (or re-set-up, in a sense), everything looks so newly old.
I watch the movie and I could see that things were made to be old; I could see that these were actors in costumes, and I could see that they were all on a movie set. It was distracting, and alienated me from the story. I absolutely couldn't suspend disbelief, and the story was lost.
Is this the film's fault? Yes, but not entirely.
I know it isn't entirely the film's fault because, in my first viewing, there were moments that swept me up. So, my first time out, it was capable of transporting me to that galaxy far, far away, but it had a very high hill to climb to get there.
Why was I so alienated by the film's familiarity? Because the media covered every single inch of this film's production.
It's not just that there were trailers and photos and merchandise, but there were featurettes and interviews upon interviews and set photos and set reports and every possible scrap of information both about the film's story, and it's production. I learned they were reemphasizing the use of practical effects; I learned they were filming in real places as often as possible and not in a studio; I learned they were all huge fans of Star Wars and were eager to recapture the spirit of the world they loved. On the one hand, I love them for that, but on the other hand, I just wish I hadn't known.
Is this the first movie this happens to? No, of course not, and it certainly won't be the last, but it's certainly so far the biggest. The line between on-screen and behind-the-scenes was so thoroughly obliterated to the tune of millions of voices crying out in terror, suddenly silenced.
Is this the media's fault? Yes, but not entirely.
After all, they're really just giving everyone what they want, and I wanted it. I wanted a lot. A new Star Wars movie was coming out! I went to Star Wars Celebration for Christ's sake! (Basically Comic Con, but just for Star Wars.) I saw J.J. Abrams and company live talking about the film and its production. I consumed every possible scrap of information I could, vigilant to avoid story spoilers.
Ironically, it was all the non-spoiler stuff that spoiled the movie for me.
I spent the first half hour of the film noticing the Jakku set, noticing Oscar Isaac's first line reading, analyzing Kylo Ren's voice--looking for all the details I'd read about and seen photos of and watched interviews about. By the time Rey and Finn see the Millennium Falcon, I had to remember, "Oh, right. There's a story happening here!" (If anything is going to snap my mind out of neurotic analysis mode, it's that shot of the Falcon.)
It was all so familiar--story-wise because of the recycling in the writing and direction, and production-wise because I, for all intents and purposes, consumed daily production diaries--that I was hopelessly distracted. Even the iconic John Williams fanfare and the Star Wars logo and the opening crawl fell flat for me because I thought, "This doesn't belong to this movie. They're borrowing it, and using it for this."
I had internalized all this information and couldn't get it out of my head. Rather than get swept up then analyze, I was picking it apart as I watched.
Worse still, there were so many familiar things, so many of the same elements of those comfortable, well-worn pants, that I began to wonder, maybe even hope, that this new pair of pants would fit just as well, maybe even be indistinguishable.
And that's not fair. How could it have?
By the fourth time I saw The Force Awakens, however--ironically--my familiarity helped me turn the corner and appreciate it. During its most alienating section (the beginning), I could finish my mental work and finally figure out what was wrong. I had named what was wrong, and who was at fault, and because of that, I could move past it. I could now stop from analyzing and just let the movie wash over me. Understanding why my brain was so upset allowed me to turn my brain off.
Once I did, I was moved, I was thrilled, I was overjoyed, and I had finally fallen in love with the movie. The wonder of its story, the delightfulness of its characters (REY!), and its sheer gorgeousness filled me to the point I was overflowing with tears. It's how I wanted to feel the first time I saw it, but I couldn't, because there was too much outside crap in my head. I was too focused on it as a movie made by people that I ignored that it was a story, populated with characters.
Now that I understand this, though, I'm going to avoid making the same mistake again, right? Even with all the other blockbuster films coming out (including more Star Wars) and yet another impending deluge of news, I can guarantee that no one (including myself) will ruin my experience of a movie again, right?