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Contemporary Innocence: ‘The Force Awakens’ faith in nonbelievers

| Monday, January 18, 2016

StarWars_WebEric Richelsen | The Observer

After seeing “It Follows,” the best horror movie of 2015 (and one of the best movies of 2015 period), I impetuously tweeted that we are living in a “post-horror” era. Like much of what I’ve written in these pages, the statement was steeped in snobbery; only meta-horror films like “The Cabin in the Woods” and “It Follows” that simultaneously mock and embrace their genre tropes could possibly appeal to an intellectual like myself.

But what does my tweet mean, really? Is the horror genre truly broken? Doubtful. Rather, if we assume my opinions are not nearly as unique as I’d like to think they are, we inhabit an age in which many of us are afraid to admit that something as silly as a movie could scare us; we’re insecure. For me, the prospect of being scared by a movie that plays with the idea of being a “horror movie” instead of a straight-faced horror movie that merely exists as a collection of tropes without commentary quells that insecurity.

In rewarding horror literacy — by allowing viewers to catch references to other horror movies, as well as to understand and to appreciate the subversion of genre clichés — “It Follows” lets viewers like me in on the joke. It’s more than camp; maybe it’s satire, maybe it’s postmodernism. Regardless of what we call it, that invitation to enter an “I know that you know”-style dialogue with a movie does more to provide comfort than simply pad any would-be intellectual’s ego; it promises that the film and viewer are on equal footing, that the film respects the viewer. It’s a childish desire for sure, to want a movie to respect me, and yet, it’s one that is antithetical to a very childlike way of watching movies — namely, to completely surrender to the movie. Can you think of a more wonderfully innocent experience? I can’t. Yet it’s one I often resist, which leads me to believe the problem isn’t with any genre like horror; the problem is with us.

That’s pretty much how I feel about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” or rather, how I feel about the minimal yet pronounced critical backlash to this latest mega-movie. Writing for “Antenna,” the University of Wisconsin’s communications arts blog, media scholar Jonathan Gray does a tremendous job undermining the so-called logic of any attacks that claim “The Force Awakens” is just a nostalgia trip, a tired rehash or a glorified piece of fan fiction; Gray illustrates how those critiques apply to practically any movie. Whereas Gray appeals to logic, I’d like to appeal to emotion, to those who make like Chewie and think with their stomachs, by posing the same simple question Gray does: So what?

So what if “The Force Awakens” uses our 38-year history with the franchise and its characters to generate narrative and emotional weight? So what if we only cry when [spoiler redacted] dies because we’ve grown to love [spoiler redacted] over four films and as many decades? Are we afraid to feel? Yes and no. I suspect the root of the problem is that childish desire for respect. Critics of “The Force Awakens” seem insulted that it tries to use some of the same old tricks they’ve been familiar with since “A New Hope” came out in 1977. “How dare you make me sympathize with an orphan from a distant desert planet or make me mourn the loss of an older teacher?” These critics have mastered that story; like a child with an old toy, they’re ready for something new, no matter how great the toy. They’re not entirely devoid of emotion; they’re quick to point out their disdain for “The Force Awakens” and its familiar ways. They’re like middle schoolers insisting that Chuck E. Cheese’s isn’t a cool place for a birthday party even though it was the year before. They’re like high schoolers avoiding their parents in public. “I’m not a kid anymore!” they shout. It’s not that these critics have lost their innocence, it’s that they’ve wholeheartedly attempted to stifle it. How could they possibly surrender themselves to an emotional experience similar to the one they had when they were 8 years old and the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … ” first entered their lexicon? That would be much too humbling.

So why does “The Force Awakens” matter? Practically speaking, in an era of declining box-office revenues, “The Force Awakens” proves people will still attend the movies in droves, that the movies are still relevant. A cynic might lament that it took the biggest commercial franchise in history to do so. That cynic wouldn’t be wrong, per se, but they would be missing the point. That tens of millions of people have seen “The Force Awakens” and the overwhelming majority enjoyed it is a declaration of willingness to hold onto that childlike innocence, to hold onto that hope that a movie with a title as silly as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” might provide true wonderment. A theater showing “The Force Awakens” is a place where parents can bond with their children, a place where cynics can become apologists and a place where this snob cheered, laughed, cried and ultimately appreciated a movie that had no higher artistic aim than to make the audience happy. Put another way, in the same year “Mad Max: Fury Road” asked where we can find our better selves, “The Force Awakens” provided an answer: the cinema.

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