(This is a modified excerpt of my full review published on RockinGodsHouse.com.)
"The Force Awakens," in its tone, personality, and thrilling drama, is every bit as good as any of the original films. J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan resurrected a world we thought long dead. Episode VII has a myth-come-to-life wonder to it that's every bit as haunting and compelling in Western imagination as, perhaps in our own modern way, the Arthurian legends of Camelot. These space legends we thought could never reanimate from our childhoods have roared back to life like the glowing wrap-around engines of the Millennium Falcon.
But there's also something deeply unexpected and bittersweet that I found in the experience: many of our beloved Star Wars characters are back in this film, yes, but they're all in danger again.
I know that's very obvious, but it has never really occurred to me until now: the end of "Return of the Jedi" had an incredibly sweet feeling of closure to it. It was a very satisfying ending, and the joy of seeing them celebrate has imprinted itself as an archetype and a symbol of "happily ever after," of total and final victory -- that sensation of deeply satisfying closure that is so elusive in life.
But "The Force Awakens" has ended that closure.
The happily ever after of "Return of the Jedi" is no more, and I'm surprised by how greatly it has affected me. The joy of that Endor celebration -- a dance of triumph that I probably danced along to as a six-year-old in my family's TV room on a lazy Friday night in the summer, when our family often watched "Star Wars" for our weekly movie nights -- has returned to the turmoil of conflict. The Dark Side just won't stay away. It seems angrier and larger now than it's ever been. And on top of that, we see how our beloved characters have acquired new problems post-Endor. I knew that would be the case, of course -- how else could you tell a story without new conflict? -- but I was surprised by how challenging it was to accept.
Let me put it this way: "The Force Awakens" does not pull any punches. This new movie has put all the stakes back on the table. Our dear heroes are in serious danger again. No one gets any passes just because they're legends. The demigods still bleed and suffer. If the myths return to life, then it means they must also return to mortality -- to much pain and adversity.
And it's actually tough to watch. It's like these characters have become family somehow, and I'm very protective of them -- more so than I realized. I'm very afraid to lose them -- far more afraid than I ever could have imagined. It's a weird contradiction: we have badly wanted our classic Star Wars characters to return to the big screen, but let's not ding them up too much, okay? Hey, take it easy there, Abrams. Don't hit so hard, Kasdan. Just a few little adventures around the galaxy for old time's sake, okay? And then let's get them safely back to that eternally sweet closure we had going on in Endor at the end of "Return of the Jedi," okay? Please?
"The Force Awakens," however, will not let us off so easily. And the result has produced a very disorienting mix of utter delight and startling melancholy.
It hasn't been easy to handle. (This is what happens when we emotionally invest in someone else's story and immerse our imaginations in someone else's universe. It's their story, and we just have to accept whatever they decide to do with it. Such a thing is not easy. It's hard to "watch from the outside," as it were, as they carve the story out however they want. Yet it's hard to let go of the love we have for that story.)
This conflagration leads to something that author C.S. Lewis wrote about.
I call it "Lewisian Joy."
Why 'The Force Awakens' Stirs a Deeply Bittersweet 'Lewisian' Joy
"The Force Awakens" so perfectly captures the soul of classic Star Wars that watching it feels like coming home after being away for a long time.
However, discovering that strange grief, as mentioned above, in the midst of so much cinematic delight made me realize something else: the whole point of stories and movies like Star Wars is not to insulate us with the security of "happily ever after." It took some time for me to come to terms with this, but these stories can often awake Lewisian Joy, a deep longing and inconsolable homesickness for something that we can't even put into words; and the longing itself is simultaneously an ecstatic and a melancholy experience.
I'm writing a book about this -- about the strange contradiction of Lewisian Joy, and about C.S. Lewis and the music of U2 (yep, all of that in one book) -- that will hit bookstores Oct. 2016. I'll share a brief excerpt here to better explain what I mean by Lewisian Joy and how it applies to Star Wars:
In C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, he defined this special kind of Joy, or Longing, as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” For him, the sensations of homesickness for a home he had never known would strike like lightning bolts; they would flash, and then disappear...
While reading a line from Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf, a sensation of that Longing stabbed Lewis, and he described it this way: “instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.”[i]
Those little moments of longing, at least the ones that Lewis recorded, probably added up to less than a minute on the clock, yet they changed him forever, as he noted: “the reader who finds these three episodes [of Longing] of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.”[ii]
"The Force Awakens" stirs the same kind of bittersweet longing for something that's almost impossible to describe. The object that causes the strange homesickness, the movie itself, is, as it turns out, not the thing we long for. It's not big enough to satisfy the soul. The ardent Star Wars fan will always want another Star Wars movie. There will never be enough to quench the thirst.
The movie is only the Stab that pricks our hearts and draws the Lewisian Joy -- the deep longing -- out. Anything, a movie or a book or a glittering constellation, can stir this longing. And the longing drives us. It launches us on a lifelong pursuit as it did for Lewis in the early 20th century, and as it has done for millions of Star Wars fans today -- people like director J.J. Abrams who found their lives changed by that longing stirred in a "galaxy far, far away." From a Christian perspective, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit uses the momentum of that longing and repurposes it; He wants to transform the longing into a lifelong pursuit of God. (And I personally believe that God is not an impersonal Force. I believe that God is a Person -- Someone you pursue in a relationship, not something you use.)
This is how I have come to terms with the challenging change that "The Force Awakens" represents. It is a strange, surreal form of grief, but in the end it is doing what Star Wars has always done for me: it is stirring a deep longing for something more, for something beyond the material -- for something beyond this life. To paraphrase in my own words what one of the characters says in "The Force Awakens": sometimes when we want to return home, we must not try to return to the past. We must look ahead. We must move forward.
"The Force Awakens" certainly resurrects the past -- and it does so in glorious, unforgettable, truly delightful ways -- but, whether we like it or not, it is also hurtling itself off the edge headfirst into change, and it is moving forward into the future at light speed.
And I learned something new about myself tonight in the theater: I'm not quite as ready for that change as I thought I'd be.
You can read my full review published on RockinGodsHouse.com.
[i] Lewis, C. S. (1966-03-23). Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (p. 17). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
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