Saturday, December 26, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Alternate Title:  Proof of Concept

One sentence synopsis:     A scavenger from a desert world and a renegade Stormtrooper try to make their escape from an Imperial remnant group called The First Order and their shadowy Sith leader.

A Note from the General:     I customarily like to start these reviews out with a bit of background material, explaining why I went to see particular movie, or what the context of the previous films in the series are, but somehow that seems unnecessary here. Literally everyone on Earth knows what Star Wars is, from Bushmen in central Africa to Samoyed reindeer herders in northern Siberia, and if all of those people don't know that a new movie, the most hotly-anticipated film in twenty years, is finally upon us, it can only be due to a combination of willful deafness and dumb luck that they've avoided finding out. In a way, even reviewing the new film at all seems almost superfluous, given that it is currently in the process of making approximately all of the money, and is projected to be seen, in the next 18-24 months, by more than 50% of the population of the Earth. And yet, for me, I never started this project with the intention of somehow affecting the global box office of films this size, but merely recording my thoughts for such purposes as anyone may find in them. And in the nearly two hundred and fifty films that I have reviewed to date, not one of them, not Avengers, not Iron Man, not the myriad offerings of Pixar or Disney or the output of my favorite indie directors, no film to date has generated the expectations... the hope that this one has. To have a Star Wars movie worthy of the name after so many years, and such tremendous disappointments as the prequels were, was something I scarcely believed might ever happen. Star Wars is not other film franchises, not to me and mine, not even in this age of Marvel and its imitators. Star Wars is something different, something sacred, something pure, and consequently something guarded most jealously our memories, an epic, operatic space adventure whose importance shines through all the merchandizing, "special" editions, prequels, and hype. Star Wars is a special case, it has always been a special case. How then to evaluate a new film offered up at its altar? This is the question I've struggled with ever since seeing the film, and one that I've still not satisfactorily answered. And yet, faced with the fact of the new movie and the need to say something about it, I fall back, as I often do, on the process itself, which I invented in the first place specifically to allow me to clarify my thoughts on works of art that are, after all, entirely subjective. Whatever the tricks or the complexities or the ambivalence of my feelings for one thing or another, I am, at the end, faced with the same two questions as always. What were the things I liked about this film? And what were the ones that I did not?

Things Havoc liked: The original Star Wars was a great gamble in many ways, and one of those ways was the casting. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher might all be household names to nerds of my generation now, but they were all total unknowns in the world of film when George Lucas decided to cast them in his insane, impossible, fever-dream of a space epic. Lucas wanted fresh faces who could nonetheless pull off the classically-epic material that he had created for them, and he got them, and before we talk about anything else in this movie, we need to acknowledge that JJ Abrams, a man who knows a thing or two about adapting old space operas to the silver screen, did the same damn thing, and got the same damn results.

Whatever the billing, whatever the surroundings, The Force Awakens is a movie about two young characters, Rey, a mechanical prodigy and indentured smuggler eking out a subsistence living on a desert planet, and Finn, a Stormtrooper slave-soldier desperate to escape his circumstances and find a way to live his own life, and before we go any further, these two characters are both the core of the movie and the best goddamn things in it. Rey, played by English unknown Daisy Ridley, is a self-sufficient engineer and scrounger with no future or hope for one, whose grubby circumstances amidst the ruins of the former galactic Empire is the perfect starting point for a Campbellian hero's journey like this one (a favorite note of mine is Rey's makeshift home, built out of the wreck of an AT-AT Walker). Ridley plays the character just right, enough of a hard edge to reveal her capabilities and the harshness of her background, without (as the temptation always is) going overboard into "strong independent woman who don't need no man"-syndrome (go watch Catwoman if you want to see what that looks like). Finn meanwhile, played by another young English unknown (John Boyega), whose role is that of the audience surrogate, a young man whose circumstances are highly dangerous and who simply wants to get away with his life, and his soul, intact, and who benefits from getting most of the best lines in the movie. How long has it been since we saw a character within a Star Wars movie who is allowed to get as excited as the audience at the epic things going on, or who, like Rae, is empowered to evidence sheer pants-wetting terror at some of the horrors that exist in this universe, without sacrificing her essential intelligence, resourcefulness, or grit? As to which of these characters is the main one, there may be a technical answer, but the film doesn't force us to uncover it, allowing the both of them to combine forces and go on an adventure, which is manifestly the right move. Bodega and Ridley share an effortless chemistry on screen, without the need for forced hackneyed romance plots or other distractions. 'Two, young, interesting characters go on a space adventure' is how this movie seems to want to frame itself, and after the awful drudgery of the prequels, that's exactly what I wanted to see.

But of course, Ridley and Boyega aren't alone out there. The rest of the cast is a mix of excellent character actors and returning fan favorites, which (almost) uniformly do the script justice. Oscar Isaac, my favorite Guatemalan actor of all time, of Suckerpunch and Ex Machina and A Most Violent Year, plays Poe Dameron, an expert fighter pilot straight out of the Wedge Antilles handbook of Star Wars aces, and while his character isn't given a whole hell of a lot of weighty material, Isaac has the right kind of dashing swagger that a movie like this thrives on. Adam Driver meanwhile, a theater actor of no particular film pedigree, plays Kylo Ren, the obligatory dark lord for a film like this. Interestingly, Driver goes a different direction than the classic Vader-style implacably menacing Sith Lord, giving us an antagonist who, like the main characters themselves, is not yet fully formed, a raw force talent who struggles with his own conflicts and throws elaborate, rage-quelled tantrums when he doesn't get his way. Some of the best scenes in the entire film involve Ren and Rey in wordless contests of will, as Ren discovers that his freshly-formed powers have their limits, and Rey that hers may exist. Driver's performance is bound to be somewhat controversial among the die-hard fans, as he comes across fairly... wimpy... relative to figures like Darth Vader at least, but that's plainly the point. The intention here seems to be to provide a villain that will grow alongside the heroes as they make their way through the new trilogy, which is an idea full of promise for a series still unformed. As to the original cast, Harrison Ford's return as Han Solo is the evident highlight, still a scoundrel and a rogue after all these years, reluctantly dragged back into all of the force-related madness that he now, at long last, has to acknowledge was true all along. Han's appearance in the movie is a gem, replete with wonderful callbacks to the originals, including the minor (and glorious) point that in every gunfight Han gets into (and there are many), he always fires the first shot.

And speaking of gunfights, The Force Awakens is fittingly awash in action, action in space and in the atmosphere, action on the ground, action with blasters, turbolasers, and lightsabers, action of supremely high quality across the board. The starfighters seem to be front and center here, with revised renditions of X-wings and TIE-Fighters dogfighting over half a dozen planets or pursuing other chips through madcap obstacle courses designed as intentional throwbacks to the original series. A standout sequence early in the film involves the Millennium Falcon being chased through a starship graveyard by a pair of TIE fighters, a sequence that is not satisfied with ripping off a particular action sequence from the original films and prefers to steal simultaneously from half a dozen. Ground combat is exciting and well-paced, with blaster fights punctuated by standout "boss" character engagements, with a particular high point coming halfway through the film, as a completely untrained Finn grabs a handy lightsaber to take on a "riot trooper", armed with some kind of high-grade cattle prod. The inevitable lightsaber-on-lightsaber combat (which we all knew was coming), feels very different this time around, with no trace of the hyper-choreographed acrobatic flail-bouts that the prequels were full of. The lightsabers this time around have weight and heft and force being their strikes, and feel far more like weapons in the hands of men or women who want to violently kill one another, not show off their athleticism. I loved the fight scene at the end of Phantom Menace as much as anyone, but the style this time is completely on-point, allowing us (as any good melee fight will) to trace the temper and mentality of the combatants by the style and progression of their fight. A moment, for instance, where Kylo Ren goes from playing with his opponent to trying to murder him with extreme prejudice comes across as clear as a ringing bell, despite not one line of dialogue and minimal musical cues to underly the change.

And finally there's the design of the films, which is so important for Star Wars, one of the only space or sci-fi settings that allows things to look grimy, well-used, and worn. One of the many criticisms leveled at the Prequels was that everything looked far too shiny, too picturesque, too factory-fresh to mesh with the original series' style, and whether or not that criticism was valid, the filmmakers this time took the issue to heart. The first half of the film takes place on the not-Tatooine desert world of Jakku, which appears to be a giant interstellar graveyard for the remnants of imperial war machines of decades past, from crashed Star Destroyers providing an endless source of mechanical parts, to hollowed-out tanks or starfighters used as crude dwellings. The other settings, which vary from a forested smuggler-haven built into what appears to be a repurposed set from Game of Thones, to a frozen taiga-planet with an Imperial-grade Superweapon built into the center of it, all feel lived-in and properly dirty, as do the weapons, tools, ships, and costumes of the various soldiers, bounty hunters, smugglers, scavengers, scoundrels and mercenaries that any good Star Wars film has to be filled with. Top everything off with a John Williams score, freshly-written for the new movie, and we have at long last, a film that earns the name it arrives under, a film that is recognizably, visibly, truly Star Wars.

Things Havoc disliked: And... perhaps ironically, that is something of the problem.

The Force Awakens is a movie that was clearly designed with the idea in mind of not repeating the mistakes of prequels past, and yet so obsessively does it follow the "script" for a Star Wars movie, or more specifically for the original Star Wars itself, that it winds up being, for even a casual fan of the series, highly derivative. Yes, of course I know that the original Star Wars was also derivative, as Lucas more or less added Samurais and WWII fighter pilots to Joseph Campbell, but this film is even more derivative than that, to the extent of point-by-point retreads of previous moments in the series, including X-wings on a trench run against an evil, planet-sized superweapon with a single weak point, a hero attempting to refuse the call after finally figuring out what is actually going on, dark lords in breathing masks, a search for a wise, old, reclusive Jedi master on a remote planet, and dramatic family revelations taking place on catwalks that have clearly never been approved by OSHA. This is all in addition to the various callbacks, in-jokes, and references that the film is constantly making back to the original trilogy in a desperate effort to convince you that yes, this is actually a Star Wars film, because the Prequels ruined everything and we need to make sure you understand that this is just like the original, okay?! I understand the desire to reassure the fanboys (of which I am one) that things will be different this time, but the constant winking and pointing at the audience gets tiresome, and the movie's slavish fidelity to the decisions of its predecessor prevents it from actually becoming its own story, hoping instead to hint at a different story (or possibly the same story as Empire Strikes Back, who's to tell?)

And in its desperate attempt to rekindle the flames of the first Star Wars, this movie winds up making damn close to no sense at all. We are given more or less the same situation as the last movie, with a giant, evil empire full of Stormtroopers and Star Destroyers (The First Order), and a small, plucky rebellion fighting for freedom (The Resistance), with no sense of where the hell either of these organizations came from or what they're really trying to do. Of course in the original Star Wars, we got the same amount of information, but there it was world-building and it made perfect sense. An Evil Empire exists, a small rebellion exists, have fun. We destroyed the Evil Empire in Return of the Jedi, at least per my recollection, so where the hell did the First Order come from? Are they a remnant force of the Empire? An attempt to re-construct it? A group of particularly dedicated historical re-enactors? I have no idea, nor have I any idea where the "Resistance" came from or why. And all of this lack of basic world information following a thirty-year hiatus from the Galaxy Far Far Away means that very little of what's actually going on makes any sense. A great deal of the plot of this movie has to do with a map leading to SPOILERS REDACTED, of provenance unknown, and a simultaneous attempt to stop the First Order from using a horrifying super-weapon, of provenance unknown, to destroy the New Republic's capital, of provenance (and even name) unknown. Star Wars is a simple, timeless space epic, I grant, and I fully understand that among the Prequels' many, many sins, was an over-focus upon bullshit political minutiae as written by an teenager angry at the Bush Administration. But there is a happy medium between the goddamn Prequels and telling us nothing whatsoever, and this film fails to find it, the filmmakers preferring to assume that the audience doesn't care about things as minor as the plot of the movie they are watching, so long as they get to see some Star Wars staples.

Final thoughts:   And the worst part is, they're right.

I hate to give in to my inner fanboy to this degree, but JJ Abrams and his band of miscreants are absolutely right. I didn't care what the plot of The Force Awakens was, not really, so long as it wasn't something so unforgivably stupid that I was forced to care about it (I'm looking at you, Attack of the Clones). What I wanted was Star Wars, in every sense of the word, the pageantry, the timelessness, the epic scope and feel, the broad, appealing character archetypes, the heroism and action and daring-do, the humor and the drama and the characters and the orchestral grandeur of it all. I wanted Star Wars, peopled with characters I liked, replete with action that was exciting and bombastic, with stakes so high as to be ludicrous and a philosophy so timeless as to be instantly familiar. Next week, and the week after, I will go to the movies to get myself an interesting plot, but all I really wanted from Star Wars was for it to be good, and fun, and entertaining again.

And was it?

Yeah... yeah it was. Despite a plot dredged up from the bottom of George Lucas' boots and a storyboard that has "A New Hope" written on the cover and hastily scratched out, despite all the nitpicks about ex machinas and convenient plot points, despite a handful of lines I wouldn't have written and seams in the writing between Abrams' snark and Star Wars' earnestness, despite everything, yeah... it was what I wanted it to be, even if I didn't want to admit to myself that this was what I actually wanted. Maybe the next movies will continue to be entirely derivative, and I will turn on this new series the way I turned on Hobbit and Hunger Games. Maybe the plot won't get any clearer and the motivations won't get any more nuanced, and the films will implode under the tremendous gravity of their own predecessors. Maybe I will hate the next Star Wars movie because it does those things, or maybe it will do those things and I will love it anyway, because Star Wars is a blind spot for me and I am incapable of objectivity. Maybe I will be sitting here in a couple of years like a trauma victim, trying to assure you all that a series that has done nothing new whatsoever is actually good, despite all markers of objective quality.

Maybe so. But for right now, JJ Abrams clearly wanted to prove to me that he, and others like him, are capable of making good Star Wars films, and that the future films that they are offering are something worth sticking around for. The result isn't perfect, nor, I predict, will it be remembered anywhere near as well as the originals were. But in terms of a fun, exciting, gorgeous film that is recognizably Star Wars in all of its tattered glory? Here it is. Take it or leave it as you will, but we have not seen its like in forty years. And if there is anything at all that the Prequels taught me, it's that a good Star Wars movie is not so simple a thing after all.
Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  With Star Wars finally behind us, let us now consider a modern sequel to a classic series of beloved films, whose last couple sequels were regarded terribly, starring new young actors alongside the older, now-wizened original cast.

Wait a minute...

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