Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (***)

Directed by J.J. Abrams


In our latest podcast (shameless plug!), I had outed myself as a Star Wars agnostic. My appreciation for the films' effect on the culture far outweighs any appreciation I have for the films themselves. Any childhood enthusiasm I'd cultivated for the original trilogy was shattered by the putrid prequels which did everything in their power to undermine what made George Lucas' films so wonderful to begin with (in the story of Star Wars, Lucas is certainly a very greedy, tragic, Charles Foster Kane-like figure). When Lucas sold the rights of Star Wars to Disney in the Fall of 2012, I saw it with very cynical eyes; a monolithic media enterprise grabs control of one of the most profitable (if not the most profitable) film franchises in the history of Hollywood. Plans were immediately announced not only for another trilogy, but spin-offs and adjacent story arcs. It was so obvious to me that Star Wars was sullied by having too many films, so how could they think even more films would make it better? The idea is all very capitalistic, and the sobering truth is that a Star Wars film no longer has to be good, it just has to exist, in order to be profitable for Disney. So, we get to The Force Awakens, Disney's first film in the franchise, in which they pegged J.J. Abrams - the man who boosted the Star Trek franchise in 2009, and who has been a very public fan of Star Wars for a very long time. Abrams wrote the screenplay with Star Wars legend Lawrence Kasdan, and it was then punched up by Oscar-winning writer Michael Arndt. What they bring forward is a fascinating achievement in fan service, which like Jurassic World and Creed from earlier this year, finds a way to both pay homage while maintaining its own individuality. It's not as easy as it seems.

Many Star Wars fans have debated the merits of Return of the Jedi (I, for one, think its quite fun), but wherever you may stand on that particular movie, many of the franchise's fans admit that its been at least thirty years since there had been a good Star Wars movie. So, The Force Awakens walks gently into a climate of thirsty fans willingly ready to accept its virtues, whatever they may be. It's clear that Abrams and Kasden understand this and do their best not to default on the trust of the audience. They know, first and foremost, it is the film's responsibility to be fun without insulting the viewer's intelligence, and that good screenwriting can still be accomplished even if you want to make a film with broad appeal. So we get the standard opening credits, with the famed John Williams score blasting as the title moves slowly away from you, with a few equally slow-moving paragraphs to set up the events surrounding the film: Luke Skywalker has vanished. The First Order, a new rise of fascist enemies has risen out of the now defunct Empire. They are imbued with the dark side, and follow the example of the deceased Darth Vader. They hope to find Skywalker in an attempt to seize control of the Republic. Also looking for Skywalker is The Resistance led by former princess, now general, Leia (Carrie Fisher). The Resistance's best x-wing pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), is able to retrieve a map that will help discover Skywalker's location, but he's forced to abandon it in his droid, BB-8, who he sends off before being captured by the First Order. The First Order's most dangerous warrior, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), searches Dameron for the map, without knowing that BB-8 has it and has sped off into the desert sands of the planet Jakku.

Also on Jakku is Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young scavenger who lives in the interior of a fallen AT-AT walker. She travels through her small village waiting for the return of her family, but instead is greeted by BB-8, who decides to choose Rey as their new caretaker. Rey has little interest in watching after a droid, but when she sees the interest others have for it throughout Jakku, she chooses to keep it safe. They are soon joined by Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper who has defected from the First Order, and crash-landed in Jakku after helping Poe Dameron escape the Starkiller Base (which is basically a bigger, more powerful Death Star). When Kylo Ren and Starkiller's primary base leader General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) learn that not only is the map within the BB-8, but that the droid is being helped by a traitorous stormtrooper, enemy eyes become sharp on Rey, Finn and BB-8. Not long after befriending Finn, the three are forced to flee from Jakku aboard an old, rusty ship that hasn't flown in several years - it also happens to be the Millenium Falcon. Rey and Finn are able to escape the Tie Fighters chasing them and escape Jakku, but not long after they're confronted by somebody else, the Millenium Falcon's original pilot: Han Solo (Harrison Ford, in a glorious return to the role that made him a star). When Rey and Finn explain their plan to try and get BB-8 into the hands of Leia and the Resistance, Han agrees to help them with the assistance of his usual companion Chewbacca. As they decide the best plan of action, Kylo Ren and the First Order begin pondering their own attack, charged with a weapon upon the Starkiller Base that has the power to destroy entire planetary systems.

Abrams and Kasden give the screenplay a very familiar format. Like Creed did with the original Rocky, The Force Awakens does its best to mirror the events of the 1977 Star Wars film without falling completely into recycled territory. Of course, Abrams and Kasden didn't have quite the freedom that Ryan Coogler was given with Creed, nor was Coogler under a comparable amount of pressure to bring the goods to an intimidating legion of fans waiting with their hands out. Creed has the benefit of lower expectations, and that freedom shows throughout the film where it allows itself to be a freer, airier experience. The confines of being a Star Wars movie is much stricter, too many boxes must be checked or else an entire generation of filmgoers might feel betrayed. One of those filmgoers is Abrams himself, and you can see the carefulness with which he writes and directs this film. He hardly even has any lens flares! I've always found Abrams' skills to be more apparent as a producer than as a director. His grasp of narrative is a bit too infantile - he's soaked up all of Spielberg's sentimentality and none of his mastery of storytelling - but he does find a way to make that work here, imbuing The Force Awakens with a sense of humor that the Star Wars films hadn't seen in decades. Characters like Poe Dameron, Finn, and of course Han Solo, are given the chance to make the movie an adventure, to make snide jokes and remind the audience that the force is not always about Hayden Christensen glowering at the camera. Watching The Force Awakens reminds audiences that major Hollywood action films were not always held hostage by interminable action set pieces and CGI, but that strong characters are actually what keeps the audience most engaged.

Alas, not all of The Force Awakens characters are as rock solid as I'd wished. The character of Finn struck me as unusual from the moment he appears on the planet of Jakku, led by Kylo Ren, in an effort to sack a small village to find the map that Poe Dameron has just received. In this scene that opens the film, Finn watches his fellow stormtrooper die, his helmet smeared with his blood, and decides in that moment to reject the First Order. Never has a Star Wars film devoted so much attention to an individual stormtrooper, but The Force Awakens never makes an effort to really explain the details behind Finn's defection. What makes Finn separate from every other stormtrooper? General Hux makes a point to say that they're all programmed from birth to be perfect soldiers, so where does Finn find this urge toward human empathy? This might sound like nitpicking, but a large part of the film's script hinges on Finn turning on the First Order because it is "the right thing to do", and yet how does a stormtrooper even come across that concept? For a film that's almost half exposition, to leave this nearly completely unexplained felt a bit shoddy to me. There are other unexplained plot points - mainly, the story of Rey's former family and why she has been waiting and scavenging on Jakku - that seem to be something that will be saved for later films. It's a troubling example of modern Hollywood filmmaking: one film is supposed to encompass everything and yet, one film is never enough. Sequels are assumed before the first film has even premiered. It's a concept that has been very profitable for studios, but its one that leaves The Force Awaken feeling only partial as an individual film.

It is no small thing that The Force Awakens has chosen a woman and a black man as its two main protagonists. Considering the white-washed, male-dominated nature of the first two trilogies (Star Trek has always been ahead of Star Wars in this regard), The Force Awakens gives the audience a more unique perspective than we've been previously given in this galaxy far, far away. I've explained my issues with the character of Finn, but Boyega has the much-needed wit and charm to pull the role off. Abrams and Kasden hope to fit him both with the good-heartedness of Luke Skywalker and the humor of Han Solo, and while that's a difficult balance to pull off Boyega takes that mix and makes a character that is surprisingly compelling. As Rey, newcomer Daisy Ridley is engaging. Ridley has the smile and mannerisms of a Keira Knightley, and plays the role with that mix of bravery and naiveté that makes Rey such a perfect audience surrogate. The Force Awakens doesn't make any declarations about Rey's lineage, but we know there's no way she makes it into these films without something special about her past, and Ridley shows that she can propel this character at least throughout this one film. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o enters the film as Maz Kanata, a bar-owning pirate who helps Han connect Rey and Finn to Leia. The character is a complete CGI creation, but Nyong'o is able to give the Yoda-lite character a sharp wit that will hopefully be on display in future Star Wars films. I've been allergic to Adam Driver in most things, but he's surprisingly menacing and effective as Kylo Ren, and his character has much more in store for you than you'd anticipate. But as always, the greatest star in this film is Harrison Ford. Returning as Han, Ford is older, much grayer, walking with the same cocky gait albeit much slower. This is the best work Ford has done in some time. His cool guy movie star persona has quickly been absorbed into old man crankiness, but watching him in The Force Awakens reminds one of what made him such a magnetic movie star. Ford's work here made me realize that I missed Han Solo much more than I realized.

**Though I don't plan to discuss specific events, I will be talking about the nature and context of the film's ending in this next paragraph, so please skip if you haven't seen it and wish it to be a purely new experience.** So, it probably goes without saying that Disney and LucasFilm president Kathy Kennedy wouldn't have rebooted the Star Wars films without a major twist, and this film actually manages to have several. They're all startling in their own right and have that right balance of unexpected and sensical within the universe. But before the film's end, we're given a major shock that's treated in a surprisingly patched up way, and we're even forced to look at reaction shots as opposed to the actual event itself as it's happening. There's nothing I can say about this scene that couldn't be said better by Time's movie critic Stephanie Zacharek, so I'll leave it by saying that I found the whole sequence a bit dispiriting in its execution. Not to mention, that for a fanbase that seems so diabolically opposed to spoilers, these same people don't seem to have any problem with scenes telegramming major events moments before they happen. After nearly a year of promotional material preparing us for this new film, all we get is another plan to destroy the Death Star, something that has been done in two previous Star Wars films. It reminded me of what a gargantuan undertaking Abrams had taken in making this film, that he was expected to make something refreshing while also having to appease the masses. He had to find a way to surprise people that only wanted to be surprised in a very specific way. In other words, I'm not sure if the current moviegoing landscape would have allowed him to takes his time with these major plot points, instead pressuring him to keep the well-oiled machine running full speed - it's like films these days are only commercials for their obligatory sequels. The Force Awakens is great fun at times, but at others a tough reminder that individual films are rarely appreciated in and of themselves against the full spectrum of the franchise.

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