Monday, December 21, 2015

I Have A Good Feeling About This

Year: 2015
Director: J. J. Abrams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac
Run Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Whether or not I liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens is beside the point. The film is well on its way to making enough money to buy its own solar system, so people are clearly seeing it. The question really should be whether or not it’s good enough to deserve the record-obliterating box office it will loudly amass over the course of the next few months. That’s pretty unequivocally a no, considering that nothing short of a film directed by God himself could truly be worthy of that kind of money. But as a three decades later sequel to the single most culturally important film trilogy ever created (prequels? Never heard of ‘em.), it’s still pretty damn terrific.

As the first sequel in forward continuity since 1983, the first Star Wars not to be directed by the increasingly dubious producer/despot George Lucas since 1983, and the first appearance of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Peter Mayhew (among others) in their original roles since 1983, The Force Awakens is pretty much doomed to thwart the Mount Everest of expectations riding on it. However, when compared to the likes of delayed sequels like Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Terminator: Genisys, and even Jurassic World, The Force Awakens is a magnum opus of revival cinema, nestling snugly into the universe of its own franchise and always feeling like an organic next step to the story.

Our fridges are safe from nuking.

And now, a bare bones plot summary that attempts to avoid any and all spoilers. What fun this shall be. We start with our three torch-passees, the new blood that will become the backbone of this new trilogy (plus the books, cartoons, multimedia gaming experiences, live shows, and shared universe spin-offs that Disney will inevitably wring from this property): Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough scavenger who is awaiting her long-departed family on the desert planet Jakku; Fin (John Boyega), a mutinous storm trooper attempting to escape the clutches of the evil First Order; and Poe (Oscar Isaac, freshly shaved after Ex Machina), a Resistance pilot with a cocky attitude and an adorable droid best friend called BB-8, whose merchandise you will have pre-ordered by the time the credits roll.

For a variety of reasons, both willingly and unwillingly, they become a part of the Resistance attack on the First Order, the shadowy eeevil complex that has replaced the Empire. They will have to get past the wicked and ginger General Hux (Domhnall Glesson) and the masked Jedi Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who are both under the thumb of Supreme Leader Snoke (mocapper extraordinaire Andy Serkis). Who will win? Will these inexperienced youngsters ever become true heroes?

Will I ever be able to pay off those BB-8 related purchases on my credit card bill?

I would like to open by saying that I’ve never been a fanboy for Star Wars. I appreciate the films for what they are, but I’m certainly no ride-or-die, midnight screening, AT-AT pronunciation debating obsessive. I in no way felt obligated to like The Force Awakens, so you can imagine my surprise when I kind of loved it. It has its share of deficiencies, and we’ll get to that, but for the time being let’s bask in the triumph of this seventh Star Wars entry easily settling into the consensus-approved third best slot in the franchise.

One of the best things about The Force Awakens is that, while it is absolutely a nostalgia trip, it remains entirely modern and individualized. It engages with the original story, characters, and technology, but it’s not a clip show. We don’t see our heroes jetting off to pick up MacGuffins on Hoth or Tatooine, and you certainly don’t see them paying a visit to the Ewoks on Endor or sifting through Trade Federation file cabinets on Naboo. Some planets might be more than a little reminiscent of previous locales, but The Force Awakens keeps its gaze firmly forward. The returning characters do have some catching up to do, but their plot lines revolve around the present consequences of their past lives, not sitting around looking at scrapbooks of the good ol’ days. That was a long time ago.

In a galaxy far, far away.

In fact, the new characters and material are frequently where the film works best. The dialogue is a little more winking and modern than some fans will appreciate, but the character dynamics they build are tremendously effective. Oscar Isaac’s Poe is easily the most charismatic star-making performance, but Ridley and Boyega miraculously hold their own in an arena a million times more epic than their entire filmographies combined, each developing meaningful relationships with old and new cast members alike.

Also, major kudos to the villain casting department. I never in my wildest peyote dreams would have suggested the douche from Girls and the wimpy ginger from Ex Machina as sneering baddies, but it undeniably works. They don’t get to flex their muscles fully here, presumably reserving the First Order’s bigger firepower for the sequels, but both get their moment in the sun, Gleeson in a deliciously terrifying more-than-a-little Nazi-esque speech, and driver in a few scenes of vulnerable intensity that even overpower the script’s tritest nuggets, all of which seem to get dumped over his lusciously-locked head. The only bum note is Andy Serkis’ Stoke, who embodies a woefully blah brand of Disney villainy.

Even Thanos must be a little embarrassed for him.

Speaking of Guardians of the Galaxy, The Force Awakens is actually extremely similar to that Marvel-Disney triumph. It makes a name for itself with colorful characters, playful dialogue, and rip-roarin’ action sequences, all of which are thickly plastered over one of the most thinly generic plots a couple hundred million dollars can buy. I mean, really? [Medium Spoilers Another, slightly larger Death Star? Color me unsurprised.] Dumb and Dumber To had a more complex throughline. Now, I’m not saying that a typical plot sinks this movie, but the story is just a heap of radio serial boilerplate and is certainly not one of the many numbers of reasons to see The Force Awakens.

Between the tissue paper-thin story structure and a couple stunted character arcs that are clearly looking to unfold in the long term but give nothing to the current film, I can confidently conclude that The Force Awakens is not a masterpiece. However, if things go well, I can completely see this as the dazzling but inferior A New Hope to Episode VIII’s triumphantly gigantic Empire Strikes Back. Obviously I don’t know what’s in store for us on that front, but this is a great film with room for huge improvement. I honestly think that’s the best place for the franchise to land at this point.

At any rate, Star Wars is back! I didn’t know it was possible, but we’ve finally returned to that grand, adventurous space opera in style. With all the grubby detail and cosmic swashbuckling of the original films, hitched on to a totally current slate of character diversity, adrenalized banter, universe expansion, and cute as hell droidsmanship, the franchise is finally back on solid ground after decades of aimlessly drifting through the inky void.

TL;DR: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a simple but inviting story that returns to the Star Wars universe with style.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1246
Reviews In This Series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)

3 comments:

  1. "this seventh Star Wars entry easily settling into the consensus-approved third best slot in the franchise."

    Everyone is wrong about Jedi!

    Anyway, I guess you did like it a fair bit more than I, although the things we liked the most are the same: namely, the new kids.

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  2. Yeah, I feel like my flaws and triumphs map pretty evenly onto yours, but I was in a more magnanimous mood and willing to forgive.

    And for the record, I'll be doing an original trilogy marathon soon, so I might be totally in your court about Jedi. It'll be my first time seeing it since I was a kid.

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    1. Well, the big thing about Return of the Jedi is that the Special Edition (which, if I'm not mistaken, would've been what was available to you in your youth) suffers the most severely from Lucas' tinkering. Of course, the newer blu-ray SE adds that infamous "no," and that certainly sucks, but the big problem is older, and it's... look, there's a terrible musical number in it now.

      I actually forgot about this the last time I watched it, and of course I happened to be showing it to my girlfriend, who had never seen the Star Wars films and was (and remains) moderately hostile to it, and I think that musical number in Jabba's palace might be the single most embarrassing thing I've ever shown *anybody.*

      Anyway, now that I've found out about the Despecialized Editions, I might even join you. I mean, if I can get ahold of a restored RotJ, I'd almost have to.

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