Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) [Spoiler Free first section]

I did a long review of A New Hope several years ago here, during my trip through the "All-TIME 100" great movies list. 

[Spoiler Free Section]

Director: J.J. Abrams

Extremely satisfying for fans of all types, if not exactly a life-changing experience of adventure movie viewing.

I am of the generation that first fell in absolute love with the Star Wars movies as only Generation X could have. The original trilogy came out when I was between the ages of two and eight, which are almost exactly the ages when colorful fantasy movies involving space travel, robots, and strange creatures were likely to firmly imprint themselves on a person's brain. It did for me.

Like a lot of people, I found the second trilogy a nearly-traumatic disappointment. Yes, there are a few redeeming qualities to them, but I agree with the many who feel that George Lucas completely lost touch with what made his originals so iconic.

As the hype for The Force Awakens mounted to unprecedented levels, I refused to see or watch any trailers or listen to or read any criticism. I knew that J.J. Abrams was directing it, and I had mixed feelings about this. I appreciated his Star Trek reboots, but I wasn't crazy about his heavy leaning on the earlier TV shows and movies. There were far too many coy "homages" to characters, creatures, and plotlines which were familiar to Trekkies from the decades-old classic stories. My fear was that Abrams would do the same thing with The Force Awakens.

Fortunately, my fears were (almost) completely unrealized. The Force Awakens does certainly take several key parts of the templates used in the original trilogy as its materials. The very basic plotline will be one that is extremely familiar to devotees of the Episodes IV, V, and VI, and there are certainly landscapes and scenarios that are equally familiar. However, Abrams and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) injected enough new material to make the story feel adequately fresh.

An early scene with Rey and the droid BB8 on the planet 
Jakku. If this seems an awful lot like early moments in 
A New Hope, then your head's right in the place that 
director J.J. Abrams wants it.
The familiar faces are all good to see again. Blessedly, the story does not rely too much on older characters or nostalgia for their past exploits. Characters like Han Solo and others serve nicely to bridge the gap into a new tale with new players. And the new blood looks great. The handful of new, young characters all had me itching to see more of them in future installments of the series. These were not just retreads of our old favorites. While there may be a few superficial similarities here or there, characters like Rey, Finn, and Poe are novel enough that they should be more than capable of putting their stamp on this new trilogy in the epic series. Abrams made some great casting choices as well, selecting actors who are not only talented but also relatively unknown.

Another extremely gratifying part of the experience is how Abrams returned to the look and feel of the original trilogy. Rather than the horrendous, A.D.D., hyper-polished, CGI video game aesthetic prevalent in Episodes I through III, The Force Awakens revives Lucas's original vision of a "worn down universe," where many buildings and machines look decades or even millenia old. There are also many expansive long shots with negative space, and the general pacing is more measured than the often frenetic speed of the prequel trilogy. With more time and physical space to take things in, we viewers get a chance to drink in the world and truly escape to it, rather than constantly trying to catch up with an overload of visuals moving at breakneck speed.

I really enjoyed this movie, and it's clear that Disney handed this beloved tale to the right director. It's not flawless, but given the insanely high amount of things that could have gone wrong (as George Lucas himself fell prey to), the movie is a great entry. I do have my little gripes (detailed below, along with spoilers), but I plan to see it at least once more in the theaters, and I will eagerly await the next two episodes.

[Spoiler Section. Be Warned!!!]

Getting into the story allows me to get into the details and a few of the little issues I have with the movie. 

I could accuse Abrams and Kasdan of playing it safe by using the basic stories from Star Wars and Return of the Jedi to form the plot. A young orphan of mysterious origins on a desert planet is brought into the machinations of forces battling for galactic supremacy. Said orphan is forced to uncover and face her history with an evil overlord to whom she may be related. She is forced to make several new friends who will help cripple a planet-destroying base used by an oppressive army seeking to wipe out all forms of resistance. This is all well-worn territory, to be sure. I can mostly excuse it because this movie is clearly meant as a transition from the original trilogy, but I still think that the story could have been a little more daring and creative.

The new faces of the Star Wars series: Poe, Rey, and Finn.
I definitely think they can make this new trilogy a
worthwhile addition to the grand series.
I was, however, happy that the details were fresh enough to keep the movie from seeming dull. The new "Luke," the young scrap collector Rey, is a really strong character. In fact, she immediately shows an authentic grit which Luke took much longer to acquire. The other two primary new characters, Finn and Poe, are more original. Finn, a defected stormtrooper from the Empire holdover group The First Order, is a completely new idea for the film series. Poe, though not garnering a tremendous amount of screen time, has a genuinely warm and humane feeling about him. None of these three feels like a cut-out, and the first two show a nice amount of depth, which I sense that Poe will also exhibit if he becomes more integral in future episodes.

I'm not yet completely sold on Kylo Ren as a menacing villain, but there is promise that he may very well become one. With the Supreme Leader Snoke (awful name, by the way) stating that he will "complete Ren's training," there is potential for Ren to become a true menace on par with past Sith Lords like Vader and Sidious. I was pleased with the turn of having him reveal his face in the middle of the picture, rather than use the mask and his identity as a tired device of mystery to be dragged along for two or three movies. We do still have the McGuffin of Rey's parentage to wonder over until the release of Episode VIII, and that is plenty.

One aspect of Finn's character that does nag me is how well-adjusted he is. According to his story, he was kidnapped by the First Order as a young child and forced into stormtrooper training. He was even stripped of a name and given a mere alpha-numeric designation, including the "FN" from which his human name is derived. If this is the case, then he has been part of a machine-like system whereby almost all sense of individuality is wiped out. Given that Finn has been a part of this system for nearly his entire life, I found his light sense of humor a bit out of keeping with his background. The First Order didn't strike me as very fertile soil for light-hearted jokes. Fortunately, the humor itself is effective, and it makes for a far better prospect than attempting to make him some sort of dark, brooding character whose inner turmoil defines him. We have Kylo Ren for that.

I was very impressed with the handling of the old guard. Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Leia are a part of the story, but they are fortunately not the story. It would have been far too easy for Abrams and Kasdan to showcase the old, familiar faces in order to stroke the nostalgia of old fans. They didn't. Their parts in the greater framework of the new characters' tales feels mostly organic and blessedly understated, especially in the case of Leia.
Old favorites like these two pirates are handled very well.
Their measured presence serves to enhance rather than
overtake the story from the new, young protagonists. 

I found a lot of the humor very solid and in sync with the light tone of the original trilogy. There are some solid sight gags and little one-liners that would have been right at home in any of Episodes IV through VI. I did, however, feel that there were a few lines that had a slightly more modern feel which were a tad off-beat. Finn's quick probing to see if Rey has "a boyfriend? A cute boyfriend?" is funny, but I can't shake the sense that the word "cute" has no place in the Star Wars universe. This was one of a few moments of such banter. Fortunately, there were no serious breaks of tone or context, and the lines themselves were always amusing, thanks mostly to actor John Boyega's deliveries and timing.

(Double-Major Spoiler Alert!!) I was satisfied with Han Solo's ultimate fate. It's never fun to see a beloved character die, but Solo's death at the hands of his son is another turn which invigorates the Star Wars epic. My hope is that this is the first major step towards Ren becoming a truly and unrepentantly evil Sith Lord. We've already seen the "redemption" storyline with Anakin/Darth Vader. It would seem more than a little tired to simply retell that story.

Going Forward

I am very excited about the next installment. Abrams did such a quality job, that I am disappointed that he won't be returning. However, I am excited that Rian Johnson is directing Episodes VIII and IX. Johnson has given us some great modern films, including Brick and Looper. He's a highly skilled director who I feel is unlikely to make a hash of this major project. I can't be sure that he will approach these movies with the same passion and affection that a devoted fan like Abrams did, but I'll be very happy to pay up and find out.