Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Movie Review: "Star Wars - The Force Awakens" by David Pretty

Non-specific spoilers there are here. Tread carefully you should. 

Sorry, but someone has to say this: The Force Awakens is an unmitigated disaster. It doesn't jibe tonally and stylistically at all with the last three Star Wars films. It has an engaging plot that leads to a thrilling finale. The characters are sympathetic, engaging and connected to one another in interesting ways. The dialogue between them is authentic, witty and funny. The practical sets and special effects create tangible, immersive environments. There's a genuine sense of peril and serious consequences are triggered. Tantalizing mysteries are proposed and then left dangling, making you want more instead of dreading what's to come.

Of course, you might mistake these things for positives if you're, say, anyone other than George Lucas.

The movie takes place thirty years after the events in Return of the Jedi. Inspired by the defunct Empire, a military faction known as the First Order has come to power, seeking to subjugate the worlds of the New Republic with a Death Star-inspired super weapon. The Force-sensitive muscle behind this group is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a former apprentice of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who betrayed and murdered his brethren. Crushed by this failure, Luke has gone into a self-imposed exile and no-one has any inkling where he is.

This set up is all director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt need to craft a spiritual remake / greatest hits package that plays out like a loving tribute to the original Star Wars trilogy. Don't believe me? Well, here are the similarities:

(1) After falling under attack, a resistance fighter is forced to entrust a droid with vital information.
(2) By happenstance, good fortune and / or kismet, the droid meets up with our main protagonist, a resourceful and noble youth who turns out to be a font of mystical power.
(3) A masked Sith Lord tortures the droid's owner for information.
(4) Our hero's journey is facilitated by two smugglers and involves a trip to a seedy, alien-filled cantina.
(5) The forces of darkness have built a super-weapon powerful enough to destroy entire planets.
(6) Thanks to insider info, the Resistance discovers a flaw in the design of the battle station and a desperate attack is launched to try and destroy it.
(7) In order for the plan to work, a strike team must first land on the surface of the planet and deactivate the shield generator.
(8) Family ties are revealed, leading to a shocking and emotionally powerful confrontation.
(9) A desperate and passionate lightsaber battle occurs just as the Sith hits the fan.
(10) The heroes temporarily triumph, but for how long?

But The Force Awakens still has its own sense of self-worth. How does it pull this off? Count the ways I shall:

Right from the opening text crawl, the film grabs you. There's no mention of taxation, trade routes or senate meetings. Instead we get: LUKE SKYWALKER HAS VANISHED, THE FIRST ORDER WANTS HIM DEAD and RESISTANCE LEADER LEIA HAS SENT HER BEST PILOT OUT TO FIND HIM. With these three simple paragraphs familial strife, an intriguing mystery, some pissed off villains and the promise of a new generation of champions has us off and running.

Gotta love any movie that casts Max Von Sydow as a minor character. He's the one who supplies Resistance fighter and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) with the movie's main MacGuffin. Issac, by the way, is thoroughly awesome. He lights up the screen and his chemistry with Finn (John Boyega) is contagiously ebullient. Whether he's nobly resisting the mind probe of Kylo Ren or exhibiting beast-mode level X-Wing skills, Poe is sure to become a new fan favorite. I can't wait to see the character's role expand in future entries.

We also meet new droid on the block BB-8, who really showcases the sort of design evolution we'd expect after thirty years. At first I was concerned that she'd be all uber-cutesy in an Ewok-y kinda way, but puppeteers Dave Chapman and Brian Herring strike a perfect balance between endearing, feisty and plucky. They really deserve ample praise for wringing so much expressive behavior out of what amounts to a beach ball and a medicine ball magnetized together.

But BB-8 isn't just a design wonder, she's a fun character as well. I love watching her throw shade on Finn when he fibs about his connection to the Resistance and then get all stressed out when she's pulled in two different directions at once. Watching BB-8 and R2-D2 share a scene together made me think of a sprightly, inquisitive young kitten trying to snag the attention of an older, wiser cat.

During the First Order's harrowing and brutal attack on Jakku we're introduce to the film's main heel Kylo Ren, played to perfection by Adam Driver. Upon first inspection, Ren cuts an impressive figure. Clad in flowing black robes and an imposing face mask and wielding a three-pronged lightsaber, Ren comes off as your typical villainous badass. Especially when he stops Poe's blaster bolt in mid-air and then drags him across the battlefield.

But then something really, really interesting happens. Ren's holographic overlord, Supreme Leader Snook, er Snoke (Andy Serkis) warns his pupil that he may be tempted by the light side of the Force. Whatta twist! When things don't go his way, he throws nasty temper tantrums, raging out and destroying shit with his lightsaber like a spoiled brat. He worships Darth Vader's melted mask with the same level of adoration of your typical neck-bearded Star Wars fanboy.

This level of depth and complexity is precisely why Kylo Ren is my favorite new character. His cloak, his scary voice modulator, his mask; its all a case of "methinks thou dost protest too much". This interesting new concept is perfectly realized by Adam Driver who is, in turn, focused, intense, enraged, vulnerable and even oddly jovial at times. He's like the Anakin we sorely needed in the prequels and I look forward to seeing him reach a level of Darkside mastery that actually justifies his nefarious appearance.

Another conflicted and equally interesting character is Finn, played with boundless energy and "OMG!"-style sincerity by John Boyega. Apparently the First Order is done with using clones and is now stealing a move right out of the Jedi playbook: I.E. abducting and indoctrinating infants into their weird ISIS-like cult. I have no idea why Finn is the only member of the First Order to have an attack of conscience; hopefully his story will be fleshed out in the next entry. Just suffice to say that it's fun to watch a stormtrooper go rogue.

There's a palpable sense of fun, adventure and peril as Finn springs Poe from the Star Destroyer detention block and they make their escape. Between Poe's exemplary piloting skills and Finn's accuracy on the guns, the two make a stellar duo. It amazes me that Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt somehow manage to generate more chemistry, camaraderie and joie de vivre amongst Poe and Finn then George Lucas did with Obi-Wan and and Anakin over length of the entire prequel trilogy.

Finn's character arc continues to grow when he meets up with Rey. Boyega does a tremendous job playing a tentative, embryonic hero; someone who wants to do the right thing and make a difference but he's terrified that he'll be exposed as a fraud. By the time he bravely squares off against Kylo Ren you're really rooting for the guy. This is a star-making turn for Boyega and I look forward to seeing him in more films that don't have the word "Star" and "Wars" in the title.

But the movie's M.V.P. by far is Daisy Ridley as Rey. When we first meet her she's scavenging loose bits of scrap from a downed Star Destroyer and trading the parts for barely enough food to survive, so right away we're in her corner. And unlike Luke who just happened to end up with R2, she actually fights to liberate BB-8 from capture, which makes us like her even more. Her market value continues to rise when she gets paired up with Finn. I love how she's constantly railing against the clearly-repellent concept that she needs to be protected and ends up schooling her male brethren in the art of being a hero.

Fresh-faced, plucky and boundlessly charming, its great to watch Daisy subvert expectations during the course of the film. Even though the script packs waaaaay too much of her development into too short a time span, Ridley makes these transitions very convincing. The biggest piece of praise that I can give to her is that we really care about Rey. We hiss at the villains who harm her and cheer when she kicks ass in the finale.

But perhaps the biggest revelation to me was Harrison Ford as Han Solo. I always saw Han as a supplementary character in the Original Trilogy, someone who spontaneously helped out the heroes because he had an attack of conscience and would never really thrive in the role of military man and / or doting father. That's why the Han on display in Return of the Jedi and in the Expanded Universe always seemed like a boring, domesticated, neutered version of his former self. Well, I'm pleased to report that our favorite dashing rogue is back in fine form.

After watching The Force Awakens I now understand why Ford agreed to come back and why he's stumping so hard for the movie. This is Han's story and, thankfully, the writers had the balls to follow though on the smuggler's story arc. The beautiful thing about Harrison's performance here is that he isn't crusty, grumpy Harrison Ford pretending to be Han Solo, he's the willful, smarmy, cocksure smuggler through and through.

Han's appearance led to a series of progressively-emotional scenes for me. For the sake of full disclosure, l really don't think that I can review certain elements of this film with complete impartiality since I was on the verge of tears half the time. Seeing Han and Chewie back in action together after so long was about all that I could handle. In fact, in many ways, the movie's title should have been Star Wars: Attack of the Feels.

Cynical assholes will probably see this as a demerit and tell you that the movie relies too heavily on fan service, with the producers winking gratuitously at the audience and saying "Hey, kids, remember this?" Yes, the movie has issues, but nostalgia isn't one of them. After the disastrous prequel trilogy, which felt like the cinematic equivalent of a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I think that we needed to be reminded why these movies were so popular in the first place. Remember: from 1977 to 1983 Star Wars wasn't nerdy and insular at all. Everybody, and I mean everybody, loved that shit.

I started struggling with tears again as soon as Han reunited with Leia. I still have no idea how Carrie Fisher managed to channel this character again so effortlessly, especially since she came across as everyone's favorite crazy drunk aunt during the press tour for the film. In the movie she's all business, re-imagining our favorite Princess as a no-nonsense General. She's exactly what you'd expect Leia to be like after thirty odd years: world-weary, cynical and tired of the eternal struggle.

All of our old favorites are treated with the same level of respect. For example, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is legitimately funny, not just some pun-spewing, pratfall artist who's there only for cheap laughs. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) gets a great little scene where he's lavishly praised by a medical attendant for his bravery and later we get to see the true meaning of Wookiee rage. I was also gutted to learn that R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) has been dormant since Luke skedaddled, reminding me of a loyal puppy that sits eternally by the door, patiently waiting for his master to return.

But its not just classic characters that crank up the nostalgia. When Rey, Finn, Han, Chewie and BB-8 are all hanging out in the Millennium Falcon, I couldn't help but get a little misty-eyed. If you take the familiar scream of T.I.E. fighters, the wail of an X-Wing engine, the crash of lightsabers, the Death Star-style white noise of Starkiller Base, the familiar "pyew, pyew" of Han's DL-44 blaster and wrap it all up in the glorious auspices of John William's stellar soundtrack, you've got a visual and auditory panoply that will swell the heart of even the most lapsed Star Wars fan.

Throughout all of this, the direction of J.J. Abrams is sure-footed and engaging. Even though his style is terrible for Star Trek he's pretty much spot-on for Star Wars. Except for occasional hyperactive editing, micro close-ups and shaky-cam indulgences, the film is actually well-shot and assembled. Lens flares are virtually non-existent and there's a certain gritty, grounded quality to the film. Witness the climactic lightsaber battle; its the sort of quick, vicious, emotional, sometimes sloppy tilt that we deserved for Revenge of the Sith, as opposed to the boring, protracted, overly-choreographed, video gamey plea for attention that we ended up with.

This is also the first Star Wars film since 1983 that I actually want to see a "making of" documentary for. As opposed to the horde of programmers who labored in the virtual salt mines of the prequels, I'd love to hear from the artisans and craftspeople who created all of the practical sets, costumes, models, props, and creature designs. Having real, physical environments to look at certainly helped my immersion in the film and I'd imagine that the actors were equally relieved to have something to hang their performances on.

It's also amazing to me when decent designs, good dialogue and a restrained vocal performance bring CGI characters to life. Maz Kanata, voiced by the delightful Lupita Nyong'o, has a fighting chance to become this generation's Yoda. And then there was the genuinely surprising epiphany I had regarding Supreme Leader Snoke. The first thought that went through my head when I saw him was "Whoa, they grow 'em big in this part of the galaxy!" Needless to say, I chuckled out loud as soon as I realized that holographic technology has also improved considerably over the past three decades.

I really can't overstate the benefit of shooting in real-world locations. Using Abu Dhabi for Jakku and an abandoned R.A.F. base in England for the Resistance headquarters really expands the visual panoply of the Star Wars universe while giving the viewer's unconscious mind something to hold on to. But perhaps the most interesting location is Skellig Michael islands off the coast of County Kerry, Ireland, which stands in for the first Jedi Temple. Visually its one of the most interesting new environments in the Star Wars universe.

But, alas, there are also some grave-ish disturbances in the Force as well.

Even though I can let a most of the reruns cataloged at the start of this review slide, some of them are borderline inexcusable. For example, I can't believe that yet another "all-powerful" battle station gets trashed, apparently with the same level of effort that a kid uses to dismantle an erector set. At least the Death Star in Star Wars got some proper build up; here we're just told that Starkiller Base is bigger, badder and "moar betterer" then anything that came before it. A part of me was really hoping that the screenwriters would subvert expectations and just cripple the thing instead of destroying it. That way it could have come back next time as an increasingly escalating threat.

The other thing that's a tad lazy is the ludicrous amount of coincidence that occurs in the story. Even though we're talking about the surface on an entire planet here, BB-8 just so happens to cross Rey's path. At least in Star Wars R2-D2 and C-3PO had to schlep all over hell and creation to get to Owen's moisture farm. Not long after this incredibly fateful meeting, Finn crashes within walking distance of Rey. The Millennium Falcon is also conveniently sitting around collecting dust on Jakku. Han unwittingly takes Rey to the one place in the galaxy where she can experience her ancestral recall / psychic residue episode.

There's also plenty of stuff that either gets glossed over or feels rushed. From time to time I really wanted J.J. and company to just SLOW DOWN for a few seconds and explain a coupla things. For example one character miraculously reappears back at the Resistance base looking no worse for wear. Very little happens at the beginning of the film that hints at Rey's potential. Luke's lightsaber, once impossibly lost on Bespin, just turns up like spare change in the couch cushions.

Then there are a swarm of questions posed by the film itself. The New Republic still appears to be in power so why are the good guys called "the Resistance"? Shouldn't they be called "the Army"? How widespread is the First Order? Did Ren start the whole thing up or was it Snoke? How did they manage to build such a massive battle station without the resources of the entire galaxy behind them? And if the lion's share of the galaxy still supports the New Republic, how does the First Order expect to generate sympathy to their cause by blowing up a bunch of planets?

The first Star Wars also threw us into the story head first, but the set up was so simple and clear that we had a lock on the story right away. An evil Empire controls the whole galaxy and has the resources to build a moon-sized battle station. Check! The whole thing is controlled by a mysterious autocratic Emperor with a Sith attack dog. Check! And all those poor, hard pressed, clearly unfunded schmucks are members of the Rebel Alliance. Easy peasy!

Yeah, yeah...I know, I know...we're just getting started and it's likely that these questions and many more will be answered in the next installment. But cynical, crusty ol' me can't quite shake the feeling that the answers are already out there...for the right price. Back when the prequels were coming out, I often felt sorely tempted to read the supplementary novels or watch some cartoon just to see what more gifted writers could do with George Lucas's fuck ups. At least now I feel compelled to seek these things out just to complement the awesome. Well played, J.J. and Disney, well played.

Just know that for every one thing that irked me there were ten things that I loved, which is a pretty darned good ratio. For example, just thinking about the ending is enough to make me slavishly hooked for the rest of this series.

And honestly, that's the highest praise I can give to The Force Awakens. I actually care again, to the point where I feel like a kid who's willing to wantonly fritter the time away just so we can all see what happens next.

Tilt: up.

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