Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

 3.5 / 5 

Popular sentiment is against the Star Wars prequels.  Though created by the same mind that imagined the (until today) entirety of Star Wars in the first place, at least two and a half of the three films have been almost entirely rejected by longtime fans.  They have instead chosen to hold out seemingly eternal hope that there would one day be a Star Wars movie that recalled the ones made from 1977 to 1983, the ones from childhood.

That almost boundless faith has been rewarded.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been expressly designed for fans who want a whole lot less mythologizing and a whole lot more space-adventuring.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not try to expand on the concepts that seemed to fascinate George Lucas in Episodes I, II and III.  There is some discussion of good and evil, to be sure, but it's limited to the simplest sort of dichotomy, the one from fairy tales, not the more grandiose, complex (and sort of stilted) one favored in mythology or studies of comparative religion.

For all of their perceived -- or, some might argue, real -- failings, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith made concerted and noble efforts to take audiences to new places, new worlds and a different time.  The movies were filled with vistas and visions that had never even been hinted at previously in the Star Wars movies.  The stories were head-thumpingly convoluted yet always simple, exploring some Pretty Big Ideas, like the origins and inevitability of war, the nature of evil, the redemptive power of love, and the destructive power of anger.  In very real ways, Lucas's movies even served as statements on modern politics.  So interested were the films in the thematic and visual complexity that they short-changed personal drama.

Of course, Lucas owned his creations outright.  He stirred anger and resentment by doing with them as he saw fit.  Thanks to his scripts, we know where anger leads.  Well, he doesn't own Star Wars anymore.  So enough of that.

This long preamble is necessary not just because etiquette and protocol dictate that none of the actual plot of The Force Awakens be described, but also to clarify: I'm neither the biggest fan of the prequel films nor an apologist.  They are visually remarkable and distinct, impeccably (and lovingly) crafted movies that drove Star Wars headlong into unexpected territory.  The vision was greater than the result, perhaps.

If there could be an entirely opposite approach to making a Star Wars movie than Lucas himself took for six (or even 28) years, The Force Awakens finds it and takes it.  It is a movie designed for maximum fan-pleasing efficiency, and makes careful effort to disappoint no one.  In that, it is successful.  It at least meets almost every expectation, and even exceeds some, which is, in itself, saying something.

Now, if you want to know absolutely nothing about the film, please avert your eyes.  What follows contains (I assure you) no spoilers -- but I imagine some will regard them that way.  You've read as much as you need to read for now; opinion rendered.

(Last chance.  While you're waiting to decide, I'll add that, if pressed, I'd place the film fourth in ranking among the seven extant Star Wars films, just behind 2005's Revenge of the Sith and substantially ahead of 1983's loud and aggressive Return of the Jedi.)

(OK, one more chance.  Truly, fair warning is being given here, even though nothing from this point onward will likely be surprising.)

The Force Awakens makes its intentions known from its first frames -- a visual-effects shot with an image that visually echoes the opening of the 1977 original, even while it doesn't achieve the jaw-dropping sense of newfangled wonder that explains that film's seemingly never-ending appeal.  Just as other movies have been made in Technicolor and contained music but none will ever be The Wizard of Oz, so it may be with Star Wars.  There can ever only be one first time.

Throughout, The Force Awakens recalls the 1977 to 1983 films, aggressively driving home the point that the prequels are no longer relevant to the story.  In visual style, dialogue, characters, scenes, music, settings, costumes and plot points, The Force Awakens is insistently faithful to those first-made films.  It's also created with such a genuine desire to please that it's probably impossible not to find much to enjoy.  It is fun, it is chipper, and even when it depicts mass slaughter and parricide, it is never pessimistic or gloomy.

There are some observations worth making, though.  For instance, The Force Awakens begins with a lonesome hero on a desert planet, who spends time at a local trading post and finds a droid that she keeps as a companion.  That droid is carrying secret information that the bad guys (no longer the Empire, but a sort of Empire 2.0 called The First Order) want very badly, for reasons made mostly clear in the opening crawl.  With soldiers dressed in white armor and a tall, cloaked bad guy dressed in a black helmet and cape, they lay waste to everything they find as they search for the droid.  If that sounds familiar, well, it is.  More than a bit.

The hero, a daring and yearning young woman named Rey (played by Daisy Ridley, the best thing to happen to a Star Wars movie in ... ever?), goes on adventures that involve, in no particular order: a potential love interest, a stormtrooper who removes his helmet, a wise older man, a small and sage alien creature, a bar filled with a wild assortment of intergalactic creatures, more stormtroopers, a super-bad guy who appears by hologram, a Wookiee, Princess Leia (called General Organa throughout but oddly listed as "Princess Leia" in the credits), Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, a brash pilot (well, two or three of them, actually), the Millennium Falcon, a rebel base in a jungly fortress, an ice planet, a forest planet, a giant space station that destroys planets, a surprising death, familial revelations, R2-D2, C-3PO and lightsabers.  And, I will assure you again, this knowledge will not ruin your enjoyment of the film, especially since almost all of that is conveyed in the movie's poster.

I offer these observations to point out that if this weren't Star Wars film, there would be a lot of complaining about how The Force Awakens has "ripped off" the first three movies.  Except it's directed by J.J. Abrams, who has the right to use those films, and written by veteran Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasdan.  Nonetheless, The Force Awakens is essentially a mash-up of memorable moments from the three films made during the Carter-Reagan years.  More than few times, it feels like it's less of a recollection and more of a near-replication of these movies, albeit with the advantage of time and distance.

The Force Awakens is -- with every ounce and fiber of its being -- determined to prove that it is a "real" Star Wars movie  Like a cute and clever child who dresses and emulates a parent down to the smallest mannerism and affectation, The Force Awakens left me amused and slightly bemused at its reverence, warmed by its familiarity, and perplexed by its anxious determination to please.  It's making all the right moves, it doesn't need to keep trying so hard.  But mostly, just as you want to know which parent that child ultimately becomes as it grows and learns, I am intrigued to discover what will happen when Star Wars somehow breaks away from its new owners and comes fully into its own.  For now, it's still being trained -- and it seems to be learning the lessons with great intensity.

Time will tell.

Viewed Dec. 16, 2015 -- AMC Metreon


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