Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

There has been an awakening...have you felt it? Those words, terrifyingly spoken by a character we know now to be Snoke, were the introductory lines we heard right after Thanksgiving 2014 in the first of three terrific trailers for the first Star Wars film in a decade (not including the not-so-well-received animated film from 2008) and the one featuring most of the original stars since 1983. Fans have indeed felt it: Episode VII made more than $14 million dollars alone in its first day of release, and it will undoubtedly be the film of the year in that sense. But does it deservedly rank as the single greatest Star Wars film ever, as Rotten Tomatoes claims? That's a bit more complicated.

By now many fans know that producer Kathleen Kennedy, George Lucas' hand-picked choice to lead Lucasfilm in the post-Lucas era, convinced J. J Abrams, the man who helped reboot the Star Trek franchise and who initially turned down the chance to direct The Force Awakens, to direct it when she asked him, "Who is Luke Skywalker?" Luke (Mark Hamill) does appear, as does his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher), but of the three original stars, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) appears the most (and receives top billing), but even he takes a bit of a back seat to the three newer protagonists: Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron. So the makers deserve enormous credit for bringing back the original three plus, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO and Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, but also credibility for assembling an incredible list of some of the most talented newer actors: John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley (in her film debut as Rey, the lead), Lupita Nyong'o, Gwendoline Christie, Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, and Andy Serkis. Filling out the acting list is Swedish legend Max von Sydow and Abrams' frequent collaborator Simon Pegg. Even if The Force Awakens were a bad movie, it would be worth seeing it simply to see all these actors.

The Force Awakens takes place decades after the Empire fell in The Return of the Jedi. Out of the Empire's ashes comes the First Order, an authoritarian government in conflict with the Republic and its only Jedi, Luke Skywalker. Skywalker, however, goes into a bit of a depression after a particularly tragic failure and goes into a self-imposed exile. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is sent on a mission to retrieve part of a map to Skywalker but is hunted by the First Order's Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Darth Vader "fan-boy", and General Hux (Dumhnall Gleeson), two sort of sibling rivals for the love and attention of the mysterious Dark Side leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). In a powerful opening sequence, Stormtrooper FN-2187 (played by John Boyega and renamed Finn) goes into a Saving Private Ryan-style state of shock and has had enough of the First Order's violence. After Kyle Ren captures Poe in an attempt to retrieve the map to hunt down Skywalker, Finn breaks out with Poe and escapes to the desert planet Jakku, where they become separated. Poe's droid BB-8 survives the hunt and finds Rey (Daisy Ridley), a talented scavenger, and eventually Finn, and then the three of them become hunted by the First Order. They escape in the only "piece of junk" ship they can find: the Millennium Falcoln. But it's original owners (you know who) want it back, and sure enough they are successful. As you can see, while this movie contains maybe a bit too many parallels to the original trilogy, it's a complex but not too crowded and complicated story line and an exciting one.  

The author of a Lucas biography, Dale Pollock, is just about the only person who has read the outlines for all nine of Lucas' original stories and has said that this trilogy is the best. But as Vanity Fair reported earlier this year, Disney (the new owner of Lucasfilm) and Kennedy decided to go in a different direction. It would be interesting to see just how different Lucas' version and the final version are, but my hunch is that going back to the genesis of these stories, our original heroes were always meant to be supporting roles in this trilogy. Hamill even hinted at this in an interview with Gene Siskel back in the 80s promoting The Return of the Jedi.

There are a lot of grand moments here. The reunion of Han and Leia, separated and not particularly interested in each other anymore, is a powerful and touching moment, one of the best in the film. But there was one scene in particular that made me fairly angry. It's a scene that is executed with enough gravitas and emotion to be an impressive one, but it's one that left me disturbed and puzzled. That's sort of the basic element of this movie: it's so well-crafted that it's difficult to dislike, but it's not a masterpiece. To use Star Wars vernacular, Abrams has learned much, but he is not a Jedi yet. The Force Awakens may not look as breathtakingly fresh as those first films from 1977-1983, but it still looks like much more painstaking effort was put into it than the films from 1999-2005 were. Still, while The Force Awakens is far superior to The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, I couldn't help but like Revenge of the Sith better, though I suspect I'm in the minority. But here's one aspect that I think most folks will agree with me: the villains here are not nearly as interesting as Star Wars villains of the past. A Star Wars movie is sometimes as strong as its villains, and whereas the films of old featured Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, Grand Moff Tarkin, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hutt, Darth Maul, and Count Dooku, the strongest villain here (Kylo Ren) is essentially Vader-light, with his only truly impressive moments being his frightening temper tantrums. The Palpatine-like character is Snoke, in another motion-capture performance by Serkis (who appeared in similarly filmed roles in The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, The Adventures of Tintin, and the Planet of the Apes films). (Serkis' company, The Imaginarium Studios, which focuses on motion-capture film making, has provided consultation for Godzilla, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and The Force Awakens.) But despite how impressive the technology has looked in some of the movies mentioned, Serkis gives Snoke a menacing voice but a visual that looks dated and not consistent with the tenacity of the rest of the film. While Snoke looks silly, the rest of the film has a look of determination. Abrams and team deliver on their promise to feature more sets, practical effects, make-up design, and puppetry, using what seems to be a limited amount of computer-generated imagery. What CGI that does appear is mostly well-done by Industrial Light & Magic.    

But all in all, there were only three moments in this film that made me completely thrilled: the first time we see Han and Chewie, the first time we see Leia, and the first time we see Luke. Some moments, though, are actually funny, with Boyega, Isaac, and Ford providing most of the humor. Finn enthusiastically hopes to storm the enemy's base with no plan. When confronted by Solo on this lack of preparation, Finn excitedly tells him that they will use the Force. Solo is not impressed. "That's not how the Force works," he grumpily tells him. C-3PO (with a red arm for some reason) and R2D2 appear, but BB-8 does more than a fine job standing in as the new it-droid; he even gives Finn a thumbs up, certifying audiences' love for him with his puppy-dog eyes and WALL-E characteristics. The droid was created by Disney Research to be a practical part of interacting with the actors, and he is part of the unique combination of characters new and old, a combination that got just the right amount. And this movie is a sign that perhaps the times are a-changin', because The Force Awakens is a Star Wars movie with a feminist bent: it's the first time we see a woman fight with a lightsaber, Princess Leia is now General Leia, and there's even a lady Stormtrooper (Captain Phasma, played by Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie).

I'm shifting back and forth between criticism and praise, so let me be clear: This is a good movie. Abrams' team (especially the production designers Rick Carter and Darren Gilford, costume designer Michael Kaplan, and creature-shop head Neal Scanlan) have created a Star Wars movie that more or less looks like what a Star Wars movie should look like, shunning the excessive CGI of a decade ago.

But is this the best Star Wars movie ever? No. Is it even the third of fourth best? No to that as well. But by my count, there will be a total of about 20 Star Wars movies (three trilogies plus three stand-alone films to be released within several years, as well as about six spin-offs and specials, including the infamous Holiday Special), so fifth best out of about 20, I assume, ain't bad. Ultimately, if you like Star Wars, you will like The Force Awakens, and I am confident that the next two will be entertaining escapism as well. The Force is strong with this one.        

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