star-wars-force-awakens-script-lawrence-kasdan

That matte painting style though.

I haven’t written a film review for like… 3 months? It’s a bit daunting to come back to it, though I’ve taken hiatuses before. I dunno if I ever took a hiatus and came back to review a movie as big as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s probably the biggest movie in a decade. Maybe. I mean, it’s hard to tell these days. Every quarter there’s a new HOLY FUCK IT’S THE BIGGEST movie and I’m not sure if that was simply always the case, or something new. At any rate, no one cares about that. If you’re reading this, it’s because you care what I think about the new Star Wars movie, and some of that goes past just caring what I think about movies in general. This one is kind of controversial, not in the sense that it’s hugely divisive, but that a lot of folks are having lukewarm or reserved reactions to it. We learned our lesson well, I guess.

There’s not a lot of additional insight I can bring to this movie that hasn’t been said already 1000 times. I can’t praise the new characters, the aesthetic beauty, or the precision craftsmanship and just leave it at that. Everybody’s talking about those things, almost like they’re waving off those (crucial) elements that this movie gets so fucking right in order to move on to the stuff they didn’t like so much. The thing is, I think there’s such a caution toward this franchise due to a generation’s worth of reflexive encounters with hype-based marketing and letdowns. I think it’s getting in the way of people honestly appreciating The Force Awakens for what it accomplishes. Namely, it is a great Star Wars movie. Whatever that means to you. The best way to look at it, for my money, is that this series was always kind of ramshackle and marred by the gloss and convenience of big-scale adventure stories. If Star Wars: A New Hope invented the modern blockbuster, warts and all, then The Force Awakens is on a pretty straight continuum with it. And yet… there’s a fuck of a lot of nit-picking going on. Literal-minded people getting worked up about this detail or that detail, and largely failing to contextualize those details. So I guess this review is likely to be a bit apologist, because I did expect to be disappointed after hearing comparisons to Star Trek ’09 (a movie I don’t much like) and found myself really enjoying The Force Awakens and forgiving its flaws not because I was overwhelmed by nostalgia (I don’t have that relationship with Star Wars really), but because it does such a great job of overcoming them.

Note: this review is going to rely a lot on a high level of familiarity with Star Wars shit. I’m sorry, but if I stopped and explained everything we’d be here all day.

And so:

A LONG TIME AGO, IN A GALAXY FAR FAR AWAY…

SPOILERS!

 

11875118_1007880092596925_2204135516599208531_o

The Empire’s leftovers mean business.

The Force Awakens begins with the classic opening crawl. It might seem redundant to start there, but it’s actually perfect. The opening crawl tells us about the status quo of the galaxy as we’re about to encounter it: it’s new, but it’s also the same. That’s a huge meta theme running throughout the movie, which is being (somewhat fairly) called a “sequel-as-remake” due to its overwhelming similarity to A New Hope. At the same time, people are also complaining that the text doesn’t give enough detail about the factions and shit to really explain anything. My contention here basically comes down to this: so fucking what? This is the kind of thing that irks me about some of my fellow media enthusiasts. So literal, so reductive, that they fail to understand that the Original Trilogy had a whole trilogy worth of movies to explain what the Empire and Rebellion were, and started with simple cleanly-drawn archetypes. With the names being changed, but little else, do we really need a bunch of extraneous details or connective tissue to justify the “new” context of The Force Awakens? No, we really don’t.

Indulging world-building minutiae is what hampered the Prequel Trilogy. Lucas et al developed a penchant for tying every character, every reference, every event or totem of his movies to some origin story or meaningful moment in the Prequels (and stuff like The Clone Wars series). This has translated to a weird indulgence for this kind of storytelling in similar types of movies, and a weird hunger for it in audiences. It’s like, did we really need the OT to tell us what the Clone Wars explicitly were? No, we didn’t. We didn’t need to know any more about Alderaan in A New Hope than we do about the Republic worlds in The Force Awakens.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm 2015

Ruins! There are many awesome, huge scale scenes like this one.

In the same breath that long-time Star Wars fans praise the subtlety and mystery of Boba Fett, they complain that we don’t know exactly why the New Republic and Resistance seem to be two separate entities. Well, I’d argue that we don’t know that much about the political situation of A New Hope either, and we need it even less here due to the fact that the surface plot elements follow that movie so closely. So the crawl is enough to set the stage for this, and it’s secondary purpose is to basically prime the audience to re-familiarize themselves with Star Wars and especially the basic structure and plot of the movie that started it all. Think about the enormity of the scorn for the Prequels. Think about the pressure of having to bring Star Wars back with everyone’s guard up. A New Hope did not have this baggage when it was released. It had no baggage at all. That’s an important piece of context to remember when you’re thinking about The Force Awakens.

This may not be the ideal way to continue a franchise after so many years, let alone with the terrible Prequels to overcome, but I understand why they did it this way. It’s not just because a huge chunk of the target audience for this movie did not grow up with the Star Wars movies the way I did, or especially the way people a generation older than I am did. The people who saw A New Hope in theaters in the 70’s, mostly as kids, have an entirely different way of looking at this than those who discovered it in the 80’s and 90’s when being a nerd had little cultural currency, and both those rough groupings have an order of magnitude’s difference with people younger than me who know Star Wars as a cultural monolith that has done little to justify its status in their lifetimes. Though that’s all part of it, it’s also because there’s housekeeping to be done. As simplistic as that may sound. Many franchises now ignore chunks of their own pasts in order to perform that housekeeping, a sort of indulgence of acknowledgement (even pretending something didn’t happen is acknowledging it after all) that “clears the air” or whatever so that the story or characters or setting, or whatever is perceived to “work” about the franchise, can continue on. This year, we had Terminator doing that and Mad Max doing that, with vastly different quality as movies. The Marvel movies have had to do that early on with Hulk. In fact, the only franchise I can think of that doesn’t do this is The Fast and the Furious or maybe Rocky. The point is that it’s common to do housekeeping, even if it’s not needed, and ignoring the past is a way to do that. Confronting it is another, which we don’t see often, and The Force Awakens takes a third path. I’m not saying it’s the best one, but their way of doing housekeeping is to basically model the last time everybody knew this Star Wars thing had real legs while simultaneously limiting any influence, visual or otherwise, from the Prequels. Mimicking A New Hope enough to provide a solid foundation becomes this movie’s way of making the audience feel assured that we don’t have Prequels 2.0 on our hands, that whatever we’re getting is going to at least look and sound like Star Wars when it was good. Tron: Legacy tried the same thing, and was met with similar misgivings as The Force Awakens is receiving now. I argued back then that it was a perfectly legitimate way for Tron: Legacy to tell its story. This business of generational stories and “mantling” what has gone before… this is all part of that and I think it’s maybe the right approach to Star Wars, given its genre and the focus on a particular family. I just don’t see a world where The Force Awakens massively distanced itself from what came before and, after 30 years, it is justifiable if not ideal that they reconnect to the OT in so blatant a way before being willing to run off with the story, wherever it’s going.  At the same time, I’d be remiss not to mention that while the approach may be justifiable, some elements of its execution are… less so. For example, the escalation in this movie in comparison to A New Hope reaches ridiculous levels. They had a moon-sized base that could destroy a planet? Well, fuckers, we have a planet-sized base that can destroy FIVE planets!

This was not the best way to handle the housekeeping.

Rey-Star-Wars-Episode-7-Force-Awakens

Tech-savvy orphan on a sandy planet? Check.

They really picked the right guy for this job, though. J.J. Abrams has made a career out of remixing the greatest hits of far better filmmakers, and The Force Awakens is no different. That said, Abrams has sort of transcended the limitations of that approach with this film. This is because though he is kind of a hack in some ways, returning to similar plot devices, visual ideas, etc over and over again in his movies, he has some pretty major chops. What he brings to Star Wars that goes beyond remix or remake is the sense of respect for what always worked in the franchise coupled with a gentle, self-assured “updating” of aesthetics, social politics, and technical prowess. Abrams does a great job making this look and feel like Star Wars while also feeling like it’s 20 years later and that the 20 years actually meant something. Lucas’s politics were always pretty progressive in terms of social justice (I think?) but Abrams brings Star Wars fully to the post-damsel age. On the technical level, well, this is the most jaw-dropping beautiful Star Wars movie ever made. So that speaks for itself.

But I think if you really want to get into why this movie is much better than the sum of its parts, you need to consider what they appear to be building with their cast of new characters. There’s a running theme in The Force Awakens of young people growing up in the ruins of a war they don’t understand, that raged almost legendarily in the mornings of their lives, and yet has totally defined their lives anyway. There’s something in there that feels true to this moment in time, and while some would argue that it’s underdeveloped in this movie, I would say it’s too prevalent and too echoed/reinforced in almost every scene for that to possibly be true. Plus, there are two more movies coming down the pipe that will more than likely continue in this vein. If it’s not enough, or too abstract, there’s also that another of Abrams skills as a filmmaker is able to shine here. He casts well, always has, and creates a lot of the dramatic tension and thematic resonance of the movie through his cast and the performances he gets out of them. He deserves credit, but I still wish someone more original and less hackneyed had been given the reigns on this. In Rian Johnson I trust.

Star-Wars-7-Force-Awakens-Teedo-Luggabeast

Practical effects!

Like A New Hope, this movie relies on archetypal characters to begin to (hopefully) tell its more complicated story. All the new cast feel like partial recreations of the core cast of the OT, at least conceptually. This is because they start from similar archetypes. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and even Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are all remixes of familiar backstories, inner turmoil, defining characteristics and motivations. They’re the best, in every sense of that word, example of Abrams’s remix-heavy approach to the formulae of the OT. Seeing these people interact with each other, and with OT characters like Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) reinforces both the running theme of the young inheriting the broken world of the old, as well as the ways they are both similar and different (as individuals and in terms of dynamics) as their predecessors. Hope for things to be different wins out over a sense, which would have wrecked this movie, that it’s all just happening all over again. They pull this off in spite of the plot being fundamentally the same as A New Hope‘s. This is being complained about by some, but it’s utterly intentional and totally fundamental to the “housekeeping” mentality of this first movie. That it’s intentional might not ease the negative feelings some have about it, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not laziness or fear that drove this, even though the result is rightly described as “safe”. I really hope that I’m right in thinking they’ll model the OT less and less as the trilogy continues. There are signs at the end of The Force Awakens that both challenge and reinforce this outlook, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

For what it’s worth, and I say it’s worth a lot, all of these characters are awesome. Even Poe Dameron, who is not in the movie enough, registers immediately as likable, funny, heroic, and empathetic. Empathy and compassion seem to be the core connective tissue that unites our heroes, and is another of the “deeper” themes that runs very intelligibly through this movie, in a far more focused way than it did in A New Hope (which was about the Hero’s Journey, full stop). In fact, it also binds Kylo Ren to the “new trio” in an interesting way that is full of potential. Right now, it’s empathy that makes Finn and Rey friends, and Finn and Poe friends (we’ll see what happens with Rey and Poe later, I imagine).

star-wars-force-awakens-kylo-rain-slow-1450304204

These are the badass-looking Knights of Ren. We barely see/hear of them in the movie. I’m sure we’ll see more in the future.

Kylo, on the other hand, is fighting against his own empathy and uses that fight to keep himself apart from people like Finn, Rey, or Poe. Or his parents, for that matter. I knew either Rey or Kylo (or both) were going to be “Skywalker” kids, and I was glad that Kylo’s origins were mentioned so directly and cleanly in the movie, handled entirely in the context of character rather than as some big “ooh, ahhh” reveal. All the Kylo stuff really works and Adam Driver kills it. The other actors all do great jobs for sure, but I think people will remember Kylo and how perfectly in sync he is with a whole generation of angry, self-loathing young men who try to kill their empathy because they think it makes them weak. Though the others are more “classic” characters, Kylo feels very now, very close to the sad but potentially dangerous kids that sometimes spew hate and vitriol at women or minorities on the internet, or sometimes kill them in schools or churches. There’s hope for Kylo, though, and Driver is so good that I think he earns that. You want this guy to come back, in a way that maybe the audience never really did with Vader except for at the vicarious level of caring about what Luke Skywalker wanted.

Speaking of the characters, I think this is a nice clean way of getting into one of the reasons I am even writing this review. I wanted to specifically address a few really dumb complaints about The Force Awakens. Complaints that I think are coming from the place I described in the intro paragraphs. A place of literal-mindedness, of caution (lest we be hurt again!) and of pure inability to divorce what we see from what we think we want to see. Let’s start with fighting, because fighting is fun and action is one of the things The Force Awakens is every bit as amazing at as any of the other Star Wars movies. Better, I’d say.

boyega_12.0-1450304153

Is Finn force-sensitive? This question is the source of a lot of stupidity!

So there’s a lot of weird complaints about Finn and Rey “suddenly” being able to “use a lightsaber” during the film’s (amazing) climactic battle with Kylo Ren. Some are saying that Rey becomes an insta-Jedi somehow. But here’s the thing. The PT showed Jedi doing stuff that we never saw in the OT, using acrobatic martial arts and Force-powered superhuman feats for example. Though the Force is a tool used dramatically by Kylo Ren (the unstable, super-powerful, and kind of ugly way he uses the Force instantly crystallizes the character), and in one scene by Rey, it’s still got more in common with the way it worked in the OT. It’s subtler, messier, and I dunno… less easy? This is without even mentioning that we see Rey doing stuff that implies the presence of the Force in the same ways that Luke’s “skills” did in A New Hope. The major difference is that Rey uses a Jedi mind trick and wields a lightsaber in the first movie, and this is directly because there’s no need whatsoever to delay this when we already know Luke’s story. Plus, both Rey and Finn know how to fight and we seem them fight plenty. In the very straightforward, very brutal and low-key duel they fight with Kylo Ren, it’s not a stretch to see them using a lightsaber. Plus, I’d argue that Finn isn’t very good at it anyway. But it’s like, some people think it’s repellent just to see an untrained neophyte like Finn or Rey even pick up a lightsaber. It’s like HOW DARE THEY. It’s a fucking stupid reaction. In this new trilogy, I expect that lightsabers are more mundane weapons than they were treated as in the Prequels or the Expanded Universe. And that’s perfectly okay. There’s a menace and severity to the fight here that was absent from any in the PT, despite those fights’ awe-inspiring choreography and precision. And there’s that monolith again: the expectation of what these totems of Star Wars actually are or mean is informed by contexts that are either irrelevant (EU) or misunderstood (the difference between the PT and OT regarding the Force and Jedi).

People think they want to see Rey “earn” the right to use a lightsaber or a Jedi mind trick by watching her basically do the Luke, but what we’re seeing is the acceleration of that process due to the fact that there’s no mystery in what a Jedi is or does to be found there. If they are going to interrogate or explore “Jedi” or “The Force” in any meaningful way, it won’t be through having Rey go through the same cycle of power progression that Luke did. I mean what can I say? People play a lot of video games. Linear or formal progression is now written into the cultural DNA of a large segment of the populace, especially the kind of people predisposed to going to see a new Star Wars movie. Could this have something to do with the literalist whining about a very justified and very satisfying/cool/etc sequence in the film? Maaaaaybe.

poe-bb8-590x900

I didn’t think I’d be sold on BB-8 but I hella was.

This brings me to another point of contention about the movie. There’s a lot of complaining about coincidences and interconnections that feel contrived. I think that would be fair to say if this was a realism-tinged crime drama or something, but it’s a Star Wars movie where a thing called The Force exists and manipulates events, destiny, and people. Obi Wan once said, famously, that there’s no such thing as coincidences. In heroic epics, a whole genre unto itself and to which Star Wars belongs, coincidences are the touch of fate on lives and events that would otherwise be mundane. In other words: why are Han Solo and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) hanging around so close to Jakku where the Falcon just happens to be? Because they are fucking looking for it and the Force takes over from there, putting them back at the center of what Maz (Lupita Nyongo) refers to as “the only war”. If you look at the OT again, you’ll notice these kinds of coincidences all over the place as well. The contention really lies between competing notions that this kind of storytelling is objectively bad all the time, or can be justified within context. My argument is that the structural form of the Star Wars films justifies it.

What it doesn’t justify is the parade of distracting cameos and stunt-casting. Max von Sydow is I Dunno-Kenobi, someone who knows Luke Skywalker and is pretty old. Greg Grunberg is “chubby friend of director who realizes childhood dream of being in a Star Wars movie and forgets to act”. Ikwo Uwais and Yayan Ruhian are “Two Guys from The Raid movies doing Star Wars cosplay in an ill-advised monster sequence”. It’s awful and it’s very much the kind of thing J.J. Abrams would bring to this. But does it ruin the movie? Fuck no. It’s bush league, but it’s minor. I should mention that Gwendoline Christie’s inclusion as Captain Phasma is a very funny, very knowing inversion of this. Everybody knows that Boba Fett is the “cool guy” of Star Wars, and people also understand it’s because we don’t know anything about him. Then Return of the Jedi comes along and chumpifies the whole mystique that had developed around this character. Phasma is a joke in keeping with that and at the expense of people who still idolize the superficiality of Boba Fett. She’s supposed to look like a singular badass, a new iconic inclusion that is all tangible details (chrome armor, cape, swagger) with no real action or character behind it. The way she is used in the movie, and then (probably) killed offscreen in as ignominious a way (more so than falling into the Sarlaac Pit) as possible is a joke. A great joke. Confused many people judging by the articles and discussions about how “wasted” this was, or even how Abrams didn’t “get” Boba Fett. Oh yes he did.

star-wars-7-force-awakens-john-boyega-daisy-ridley

Finn and Rey’s dynamic is almost enough to completely justify this movie. It’s being sort of underrated by the people saying this movie was “okay”, though I’m happy to see that most of the discourse is mentioning how great this stuff is.

There’s also the over-reliance on telling over showing with regard to the whereabouts and status of various characters. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making Luke Skywalker the new Jedi Hermit and McGuffin that everybody talks about, but it’s weird that R2D2’s robot coma is told to us or that Poe just goes “yeah, this is why I was missing for 40% of the movie!” when he finally comes back. I would bet money that they cut connective scenes showing Poe’s journey from Jakku to the Resistance. But the movie doesn’t have them, and while missing connective tissue is often a blight on these kinds of movies, The Force Awakens maintains a survivable number of omitted scenes that weren’t crucial but still would have been nice to have. That said, this is one complaint about The Force Awakens that I can’t argue away or banish. It’s a fair point and there’s no reason why The Force Awakens should be as long as it is and not have more Poe, more Leia (who is a weakness of the film, really… just not really enough to do). Plus, I would be a hypocrite for all the times I’ve complained about missing connective tissue in big movies just to give The Force Awakens a full pass on this aspect. It doesn’t deserve to be fully insulated from this criticism is what I’m saying. I guess. I think the ending is interesting in this respect, because though I loved the concept and seeing Luke (Mark Hamill looks good), I really hated the “last minute R2-D2 wakes up and knows all the things!” bit, even though I know it’s just like Luke fucking Skywalker to hide a bunch of integral shit in R2-D2’s head, being that R2-D2 is his mobile inventory menu.

Sidebar: I was honestly dreading this movie on some level because there was so much talk about Luke becoming the new Vader and I just really fucking hate that idea. I was glad to see they aren’t going there… yet. I really hope this remains the case.

While I’m talking about things I didn’t like… I think they might have really fucked up with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). I really hope that they are going to take it somewhere interesting, but really Serkis is just doing Giant Gollum via Emperor Palpatine (so, stunt-casting again) and it’s like, who is this guy and why does he have to have a scarred up face and shit? This feels lazy. Why does he have a name that reminds me of a passive-aggressive insurance salesman? This feels baffling. About the only thing I liked about this guy was that he might actually be 20 feet tall. What I don’t like is that I have a strong suspicion the hologram thing was just so they could cover their asses if people really hate the idea of a giant dark lord. I love the idea of a giant dark lord. I may be alone in this, but I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking the movie could have left Snoke out altogether and focused more on the antagonism between Kylo Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). I just hope they’re doing some kind of Wizard of Oz shit with this guy and that he’s not the Big Bad of the new trilogy.

Anyway, none of these flaws are really all that bad. They are distracting, and may induce a few eye rolls or cringes… but they are ultimately minor and being heavily cited by people who I think were probably going to be disappointed by The Force Awakens no matter what.

star-wars-force-awakens

It is nice to see these two again. I don’t even mind that they’re back to their old ways, since the movie straight up addresses this.

There are some things about the OT characters that I should probably say before I’m done here. Harrison Ford had a blast in this movie and it’s like no time has passed at all since the last time we saw this larger than life actor playing this larger than life role. It’s a fine line to walk between making room for the new people and relying on the fondness for Star Wars‘s most beloved character, and this movie walks it easily. Ford always wanted to die in Star Wars and he gets his wish here, with his death as a the big “holy fuck” moment that nonetheless rings with meaning and resonance. It’s one of the best scenes in the film, highlighting both Adam Driver and Harrison Ford as actors and bringing nuance and maturity to the film that I didn’t really expect. I should have. Ford also helps Carrie Fisher and Leia redeem her small role somewhat, earlier in the film. The few scenes with them together, talking about their marriage and hinting at the old times (bad and good) is just enough to dismantle the simple, childish myth of “they lived happily ever after” (which modernizes this movie’s approach to character, in my opinion) and give both characters some depth beyond the plot, and in line with their antagonistic dynamic from the OT. It’s like, of course they are estranged. I love the idea that their marriage couldn’t survive a reality of child-rearing, writ large and mythic in the context of the Star Wars universe. Kylo Ren is really Ben Solo, and it’s his fall that drove a rift between Han and Leia. Their love is still there, but they’ve gone back to what they were before they tried the expected course of becoming a family emblematic of the new order of the galaxy that they helped create. In a way, this tiny story between them is a metaphor for the transition between the OT and these movies. Whatever they made could be and was eaten away by the darker impulses that lie in desire, power, self-hatred, and anger. Kylo Ren is the sullen, volatile product of an imperfect marriage and by extension, an imperfect world. An imperfect Star Wars franchise. This is what makes him so human, even as he does unspeakable things.

So there is definitely more going on in The Force Awakens than whiz bang action and adventure, or (just) a lazy retread of A New Hope. There are pretty strong characterizations and narrative themes (generational conflict, identity, morality and empathy) running through the movie, and it’s not always in the broad strokes that are typically all a movie like this has room for. The Force Awakens‘s thematic content may not be as focused as it could have been, but it is impressive given how many masters this movie is serving. Action movies are often good even without being “deep” about anything, but are often improved by having some level of narrative wholeness and thematic resonance. The Force Awakens has those things, and on that level is playing a different game than the OT played. The OT was far more straightforward within its genre than this one is, as if they know they can’t afford to wait until Episode 8 to get to some of that sweet The Empire Strikes Back weight. Though I’ve acknowledged the flaws in The Force Awakens as I and others see them, I want to restate that I think they are minor in the end. For every one of those flaws, this movie compensates or achieves in another (sometimes related) aspect which I think makes it great and not just good. The consensus is that the movie is “good not great” and while I disagree, it’s probably a close thing. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s better than the PT movies by far and does some things better than any of the OT movies did. More than anything, it asks you to be excited about Star Wars by reminding you what you loved about it while also suggesting (more than proving) that there is new ground to break and new stories to tell. I think that the consensus will be kinder and kinder to this movie as time allows it to stand and be what it is without the weight of expectation and anticipation that would have buried a lesser movie.

And if it’s of any importance, I’m really fucking excited to see it again.

o.aolcdn.com

Cuz this shit.

Advertisements