Thursday, December 31, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (SPOILER FREE)

2015, d. J.J. Abrams - in theatre

I'm not necessarily an apologist for the Prequels, as I will fully cede that they are not great movies, but I don't hate them.  They were technically well accomplished, densely universe-expanding, and at times sumptuous visual spectacles.  However, they not just failed to meet fan expectations but in many cases demolished that fandom altogether, and I understand why.  Stilted acting stemming from poor direction, continuity gaffes that took endless "Expanded Universe" novels and comics to rectify (for only the die-hardest of fans) and George Lucas' unchecked level of storytelling freedom all led to a product that was less than satisfying.  Beyond that, three immensely expensive films were constructed to get the audience to a conclusion they already knew, and in the end it didn't tell that story very well.  Yet, when you look at how rich the universe of the prequels is in characters, settings, mythology and history, and that depth is extrapolated over a six-season animated cartoon, countless novels, comics and video games, it is impressive and, in some respects, defensible.

But, as much as I can extrapolate some enjoyment out of the Prequels, they were not what I -- nor anyone else I know who grew up a lover of Star Wars -- wanted for the next Star Wars movie.  We didn't want to go back, we wanted to go forward.  We wanted more Han, Leia, Luke, Lando and Chewbacca.  We had waited 16 years for another Star Wars movie when The Phantom Menace arrived, and we continued to wait for another 16 years for the one we wanted. 

I'm so happy (an understatement) to say that with the arrival of The Force Awakens, that film is here. 

Let's get this right out of the way first: The Force Awakens is not a perfect film.  It's not even a perfect Star Wars film.  But if you look back, none of them are.  Fans have nitpicked through Star Wars from day one, in some respects it is the flaws that help make the great films of this series even more memorable.  But if there's one major criticism about Episode VII, it's that it mirrors too conspicuously the rythms of Star Wars ("A New Hope") and borrows too liberally from the original trilogy serving up a bit of a "greatest hits" medley that's not from the original artists.

It's a fair gripe, as this "medley" is so utterly evident in the first viewing.  When the opening title card "Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." pops up, and the opening horn blast from the Star Wars theme erupts, one is faced with the unknown for the first time.  With the established "Expanded Universe" of stories from the past 20 years largely discarded, we enter The Force Awakens with no idea about where our beloved characters are in their life, or the events that have happened to them since we last saw them, nor do we have really any insight into who the new cast of characters that have been thrust towards us ad nauseum for well over a years.  It's an exciting moment, especially for Star Wars fans.  But as the film plays out the sense of familiarity in plotting and structure help ground us in what we know so that all the new seeds planted by director Abrams, and writers Laurence Kasdan and Michael Arndt don't completely overtake us.

The hero's journey is familiar, the settings have definite parallels to the past, the fight between good and bad seems much the same, and even the big evil weapon recalls the Death Star.  But all these parallels are intentionally just surface, with twinges of nostalgia for the longtime and lapsed fan alike.  But beneath that surface the writers and director rebuild the Star Wars galaxy for a new generation, using the formula to do exactly what George Lucas did almost 40 years ago: establish a rich realm of unexplored potential to send the mind reeling, while still providing an immediately satisfying journey.

The biggest sign of this is in the new characters introduced.  While a returning Harrison Ford as Han Solo delivers a game performance in a meaty role (and Chewbacca is at his best here too), eliciting big dumb smiles from Star Wars fans everywhere, he's still outshone (or at least competitively illuminated) by Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren (Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is immediately ingratiating, but just has less to do in the film overall).  I can't overstate how amazing these new characters are, and how endearing they become.  They are not carbon copies of any characters we've seen in the Star Wars universe prior, and they are perhaps an even better acting ensemble than what we got in the original trilogy. So enamored was I by Rey, Finn, Kylo, Poe, Maz Kanata (an inspired CGI character played by Lupita Nyong'o), General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), and BB-8 that I'm ready to let go of my desire to see more adventures of Han, Luke, Leia et. al.  I want comics and novels starring these new characters far, far more.

The Force Awakens gives us a strong sense of identity for most of the new additions on screen, even though there is still a tremendous amount of mystery surrounding them and their past.  Abrams and company also fill the screen with the requisite amount of visually alluring background and side characters that make the world seem large, diverse, and lived in. 

There's a lot of questions left standing by the film's end, many having to do with the events of the past 30 years, and more still having to do with the background of the new characters we meet.  Even more questions are of the more problematic sort, ones that have you calling into question how things work or how characters do what they do.  But for every aspect that may have you furrowing your brow, there's a dozen or more that will have you smiling, cheering or laughing.  Abrams delivers on the excitement and affable charm, as well as the incredible intensity and spectacle.  Great pains were taken to disseminate what made the original Star Wars work and to repeat that here, it's both obvious and welcome.

The film was released with an unnecessary conversion to 3-D which seems to represent the majority of the screenings. I've seen it in both 2-D and 3-D and found the latter contributed very little (but not altogether nothing) to the experience of the film.  Where it does shine is in showing the depths of hallways and large spaces (such as the interior of the crashed Star Destroyer we see in the trailer) but it's such a nominal boon as to be unnecessary.

For the long time fine, this is a film that demands repeated viewings, at the very least one follow-up watch if only to get past the overwhelming experience of seeing a new Star Wars movie, and allow yourself the experience of soaking up the texture of it.  Where repeated viewings of the Prequels seemed to only amplify the tremendous weaknesses in script, performance, story and directing, multiple viewings of The Force Awakens manage to generate increasing goodwill.  There hits a point of acceptance of any flaws, favor curried by the good time and pleasing stimulation it provides.