Friday, December 18, 2015

A spoiler-free review of THE FORCE AWAKENS

A note about this review - I have endeavored to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. I'll have another post next week dealing with more specific discussion of major elements that I don't think it would be fair to blow for unsuspecting viewers. If you've watched the trailers and maybe seen a bit of the press tour, I won't be revealing much here that you don't know. For another post where I drill into the specifics of the big twists, what worked and what didn't, come back next week.

THE FORCE AWAKENS is the STAR WARS movie I've been waiting for since I first watched RETURN OF THE JEDI on VHS. It's not a perfect film, but it feels like more of a piece with the STAR WARS universe than much of the prequels, and I'm hardly a prequel hater. It doesn't feel slavishly devoted to the filmmaking style of the original trilogy, but still plays like an evolution forward from that theory. This is a tactile universe in a way that the prequel universe isn't. I'm able to appreciate the aesthetic design of the prequels on their own merits. That whole venture is different enough I don't feel the need to tear it down for NOT trying to look exactly like the originals.

But man, does THE FORCE AWAKENS feel like coming home. Things have changed, some things are very different, but you recognize the feel of this world - the way things move through it, the way the people inhabit it. It's kinetic. It's REAL. All of it.

A particularly savvy move on the part of JJ Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt is to build this film around the quest for a living legend - Luke Skywalker has been gone for some time now. Exactly how long is unclear. Evidence in the film seems to hint with as long as 15 years or as little as a few. In the time since JEDI, the fall of the Empire has given birth to two warring factions - the Republic, which backs The Resistance, the current designation for the Rebellion; and The First Order. All you need to know about The First Order is that they're the Imperials, and that the Nazi parallels get even less subtle.

In the 30-plus years since the Empire's defeat, the name "Luke Skywalker" has passed into legend. Even a young woman raised on the backwater desert world of Jakku and a man trained from childhood to be a Stormtrooper know who he is. The former is Rey, a beautiful scavenger who also happens to be an excellent pilot and a great combat fighter. She's thrust into a larger world after encountering the droid BB-8, carrying some secret data that the Empire wants - a map to Luke Skywalker. She soon crosses paths with Finn, a deserter Stormtrooper now being hunted after helping BB-8's master escape The First Order. Before long, the two make their escape in a craft that Rey initially dismisses as "garbage" - the Millennium Falcon.

Abrams talent for casting continues with Rey and Finn. The unknown Daisy Ridley is instantly likable and engaging as Rey. She not only stands with the best of Abrams's heroines, but with the STAR WARS gold standard of Princess Leia herself. She's got the spitfire and the pure likability that too often was missing from the prequels' Padme. The childhood crushes that my generation had on Princess Leia are probably nothing compared to what today's lads will have for Rey. By the end of the film, she's essentially been positioned as the successor to Han, Luke and Leia in terms of the character traits she's inherited. She's a child of the original trilogy, in a figurative, if not literal sense.

John Boyega's Finn makes a compelling sidekick for Rey, and his introduction is done so well that you're almost tricked into thinking it's his journey that we're on. After six films that depicted Stormtroopers as either clones or faceless cannon fodder, it's immediately fresh to go behind the helmet of these drones and find a scared young man who just wants to run. When he saves ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, it's not out of any heroic motivations - he just needs a pilot to get him off the... are we still calling them Star Destroyers? He gets a journey similar to Han's in the first film, going from being in it for himself to committing to something greater.

One of the sheer delights of this film is that I wasn't sitting there restless, waiting for the reappearance of the "legacy characters." I got so caught up in the plight of Rey, Finn and BB-8 that I felt like they were the people I came to see. They could have carried a film that had nothing to do with the original characters. If they are indeed to be the centerpiece of this new trilogy, then this series is in good hands.

Before long, they encounter Han Solo and Chewbacca. In one of the film's best gags, Finn knows of Han's rep as a general for the Rebellion, while Rey excitedly identifies him as "the pilot who made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs!" Harrison Ford slides back into Han's boots in a way that I honestly wasn't sure was possible. His last several roles have seen him play alternating variations on "gruff" and "angry." Even his return to Indiana Jones couldn't escape that, with Indy frequently feeling like a far cry from the rogue archeologist we all know and love.

From Ford's first entry into frame, it's clear - this is Han Solo. He's older, and more grizzled, but his heart's intact. His interaction with Chewie feels as sharp as ever, just as his moments with Leia are as moving as some of their best stuff. Ford and Carrie Fisher bring the weight of 40 years of history into their interactions, even if her role is more limited than his. It's probably fair to say that Han has one of the more emotional arcs of the film, perhaps even more than the character has been called to carry in earlier entries.

And yet, the film doesn't feel like it lazily trades on our nostalgia. The movie earns most of its emotional payoffs, though they are clearly enriched by the shared history we have in this universe. It's even more remarkable that it's able to do that while essentially retreading a lot of the beats of A NEW HOPE. (Or STAR WARS to the purists.) I thought it was a lazy and inaccurate criticism when people called Abrams's STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS "a remake of THE WRATH OF KHAN." Those two films have little in common aside from a villain, an aspect of the climax, and an important line. The plot, themes and character arcs are completely different between the two films.

But THE FORCE AWAKENS is very deliberately using the structure of the original film in a way that brings it much closer to that entry than the relationship between KHAN/DARKNESS. A great deal is gained by sending wildly different characters through that same structural path, but it doesn't change the fact that every major new element of this film has a direct analog to the original characters. This isn't necessarily a criticism - CREED (and ROCKY BALBOA before it) used this to excellent effect in drawing off of the original ROCKY. And sometimes the contrast lets us notice interesting departures.

This might be most relevant with regard to the film's major villains, Kylo Ren. I'll save some of my deeper thoughts on this for a future spoiler-filled article, but though he wears the black cloak and helmet, he's not Darth Vader. Vader was a very controlled, almost cold villain. When Obi-Wan assessed "He's more machine now than man" it was true in more ways than one. Yet, that seems to fly in the face of the prequel assertion that the Sith "are ruled by their passion."

There's a moment where Ren gets a report from a First Order officer who has failed him. The beat plays like we're about to get the standard "bad guy strangles lackey for his incompetence" moment. That's not what we get. Instead, Ren gives in to pure rage. In a way it makes him more terrifying than Vader because he's so unpredictable. It's hard to discuss too much about Ren without getting into plot details. I think it'll suffice to say that by the end of this film, I never wanted Vader dead as badly as I want Ren to meet an ugly end. Adam Driver has created an infinitely hatable badguy in all the right ways.

It's not perfect. There's at least one major parallel to A NEW HOPE that I think the film would have been better served without. There's also an incredible reliance on coincidence throughout the story. I could grant the first big one, accepted the second, but by the time it comes for a major buy-in about halfway through, I wouldn't blame the audience for balking at that convenience. I wish a couple major plot discoveries didn't feel too easy for our heroes. The film moves fast enough that we can roll with it, but when you reflect on the movie later, the contrivance stings a bit.

I attended with my wife, who said she liked it but felt she'd been overhyped to the point that many things, even the crowd reaction, felt like a letdown. She's not a STAR WARS fan, has only seen each film once, and one of her most immediate responses was "I felt like I knew where every twist was going before it happened." I can't argue with a lot of that. For me, there were a lot of points where knowing worked for me, as the anticipation built suspense. There was one scene where it was blatantly obvious where we were going, but my heart was pounding like it did in no other film this year, just the same.

It all comes down to the characters. After two hours, I not only cared about the old friends we revisited along the way, but was invested in many new faces. THE FORCE AWAKENS brought humanity back to STAR WARS, and I can't wait to see where the saga goes forward from here.

1 comment:

  1. Seen it twice already... and will be seeing it many more times.

    Forget it's "Star Wars" for moment. There's some truly stunning moments, breathtaking shots and deft character work going on here. And probably some of the best performances in any SW film.

    "Empire Strikes Back" was the first movie I saw in the cinema when I was five years-old.* A few rows back, there were a bunch of parents with their kids about the same age. Kids being kids, they talked all through the movie.

    Normally that would drive me nuts. But hearing the excitement in their voices... oh man, it was like a flashback to 1980 and me watching ESB. One loud little tacker even called out a BIG moment.

    Abrams, Kasdan, Arndt & co. have made a great film that wins back the trust of old fans and appeals to a new generation.

    And that's probably TFA's greatest achievement.

    Can't wait to see it again. I'm taking all my nephews and nieces and great nephews and nieces. There's over twenty of them, so I've got legit reason/excuse to see TFA again and again.

    Not that I needed one...

    *Technically, "Star Trek" was the first movie I went to see in the cinema. But I fell asleep inside five minutes. So yeah, it doesn't really count.