Monday, January 4, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

By this point, you've read enough about, and hidden from enough spoilers about, the new Star Wars movie, that I barely need to make an introduction. For a bit of background shading on my own history of Star Wars - because, really, this is one of those cultural touchstones that everyone's personal experience colors a bit - I grew up around the time the prequels were coming out, and by extension, I fondly remember watching old VHS rental and borrowed copies of the originals on my parents' living room TV and just letting the day bleed away as I marathoned the whole trilogy. That was a part of my childhood, which I lovingly returned the favor to by never watching them again for about 15 years. Which, eh, sounds kind of cold when I put it that way.

But I did see the original trilogy again recently, and I liked it. They're simple, fun, fast, unpretentious adventure films. I didn't really expect much out of The Force Awakens except a safe nostalgia cash-in, but I gotta say I was pleasantly surprised. I actually really enjoyed this movie.


Not to say that was a great feat of storytelling from director J.J. Abrams. He obviously intended to recreate the exact feel, style, temperament and storytelling devices that the original Star Wars used. This was a labor of love for him, though like I've been saying for months: Abrams couldn't mess this up. We were bound to get something like this, something so imitative and throwback-y, because if Abrams messed with the formula too much, he would be the most hated man in the world.

What surprised me was how well done it was for all of that. This was a seriously enjoyable, fun ride that didn't feel at all like 2.5 hours had gone by when I finally walked out of the theater at the end credits. Far from just using the surface aesthetics and some similar locations and plot devices, Abrams kept to the tenets of what George Lucas and company did back in 1977 on a deeper level. He made a fast, fun adventure, sometimes light on explanation and which worked on its simple emotional pull and explosive action scenes. That could be done at any time, but the feel is genuinely the same, which I don't think was as easy. It's got the same rugged, sort of dirty feel to a lot of it, and the same sense of wonder, yearning and adventure. It would have been easy to throw together a plastic commercial vehicle, but you can tell Abrams loved Star Wars and wanted to make something good.

For the first time in decades, you like these new Star Wars characters. Daisy Ridley as desert scavenger chick Rey is feisty and charming, and John Boyega will win your heart instantly as the bumbling, sometimes cowardly, but ultimately good hearted Finn. Both of these characters have distinct personalities and you want to see them evolve and change, like the characters from the originals. Perhaps the old Star Wars films felt a bit dirtier and grittier, a bit less cutesy with the characters' dialogue, but it's a minor nitpick and I found myself really enjoying these characters anyway.

The way you're drawn into the characters through simple, quick exposition in the middle of great action scenes is so basic, but it works. The fact that this seems so fresh to me now says a lot for the quality of other recent action films. And as an added bonus, we finally have new, cool characters and we don't know what will happen to them later. That's sad that I'm that excited about that. But fucking seriously. With all the Marvel movies being based on existing comic book stories, and films like the Hunger Games trilogy being set in stone from the novels, it's refreshing to have a new set of characters to follow. This is especially better than any prequel about an existing pop culture character. Can you get any shittier and less interesting than that? I don't think so.

The fact that Rey and Finn spend so much time in hushed awe of Luke Skywalker, speaking of him like he's a myth, and Han Solo, is telling - this is the first Star Wars film in so many years, and by having dialogue like that, the movie is letting us know that they have the spirit of the originals in mind and are taking them seriously - reverently, even. The fact that the movie does feel like the old ones affirms that.

Kylo Ren's tantrums and slavish worship of his grandfather Darth Vader, as well, could be seen as a look at the dangers of idolatry. He's a total entitled little douche, and he desperately wants to be as cool as Darth Vader, to claim some throne ages old that he never got to see. Sorta like fans get angry at Star Wars and other science fiction worlds, as some sort of futile way to attempt a power grab in their own lives. It's all rather symbolic. All of this stuff is obviously looking too far into things, but it's fun to think about anyway.

It was so good to see Han Solo and Chewbacca again, too. And Leia. And C-3PO. Carrie Fisher isn't given many good lines or room to stretch her acting chops, but watching Harrison Ford play Han again is like magic, and Chewbacca is also extremely enjoyable to watch.

Plot-wise, it's pretty similar to the 1977 original - an evil empire is searching for a droid, which falls into the hand of an unsuspecting chosen one on a desert planet. The settings are obviously retro homages to the ones from the original, right down to the Tatooine-like desert planet and the mechanical hell of a new Death Star. If that bothers you, well, I guess it bothers you.  People will raise problems and nitpick this, for sure. The plot is pretty convenient in a lot of places just to move it along, the story isn't particularly fresh or deep, and there are some points where it glazes over things or blatantly panders to the audience who loved the original.

But honestly, none of that mattered to me when I was watching this. For one, pandering to fans who loved the original is basically what we wanted. Let's not kid ourselves. If this had been anything like the prequels, or changed in some shitty way, we would have hated it. And all the conveniences and parts where things are explained too fast or not well enough - all that stuff was basically how the originals handled it, so it's not like I can come down on this one too hard for it. The originals were never exactly masters of elucidation.

(I know some people wanted the Extended Universe, but ssshhhhhhh.)

And really, the point of the movie was to get you caught up in the sweeping adventure and thrill of it all. That's what a movie like this is supposed to do. It was masterfully crafted in that way. I was entertained, and I didn't think about any of the movie's flaws or minor problems until after I had left the theater. That's the difference between a good movie and a bad one - suspension of disbelief. In a bad movie, you're taken out of the story by the plotholes. In a good movie, you don't notice any flaws until afterwards when you're actually thinking about it and dissecting it.

Originality is overrated. People who want every idea to be new and different are crazy. There's something to be said when there IS a great, fresh new idea for a story that nobody else has told before. But we've been making movies for 100 years, and telling stories to each other long before that. If your whole opinion of a movie is based on how original it is, you're not going to be easily satisfied and I think it's just needless nitpicking. I think there is room for a good story even if it's been done before. Execution matters. Spirit and attitude matter. Good, well written characters matter. The message matters. There's so much more to a movie than whether or not it's been "done before."

The Force Awakens works because it's a heartfelt, exciting action movie. The characters are wonderful and the world is expansive and engaging. I loved it and I want to see more films in this world again, which is as ringing an endorsement as there's likely to be.

Now, time for some spoilers!




SPOILERS

  • So Han Solo died, I guess. It was a good scene. His showdown with Kylo Ren is pretty chilling even though you know it won't end well - or, because of that, rather. There's so much being communicated in their eyes as they stare each other down, so much rage and love unsaid - it's a quite masterful display of acting, especially for a sci fi action movie like this. I hope future films have Ren expounding on this plot, maybe feeling a bit bad, or even just going even darker and telling us why he hated Han so much.
  • At the same time though, Harrison Ford has wanted them to kill Han Solo off ever since Empire Strikes Back in the early 80s. I'm glad he finally got his wish. I can picture how that conversation went with the producers. "PLEASE, KILL ME!" he pleaded. And they just sighed, threw up their hands, and said okay, we'll do it.
  • That whole Death Star/Starkiller or whatever it was called at the climax was kind of lame. How many times are they going to try to make a Death Star? At some point, it gets redundant and even crazy. "I'm sure it'll work THIS time, even though it has never worked before!"
  • The plotline about this map that leads to Luke at the first Jedi temple better be explained more later. It's kind of weird to have a map leading there that apparently no one can understand just because one piece is missing. Are they all just new to this part of the galaxy?
  • At the end, there is a moment when R2D2 finally wakes up and C3PO slaps him on the head. I wanted him to just go back to sleep. That woulda been funny.
  • Not much explanation for who the First Order is, or what they're trying to do aside from Kylo Ren and this Snoke character wanting that lightsaber. There should have probably been a bit more explanation of those things, even just a few lines.
  • The plot arc as a whole would have been better if it was more about Finn and Han and Chewie saving Rey from the First Order. They tried to shove in a lot of crap at the end about this giant Death Star thing blowing up a planet full of people we never see. It feels like they tried to do a bit much. A smaller scope would have served the movie better.
  • How cool is Finn's character arc? A Stormtrooper who grows a conscience and deflects from the First Order? Bad fucking ass. Rey, too, is immensely captivating. She's such a strong, cool character that you forget she's basically a very young woman who still has these hang-ups and wants to get home and wait for whoever abandoned her on that shithole desert planet. That's a simple arc but a powerful one.
  • It was bizarre how Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) survived. That ship crash landed on that planet and sank into the sand. Then later, you just see him flying around in another X-wing. It's like what happened is too horrible to describe and he never wants to speak of it again. It's OK man. We're here for you.
  • I can't believe "TRAITOR!!!" has become a meme. That wasn't what I expected.
  • The final shot was very good. Brief, but it would have ruined the whole thing if they changed even a second of it.