Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Note: I'm REALLY going to try to avoid major spoilers here, but if you want to go into this movie knowing absolutely nothing, you should probably stop reading now.

2015 has, for whatever reason, become the year of the Long-Awaited-Sequel-to-a-Flagging-But-Beloved-Franchise. This really could have been a bummer. As luck would have it, though, these sequels have by and large not only held their own, but have managed to be pretty great films in their own right.

The biggest of these, of course, is Star Wars: The Force Awakens — which could just have easily been called Star Wars: The Rescue of the Franchise. It's not the best; both Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed are, for my money, much better films (I'm holding onto my reviews of those for my end of the year list). 

But overall it's pretty damn successful. Director/co-writer J.J. Abrams had a pretty daunting task ahead of him — not only did he have to bring new energy and excitement to a nearly 40-year-old series, but he had to erase everyone's collective memory of the prequels in one fell swoop. He basically had to save Star Wars from itself ("itself" being George Lucas, of course). And, with The Force Awakens, he mostly does so.

I won't spend a lot of time on the setup, because at this point I think most everyone knows the broad outline. We pick up about thirty years after the Battle of Endor.  The Empire has broken up into what Abrams described as a banana republic-style successor called The First Order:

"That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again. What could be born of that? Could The First Order exist as a group that actually admired The Empire? Could the work of The Empire be seen as unfulfilled? And could Vader be a martyr?" — J.J. Abrams.

This is a pretty fantastic concept, rendering The First Order in some ways even scarier than the Empire because they're desperate. Unfortunately, Abrams doesn't quite do enough with that. It wasn't entirely clear to me that The First Order wasn't the Empire, and I don't know why the opposing force — led, of course, by Leia — is called "the Resistance" when they basically represent the existing government of the New Republic. But whatever. Moving on.

The film picks up on the desert planet of Jakku (it took me a little while to realize it wasn't Tatooine, which is entirely my fault because I was trying to put my jacket under my seat during the opening crawl), which — according to Wookieepedia (yep, that's a thing) — is where the last decisive battle of the previous war took place, and where the Empire was finally crushed for good. A hotshot Resistance pilot named Po Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) has been sent by Leia to recover... well, let's just say something Really Fucking Important. 

He hides this Really Fucking Important Thing in the body of his little droid friend, BB-8, just as a a legion of Stormtroopers descend — also looking for the Really Fucking Important Thing. A battle ensues, Po and BB-8 are separated, and one of the Stormtroopers, FN-2187 or "Finn" (John Boyega), is faced with a sudden crises of conscience.

BB-8 rolls off into the sandy wastes where he(?) meets a teenage scavenger of mysterious origin named Rey (Daisy Ridley). At first Rey wants nothing to do with the droid, but soon realizes that there's more to this little bleep-blooping metal beach ball than meets the eye.

I'll leave it there, other than to reiterate that, yes, most of the original gang at least makes an appearance. Han and Chewbacca get the most screen time, but all the old characters have at least a solid moment of fan service.

In general Abrams not only nails the tone of what makes the best entries in the franchise so special, but he's able to inject a genuinely fresh sensibility as well. Remarkably (after the debacle of the prequels) he gives us new characters that have the potential to be as indelibly iconic as the originals. Both Ridley and Boyega are fantastic. Finn has some of Han Solo's wit and swagger, but he's much more conflicted and unsure of himself, giving him a darker and more complicated edge that elicits some genuine audience sympathy. Rey has a bit of Luke's wide-eyed innocence, but she's much more hardy and self-sufficient than he was until at least Return of the Jedi, and she doesn't whine once. 

I'd seen and liked Boyega in 2011's Attack the Block, but Ridley was entirely new to me. I see online that some people are already dismissing her as a Keira Knightley clone, but that's really doing her a disservice. She and Boyega are both relative unknowns. But they bring real humanity to their characters, which is something that more than a few of the biggest actors in the world — Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, etc. — never could manage in the entire run of the prequels. 

The big revelation for me, though, is Adam Driver as chief villain Kylo Ren. I never much liked Driver before, (granted, I only really knew him from the few episodes of Girls I managed to sit through), but here he's absolutely chilling. The less said about Ren the better, but I'll posit that Driver has created a villain every bit as compelling as Darth Vader. We'll have to see what they do with him in the subsequent films, but I'm officially a fan now.  

None of this is to say that The Force Awakens is without its problems. As I said, I wish Abrams had done more to make The First Order feel distinct from the Empire. And frankly, as well made as the movie is (it's certainly more cinematic than anything in the series since The Empire Strikes Back), overall it's pretty predictable. Plotwise, it's basically a retread of A New Hope but with some of the roles mixed up and/or reversed. And for what it's worth, I saw the big "twist" coming about halfway through the second act. 

The most grievous misstep though — and I promise to tread lightly here — is what the movie does with the original characters. It's almost criminal how listlessly they're handled. I want to talk in vague terms here, but if you're looking forward to seeing the old sparks fly between Han and Leia... well, you're liable to be disappointed. 

The Force Awakens stands head and shoulders above the prequels, and I would say rivals A New Hope in the pantheon (I agree with everyone that Empire is the best, but I'm one of those weirdos who actually thinks Return of the Jedi is better than the first). I've never been a Star Wars fanboy to begin with, but this was the first movie in maybe twenty years to make me remember why people love this franchise so much. It revels in nostalgia but isn't a slave to it, and it opens the door to some exciting new possibilities moving forward. 

Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) will be taking over the franchise from Abrams for the next two films. I'm excited to see what he comes up with.

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