Sunday, January 10, 2016

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Picture me in 1999. The Phantom Menace is coming out and I’m so pumped. Everyone is. The world holds its breath. I refuse to believe the long, bitter Newsweek review which savagely disses the film, pointing out a litany of flaws we now know by heart, from Jar Jar to “Yippeeee!” It’s a new Star Wars movie made by George Lucas. It can’t suck. It can’t. My youthful, desperate enthusiasm lasts through multiple viewings of The Phantom Menace, and over the next six years, I dutifully plunk my butt down in theater seats to suffer through Episodes II and III. Maybe this one will be good. Maybe this one. Our cultural adoration of Star Wars fueled us through the prequels, but by the end, we were wrung out and left to dry. At least we’d have the original trilogy, if Lucas could stop fucking tinkering with it. But the thought of any more Star Wars movies left a queasy taste in our mouths.

Then Disney bought the world.

So here we are. A Star Wars film for the age of cynicism. The age of nitpicky social media. The age of ginormous cinematic universes, which probably wouldn’t exist without Lucas’s original trilogy. Star Wars is back, to be placed under a suspicious lens. Disney, who we still vaguely associate with princesses and cartoons? J.J. Abrams, who either saved or spat upon the Star Trek brand, depending on who you ask? Can the gee-whiz freshness of A New Hope be replicated in 2015? Well, no, not really. Those who expect such will not embrace The Force Awakens. As the credits rolled, a stranger sitting near me and my boyfriend loudly honked, “Pretty mediocre, huh?” while staring at us in the hope of instant validation. But here’s the thing. When I heard new Star Wars movies were on the way, I was kind of amused, cautiously enthusiastic, only mildly excited. But as the release date drew near (and then passed, because no way am I battling opening night hordes), my eagerness grew to encompass much of my waking thought. I was that excited kid all over again. There is nothing, nothing, like seeing those legendary words appear on the screen -- “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away...” -- followed by the brassy explosion of John William’s score and the trapezoids of school-bus-yellow text ascending against a curtain of stars. Star Wars is just that big in our minds, and may it always be so.

The plot? Do I really need to get into it? You’ve already seen The Force Awakens, or you’re never going to, or you still live in dread of spoilers. Besides, we’ve all heard the one huge criticism: it’s just A New Hope all over again. No point in disagreeing. The parallels between the first Star Wars film and this one are continuous, blatant, and impossible to ignore. But they don’t particularly diminish the sheer entertainment, and I can see what Abrams and his team were up to. They needed to prove they could make a Star Wars film, period, so they made one we’d all recognize. The Force Awakens is just so eager, bursting with endorphins at its own existence. It moves at breakneck pace, sprinting from one action scene and character introduction to the next. Too fast, in my opinion. I missed the quiet, focused moments from the originals. On the other hand, remember the infamous politicking of the prequels, the dreary dialogue spew, the endless reiteration of the same fucking plot points? The Force Awakens likes to show rather than tell. There’s still an Empire, still a Rebellion (they just have different names), and decades after the “victory” in Return of the Jedi, nothing has improved. Hell, it’s gotten worse: the galaxy exists in fractured factions and most people barely remember. The wishy-washy “Republic” exists offscreen somewhere, and (SPOILER ALERT) is wiped out with barely a sniffle. In other words, the sedate, passive world of the prequels, with its endless marble columns and sleepwalking bureaucrats, is over forever. Raise a glass.

The heroes and villains of The Force Awakens are defined, not by their backstories (which are mostly mysterious, to be unpacked in later films), but by their immediate actions. And it works, because the actors catapult themselves into their roles with the exuberance of...well, of someone who was cast in a Star Wars film. Luke, Han, and Leia (not to mention Chewie, Artoo, Threepio, and even Admiral Ackbar) are as beloved as ever, but they don’t hog the spotlight. They’ve become the mentors, the wise ones, the torch-passers. The galaxy’s new generation is personified by fierce desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and AWOL Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), who also represent the cultural paradigm shift that has so many idiots terrified. Yeah, the main protagonist of a Star Wars film is a woman, the secondary hero is black, and these two facts are utterly beside the point. Ridley and Boyega weren’t cast because of their race/gender, as part of some sinister politically-correct conspiracy, but in blindness to it. Already, we can’t imagine anyone else in these roles, can we?

The film is refreshing in how it shakes off the rust of ancient film stereotypes. Rey and Finn reach the point where they’d die for each other, but there is no hint of romance between them. Rey is never made to play second fiddle to a dude (there’s an early running gag where Finn thinks Rey needs rescuing, and is wrong over and over). The film opens with the introduction of a “traditional” hero, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), but then gives him the boot so Finn and Rey can take over. When Finn lied to Rey about his identity, I rolled my eyes, figuring there’d be a later bit where Finn was exposed, Rey tearfully banished him from her sight, and they reconciled for the climax. Not so! Finn tells her the truth, and she understands and forgives him. In the midst of sci-fi craziness, they face a problem like real adults and not the pawns of a lazy screenwriter. Meanwhile, Adam Driver gives a very interesting performance as corrupted dark knight Kylo Ren. Surrounded by more archetypal villains (the implacable officer, the frothing-at-the-mouth general, the cryptic overlord), Kylo Ren is a cauldron of confused emotions, hero-worshipping Darth Vader but unable to tap into that same level of cold, easy cruelty. He’s an uncertain villain (I can’t say more without major spoilers) and that’s what makes him riveting.

The action of The Force Awakens is never subpar, as our heroes and baddies chase each other through the usual series of weirdly homogeneous planets (this time around, the sequence is desert/forest/snow). It can’t entirely avoid the J.J. Abrams effect. Abrams likes to include action that ignores all logic and spatial physics. Remember the ridiculous train crash in Super 8? Similar over-the-top set pieces occur here, most notably a dorky bit with angry tentacle monsters. Abrams also has a knack for the glaring plot hole. Explain to me how Finn, a Stormtrooper from infancy, trained and conditioned all his life to have no emotion and robotically follow orders, can go AWOL at the drop of a hat. Explain how the Republic has learned jack-shit from past experience and utilizes an ill-equipped guerilla force instead of, y’know, a MILITARY. Or how entire planets are reduced to the single square mile where all the characters find themselves. But, y’know, the original trilogy was no more logical or coherent. Like I always say, Star Wars isn’t really science fiction -- it’s fantasy that happens to be set in space. And if Leia can get over the destruction of her home planet so quickly, I guess the cool-looking, throwaway “tragedies” in a J.J. Abrams movie are no more sinful. The personal tragedies still hit home. I had the Big Shocker spoiled in advance thanks to internet trolls, but it still got to me. As Big Shockers go, it wasn’t too surprising when taken in the on- and off-camera context. But its Big Shocker shockwaves will reverberate through Episodes VIII and IX.

Ahh, yes, the next two. How I ache for them already. The Force Awakens is not life-changing. It doesn’t redefine Star Wars. But did we really want it to? I’d wondered if they would try adapting something from the Expanded Universe of books, comics, and games, which covers many decades following Return of the Jedi. Did I want to see Star Wars movies based on stories that already existed? By tossing out the EU, Disney may have pissed off the religious fans, but anything would have pissed off the religious fans. They complain that The Force Awakens cribs most of its plot from A New Hope, but if it had gone in a drastically different direction, they would have whinged equally hard. They have their pedestal and they’re going to stand on it. Taken in the context of modern blockbusters, The Force Awakens is terrific entertainment, well-acted and exciting, funny and poignant and never too arch. The biggest franchise in American history is in capable hands, which is more than we could have hoped for, admit it.

We would have accepted “better than the prequels” and left it at that. But the new era of Star Wars films isn’t content to settle for less. They want to show us how many more stars remain in that galaxy far far away, and how our enthusiasm will always be unsullied. The prequels couldn’t kill Star Wars; it rises from the ashes. Mediocre, my ass. Let’s take this journey.

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