Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The Family Curse
The Emperor's New Clothes

No, really, it's quite good. Why wouldn't it be? It's Star Wars with a new cast...with the added nostalgia of the old cast. J.J. Abrams did this before with the re-boot of Star Trek,* and he's pulled off the same Jedi mind-trick here (and remember that those work on the weak-minded or the slavishly fannish), but the end-result is very entertaining and frequently moving (as I am also slavishly fannish—I cut the original trilogy a lot of slack and acknowledge it for taking a lot of story-telling risks, even if they weren't communicated in the best manner).

But, it is basically the same story as the first movie or, as it's known now, Episode IV. We start on a desert planet but it's not Tatooine. We have more "vital information" loaded upon another droid. We have a multi-tiered battle over a large battle station but it's not The Death Star. We have The Force (in various shades). We have a hero who abandons their dull hard-scrabble life for a hero's path. We have a mystical guide. And a not so mystical mentor (in fact, it's the same guy). We have a bad guy with bad history. And we have family drama and sacrifice. And droids and creatures. A restaurant scene, not a bar scene. But, it's Star Wars all over again. One expects a bit more than a simple re-hash. There are, however, some aspects where it improves things.
It's a politically correct Star Wars. A riskier Star Wars. A Star Wars that shows some progress. It's not a Star Wars from a white kid from the 60's with good intentions. This Star Wars is a bit more inclusive. And I like that. It's natural for a galaxy of such bio-diversity (which has been one of the series' charms from the beginning) to not quite be so "white-boy"-centric—the last vestiges of its creator's 1950's origins are packed away as if from "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." There's room for girls who don't necessarily want to be princesses. There's room for a storm-trooper who's not so weak-minded so that he rebels from the evil work he's become a part of.** But it's still a sci-fi-fantasy/fairy-tale polyglot of good intentions and evil desires; Grimm by way of Campbell. And Tolkien. And Herbert. And westerns. And Kurosawa

And Lucas.
Abrams has kept the blast doors so solidly sealed on the details that to reveal anything beyond what has been seen in trailers WOULD spoil things—because it's so familiar. Not much has changed in the 30 years since The Return of the Jedi. It is a dark time for the galaxy...again. Space is just not big enough for there to be harmony. There is still a schism in the scheme of things. The Empire hasn't completely died out with the death of Emperor Palpatine. A new order called The New Order led by another Force Lord named Snoke (played by Andy Serkis with a large holographic presence) is ostensibly in charge, but the commanders (like General Hux played by Domhnall Gleeson) are in charge of operations creating terror through the galaxy with another Doomsday Weapon (the name of which is culled from an old Star Wars draft).
A rebel pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is on a secret mission to try and find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, of course), the last Jedi Knight who has gone missing, which is something of interest to both warring factions; the Order, to do something bad with him (it's never explained exactly what) and the Rebels, because he is the brother of their General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, also, of course). Something's up and where Luke fits into it all is a mystery. Abrams keeps things very vague. There are a lot of missing pieces throughout the movie, but as this is planned to be a trilogy, I'm sure we'll find out who's related to whom in the next one, and the third one will have another Doomsday Machine (as that's how the pattern seems to be again). This is merely the set-up for the story. The story will come a bit later.
It is amazing to see an actor of Oscar Isaac's gifts committing so fully to the Star Wars world.
Dameron gets what he's looking for, but, due to an Order attack, he secretes the information vital to the Rebellion in his R-2 unit...no, sorry, it's the BB-8, a rolling droid that gathers no moss, but does gather a lot of interest from the bad guys. The wandering droid falls into the possession of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a nomadic scavenger of useful parts from hulks of Imperial flotsam of past wars littering the landscape of the desert planet of Jakku. Not Jakée. Jakku.
Rather than sell the little guy, she keeps him, and that puts her right in the cross-hairs when the Imperials come looking for it. She is joined in the escape by another character with interests in running away from the Order, Finn (or FN-2187 played by John Boyega), a former storm-trooper who, in a moment of conscience, has his own personal rebellion and has helped Dameron escape to the planet. Together, Rey and Finn must find out the mystery hidden in BB-8, while keeping under the Imperial radar.
Sound familiar? It should. But, even with the template cemented firmly in place, to go beyond what is said already will just spoil the joys that TFA does offer. And they are considerable. Familiar, but considerable. Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark and writer-director of a lot of fine non-genre pictures) know what worked with the other films, and what didn't work and they cherry-pick the ones that have that comfort-food level. Things are contrasted between the high-tech functioning First Order and the dusty, held together by Hutt-spit and restraining bolts cast-offs used by the rebellers. Nothing ever fails for the bad guys; things have to be jerry-rigged by the good-guys...or they depend on Faith...or The Force. All of the Vietnam metaphors of the Lucas' vision still remain 30 years after the fact.
And that's just it—it's Lucas' vision. The series became a hit, then a phenomenon and Lucas futzed with it, trying to make it "just so," with digital effects, fewer ambiguities in morals (like Han shooting first) and a tortured consistency that was unnecessary when his "Star Wars" was just a scruffy independent film that stuck out like a bantha in the desert of glossy but deficient Hollywood product (those of us from "the old times" remember that the only reason theaters were "forced" to take "Star Wars" in 1977 was so they could get a lock on the Holiday release of The Other Side of Midnight—which eventually went begging for theater screens because Star Wars was still playing on them...six months later).
Different planet/same vision.
What Abrams brings to the party is the same thing he brought to the re-booted Star Trek: energy. Cameras are not so locked down. Now they swoop and glide and dance around everything, but at least with an identifiable dramatic editing logic that keeps events and relationships tied together, making them discernible even in the most vertiginous circumstances. A little of that goes a long way, but the movement allows the movie to breathe a little and seem less static than the Lucas versions.
And here's where I come in: unlike initial reviews, I don't see this as the Second Coming of Star Wars. There are flaws galore for those who want to see them. The script is not much—a watered down wine in the old bottle, albeit played with energy by both newbies and veterans. Casting is an Abrams strength—he pulled off a miracle with the new Star Trek cast—and the new SW performers are a joy to watch and they do more than the scripts warrants in establishing the new characters. Daisy Ridley has the necessary pluck and a good set to the jaw when she's determined, but we really never know who she is, and why she's so good at what she does in the film is left a mystery. A really big one. John Boyega is terrific as the renegade storm-trooper Finn and he makes the most of some of the funnier lines in the film just by his own agitated reactions to the situation he finds himself in. Oscar Isaac is one of our best actors these days, and one of the joys of The Force Awakens is seeing him commit so fully to the theatricality the Star Wars Universe demands of its actors. It ain't method acting—it's "story-book" acting where you have to walk the tight-rope of being just a little over-the-top, but not being camp.
No "Trekkian" lens flares this time. But Abrams is awfully fond of rooster-tails here.
That's the good guys. The bad guys are a bit...un-formed for now. Chief of them is Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis), who is only seen as an elephantine hologram image. Why he's important other than a figurehead is not known. The "Governor Tarkin" of this one is General Hux (Gleason), who seems practical, even though he's still imperially dumb enough to put all his eggs in one Death-star (they're in the future, why does everybody have to LIVE on the Galaxy's most powerful weapon so it's easy to take everybody out by blowing it up—have we learned NOTHING in 30 years?)
Then, there's the Chief Bad Guy, even though not in status. That would be Kylo Ren, the mystical arm of The First Order, who yields that Excaliburian light-saber, and who holds a "deep, dark secret." It's certainly not pent-up rage, as he tends to make a light-sabered mess of any room he has a hissy fit in. And he has them whenever something doesn't quite go his way. He's a "kill-the-messenger" kinda guy. Played by Adam Driver (in a way you wish Hayden Christensen had played Anakin Skywalker), his is the most interesting story in the film, much as Darth Vader's was in the rest of the movies. Funny how it's always the bad guys...
But the big draw for film-goers is the "old guard:" Hamill's Luke Skywalker is barely in the movie (he's not even on the posters), and Carrie Fisher**** has a bit of screen-time, though not much. It's Harrison Ford's movie, as he steps back into the Han Solo role that endeared him to so many fans. He's a bit more genuinely "scruffy-looking" than previously, and he wobbles a lot when he runs, but it's the story of Han Solo that's the most intriguing instance in the movie—not so much for what he's doing now (he's back to smuggling because...well, that's part of the story that should be kept secret)—but for what he's become. The script and role in it must have meant enough to Ford that he plays it fairly straight—he was doing a lot of exaggerated mugging when last we saw him in Jedi—he didn't really want to be there, and had actually asked that Han be killed off in Episode VI. He was politely refused. But, he came back for this one, probably because apart from Rey and Finn, it's his story, with a natural continuation to his character. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the smart-alecky rogue of the first film should become something of a fair-weather father. But, there is one major change. Throughout the trilogy, Han Solo was the Doubting Thomas in regards to "The Force." Here, Abrams gives him one of his strongest close-up's in the film when he admits to being a living witness*** (and it's done at approximately the same location on the Millennium Falcon).
"It's true. All of it. The Force. The Jedi. They're real."

Han, we hardly knew ye. Ultimately where you land on The Force Awakens depends on what you think constitutes a "good" Star Wars film. The movie is no good without your prejudices (the opposite from how you'd approach a new and wholly original film, with no preconceived notions). Just the way fans of the James Bond films will argue who's a better Bond—the rough ones or the male-model ones—or where in the film "the gunbarrel" should go, or what tone the film should adapt (very serious or jokey, Skyfall or SPECTRE?), it all depends on the one you saw first, or the one you associate most with the series. Do you see the Star Wars series as "kids' films," the way Lucas envisioned his "Flash Gordon with dirt" or do you want them without an ounce of cute—A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back
For me, I can see why people like The Force Awakens—and why the initial reviews were so rapturous. It IS entertaining, on the flashy surface level. It zips and zooms the way you thought the old movies did, but now when you look at them, you wonder "why is it so slow?" Memory is its own Jedi mind-trick. But this new one held no surprises for me. I'd seen this movie, but with a different cast, and back then, it was totally new. Now, it's a 40 million dollar business holding, and the investors are going to take the safest route by providing what they think their property is and guessing that's what its target audience wants. The result, unfortunately, will be the same path that Marvel takes, by doing their best work on new assets but coasting on what is already established as crowd-pleasers. The difference is "Star Wars" is a very small Universe, built on recycled materials that are already familiar. There are other stories to tell given the foundation of the fantasy landscape that Lucas established. But, given all the toiling done on The Force Awakens, it seems they will only scrape the surface, eroding what was once fertile ground. The result will be more desert planets, and as one of the characters said of his in the first film, it will be farthest from the brightest spots of its potential.
* Despite overhauling the look, feel, and cast of Star Trek, Abrams still felt the need to include the sentimental favorite from TOS—Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock.
** The storm-trooper are still problematically disposable, falling over like the white ten-pins they resemble.
*** Of course, a lot of the waggish fan-boys had a field day with that line...

**** Fisher—as always—had the best line about doing another Star Wars movie thirty years later: "Oh, it was just the same, only we're a lot meltier." That's right up there with my favorite shot of hers at Lucas' merchandising: "Every time I look in the mirror I owe George a quarter!"

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