Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

It is a dark time for the Rebellion (even if they aren't called the Rebellion anymore). The rise of a military force known as the First Order, built on the wreckage of the old Empire, is making the galaxy a very dangerous place for everyone's favorite galactic heroes in a galaxy far, far away.

After waiting 32 years to see Luke Skywalker's (Mark Hamill) name appear in a Star Wars crawl the wait is finally over. Since 1983 we've gotten several different Star Wars cartoons, three (much maligned) prequels, an endless steam of merchandise, countless comic books and novels, and the sell of the franchise by George Lucas to Disney. The Force Awakens marks the first big project not overseen by Lucas with a storyline that diverges largely from the Star Wars Expanded Universe while playing on similar themes longtime fans are sure to recognize. Returning to what made the original trilogy so successful, director J.J. Abrams offers us a practical lived-in galaxy strewn with the wreckage of the Empire's epic battles with the Rebellion.

Giving us a mix of the original and new cast while focusing the storyline on a new generation of Rebels, now called the Resistance (although if they are supporting the legitimate galactic government I'm not sure "Resistance" is the right name for them), the new film continues the battle of light and dark, good and evil, from the original Star Wars trilogy. The events of the first half-hour of the movie introduce us to an orphaned scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), a troubled Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), and the Resistance's best pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his charming droid BB-8 (who, in Star Wars tradition, is as human as any character in the film). As these characters come into each other's alignment a series of events is put into motion, an "awakening" if you will, that the movie's villains are determined to stop.

The young cast carries the film with Ridley being the standout. Rey is a hero for a new generation of Star Wars fans. I can't wait to see her arc continue over the next two films. And I have to say congratulations for Disney making excellent use of the trailers of the film to tease and even misdirect audiences about the the true roles of each character in the new series. Of the familiar faces returning to the franchise Han Solo (Harrison Ford) gets by far the most screentime but rest assured we will get to see Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke as well along with a Wookie, a pair of familiar droids, and one or two surprise cameos I won't spoil here.

With several nods to the original movie and trilogy, Abrams captures the feel of the old movies even if he can't quite re-bottle and sustain their full magic. I found myself tearing up more than once over the 136-minute running time, and talking afterwards with others who attended the same screening I wasn't the only one. The Force Awakens feeds a yearning for those of us who grew up with the original Star Wars films but offers more than just repackaged nostalgia. Abrams and his team deliver a familiar story with both old and new characters while putting their own spin to successfully kick-off a new trilogy of Star Wars films.

The movie, however, is now without its problems. It's most obvious weakness is in its villains who, despite looking cool on camera, are a far cry from the iconic villainy of Darth Vader. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has some strong scenes at the beginning of the film, but he's a conflicted character who only becomes more of a whiny bitch after he loses his mask and his true identity is revealed. By the end of the movie we know almost nothing more about Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), other than the fact he's filling the Emperor's place in the new trilogy in the same nebulous way the character was used and referred to in the first two Star Wars films. And while the mirrored Stormtrooper armor of Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is visually appealing, the character is pretty much superfluous to the plot.

And if the plot of the movie seems familiar, it is. Very much so. Borrowing at least as much from the original Star Wars as Return of the Jedi did I think Abrams and company could have taken a few more chances, but I understand playing things ultra-safe while attempting to bring fans dissatisfied with the prequels back to the franchise and get them on-board for an entire new series of movies.

The script meanders a bit more than I'd like in spots and could use a little of Lucas' old "faster, more intense" philosophy, but The Force Awakens does its share of heavy lifting in introducing a slew of new characters, incorporating old friends, and setting up the pieces of a storyline which it will take two additional movies to properly finish. The film has an extended ending sequence reminiscent of Return of the King which I'll forgive despite concerns. Reaching a more natural end point 10 minutes earlier (and another one 3 mintues after that), the film continues allowing Abrams to set-up the sequel. It's obviously stretched and more than a little awkward, but I'm willing to forgive the sequence quite a lot when it gives me the money shot I'd be waiting two-hours for. (And I'm definitely not giving that scene away.)

Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens the movie I've been waiting three decades for? Does it measure up to the original Star Wars? No, but that's an impossibly high standard to hold any sequel to. The latest film goes back to the drawing board, admittedly playing things a bit safe in terms of plot devices and the scripting of the basic hero's journey, while offering a strong mix of practical and tangible special effects to go along with its use of CGI. The result is a more lived-in world than we got in the prequels with characters who provide an emotional resonance to both each other and the audience. And you can relax, there's no Jar Jar anywhere to be seen.

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