Sunday, December 20, 2015
Star Wars Watch: The Force Awakens (2015)
Due to the surge and servers blowing up, etc... when the pre-sale began, I didn't buy tickets for opening weekend of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). I was also deeply skeptical of another stab at the movies by a director for whom I have no particular affinity, and who has been involved with some things I thought were downright bad. In October I wrote a bit about trying to remain optimistic, but cautiously so. After all, I'd already had not one but three bad experiences with Star Wars, and this would mean the end of my interest in the franchise.
My original plan was to just wait for the reviews to roll in and then pull the trigger on buying tickets or (shudder) not buying them and waiting for the movie to eventually cross my path, but I was talked into buying tickets for my family. And, good luck finding a day or time before Christmas to get that whole crew in one place. So, we were headed to see the movie on December 27th.
Then the reviews came out, and they averaged toward very, very good Not that I read any (I still haven't), but a 90% Rotten Tomatoes score is usually a good indicator of something. Then word of mouth from trusted sources came back, all spoiler-free, and I was a bit sad I wouldn't see the movie for many days yet. Then my former boss, who has a 7 year-old son who thinks he's Anakin Skywalker, started texting me, assuming I'd seen the movie, and I realized: I am going to get this movie ruined for me by accident. If not the internet (which has done a remarkable job of keeping it's mouth shut. Which... when has that ever happened?), then someone at the comic shop or at work on Monday was going to blow it.
So, I bought two tickets for 8:00 AM today, the only two remaining seats, I think. And after getting up at 6:30 AM and arriving at the theater at 7:30, we sat in our front row seats and waited for the scroll.
I am happy to say, I actually very much enjoyed The Force Awakens.
Before continuing - I am well aware of the Spoilers problem around this movie, so if you want to remain Spoiler-Free, best to just say "okay, Ryan was cool with it" and move on. Because we're just going to talk about the movie after this.
It's a worthy heir to the original trilogy, and while I wasn't a huge fan of every single little niggling detail, so what? What the cast and crew brought to this movie was the vitality and energy lacking in almost every aspect of the Prequels.
Paul and I were chatting back and forth after the movie, and I realized something that had never registered with me before in exactly this way: I don't care about a single character in the Prequels. Not one. Maybe Amidala/ Padme, but even that's more of a soft spot for Natalie Portman and the mother of Luke and Leia than anything in the script. Conversely, I liked ALL of the characters in this movie, and by "like" - I mean, they're fun, they're actually remarkably well-written, and the villains are suitably hiss-able.
I want to first talk about John Boyega, because I loved this guy in Attack the Block, and then never saw him again. I couldn't have been more pleased to hear he'd been given a lead role in such a huge movie, but the character arc wasn't just new to Star Wars, it's important to Star Wars. Finn's abandonment of The First Order while witnessing the horror of what they're capable of is, in it's own way, a hugely heroic act. And the losing and re-summoning of courage when it comes to friends (friendship being the real underlying theme of the original Trilogy) is a bit inspirational.
Of course we first meet Poe, played by Oscar Isaac, and that dude was great. Give me a cocky fighter-pilot any day. Yeah, he didn't get much screentime, but hopefully he'll re-appear in the coming Episodes with more on-camera time than Wedge ever got (Wedge was robbed!). And while I guess some of you (Randy) were bothered by his seeming miracle save from Jakku, I was not. This isn't that kind of movie. If you've seen Drive or Inside Llewyn Davis, you know how good this guy can be, so I'm hoping for lots of Poe in films to come.
One thing I was watching for going into the movie was the potential for over-compensation to make up for the lack of central female action-oriented characters in all six prior Star Wars movies, that we'd get a Mary Sue in Rey, the sort of classic "record scratch" as "the girl" does the stuff guys normally do in action movies, and our male characters would stand around gaping, and we get a flawless super-heroine who can do everything the guys do - but better. But it seems the 90's-era over compensation this direction is now well in the past, and Rey is gonna be our central Jedi - nothing she does felt over the top of cartoonish, and actor Daisy Ridley makes it all buyable, up to and including her astonishment at the Skywalker lightsaber flying into her grip. It says something very good for action-oriented films in 2015 that two franchises of my youth, both male-dominated boy-fantasy series, Star Wars and Mad Max, have rebooted and worked to make leads in both films women, as part of an ensemble and certainly not "the girl", as much a role as "the wookie".
Kylo Ren gives us a Sith Lord with some of that same nuance we saw in Finn. And, indeed, he does not yet seem to be a Sith Lord as he's not taken a Darth mantle quite yet (if this was a bit dropped from the mythology, that's too bad). I think it was Randy who mentioned to me that Ren's storyline was what we should have gotten out of Anakin.* And, yeah, I mean, from the perspective that the descent into the Dark Side isn't tragically dull and we don't have to watch an unappealing character pout for a feature film-and-a-half before seemingly making just a horrendous series of mistakes.
If Star Wars has always taken place in a "used-future", it now takes place in a Galaxy strewn with the debris of a colossal interplanetary conflict. Star Destroyers rust like mountains against the desert landscape of Jakku, reminders of the Empire and signs that not all is restored. There's something bittersweet about watching a bored Rey put on an old Rebel-Fleet helmet as she hunkers down in the remains of an AT-AT, her home.
As the Prequels had the daunting task of imagining the technology and worlds of the original trilogy a generation earlier (one of the greatest successes of the movies, in my opinion. Even the pod-racers were at least neat to look at, if a needless contrivance of the plot), this movie takes us 30 years forward, with the next generation of X-Wings, TIE-fighters and more. The First Order's fetishization of Imperial architecture, uniforms and technology tells of the direct descent, as much as streamlined look of the new X-Wings and Leia's command-wear still reflecting a practical nature we first saw in Empire when she moved from a political role to a command.
It feels seamlessly Star Wars-ian, and I hope was a pleasure for the crew to design.
For the most part, the design of the new creatures and aliens was satisfactory. I won't try to pretend the blending of CGI characters and the practical FX was seamless. It wasn't. As much work as went into barkeep Maz, she still feels vaguely cartoony - far from the uncanny valley, and the reactions of the actors to Maz all feel well timed, but it's still imperfect watching cartoon lips move in comparison to our main characters. But it never feels as hopelessly misguided as some of the efforts of Episodes I and II, with the irksome extra business of Jar Jar, Boss Naz, etc... et al.
Abrams' kinetic style is kept to a rationale level (I wanted to tell all of Star Trek: Into Darkness to please just settle down a wee bit, and lay off the sugar and coffee), and his sense of action is sharpened and exploited very well here. I was grinning like mad through the first Millennium Falcon chase, in no small part because of the camera's ability to keep pace - even when falling behind to give greater urgency to the ship's kinetic motion. Similarly, and I think this goes back to what kind of worked in the first Star Trek reboot (we can argue about the plot itself, but...), Kirk and Spock's invasion of the enemy ship was well choreographed stuff, both from an action and camera perspective, and Abrams was able to do that here, again and again, from the manic escape from the town in Jakku to the lightsaber battle in the third reel.
In form, Kasdan and Abrams echo A New Hope. Bad guys have a spherical super-weapon that's an interplanetary threat. A MacGuffin is hidden in a droid. A foundling stranded on a desert planet finds said droid. Millennium Falcon is deployed. A wookie is insecure. Horror as super-weapon is deployed. Adventure on spherical super-weapon enemy base.
But, obviously, we now have 40 years of Star Wars movies and continuity to deal with. The politics of the post-Jedi Republic aren't entirely clear, but the rebirth of the Empire-lovers as The First Order has an oppressive Hitler in Weimar Germany quality, trying to overthrow the fragile Republic (and I was unclear if The Resistance was the official army of The Republic or just Leia's A-Team'ish squad). In the ensuing 32 years, a lot has transpired, certainly. Han and Leia spawned a child and had a falling out, and the discussions around this were something written with surprising deftness when one considers that emotion and even family relations have been treated as a blunt instrument in prior installments (and Han and Leia chatting was the bit that made me a wee bit weepy, I'm man enough to admit).
John Wayne seemed to make a handful of movies in his golden years about being a character much like the ones who had won him fame and acclaim, but with a new perspective as an aging hero, slower, worn by the years, as did Jimmy Stewart and a few others. Unlike The Expendables, it wasn't intended to demonstrate that they could still kick ass, it was to put a bit of a melancholy spin on what becomes of the gunslinger and loner. Eastwood would make a definitive statement on the idea with The Unforgiven, but in none of these movies was the character ever really the character from the prior installments, nor was I of the age to have grown up alongside those characters.
But seeing Han Solo as an aging space pirate, still with a noble heart under that scruffy exterior, and Princess Leia now a mother old enough to have adult children, and in her true calling as a General - and as an audience member skewing above the target age range by some years - you can get an understanding of how the years stack up in a way that you can get, intellectually, as a younger person, but only experience can tell you what it means to have actually borne the weight of those years, and Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford acquit their scenes together quite well. The script does not weigh everyone down with some On Golden Pond In Space storyline, but you can feel the maturity in the scenes, and there's a direct connection - these are not just the same characters we once knew in name, but in fact and in spirit. The torch isn't merely being passed with the appearance of these characters with the new ones, it's also allowing for a merging of the audiences and continuation of the stories.
It's a Star Wars meant to not just mint a new generation of fans, something the Prequels were able to do despite their rejection by a good chunk of older fans, but a Star Wars that's going to cross the generations, something sorely needed for the franchise to meet Disney's sky-high expectations. Even as it does this, there's a tragedy to seeing Leia and Han still at the battlements, still at war with the darkness, wearing a new name, but still the same. No happy ending just on the other side of that battle three decades in the past. An odd bit of reality meeting with our heroes in a land of magical powers and spaceships.
Look, I can easily nitpick this movie with plothole issues real and imagined. I can express doubt about the physics of what's happening in the 3rd act. Knowing what we know about Harrison Ford's legendary crankiness informs how anyone over 10 years old will watch the film. And the movie telegraphs a number of other plotpoints, but it all feels oddly forgivable, and they don't hang the story on some remarkable plot twist. At 8 years old, all of this would have seemed utterly surprising and remarkable, but it just doesn't quite work the same way with 40 years of these movies under your belt.
What Lucas was unable to do with the Prequels was sweep away the usual cynicism with which we meet movies. He compounded it and made it worse. It looked like Star Wars, but he'd lost his own sense of what the movies were, and what made them work. His movies were more a punch-list of plot points delivered in bizarrely wooden scenes - and a man seemingly more enamored with the toys of the technology than the toys of storytelling.
This movie restores the story of scrappy underdogs in a fantastic world, and - as so many people of my generation are saying - returns you to the world of Star Wars and the group of friends embroiled in a family drama playing out on an epic scale. There's just absolutely nothing else like it in movie-dom, and The Force Awakens does everything it can to deliver on that promise.
This won't be my favorite film or movie of all time, of the decade, or the year. Instead, I'm returned to a mindset I had about Star Wars until the Prequels. Star Wars may show in cinemas and be obtainable alongside other movies in better shops everywhere. It's something shot with cameras, with crews and with trailers and catering trucks. It is, in fact, a movie.
But once upon a time I did not count Star Wars as a movie. It was something else entirely. A story. A modern myth or legend. Something with moral lessons and meanings, cutting across cultural barriers to create a common language, as rich to us but more immediate than any of the works we were assigned to give us the common language of learned people in school. There was a reason we reached for the action figures, the records, the storybooks and t-shirts. It was to feel the same force within us that we felt when the story unspooled before us. And for the first time in a long time, I'm reminded of how that felt, a long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away.
As the news fills the 24-hour cycle with fresh reminders of our differences, as we're pitted against one another by philosophy and religion, as we seek to tear one another down... it says something about us that we so believe in whatever it is we see in Star Wars that, at least for this weekend, we stopped and basked in the continuation of this story of families, of friends, of the struggle of light against dark, of balance in the galaxy not that different from our own.
For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.
May the Force be with you, my friends.
*seriously, Paul and Randy started peppering me with messages the minute I walked out of the movie and turned my phone back on.