Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (No Spoilers)

It's been asked for so here it review.

I am avoiding spoilers here, and will hopefully chime in later with a more spoilery reaction.

I've had a relationship with Star Wars since it's birth. I was five years old, and I lost my goddamn mind. The bottom line is that I wanted to do *that,* whatever that was, and launched myself on a lifetime journey to figure out what the was.

Between the ages of 5 and 11, I had the original trilogy, Episodes IV to VI, wherein we saw the galactic civil war, and the rise of Luke Skywalker as savior of the ways of the Jedi, and redeemer of his father, Darth Vader, AKA Anakin Skywalker. As with so many people, these three films are a defining moment of my life (as the previous paragraph should indicate).

Between the ages of 28 and 34, I had the "Prequel" trilogy, Episodes I to III, wherein we saw the fall of not only the Old Republic and the Jedi order, but of Anakin himself. These films have been a hotbed of contention for years. With long diatribes about their faults and failings.

Here's where I stand; I love Star Wars. I love it all, I love it despite it's faults and failings, but also in many ways, because of it's faults and failings. As a whole, it is an idiosyncratic work, with weird digressions and inclusions that are there for no more reason than George Lucas' fancy. It's that personal touch, for good or ill, that, for me, lift them above standard Hollywood studio escapist fare.

This article pretty neatly encapsulates my feelings.

So, now, here we are. It's 2015, I am 44 years old, and over this past weekend I have seen Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens twice. It's a very, very good movie. It introduces exciting new characters into our saga of the Skywalker family, returns old favorites to the screen with vim and vigor, and pushes us forward into a new trilogy of adventure tales.

I do not think it's anywhere near perfect. However, it's imperfections are along totally different lines from the films made under Lucas' supervision, and will not detract from it's entertainment value. In fact, I feel it's imperfections run almost perfectly opposite from the earlier films.

Let's bottom line this....Do you have any interest in the type of film that Star wars is? Space opera (NOT science fiction) on a grand scale? If you say yes, see this movie. It's not the best film of the year, or even the best adventure film of the year (that would still be Mad Max: Fury Road), but it's the best space opera since at least Revenge of the Sith (sorry Wachowskis). I had a great time with the film, so what I'm about to go into is NOT "this film sucks" criticism, don't read it as such. It is so worth seeing, and I cannot wait to see where Rian Johnson takes up with Episode VIII in two years.

My first viewing of The Force Awakens was after spending nineteen hours in a theatre watching the previous six films. While this made me excited as hell to see the new film, it also made the shift in tone with this film very apparent to me. Lucas' Star Wars films were pastiches of 1930s sci-fi serials, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and the like, with a heap of Joseph Campbell to take all that nonsense and give it a sheen of real cultural and anthropological importance. The Force Awakens, in a very, very real way, is a pastiche of Star Wars itself, and the reverence to Campbell-style myth-making has been supplanted by the filmmakers reverence to this specific myth.

Which was probably utterly unavoidable. I would guess there is not a single competent filmmaker in Hollywood, who would have any interest in making a Star Wars movie, who doesn't revere the earlier films. Honestly, the saving grace here was likely the involvement of Lawrence Kasdan in scripting. He was there, having scripted both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (not to mention Raiders of the Lost Ark). He clearly enjoys this type of material, and yet, I'd guess, isn't star-struck by it.

There is a sequence in the center of the film that, if I'm fully honest, didn't feel like Star Wars, but rather like one of the myriad Star Wars ripoffs that littered the 80's. A lot of the humorous dialogue struck me as a lot more glib and unceasing than the earlier films, like it was the product of someone who remembered all their favorite lines, and regurgitated them without the breathing space that made those lines originally pop. Now, to be fair, the writing here is so far beyond Lucas that I hardly cared, but I was struck by the change in tone.

And the structure. There is more than a little truth in the criticism that the film is little more than a remake of A New Hope (AKA the original Star Wars). That's not a huge problem for me, because that fits with Lucas' vision. The Phantom Menace echos A New Hope, as well, but less slavishly. There is a point when I'm thinking, "oh this is like the Mos Eisley Cantina....Oh, look at the echo of the trench run...etc." I almost wish they'd just made our new desert planet, Jakku, a return to Tatooine. The production design is so virtually identical that it's obvious that they were trying to have their cake and eat it too. There is a long, long list of elements that fall into the "remember that?" category.

All of that becomes almost totally forgivable because Abrams and Kasdan have given us a nice big pot of terrific characters to revisit and get to know. I loved, loved, loved all of the new characters, and I was surprised by how much I was drawn to Kylo Ren, in particular. He's a villain that gives us a new perspective of the Star Wars universe, and The Force, that we've not really seen before now, and Adam Driver does a wonderful job with the part. Harrison Ford is better than he's been in years and Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are honest-to-God movie star finds. Oscar Issac isn't given much to do, but fills his moments. Much like with his Star Trek films, you can find absolutely zero fault with Abrams' casting instincts.

Watching the film is a blast, and I'm resistant to even delving into the plot very much, so as to allow you to discover it yourself. It's an experience, and all of the critical comments I've made are pretty irrelevant while you're watching. However, as a huge fan, I am concerned with the ultimate health of the franchise. There's things here that make me worry, specifically with Disney's aggressive plan of a new Star Wars film every year.

The Force Awakens is now corporate product, you can't deny it, and I see echoes of Disney's (financially, if not always creatively) successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. The fact that the emotional beats work as well as they do is a testament to the skill and talent of J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, because in other hands, this film could've easily toppled over into Transformers territory.

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