Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens Review

(dir. J.J. Abrams)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“It's true. All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi. They're real.”

*Minor plot spoilers ahead.

In a few short years (well, long years for the most eager fans) Star Wars Episode VII went from being an impossibility to perhaps the most anticipated movie of all time. J.J. Abrams went from definitely not directing, to having the weight of a galaxy on his shoulders. From a behind the scenes angle, the Star Wars franchise has always been seen as a bit of a gamble, an improbability not always in terms of financial success, but quality. The question was never whether or not Disney, the reformatted Lucasfilm, and J.J. Abrams could bring in the money, but whether The Force Awakens could simultaneously live up to the nostalgia of the Original Trilogy, work through the middling response to the Prequels without ignoring them, attract new and old audiences, and serve as a pleasing launchpad for Hollywood’s newest franchise model: the cinematic universe. Of course, none of these aspects would be small achievements by themselves, and to achieve them all would seemingly need nothing short of a large-scale revolution of Hollywood’s blockbuster practices. But J.J.Abrams understood that a massive upheaval of the mythology was not what was needed for this first new installment, and instead returned to what had first electrified audiences in 1977 while implementing changes in other areas of necessity.

Set 30 years after Return of the Jedi (1983), The Force Awakens ushers us into a world where the remnants of the Galactic Empire have formed The First Order, a massively powered terrorist group backed by mysterious dark side forces. Pit against them is the Resistance, a reformed Rebel Alliance, secretly supported by the New Republic. At the center of their conflict is a map that leads to the missing Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, whose reappearance or death could turn the tides for either side in the brewing war. But fear not, politics and galactic schemes take a back seat to the introduction of new characters and familiar faces. Swept up into the Resistance’s battle are Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger with a mysterious past, and Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who has broken free of his conditioning and abandoned his post. With the aid of two familiar smugglers, Han and Chewie, and the droid BB-8, who contains part of a map leading to Luke Skywalker, Rey and Finn are swept up in an adventure that changes the fate of the galaxy.

As the film moves along with an ease that buries any notice of the 135 minute runtime, it’s hard not to become increasingly aware of the similarities The Force Awakens shares with A New Hope. While some may feel disappointed that the film doesn’t attempt to break new narrative grounds, the similarities work in terms of making Star Wars feel like Star Wars. As odd as it may seem, many of us have forgotten what seeing Star Wars for the first time actually feels like. The prequels crafted an almost entirely different world and scale (one that fit with Lucas’ sensibilities), and the franchise’s progeny, as entertaining and occasionally fantastic as some of those have been, haven’t fully captured what makes Star Wars so exciting. There really is no replacing the feeling, grandeur, characters, or sense of mystery that comes along with that galaxy far, far away.

The familiar story beats in The Force Awakens ground the film in its singular identity, once again situating the franchise in monomyth, while giving new and old fans characters to latch onto, a facet that has always had more weight than narrative originality in the saga. We’ll spend the next two years listening to some bemoan the use of another Death Star, this time in the form of the Starkiller Base, but the familiar plot beats provide more time to spend exploring the characters and less time explaining some new narrative MacGuffin that's up the First Order’s sleeves. Call it laziness or a lack of imagination, but The Force Awakens isn’t rushing to the finish line to show us the large-scale, but giving us time to fall in love with the small-scale before Rian Johnson’s sequel surely up the ante in terms of exploring new territory.

In many ways, J.J. Abrams was the perfect choice to kick off the new trilogy. He excels at repositioning the old and making it feel modern, and for all of its callbacks, The Force Awakens does feel exceptionally modern, thanks in no small part to its characters. Yes, the opportunity to see Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca in their senior years was always the big selling point of The Force Awakens, but the new players give the film a life of its own. There’s an immediate chemistry between these new characters. Whether it’s Rey and Finn, Poe and Finn, or BB-8 and everyone else, these new characters and their subsequent relationships are not only likeable, but full of potential. While these characters share similarities with their predecessors, they are entirely their own individuals, each given convincing motives and histories. Fear has long been a theme in the franchise, but here it’s not as simple as fear leading to anger, hate, and the dark side, but how fear has power to both hold characters back and propel them forward. There’s a lovely and occasionally heartbreaking reality that not all of our familiar characters are where we imagined they’d be. This is paralleled by our new characters who also find themselves bound to the past and afraid of the future before moving on. The narrative familiarities are intentionally tied to these themes, delivering an awakening that lies in reflection and a near literal return to the past. Fan-service it may be, but no one ever said there couldn’t be meaning in fan-servitude.

But of course, an aspect of successful fan-service is recognizing how broadly fandom stretches, and how much the popularity of Star Wars owes to those fans that the films have largely neglected featuring. Much of The Force Awakens’ modernity stems from the fact that the lead characters are in the hands of a woman, a black man, and a Latin American man. While so many franchise restarts try to cater to the same audience, Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan aim to broaden and celebrate the reach of Star Wars not by just focusing on legacy, but diversity as well. The narrative tropes pale in comparison to how many tropes of racial and gender-defined characterization are broken. Rey is powerful, smart, and charming without the film trying to sexualize her as well. While many films attempt to create the stoic black man, flawless and boring, Finn is given the personality and an arc that allows him to change. And while Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron plays a smaller role in the events of this film, it’s refreshing to see a Latin American man who’s portrayed simply as a through and through good guy instead of a criminal or coward. Women and minorities are prominently featured as extras in most scenes. They are pirates, First Order affiliates, X-Wing pilots, and commanders, all going a long way to make this galaxy a more believable place, a place that any kid watching can see themselves easily fitting into.

Going hand-in-hand with this modernity in casting, the dialogue also displays an adept ear for how people talk to each other. It actually takes a bit of adjustment in terms of hearing dialogue that’s closer to Whedon (though not nearly so cutesy) than it is to Lucas’ more stilted style. Even the film’s central villain benefits from this modernity of language and characterization. Gone are the days where an utterly unstoppable killing machine with a modicum of personality were enough to create a compelling threat. Adam Driver brings an intensity to Kylo Ren, as well as genuine emotional struggle. His desire to drown out his call towards the light side, and fully embrace the dark side, creates a complexity that not only serves as a parallel for the other characters’ “awakening” but gives his villainy a place to go in future installments. Kylo Ren is unquestionably one of the best villains we’ve seen emerge in our new age of blockbusters, because it’s not the outward acts that define him but the inward struggle. There’s an emotional realism given to Kylo Ren, Rey, and Finn that gives the film a subtle heaviness that couldn’t feel more different from A New Hope. And that’s the key of the film; even in the face of recognizable plot points, The Force Awakens is comprised of its own emotional beats, one unmistakably Star Wars but fresh nonetheless. Contributing to this subtlety and emotional heft is John Williams’ score. While it doesn’t offer the same kind of instantly recognizable tracks (yet), it could be argued that it marks some of Williams’ best work yet. The score has a lasting resonance to it, one that often quietly maintains the film’s sense of mystery.

The Force Awakens’ lack of exposition comes as a bit of a surprise. There are a lot of story aspects that go unexplained, obviously to set up the subsequent installments, but it works quite brilliantly. We take for granted how little audiences knew about the galaxy at the end of A New Hope. Of course, many of us were spoiled on plot points and reveals before we ever saw that film. And the instant accessibility of all of the films in the saga, along with our ability to watch them sequentially, have eliminated many of the guessing games that those original 1977 audiences played. We don’t get answers about all of the characters, or even the establishment of this new galactic order, which provides us with a kind of lasting excitement that makes the film worth going back to see in theaters multiple times. Make no mistake, there’s nothing standalone about The Force Awakens. It is necessary to see what has come before and see what will come after in order to get the full story. While there are some narrative flaws, and plot choices that may prove frustrating to some, I’d hazard to be too vocal about them until we can look back on this new trilogy in its entirety.

The Force Awakens is the start of something grand, familiar by design but entirely new in terms of where it places its attention and emotional interest. It’s impossible not to see the energy and care on the screen. Whether it comes from the practical effects, the designs, the performances that not even Harrison Ford could simply phone in, or its powerful action and story beats, The Force Awakens provides the emotional first steps in convincing audiences that Star Wars is back for good and we no longer need be bound by fear.

Grade: A