Saturday, December 19, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

More than any other work of fiction, seeing Star Wars had an incredibly profound impact on me. I can't remember a time before seeing Star Wars, and I can't remember a time when I didn't want to make movies. So, I have a lot of affection for the series, but I'm also able to roll with whatever ups and downs the saga goes through. The original trilogy is always there, and the quality of the prequels or the vast amounts wacky merchandise doesn't change that.

I had mixed feelings about the whole new movies venture. On the one hand, I was super excited to see the original trilogy characters back on screen, and it's definitely a universe with room for more stories to be told. However, there's something a bit disconcerting about the joy that people take in Lucas's departure from the franchise and perhaps the most deeply auteur driven major franchise in film history becoming a studio driven project instead. It's odd for the same fanbase that clamors for Jack Kirby to be credited in Marvel movies to be so happy for JJ Abrams to take over Star Wars.

And the weird thing, particularly after seeing this movie, is that it's not even really Abrams taking over. The next two episodes have different directors and writers, but the way that this movie plays out, they would seemingly need to have a pretty continuous storyline into the next one, and also someone breaking out the larger mythology and backstory driving the series. But, who is that person? It seems to be Kathleen Kennedy, but she's more a producer than a direct creator, so who knows what will happen in the future.

But, for now, we have Episode VII, a film that I think certainly got the job done in terms of setting up a new status quo and new characters that can carry the franchise far into the future. And it was certainly one of the more exciting filmgoing experiences I've had in a while.

As a film, The Force Awakens does an awful lot right, but also struggles in some ways that are not uncommon to contemporary blockbuster cinema. I actually found the opening third or so of the film to be its most compelling piece. You get a bit of the same feeling as in A New Hope, of being dropped into an unfamiliar world and gradually getting to know its rules and new characters.

The casting in the film was spot on. Pretty much every new character was compelling and realized, and there was a fun dynamic between them. Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron had a lot of swagger and presence that helped bring back the sense of fun the original trilogy had that the prequels struggled to recreate. Finn had a bumbling charm, and was funny throughout.

That said, like much of the film, Finn's journey was rather surface. For a guy who's lived his whole life raised to be one thing and believe in a certain set of principles, he sure abandoned them quickly. And, there's little conflict in his turn towards good. It was a fairly easy journey for him, and we never really get a sense of the potential wonder of experiencing all this new stuff, or any real remnant of this lifetime of military training he's undergone. Once you hit minute 30 of the movie, he might as well have been a Resistance fighter, or a smuggler, or anyone really.

His chemistry with Rey was great, and powers the most fun section of the film, as they have a screwball comedy meet cute and head off in the Millennium Falcon. Much like Finn, Rey is fun to watch, instantly likable, and a great addition to the Star Wars canon. I loved the silent melancholy of her early scenes on Jakku, and later in the film, her gradual discovery of her aptitude for the force.

That said, she's also way too perfect a character to be particularly compelling beyond a surface level. Rey can not only pilot a spaceship, and fix all its mechanical problems despite seemingly never having traveled off world, but also defeat a trained Sith lord in a lightsaber dual despite never having even touched a lightsaber before. So, she's basically as strong as Luke and Han Solo combined without any training whatsoever.

It winds up rendering her a bit of a Mary Sue character, with no particular flaws or challenges to overcome. She has some kind of mystery about her backstory, but that's a classic example of contemporary blockbuster writing. Rather than let a character grow and change because of what happens in the film itself, she's special because of her past, and any character shading will come from the revelation of her past rather than her experiences in the present.

Now, I suppose you could voice similar complaints about Luke in A New Hope. He's never flown a spaceship before, but is able to blow up the Death Star, and rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star. But, Luke also struggled a bunch in the film, and I don't think we really saw Rey, or Finn, or anyone, struggling to do much of anything.

Much of the power of the original trilogy's best entry comes from watching our heroes get utterly annihilated. Luke battles Darth Vader before he's ready and gets beaten thoroughly. And dealing with that struggle makes him stronger. Perhaps the next Episode will be that darker piece, but it seems like Rey is so powerful already, if she's trained, Kylo Ren should pose no threat for her whatsoever.

All that said, it's a testament to the work that Abrams and Kasdan did that the new characters are who I'm talking about and thinking about after the film. It does feel like a legitimate handoff and though it was fantastic to see Han Solo and the other returning characters back, it didn't feel like only their movie.

Among the minor characters, Chewbacca and C-3PO were both great. C-3PO continued his record of interrupting Han and Leia at key moments, and Chewbacca got more of a spotlight here than in most of the original trilogy.

Han fit pretty neatly into the Obi-Wan Kenobi role, and was a lot of fun bouncing off of the new characters. And, considering this looks like the end of the line for him, it's nice that he got to do more than stand around, like Leia did.

For me, the film loses steam and momentum as it goes on, as it becomes more and more obvious that what we're looking at is essentially a remix of the first Star Wars, a beat for beat incorporation of what worked there into a new story. While on the one hand, this does give a more satisfying, familiar universe than we saw in the prequels. Getting that 70s handmade sci-fi aesthetic was fantastic, and I think the design work in giving us the same, but different looks was great.

However, much more so than the prequels, the film explicitly invalidates a lot of the original trilogy. For me personally, I don't really care. It doesn't take away the original trilogy for me, and there's always going to be a disconnect between my imagined ending for these characters and what we see here.

But, if you are looking at this movie as a straight up sequel to the original trilogy, there are a lot of issues. For one, every development in the first three films is essentially invalidated. On a larger scale, the First Order (the Empire in all but name) is in control of the galaxy. What was the point of the Rebellion's victories if they're now in such dire straits that they're hiding out in the same exact kind of jungle base they were at in A New Hope. It's a little disheartening that thirty years have passed and Princess Leia is doing the exact thing she was doing in the first film. And Han Solo also has reverted to the role he had in the first film.

I think the idea is supposed to be a bit of an after the fall feel. Like, there was a time of peace and success that ended and sent everyone back to their old roles, but from a narrative point of view, it results in a sense that the first three movies were a waste of time. We're right back where we started, which is great if you want more stories in that milieu, but also constrains the characters into old familiar roles rather than letting them grow more naturally.

If you boil it down, the plot is so close to the first film. From specific details, like firing the planet sized weapon to destroy a Republic outpost, before targeting a Rebellion base they will almost destroy, but ultimately fail to do so, to having the whole movie set in motion when a droid carrying key information for the rebellion crash lands on a desert planet and finds its way into the possession of a lonely dreamer with a mysterious past who comes into contact with a relative's lost lightsaber.

We've also got a dark side lord who's being trained by a Sith master who appears via hologram with taunting information about the family member he's denounced (admittedly from Empire rather than ANH), and in this film is controlled by an Imperial general who smugly reports on the impossibility of Rebellion victory even as his men abandon him. Han Solo maps pretty closely to the Obi-Wan Kenobi role, the only surviving legacy of a time of wonder and magic that has since been lost. You get the idea.

And on a larger scale, the status quo of the galaxy has reset to what it was back in A New Hope. But, I feel like we don't get a great sense of how it got there or what happened. That's not important in A New Hope since it's designed to be our entry point into the story. This film is only being watched by people who've seen all the other films. I'd like to get a bit of clarification about how we got to this point. It's not strictly necessary, but without that clarification, it feels like a straight reversion.

One of the most interesting and fresh elements of the film is Kylo Ren. His raw emotion and swaying between good and evil offer us a look at what a young Anakin might have been like. In fact, it makes you wonder how compelling Adam Driver could have made the prequels if he'd brought this same intensity to Anakin. We've never seen a Sith quite like this, and his scenes with Rey were the high point of the second half of the film. He's able to give a great sense of the journey this character has been on in a relatively small amount of screen time.

That said, putting him in the same dynamic as Vader and the Emperor feels like a missed opportunity to do something more unique. Where does this Supreme Leader come from, he seems quite old, but sat out the events of the original trilogy? One of the burdens of a film like this is carrying the weight of the old movies, and questions like this. I normally don't like to nitpick stuff, but when you're making a film that is explicitly the continuation of a series, you have to deal with plot issues like this.

Joss Whedon famously said don't give the audience what they want, give them what they need. This is a film that gives people what they want, a return to the status quo and aesthetic of the original trilogy, but just a little bit different to keep it fresh. And seeing it did make me appreciate what Lucas did with the prequels.

It's a bit frustrating since this film did well pretty much everything that the prequels failed at. The dialogue is snappy and fun, the effects are grounded and give the world a lived in feel that flows pretty seamlessly with the original trilogy (with the exception of some lame CG wrathtars), and the new characters feel alive, human and more relatable than the prequel folk. The actors aren't fighting against the film, they're given plenty of opportunity to be fun and pop. And particularly for Adam Driver, there was an intensity I never saw during the prequels and only rarely in the original trilogy.

But, the movie stumbled in the areas were Lucas excelled. The action sequences in the film paled in comparison to every previous Star Wars movie. For many directors today, action seems to be something you just struggle to get through. You put a bunch of stuff exploding on screen, shoot a bunch of different angles and hope for the best. I was unclear about the logistics of the battle, and everything felt a lot smaller than every previous Star Wars ending, both emotionally and spectacle wise. The editing just wasn't clean and the storytelling and stakes were muddled.

Lucas is a master of assembling clean and easy to follow action sequences. The space battles in Jedi and A New Hope, or the speeder/AT-AT fight in Empire have clear stakes, great escalation and amazing visual spectacle. The same holds true for the lightsaber battles, even in the prequels. You get a lot more storytelling than in the fight between Rey and Kylo Ren.

At their best, the prequels had moments that felt tapped into the mythic subconscious that the series at its best aspires to. Thinking about the wordless sequence of Anakin and Padme across the city from each other as he hurtles towards the dark side, or the apocalyptic final dual between Anakin and Obi-Wan. It dug deeper and hit harder than anything in this movie because it's coming out of something more real than a love for a forty year old movie.

That said, those movies also contain so many dumb CG characters, abominable lines of dialogue and baffling performances, it's hard to say which is better. This is an immaculate cover band, giving you exactly what you want out of a Star Wars movie, except for that intangible something else. It makes me really wish that you could have made the prequels with Lucas in the sort of godfather role he was on Empire, involved in editing and masterminding the story, but with Kasdan or Abrams on the ground to write the script and direct the actors.

And, in the end, it's a bit frustrating for me for the movie to end on such an unresolved note. Considering the different directors and writers, I was hoping that each of these movies would be more or less standalone, but we've got more of a cliffhanger ending here than in any previous Star Wars film.

The ending is a bit frustrating to me since it felt very rushed. There's no real acknowledgement of Han's death on an emotional level. We feel it for a bit in the middle of the fight, but it would be nice to have that Vader funeral pyre style moment where we lay him to rest and absorb the loss. There's also not really a larger celebration that most Star Wars movies end with. The movie just kind of wraps up abruptly without giving you a big emotional beat.

That said, the final moments are fantastic. It's frustrating to me that the whole film is framed as the search for Luke Skywalker, and he's not even found until the final moments to set up the next movie. Not to mention, the sloppy writing of having R2-D2 suddenly wake up at the end for no reason. But, the visual payoff of his appearance is worth it and definitely gets you amped for the next stage of the saga and Luke taking on a Yoda role.

So, was The Force Awakens a trilogy invalidating shameless retread of Star Wars past? Or was it a fresh, fun relaunch for the franchise with great new characters that has me eagerly anticipating the next episode? It's both!