Title: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Cast: Harrison Ford
Genre: Science Fiction
Watched: December 20, 2015
Summary: Simultaneously awesome & derivative
The Force Awakens operates on many levels of pop mythic. And while it borrows/steals/repeats the original Star Wars (A New Hope) structurally — purloining character, theme, and even scene — it also toys playfully with its 38 year old predecessor.
Watching the older films with my 7 year-old I was realizing that I can’t think of many other film/TV properties for which the a 38 year-old installment is still part of the consciousness of the latest generation. Sure, Star Trek and countless old comic franchises are still alive and kicking, but few people watch the oldest installments. They are just too dated. Books are different, as kids do read Narnia and LOTR and Peter Pan and whatnot. But film really dates itself — ordinarily. Regardless, A New Hope is my son’s favorite Star Wars episode! And it’s old enough that when I saw it in the theatre in May of 1977 the Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind were about the same relative age! Which reminds me to brag that my wife helped restore both those classics :-). And Oz might be the oldest bit of film/video that kids still actively watch on a regular basis.
But back to Star Wars. Warning, serious spoilers ahead!
Let’s deconstruct. Coming into the project, the writers must have been stuck with the dilemma as to how to reset back to the basic dynamics of “resistance” vs “empire” (now renamed First Order). So pretty much every imagined positive consequence of the original Trilogy’s hard fought rebellion is undone between films. We are not offered a glimpse of this better world. We never see it, or its second collapse. This parallels A New Hope in that, like that film, we open mid conflict, after the events leading to the decline. This time around, there was even an Anakin-redux “Massacre of the Innocents” where Kylo Ren and his (named but not seen) Knights of Ren wiped out Luke’s baby Jedi. After that disaster, Luke Skywalker flees lamely (whining about power convertors) to some remote corner of the galaxy (or possibly the Skelligs, monastic islands off the West Coast of Ireland — been there!). His departure allows a new Sith Uber Boss to take over, rebuild lots of Star Destroyers, and set up a big Storm Trooper training academy. Of course as those guys have been “raised since birth” he must have really been busy during the 30 or so years since Return of the Jedi.
All this “history” is a little weird, and not terribly believable, but it doesn’t end up mattering much.
Because TFA is a film, like the original three, that focuses on character, action, and individual agency. The giant political maneuvers and senate meeting mumbo-jumbo of the prequels are blessedly absent. So to is Lucas’ later vision of the galaxy as filled with teeming cities and gleaming ships. We return instead to the new high budget version of his grungy low budget first trilogy imaginings.
Back to a dessert world (not Tatooine, but close enough), with a young person in linen, a droid with plans, a villain in a black mask, invading storm troopers, and a rebel base in peril. I could fill a whole article with all the elements repeated from the original Star Wars. But while that film holds tightly to the structure The Hero with a Thousand Faces, depicting a clear personal quest narrative to grow up and defeat evil, TFA dances playful around this same structure, instead bouncing the agency back and forth between several would-be-heroes. First up is Poe, given the location of the absent Skywalker. Conveniently, he tucks it away in a droid. But when he is captured, then rescued by can’t-handle-the-evil Stormtrooper Finn, and just as suddenly (appears to) die, Finn (and the droid) must pick up the pieces. Bumping into Rey, this agency is batted back and forth across the film like a hot potato. At some points literally represented by Luke’s lightsaber as Finn or Rey alternately takes up the “torch” to pursue the good fight.
And while the film’s action is great, it’s the individual characters that really make the movie. The prequels gave us almost no one to care about, but here we have a number of standouts. Best is Daisy Ridley’s Rey. In an action movie with a lot of solid performances, she steals the show. Her mixture of innocence, spunk, and competence blow away (her father?) Luke’s whinny performance in a similar role. The opening montage for her character sets it all up. The backdrop of the forgotten and ruined Star Destroyers. The scrappy life selling bits to the repulsive Unkar Plutt for meager rations. The hanging out staring at the stars. Her “save the cat” moment when she won’t sell the droid (BB-8).
Speaking of, the Droid is probably the second best character, certainly the second best new character. He rules!
Han Solo is, of course, the best returning character. And Chewbacca too. He’s as funny as always.
It’s worth talking about the villains. Not sure what the deal is with Supreme Leader Snoke. I thought he was giant Gollum before I even realized he was played by Andy Serkis. He seems all ancient. But where was he while Dark Sidious (a.k.a. The Emperor) was in charge? Lurking in the Sith club house? Or maybe it’s like Slayers in my favorite work of video fantasy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When one dies, another is called. And Kylo Ren (a.k.a. Ben Solo). He’s not bad, particularly with his helmet on. Sure, he’s no Darth Vader, but that’s hardly surprising. And I like how his temper can get the better of him and how he has a bit of a self flagellating bent. With his helmet off, I keep seeing the dorky anti-social boyfriend from Girls.
The prequels got the comedy/drama balance all wrong. They posed stiff unemotional characters against setups that were unintentionally comic. TFA restores the balance to the force. Solid jokes and jibes allow the characters to make light of a serious world and action. This is classic 80-90s pop adventure, and again, not unlike Buffy (although not nearly as deliberately campy and post modern as that). For example, while Han Solo simultaneously fills in for the Obi Wan roll (including the Act 2/3 moment), he also reprises his previous knack for the comic remark. Like “How many times have I ever let you down?” A: “twice” Retort: “When was the second time?”
And the film is gorgeous to look at and gorgeously shot. In replicating the lower-tech style of the original trilogy with a hefty mix of practical and CGI it comes off looking far more seamless than the all CGI style of the prequels. Again, those ruined Star Destroyers come to mind. There is a slight new emphasis on “larger” creatures and creature/machine hybrids. It sounded great of course, my showing was in Dolby Atmos. I was not a fan of the Dolby 3D glasses. They made everything even dimmer than normal and almost gave me a headache. The 3D itself was fine.
All in all, this is probably the third best Star Wars film, after The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope (in that order). Return of the Jedi has its moments, like the Luke/Darth/Emperor battle, but it also has some serious cheese. I’m excited to see where things go with episode VIII.