Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

                                         **Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Some Plot Spoilers**
If conventional wisdom is to be believed,  the colossal cultural success of 1977's Star Wars permanently altered the cinematic landscape by ushering in the blockbuster era we're still living in today. For better or worse, every studio tried to duplicate it in some form or another without truly grasping the elements that initially made it work. Unfortunately, its biggest, most shameless imitator may have been George Lucas, whose uncompromising death grip on his own franchise caused him to eventually destroy it. It's a career trajectory that eerily resembles Darth Vader's, as a rebellious young man frustrated by the corporate machine rises to power, only to eventually evolve into the very thing he despises most. It's a parallel not lost on the filmmaker, who's even commented on it himself in various interviews. Anyone looking to pinpoint the source of today's movie industry woes needn't look further than the infamous prequels. They made it okay for overhyped films with expensive effects to rake in truckloads of money, regardless of quality.

Watching J.J. Abrams resuscitation of the franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you can't help but wonder what George Lucas must have been thinking while sitting in that theater during the premiere. He finally did the right thing by relinquishing the reins to Disney and in doing so freed up another filmmaker to give movie fans the experience they always wanted, but he stubbornly refused to deliver. And ironically, it's a movie so slavishly devoted to the original trilogy that it kind of cements his legacy once and for all, as difficult and complicated a legacy as it is.

It's far easier to root for Abrams, a skilled, if previously indistinct director who suddenly has to deliver the movie of his life in the clutch. And does he ever, by not only faithfully recreating the look and even recalling the plot of A New Hope, but triggering all the sensory feelings we had watching it. In fact, it's probably the closest we're ever going to get to seeing what a modern, shot-by-shot remake would look like without literally getting one. Some are calling it a retread. Others are saying it amounts to nothing more than fan service You can call it whatever you want but Abrams delivers exactly what's asked of him, doing right by a franchise that needed someone to step up and make smart choices.

In making the strongest, most satisfying installment since The Empire Strikes Back, Abrams follows through on his promise of more practical effects and a return to basic, character-driven storytelling. It's clear from the opening crawl that Abrams, a lifelong fan, is interested in blending the old and new, it's also the first time we can say a Star Wars movie some contains great performances. And not just great for a Star Wars movie. Providing pure, old school entertainment that greatly differs from the excessive emptiness of contemporary blockbusters, it wisely leaves us with more questions than answers, establishing a strong framework for the franchise to successfully move forward in the same awe-inspiring manner the original trilogy did.

Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi and destruction of the Death Star, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished and in his absence the First Order has risen from the remains of the fallen Empire. Led by the masked, Vader-worshipping Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), they seek to find and destroy Luke and topple the Republic. To do so, they'll have to obtain a map to Luke's whereabouts, located inside Resistance pilot Poe Dameron's (Oscar Isaac) droid, BB-8. But when Ren and his Stormtroopers destroy Poe's Jakku village and take him captive, the droid escapes, coming across scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the desert. Soon, she encounters Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper on the run whose conscience won't allow him to kill for the First Order. With Ren on their tail and desperately wanting possession of that map, they'll need help from some familiar faces to evade capture and hopefully discover the location of Luke Skywalker.

As much that goes on in this story, at its crux is something very simple that directly relates to the original trilogy, while still feeling like a very natural continuation of it. By centering the plot around the search for Luke a entirely new set of dramatic possibilities are introduced in a matter of minutes, letting us speculate on the events that happened post-Return of the Jedi that could have led to this. Just reading on the screen that Luke Skywalker has vanished  instantaneously invokes a reaction that harkens back to past, while effectively creating a scenario that lays the groundwork on which these next three films can be built.

The script (co-penned by Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan) ingeniously presents Luke as almost a mythological figure, spoken about in hushed, muted tones by the newer characters who aren't quite sure whether he or The Force even exists. Hamill's mysterious absence from all print and commercial advertising for the film becomes clear very early on, as does the sound reasoning behind it. By hiding him for nearly the entire running time, Luke's importance grows to the point that his eventual appearance is practically transcendent. And it's all because of the journey taken to get there through Rey, Finn and BB-8.

Without giving too much away, there's hardly a moment in any scene that doesn't contain some kind of technical or narrative homage to the '77 film or its sequels, whether it be the scene transitions, John Williams' classic musical cues, a setting or even just sometimes a random character in the background Abrams took the time and effort to subtly squeeze in. And he doesn't digitally shoehorn them in for no reason, making sure their presence, no matter how large or small, makes sense within the context they appear. If extensive fan service is the worst problem this film has, we should all consider ourselves lucky since Abrams spares no expense in addressing the very real creative problems that torpedoed this franchise. It's great to see actual  land again, as well as real dirt. And real people instead of computerized trickery. It's unlikely that anyone thought we'd be seeing bloodshed of any kind, but that's just what we get in the opening minutes, upping the stakes considerably.

As familiar as many things are, it doesn't feel like a carbon copy because it serves to only enhance and underline what is new and original. It can't be stressed enough just how much the previously unknown Daisy Ridley is asked to shoulder as Rey, supplying the entire story with its beating heart and soul in a performance that can only be described as revelatory. As the scavenger unwittingly thrown into the battle between the First Order and the Republic, she's as essential as Luke was to the original, even if that comparison unfairly implies the character is in any way derivative. Tough and strong-willed but instantly likable and vulnerable, Ridley makes Rey so easy to pull for it's almost impossible to comprehend the results had another actress been cast.

Rey shares most of her screen time with a droid, as BB-8's importance and involvement in the action rivals that of any human character over the course of any of the previous six films.  Looking like a robotic soccer ball with a head and a winning personality to spare, it might be Abrams' most inventive creation, and a character completely on par with C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2. And about half-way through it occurred to me that if Artoo didn't appear at all I'd be okay with it since he's essentially been replaced. Though, it's hardly a spoiler to say he eventually shows up. It tougher to talk about Oscar Isaac's smaller role as Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, but with minimal screen time, he slips right into the Star Wars universe, as natural a fit as any of the original players. 

The sarcastic humor and witty one-liners absent from the prequels are back, with much of it coming from John Boyega's Finn, whose backstory is only touched upon, but intriguing in the sense that we get to know the person behind a Stormtrooper mask. It's a luxury we've never been afforded, having long been depicted as nameless, faceless killing machines in previous installments. They still mostly are, but what happens when one of them can't kill or doesn't believe in what he's fighting for? It's a clever idea, with the bumbling Finn going from scene to scene constantly overwhelmed by every situation, until he can find his way, with Rey's help.

Boyega's strongest and funniest scenes are opposite Harrison Ford, who reappears as Han Solo as if no time has passed at all, slipping right back into the role that initially made the actor a household name. The character isn't dour or cranky, but the same smuggler and smooth liar we remember, with Abrams getting the absolute most out of Ford as Han that he can. You believe this is exactly where the character would be and it feels like a natural continuation of his story rather a nostalgic money grab. In other words, it's no Crystal Skull.

Abrams and company seem to have found the perfect balance between introducing new characters and using already existing ones to bolster their stories. This even extends to Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who has more to do here than ever, and the now General Leia Organa, whom Carrie Fisher plays with a more reserved, stately bent. Her scenes with Ford are an emotional highlight, even if it's hard to not wish there we got more of them. As for Hamill, he does appear, and while I'll withhold the details, it's pretty impressive how moving it is and the work that went into earning it. It's safe to say it actually may have worth waiting every one of those thirty years to get this moment.    

With only a few notable exceptions along the way, the acting was never a strong point in the original trilogy, while in the prequels it was often a flat-out embarrassment. Add Adam Driver to that list of exceptions as Kylo Ren, giving what's easily the most complete performance in the film. And as terrifying as he is under the mask, he's somehow even creepier after removing it. Having to follow Darth Vader isn't an easy task and at first glance it's easy to think this is merely a variation on that character,  but the more we learn about him, the deeper and more complex he gets. The script plays fast and loose with his identity, putting it all out there and letting Driver just go to town, having these moments that times make the character appear pitiful and sympathetic. And it works really well, leaving a lasting impact that should carry over into the next two films, and possibly beyond.

If forced to nitpick what's practically a flawless effort from Abrams, there are really only two issues. An Emperor-like, holographic GGI character called the Supreme Leader Snoke voiced by Andy Serkis in a performance that would be a far better fit in the Lord of the Rings trilogy than this. It's especially out of place and jarring after the renewed commitment to more practical effects carried out so well throughout the rest of the film.

Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata is the more successful CGI, motion capture creation, even if I could do without them making characters like this a habit moving forward. It just brings back too many painful Jar Jar memories. On the plus side, at least Snoke's only a hologram and we're left with the feeling there could be more detailed explanation (excuse?) for his existence down the road. The more intriguing second-tier villain is Gwendoline Christie's Cobra Commander-like Captain Phasma, who we could easily stand to see more of. And given the choice, the first half of the film is slightly stronger than the second and a few of the longer action scenes could have probably been trimmed by a couple of minutes, but I'm admittedly grasping at straws here.       

At this point, anything written about The Force Awakens can't help but come off as a regurgitation since everyone who's seen it knows how good it is. It's a Star Wars movie to its core and skillfully sets the table for what's to follow. And as dark as this is, there's good reason to believe its sequel could be even darker given the director attached and what seems like Abrams' unwavering loyalty to the trajectory of the original trilogy. While I still believe releasing spin-off movies during off years is a terrible idea that overexposes the brand, there are few prospects more exciting than seeing a Rian Johnson-directed sequel to this film with Mark Hamill in an expanded role.

After envisioning for years what a follow-up to Return of the Jedi would look like, it's safe to say what ended up on screen met, if not surpassed, the highest expectations. And that's coming from only a moderate fan who went in with considerable skepticism after feeling burned by Lucas' prequels, which will likely now fade from memory, if they haven't already. It's true that this is about as close to a modern remake of the 1977 film that we're going to get. And that's not a bad thing. Lucas has called it "retro" and he's right. But we've already witnessed his definition of "new" so it's hard to blame Disney for passing on his offer for assistance, especially considering these results. When he owned Star Wars he could do with it as he chose, just as we were free to criticize those controversial decisions. But with The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams brings to the forefront the revelation that Lucas hasn't really owned his own creation for a while now. Signing it over to the fans was just a formality.

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