Thursday, December 24, 2015

Star Wars: "The Force Awakens" a review.



WARNING: This review contains spoilers!

The following article is intended as a post-theatrical release full review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

If you have not yet seen the movie, stop reading now.

Introduction:?

Star Wars needs no introduction. 

It’s as ubiquitous as sliced bread and quoted more often than Richard Nixon delivering his keynote resignation speech. It’s been parodied by more late-night comics, magazines and TV serials than perhaps any other popular relic we have in our cultural arsenal. “Star Wars” has become the ideal vehicle for Hollywood to partake in selling mythology lite to the cynical, post space-race western masses. It embodies the perfect blend of Kurosawa film technique; Zen traditions, totalitarian fascism, WW2 Era ace pilot bravado and a “Black and white” mystical dichotomy that dares to begin venturing yet further into the questionable grey areas of our materialist, postmodern morality. The latest entry in the saga meets the anticipated nostalgia quota that gives a degree of fan-service that everyone from the general audience to the true blue fans, of which I am proudly one, will appreciate.

The core premise of ‘The Force Awakens’ is about reclamation: This is the grand, overarching theme that runs throughout the course of the movie. The very future of the Star Wars franchise hinged entirely on J.J.Abrams ability to distance it from the recent memory of the prequels and establish vital, binding links with the original trilogy while pumping in new blood and applying a fresh coat of paint. There is no doubt he succeeded brilliantly. ‘The Force Awakens’ is, from a canonical perspective, less of an extension of Jedi and more a reboot of A New Hope. This is pulled off with precision detail and finesse thanks to its ardent cast of characters, engaging score, pulse-pounding action sequences, and of course, it’s trademark quirky humor and campy one-liners. All of these factors complement one another. It’s the first Star Wars movie since ‘83 that truly feels like a Star Wars movie.

On to the review!

Acting:  The cast carries the film, as it should in any great production. Their performances are invigorating and the cast feels excited to be there. (Well, most of them). Poe Dameron and Finn are total bro’s and their energy radiates genuinely on screen. The hotshot ace pilot is a young Solo incarnate, and perhaps my personal favorite new character. Oscar Issac could have been granted a bit more screen-time as Dameron, but gave an otherwise outstanding performance. Daisy Ridley steals the show as Rey, a force wielding savant with riveting screen presence. She’s also a natural actress and a convincingly force-powerful female lead that has been pulled off perfectly. Finn's enthusiasm is infectious, embracing the light side and his newfound role as the reluctant hero. Han and Chewie have the ‘grumpy old men’ vibe going that provides comic relief while still displaying a gun slinging chivalry reminiscent of the first films. Leia mutters a few forgettable lines. Luke Skywalker has transformed into a grizzled Ben Kenobi and stares intensely for about 10 minutes straight delivering one of the best wordless cliffhanger endings in cinema history.

Staging and special effects:  They finally did it right this time. The usage of physical sets and models combined with real costume design and strategic use of CGI made all the difference. The atmosphere is quintessentially Star Wars down to every last detail. Maz Kanata is a wonderful new character brought to life through CGI and motion capture thanks to the talents of Lupita Nyong’o, which is exactly the kind of new character that the new trilogy deserved. She had perhaps the most unique and original role in the film, I felt, despite her cantina/castle drawing yet more obvious parallels to ANH through the setting being a facsimile of the Mos Eisely Cantina. The full IMAX sequence of the Millenium Falcon being chased down by TIE fighters across the dunes of Jakku and through the bowels of a scuttled Star Destroyer should be more than enough to make a Star Wars fan out of anyone.

Score: A thematic John Williams score never fails, as it simply wouldn’t be ‘Star Wars’ without one. Each track is utterly flawless. 

Cinematography:  Panning, sweeping shots lend themselves to some of the best scenes yet featured in any of the Star Wars films. Most notably, Finn and Rey running away from the TIE fighter bombardment all in one take, referencing a certain ship hidden off screen as ‘garbage’ as they sprint toward a vessel off in the distance in hopes of escape only for it to get blown to pieces in front of them, turning back round before the camera swiftly pans to the left unveiling the Millennium Falcon draped in tarp, was, in my opinion, brilliantly executed. Rey’s speeder racing across the dunes of Jakku amidst the wreckage of Imperial and Rebel ships both in foreground and background gives a breadth of scope that is nothing short of jaw dropping. The shot where the nose of the Star Destroyer Finalizer begins hovering over the crowd in IMAX was simply glorious. The Light saber battle which takes place toward the end of the film was absolutely incredible; feeling authentic and haggard like a novice medieval sword battle would play out, rather than a highly choreographed showboating dance number that was the bane of the prequels. I needn't go on. We never feel out of the action within any of these sequences. There is no blurry, telescopic focus on the characters as they fight, no cutting rapidly in and out of takes which plagued many action movies of the past. We feel involved in the battles, and can hone in on the rich detail of all the characters as they square off.

Plot:  Simultaneously its weakest and strongest feature. It’s the strongest because it’s essentially a retelling of a new hope. It’s the weakest because...it’s essentially the retelling of a new hope.

This of course, is the film’s most pressing concern. It is light years past the point of homage when every pivotal plot point is an echo bounce off the hallowed halls of ANH. This can be absolved, however, as the fundamental plot of ANH was a superb modern adaptation of the Hero’s journey and the monomyth that resonates with audiences to this very day. The obvious parallels, however tenuous they may be at times, are pulled off so incredibly well that despite Abrams stratagem of playing it safe by having gone this route purposefully, we are yet left with a plot that still amounts to a Re-hashing. When it comes to the integrity of the storyline, what it suffers from the most is unoriginality regarding the story arc, most notably in the development of the protagonist (Rey).  Rey is Luke. She follows in his footsteps and inerrably leads right back to him. She also does this wonderfully and with magnanimous screen presence. Star Wars needed to come back its roots, and it has done just that. ‘The Force Awakens’ may be a rehashing, but it is a great re hashing.

Genuinely funny moments abound: cheeky puns and quirky humor are essential to the Star Wars experience. BB8 giving an ambiguous “Thumbs up” or “Middle finger” to Finn was pure gold. By virtue of existing in its own galaxy, Star Wars can bend the integrity of its storyline by never taking itself too seriously. This is one of the defining features that make Star Wars unique.

The villain, Kylo Ren, is something of a mixed bag. Having found his calling in being seduced to the Dark Side by Darth Smeagol and his ‘Attack on Titan’ Sized hologram, he is far less menacing and confident as Vader appeared in the 1970s by an order of magnitude, Kylo appeals to the sensibilities of the current times: The untrained villain, while powerful, is genuinely emotionally unstable. Self-doubting, self-conflicted, and irrational to a fault, his litany of flaws and weaknesses are purposefully exacerbated; verging on the whininess of Prequel Anakin. Yet Driver delivers a solid performance through Kylo harnessing his distinct psychopathy and contempt for the light which result in his inevitable patricide. We now have the father/son redemption dynamic in reverse. Evil is portrayed as delirium, a spontaneous force lashing out of control.

Though predictable, I am not ashamed to admit I found Han’s death scene to be the most emotionally compelling part of the film. Han knew stepping onto that catwalk would spell his doom and that his chances at saving his son were slim to none. Harrison’s expression of anguish upon sacrificing himself followed by pity for his son at what he had done to him was brutal, still caressing his face before he fell to his death. Chewies utter ballistic outrage and Finn and Reys horrified look of shock after their more na├»ve hopes at Kylo’s redemption were dashed to pieces drove the scene home. Despite all this, it had to happen to give the film the impact it needed. Ford wanted this for over 32 years.

Han Solo will always be a cultural icon. He’s the original space cowboy preceded only by the likes of Flash Gordon. The backdrop of his death scene resembled the Bespin Shaft where Vader revealed his fatherhood to Luke. Han’s death itself was a throwback to Obi Wan becoming one with the force right before being ‘struck down’ by Vader. These are just a couple of the many parallels Abrams ties with pretty red bowstrings to the original trilogy.

Gripes: 

Captain Phasma :  No, I am not a Game of Thrones fan, I have a legitimate bone to pick here. Gwendoline Christie’s character was the most underwhelming of the entire movie for me. She was primed to be the next ‘Boba Fett’ and did absolutely nothing. Knocked upside the head, capitulated to the Resistance while muttering an idle threat, and dumped into a trash chute without as much as putting up what could have been an epic fight in an exciting scene. It doesn’t get more humiliating than that. She ended up about as relevant to the plot as Dannik Jericho. Don’t know who that is?  Neither do 99.9% of moviegoers who aren’t die-hard SW fans. She’s pure ornamentation. She could have stood on the bridge of the Finalizer throughout the entire movie as a set piece in her shiny chrome armor and the plot would not have changed one iota. Ok sure, maybe Han and Finn could have abducted one of the other ten billion storm troopers aboard the Starkiller to lower the shields (Oh, like THAT hasn’t been done to death…).

What an utter waste of a fresh character with a badass costume design.

Suspension of disbelief: The film stretches itself a bit too thin at times. Coincidence to the point of absurdity can and will be written off as ‘The will of the Force’ in any Star Wars film. Jumping out of light speed eight hundred feet off the surface of the Starkiller? A perfect rift opening up within the span of 30 feet right in between Ren and Rey at the exact moment there's a lull in their saber fight?  Kudos, Abrams!

Leia: While appearing matronly and reserved, her bittersweet reunion with Han was believable but she did not project the aura of a Resistance general. She seemed bored to be there, and sounded like a woman named Blanche after pulling an all-night binge in Vegas playing slots and smoking menthols.

Upon escaping Jakku and being towed in by the freighter Eravana, Finn and Rey hide out in the smuggling compartment of the Millennium Falcon expecting to be boarded by storm troopers. Upon which, they plot to flood the Falcon with poisonous gas to take out the storm troopers coming on board while wearing re breathers of their own. Finn then has some dialogue with Rey in reference to the threat of invading storm troopers which leads us to:

The Dumbest line in the movie award! Which goes to:

“Their masks only filter out smoke, not toxins!"

Uhhhh...

Yeah, no.

That whole idea is dumb and should have been scrapped.

Conclusion

Overall, the movie was excellent. Little else needs to be said on that front.

What I now feel to be the most crucial function the next two installments must accomplish is for the screenwriters to take risks and head in a completely new direction, introducing a fresh plot with more twists and turns that keeps people guessing. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can anticipate how Ep VIII will flesh out: It’s going to get dark. Luke will train Rey. Snoke will train Ren. There will be a pivotal battle. Light sabers will clash. SOMEONE is going to be related to SOMEONE else. Yawn. 

There needs to be a variety of highly exotic elements coming into play with the following films. Ep VIII cannot emulate ‘Empire’, else it should become stale and fall back into prequel mediocrity. ‘The Force Awakens’ was a veritable success in recapturing the essence of Star Wars and did it so well that it can’t afford to let the series simply repeat itself like a broken 8-track thinly disguised as an iphone6, even though the theme of coming full circle is quite charming and underscores the locus of thought that Abrams felt necessary to execute with this film, the series now needs to branch out into unknown territory and truly surprise us.

Ah…who am I kidding? Even if Ep VIII clones ‘Empire’ frame for frame it’ll still rake in billions. 

Much of the script is likely already written and may already be in pre-production. Let’s hope it breaks the mold and gives us something completely different.

Audiences at large don’t sincerely expect Star Wars to wax philosophic on some profound soul searching pastiche; delivering deeply intellectual melodrama through black & white art-house performances by academy award winning actors and actresses: its pseudo-science and space aliens. It’s about munching on popcorn while watching laser cannons blasting apart Star fighters to smithereens and receiving little tidbits of wisdom from sagely old masters in cloaks.  It’s about licensing and toy companies. It’s especially about toy companies. It’s about them selling veritable ass-loads of action figures to your kids. This is all a great thing, of course…though maybe not for your checking account if you’re a parent…or a 30 something year old ‘collector’ in a subterranean living situation with your parents.

Star Wars is this wonderfully crafted modern cultural vessel that ties people together and spans entire generations through the enduring mythos of a fantasy space opera that has stood the test of time, but the whole thing now desperately needs an injection of ingenuity straight to the heart like Uma Thurman getting pumped full of Adrenaline after overdosing in Pulp Fiction.

I am incredibly satisfied with ’The Force Awakens’, and can strongly declare it a worthy successor to Jedi. Despite a series of minor flaws and a singular glaring one, The Force Awakens deserves its global success and positive critical reception. The Force has been brought back for a whole new generation to enjoy. It’s as nostalgic as it is entertaining, and it left me smiling in my theater seat.

Most importantly, it feels fun. 

Final score

9/10

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