Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) - A Newer Hope

Ten years after the release of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, a new Star Wars film has finally hit theaters. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has already broken box office records and was accompanied by one of the most relentless marketing campaigns in film history. Fans and critics alike are pleased with the new film, which in its intense, focused celebration of the original three films washes away the bitterness some fans hold towards the prequel trilogy (which I personally think goes overboard.)

Between The Force Awakens and his 2009 Star Trek film, director J.J. Abrams gets huge credit for successfully reviving two dormant sci-fi mega franchises. This is a very safe sequel, using imagery and characters fans have long loved while carefully introducing a new and different (but not TOO different) generation of heroes. The Force Awakens is a solid, well-made film that may be a little too familiar at times, but offers its own original ideas and commentary on the nature of the Star War itself, bolstered by strong performances by both its new and returning cast. It doesn't take the risks the prequel trilogy did, but is more likely to please a larger audience.

Familiar ships battle above a new world
I've always found the social media fixation on avoiding and condemning "spoilers" a little silly, and with this film it was taken to an extreme I've never before seen. Threatening to end friendships if someone talks about Star Wars before you get a chance to see it is bizarre and unhealthy and I'm certain it's not always a comment made in jest. Avoiding Force Awakens details, whether plot specific or simply the names of its characters, became a sort of bizarre ritual behavior of its own. It's funnier now that the film's out, because aside from one death and one familial connection, the plot's entirely made up of pieces of other Star Wars films. There aren't any big surprises here, and that's OK: A movie isn't just a list of plot twists to categorize on TV Tropes. The elements that make Force Awakens, and most movies, work has little to do with the details of its plot. But that's a rant for another time. Needless to say, spoilers will follow throughout this article.

New and Old: Star Wars Reborn

Set roughly thirty years after the events of 1983's Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens fills several seemingly discordant roles: It's functionally a sequel to both Return of the Jedi (the most recent film in the fictional Star Wars universe) and Revenge of the Sith (the most recently produced film in the real world), while also functioning as a soft remake of the original 1977 Star Wars. Elements of each film in the original trilogy are front and center: Returning heroes like Han Solo, Chewbacca, Leia Organa, and brief appearances by C3PO, R2-D2, and Luke Skywalker feature prominently in its story. We get to fly around in the Millennium Falcon again, visit a harsh desert world similar to but more destitute than Tatooine, witness forest warfare on a planet not unlike Endor, fight a desperate battle over the frozen mountains of a Hoth analogue, and take down a new Death Star in a battle that contains elements of both Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi's Death Star battles. A quieter, meeker Admiral Ackbar offers his guidance, and thankfully doesn't need to say his old catchphrase to make his point. While the prequels offer their fair share of callbacks and commentaries on the original films, The Force Awakens often feels like a Greatest Hits tribute.

Resistance war room, featuring C3PO as Venom Snake
The Force Awakens offers the simplest introductory text crawl the series has ever had: Luke Skywalker is missing, and two parties are searching for him: On the Dark Side, The First Order, a group that rose from the ashes of The Empire. On the side of good, The Resistance, a group led by Leia to fight The First Order. In the background somewhere is The New Republic, but they barely matter and we never meet any of its representatives. We're told, vaguely, that Luke is a threat to the First Order, but not why; within the film, he seems to have zero interest in the current galactic war.

The film's first act is structured closely to the original Star Wars. A desperate member of the underdog rebel faction hides a piece of data (here, a partial map to Luke's whereabouts) in a droid (the spherical BB-8) who takes off across a desert planet (Jakku, instead of Tatooine) hoping to get this data to safety before he can be caught by the Stormtroopers in close pursuit. Eventually BB-8 finds his way to Rey, a young pilot dreaming of a life beyond her sandy homestead. She soon meets a rogue hero in Finn, a Stormtrooper who flips sides and abandons his post once he discovers the level of cruelty being enforced by the First Order. The two barely escape in the Millennium Falcon, which Rey had dismissed as junk, and set off to get their droid friend back to the Resistance.

Rey walking her cool new dog
We see plenty of divergence from there, and the set up, both political and personal, certainly differs, but in functionally remaking A New Hope, Abrams is able to appeal to nostalgic fans while simultaneously introducing the story to new fans. The Force Awakens is self-contained enough to function without the older films, but knowing them greatly enhances it.

Plot is simple and straightforward here, avoiding the political machinations and underhanded treachery of the prequel trilogy (elements I personally enjoyed in those films) in favor of a simpler good versus evil story. As an action movie, Force Awakens is more sharply paced and visceral than anything in the prequels, wasting little time on obfuscating the audience's idea of which side's good and which side's bad (for me, both sides of the war in the prequels are wrong, one of the most compelling aspects of those films.) It's got better cinematography than Return of the Jedi, better comedy than any Star War film (BB-8 gives an adorable thumbs up to Finn at one point,) and a more rounded hero than A New Hope.

John Williams returns to score the film, but the new soundtrack doesn't have any true standouts like The Phantom Menace's Duel of the Fates. It's all good music, but relies almost too heavily on themes from the original trilogy. The best new song is Rey's theme, which we're introduced to as a quiet piano piece that's a welcome deviation from the rest of the score.

Apocalypse Now Awakens

When The Force Awakens offers new ideas, they're all as good or better than anything in the older movies. Finn and Ray are solid protagonists, rebel pilot Poe Dameron is a charming supporting character, and Han Solo plays a very different, and more emotional, role than he ever did before, supported by one of Harrison Ford's best performances in years. The two principle villains, Darth Vader fanboy Kylo Ren and First Order commander General Hux, are both well played. Kylo Ren's one of the most well-realized villains in a modern blockbuster, a welcome change from the weak villains of Abrams' two Star Trek films.

There are a few stumbles when recreating classic scenes. This film offers us a new take on the alien-rich Mos Eisley Cantina, a new version of the Death Star in the First Order's massive Starkiller Base, a new Yoda-inspired figure in the wise non-Jedi student of the Force Maz Kanata, and a new villain pulling the strings who appears only in hologram. None of these scenes are bad (though Not Emperor Snoke's exposition leans dangerously close, saved only by Kylo Ren's pouting), but they're simply not as strong as the scenes and characters that inspired them. The ghostly holographic visage of Emperor Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back serves as a disembodied spirit representing the Empire as a whole; we don't really know what this film's Supreme Leader Snoke represents yet.

The First Order: The Fandom Menace

In what's likely a smart financial move, The Force Awakens avoids spending any time dwelling on the political ramifications of the collapse of The Empire following Return of the Jedi. Audiences didn't react warmly to the political in-fighting of the prequels, and rather than move it to the background, The Force Awakens excises it almost entirely. We're told that a New Republic exists, that it has a senate, and that it may be funding the proxy war between the Resistance and the First Order. Most of the details come in a spittle-filled speech by General Hux, as he rages against perceived injustices committed by the Republic while his troops ready the Starkiller super laser, aimed at destroying five planets at the heart of the Republic. We're told that the Republic is destroyed, maybe, though in the prequels we know that the Old Republic is made of thousands of systems. The sense of scale and space here is dramatically squashed. Domhnall Gleeson plays Hux as an overconfident, vicious man inspired by Adolf Hitler, in case the fascist undertones of the Empire in the original films was too subtle.

Sometimes blunt works best.
We have a technically functional, mostly off-screen stable government in the New Republic. This isn't what Star Wars fans, or its universe, want: The First Order, a group of mostly young people in classic Star Wars costumes, are addicted to war and to violence and center their insurgency around a new Death Star, hoping to destroy the Senate and get us back to the status quo that is the original trilogy. Our heroes are oppressed by old Star Wars iconography; The First Order gets its troops by abducting and indoctrinating child soldiers, much as the Jedi Order did in the prequels (the name similarities are no coincidence), Rey struggles with the harsh life of a scavenger on her deadly desert home world, a peaceful forest world that combines Endor's greenery and Yavin IV's temple architecture is turned into a warzone, and the Starkiller itself is built in the guts of Not Hoth, symbolizing the home of one of the old Empire's greatest victories. It makes perfect sense that guys who idolize the Empire so hard would build a Death Star ten times bigger; they're the kind of guys reading and writing Expanded Universe novels.

Likewise, the Resistance has its own war addiction; Leia admits she went back to the only thing she was good at: Not diplomacy or negotiation, but commanding rebel strike teams. Both groups fight border skirmishes while the Republic largely turns a blind eye, trapped behind the slow crawl of bureaucracy. Leia comments that the Senate is too slow to get anything done, a sentiment Amidala, Anakin, and Palpatine all shared in the prequels. Eventually, the First Order shoots first, and (presumably) cripples the New Republic. Status quo is restored and any progress made in the previous films is more or less erased.

Kylo Ren: The only man smart enough to wear protective goggles.
Both sides are hungry for more Star War. Like Nero in Abram's 2009 Star Trek, the villains here are people who just can't let go of the past and of what they "know is true." Thirty years later, they're still dressing up as Stormtroopers and Imperial Officers and Darth Vaders and raging about how they've been wronged by the years in between. Both the fan anger at the prequels and the First Order's anger at the Republic is misguided rage that's easily manipulated by a greater power, whether it's Supreme Leader Snoke or the monstrous Youtube. While the themes of the previous six films most heavily focus on family, corruption, redemption, and faith, this one is mostly about Star Wars.
The obsessive fan.

Not that the film says all fans are bad; the problem is instead obsession to the point of stagnation. Rey keeps an ancient Rebel Pilot helmet around (drawing a parallel with Kylo Ren, who keeps the skeletal husk of Vader's helmet as a religious icon) and some kind of stuffed doll of a Rebel pilot. Her survival relies on the old corpses of original trilogy ships, as she scavengers the last scraps of value from crashed X-Wings and Star Destroyers, making her home in the shell of a dead horse AT-AT. However, Rey's arc involves growing up and leaving all that behind to forge her own story, no matter how scary that seems. It's a little undermined by her quest to find Luke at the end, though.

The normal fan. However, note the shadow. A sign of things to come?
Absent from all of this is Luke, who threw away his weapon and renounced violence at the end of Return of the Jedi. His disappearance isn't a kidnapping or a secret mission, but rather a self-induced exile after Kylo Ren, his once student, turns to evil. Luke quickly learns that training a new generation of Jedi and continuing the cycle of life and death via light side and dark side warfare isn't the way things should be. In Luke's single scene in the new film, we see a man confronted with the same weapon both he and his father used to cut down their enemies years ago. Mark Hamill plays the scene wordless but wonderfully, looking down on Rey holding the old lightsaber with a mix of pain and regret. Have the ghosts of war caught up with him? Has his lost daughter returned? Or is there something else going on here? Find out next time, in Star Wars Episode VIII! I generally dislike cliffhanger endings that end this inconclusively, but at the same time I love what Hamill does in his brief appearance as Luke. I hope he never takes up arms again.

Heroes on Both Sides

The Force Awakens finds its strength not in plot but in its characters, so it's best to look at them one by one to see why each works (or doesn't.)

Rey (Daisy Ridley)

Abandoned on Jakku when she was young, Rey is a resourceful and incredibly skilled young woman who is an adept pilot, mechanic, and fighter. She is an analogue of both Luke and Anakin Skywalker at the beginning of their arcs, and is likely Luke's daughter, given the way the lightsaber passed (indirectly) from Anakin to Luke reacts and awakens when it senses Rey's presence (R2-D2 may come back to life in exactly the way, or else his awakening in the film is a random, bizarre twist of fate.) Deep in her subconscious, she holds in her mind an image of the island home Luke has exiled himself to. After meeting Kylo Ren and being subjected to his Force-centric torture, Rey's own Force potential awakens and she proves herself even more powerful than he.

Luke Skywalker's arc involves learning the Force, feeling the temptation of the Dark Side, and rejecting it. Anakin Skywalker's arc involves the same, but ends with him embracing the power of Darkness, hoping desperately to use it to bring order to the galaxy and save the life of his pregnant wife. We don't know yet where Rey's story will take her, but as of now, she's following the Skywalker arc, complete with losing her mentor figure at a young age (Luke losing Obi-wan, Anakin losing Qui-Gon.) When we see her fight, she uses both the strength of her emotions and the power of calming meditation to best Kylo Ren in combat. Elements of both Dark and Light (as defined by the tenants of the Jedi Order) are present in Rey, but neither is shown as a weakness; they're complementary forces that help make her the powerful woman she is. She's impulsive, hardheaded, and yet careful and brilliant. My personal hope is that she'll finally be the one to prove that the Light/Dark dichotomy is bunk.

Like Luke and Anakin, she's kind to and has a rapport with droids, harboring none of the disrespect we see elsewhere in the galaxy (looking at you, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Attack of the Clones.) Visually, her masked appearance when we first meet her recalls Leia's disguise at Jabba's Palace, and her later exposed-upper arm outfits recall Amidala's similar look in Attack of the Clones.

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)

One of the film's few twists hits about halfway through the film: Kylo Ren, the masked servant of Supreme Leader Snoke, is actually Ben Solo, son of the now-separated Han Solo and Leia Organa. His history is left vague so far, with his parents explaining that he trained under Luke before something changed and led Kylo down a dark path. Now, he struggles to be the man his grandfather Darth Vader once was, working with The First Order to hunt down the last remnants of the Jedi in the galaxy (we never learn why they're perceived as a threat to the Order.) He wears a dented mask he doesn't even need (entirely in tribute to Vader) and asks for guidance from Vader's old helmet and ashes.

Kylo Ren is powerful and ruthless, and it takes the combined strength of Chewbacca, Finn, and Rey to eventually knock him down. He's inexperienced and reckless, fighting with a hobbyist lightsaber that flickers and sparks in a way that denies the quiet tranquility of sabers built by masters. Kylo's claymore-inspired saber suits him well; it's an imperfect clone of a classic image that has obvious faults but remains nonetheless deadly. His hero worship of Darth Vader is very appropriate, given the tantrums he throws when things don't go his way, taking his saber and smashing computers and consoles until he tires himself out. This is precisely how I'd expect Anakin to act in the time immediately following Revenge of the Sith, as he just begins to acclimate to his role as Darth Vader. We inevitably ask, "How did a nice looking kid from a good, loving family become a radicalized killer," as if it would be easier to accept him and his actions if he looked like a monster. Knowing that this seemingly normal guy with a kind family snapped and killed the other students at Luke's Jedi School is scarier than if he was just an emotionless ghoul.

Adam Driver brings the perfect blend of gravity and petulance to Kylo Ren. Whether he's having a Force Face Off with Ren, smashing all of his toys, or confronting his father, Driver fully commits to the character, giving us the most fascinating performance in the film. I'm very happy this character lives to see the next installment, and look forward to seeing what sort of relationship he'll build with Rey.

Finn (John Boyega)

I absolutely love the idea of taking the faceless Stormtroopers and humanizing them. Finn was abducted into the Force Order as a child and made his career in sanitation. His first look at battle is the film's opening scene, and the horror he witnesses is what sends him running. With Finn, the black and white dichotomy of Star Wars Morality is immediately questioned. If a Stormtrooper can be a kind hero, can a Jedi be a corrupt fool? The prequels say yes, but it's largely in the subtext. Here, the question is brought to the forefront, and we're left wondering how many other Stormtroopers have hearts of gold. This loses focus when Finn later has no qualms with gunning down other Stormtroopers. His thematic value gets derailed, which is one of the film's notable flaws.

As a character, Finn is this film's Han Solo analogue. He's a comedic figure who at first appears selfish (all he wants is to get away from the First Order) before finding his heart and committing fully to protecting his new friends. Finn is more endearing than Han ever was, and his flirtations with Rey are minor and harmless, in contrast to Han's overbearing forcefulness. It's a difference in the generations in which these films were made, but it makes Finn feel like a much gentler guy.

Both Finn and Rey serve as audience-identification characters, as we witness the world through their eyes. While Rey begins her growth into a more mythic figure, Finn remains firmly human, a much needed grounding in a universe full of space wizards.

Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher)

Han and Leia have a child together between the original trilogy and this new one, but their relationship is a messy, on-again off-again routine. This is perfectly understandable given the way both of them act in the original films; these aren't really people who could have a stable relationship together. Seeing them reunite here is bittersweet, and together they discuss ways to bring their son Ben back to his senses.

Han, still accompanied by the lovable giant Chewbacca, finds himself once again working (poorly) as a smuggler, in debt to various space gangsters. His chance meeting with Rey and Finn after they steal the Millennium Falcon from a junk yard leads him reluctantly back to the Resistance, but his main drive is his son. When Han leaves to confront Kylo Ren on the Starkiller base, he shows elements of both Obi-Wan Kenobi confronting Vader on the Death Star in A New Hope and Luke confronting his father at the end of Return of the Jedi. Han's plea ultimately ends in tragedy.

Han is one of the film's main characters. Luke barely appears and Leia's role is mostly in the background, but Han is of major importance here. This is Ford's best turn as the character, bringing a sense of sadness and regret to Solo that makes him much more human than the sarcastic bag of quips from the original films. Seeing Han old and yet optimistic, now fully accepting the mystical nature of the universe, is one of the film's strongest elements.

Leia has less screen time than Han but is still compelling. She fully commands the respect of her soldiers and no longer takes any guff from Han. She's matured into a powerful leader, even if her leadership continues to fan the flames of war rather than reform a sluggish democracy. Her connection to the Force is obviously strong, but Leia never leaves her duties to train as a Jedi. She doesn't need to; she's confident and certain in the path she's chosen for herself.

Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)

The opening scene of the film introduces Poe Dameron, the Resistance's ace pilot, in the midst of retrieving the map to Luke's hidden refuge. He laughs in the face of danger and fights selflessly in the name of the Resistance. While he has Luke's skill as an X-Wing pilot, Poe actually plays a role closer to Leia's in A New Hope. Shortly after sending BB-8 away with his secret recording, Poe mocks Kylo Ren's mask to his face, recalling Leia's mockery of Grand Moff Tarkin's "foul stench" when she runs into him in A New Hope. Poe is taken prisoner, where he is tortured for information by Kylo much as Leia was by Vader. Both are rescued by kind-hearted Stormtroopers (though Finn's uniform is legitimate and Luke's was just a disguise.) Later in their respective films, Leia and Poe explain key weaknesses in the enemy's defense system. Leia falls in love with Han; Poe doesn't fall in love with Finn. Not yet, anyway. There's two more movies to go.

I'm a big Oscar Isaac fan. He's incredibly talented in his lead roles in Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year, and Ex Machina (also starring his Force Awakens co-star Domhnall Gleeson) and it was fun seeing him in a purely heroic role as a break from his more morally ambiguous roles. Isaac looks like he's having a great time here, and while his role is relatively small and has few layers, he breathes a playful and charming life into Poe. Next year, we'll get to see how he does as a pure, hammy villain, in the titular role of Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse.

General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson)

I love Gleeson's lead performances in 2014's Frank and 2015's Ex Machina. He plays subtle characters with a kind surface and a dark undercurrent, giving us an every-man that's easy to identify with but ultimately part of the problem, whether it's a misunderstanding of mental illness and celebrity in Frank or a misunderstanding of sexual love and selfless love in Ex Machina.

General Hux has zero subtlety and it's fun to see Gleeson give that a shot. He's the film's most bombastic character, and has little depth to him. That's not a mistake or a flaw; his brash, almost inhuman personality perfectly resonates with what the First Order is. Vader represented the mechanized, emotionless, dehumanizing nature of the Empire in A New Hope. Hux represents the youthful, pigheaded fanaticism of the First Order here. He's important for showing us that this organization is not the body of old men who represented the Old Republic in the prequels and the Empire in the original trilogy. His fascist obsessions make us ask just what happened after the fall of the Empire, and how bad things got for the people who weren't part of the victory party. He cannot be sympathized with, and when he orders the Starkiller to fire, his eyes light up and glow red, illuminated by the beam of death reaching out into space, directly associating him, physically, with the weapon. But while we may not sympathize, we should still ask what happened to make this man what he is, and what can be done to prevent such men from coming to power. The film spends little time on these interesting questions.

Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis)

These are the film's two major CGI characters, one representing the Light and one the Dark. Maz is this film's Yoda, and runs a more mellow version of the Mos Eisley Cantina. She helps guide Rey toward the Jedi path, while she herself has no formal training in the Force. Maz is likable and delivers a funny joke about Chewbacca, but her presence in the film feels too small. She vanishes from the film immediately following Leia's reunion with Han, when she should remain present as an adviser figure. Is it weird that the wise mentor figure lives in a temple with a giant statue of herself outside?

Snoke leads the First Order but we learn little about him. He serves as a father figure to both Kylo Ren and General Hux, as both rush to the space holophone to call him and ask permission while bickering with each other. He's obviously a parallel for Emperor Palpatine, though his true nature is very vague in this film. Is he a Wizard of Oz figure, a massive hologram hiding a feeble man? His enthroned hologram is more pompous and stately than Palpatine's spectral projection. Is he the Dark Side made flesh? Is he the Darth Plagueis referenced in Revenge of the Sith, who managed to cheat death after all? Did he do it by becoming a ghost in the machine, a living hologram, the way Obi-Wan and Yoda became ghosts in the Force? There's a lot more to learn about this guy, but right now, he's just the bogeyman who gets the film's worst expository dialogue.

Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie)

Game of Thrones fan favorite Gwendoline Christie plays this film's Boba Fett: A character with cool, toy-friendly armor that appears tough, collected, and intimidating before going out like a sucker without accomplishing much of note. Like Fett, fans took to the character before the film was released, but Phasma's role in The Force Awakens is largely bureaucratic. She disciplines rogue Stormtroopers off screen, gives reports to Hux and Kylo Ren, and flexes and poses every once and a while.

When cornered by Han and Finn, Phasma quickly gives in to their demands and takes down the shield to the Starkiller base with no resistance. I expected it to be a trick; maybe she faked taking it down while really calling in reinforcements? But no, she really did just do it, without a struggle, and then Han throws her in a trash chute off-screen. And of course that's how she goes out; if she's going to be Boba Fett, she's fated to an indignant life. At least being tackled by Chewbacca has more dignity than being knocked into a gaping hole by a half-blind Han Solo on accident.

Star War Without End

Over the next four years, Disney plans to use its newly acquired Lucasfilm division to produce two more installments of this new sequel trilogy as well as a couple of standalone spinoffs. I'm worried that quality will suffer as rushed production time, crowded schedules, and brand fatigue become more of an issue (looking at you, Marvel Cinematic Universe.) I'm keeping an open mind, and am hopeful that at least the two direct sequels to The Force Awakens will maintain the level of quality in this film, but I can't say it doesn't worry me a little. Until then, it's nice to have a solid new Star Wars film, even if it plays very safe compared to the flawed but more ambitious prequels.

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