Friday, December 18, 2015

The Force is Woken Up

I liked it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I mean. It was good. I didn't like it as much as a lot of people did. I think in some ways the prequels, certainly Episode III, are better films, even though Episode VII has much, much better dialogue than any of the prequels. I'll give you a spoiler free review and then at the end of the post I'll have some spoiler related comments (preceded by ample warning).

The first half of the film is the best half and has all of my favourite components, all of which had to do with excellent chemistry between the actors and characters. Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) have wonderful chemistry, Finn and Rey (Daisy Ridley) have almost as good chemistry, and the best chemistry is between Rey and Han (you know who). Rey and Han geeking out together is so delightful you want a whole trilogy about just these two. Well, three, Han and Chewie have great chemistry, too, and Harrison Ford shows again what always made him so good in Sci-Fi and Fantasy movies, his ability to react to a strange world and an incomprehensible wookiee as if they were normal and had layers of meaning to him, not all of which he's expressing on the surface.

The return to practical effects for many (though not all) of the aliens is nice and one marvels at the creativity gone into their designs and construction. It looks like there was a very conscious effort to emulate classic Jim Henson puppets, many of them look like they walked right off the set of Labyrinth.

As I said, the first half is the best. One of the things I appreciated most was Abrams' decision to start small and intimate. I loved following Rey on her routine as a scavenger and I loved the detail of her putting together a humble meal.

Adam Driver gives a very good performance and I found myself wondering what it would have been like if he'd played Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma does quite a lot with what turned out to be very little screentime. She's much more effective than vitriolic Domhnall Gleeson or Andy Serkis as Snoke. She and Driver seemed to have a better idea of how to play villains--as people who don't see themselves as villains.

This is the best J.J. Abrams movie I've seen, it's certainly better than his Star Trek films, and even better than Super 8, my previous favourite. And it actually has a lot in common with Super 8. Both begin strong and falter in their final acts, both impress the viewer with an affection for a style of cinematic story telling native to the 1980s that manages to be genuine and nostalgic at the same time. Both do a good job of establishing characters and both seem to lose the threads of the characters in the end.

Actually, a better comparison might be to Abrams' television series Felicity, a show about a charismatic young woman who follows her heart. Rey is in many ways the new Felicity and she has some of the same problems. Where Felicity became dull as all of her conflicts began to come entirely from external sources, so is Rey made uninteresting by her infallible purity. She's a far cry from Anakin or Luke whose stories are paved with their own youthful errors. Rey doesn't really make mistakes and there's much less a sense of someone maturing on a journey, tempered or traumatised by experimentation, being forced to deal with the folly of her own recklessness. In this way Finn is more interesting, though the big mistake he makes is a little silly and broad. I'm hoping Poe gets a bigger role in the next films because he more than any of the other new characters feels like he's stepped right out of the original trilogy; a cocky, awkward, but talented young man who shrugs off his errors under a veneer of bravado.

For all the weaknesses the prequels had with their dialogue, they had a focus that Force Awakens lacks. There's nothing in the new movie nearly as interesting as the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan, or an arch as interesting as Anakin's fall to the Dark Side. All of the conflicts characters have in Force Awakens are external rather than internal. It has the effective dynamic of bickering young people from IV and V but little sense of the insecurities behind them. Driver maybe comes closest but so little time is given to his story.

For the most part, I think this is a better film than Phantom Menace. Yet I'm not entirely sure. Certainly there's no extravagant miscalculation like Jar Jar Binks but there's less of a sense of a universe with striking and bizarre visual design--all of the locations in Force Awakens are completely echoes, not just of Star Wars but all the many things Star Wars influenced. Jakku isn't Tatooine but it looks like Tatooine; they go to a planet that isn't Yavin but it looks like Yavin, including the architecture; the new Death Star isn't a Death Star but, really . . . is the Death Star.

The sabre battle between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Obi-Wan Kenobi is superior to the climactic battle in Force Awakens and it's hard to say exactly why. Darth Maul has, I think, two lines in the whole movie, he's essentially all visual and vague malice, but I guess you could say that about Darth Vader in Episode IV. Well, to really discuss this I need to switch over to

Spoiler Territory.

Spoilers Ahead!

You've been warned!

So, yes, I was wrong in my predictions. I guess the mistake I and a lot of other people made in coming up with theories about Luke's absence from the trailers was assuming that Luke was absent for an interesting reason. No, it turns out he really was just hard to find and he's not in the movie much. It was kind of a drag actually and now I guess we won't get to see him reunite with Han.

And that's the big, big spoiler, I guess, if you've decided to read this without seeing the movie anyway. I guess Ford finally got his wish--he wanted Han to die in Return of the Jedi because he didn't think Han had anything interesting to do in the third film. And that's somewhat true though they might have found something better for him than dying. His death fits even more oddly in Force Awakens, though. A big part of the problem in killing Han in any movie is that he's already had one of the best death scenes in cinema history when he was frozen in carbonite in Empire Strikes Back, a just about impossible act to follow. Particularly now that he and Leia, particularly Leia, have mellowed out almost to the point of flat lining already. Poor Leia in this film is little more than an extra. She's even duller than she was in Return of the Jedi. I remember Carrie Fisher mocking their dialogue in the Return of the Jedi DVD commentary, concluding, "It was better when we were fighting." More than that, the two of them in Empire Strikes Back were duelling vulnerabilities. In Force Awakens, their relationship is even more decaffeinated. They hug! They don't even kiss. I understand there's a lot of water under the bridge, but we didn't get to see any of this water, which leads us to the main problem with Kylo Ren.

For all Driver puts into the part, the final confrontation between him and his father, Han Solo, is a complete misfire on several levels. It doesn't make sense that Han would throw so much caution to the wind and Ren's duplicity is so obvious that Han just looks like a sucker. With Finn and Rey witnessing the death, and Han having been set up as Rey's father figure (and lest that's too subtle, Ren essentially says to Rey, "He's your father figure!") obviously seems to indicate this is a parallel to Obi-Wan's death in Episode IV--though it comes off as more like Qui-Gon's death in Episode I. But at least Qui-Gon lost in an honest fight. And Obi-Wan's reaction to it, and Luke's reaction to Obi-Wan's death, was satisfyingly intense. Rey's reaction to Han's Death is blended with Finn's and both are sidelined by Chewbacca's reaction. We never have a moment where we see Rey really reacting to Han's death since, after all the action, she's caught up in worrying over the injured Finn. As much as I liked him before, I kind of hated him in that moment for stealing Han's thunder. Finn was run through with a lightsabre, so was Han. Finn survived, Han didn't. How the fuck did Finn survive? It looked like Ren severed his spine!

I did really start to want to see Ren taken down and I felt really good when Rey started to beat on him. Though it was a little too easy. With absolutely no training, she's easily able to beat the trained and experienced Ren in a duel. We didn't see Luke in a real sabre fight until the second movie and he lost. As a consequence, Rey as a character feels rushed and vague by the end of the film. So Han's death sabotages things in at least two ways--Harrison Ford was one of the best things about the film and then he's gone, his and Rey's chemistry was another one of the best things and now it's rendered meaningless.

So, overall, not a bad film, containing many charming elements but having some deep flaws. Also, Max Von Sydow should've had a bigger part.

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