Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Star Wars "Awakens" (With Spoilers)

All the spoilers ahead.  All of them.

"The Force Awakens" was probably always doomed to be a mess because it's obligated to do way, way too much.  It has to introduce all these new characters and places, then integrate them into the existing "Star Wars" universe that the fans know and love, but without alienating newcomers.  I'd say the film is very successful at doing the first, but stumbles with the rest.  When Han Solo and Chewbacca showed up, and almost instantly got into the thick of the action, I thought we were going to be okay.  But then the action slowed down, and the dialogue got more expository and clumsy.  Things got especially awkward when Princess Leia showed up, and she and Han would only refer to Kylo Ren as "our son" because his real name was played up as a big reveal.  And then we were in the middle of the Skywalker family soap opera again, trying to catch up with decades of past traumas, and bracing for more to come.

I cringed my way through most of Carrie Fisher's scenes.  I respect the woman immensely, but her screen presence just isn't what it once was, and her whole demeanor was just unbearably stiff.  Harrison Ford was much better, and brought so much to the scenes with Finn and Rey.  But I knew that it was pretty likely that the only reason he came back to the series was to be killed off, and the grandiose way it happened left me a little cold.  Han was always the cool everyman who stayed out of the Jedi stuff, and to see him in that operatic confrontation scene with Kylo Ren was just bizarre.  It would have helped so much if we could have gotten a little more of a sense of their relationship, some better understanding of what the hell happened to Ben Solo beyond Han and Leia talking obliquely around the old hurts.  I know that's all coming in the next two films, but we sure could have used some of the highlights up front.

And on that note, I have no idea how this movie could successfully play to newcomers.  There's so much here that requires that you know who these characters are, their history, and their existing dynamics.  Yes, it's quickly explained who Han and Leia and Luke are, but See Threepio's entrance is absolutely reliant on having watched the old trilogy.  So is that amazing moment with the "garbage" ship and Han calling out to Ben.  Some of the worst dialogue involves the clumsy rehashing of concepts like the Force and the Rebellion.  This was a movie made for the fans of the original trilogy, and that's not going to be sustainable in the long run.  The franchise is nearly forty years old, and can't afford to get bogged down in too much nostalgia.  Keep in mind that the movie may be breaking records at home, but it's not playing so well in parts of the world where "Star Wars" was only recently introduced.  

With all that off my chest, I think the set up for the rest of the new trilogy is pretty good.  The mystery of Rey's origins was handled nicely, and I can't wait to see Finn and Poe teamed up again.  Kylo Ren is almost certainly getting a redemption story arc, and Luke Skywalker's story will surely play into that.  I'm more confident about Mark Hamill's acting than Carrie Fisher's, so that's something to look forward to.  Daisy Ridley really is an instant superstar - some of her reaction shots alone made such a difference.  I think Finn got the shorter end of the stick as far as character development, but John Boyega's energy was great.  I really want to see him have some big, triumphant moments in the future films.  As for Kylo Ren, his character is similar to the prequel version of Anakin Skywalker, but there's already a huge difference because Adam Driver is a much better actor than Hayden Christiansen.

The humor in "The Force Awakens" remains its best asset.  Most of my favorite moments were the funny ones - the Millennium Falcon reveal, the stormtroopers backing away from Kylo Ren's tantrum, and Finn going a little overboard telling Phasma that he's "in charge now."  BB-8 worked so well, it caught me completely off guard in the best way.  I don't know if it's going to be a good idea to continue with the same volume of gags and jokes in Episodes VIII and IX, but it's such a relief to have this element of the original trilogy back after the prequels.  I'm fully subscribed to the theory that Han Solo and Chewbacca were a major reason for the success of "Star Wars," and having the two of them and their banter back for this round was vital.      

However, I do think that the training wheels have to come off, and the new trilogy has to find its own footing.  In some ways I'm glad that Han Solo is out of the picture now, so that "Star Wars" won't be tempted to keep relying on his presence.  "The Force Awakens" was a lot of fun, but I thought that "The Phantom Menace" was a lot of fun in 1999.  The sequel trilogy could very well end up like the prequel trilogy, even though it's had a stronger start.  "The Force Awakens" didn't have a Jar-Jar, fortunately, but it has its own set of weaknesses.  Too much retreading old ground, and not enough striking out on its own.  I'm glad that J.J. Abrams isn't going to stick around - I thought his handling of the action sequences was only so-so, and the callbacks really were too much.  The 2009 "Star Trek" is still his best film and best reboot.

Here's looking ahead to Gareth Edwards' "Rogue One," which I suspect may turn out to be a better film for having a completely different story and set of characters from any of the previous "Star Wars" installments.

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