Monday, February 1, 2016

Star Wars "Awakens" (Without Spoilers)

Well, I'm late to the party, aren't I?  I bet you're all sick of "Star Wars" by now, but I'm determined to have my say, putting general impressions in this review, and a more spoilery reaction post tomorrow.  Ready or not, here we go.

Well, "The Force Awakens" isn't the best "Star Wars" movie ever made or the worst.  It's very reverent and derivative of the original trilogy, often to a fault, but its original elements are all very strong and give me real hope for the following movies in a way that "The Phantom Menace" didn't.  Consider our new heroes: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger eking out a meager existence on the desert world of Jakku, Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper deserter who only wants to get as far away from his pursuers as possible, dashing X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and the little soccer-ball of a droid, BB-8.  They're all so much more interesting than Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala in the prequels ever managed to be, and had me invested in their stories almost immediately.

And consider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the new Sith baddie who menaces our heroes on behalf of the First Order, which succeeded the fallen Empire and.  Ren is a different kind of villain than we've seen before, someone young and unstable, still finding his footing, though he wields a great amount of power.  It creates such a different dynamic with the heroes and with the other characters than we've seen before.  I think it's going to be as much fun following him through the new trilogy as it will be to follow Rey and Finn.  I'm less enthusiastic about Ren's master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who we get to see briefly via hologram.  He's one of the characters who seems to follow the template of the previous films a little too closely, along with a new diminutive wise alien figure named Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyongo).

"The Force Awakens" is at its worst when it's catering to the existing "Star Wars" fanbase with a constant stream of callbacks, cameos, and references.  The movie captures the feel of the original trilogy to a large degree, but too often does it by creating variations on familiar scenes - droids lost in the desert, a rescue that requires running around an enemy base, a visit to a watering hole full of seedy alien toughs, and of course the final epic battles involving a doomsday weapon.  At certain points the movie feels like a highlight reel of the entire first trilogy crammed into one movie - we're constantly hustling through new environments that feel strangely familiar, meeting old friends again, and there's hardly a moment to stop and catch your breath.  Then again, the slower scenes tend to be the weakest - too many clumsy exposition dumps and not enough character moments.

I liked the early scenes best, where the new characters are being introduced, and old characters are being reintroduced with a great deal of restraint.  Time and care are taken to show that Rey is similar to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but she's not him.  And Finn might be a good guy at heart, but it takes him a while to wrap his head around the idea.  However, about halfway through the pace picks up, and suddenly we're in the well-worn groove of a typical modern blockbuster reboot, and the goal seems to have become to hit as many of the plot points from the original "Star Wars" as possible before the end credits roll.  I was simultaneously gleeful that all my nerdy "Star Wars" fangirl impulses were being thoroughly indulged, and distressed that I could predict every single beat in the third act well in advance.    

At least with J.J. Abrams in the director's chair, this is all a lot of fun.  Thankfully all the humor works, and there's plenty of it.  No more tin-ear Lucas dialogue.  Finn and Rey are constantly bantering, BB-8 is a great source of physical gags, and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) gets all the best lines, as always.  At least two great bits involve stormtroopers - remember all the silly stormtrooper humor from the old movies?  It's great to see that again after the self-seriousness of the later prequels.  However, I've got to say that the lighter tone and manic pacing does get in the way of the big dramatic moments of "The Force Awakens."  The whole Jedi mythology has never seemed shakier.  And as happy as I am to see the characters from the first trilogy back again, a few of the old actors just weren't up to the task.

I'm grateful that "Star Wars" is back, and that it's in the hands of filmmakers who clearly care a great deal about honoring its origins.  However It's time to move on, and the further the new "Star Wars" films get away from its predecessors, the better.  This is a movie to build on, a good step in the right direction.  However, it's not a "Star Wars" film I think I'll be too keen on revisiting soon.


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