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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

DAMN Good Movies -- STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS


There has been an awakening.

You guessed it, it's time once again for another of my movie takes, this time on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the latest in the Star Wars film series.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...May the Force be with you...

In October 2012, Star Wars creator George Lucas did the unthinkable by selling his production company Lucasfilm, and more importantly the Star Wars franchise, to The Walt Disney Company.  It was a move that rocked Star Wars fandom, or actually, woke it up from its traumatized, self-imposed coma, after Lucas' prequel trilogy that started so horribly with The Phantom Menace in 1999, only to improve slightly with each successive film.


With the announcement that Lucas would only serve as a creative consultant on Episode VII, hope returned as names of possible directors included David Fincher, Brad Bird and Guillermo del Toro.  J.J. Abrams ended up with the gig, setting a firestorm of interwebz rants from so-called "fans" that loathed him for rebooting Star Trek into a mainstream (and yes, more commercially successful) franchise.  Michael Arndt's script became the victim of "creative differences" that saw him replaced with Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi writer Lawrence Kasdan along with Abrams, when the film's direction shifted toward blending the return of classic characters Luke, Leia and Han with the next generation of heroes.  Over time, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill were announced as returning, along with Harrison Ford -- somehow -- after decades of grumpiness that Han Solo was a one-note character that failed to interest him.

The film opens roughly thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, with Luke Skywalker missing and a rebranded Empire now calling itself the First Order, opposed by General Leia Organa and her New Republic military force called the Resistance.  As John Williams re-energized score covers us like a comfy fleece blanket, the action centers around the new desert planet Jakku.  Resistance pilot Poe Dameron meets with village elder Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow) get a map to Luke's location, but Stormtroopers under the command of Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren destroy the village and capture Poe.  Poe's droid BB-8 takes off into the desert with the map, coming across a scavenger named Rey at a junkyard settlement.  Stormtrooper FN-2187, unable to kill for the First Order, frees Poe and they escape in a stolen TIE fighter, as Poe decides FN-2187 is a pretty craptastic name and dubs him "Finn" instead.  They crash on Jakku and Finn appears to be the only survivor.  He encounters Rey and BB-8, but the First Order tracks them and launches an airstrike. Desperate to escape, the three come across an old hunk of junk spaceship, which --Surprise! -- turns out to be the Millennium Falcon.

So, right off the bat, we're introduced to our new central characters, all of whom are instantly likeable, and thrust into an exciting desert junkyard battle sequence.  Early on, we learn that Rey is more than just a simple scavenger, as her impressive technological and piloting skills remind us of two other young heroes from 1977 and 1999.  She, Finn and BB-8 are soon stranded in space, however, setting up the long-awaited meeting of two generations as Han Solo and Chewbacca reclaim their old ship.

Some exposition from Han follows, explaining that Luke went into self-imposed exile after one of his Jedi apprentices flipped to the Dark Side and destroyed his new Jedi order.  The story soon shifts to the planet Takodana, where we're introduced to Maz Kanata, who's able to hook BB-8 up with the Resistance and also just happens to have the blue lightsaber that belonged to Luke and his father Anakin before him.  How Maz ended up with Luke's lightsaber after his hand was chopped off in Empire remains a mystery (for now), but it seems to call to Rey, giving her disturbing visions that understandably freak her out and send her running into the woods outside.

Things escalate quickly as we learn the First Order has a new planet-sized superweapon called Starkiller Base (Starkiller, Death Star...Get it?) that can take out multiple planets at a time.  If it feels like a lot of this is familiar, that's because it is -- deliberately.  Abrams opts for a "back to basics" approach with his film, taking story elements he loved from the original Star Wars, shuffling them around, and giving them a fresh coat of paint.  This is his love letter to the saga, which some may dismiss as mere fan service, but ultimately serves to reassure everyone that Star Wars is Star Wars once again.

As Rey awakens to her strong connection with the Force while being held on Starkiller Base, the Resistance comes up with a plan to destroy the planetary shield so that Poe's squadron can attack.  This leads to a confrontation between Han and Kylo Ren, whom we find out is actually Han and Leia's son, Ben Solo.  It's here that Harrison Ford gets his fondest wish at long last, as Han is killed by his son while trying to turn him away from the Dark Side.  With Kylo Ren's internal conflict seemingly resolved (for now), it's now up to Finn and Rey to stop him.

Finn battles Ren, using Luke's lightsaber as teased in the trailers, only to end up gravely wounded.  And as we suspected, it's Rey who steps up to the plate to claim her destiny, taking Luke's lightsaber at last as John Williams' Skywalker theme brings a smile to longtime fans in the process.  Just as Rey gets the upper hand, however, the battle is interrupted by a large fissure and the awkward realization that they're standing on a planet that's about to go kablooey.  

And then, it's time to set up Episode VIII.  Han is mourned, R2-D2 wakes up just in time to reveal where Luke's been hiding out, Chewbacca allows Rey to take Han's place inside the Falcon's cockpit, and we're off to an island on a distant planet.  Rey climbs the steps of a Jedi temple and finds Luke, now looking like Sir Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi.  Offering Luke his old lightsaber, Rey extends her arm...and waits...and waits...

...for two years, apparently, until we finally return for the sequel.

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed? Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...

REY -- Daisy Ridley is going to become a star.  As lead character Rey, she's intelligent, resourceful, charismatic, and strong in the Force.  You can forget about all that poodoo from Max Landis dismissing Rey as a "Mary Sue," because she has flaws (her initial fear of Luke's lightsaber, abandonment issues, etc.) and still manages to overcome them like any good hero.  And yes, it seems more than likely that Rey is a Skywalker, although whether she's Luke daughter or someone else entirely remains to be seen.  I can't wait to see where Rey's hero's journey takes her next.

FINN/FN-2187 -- As Rey's partner in crime, or perhaps the Ron Weasley to her Harry Potter, John Boyega is entertaining and often intriguing as Finn.  We still don't know the reason why his First Order "conditioning" failed to take hold, or why he had no actual name prior to meeting Poe.  After he recovers from the severe back injury at the hands of Kylo Ren (or rather, his lightsaber), I'm curious as to how his friendship with Rey will change once she returns from Jedi Training Camp.

BB-8 -- Man, what a home run they hit with BB-8.  This electronic soccer ball has all the charm R2-D2 had in the original Star Wars, without feeling like a cheap knockoff.  And most importantly, he/she/it/whatever feels like an actual character.  If you weren't sold on this little droid when he was first appeared on screen with Poe Dameron, that moment where BB-8 give Finn a "thumbs up" by quickly flashing his concealed blowtorch widget definitely had you.

KYLO REN/BEN SOLO -- Adam Driver, please keep your mask on.  No, really.  I get that Abrams and Kasdan wanted to show that Ren wasn't just a straight Darth Vader clone by having him remove his helmet at various times, but all it did was remind me of how Driver looks absolutely nothing like Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher.  And while his murder of Daddy Solo locked in his Dark Side status (at least until Episode IX), does this finally complete his training for Snoke or is there something worse to come?

HAN SOLO -- Speaking of Han, ol' Captain Grumpy Harrison Ford finally got his wish, didn't he?  As soon as Han and Chewie parted ways to plant the detonators, I pretty much guessed that Han was going to meet his end, and sure enough, it happened.  On the bright side, at least we got to see Han and Chewie in action together one last time, and there was enough closure with Leia even though they never got the happy ending they deserved.

CHEWBACCA -- Bad knees and all, it was lovely to have Peter Mayhew return as Chewie. His dismissal of Han being a war hero, telling his sob story to the medical aide treating his wounded shoulder, and best of all, his subtle acceptance of Rey as Han's successor aboard the Falcon helped make this movie work.

GENERAL LEIA ORGANA -- Carrie Fisher was kept pretty much to extended cameos as Leia, and maybe that was a good thing.  It felt disheartening to see how sad and lonely this sassy princess became after thirty years and her separation from Han, but it felt more real to know that she became more comfortable with Resistance work than fancy diplomatic missions.  But will she play a important role in her son's eventual redemption?

C-3PO -- Anthony Daniels was also relegated to extended cameos, but you had to laugh at his abrupt interruption of Han and Leia's reunion by yammering on about his red arm.  And what the hell is up with that red arm, anyway?

POE DAMERON -- I gather Oscar Isaac's character Poe was originally intended to be killed off, but I'm glad that decision was reversed.  If Kylo Ren is the son of Han and Leia, Poe almost feels like the son of Han and Wedge Antilles.  His bromance with Finn was fun to watch, but I'm not entirely sold on his sudden return to the Resistance after being presumed killed on Jakku.  What if Poe endured some First Order conditioning prior to his return, hmmm?

MAZ KANATA -- Lupita Nyong'o is unrecognizable as the voice and MoCap of thousand-year-old pirate Maz, coming off like this trilogy's Yoda in all the right ways.  Her introduction in the Cantinaesque scene on Takodana complements her character perfectly, as she teases future mysteries while getting Rey closer to her true path.  The big mystery, of course, is what happened with her and Chewie that she considers him her "boyfriend"?

GENERAL HUX -- Domhnall Gleeson fulfills the Aryan Brotherhood role well as the leader of the First Order soldiers.  He comes off just as arrogant and pompous as Tarkin did back in the day, but savvy enough to know when hit the eject button before things go boom.

SUPREME LEADER SNOKE -- As the new Emperor Palpatine, Andy Serkis is also unrecognizable as the voice and MoCap of Snoke.  It seems unlikely that the ginormous hologram shown in this film is the character's actual size, and really, how hilarious would it be if Snoke turns out to be just three or four feet tall?  Snoke has his work cut out if he wants to be as memorable as Palpatine though, so we'll see what he's got up his holographic sleeve next.

CAPTAIN PHASMA -- If I continue to do comparisons to original trilogy characters, Gwendoline Christie's Phasma has to be Boba Fett.  She's cool to look at, has minimal screen time, never takes her mask off, doesn't say a whole lot, and doesn't really do much of anything.  Providing she survived her time in the Starkiller trash compactor, I wonder where or if we'll see her again.  

R2-D2 CAMEO -- Original gangsta droid Artoo spent most of the film out of commission under a blanket until he's needed to play deus ex machina and reveal where Luke's been hiding out all this time.  At least Artoo left with Rey and Chewie to get Luke, so I'm guessing he has a far larger part in Episode VIII.


LUKE SKYWALKER CAMEO -- One thing that surprised me was how little screen time Mark Hamill got, maybe a couple of minutes at the very end.  Sure, he was missing from most of the trailers, but I thought his return would factor in about halfway through so we could see Luke, Leia and Han together again.  And if Luke has finally completed his character arc to become the new Obi-Wan, that certainly doesn't bode well for his fate in Episode VIII.

All in all, Star Wars: The Force Awakens actually lives up to the insane amount of advance hype.  After the prequels by George Lucas mostly disappointed, this film needed to reassure original trilogy fans that the saga could continue, while giving a new generation of fans the same thrill my generation got back in 1977.  Most important of all though, we're actually looking forward to the next Star Wars film, instead of dreading it.  And thankfully, Episode VIII is only two years away...

And for those who may be wondering, here's my ranking of Star Wars films:

1. Star Wars (1977)
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
4. Return of the Jedi (1983)
5. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
6. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
7. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)


Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

2 comments:

  1. Great post, Charles. I agree with every point (I might swap 1 & 2 in your order of episodes, but I'm sure you'd say I'm wrong. :-> ) And yeah, Kylo needs to keeep his mask on. He's WAY too "pretty boy" to be taken serious as a bad guy.

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    1. No worries, I have no problem with people who prefer Empire over Star Wars. I know there are a lot of them, however misguided they may be. :)

      Glad you enjoyed my review!

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