Sunday, December 27, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens / ***1/2 (2015)

“The Force Awakens” begins with the same note of wonder that first roused audiences of “Star Wars” to excitement four decades ago: with a lone shot of space interrupted by the quiet arrival of a menacing ship. It glides into view just as abruptly as many others do in modern science fiction epics, but one belonging to George Lucas’ world of Jedis and Sith lords carries a certain chord of prominence: it means that viewers are once again being enticed by places and characters they have come to regard with the utmost enthusiasm. That’s because the very existence of this series represents two very important landmarks in modern cinema: 1) the birth of the notion of movie blockbusters; and 2) the most thorough expansion of our moviegoeing imaginations, which had previously been limited to the narrow visions of a film industry not yet revolutionized by plausible special effects. Some often wonder how any singular sensation could persist for so long and so consistently, but it has never faded from memory, and now comes a seventh chapter in a series that refuses to wander quietly into the night, even as the experience of going to the theater has broadened to provide countless offerings just as ambitious.

Think about the dual context of that one shot. It doesn’t merely frame the material in a veneer of scope or ambition. What it does, perhaps necessarily, is remind audiences that all good stories must eventually circle back around to their direct intentions instead of distancing themselves from the past. There is a power in tradition, especially when it comes to galaxies far far away. “The Force Awakens” may involve characters and plot situations that occur 30-something years after the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but director J.J. Abrams and his two co-writers haven’t so much taken adventurous departures as they have remade the essence of “A New Hope” for modern convenience. There are moments where the details are even blatantly familiar. But after a trilogy of prequels that divided fans and countless novelizations over the last several years, is it any wonder that Abrams’ goal is so direct? Or that he wants to get right back to the basics of this complicated universe? There is no glory in moving a story forward without the necessary reminders of why.

The movie begins with the arrival of a hotshot rebel pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac) arriving in a small desert establishment seeking audience with a wise elder (Max von Sydow), who holds critical information: namely, a map showing the location of the long lost Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has not been seen in many years. That’s because he was driven into self-imposed exile following the slaughter of his prized pupils at the hands of a fallen student, and in a climate where the galaxy is overrun by soldiers of “The First Order,” the will of the lost Jedi may be all that is left to stall the heinous efforts of the oppressors. That is especially true considering just how dangerous and expansive the dark side has become; spearheaded by a new leader calling himself Kylo Ren, they too hope to locate the whereabouts of Skywalker (preferably before the Resistance does) in order to eliminate him from the picture, all but guaranteeing their victory against a crumbling republic.

An ambush ensues, costing the pilot his freedom and the lives of all those in the village. Kylo Ren, desperately in search of the map, does not find it; strategically, Poe had it concealed in a small rotating droid (known as BB8) before getting caught, and that machine is now barreling through the expansive desert hoping to come to a safe destination to await his master. What the droid does instead, however, is run into the company of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young and ambitious scavenger who has little going for her in the desolate planet other than her wits and general common sense – two qualities that turn out to be a rarity in this place, it seems. Meanwhile, one of the storm troopers in Ren’s First Order army (played by John Boyega) breaks free from mental enslavement and joins Poe in an elaborate escape from the First Order’s ship, hopefully in time to locate BB8 and take back the map before Ren’s forces overtake them.

The plot carves a distinct path that recalls the underlying structure of “A New Hope,” but does so with enthusiastic new touches. A scene involving Rey and Finn (the recovered storm trooper) requires that they rush across desert terrain in order to escape an ambush, and they inadvertently hop onto a very familiar ship (now considered “trash”) in order to escape. Inevitably they will be picked up by that ship’s prior owner Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who has clearly been weathered by the hands of time; more sardonic but less cheerful, he regards the state of the universe from a place of snarky acceptance, and dreads the idea of becoming involved in yet another adventure involving saving Luke Skywalker. Unfortunately, that also means he will be required to cross paths with Leia (Carrie Fisher), who is now the acting general of the rebellion, and some unspoken realities between them have given their old romance an icy edge, like an act of pain putting a wedge between fatalistic lovers.

There is a certain forlorn quality in the performances by Ford and Fischer. The undisputed veterans of the “Star Wars” universe, both actors have undergone a plethora of lengthy and difficult transformations in the 40 years since they first joined Lucas’ epic, and they bear the battle scars of their experiences. These realities are reflected in faces that aren’t so much celebratory as they are meditative; on screen, they seem as if they are searching for answers that aren’t quite clear. That suggests a deeper level of history than one movie has the capability of revealing, but the screenplay by Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan does not use them for the sole purpose of establishing continuity or nostalgia. It is clear that Leia and Solo have lived hard lifetimes, and their portrayers match that probability with sullen demeanors. They are very rich performances, and go far beyond the requirement that most directors would have asked for in a movie of this nature.

The specifics of what brings them together and what drives each of the key characters towards specific paths or goals is too precious to spoil in a review, but that’s a given. Shrouded in a whirlwind of secrecy since Disney announced the project, “The Force Awakens” has been one of the elusive wonders of the 2015 lineup, a movie of vast revelations that have been kept tightly under wraps until the 11th hour (even screenings for critics were far in between). What surprised me most about the end result (even as a moderate fan at best) was not the depth of the specifics or even the shock factor of some of the twists, but the underlying joy that permeates from each and every frame. This was not a movie made under the weight of calculated strategy; it was given life by those who took immense pride in their association, and sought to enhance an established legacy with grand enthusiasm. There are moments so precious that they inspire cheers, laughter, even swells of emotion. And the special effects anchor them without drowning out their potency, either. It would have been easy to do the exact opposite; visuals have excelled beyond the scope of the most vivid imaginations, and this is a series known for its benchmark technical values. But movie number seven stays firmly planted in the embrace of a narrative that gives great new characters an opportunity to flourish, and the technical wizardry is a supplement rather than the backbone.

Abrams, a passionate director and producer of action vehicles, is not like most of his peers. This is a man who over the course of the last ten years has shown a remarkable sense of perspective in the thick of potential nonsense, and has helmed endeavors (including the recent “Star Trek” reboot) that use visuals to dress up the edges rather than overwhelm the center. They are not noisy or crowded just for the sake of assaulting one’s view. With this latest example, he has not only established himself as the ideal voice for the modern “Star Wars” universe, but in many ways has been lifted into the tradition of some of the most gifted directors of the mainstream. More than Bruckheimer, Verbinski or Bay, he brings the intelligence of his ideas to the center of a distinctive foreground, and we find ourselves leaning forward in eagerness as his sense of style floods our imaginations. When you think about it, “Star Wars” has been a perennial vessel announcing the arrival of new and exciting trends in the capabilities of cinematic artists. What “The Force Awakens” teaches us is that there is a divide between the geniuses and the showmen of this crowded genre, and Abrams plants himself firmly in the role of the former while overseeing one hell of an enjoyable film.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi (US); 2015; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 135 Minutes

Cast:
Daisy Ridley: Rey
John Boyega: Finn
Harrison Ford: Han Solo
Carrie Fisher: Princess Leia
Oscar Isaac: Poe Dameron
Adam Driver: Kylo Ren

Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Leifur B. Dagfinnsson, Tommy Gormley, Tommy Harper, Lawrence Kasdan, Kathleen Kennedy, Jason D. McGatlin, Michelle Rejwan, Ben Rosenblatt and John Schwartz; Directed by J.J. Abrams; Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt; based on the characters created by George Lucas

8 comments:

MM said...

Mr. Keyes,

I think we must have watched two different movies. This film was such a derivative, unoriginal, lazily written, pandering bit of schmaltz. I'm not sure I've seen a movie more fitting of the description "made under the weight of calculated strategy." A bigger Death Star, exploded by x-wings flying through a trench? So many short cuts and missed opportunities. It makes me infinitely sad.

Mark Sniadecki said...

The "derivative" accusation I see appearing here and there feels like a sign of desperate cynicism. There is nothing about this film that was done lazily or unintentionally--with every echo of the past, there is some new element, some new type of character and situation, that plants the seeds of the next two films. "The Force Awakens" both honors the nostalgia of the series and shows us that it's not the way forward.

The central theme is that of evil recurring throughout the centuries, under different names but with similar faces, and this latest outcropping of darkness has tried--foolishly--to be the Empire but "bigger and better." As that has now definitively been proven not to work, it means whatever the First Order becomes going forward, it will have to be a new evolution.

I've seen postings by young adults with no previous Star Wars background, who are going to see this film and getting excited to dive into the lore. That's a triumph right there.

It's wild to at last have a new Star Wars film on our hands that we can get excited about and invested in, with characters who are every bit as fun and interesting as Luke, Leia, Han and Vader. I never left the prequels wondering about the characters as people, or where they might go. I didn't care about them. But Rey, Finn, Poe (and even Kylo) I am genuinely interested in, and it feels like there is so much potential in all of them.

For once, I love a new Star Wars film without having to apologize for any aspect of it. I'm obsessing over its tiniest details instead of rationalizing to myself that it isn't terrible (as I did with all three of the prequels before finally giving up and accepting that they rang hollow for me).

MM said...

Mark, you've given me some food for thought. I'll think about this. But for just a sliver of what I'm talking about, I'd say that my example of destroying yet another death star - I mean, planet - is derivative AND lazy. The human race has created a vast array of dramatic endings to stories - Greek drama, Shakespearean tragedy, African tales - and to use the exact same ending once again is the very definition of those adjectives. It's pretty difficult to argue with.

MM said...

I saw the movie again on Sunday. When it ended, everyone walked out as if leaving a funeral. The 25 year old in front of me looked at her dad, and said "I'm so annoyed."
Which is how I felt, too. Although more bored. That movie is a snooze-fest, with very little tension, and only a few exciting moments. I can only wonder that all the reviewers who are lauding it are not as independent as they purport to be, and Mark, surely you work for Disney, with all respect. That movie is really, really bad. Star Wars is dead.

MM said...

Mr. Keyes,
I have continued to ponder this all. And I'm more convinced that any experienced and thoughtful reviewer/movie buff could not possibly have found this film to have such a plethora of redeeming qualities, neither as a standalone film nor a leg in the fantastic Star Wars arc. I call on you to state equivocally that you were not remunerated or promised any future remunerations by Disney in any way for this review.

David Keyes said...

If there is one thing I know unequivocally about myself – as well as any other movie journalist or blogger who is serious about this business – it's that we are champions of having a voice. Sometimes that means creating a view that contradicts a consensus, at other times joining one. It’s suspicious (and somewhat stubborn) to imply that one’s personal opinion of a film can be “remunerated,” but in taking an argument down that slope, you also open your suggestion to scrutiny of countless others who share the same view.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” currently sits at a 93% positive reading on RottenTomatoes.com, the definitive resource for film reviews on the Internet. Among that group are a plethora of established professionals (of which I do not count myself among) who actually did feel just as optimistic about the movie as I did. Some, you might say, were even more vocal about their admiration than I was. Does that mean they too fall under that header of not being “experienced or thoughtful,” as you suggest I am by taking such a perspective? What do we then say about a credible film reviewer like Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, who says the film is a “marvelous adventure that leaves us surprised, scared and euphoric”?

For a hypothetical moment, let’s assume Disney would bother to compensate minor voices like mine just to get a good word out there. What is the relevance in that? “Star Wars” was never going to be a financial gamble for them. After six movies – some of which had their detractors – never once has there been any doubt that a new entry might prove to be a commercial bust. This franchise is critic proof. And while I can in no way speak for the practices of Disney, I would be willing to bet heavily that they don’t bother to trivialize their marketing endeavors by paying off journalists and critics to speak positively for the films they release, especially those that are all but guaranteed a return investment.

What we have here isn’t so much a respectful disagreement as it is a dismissal of intentions, which I find rather disheartening. I thrive at a disagreement as much as the next guy, even ones where I’m clearly in a minority. But this implication is beneath you. Nothing in the way your comments are written – which are very well written, I may add – would have suggested to me that you would go down the road of such a narrowly defined perspective. Ergo, the more important question becomes this: is it much easier for you to concede that 93 percent of us have been bought off instead of you being willing to admit that you may, in fact, just be wrong on this one?

Brian Thatcher said...

Yeah. I really liked it too. And I don't care for Disney. Let it go, man. We outnumber you. If you didn't like it, fine. But move on. Disappointments shouldn't waste so much time of a person's life. It's a popcorn movie. Not an answer to life's existential questions.

For movies that attempt such an endeavor, go to Bergman, Kubrick and Tarkovsky.

MM said...

David,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. You're an excellent writer yourself and I respect your opinion not the least on that basis itself. I apologize unreservedly for impugning your motivations and ethics. It was a desperate question that was probably unnecessary. Thank you especially for this forum to express my views.

However (you knew that was coming), I'm certainly having a difficult time accepting that those with an emotional investment in the Star Wars ethos and sense of story could like this movie. I'll accept it if you say it's so, but it's disheartening. It's also difficult to accept the 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Like you, I cite it as an example of my own point, which for me is that something is rotten indeed in review land. For someone supporting TFW as an effective movie, citing its rating is tautological. And, amazingly enouugh, 93% puts it in roughly the same category as The Godfather (99%), and as superior than The Matrix (87%) and Avatar (83% - nominated for Best Picture). For that matter, how did The Godfather not get 100%? Can we logically base conclusions on Rotten Tomatoes with that fact in mind? For perspective on what the eloquent and otherwise common folk think, please check out the user reviews on IMDb. That's where the people have their say. As for Peter Travers, he'll sell his opinion to anyone (http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3723). He also raved about Jack Reacher.

Anyway, my personal opinion is that the movie stinks. Again, a planet-sized weapon that blows up entire galaxies in 15 minutes yet is vulnerable to precisely the same attack as the other two Death Stars? Where do you go from there? It's utterly ridiculous and forgettable. Very few but the cursed and the damned will remember this movie past July; I believe it will rest in the cinema dustbin of history along with Gigli and the Green Lantern. The special effects are spectacular, but they're lipstick on a pig.

As for Brian's comment that I get over it and move on...sigh. This storyline has been a part of my life for almost 40 years, so to have the story, the wonder, and all the magical aspects of it be imploded like that will take some getting used to. Although I just might not bother. I expended too much energy in drinking from Disney's brilliant marketing campaign (which is the reason for its billion dollar payday, not the movie itself, in my very humble opinion).

I don't like to sound so snide and negative, I don't, and I say all this not as commentary on your review, David, but on the state of the industry itself. It's been disappointing. In fact: I've finally lost faith in Hollywood. I've zealously defended the movie industry over the years as critics and punters have complained about the lowering of cinematic standards, but I suddenly can't bring myself to watch any new movies right now. It all seems tiresome. At least, there's the the Lord of the Rings to fall back on when I want a fantasy fix. Now there's a story.

Best regards,
Matthew