Star Wars: The Force Awakens – A Review

21 Dec

star wars

What can you say about a movie like Star Wars? How does one review it on an objective level? Haven’t they become their own subgenre of films? Can one even review a film like Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones in the same way one would The Godfather, Part II?

Answers:

A lot, which I will below.

Don’t try.

Yes, of course.

Pfft.

The lead-up to the newest film, The Force Awakens has been overwhelming to say the least. Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 and has since discarded most of what is known as the Expanded Universe (comic books, novels, video games, etc., all set within the Star Wars Universe, all created between 1977 and 2012). They have since been rejiggering the canon, which includes all six films, two television shows, plus some new novels and comic books. The original Expanded Universe – mostly sanctioned by Lucasfilm – was deep, immersive, and quite satisfying. But it was also a sprawling mess of contradictory mythologies. The new canon, while destined to be as expansive as the legendary Galactic Republic, at least will be as clean and meticulously designed as an Imperial Star Destroyer.

Enter JJ Abrams, the creator of mythically rich shows like Alias and Lost, the man who resurrected the Star Trek franchise, the heir – some would say – to the Lucas/Spielberg Axis of Nerdiness. Re-enter Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, not to mention Raiders of the Lost Ark. Let us also introduce relative newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as the next generation of spacefaring heroes. Add a decent amount of Han, Chewie, et al., and finally sprinkle generously with John Williams iconic score.

What could possibly go wrong?

The answer is: not much. Star Wars: The Force Awakens recaptures the sense of wonder and awe of the original trilogy while simultaneously evoking deeper, more nuanced emotions than any of the previous six films. It is a rare action-adventure film in that the best elements are the small personal ones that occur between blaster fire and lightsaber duels. While it does borrow – quite heavily – from the original Star Wars film (A New Hope), much of this is less fan service and more variations on themes.

It’s with Star Wars’ most important theme – that of choice within a complex universe that is far more gray area than black or white – that The Force Awakens finds its greatest success. There is the choice between good and evil (the Light and Dark sides of the Force). And there is the choice of whether to embody a selfish nobility or to take the road of the coward and rogue. Many of the characters within the series speak of a capital-D Destiny. Luke is told over and over by both Vader and the Emperor that it is his Destiny to join the Dark Side, but he dismisses these entreaties, and succeeds in bringing his father back from twenty years as the Emperor’s pawn. Han Solo opts – through love or a Bogart-esque inner nobility – to save the day at the end of A New Hope. Luke’s choice in The Empire Strikes Back to leave his Jedi training incomplete and try to save his friends results in his disastrous duel with Vader. One of the key choices is in the prequels: Anakin’s choice – out of love and a misguided sense of loyalty – to kill the Jedi and become Darth Vader.

In all six of the previous films Lucas has been adamant that free will trumps determinism. Even in a universe with prophecies (Anakin being the Chosen One), things do not happen arbitrarily or at the whim of some imaginary god-like being. Even the Force operates by and through people, not willy-nilly on its own. The two sides of the Force call to people, but one must choose whether to heed that call and then which side to follow.

The Force Awakens is all about choice. Characters are constantly presented with moral conundrums and forced to decide whether to act bravely with noble purpose or to hide, not from one’s true purpose, which smacks of Destiny, but from one’s true self. Anakin Skywalker’s choice to join the Dark Side is metaphorically driven home by hiding behind a mask and becoming a whole new person. Kylo Ren – basically The Force Awakens’ Vader-like character – is similar, though instead of needing a mask, Kylo chooses to hide himself. He is worshipful of the late Lord Vader, so much so that he possesses the cyborg’s half-melted helmet and speaks to it like the idol of some ancient pagan god.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) – this film’s Luke Skywalker, though more female and less whiny than her predecessor – is a scavenger on a desert planet with no family or friends. Where Luke’s choice to leave his home was made easy with the murder of his aunt and uncle, Rey’s desire to return home is constant through much of the film. Finn (John Boyega), is a literal stormtrooper at the beginning of the film, but one with a conscience who finds his job abhorrent and makes the hard choice to desert.

While Star Wars has always seemed to be about the big budget special effects, inherently these are character-driven narratives focusing on fringe members of society. Luke was an orphan on a desert world. Han was a smuggler. Anakin was a slave. Rey is a scavenger. Finn is a soldier lacking a real name, just a serial number. Even Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) feels like an overgrown child who can’t fit in. Overcome with anger and resentment, Kylo is a young tantrum-throwing man, a boy given a power he cannot control and a desperate need for attention.

The film is a throwback to the practical effects of the original trilogy, eschewing the deluge of CGI Lucas relied on for the prequels. As such, the galaxy, far, far away once again feels like a lived-in universe. This one, however, taking place thirty years after Return of the Jedi, is more battle scarred. Rey scavenges from a crashed Star Destroyer, the battle scenes are grittier, with actual blood making its first Star Wars appearance, and the actors who’ve returned have all gotten noticeably older.

The Force Awakens contains an unexpected – though much needed – melancholy air. This is a war weary universe. At no other time in the history of this franchise has the Force felt so unbalanced, if not at times completely absent, or (ahem) asleep. In fact, for Rey and Finn, the Force and the original characters who defeated the Empire are viewed as myths. Luke Skywalker is a legend, Han Solo a bedtime story. Finn and Rey are like two fans who have accidentally entered their favorite comic book. This further proves my longstanding belief that Star Wars is not science fiction but fantasy.

Like so many great fantasies, Star Wars contains a battle between Good and Evil, magic, and sword fights. The past is not something captured in archives and computer databases, but a collection of myths and legends. Where fantasy thrives on entropy, science fiction is always about creating order from chaos. Star Trek is great science fiction because it believes that the future will be better. It idealizes diplomacy over military might. (Though let’s be frank, the military might utilized in Star Trek is pretty darn fun.) We’ll never see anything in Star Trek akin to the Mos Eisley’s wretched hive of scum and villainy. Nor will we see in Star Wars a ship on a scientific mission with not even a single defensive weapon. For an advanced spacefaring society, the best minds in the Star Wars universe can’t seem to construct a droid without a personality disorder or an ultimate killing machine without a glaring design flaw.

Some have claimed that The Force Awakens is more fan fiction than original work. It is similar to A New Hope on many levels: from the orphaned hero on a desert planet, to a droid containing a secret message, to a massive planet-destroying weapon. None of this bothered me terribly. Lucas’ original film borrowed liberally from Saturday afternoon serials and samurai flicks, and no one cared because that film was pure, unabashed fun. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness stole from Star Trek II, but there the theft was too clever by half and executed with little grace. Here, Abrams & Co. return to a similar well, not because they are bereft of ideas, but because the water is still sweet. Star Wars has always been made from a specific mold, one which it would take great precision to refashion. Instead of trying to remake the wheel, Abrams has created something of a mirror to the original film, filled with similar themes and characters undertaking a hero’s journey we’ve seen before but never get tired of.

Those of you who despised the prequels, it is safe to say that The Force Awakens steers clear of both their style and their substance. There are no weird Rastafarian aliens (though there are, interestingly, Pastafarian aliens). The Force is once again a mystical unknown, and Jedi – while powerful – are not the Soviet gymnastic team. Where the prequels were shiny testaments to the brilliance of CGI, they were also Death Star-like pristine: crisply crafted with little heart and a giant hole in the center that proved their downfall.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is fun, exciting, and emotionally deep, but most importantly, it’s Star Wars – middlebrow popcorn entertainment that perfectly mashes up Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and Buck Rogers. To criticize it for being mere fan service misses the point. Star Wars has always been made for the fans. The difference this time, is that it’s also been made by one.

Final Grade: Incomplete. See it again, I must.

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