Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Recent Watches: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

When Disney bought the rights to “Star Wars” for a billion-with-a-b dollars, the announcement was followed by a plan to crank out a new “Star Wars” movie every year until the heat death of the universe. Not only would we be getting a new trilogy, the legendary episodes seven through nine, but various stand-alone movie, exploring side stories and characters. Furthermore, George Lucas would have nothing to do with the new movies. In the months leading up to “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” J.J. Abrams promised a return to the original trilogy’s style. Basically, Disney and all involved where determined to give people more of what they want. They would continue the story, respect the originals, and wash the bad taste of the prequels out of everyone’s mouth. Surprising absolutely no one, “Episode VII” has been a massive success, already on the way to becoming 2015’s highest grossing release after only a few days. Perhaps more surprisingly, considering how fickle fans can be, most everyone has loved “Episode VII.”

Out of the ashes of the Galactic Empire, the New Order has arisen. A more dangerous and fanatical faction, they have attempted to enforce the reign of Sith lord Snoke over the galaxy. With their new weapon, the Starkiller, rule is in their grasp. The heroes of the First Star Wars have solidified into the Resistance. Out of obscurity, two heroes will rise. A Stormtrooper with a conscience and a scavenger from a desert planet will encounter the old heroes, helping the battle against the First Order.

“The Force Awakens” is nothing but reverent towards the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Its new cast of characters fit roughly the same archetypes as those in the original. The original cast is treated with the same respect that the fans give them. This is fitting, since “The Force Awakens” was made by fans. “Episode VII” holds “A New Hope” in such high esteem that it practically remakes it. The First Order serves the same function as the Empire. Despite winning the previous war, the Rebels are still a grounded, make-shift team fighting a bigger enemy. Both films feature a black clad, Sith villain. Both feature a giant, planet-busting war machine with an easily exploited weak point. In both movies, we visit a bar full of crazy alien creatures. Episodes four and seven both have a mentor dying. Perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking that “The Force Awakens” has been so well received. It blatantly emulates a movie people already loved.

This is what J. J. Abrams does. “Super-8” was a mash-up of Steven Spielberg’s most beloved eighties classics. Abrams’ “Star Trek” films filled themselves up with call-backs to the series’ history, when it wasn’t outright ripping it off. Abrams’ total devotion to “A New Hope” is as much a weakness as a strength. The decision to create another planet-destroying super weapon made me roll my eyes. The Starkiller is just like the Death Star but four times as big and able to spew multiple death rays. Mysterious master villain Snoke fills the same role as the Emperor, a powerful evil with long-reaching plans. “The Force Awakens” also continues the tradition of “Star Wars” villains that look cool but do noting. Captain Phasma has been heavily featured in advertising and merchandising. A female villain should be a big deal in the still male-centric “Star Wars” universe. Yet Phasma has a handful of scenes, contributing very little to the overall story.

Further evidence of “Episode VII’s” complete loyalty to the original trilogy can be found in its two protagonists. Finn is the Stormtrooper who switches side. He’s clumsy but brave, inexperienced but enthusiastic. Rey, meanwhile, grew up on a desert planet and longs for both spiritual advancement and adventure. Both are natural pilots. Mash these two characters together and you’ve got Luke Skywalker in “A New Hope.” This doesn’t stop either character from being likable. John Boyega, who already has a following from “Attack the Block,” personifies youthful exuberance. He displays a lot of humor and an innate likability as Finn. Daisy Ridley, meanwhile, has a captivating screen presence as Rey. The character’s inclination towards machinery is a nice touch. Both are great additions to the “Star Wars” legacy and I fully expect each actor to become big stars.

Despite being a brand new addition to the “Star Wars” series, some characters from “The Force Awakens” have already emerged as fan favorites. And one of them isn’t even human. BB-8 adapts R2D2’s domed droid design to an all-terrain sphere. The design is clever but, more importantly, BB-8 is a full fledged character. By tilting his head and softly beeping, he conveys an amazing array of emotions. His best moment has him flashing an improvised thumbs-up. BB-8 is adorable and awesome, improving every scene he’s in. Poe Dameron, meanwhile, is the movie’s Han Solo figure. (Beside Han Solo, that is.) He’s a hot-shot pilot and wears a cool jacket. He’s also a loyal soldier and friend. Oscar Isaac, also primed to break onto the A-list, gives an entertaining performance.

The advertisement for “Episode VII” that didn’t focus on BB-8 focused on Kylo Ren. The new villain is patterned after Darth Vader with his black suit, concealing mask, and reverberating voice. As widely mocked as the tri-bladed light saber has been, it’s an image that certainly caught people’s attention. While Kylo Ren has his mask on, he’s an intimidating figure. He can stop blaster rays in their path, tosses people around with the Force, and tears shit up with that light saber. When the mask comes off, Ren is… Adam Driver. I’ll admit Driver is a performer I just don’t get. He’s sweaty, nasally, and petulant. Ren’s backstory plays into Driver’s most irritating aspects as an actor. Even during the big action finale, Driver is irritating and whiny. Maybe Kylo Ren should keep his mask on for “Episode VIII.”

As much attention as the new characters have gotten, “The Force Awakens” also reunites us with the major players of the original trilogy. Han Solo and Chewbacca have the biggest role. The script puts Solo into a similar role as the first film, a rogue ready for a redemptive cause. Ford seems to be having a lot of fun, smiling and joking around. Chewie, meanwhile, gets extra attention, his animalistic groans packed with even more emotion. Leia, now promoted to general, mostly has a supporting role. Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford still have solid chemistry though. C-3PO’s reappearance is a funny moment. Neither Luke Skywalker nor R2D2 have big roles, though both are treated with a certain grandeur. Heck, the movie even brings back Admiral Ackbar!

Naturally, this “Star Wars” film has to include a war among the stars. As far as action sequences go, the climatic shoot-out in space doesn’t make much of impression. The Millennium Falcon running through a down Star Destroyer is cool but brief. Though Poe Dameron’s climatic attack on the Starkiller sticks in my mind, the space combat is fairly forgettable. Instead, it’s the more personal action bits that stick out to me. Poe and Finn’s dramatic escape from the enemy base, which has a Tie-Fighter firing its weapons inside a tight location. Finn and Rey running across the desert, buildings exploding around them, generates some decent suspense. Chewbacca gets a fantastic action beat all to himself. The wookie unleashes his fury with his trademark blaster and some well-placed bombs. The best action scene is the final light saber duel. It escalates nicely, trading off between three different characters. We see what the purpose of Kylo Ren’s extra blades are. This moment is the true climax, a culmination of the events the entire movie had been building towards. It’s also nicely shot, taking place in a snowy forest, the trees and ice being well utilized.

Another thing I liked about “The Force Awakens” is how funny it is. Unlike the prequels, all the laughs here are of the intentional variety. John Boyega shows off a considerable skill for physical comedy not seen in his previous roles. The actor is good enough that the audience can laugh at Finn’s pratfalls but it doesn’t make the character grating or annoying. An extended funny moment involves Han and the new cast evading some nasty fellows inside a ship. The solution to this problem, involving giant monsters rampaging through the tight corridors, provides some solid laughter. (One thing that’s disappointing about this moment is it’s the sole appearance of Iko Uwais, bad ass star of “The Raid.”) There are other, small moments of laughter. Such as a pair of Stormtrooper’s responding to Kylo Ren’s anger or an encounter between the heroes and Captain Phasma. Compared to the stately, suffocatingly strict prequels, it’s great to see a “Star Wars” movie that can loosen up a little.

In the months leading up to the film’s release, J.J. Abrams’ promised the new film would rely on practical effects, a blow-back to the excessive CGI of the prequel trilogy. There’s still a lot of CGI in “The Force Awakens,” of course. Most of the space fights are digital and two major characters are brought to life through motion capture. On the other hand, most of the background creatures and machines are purely practical. Many of the aliens seen hanging around Jakku or Moz’ bar are created through puppetry and make-up. There’s no CGI Akbar here. Though this is as much pandering to fans as anything else, it also does a good job of rooting the film in reality. Unlike some of the outrageous locations and creations of the prequels, “The Force Awakens” seems more real.

I’ve been tip-toeing around spoilers in this review. If you’re avoiding them too, you should probably stop reading now. There are some major shake-ups in “The Force Awakens.” An iconic character dies, in a scene that is built with importance. It’s a well done moment but one, I suspect, that has more to do with the actor wanting out then with the story’s needs. Another returning character has a very small role, which is slightly disappointing. (Though presumably, he’ll have more to do in future installments.) The reveal of another character’s true parentage genuinely caught me off-guard. Many of the supposed “leaks” pointed in another direction. Another character’s parentage is left ambiguous but easy to assume, unless there’s a big misdirection happening.

Ultimately, “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” is an extended act of fan service. J. J. Abrams essentially made a movie that would please as many fans as possible. This is as much a flaw and a strength. Yet, sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with giving people what they want. “The Force Awakens” is a lot of fun. Who knows where this new trilogy will take us. Right now though, this galaxy is off to a good start. [7/10]

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