Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015)

The Force Awakens could more appropriately be called A New Hope, but not just for the fact that the plot follows many of the same beats and narrative trajectory as the film everyone fell in love with from the seventies, but because The Force Awakens has granted a generation that grew up on the notoriously hated prequels the optimism to believe in Star Wars again. In many ways, The Force Awakens is merely an introduction, and an attempt at a palette cleanse by going back to the basics of what made the original trilogy beloved in the first place, and for the most part J.J. Abrams and company succeed. The Force Awakens isn't the only film to use familiar imagery and plotting of a previously beloved picture to kickstart a new franchise this year. 2015 has given us both good (Creed) and bad (Jurassic World) examples, and while The Force Awakens isn't as successful as Creed at recontextualizing a franchise around new characters of different genders and races it adequately introduces a more diverse Star Wars that feels fresh by opening up their universe a bit to extend beyond a faultless white male protagonist.

Ultimately these new characters makes this installment of Star Wars worthwhile, because they offer a new wrinkle on old ideas. Finn (Jon Boyega), Rey (Daisey Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are introduced with such confidence that these characters already feel iconic and stand alongside the old guard (Solo, Leia, Chewbacca) admirably. Finn is a former stormtrooper who cannot abide by a fascist state, Rey is a farmgirl scrapping for parts to put enough food on her table to make it to the next day, and Poe is a fast talking ace fighter pilot. All three get a potentially iconic moment of introduction, Finn's Stormtrooper helmet covered in blood, Rey cave diving (the films only effective 3D moment) and Poe's confident back and forth with R2D2 replacement droid BB-8, but it is Finn's that introduces the newest idea to the franchise that links the prequels and original trilogy in a fascinating way. The blood on the helmet is such a simple, perfect image that it conveys the real sense of violence in this regime. Later on, it is mentioned that the stormtroopers are brainwashed children who have grown up to die for The First Order. This ties back into the Clones in film number two, and while I'm unsure if they ever intend on asking the philosophical questions of a Stormtrooper's innocence, and the nature of war it is something of far more depth than this film often presents. Woefully, this is as far as it goes so it almost renders that potentially loaded image as mute.

There is also Kylo Ren, at once both a stand in for Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, and the trickiest role to pull off of the new characters. The riskiest bit of writing in The Force Awakens comes by the way of taking inspiration from the prequels and making Kylo Ren a figure who is being torn apart by a decision, much in the same way Anakin Skywalker was in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Ren mopes, he explodes at any little thing going wrong, and he is deeply insecure about his abilities. He talks to a Darth Vader helmet, and wishes he could be like the legend. It's all embarrassing, but Adam Driver flourishes in these complexities that on the surface could singlehandedly sink this revival. Driver is working on a level that no one else even touches. Isaac, Ridley and Boyega are all enthusiastic about being in Star Wars, and it shows through effervescent reading of the dialogue, and if Driver were to take the same path his performance would be hammy, but instead Driver comes off as complicated, which is something those other three characters lack at the moment.

J.J. Abrams has also never been better. His employment of crane and tracking shots throughout the aerial combat sequences is some of the finest in the series, and through all of this action he doesn't lose sight of the image. While my screening was compromised by the background neutralization of the image it was easily identifiable that Abrams was working with a concentrated effort to make this film beautiful. Some of his choices get lost once the plot has to be engaged, and the next film set-up, but credit where credit is due, there are a bevy of striking, emotional compositions throughout The Force Awakens most notably of which involve Rey flying a vehicle across the sandy plains of Jukka with the fallen imperial ship in the background, and a long shot of an embrace between two characters in mourning while the rest of the world celebrates. Both of these images contain depth and resonance, one being the other side of war, and another being the image of the film- a rebirth, a new dawn.

From time to time The Force Awakens falls under the weight of obligation by having to set up the next film. Too often plots are given simple resolutions and the more interesting aspects of this film are sidelined to tackle the singular goal of destroying the Nu-Death Star, complete with Triumph of the Will imagery in one of the films more cringe-worthy moments. Jogging to get to the next plot point never really gives anything the space to breathe in the final third, and the fact that all of our heroes except Poe are attached to a separate far more interesting plot makes the conclusion feel unbalanced. A lightsaber fight in the snow with our main hero and villain is going to be more interesting than the side quest 100% of the time. If there is also intention on giving layering to the stormtroopers as brainwashed innocents then the ra-ra victory of destroying them unequivocally means that this ending is not one of pure celebration. There simply has to be more dissection if that is going to be introduced, and to ignore that is to dishonour that original writing for Finn. Star Wars, was after all supposed to be in some effect a response to the Vietnam War as stated in the Making of Star Wars, and to render that idea in such an unexplored fashion makes me squeamish about the body count. Is this then just a war spectacle if we aren't even going to examine that idea? I'm willing to give it a pass for now since this is the first chapter of three, but that plot point lingers afterward much stronger than anything that gave a thrill. As Star Wars moves forward, it is in my deepest hopes that some of these flaws are cleared up. The hardest part is already out of the way, and that was to gain our trust, which I think The Force Awakens easily achieves.

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