Thursday, December 31, 2015

Star Wars: The Nostalgia Awakens

So about that new Star Wars movie. The general consensus is that it’s awesome and has saved the franchise after Lucas’s disappointing prequels. I agree with the first point (mostly), but not the second.

I’m actually a fan of all the movies. Well, maybe not The Phantom Menace, which is 90% filler. Seriously, they spend half the movie stuck on Tatooine because they can’t get their ship repaired. But Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are both seriously underrated movies, despite their obvious flaws. The fact is that all the movies have their share of spectacular fun mixed with indefensible cheese. The ratio just varies depending on the episode. The Force Awakens definitely has more of the former than the latter and its strengths and weaknesses are both probably due to the fact that it’s the first Star Wars movie with no direct involvement from Lucas. Here there be spoilers, so read further at your own risk.

The film announces from the opening crawl that this is going to be a very different film from the prequels. No mentions of taxation disputes here, but a search for a missing Luke Skywalker that immediately grabs our attention. The opening sequence introduces us to all new characters including the immediately adorable droid BB-8, his almost as adorable owner Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Max Von Sydow in a far too brief cameo. Once Darth Vader fanboy Kylo Ren (an intense Adam Driver) shows up everything goes to hell with Poe captured and BB-8 on the run with a map that leads to Luke.

By the time Stromtrooper with a conscious Finn (the charming John Boyega) and scavenger Rey (startlingly good newcomer Daisy Ridley) join the adventure the movie has established a feel that is both comfortably familiar and excitingly fresh for the saga. In fact, the movie does such a good job of setting up the new characters that, as much as I like Han Solo, it’s almost a disappointment when he and Chewie abruptly show up and basically take over the movie. The reintroduction of the Millennium Falcon is a fun sight gag, but many of the callbacks after that (Finn accidently activating the monster chessboard, Han joking about putting someone in a trash compactor) almost seem like the lazy “hey, remember that part in the old movie?” jokes that they do on Family Guy every week.

It doesn’t help that the intriguing search for Luke plot is pretty much abandoned half way through so we can do Death Star 3.0 in the form of Strarkiller base – a planetoid that can destroy whole solar systems from afar. The capital of the Republic is destroyed in a blink and you’ll miss it moment that is given less fanfare that even the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope. Even Lucas knew not to reuse the ultimate weapon trope in the prequels and it gives the final low atmosphere battle a rather ho-hum feel, not helped by distracting cameos from JJ Abrams’ buddies from his TV shows.

Much of the movie seems designed to distract the audience from how unimaginative and full of holes the plot is. I mean, you literally have Poe disappear for half the movie after supposedly dying and then he shows up alive and well with no real explanation (this may be because, originally, his character was supposed to die). But we like his character so it’s all good. However, this does create a general lack of peril with none of the main characters (barring one obvious example) ever seeming in danger of being killed. Even in the prequels, where we knew the eventual outcome already, there seemed to be more of a sense of danger. On the plus side, the new actors bounce off each other well and Harrison Ford hasn’t been this invested in his performance as Solo since before he went into carbonite. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) is an intriguing alien character who knows more about the Force and Luke’s missing blue lightsaber than she wants to let on. Less successful as a CG character is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who is basically just a giant holographic cross between The Emperor and Lord Voldemort. Hopefully in the next film they reveal he is actually six inches tall in real life and someone steps on him.

In fact, aside from Kylo Ren (who is basically Anakin Skywalker done right – a whiny, angsty dark Jedi but with better dialogue and acting than that character had in the prequels) most of villains are disappointing. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is a one note Hitler youth and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is completely wasted.

The cinematography is stylish but in many ways this feels like the smallest Star Wars film visually (the locations don’t really feel that alien and could be anywhere on Earth; JJ has a habit of using closeups a lot) and the lightsaber duel, while emotionally satisfying, lacks the visual flair of the prequels. In fact, while there is a lot of action, none of it really stands out in that effortless Saturday Matinee Serial style that Lucas was so good at. The score is fine but is also lacking in really memorable new themes. I think part of this is that Abrams doesn’t use long takes and non-dialogue scenes as much as Lucas, so it was probably harder for John Williams to really be inspired to create something as epic as the Imperial March or Duel of the Fates. The film is also so afraid of boring the audience with anything resembling the unfairly maligned politics from the prequels that it doesn’t bother to explain key information like how the First Order rose and what is the relationship between the Republic and the Resistance.

Much like JJ does with his TV shows, key information is kept from the audience not to create a sense of mystery but just to setup later stories. A little of this is fine but when key parts of the plot aren’t being explained and left to the sequels to clear up then it just becomes annoying. For example, the movie strongly hints that Rey is a secret Skywalker child and had padawan training before being dumped on the planet Jakku. If this is the case there’s no reason to not reveal this by the end of the movie. Unless they’re planning to pull a switcheroo in the next one and reveal her father is someone else, but that means they’re basically rehashing The Empire Strikes Back’s twist.

There are at least six major “trust us, we’ll explain it later” dangling plot threads, which is probably around five too many for the first film in a trilogy. Abrams is a very talented filmmaker but he seems incapable of creating fully satisfying stories. He lacks the ability of someone like Joss Whedon to set up plot twists and pay them off logically. You can see this in his previous movies where he managed to make very good movies out of deeply flawed scripts (Star Trek, Super 8) and even a good movie out of a pretty bad script (Star Trek Into Darkness).

Luckily, when the movie gets stuff right it really gets it right. The climax (aside from the aforementioned Death Star redux) is full of great character moments and powerful emotional beats. Han’s death, while predictable, still packs a wallop and the final scene between him and his son, Ben (Ren’s real name) is Star Wars at its darkest and most personal. We also get to see Chewie flip out afterwards which is a plus (though unfortunately no arms are ripped from sockets).

It’s the final lightsaber duel where it all comes together though. Rey, another prodigy who grew up in a harsh desert world, completes her hero’s journey and calls Anakin’s/Luke’s lightsaber to her in a moment worthy of cheers so she can defeat Ren (though keeping him alive for the sequel, of course). Some have complained that her character becomes too powerful too quickly (even using a Jedi mind trick to escape from the First Order despite having no prior knowledge of this power) but we’ve seen male characters with equal power as a novice and having a major female character use the Force frankly makes up for Padme losing the will to live and female Jedi in the prequels just being used as glorified extras. Though, having said that, I was disappointed that Leia is shown to have no Force ability in the movie, despite being the “other hope”. But this definitely has the most diverse cast of any Star Wars films (and more than most modern sci-fi blockbusters) which in itself is cause for celebration.

So has The Force Awakens saved Star Wars? Well, it’s brought back genuine humour (there are lots of laughs in the movie) decent acting and a restrained use of special effects back to the saga, which is enough for most people to call it a triumph. But something has also been lost in the process. The movie lacks Lucas’ visual imagination as well as his focus on deeper themes. A truly great Star Wars movie combines the best of both worlds, which is why Empire is still the best Star Wars movie. This one comes close (helped by having the same co writer as Empire, Lawrence Kasdan) but doesn’t put enough care into how the plot goes from A to B to surpass it. It’s also a little too meta. While this works for Kylo Ren’s character, who is obsessed with the fact that he doesn’t measure up to Darth Vader, some of the characters almost seem to be aware that they’re in a Star Wars movie.

Hopefully Episode VIII will keep what was great about this one (the characters, the comedy and the more adult tone) but bring back some of the goofy weirdness and old-fashioned cliffhanger fun that Lucas gave the saga. The Force Awakens is a very good Star Wars movie, but I have a feeling the best is yet to come.