Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Film Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

It's about time someone made a good Star Wars movie. It's taken nearly forty years, but director J.J. Abrams has finally made an entry in this franchise that I could watch without wincing. To be fair, The Empire Strikes Back was pretty good, but that was because George Lucas handed the directing chores to Irvin Kershner, an old pro with a solid, if unspectacular, filmography. Three of the next four films were directed by Lucas and the results proved that George was something of an alchemist; he was able to turn the base metal of his negligible talent into box office gold.

As you may have guessed, I've never cared for the Star Wars films. I didn't see the original film until 1979, two years after it came out. I was twenty-two, had one year of film school under my belt, my favourite directors were Sidney Lumet and Sergio Leone, and I may have been a film snob. When I finally saw Star Wars I was astounded by the special effects and utterly gobsmacked by the bad acting, rubbish dialogue, and spastic action sequences. The subsequent films directed by Lucas added more proof to my conviction that he shouldn't be allowed near actors, a typewriter or a Panaflex camera.

The Force Awakens is, more or less, a reboot of the first film in the series, with the Death Star being upsized to a Death Planet. The Empire (now called the First Order) is a firm believer in the "go big or go home" adage when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, although after this latest expensive setback they'll probably be considering using Death Uber. Anyway, if you've seen the first one you've pretty much seen The Force Awakens. What makes this one such a pleasure is that is everything about the film that requires imaginative skill is done with wit, energy and professionalism. The acting is almost uniformly excellent, the script is smart, witty and lean, and Abrams, unlike Lucas, knows how to choreograph the non-space action scenes. The actors are led by Daisy Ridley as Rey, who I like to think of as Keira Knightley 2.0. That's a compliment. John Boyega as Finn, the renegade strormtrooper, was a revelation to me. I hated him in Attack the Block, but here he steals just about every scene he's in. Harrison Ford is reliably grumpy and cocky. And all the actors get dialogue that's blissfully unclunky and frequently funny

One aspect of the previous films that remains untouched is the determined avoidance of anything to do with sexuality or romantic relationships. The Stars Wars universe is a chaste universe, almost Victorian, in fact. Across the seven films in the franchise there's been some mild flirting, a very few kisses, and only one out and out romance: the union between Annakin and Padme that results in Luke's birth. This last episode is also notorious as perhaps the most badly written, acted and directed section in any of the films. You get the feeling Lucas hated having to film this subject matter. Not that Lucas is a prude. His American Graffitti is all about rambunctious teenage hormones. What Lucas probably realized was that part of the appeal of his films was that they offer a universe free from the angst, terror, tension and embarrassment of desire. This is a universe in which the characters (and the audience) only have to be concerned with issues of bravery, loyalty, resourcefulness, and derring-do. No one worries about being popular or loved. I think this is the ingredient x that made these films such a massive hit with the 8-24 demographic. Star Wars was, and is, their "safe place," a world that offers a holiday from the scary land of personal relationships.

There are some problems. The latest R2D2 iteration, a droid called BB-8, apparently comes with an algorithm that forces it to do something cute every second time it appears on screen. This got old very fast and for the next film I hope our lovable little droid is clubbed into scrap with the cold, dead body of an Ewok. The chief bad guy and Darth Vader fanboy is Kylo Ren, who (SPOILER AHEAD) turns out to be the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia. This seems like a colossal case of bad parenting, but the whole issue is kind of glossed over. Oh well, every family's got to have at least one world-destroying megalomaniac with a helmet fetish. Finally, Oscar Isaac gets the role of Poe Dameron, a gung ho fighter pilot who whoops and hollers as he goes into combat. You get the idea that his role will be expanded in the next film, but what they're starting with is pretty poor. Poe is a grab bag of cliches, and it wastes Isaac's talents in a big way. Also, what's up with that name? Am I missing some in-joke or connection to Con Air? The Nicolas Cage character in that film was named Cameron Poe. Is this a hint that Cage will be the big reveal in the next film? Will he be pulling off a helmet and announcing that he's somebody's long-lost relative? Please let him be Han Solo's younger, crazier, weird-ass brother--Charlie Solo.


Unknown said...

Hmmm... You make good points, JC, but I was rolling my eyes all the way through this piece of focus-grouped, sterile, corporate Disneyshite. The only moment of satisfaction was Harrison Ford being dumped into the abyss by his son the villain... (a welcome sight even if the overthrow of boomer tyranny was merely symbolic!)

Cary Watson said...

Yeah, it did have a committee-made vibe to it. I probably liked it more than I should have simply because the previous ones were so frequently wretched. I would have preferred that they kept Ford and dumped all the cute, sassy robots into the abyss.