Saturday, January 30, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Be still my heart....

     The franchise that defines science fiction as we know it is in new hands, with new faces, and a new story. Last time the name Star Wars appeared on a theater screen, the tragic result was The Revenge of the Sith. The movies that were icons of movie history and paragons of the sci-fi genre suddenly shared their golden name with a trilogy worthy of the Razzie Awards. With a new studio, new director, and a complete divorce from the volumes of literature based in the galaxy far far away, could the franchise ever be restored to its former glory? With baited breath, that is the question that all the fans have been asking.

Could Star Wars be good again? 

The answer is... yes. Finally, yes. In the words of the first spoken lines of the movie, "This will begin to make things right." 

     Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a distant echo of A New Hope, with new heroes and enemies, a few familiar faces, but still the same heartfelt story in its soul, following in many of the same steps as the very first Star Wars movie that began it all. The Force Awakens is at once a new story and an old one, a reborn conflict and yet a continuation of a familiar one. The newly introduced heroes mingle seamlessly with the classic names, and the new faces of evil are but a new generation of the Empire.  

     The original Star Wars changed movies, but not entirely because of revolutionary special effects; plenty of movies with more ground-breaking technology have come since. Star Wars, amidst its innovative effects and bold setting, managed to touch people in a very personal way, despite being set a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Worlds named Tatooine, Yavin IV, and the moon of Endor somehow felt familiar, and people like Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Han Solo felt like friends. The fantastic stories were miraculously relatable, because at the core of Star Wars is a story that appeals to every dreamer who wants to believe that they are part of something bigger; something noble that has no chance of succeeding, but will anyway. That is the heart of the epic known as Star Wars-- that ordinary people with ordinary fears step up and triumph against extraordinary odds.

     In this new installment to the story, a new epic begins with equally identifiable characters, bringing back some of the old as well. Taking Luke's place as the nobody-turned-hero is Rey, a scavenger on a desert planet. Her origins are mysterious, seemingly unknown even to herself, but she waits patiently for her family to come back for her and rescue her from the desolate wasteland where she has made her home in the ruins of an AT-AT. As such, the young woman is no stranger to sweat, sand, greasy mechanic work, and defending herself from the scum and ruffians of Jakku. But like Luke Skywalker before her, her destiny is completely redirected (or possibly fulfilled?) by a chance encounter with a special droid.

     Continuing in the tradition that George Lucas began, most of The Force Awakens features a cast of relative unknowns, which allows the audience to enjoy this adventure with a clean slate, mostly free of expectations from any of the actors. Daisy Ridley as Rey is engaging, relatable, and ultimately just likable. Ridley brings a range of expression, humor, ferocity, and dignity to the character of Rey without being overly macho or appearing weak. Even in her scrappiness, she has an essence about her that is noble and dignified, while avoiding being aristocratic or entitled. Rey is a post-modern Princess Leia, with admirable moxie and independence, yet still exhibits real emotions and fears, and could use a hand every now and then. She's not untouchable or made of stone, but she's no pushover. Ridley's telling facial expressions and intensely expressive eyes contribute to a strong performance that brings Rey to life. Her story grabs your attention so fully that you can't help but feel invested in the same way that audiences were enthralled with Luke's journey from farmboy to Jedi so many years ago. Rey is a sweet and attractive leading character, which is explored further in a separate post.

     If Rey is the poster hero for Star Wars now, the orbicular droid BB-8 is undoubtedly the Happy Meal toy. In all seriousness, after having BB-8 bobbing around onscreen, C-3PO and R2-D2 seem comparatively lackluster and somewhat dull by the time they appear. BB-8's spheroid build allows for the droid to be expressive, humorous, and feisty in ways that make R2-D2 look almost stiff. BB-8's attachment to Poe Dameron is not unlike a loyal dog and his master, which is certainly endearing for a sidekick. BB-8 refers to Poe (through beeps and bleeps) as his master, and Poe in turn, calls BB-8 "buddy." Like C-3PO and R2-D2 before him, BB-8 serves mostly comic ends with a few useful moments.

     Speaking of comedy, one of the strongest points for The Force Awakens is probably the excellent comedic timing, which is most often delivered by John Boyega's Finn. Though Finn's origins are dark and his entrance into the story is not exactly bumbling (meaning not like a certain Gungan from a previous film), Finn repeatedly delivers the lighter moments of the movie. Boyega's execution of the character Finn is not only entertaining, but refreshing. While Rey is something of a nobody (though, like Skywalker, is likely to have important parentage), Finn is not much better. Finn is a rogue storm trooper who makes a dramatic escape from the clutches of the First Order, having been kidnapped for the First Order when he was too young to remember anything else about his family or home. Amidst many comedic moments, Finn has more to him than just being the movie's clown. He is a man of conviction and chivalry with moments of vulnerability and fear, but ultimately a good man trying to be on the right side and lend some assistance to a decidedly non-distressed damsel.

     With new heroes should also come new villains to match them, and for this, The Force Awakens presents Kylo Ren. Ren's origins are hinted at and then exposed relatively early in the film, so I don't consider it a spoiler to share that he is actually the estranged son of Han and Leia, and that his choice to follow the dark side was hugely significant to Luke's disappearance. Ren is a different kind of villain, especially for Star Wars. Although the prequels show the transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader, the original trilogy did not labor to explain Vader, and the audience simply knew him as the bad guy, who remained unsympathetic until The Return of the Jedi. However, Ren seems to struggle to stay on the dark side of the force. He periodically speaks to Vader's charred helmet and confesses wrestling against "the call to the light," while vowing to finish what his grandfather started.

     Just as Darth Vader had the Emperor as his master, and Grand Moff Tarkin as the military commander alongside him in A New Hope, Kylo Ren is under the mastery of the cadaverous Supreme Commander Snoke, and must cooperate with General Hux. Who Snoke is or how he rose to prominence is currently a favorite point of fan speculation on the internet at the moment, but not pertinent at this point in the saga. Snoke operates as the overlord who has some kind of force power, though we don't know the extent of it. General Hux functions in the same type of capacity of Grand Moff Tarkin, though younger, and possibly even more ruthless. While Tarkin did not hesitate to blow up the planet Alderaan with the Death Star, General Hux eliminates no less than five planets from a long range, without so much as a wince of moral inclination. Hux, unashamedly modeled after Adolf Hitler, is power-hungry. Ren is dedicated to fulfilling what he believes his grandfather Darth Vader started, though it is uncertain what that means other than wiping out the Jedi. Snoke's motives and goals are unknown. We can safely assume something along the lines of ruling the galaxy and training dark force-wielders, but beyond that, only further movies will tell.

     New characters abound in The Force Awakens, but the now-aged heroes of Star Wars' past are not forgotten. The overarching plot of The Force Awakens centers on finding Luke Skywalker, but it is Han Solo and Chewie who feature most prominently onscreen with the new cast. Han and Chewie are apparently back to their old ways of swindling and double-crossing, having left the glory days of the Rebellion far behind. Even the celebrated Millennium Falcon has been rusting away in a junkyard after being stolen from Han years earlier. Rey and Finn immediately recognize Han Solo's name, but he is resigned to living as a has-been. He's not the hero of the Rebellion anymore or the famed Millennium Falcon smuggler, but a general who stopped being a general long ago. Sparingly used expository dialogue explain Han's regression from Rebellion leader to smuggler, and while his name may still be known, he sees himself as the man who used to be Han Solo.

     Harrison Ford's amusing but appropriately deadpan performance perfectly hits the mark of bringing the character back, while simultaneously carrying a tone of bleak melancholy in the sweet nostalgia. This is both the Han we know and love, and a Han who has been through more than we know. The combination of our familiarity with Han's past self, and the introduction to this new side of him culminate to provide the movie's most poignant moments. Han has always been one who is willing to risk his life for his friends, going in with guns blazing, scorning the idea of possible outcomes. While elements of this young rogue still emerge, Han is also a father, and that has changed him. His heart has been broken, and his defense is to try to be the pilot we met in the Mos Eisley cantina decades ago, even though he can never be that man again. One particularly tender moment involving Han in his father role reveals just how much he has changed as he calmly walks into a battle that he knows he will not win with guns. Ford dons his Solo persona with ease and effortlessness, managing to bring layers of depth to the beloved character while maintaining fidelity to the past. One would never have imagined that Han Solo would take the Obi-Wan role as the mentor in this new addition to the story, but he carries this charge with humor and grace in 100% Han Solo style.

     Moving to the more technical side of things, The Force Awakens brings legendary composer John Williams to the revived franchise, carrying his always-elegant and personal touch to the diverse moments of the movie. Williams wields the power of sentimentality, tension, and heartbreak with a master's wand. Of particular note is an especially tense moment when Rey uses the force in a showdown with Kylo Ren, and as she recognizes her power, a familiar theme that evokes the most heroic moments of the original films swells to the surface, imbuing the moment with nostalgic inspiration. These moments that hearken back to themes from the original scores are the strongest and most memorable musical moments, which is both a compliment and a slight criticism. While the new music for The Force Awakens is fitting and enjoyable, few tracks stand out as particularly distinct. However, just as I expect the next movie to break from following the formula for A New Hope, I expect the next movie to introduce strong new themes.

     Analysis is my personal forte, and truthfully there's just too much in The Force Awakens to get through it all in a reasonable post that you will actually finish reading. There is significant symbolism tied up in the Millennium Falcon, questions raised about the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, speculation about Rey's parentage, comments about cinematography, thoughts about the technology advancements, and so on. For all this, there are very few flaws that I can reasonably point out, and even fewer that can't be explained away with little effort. While it's true that The Force Awakens has a few moments that are just a bit convenient (Rey and Finn just bumping into Han Solo in space, Poe Dameron's flight to the rescue at the crucial moment, how Ren escaped the Starkiller base without Star Trek's beaming technology), one has to remember that this is still Star Wars, and those moments have always been part of the movies. If you're looking for realism, Star Wars isn't where you should be looking to begin with. In the way of other flaws, the superfluous use of Captain Phasma comes to mind. One assumes that she will return in future movies to play a greater role, but for the moment, Phasma is disappointing, and whether or not she comes back makes little difference.

     Star Wars: The Force Awakens returns not only Star Wars, but sci-fi itself, to the heights of greatness that loyalists have always believed it was capable of. Great science fiction should first and foremost be great fiction, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens achieves that with dazzling style that is both warmly familiar and curiously novel. The movie has been narrowly criticized for essentially borrowing the skeleton plot of A New Hope and retelling the story, but I can think of no better formula for starting over, especially since the current trajectory for later movies makes it practically and artistically improbable to mimic the rest of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens is a continuation and a new start; a task that director JJ Abrams shoulders with great respect to the old stories, and delicate vision for the new generation. The lightsaber has successfully been handed off, and now we wait with reinvigorated anticipation to return once again to the galaxy far far away.

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