Thursday, December 17, 2015
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
So the good news to report first is that J.J. Abrams is someone who loves Star Wars enough that he more than respects the mythology, which itself is cobbled together from past mythological stories, both old (back to the Greeks with the Gods) and modern (serials and comics), but also recognizes that in this 'Episode' series as a saga a lot of it has to come back to family.
The Force Awakens works tremendously when it focuses on the two (maybe three) new characters who are introduced in this series, and the familiar is both welcome and sometimes questionable, but mostly welcome all the same. It's a movie made for the fans, but it's not necessarily a "fan-film", if that makes sense. It's the logical progression of this franchise in 2015 and by a filmmaker like Abrams it's a commendable effort (if not great, read on for more, and of course SPOILERS be ahead).
First of all, the first act of this movie is magnificent. New heroes are introduced, one of which, a deflecting Stormtrooper for the newly formed First Order named Finn (though it's technically not his real name, and oddly enough his given name is an in-joke for ANH fans), is remarkable. I loved this character as someone who did seem like a new presence - not someone who is a space pirate or destined for something greater, just a guy who was raised to do just one thing and has a conscience and decides to act on it. As played by John Boyega he's the best part of the movie overall for me (yes, even with mother-f***ing Han Solo and the new cute droid BB8 included), and he gives Finn passion and fire and occasional humor but is a fully formed character; he's fulfilling the promise seen in him in Attack the Block, and I can't wait to see more of his character in the next episodes.
Likewise Daisy Ridley, a new actress relatively, is very good as Rey - though she at first is another character (or I should say archetype) that's familiar via Joseph Campbell as the Hero Destined for a Journey, Ridley gives her spunk and equal fire to Boyega, and it's a joy to see how they meet and join forces in the first act. Everything about this opening is so strong, a lot of it told without dialog (and when it does come in it feels simple but just right somehow) that it's a shame that the rest of the film doesn't quite live up. And it's not that the quality jumps off a cliff, but, for me, this first act of shaping this new world, the new evils (Adam Driver as the new sort of "Darth" Kylo Ren), hits its high point once Han Solo (Harrison Ford, acting like he'd never left the role, he's just there) and Chewbacca come in to the picture.
In a way the 'spine' of the movie, in other words the events that lead everyone from point A to B to C, are really close to that of A New Hope. At the same time, I got the feeling like Abrams, probably knowing this would be his only shot at making a Star Wars movie (whether he wants to do one again is his call, but I believe he's declined), has put EVERYTHING he'd want to do in a SW movie in one film. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and Abrams passion for thios world comes through in almost every frame. But it almost feels a little cramped by the time the last act comes around and as our heroes face off against Kylo Ren (following the death of a pretty damn prominent character, sort of in keeping with the family-tragedy line of the series, I can't even bring myself to say it), there's the "Starkiller" Base, which is basically the Death Star on steroids.
It's a much darker film than I expected. Matter of fact, the third act has the sort of pacing issues to the point I almost forgot about the Starkiller Base plan, and it had not really much urgency considering its level of threat. It's also a little unclear for me (on a first viewing, I should note again) just how FAST someone gets Jedi-Force powers this time, and seemingly it's much, much quicker than one saw with Luke (the explanation of Rey having them is fine, but it seems like just how quickly is too much, as if she would need more, say, training to do ALL that she does, and it boils down to a story contrivance that I couldn't ignore while watching it). And by the time it gets to this next section of the film, where emotions are really high but callbacks are still done - even to things like, say, a trash compactor, or an Admiral Ackbar appearance - it's a bit much.
The number of gripes that I can ponder over are many... and yet I still recommend the film highly. For all the little faults in the storytelling or little bits of deus ex machina (at one point involving a split in the ground that separates two characters in a dual at just the right moment), this is a full-bloodied, extremely well directed, shot with fire in the cinematographer's cortex (and a lack of unnecessary lens flares!) Star Wars movie.
In the ways that ultimately count, in the spine as I mentioned, its familiarity is in keeping with how this saga has been unfolding over six films, with familial bonds and the mystical element of the Force guiding things in directions of good and/vs evil. It does what the 2009 Star Trek film, also from Abrams, did so well: reintroduce us to this universe with energy and spunk, give fans and newcomers what they want, and allow some new actors to act their buts off while giving veterans a chance to shine.
Oh, and BB8 is cute as a button. If only R2 had more screen time for them as a buddy-droid team...and not enough Oscar Isaac... ok, shutting off now...