Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Movie Review

J.J. Abrams took the reins of the Star Wars franchise and reinvigorated it with The Force Awakens, otherwise known as Episode VII and taking place some three decades or so after the vents of Return of the Jedi. This new chapter is a more than welcome addition following the ill-reputed prequel trilogy and even the Special Edition versions of the original trilogy.

It’s easy to criticize Abrams’ story (written with original trilogy scribe Lawrence Kasdan) for its reliance on repeating story and character points from Star Wars, sometimes quoting shots and scenes directly, but he’s on to something much bigger than either this film or that film. The Force Awakens, feeling in many ways like a version of Star Wars, takes as one of its themes the idea that history repeats itself, especially when we don’t heed warnings. Remember that Anakin was trained as a Jedi in spite of Yoda’s recommendation. Remember too that Luke started his training far too late for Yoda’s liking. Though The Force Awakens doesn’t cover it, I won’t be surprised to learn in Episode VIII or IX that Luke didn’t heed some warning about training Han and Leia’s son, who is the primary villain Kylo Ren, a Jedi turned to the Dark Side and helping lead the First Order (Last renants of the old Empire) for control of the galaxy. Kylo Ren is in the mold of Darth Vader (his grandfather) – he dresses like him, kind of talks like him, but he’s more willing to part with his mask to reveal the totally non-lethal dreamy visage of Adam Driver beneath.

So yeah, Han and Leia had a kid and Luke tried to train that kid as a Jedi, but he was turned to the Dark Side by the oddly Voldemort-resembling Snoke, this mysterious hideous man-creature that talks to Kylo Ren and Gernal Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) as a giant hologram. Whether or not he’s an actual giant I suppose will be clarified at some point. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have reprised their roles as have Mark Hamill as Luke and Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca. The newcomers are Daisy Ridley as Rey, a scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku, and John Boyega as Finn, a reformed Stormtrooper after gaining a conscience and defecting. Oscar Isaac came on board also, as Resistance pilot Poe Dameron. His role is somewhat limited in this film. He basically exists to help Finn escape from Starkiller Base (more on that later), then conveniently disappears until he’s needed in the final battle.

Rey and Finn sort of save each other, along with the droid BB-8 (carrying vital secret information), and then hook up with Han and Chewie and suddenly everyone is aiding the Resistance, trying to escape the clutches of the First Order, and learning about some things that have happened since Return of the Jedi ended.

To Abrams’ credit, The Force Awakens looks great because of his much heavier reliance on practical effects than most contemporary action films. His shooting style is more frenetic, with a lot more pans, sweeps, smash zooms, and long lenses than the original trilogy and even the prequels. So visually it doesn’t quite match. I kind of wish it did because the result looks a lot more like the signature Abrams put on his two Star Trek films than like a Star Wars film. But it’s incredibly satisfying to have something like a refresh of the Cantina scene that uses almost entirely practical makeup and costume effects. The one exception being the character of Maz (voiced by Lupita N’yongo), a wizened bar owner who sees a lot in people’s eyes and inexplicably (no, literally, someone asks her where she got it and she says it’s a story for another time) possesses Luke’s lightsaber and then gives it to Rey!

Beyond the general look of the film and its constant references to the first film, Abrams also enriches the story with layers that I’m not sure George Lucas ever really dreamed of. He’s constantly playing with lightness versus darkness, from the opening shot of a star cruiser that blocks out the sun’s light through the final battle that has Starkiller Base pulling the energy from a nearby sun in order to power its massive weapon. This base is built into the surface of a planet and is, in totality, about ten times bigger than the Death Star and with the ability to destroy several planets at once. The conflict between light and dark has always been a part of the Star Wars storylines, but often more as background noise. Abrams employs it as metaphor, tying together the visuals and the dialogue with one of the film’s major themes.

The film has its weaknesses, chief among them being that Kylo Ren ceases to be a serious threat the moment he removes his helmet. He removes it again once more late in the film, a moment that would have been more powerful had he not done so previously. But it has enough going for it (including John Williams’ musical score, which somehow still draws newly original material out of familiar themes) that I will be drawn to Episode VIII out of genuine interest and not fealty to the series, which was why I kept going back for two films after The Phantom Menace.

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