Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 31, 2015

Boyega-Ridley-Star-Wars-102015

“Prepackaged Star Wars characters still in their display box? Are those limited edition figures?”

“What’s a diorama?”

“Why, it’s Luke and Obi-Wan.  And my favourite, Chewie!  They’re all here!  What do you think?”

“It’s lunchtime.”

“We have a winner!”

-Principle Skinner, with interjections from Ralph Wiggum and Groundskeeper Willie, from The Simpsons episode “Lisa’s Rival”

As Star Wars: The Force Awakens careens into the pantheon of all-time box office champs, rubbing elbows with the likes of…well…the previous Star Wars films plus Avatar and..um…Jurassic World, it seems that Disney can feel pretty pleased with the biggest sure-thing $4 billion investment in the history of motion pictures.  This is not terribly surprising, and yet it still begs questions:  How can, two weeks after its release, this movie still pull in over $30 on a Tuesday?  It’s one of those eternal questions, like how could there have been enough people in the country who decided, 14 weeks after it hit number one, that they liked Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do it For You)”, that they liked it enough to buy it and propel it number one for a fifteenth week running.  Still, it’s not quite there yet, but the fact that it’s racing to beat Jurassic World gives you an idea of the playing field in 2015. 

The fourth trip to the world of dinosaur theme parks was a bafflingly bad movie, and though clearly many people don’t agree, there’s part of me that wants to attribute its success to the nostalgia factor.  Many articles were written about how that movie came out at just the right time:  not only mopping up kids looking for whatever special effects laden blockbuster thrown onto most of the screens at their local multiplex, but the 30-somethings who saw the original movie twenty years ago and now have enough spare income and, presumably, time to see it multiple times.  The post-critic world is long dead and we’re living in the fully-fledged reality of the post-quality – a film need only tug the “remember this” heartstrings to be successful. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a significantly better film than Jurassic World, but it’s not much better than just fine.  This is partly by design, and the calculations of a massive corporation can be felt just as surely as the Force when Rey is handling a light saber against Kylo Ren – it’s there but you can’t quite put your finger on it.  Hiring J.J. Abrams, then, was just about the canniest move possible, for here is a director who has made his name with clever TV shows and films that hit all the sweet spots of pre-established genres while introducing just enough twists to make them exciting.  His directorial style is particularly chameleon-like, though it always has a glossy sheen (thankfully less reliant on lens flares this time around).  His finest film was Super 8, an early Spielberg pastiche that worked because it understood the “why” and not just the “how”.  He’s a bit less successful here, though Lucas is a lesser director than Spielberg so it’s no surprise.  Still, the camera sweeps when it should, the angles work, and the early scenes on Jakku have a stark, desolate desert beauty, especially when moving amongst the ruins of Star Destroyers and X-Wings and Rey eating lunch against the foot of a fallen AT-AT, all indicating a much more interesting movie than the one we get in the end. 

Because it does start very promisingly, even as we have to adjust to the Star Wars cornball factor which this movie runs with, mostly in a positive way.  The blood smeared on Finn’s helmet was particularly good – serving both to suggest the actual death involved in the largely bloodless Star Wars universe as well as neatly allowing us to recognize and follow a character fully covered in a suit of armor exactly like every other low level trooper around him.  As it moves more and more into its mash-up of the original trilogy, however, we have to adjust our expectations down again to precisely what Disney wanted: something just good enough. 

The Star Killer element might be the worst, not only because it’s the most tiresome rehash of the original (a Mos Eisley cantina nod is one thing, but an entire plot device?), but also it gives us the most flaccidly lame part of the finale in a space battle so barely cared about its stakes never feel very high, even after it’s destroyed multiple planets (the destruction of Coruscant is so flippant I could only read it as a smirking nudge that we should all forget the prequels ever happened).  In fact, the entire First Order versus the Republic versus The Resistance made absolutely no sense to me, and if the prequels suffered from extensive over-explaining (it was about a tax dispute!), The Force Awakens goes too far the other way – the original trilogy could get away with us accepting the Evil Empire versus the Noble Rebellion, but now that the former has been destroyed, we need a little more. 

So there’s the Star Killer, yes, and that ridiculous digression into fighting the giant monsters on the spaceship, presumably because there was a tentacle monster in the first one and the Sarlaach Pit in Jedi so they had to do something like that, but there was also the early scenes on Jakku, and the lightsaber duel was very good, and though predictable and slightly hampered by a ropey special effect at just the worst moment possible, the big confrontation on the walkway worked well enough.  Daisy Ridley can hold the screen and she suggests depth to a character even when it’s not directly written into the scene.  John Boyega has a lot of goofy charisma, and when Finn is more developed he’ll really come into his own.  Harrison Ford actually tries for once, and his rapport with the walking carpet is immediate and special.  BB8 is cute as hell and probably the most immediately enjoyable addition to the universe.  I also liked Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, perhaps the character that best typifies the pitfalls and potential of the franchise going forward.  If he’s too menacing and all-powerful, he’s effective as a villain maybe but also just a Vader retread and there’s only one way for him to go.  Here he’s angry and childish, but in just the right the ways.  Granted, the Emo Kylo Ren Twitter account is rather fitting, but the character also has room to develop into something, maybe even a better version of the woefully handled Anakin arc of the prequel trilogy. 

Ren feels like the only real risk taken here, and not surprisingly he’s been divisive, but that risk is necessary if this series is going to become anything more than a simple retread of a property so many of us grew up watching.  Overall it’s a very safe film, as to be expected, and one can only hope that having established the new characters amongst the old ones, the studio and the filmmakers will feel a little more free to do something with it in future installments.  That leaves us with an appetizer that errs on the side of fan service, but mostly pulls it off even if it’s immediately limiting itself by choosing that tack.  It’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re all Principal Skinner looking at Ralph’s diorama and accepting that as good enough.  I suppose it is, for now. 

-M

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