Star Wars: The Force Awakens – J.J. Abrams (2015)

Star Wars has become such a massive part of our cultural heritage that it is almost impossible to get far enough away from it to have perspective. The first, and still most powerful, film “franchise,” Star Wars, like McDonald’s, is so ubiquitous we can barely imagine what the landscape would look like without it. Child of the ’80s that I am, I grew up watching the first trilogy to death on pan and scan VHS tapes (still the best way to see them, I think) and like any nerd can pretty much recite the scripts verbatim. Somewhere along the way, however, I stopped caring. Star Wars is a decent enough, if (following Pauline Kael) junky entertainment, but as I came to appreciate film more and more, the popularity of this particular set of movies began to mystify me. The series really is a bottom-drawer bricolage of a teenage nerd’s mind: the abstracted, yet neutered Medieval trappings, full of knights, princesses, and sword fights; the uncomplicated Manichaeism of a universe divided into the binary of good and evil; the uninspired Hero with a Thousand Faces narrative laden with so much trite familial baggage that it makes a Mexican soap opera look circumspect; the lame humor. Even the title is so generic that, if it were a book or a game, or discovered at the video store by some inconceivable rube who had never heard of it, it would likely be quickly reshelved in the service of something more distinct and exciting. While I can understand how the generic nature of the film and its themes is a strength, and not a liability, it still mystifies me how adults far older than I continue to venerate this narrative as their cultural lodestar, the sun and moon of their film-going lives (at the same time, I find it less mystifying than the fact that masses of grown men continue to follow the static and rigged doings of men in costumes with superpowers). I know, right now fanboys everywhere (or the three who might ever read this blog) are inserting a sharp wooden stake into my virtual ass and massing to lay siege to my abode high on Mount Adorno. If only it were that easy. I am not a hater, and honestly have no problem with the enjoyment of these films, although I will resolutely maintain that their popularity reflects a dearth of imagination in our culture. Really, if you want to hate someone, hate George Lucas. A technologist rather than a filmmaker, Lucas has gone out of his way, Vader-like, to lay waste to his legacy by milking it drier than dry while making clear he has no grasp of film aesthetics or what even makes a good story. The first trilogy was fine, with The Empire Strikes Back being the best of the three, but it must be remembered that he only directed the first film. No, Lucas’s true legacy is Episodes I-III, and they reveal him to be a completely inept mythmaker, more obsessed with pointless, and tedious, “political” doings and backstory than anyone could care for, and a ham-handed director, tone deaf to what works (ahem, Jar Jar anyone?) and obsessed with rerunning the family drama unto death within an unnecessarily elaborated universe collapsing under the weight of its garishness. Nobody likes Episodes I-III, and he directed them all. (Furthermore, he took pains to go back into the archive and destroy the original trilogy with stupid digital additions, and, even worse, wrecked his best film, the spare, relatively experimental THX 1138, by also juicing it with digital critters, making manifest what was only suggested, and powerfully so, in the original). So while I may be sour on Star Wars, it is the doing not so much of the films I watched as a child, but of a man out of ideas, who devalued his own creation more than I ever could, by making it plain his only goal was an endless stream of dollar signs, marching, Imperial style, towards his Death Star sized bank account.

So thanks be that Episode VII, aka The Force Awakens, is indeed a reboot! (I can bet you will never catch me uttering that phrase again). J.J. Abrams, he who delivered us from pointless season to pointless season of Lost (which I watched every stupid episode of), magically, and against all odds, reworks Star Wars for a new generation, and lo, it is good. The thing moves, and unlike many franchise films, even feels like it’s going somewhere! I won’t rehash the plot much, since there are a few spoilers, and in many ways it is a retread of Episode IV – a preternaturally gifted backwater nobody (Daisy Ridley as Rey) is drawn into a universal conflict that she has little knowledge of. At her side is a defected Stormtrooper (John Boyega as Finn) and a small droid (basically R2D2’s younger sibling) carrying a secret message. There is a massive weapon/planet that can destroy whole worlds which must be destroyed, a mask-wearing heavy (Adam Driver as Kylo Ren), and a master of magic in hiding on a remote world (Mark Hamill as you know who). Along the way, we are reunited with our old friends – Han Solo and Chewbacca are back to their scummy, wheeler dealer ways, but quickly give aid to the cause of the young’uns. Leia is now a general, and she and Han have split, after siring a son. I must admit, the first half of the story was so much of a repeat that I was a bit bored, and feared the worst. But there are a few things that elevate this movie, generating tension and, in the end, a lump in the throat. First and foremost the film comes equipped with a very fine supporting cast. Oscar Isaac, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, brings heart and charisma to his role as Poe, the X-Wing ace. Likewise, Domhnall Gleeson, last seen as a gentle, sentimental Irishman in Brooklyn, switches things up as General Hux, the malevolent second in command to Supreme Leader Snoke (who sounds, and looks, like a Harry Potter export). The direction is also very good, with Abrams capably melding the digital with the analog rather more seamlessly than most, and using camera movement to greater effect than Lucas ever did. The real interest, and emotional weight, of the film falls elsewhere, though. The return of the original cast could have been little more than a gimmick; a series of cameos that add little except a chance to study the ravages of time upon faces we have seen fairly little of since the originals. (Even Harrison Ford has been scarce of late). There is something unexpectedly touching, and indeed uncanny, about reuniting with Han, Leia, and Luke – it is more than just marking time, theirs and ours, and more than updating their personal narratives. It is the unexpected shock of seeing someone you thought dead, perhaps, or sealed away in a picture on the mantle, and marking not the differences, but the similarities as they return to life. We remember why we loved these characters in the first place, but the passed time is piquant; Leia, for instance, now has a raspy voice, a tight upper lip, and looks a bit like Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil. It is Harrison Ford as Han that really delivers the goods, though. Yes, the swagger of the old Han is there, but he is softer now, made more thoughtful and serene not just by the passage of time, but by the loss of his son. Ford does some fine, understated work, particularly in the reunion with his child, reminding us what a good actor he is (for my money, he has done some of his best work in his old age, and certainly outshines his thundering, dundering peers De Niro, Pacino, et al). The other innovation is the character of Kylo Ren. When we are first introduced to him, we assume he is just a replacement Vader, the unimaginative, requisite baddie. It soon becomes clear that something is off about him, though. Unlike Vader, he is not genuflected to by the Imperial generals, nor does he cause them to tremble in his presence; instead, they flinch. The Supreme Leader treats him not as a peer, but as a bit of a flunky. And he exhibits some very un-Vader like behavior. We are a bit shocked when, the droid with the intel having escaped his grasp, he throws a fit and uses his light saber (decked out, tellingly, with some pimp cross-guards) to slash the control panel in front of him to bits. Yes, this is one impetuous, ill-tempered heavy, and we soon learn why – he is a young pretender, trying to fill Vader’s shoes by faking it until he makes it. This makes him the peer, in age and maturity, of the young do-gooders, and adds an element of psychological complexity, and realism, that was absent from Vader père, while also complicating the political makeup of the Imperial side of the story. Further, it breathes life into the franchise for Millennials and comments (I must remain agnostic on how astutely) on the problems of inheriting a much degraded environment, and overly-hyped history, from a previous generation. So while The Force Awakens did not cause a disturbance in my force, it did, in the last 30 minutes, have me leaning forward, if not to the edge of my seat. While not the equal of the spring’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it did what I had previously considered impossible: it left me excited for Episode VIII.

Three and a half stars out of five

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