Monday, December 21, 2015

A Potent Force

Everybody's talking about it; now it's my turn. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Actually, it seems to me that most everybody is gushing about it, with enthusiastic praise. My own reaction was muted by comparison. I certainly enjoyed the movie, and if there were a single person in the entire world actually waiting on my recommendation, I would give it. But I would generally call the movie "very good," not great.

There were great things about it. The new heroes are all wonderful, already as compelling and well-rounded as anyone in the Star Wars universe. Finn is one of the most real people the franchise has ever had -- definitely driven by a strong moral compass, but having to work to be heroic, against a lifetime of conditioning and a sharp self-preservation instinct. Poe Dameron is an inspirational and capable swashbuckler, a great blend of some of the best elements of classic Luke, Han, and even Obi-Wan Kenobi. And without a single line of dialogue the audience can understand, BB-8 is made as loyal as they come. Then there's Rey. It may be something like sacrilege to say this, but move over Leia -- I think the franchise may have a new most compelling female character. Rey is strong and capable in many ways that don't rely on the normal Hollywood techniques of showing a "strong, capable woman."

I was almost as intrigued by villain Kylo Ren. He's been created with the kind of moral turmoil that took George Lucas six movies to retrofit into Darth Vader (first in Return of the Jedi, and then later in the prequels). If Kylo Ren seems less villainous than Vader at times, that's very much the point of the character. If he seems to be overcompensating in his villainy at other times, that too is the point. I might quibble a bit with the multiple never-before-seen Dark Side powers he possesses, but at least it's in service of an interesting character.

It's appropriate that all these great characters are realized by the best cast ever assembled in the Star Wars saga. That goes not only for John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver -- who play the characters I mentioned above -- but for smaller new roles as well: Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Gwendolyn Christie. And it absolutely goes for the classic returning cast members from the original trilogy, doing some of their best work for Star Wars.

This is also by far the most visually impressive Star Wars movie. Director J.J. Abrams fills the screen with spectacle as George Lucas tried to do in the prequels, but his choices feel more natural and realistic. Things are put on screen to elicit an emotional response, not simply to engage (and quickly exhaust) the eyes. This feels like Star Wars because the universe feels lived in, not merely projected onto a green screen background.

Also very organic, the dialogue and the action. Lots of characters get moments to be funny -- which hasn't happened in a Star Wars movie since 1983, and then only really for Han Solo. And the action sequences always spring from natural story turns, unlike the prequels that awkwardly shoehorned them in just because so many minutes had elapsed since the last action sequence.


All these wonderful ingredients are serving a story not entirely up to their potential. A lot of plot elements are lifted from the original trilogy, and from Star Wars in particular. At first, it's fun and familiar. An homage. But when things start happening for the third time in just seven movies, familiarity breeds a touch of contempt.

Plus, this is the most open-ended Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. Every aspect of the final act is calibrated in a way that leaves you painfully aware that Episode VIII is coming to a theater near you in 2017. Indeed, I'm baffled that J.J. Abrams has elected not to return for the next installment, as he didn't really tell a complete story here. (In particular, given some of the comments he's given about the story he did want to tell, he didn't even scratch the surface.)

And as much as I praised the acting above, there is a different "performer" who barely even bothered to show up. This is composer John Williams' most lackluster score in a decade, a bland backdrop that barely grabs your attention even when it's referencing the famous Star Wars melodies of the original trilogy. As for new melodies? If he wrote any at all for this movie, they were utterly forgettable. I never would have imagined I wouldn't buy the soundtrack album for a Star Wars movie, but that's where I am now. If I picked it up, it would only be to confirm that I somehow didn't overlook something.

So... you might now have the impression that the list of things I liked about the movie was considerably longer than the list of things I didn't. Why then am I a bit tepid in my response compared to so many longtime Star Wars fans who are proudly proclaiming that Star Wars is "back?" Well, I have a theory about that. It all comes down to who was your favorite character from the classic trilogy.

In my experience both with friends and with fans I've met while working on Star Wars trading card games, most people love Han Solo. He's the favorite character by a wide margin, more than everyone else combined. And it seems to me that if you love Han Solo, then you love The Force Awakens. There's not a thing wrong with that; it's a great movie for his character, and the best movie Harrison Ford has been in for at least a decade.

But if your favorite Star Wars character is basically anyone else, there's not as much for you in The Force Awakens to take you back to where it all began. You can enjoy the new (and I did), but you're not getting the same classic rush as all the Han fans. For me, the favorite was always Luke. Those of you who have seen The Force Awakens will understand why my reaction is less effusive.

Still, a fun and enjoyable movie overall. And clearly made by someone with a better grasp of what makes Star Wars fun and enjoyable than its creator George Lucas displayed in the prequel trilogy. I give The Force Awakens a B+.

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