Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

One of my favorite bits from The Force Awakens.

I have written before about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams' "requel"-style sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy. I claim the new movie
is better (by far) than any Star Wars prequel and better (by less far) than Jurassic World. The dialogue is decent, the characterization (especially of the new characters, Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and BB-8) is good, and the action sequences and overall narrative flow work really well. I agree with A.A. Dowd when he says that the film does not slow down and develop its characters and worlds quite enough and that it fails to land a couple moments (like the revelation of Kylo Ren's parentage) that could have been far more emotionally impactful than they are.
I stand by that statement, yet having recently re-watched The Force Awakens, I aver its dialogue is better than "decent." As these kinds of basically superficial movies go, the latest Star Wars entry is actually quite well scripted.

Take. for example, the two lines exchanged between Han and Leia as they sum up why they have drifted apart from one another over the years:

HAN: I went back to the only thing I was ever any good at.

LEIA: We both did.

Simple stuff but it implies so much. Perceiving themselves to be failures as lovers and parents, Han and Leia have fallen back on their respective jobs as smuggler and military commander to sustain them through their trauma. This makes sense. It's human. People in the real world throw themselves into work and old habits to avoid pain and discomfort all the time. Succinctly put, not revolutionary, but believable and resonant.

The film's high entertainment value also stems from Abrams' considerable ability as a "show don't tell" filmmaker. In this, thank God he is more a disciple of Spielberg than of Lucas. He moves the camera dynamically, he focuses on action and gesture over expository dialogue, and he -- unlike his contemporaries Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder -- seems to comprehend human emotions.

This moment, like many similar moments between Furiosa and Max in Fury Road, subtly illustrates how heroic men depend upon smarter, more capable women.

However, one can easily tell that Abrams' hands were tightly tied while making this franchise-rebooting component of the highly synergized Star Wars product line.* As the L.A. Times' Michael Hiltzik writes,
Whether out of his own instincts or via directives from the suits at Disney, J.J. Abrams, the co-writer and director of The Force Awakens, plainly labored under a mandate to not get the thing wrong. It's a mark of Disney's own caretaker mentality that not only is a Jar Jar Binks-level blunder absent from The Force Awakens, but so is surprise or even much suspense.
That's hard to argue with. The film is fun but generally unsurprising, in large part because it is a barely-disguised remake of Star Wars (1977). (Though I am pleasantly surprised by Kylo Ren's sudden tantrums -- show don't tell!)

Hiltzik allows that "Abrams' big advance is said to be supplanting the whiter-than-white protagonists of the original Star Wars with a young woman and a black male." Agreed.

Finn (John Boyega) rocks. He also signals imminent major SPOILERS in this review.

What's more, The Force Awakens makes good on two key unfulfilled promises: to give Han Solo a meaningful death, and to give us a frikkin' female Jedi protagonist.

As Harrison Ford has been saying for decades, Han Solo should have croaked at the end of The Return of the Jedi. It makes sense in terms of the character's arc (greedy bastard in Star Wars, learns his lesson in Empire, sacrifices himself for his friends in Jedi) and would have given the conclusion of the original trilogy some much-needed gravitas. Tony Zhou writes that
J.J. Abrams must spend half of The Force Awakens re-building the same emotional ground under Han Solo [as existed in the original trilogy]. That’s why Han is back to his factory default setting of “smuggler,” why he’s escaping again from people to whom he owes money, why he and Leia are separated then reunited, and why he quickly agrees to storm a planet and disable the shield so that fighters can attack the Death Star. 
Han Solo is literally, moment by moment, reliving Return of the Jedi. Because in story terms, he should’ve died then.**
Don't get me wrong, Jedi is an aesthetic triumph. Its action sequences, particularly the Endor speeder bike chase and the destruction of the second Death Star, are among the best you will ever see. Luke's final confrontation with Vader and the Emperor in Jedi is one of the best dramatic scenes in any Star Wars movie and is probably the most emotionally resonant scene George Lucas has ever had any hand in creating.

But on a basic story-structure level, and as far as including the Ewoks goes, Return of the Jedi is a lazy, stupid, watered-down piece of shit. It stupidly keeps Han Solo alive, denying the character a meaningful death and reducing him to comic relief. Worse, Jedi gives Solo screen time that rightfully belongs to Leia at this point. Why the fuck isn't Leia, a longtime military leader, commanding the attack on the Endor shield generator? For that matter, why the fuck is this blaster-wielding leader of the rebellion being chained up in a slave bikini in the opening act of this puppet-fest?

Whatever happened to this Leia?

Did she follow this Marion Ravenwood down into the pit of 1980s sexism?

In any case, The Force Awakens' Rey (Daisy Ridley) appears to be Star Wars' attempt to reverse course on its usual sexism.† The attempt may never fully succeed -- that slave bikini is going to haunt the franchise forever. But our new series protagonist (for at least the next two numbered episodes I presume) and her black comrade-in-arms both provide a compelling and much-needed antidote to the series' usual white-male-centeredness. 

On the basis of its diverse cast and camera work alone I'm inclined to rate The Force Awakens up there pretty close to Return of the Jedi in terms of overall viewing pleasure. We'll see how it withstands the test of time. 

However, much as I complain about Disney taking over the goddamn universe, I sure look forward to seeing the next couple episodes of Rey's ongoing adventures. She is the single most compelling element of this latest Star Wars viewing product. 

Rey tells Kylo Ren to go fuck himself.

Bonus Afterthought: Make sure to check out this interesting piece about a possible unforeseen after-effect of The Force Awakens' enormous success: a critical reevaluation of George Lucas. Bryan Curtis explains that "in the era of reboots, Lucas' pastiches have a kind of integrity." A thought-provoking read.

UPDATE 7/1/2016: See also Film Crit Hulk's detailed explanation of why The Force Awakens doesn't quite work for him -- including accurate insights about why most of J.J. Abrams' films are big hits but lack staying power. According to Hulk, Abrams' films "DON'T UNDERSTAND HOW TO BE HUMAN SO THEY EFFECTIVELY IMITATE IT. [IN THE FORCE AWAKENS, ABRAMS AND COMPANY] LOOKED AT EVERY MOMENT AND WORKED BACKWARDS FROM THE INTENDED RESULT. J.J. KNOWS WHERE YOU WANT TO BE, BUT HE'S GOING TO RUSH YOU THERE AS SOON AS HE CAN, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER OR NOT IT'S CATHARTIC."

UPDATE 9/10/2016: I recently came across this piece by Brian Merchant and feel it to be the best overall assessment of the place of The Force Awakens in the larger Star Wars film series. As Merchant writes, Episode VII "is more a product of the same market logic that gave rise to the Marvel Universe films—a logic that rewards emulation and nostalgia above all; reusing ideas, characters, and narrative arcs that have already proven lucrative—than it is of the imagination that launched the series nearly four decades ago." Though he has high hopes for 2017's Episode VIII, he concludes that "Science fiction is supposed to be all about exploring the unexplored, not rehashing the well-trod. As its key franchises become increasingly more important to the bottom line of huge studios that are fending off streaming and view-on-demand, expect them to become more formulaic, and less interesting."

* Eileen Meehan calls the web of cross-references created by the product lines surrounding a blockbuster film its "commercial intertext." She argues that each consumer interacts with the web of meanings created by a film text and its surrounding commercial intertext differently, each of us "positioning ourselves to construct different readings of the film and positioning the film and its intertext to suit our particular purposes" (pp. 47-9). If you are interested in the rise of the blockbuster and/or corporate synergy in Hollywood, you simply must read Meehan's "Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!" in The Many Lives of the Batman (Ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, Routledge 1991) pp. 47-65.
** Zhou compellingly argues that The Force Awakens wastes too much time fixing the original trilogy's Han Solo problem: "the real film that Episode VII is fixing is Episode VI. Half of the runtime of this new movie is spent correcting one problem, the mere fact that Han Solo should have died then and didn’t." Along similar lines, Gary Kurtz, who produced Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, says in this interview that
one of the reasons I was really unhappy [about Jedi] was the fact that all of the carefully constructed story structure of characters and things that we did in Empire was going to carry over into Jedi. The resolution of that film was going to be quite bittersweet, with Han Solo being killed, and the princess having to take over as queen of what remained of her people, leaving everybody else. In effect, Luke was left on his own. None of that happened, of course.
Kurtz parted ways with George Lucas over these issues and instead of producing Return of the Jedi, he collaborated with Jim Henson and Frank Oz on the utterly badass The Dark Crystal (1982).
† The prequels are absolutely terrible on the gender front as well, so it's a good thing they don't exist.

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