Thursday, December 17, 2015

Consequences Of The Classic: Star Wars: The Force Awakens Packs A Lot In (For Adults)!

The Good: Decent story, Excellent character moments, Some good moments of performance, Special effects
The Bad: Moments of direction, Busy
The Basics: Largely satisfying, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has more character punch for the new and beloved characters from the Star Wars universe!

As cinematic anticipation goes, it is hard to imagine a film with more pressure to perform than Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (reviewed here!). Telling the backstory of Anakin Skywalker was the promise of fleshing out a universe that had been defined by effect, rather than cause. Indeed, one of the most common oversights made by casual viewers of the first film in the Star Wars Trilogy is that the Senate is dissolved by the Emperor, ending the Old Republic. The original Trilogy is about effect and beginning the prequel Trilogy was the promise of cause. As much as I allowed myself to get excited about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the truth is that in many ways it had the potential to be merely a vanity exercise.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a chance to see old friends and see the effects of the familiar story on a galaxy far, far away. But with the fall of the second Death Star and the death of the Emperor who led to more than twenty years of tyranny in that galaxy is, in truth, a satisfying enough end for most fans. There was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but the real risk in continuing the story of Star Wars following the events of Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here!) was that the story would not be strong enough to justify the continuation. After all, the nostalgia element of seeing how the beloved characters of the original Star Wars Trilogy aged and developed is not nearly enough to hold a full film, if they are not the focus of it.

Fortunately, Star Wars: The Force Awakens finds the right balance.

In fact, Star Wars: The Force Awakens offers something that George Lucas's original idea for a "space opera" lacked and that is a sense of impact, consequences and adult relationships between most of the characters. Prior to watching the film, I was speaking with friends who were with us about the color motifs in the original Star Wars Trilogy and I pointed out that Luke Skywalker wearing black throughout Return Of The Jedi was intended as a visual cue to viewers that during the final battle between Luke and Vader, the viewer is supposed to believe that Luke Skywalker could actually go over to the Dark Side and join the Emperor. I noted that the film had absolutely failed to portray Luke in a convincing way where that turn to the Dark Side seemed like a legitimate character development (indeed, the idea that the dramatic tension at the film's climax was supposed to suggest Luke could go to the Dark Side only became clear to me through one of the commentary tracks on one of the DVDs; and that was after decades of watching the movie!). The brilliance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that the film's dramatic tension is such that throughout the film there is the feeling that, truly, anything can happen.

Opening thirty years after the Battle Of Endor and the fall of the Empire, Luke Skywalker has gone into hiding and the First Order has risen in its place. The First Order is hunting Luke Skywalker to eradicate the last trace of the Jedi from the Galaxy and on the planet Jakku, they may well have found the means to find him. On the desert planet Jakku, Poe Dameron is given a map to find Skywalker and when the First Order descends upon the village he is at, he puts the map into the droid BB-8. The First Order is led by the aspiring Sith Kylo Ren, who takes Poe back to his star destroyer for interrogation. In slaughtering the inhabitants of the village, one of the Stormtroopers breaks his conditioning and realizes just how wrong the First Order is and he refuses to kill anyone there. While that Stormtrooper rescues Poe from the star destroyer and flees the First Order, on Jakku, a scavenger named Rey finds BB-8. When the freed stormtrooper, named Finn by Poe, crashes near Rey, Rey, Finn, and BB-8 flee Jakku in a piece of junk . . . the Millennium Falcon!

The Millennium Falcon is rescued in space by none other than Han Solo. Rey and Finn describe their predicament to Han Solo and Han Solo is not eager to get involved, until a deal he is in the middle of goes south. Han reveals that Kylo Ren is his son and that he was being trained by Luke Skywalker when he turned to the Dark Side and ruined Luke's attempt to rebuild the Jedi. When Han, Finn, Chewbacca, and Rey attempt to get BB-8 to the Resistance through Maz Kanata, the First Order arrives to capture them. They kidnap Rey. Han reluctantly returns BB-8 to the Resistance, which forces him to reunite with Leia, with whom he is estranged. Under the orders of the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo Ren and General Hux activate a new planet-destroying weapon, which wipes out the last traces of the Republic. While Han Solo, Finn, and Chewbacca work to rescue Rey, the Resistance launches an assault on the Starkiller!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a film that is packed with both the sense of consequence and the fearless idea that the familiar people from the previous story have aged and developed. Han Solo and Leia Organa had their relationship and it was torn apart by the loss of their son, which is a depth of realism that was noticeably lacking from their prior, flirtatious, relationship. Antagonism is a great way for characters to spark chemistry, but it is not exactly viable for a relationship and Star Wars: The Force Awakens allows Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford to play their characters in a more weighty way.

They are balanced by Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), who are new characters who are given enough backstory to intrigue and enough character to compel without feeling overly expository. It is easy to make comparisons between Rey and Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Luke, Leia and Han in A New Hope, especially when easter eggs, like Finn picking up the target training droid from A New Hope while on the Millennium Falcon, keep popping up throughout the film. Boyega is entertaining as Finn and Ridley plays conflicted remarkably well for Rey. Throughout Star Wars: The Force Awakens, both characters oscillate between being analogous to Luke or Han, which keeps viewers guessing as to which one will actually be the character who awakens the Force within them!

Despite the title, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not nearly as much about the rebirth of the ancient religion as it is about the corruption of Kylo Ren and how the First Order has grown in power in the absence of Luke Skywalker. The viewer is completely missing the rebirth and second slaughter of the Jedi; Star Wars: The Force Awakens explores the consequences of that, not the actual events. There is no great confluence of the Force in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; there is just a new New Hope that gets access to the Force.

Director J.J. Abrams does a decent job with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, if for nothing else than not using too many lens flares. There are shots he does that are clear homages to A New Hope, Alien, and Star Trek and most of them are good. However, there are several shots that Abrams does not linger on long enough for the viewer to appreciate or he focuses too tightly on, so the scope or action is harder to discern than it ought to be. But, of course, Greg Gruenberg makes an appearance!

Ultimately, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is more adult, clever and character-driven than the prior Star Wars films, which is a treat for those who grew up on the Star Wars film and wants something weightier than a simple space opera.

For other works in the Star Wars franchise, please check out my reviews of:
Star Wars - Episode II: Attack Of The Clones
The Clone Wars
Star Wars: The Clone Wars Volume 1
Star Wars: The Clone Wars Volume 2
Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope
Star Wars - Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Caravan Of Courage - An Ewok Adventure


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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