Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review and Analysis

A long time ago, in a galaxy… well, this galaxy, insofar as we don’t really know anything about movies coming out in other galaxies just yet. But a long time ago in this galaxy, George Lucas put together a trilogy of two and a half pretty awesome movies. They were a throwback to another time, one when you just went with it… Neil deGrasse Tyson hadn’t been invented yet so we weren’t told about how terrible the idea of laser swords were just yet. The internet, while technically invented, existed solely to warn us all of impending nuclear disaster, so the debates over whatever the hell C3PO did were left to a small group, while the rest of us enjoyed it. 

It was a great time.

Sixteen years later George Lucas was back at it, telling us the story that we already knew - how Darth Vader became Darth Vader… and fumbled a little. On the one hand: Star Wars. On the other: Jar Jar Binks, and a slight obsession with trying to figure out just what it was that computers could do to the point that he didn’t build complete sets. Sets. Settings. He didn’t build complete sets. The locations that these places took place didn’t exist for the actors. And it showed. Essentially George Lucas took a slam dunk - three more Star Wars movies with a mix of Samuel L. Jackson - and churned out movies that weren’t great.

Which brings us to now, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The newest entry into the Star Wars universe. It took almost three times as long for us to get a seventh Star Wars than it did for us to get a seventh Fast and Furious, so how does it stack up?

It’s incredible. Here’s my look at the new movie. As I’ve said, this movie is best going into fresh, so here’s your Spoiler Warning, courtesy of the lovely River Song, because franchises be damned. 

I know I’ve gone on rants before, and I stand by my previous statement: the plot of a movie isn’t a spoiler. By that, I mean the one line of what it’s about. But somehow. J.J. Abrams, taking over for George Lucas, proved me wrong that anything about this movie is a spoiler, and I mean that in the best way possible. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is very much the story or Luke Skywalker, as his name hangs over the proceedings and he’s very much present in any of the action. Well, not figuratively. He’s actually not even glimpsed until the end. The movie itself is about the search for Luke Skywalker. After Return of the Jedi, Luke attempted to train a new generation of Jedi, but one was seduced by the power of the dark side of the Force - Kylo Ren - and a new group called The First Order arose from the remains of the Empire. There’s a group called the Resistance trying to stop the First Order from ruling the galaxy. Meanwhile, both groups are trying to find Luke Skywalker, because both believe that he will return the Jedi to their rightful place, and they either want to stop or help him.

Meanwhile, on a desert planet that’s totally not Tatooine (Jakku) a young woman named Rey waits for her family while scavenging the remains of the last war. She eventually meets a droid named BB-8 who has a message for Princess Leia the piece of a missing map to find Luke. Eventually she meets up with former Stormtrooper Finn, and they flee aboard a mysterious freighter called “The Millennium Falcon”. Eventually, yes, they meet Han Solo and Chewy, and have to stop the First Order from firing a giant space cannon that will destroy an entire galaxy while confronting Kylo Ren’s and Rey’s secret pasts.

If it sounds a lot like A New Hope, you’re right… the plot is extremely similar. Let’s get that part out of the way first. Some people have complained that this is the reason the movie worked: they just pulled the best parts from the first movie and recycled them. Some have noted the whole “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. However, while many of the beats are the same, this is the perfect explanation of why Luke is in hiding, and just what the rest of the series is about. 

On their way to find the Resistance Base, Han stops off with Rey and Finn to meet up with an old lady named Maz Kanata, who laments that history continues to repeat itself. Evil always finds a way: The Sith, The Empire, now the First order. And while the movie does repeat many of the same beats, such as an orphan on a desert planet who may be more power than we know, there’s one beat a lot of people keep forgetting, and that’s Kylo Ren. 

Kylo (spoilers) is actually Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia. His turn to the dark side is what prompts Luke to go into hiding (again) and search for a new way to save the Force from the Dark Side and the Sith continually popping up. But what this avoids is that we have now seen the power of the Dark Side twice, each time it’s seduction of someone who seems to have good intentions, now using that power to destroy the Jedi. The Dark Side truly is the most powerful, according to these movies. And, as much as Luke hangs over the proceedings as a mythic figure, so does Darth Vader, who’s ashes and  helmet reside in Kylo’s room, a constant reminder for him not to be turned toward the light, despite his constant pull towards it. 

One of the smartest things I feel JJ did in this movie was the acknowledgement that Luke was important, but kept him a myth. In essence, he was in the entire movie - from the opening crawl to the opening scene to just about everything after that. The movie is driven by a search for Luke Skywalker while the characters are allowed to find themselves. Finn, a former stormtrooper, is now looking for himself while breaking away from his programming. What I liked about Finn was the fact that he wasn’t a perfect character: he clearly was drawn to heroism while at the same time acknowledging that he was extremely selfish, just trying to get away from the First Order. 

But enough of all of that, let’s talk about Rey. More Spoilers to follow. 

Rey is an interesting character. We actually find out little about her past in this movie, most of it dedicated to learning more about Kylo, Han, and Leia. We know she was abandoned on the planet, and by the end we also learn that she is a powerful Jedi…. more powerful than Kylo Ren, who was born to Han and Leia. His legacy essentially makes him Force Incarnate, so there’s lots of speculation that Rey is either Luke’s daughter, or perhaps Kylo’s sister, her brain wiped after her brother decided to murder everyone. (Speculation mine. There’s still like, two years before Episode VII, we’re going to see a lot of speculation on this in the meantime.)

She very much a version of Luke Skywalker, someone who longs for adventure outside of the desert planet that she currently resides, and has a mysterious past. She’s take charge and a leader. Although we don’t see her leading the charge against the Starkiller base, we see her piloting skills on hand early on, all mirroring the introductions we had to Anakin and Luke. Many people focus on the fact that she flew the Falcon in a tense action sequence, but most people tend to ignore that we’ve seen that same action sequence twice: Once with pod racing (Yippee) and once on the Death Star. Rey has a similar introduction that reminds us she’s not only a Jedi, but she’s a Skywalker-level Jedi. I’ll be interested to see where they take this character. 

The introduction of the new characters is deftly handled in connection with the old, we never feel that Han, Leia, R2, or C3PO ever overshadow them. Han works out well as the Obi-Wan figure to the cast, revealing everything that’s going on while handling a dark emotional core, and… well… my comparison to Obi-Wan should be an important one. There’s even a hilarious moment where C3P0 is introduced, once again coming between Han and Leia, where he can’t wait to explain his new red arm -  a nice moment in a movie that does want to hide a lot of what happened in the past. Here’s a character that can’t wait to tell us. It’s hilarious in it’s own way. 

I could keep going. There’s a lot ot analyze in this film: the father/son narrative continues, more speculation about Rey, and I haven’t even covered Supreme Leader Snoke, the guy who trained Kylo in the ways of the Sith and who may have been around for even longer. But this is a movie that’s best enjoyed as a throwback to that time I mentioned before, when we didn’t have internet spoilers the second a movie started filming, and complaints were kept between friends with real debates, not just people whining that the movie didn’t live up to what they wanted it to be. 

Also, be warned, it does end on a cliffhanger. But one that’s kind of brilliant, if you ask me. The movie ends with Rey literally finding Luke Skywalker… and that’s it. With that, the movie has finished it’s promised mission: We found Luke, without compromising any of the mystery that exists in the second movie. I hope they manage to play with that just as well in the second one.

JJ’s real talent came not with just capturing a new Star Wars movie that was worth of the originals, but one that captured the spirit, the “wow, look at the adventure” stories that followed, the real action and mystery that came with the first set of movies. And that’s the highest compliment I can give. 

Oh, one final word of note: a lot of people were disappointed they didn’t adapt the Expanded Universe Stories. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, relax, you’re probably better off. But they were a set of stories set after Return of the Jedi that featured Luke, Leia, and Han trying to rebuild after the Empire was crushed. For those disappointed, I offer this: 1) the stories took place literally after the last movie. And while I love Carrie Fischer, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford, they’re a little older than they were 30 years ago. 2) All of the story beats have been released, where’s the mystery or the recapturing of the spirit? 3) It looks like they did the Ben Solo thing, anyway, so let’s see what they’re doing, shall we?

Go see this movie. It is beyond incredible for not only living up to the magic, but recapturing the old feelings.

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