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STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS Review – ***½

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Star Wars The Force Awakens poster

Episode VII: We Need to Talk About Kylo (Source)

For some, this was the biggest deal of the year. The film they’d been waiting for for 10, 16, or even 32 years, depending on where they stood regarding the prequels. They turned out en masse to see it–I should know–and pushed it towards an opening weekend so lucrative the film could have closed Sunday night and still been well on its way to profitability.

But it didn’t. It’ll be shaking up the dollar theaters when the summer blockbusters are rolling out. It might add some awards to its obscene tally. It will probably keep J.J. Abrams in clover until Doomsday if he retires tomorrow.

But all that doesn’t matter to me. What matters is the film itself. And not being a Star Wars buff (not in a contrarian sense, I just didn’t grow up with them), I was able to enjoy the film on its own merits. And you know something? I did.

SPOILERS.

About 30 years after the fall of the Empire, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished, and a a kind of neo-Sith, the First Order, has sprung up, led by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Leia (Carrie Fisher) has organized a Resistance, whose goal is to track down Luke before the First Order does. On the planet Jakku, Leia’s best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), retrieves a map which reveals Luke’s whereabouts, but when First Order forces led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) arrive on the scene, he hides the map in his droid, BB-8, and is taken into custody by the Force-wielding Ren.

Meanwhile, a Stormtrooper under Ren’s command, FN-2187 (John Boyega) finds himself unable to massacre a group of villagers, and is ordered by Ren’s lieutenant, Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), to go to “reconditioning”. Instead, he helps Poe (who has revealed the location of the map under torture) to escape, and as they flee Poe gives him the name “Finn”. They are soon shot down and crash on Jakku, and Poe is seemingly killed. Finn sets out to find civilization.

BB-8 has meanwhile crossed paths with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a junk scavenger who was left on Jakku as a child and awaits the return of her family. After refusing to sell BB-8 to junk dealer Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg), they come across Finn, who informs them that he is a member of the Resistance and a comrade of Poe’s. They are immediately beset by Stormtroopers and must escape Jakku in the nearest ship–the Millennium Falcon.

One of several truly striking shots in the film. (Source)

One of several truly striking shots in the film. (Source)

Before long, the Falcon is tracked and reclaimed by its rightful owners, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Initially reluctant, Han agrees to help Finn and Rey find a Resistance base where BB-8 can finally reveal the secret of Luke’s location. But Ren and the First Order are in hot pursuit, and the First Order has a weapon, the Starkiller, a planet-sized station which consumes the power of a sun and turns it into a laser beam. They use it to destroy the seat of the Republic, and the Resistance’s base is next.

But more important than the Starkiller are the series of revelations which beset our protagonists before the final moments, which serve to prepare for us the inevitable Episode VIII…

The first revelation–which to the film’s credit is revealed comparatively early on, earlier than I assumed–is that Kylo Ren is the son of Han and Leia, who wants to continue the legacy of his grandfather (no word on whether he knows of or believes in Vader’s final renunciation of the Dark Side), and who put a violent end to Luke’s attempts to found a new Jedi order. His embrace of the Dark Side ultimately led his parents to separate (Han has returned to his old smuggling job), but they both hold out hope that he can be redeemed.

The second revelation is only partial; that Rey is Force-sensitive herself, and that she has some mysterious connection to the Skywalker family which the sequels will presumably reveal–she discovers Luke’s lightsaber, and is catapulted into some strange revelatory realm which…well, from a single viewing it’s not totally clear what she discovers, but suffice to say, she has a long journey ahead.

So many uses for this face. (Source)

So many uses for this face. (Source)

The third and final major revelation is the location of Luke, which is less important than the look which passes between him and Rey (who is sent to find him once BB-8 reveals the map), and the question of just what will follow that final image of them facing each other, as she offers him his own lightsaber.

(There’s another, lesser revelation earlier on, where Poe turns up alive and well, apparently having been thrown clear of the explosion, so much so that Finn could not find him. It’s a pretty sloppy bit of ass-covering on the part of the script, but at least it means we get more Oscar Isaac.)

Fan speculation on the questions raised by this film, and how the sequels will answer them, has naturally run rampant, and I won’t try to dig too much into that here. I’ll just add my own two cents on one point: I think Rey is Luke’s daughter. I really expected the final moment of the film to be one of recognition and/or reconciliation between them, which would honestly have been a little more satisfying than the weird, very 90s helicopter shot that the film does end on. Others have said that she is in fact Han and Leia’s daughter (ergo, Ren’s sister), but–and I can’t totally explain why I feel thus–that doesn’t sound right to me. Her being Luke’s daughter makes the most sense to me.

I’m sure the coming films will resolve most of these questions, but raise new ones which further sequels can answer, and so on and so forth into eternity. Then, this film may fade a little in estimation; at the moment, it represents not just the return of Star Wars, but the return of the level of pure entertainment which was largely felt to have been absent from the prequels. I’m reminded of how my mother justified embracing Star Trek: The Motion Picture at the time–“We had the Enterprise back.” Well, the fans have Star Wars back. Whatever comes next will hopefully be an objective improvement.

Though to say so implies The Force Awakens is deficient, and it really isn’t. I came to this film in an odd manner, seeing the same scenes (mostly from the first third of it) over and over while at work, while still having only a vague grasp of what the film is actually about–though the claim that it represents a sizable homage, at times bordering on a remake, of the first film certainly has evidence to support it.

What a pervy little shit. (Source)

What a pervy little shit. (Source)

But those scenes whetted my appetite, and for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed myself watching the complete film. The first act is the best, both dramatically and stylistically, but even the weaker final stages have their merits, and if the big action climax is fairly forgettable (and an overt rip from the original), it’s not what you’re likely to leave the theater thinking about.

No, the real climax of the film is the death of Han at the hands of his son. Kylo (or should I say Ben?*), and I really didn’t think, going in, that the film would actually do it–but once Han and Kylo face off in the bowels of the Starkiller, once Kylo takes out his lightsaber and begs his father to help him resolve the internal conflicts which threaten to tear him apart…I knew there was only one way it could end. And even for a non-devotee like myself, it was a powerful moment.

After Han’s death, the matter of destroying the Starkiller (through a built-in weakness, just as in the original) is a perfunctory one, and a showdown between Kylo and Rey holds our attention rather more, though of course he is not dispatched and will have an arc of his own in the films to. But once Han leaves the film some of the gas goes out of it, and Rey’s discovery of Luke is less a triumphant finale than a sequel hook, however cool it is to see Hamill back in the robes of a Jedi.

But most of what leads up to the Han-Kylo showdown is just dandy. First, let me just say that The Force Awakens represents some of the best pure filmmaking J.J. Abrams has ever displayed. He may be drawing on the original trilogy, yes, but for my part I didn’t feel like he was coldly mimicking them–he puts across a sense of real fun and excitement. And, with cinematographer Dan Mindel, he crafts a good-looking film; from the great opening shot where a First Order ship literally blots out Jakku, to Ren’s shadowy interrogation of Poe, to Rey eating in the shadow of a long-fallen AT-AT, the film has more than its share of striking imagery. Major kudos is also due to editors Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon, who keep all the pieces moving together smoothly and clearly–again, I hope that the days of incoherent action scenes are well behind us.

Not a subtle allusion, but a good shot. (Source)

Not a subtle allusion, but a good shot. (Source)

While the excitement of the action is mitigated a bit by the lack of suspense–it’s mostly a foregone conclusion how things will turn out–we have enough fun with the characters themselves to make up for it.

It’s the little moments which give the film its flavor. Take the scenes between Finn and Poe early on, where the desperate rogue Stormtrooper and the spirited hot-shot pilot become instant friends (though how could they not, Boyega and Isaac both being so naturally charming), Poe even giving Finn a new name in a kind of symbolic baptism; they play off each other so well that it’s a real shame their time together is so brief. Finn and Rey are fun together as well (“Stop taking my hand!“), the film hinting at future romance without making it a prerequisite. (And that’s not even mentioning Rey and BB-8, whose first scene together is so potentially obscene it’s incredible.) Speaking of little moments, the bit where Rey picks up an old helmet and blithely pops it on her head is a little gem–the kind of moment which feels genuinely spontaneous.

"Same thing I always do--talk my way out of it." (Source)

“Same thing I always do–talk my way out of it.” (Source)

And it’s a lot of fun to see Han in his element again. When he tries to outwit two gangs at once, and cannot even keep track of his own malfeasances (“What was the second time?”), it’s obvious Ford is having as much fun as we are. Or when he and Finn are trying to shut down the Starkiller’s shields, and Finn suggests using the Force, only to hear “That’s not how the Force works!” And he can be moving, too; when Han tries to convince Kylo/Ben to abandon the First Order and return home, you want him to.

There’s fun to be had with the side characters as well. I’ll be quoting Unkar Plutt’s “One…quarter portion” for a while. And I, for one, did not mind Maz Kanata. Yes, there may have been issues with her character and how she was used (here’s a piece from Collider which goes into great detail about them), but my only real issue was that Lupita Nyong’o was stuck behind so complete a CGI facade. Otherwise, she was enjoyable in her own right. I also kind of love the fanatical General Hux, who gives the absolute hammiest speech when the Starkiller is turned against the Empire. It’s a great moment that enhances one of the film’s major themes.

This fucking guy. (Source)

This fucking guy. (Source)

Indeed, there’s an extra thematic layer to The Force Awakens which makes it more interesting to me. As I can see it, the whole film is something of a parable for the rise of neo-Nazism and neo-fascism, with Ren embracing the ideology which his parents’ generation had fought against–even though he is emotionally torn between the light side (which he condemns as weak) and the dark. The aesthetics of the First Order only heighten this, and Hux’s speech could have come straight from Triumph of the Will:

Today is the end of the Republic. The end of a regime that acquiesces to disorder. At this very moment in a system far from here, the New Republic lies to the galaxy while secretly supporting the treachery of the rogues of the Resistance. This fierce machine which you have built, upon which we stand will bring an end to the Senate, to their cherished fleet. All remaining systems will bow to the First Order and will remember this as the last day of the Republic!

The script, by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote Empire) and Michael Arndt, is not faultless–I and many others find the sequence in Maz Kanata’s basement rather confusing, and the narrative borrowings from A New Hope can be a little much, especially the manner in which the Starkiller is defeated. But for the most part it works just fine for what it needs to accomplish, drawing on the past without cannibalizing it. It deploys the old characters well and does respectably well with the new ones, though the best-written of the new bunch is Ren.

New hero... (Source)

New hero… (Source)

The cast is game across the board. Ford, as I said before, is clearly having quite a bit of fun with the role, but treats the dramatic moments with the proper weight and bids the character a suitable farewell. It’s hard to find any fault with his work, as he adapts his approach just enough to accommodate Han’s age and otherwise shows just how little the old smuggler has changed over the years. Fisher has less to do, but she makes an entirely adequate return to Leia. As for Hamill, well…I’m utterly delighted that Disney put him on the film’s “For Your Consideration” ads, and I’d love it if some awards group actually had the nerve to nominate him.

...meet the new heroine. (Source)

…meet the new heroine. (Source)

The new cast are served variably by the script, but do consistently solid work given the material. There’s a little less to Rey as written than I’d like–possibly to make room for more development in the future–but Ridley is a lively and charming presence and I’ve come to appreciate her work more with repeat viewings (of her scenes, at least). Boyega gets a bit short-changed by the script towards the end, as Finn takes more of a back seat (and not having him wake up at the end is a letdown), but he winningly conveys Finn’s fear and excitement. I hope future films pursue their respective emotional journeys and give both even more to work with.

Adam Driver’s Ren/Ben has been the object of some debate, but to me, his awkward, nervy/creepy energy when unmasked is absolutely appropriate for the kind of manipulable twerp he really is. With the Ren mask on, he’s brooding and fearsome, but without it, he’s a confused and awkward boy, and Driver communicates this awkwardness extremely well–the scene where he interrogates Ridley is creepy as shit, in an all-too-familiar way. Gleeson, who’s been having a banner year, sinks his teeth into the role of Hux with delightful abandon.

He might be a badass with the mask on, but without it... (Source)

He might be a badass with the mask on, but without it… (Source)

Isaac is as good as ever in his comparatively brief screentime; Max von Sydow, in his even briefer screentime as the wise old Lor San Tekka (who gives Poe the map to begin with), merely adds another accomplishment to an already legendary career. Andy Serkis doesn’t give one of his great motion-capture performances as Snoke, but one hopes he’ll be given more to do in the future as well. Such will not be the case for Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, the star and co-star of The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, who appear briefly as members of a gang shaking down Han and are quickly dispatched by a monster in the cargo hold; neither are allowed to display the fighting abilities which have distinguished them to date, and their presence is as such rather mystifying. Nyong’o, despite being denied the full scope of her facial and physical performances, brings the right oracular mystique to the table.

The final word should be given to John Williams, who turns in his best score in years, making use not only of his iconic themes but adding a great deal of new music, much of it excellent. The theme which accompanies our first view of Rey is particularly bright and exciting, and on the whole he seems more inspired and inventive than he has in ages. An Oscar nomination (which would be his 50th) would not at all be out of order.

This review may have gone all over the place, and admittedly I’m much more familiar with the film’s first third (which I’ve seen repeatedly at work) than I am with the rest of it (which I have seen only the once), but to sum up, it’s an exciting, engaging, moving, and all-around fun film, one whose success I am not all inclined to begrudge. It’s pretty much everything I needed it to be. I’ll need its successors to be more, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now the world seems to be very happy with it. I certainly am.

Score: 84/100

*A neat little allusion, that–not only is this is a likely allusion to Obi-Wan, but Harrison Ford’s son is named Ben as well.

 

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One thought on “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS Review – ***½

  1. Pingback: 2016: The Year in Gravy | If you want the gravy...

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