Thursday, December 31, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Director: J.J. Abrams
Writer: J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt
DP: Dan Mindel
Editor: Mary Jo Markey, Maryann Brandon
Score: John Williams
Producer: J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, Bryan Burk
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill
Distribution: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Length: 2 hrs. 15 min.

As far as I'm concerned, it's basically pointless to discuss this film without spoiling it.

In my experience, criticism of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has primarily been leveled at the expediency of its plot and its similarity to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.  To me, neither of these are the real problems.  I'd rather criticize the moments where it attempts to be "self-aware", like joking about the outlandish elements of the plot or having Han Solo say "Chewy, we're home" upon entering the Millennium Falcon. There are also characters, old and new, who are afforded great importance by the camera or costume design, but are ultimately non-entities (Poe, Leia, Captain Phasma, Hux).  Perhaps later films and later filmmakers will do something with them, but for now they're little more than action figures or callbacks.

It was interesting how much the hands of different screenwriters showed without intruding on each other; Abrams incorporates his "mystery boxes," subtly dropping unexplained elements that are explained later, offering brief but satisfying moments of realization.  They do not, however, dominate the film's entire narrative as in films like Super 8 (which suffered for it).

Rather, the narrative is built from the ground up, without the characters knowing any more relevant information than the audience, and neglecting to explain many things because they don't necessarily need an explanation; the audience will assume a story behind them (and that story wouldn't matter to the overall plot).  This is where Kasdan's touch shows.

There is one scene cribbed from Empire: The scene in which one of the new characters, a Force-sensitive woman named Rey, is first made aware of her powers.  It closely resembles the scene from Empire in which Luke Skywalker enters a mystical forest and confronts a dark vision of himself.  Unlike the scene from Empire, it presents us not so much with nightmarish imagery as a trailer for later films. The Force Awakens does not have the mythic weight of earlier Star Wars films, even the oft-derided prequels. The characters in the earlier films were aware that they were mired in a conflict between eternal, cosmic forces.  The characters in this film are aware that they're in a movie.

They are aware of this in the sense that they seem anxious about how they are to appeal to an audience.  Rey struggles to become a proper action hero, spending most of the movie wanting simply to return home.  Finn, a would-be background character, spends a lot of the film wanting to avoid having attention placed on him.  Most importantly, Kylo Ren struggles with whether or not he can be Darth Vader.  His diegetic and non-diegetic reasons for wearing the mask are the same; he, as a character, wants to be like Darth Vader, and the film is aimed at an audience that hopes he will somehow echo Darth Vader.

It was perhaps fated to be a film that struggles with what its audience wants it to be, so it actually tries to express the anxieties inherent in that struggle.  Unfortunately, this happens to show that its creators cared enough about the film's success in the marketplace that they felt they couldn't just do whatever they wanted.  Even if you think the prequels are bad, they're undeniably confident, while this film is afraid of its audience.  For me, what's interesting about this movie is that it's at least somewhat forward about that fear.

It's a mixed bag, even the effects; for the most part they're fine, but two of the animated creatures are disappointingly poorly rendered.  The performances from newcomers to the franchise are good, but Harrison Ford doesn't seem very interested while Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are barely in the film.  John Williams once again rips off Gustav Holst, but it's a good ripoff.  Abrams is a competent director of action, but also gives us awkward dissolve transitions (which are even worse viewing the film in 3D).  It's at least nice that the film mostly avoids the high-gloss, plasticky look common to modern blockbusters, including Abram's previous films (with the exception of Mission: Impossible 3).

If the future entries in the franchise actually start to take their own direction in a meaningful way, this film at least did not leave them with nothing to go on.  The new protagonists of this film venerate and seek out the characters from the old films; most of the villains are out to destroy them.  Kylo Ren is somewhere in between, hating his own past and worshipping a warped vision of a more distant past.  Here, the binary morality of light and darkness is used as a means to a specific end, that being a discussion of how progress works: The dark side is presentist, out to destroy the past and consequently prove their superiority, while the light side moves cautiously and strives to carry the lessons of the past into the future.  Kylo Ren might embody this conflict, tormented by his failure to prove he's better than his predecessors, without realizing that his refusal of his own past is what holds him back.

Of course, this is mostly speculation.  Whether these ideas (as well as intelligent visual ideas) will come into fuller view in later films remains to be seen.  I hope they do - or at least, I hope something equally interesting will if I turn out to be completely wrong.  For the moment though, I'd at least take this over certain other 2015 blockbusters.

One of the most manipulative trailers of all time:

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