Sunday, December 20, 2015

You probably didn't recognize me because of the red arm


If history's taught us anything, it's that it takes years for us to be able tell whether a new Star Wars movie is any good.  So, in this spirit of deep ambivalence, I offer a mostly negative review, then give it a positive score.

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan, and J.J. Abrams
With Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Carrie Fisher (Gen. Leia Organa), Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke), Domnhall Gleeson (Gen. Nux), and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren)

Spoiler alert: moderate, high, severe? you've seen it already anyway, so you be the judge

The Force Awakens is the fourth best episode in the Star Wars series.  Obviously, that's the most meaningless thing I could say about it, since it was never going to be anything else but that—the only thing less likely than Disney and J.J. Abrams delivering a film that matched the grandeur of the essentially faultless Original Trilogy was Disney and J.J. Abrams replicating the clusterfuck of insipidity offered up by George Lucas' one-man dictatorship in his Prequel Trilogy.  With that out of the way, then, let's speak more concretely: Awakens is closer to "very good" than it is to "bad," though it's much closer to both of those descriptions than it ever gets to "great."  It thereby splits the difference between the six episodes that preceded it.

But if I had to say which of the two trilogies it's more akin to, I'd have to tell you "the prequels."  For Awakens is as toxic with random fanservice and hateful "rhyming" as they ever were, to the point that it's not all that clear that the difference between Abrams and Lucas is a genuinely meaningful one.  And this is not just because Awakens recapitulates most of the story from A New Hope (though it does, along with at least one major beat from The Empire Strikes Back).  It's because it thieves so much of its imagery from all three original films, too—and, worse, it doesn't even do it well.  Perhaps you remember the scene in Star Wars where Luke and Han shoot TIE fighters with laser cannons, and it's their first real unvarnished triumph?   Awakens steals it—twice.  In the end, Abrams even tries to match Return of the Jedi's epic cross-cutting climax.  He winds up only with a less-annoying version of Episode I's own busted attempt at the same thing.  Shockingly enough, Awakens' ending is perhaps even more deeply broken, even if it's more subtly broken—since (at the very least) there's no precocious youngster, voicing his unasked-for opinion about spinning.

So, even for corporate fan fiction, Awakens is awfully unimaginative.  With 135 minutes to do anything it wants, the film manages three or perhaps four ideas that smell fresh.  It might be a massive improvement over Abrams' previous exercise in graverobbing—but if I'd come home to find my house on fire, it would still be a step up from Star Trek Into Darkness.  And it remains depressingly easy to discern the same perverse sensibility at work here—I've always been a big Abrams apologist, but one thing that you will never see me defend is the terrifying ease with which he permits himself to get lost in his brand of parasitic and plagiarizing nostalgia.  Thus, although Abrams is restrained here by the requirement to introduce new characters and situations, Awakens nonetheless feels more like Approved Star Wars Product than it does any kind of story within the Star Wars universe that someone really, urgently needed to tell.

But what really makes Awakens feel closer to the prequels than the originals is how irrevocably it commits to making the Star Wars universe smaller.  Unlike any other comparisons to Lucas' bad trilogy, this one's not necessarily a criticism, only an observation: the OT, after all, is likewise every bit as focused upon the Skywalker Saga.  But it's also true that one of the most appealing qualities of Star Wars' first trilogy was the seeming endlessness of their possibilities.  Here, however, you shall physically feel the strain when Awakens steers its own galaxy-spanning plot right back into the uninspired safety of fan appreciation.  (In other words, the way that the Millennium Falcon gets into this movie is complete balls.)

Overall, this "prequel-ness" is the film's really big problem, particularly when the explicit goal of Awakens was to recapture the OT's magic.  Yet, to a degree, this goal is achieved, simply by making a basically acceptable adventure movie (something the prequels often didn't seem that interested in being).  And that's how we find our seventh Star Wars, written with passable wit, acted with substantial charm.  This means that when old friends do make their inevitable return, you won't want to boo them off the screen.  Indeed, in a turn that I'd have called impossible before I saw it, Awakens reintroduces no less an annoyance than C-3PO, yet in such an enjoyably weird way that, for the first time in over thirty years, I was actually pleased to see him.

But the very biggest surprise this movie offers is how truly and miraculously good Harrison Ford is.  (Which is especially surprising when you recall that his last attempt to retake an iconic role didn't work out that well—and bear in mind that this is coming from somebody who, with reservations, actually loves Crystal Skull, fridge and all.)  Well, Indy aside, it's wonderfully fortunate that Ford finds his ancient greatness so readily this time around, because guess what?  Han Solo is, essentially, our protagonist—an impression made unavoidable by the fact that our nominal protagonist is plainly missing a huge middle part of her arc, tantamount to a whole act missing from the film.

So let's return to this galaxy far, far away, and set our scene: some decades after their defeat at Endor, the remnants of the Empire have retrenched, renaming themselves "the First Order" and becoming even more literal Space Nazis than ever before under the dictatorship of a new Supreme Leader, Snoke.  (This stupidly named phantom menace is Andy Serkis, sadly found wasting his infinite talents with a mediocre Ian McDiarmid impersonation.)  Doing Snoke's dirty work is a young Force user and cosplay aficionado, Kylo Ren.  Presently, Ren arrives on the desert planet Jakku, where he's after a map obtained by ace rebel pilot Poe Dameron.  This map purports to lead that legendary lost Jedi—Luke Skywalker himself—who Kylo Ren cares about for reasons that will soon be explained, and who the First Order cares about for apparently no reason at all, except perhaps that Snoke is more sensitive to his pupil's wants and needs than Emperor Palpatine usually was.

(And, beyond obviously, I'd trade either one of these dudes for Grand Admiral Thrawn, because whatever you might think of Timothy Zahn's novels as literary works, Thrawn was not just more visually and narratively interesting than every last character in this whole movie—he represented a take on space fascism that did not depend entirely upon our previous familiarity with and affection for the evil stylings of Darth Vader and the Emperor.)

Anyway, Ren is diabolical and Poe is captured; however, Poe sends the map off with his droid BB-8, who rolls off into the wasteland, not unlike a certain pair of other droids in a certain other film that we've seen before.  Fortunately, instead of cruel Jawas, BB-8 makes its way into the more benign care of Rey, an orphaned scavenger with a heart of gold.  Meanwhile, back on the First Order's Star Destroyer, Poe would be in deep trouble, but he's had the good luck to have stumbled into a Stormtrooper's crisis of conscience, and so together they flee; but their flight is short-lived.  Their stolen TIE fighter crashes back on Jakku, Poe is subjected to a death so fake that I'm not even sure you're supposed to interpret it as anything but a clumsy way to sideline his character for a couple of acts, and the Stormtrooper—dubbed "Finn," for his serial number—makes his way to civilization, where he meets Rey and the droid under her protection.  Finn, Rey, and BB-8 are quickly chased into a junkyard, where they discover (surprise) the Millennium Falcon.  From there, it's off into space, and headlong into a collision with Han and Chewie, who take over the film in much the same extremely conspicuous way that Obi-Wan Kenobi did not.  But Ren is on their heels—and we'll see he has a far more personal interest in the fate of our heroes than anyone might have guessed, assuming, anyway, that "anyone" isn't very familiar with Star Wars.

In fact, there's not that much wrong with The Force Awakens' story, at least not much that wasn't already wrong with the first three movies: oh, it's a lot more brazen about it, but it's not that much more contrived than they were.  And it certainly moves quickly—indeed, too quickly, although this is perhaps less due to the screenplay than it is Abrams' emphasis on meaningless reference games at the expense of building a completely coherent film.  However, it is the screenplay's fault that Rey becomes an Instant Jedi the moment the movie needs her to wield a laser sword.  (Likewise, there is essentially no way to argue that the way the script introduces Poe with such verve, and then loses interest in him completely, represents good story structure.)

Sure, an adventure movie that already runs well over two hours probably should never be described as "too short"; but that's Awakens for you, which is overstuffed with far too many people who need far too many things to do.  Yet, it's hard to get around that one: if there's one place Awakens really shines, it's in those new major characters, because they're all pretty great.  John Boyega stands out as Finn, whose zero-to-hero Stormtrooper also represents the best of Awakens' scarce new ideas.  Meanwhile, I understand that Adam Driver is being universally praised for his turn as Kylo Ren.  His arc manifests as a dark mirror to Luke's own journey—and in Driver's performance he becomes the Anakin Skywalker you always wanted (assuming you ever wanted one of those in the first place).  You don't meet enough callow villains, and that's interesting enough by itself—but, although he rises head and shoulders above Hayden Christiansen's hamstrung take on the same material, Ren's own Dark Side tantrums likewise edge so uncomfortably into comedy that Abrams eventually just shrugs and makes an intentional joke out of them, undermining Ren's effectiveness more than I suspect either he or Driver ever intended.  But don't take that the wrong way: Boyega and Driver represent the two ends of a narrow spectrum defined by excellence all around.

That leads us back to what is wrong with Awakens, which is pretty much all down to Abrams as a stylist—although in this case, "stylist" isn't the right word.  I've never subscribed to the school of punishing Abrams for his aesthetic tastes—hell, man, give me more lens flares—and his action direction especially has always been significantly above average, even when the movies were crap.  But now I get Awakens—his most anonymous film to date.

Outside of one Force-driven freakout that's fascinating just for being new and strange, along with an exquisitely-lit lightsaber duel that's conceptually unsound, Awakens has the same kind of aimless, plasticky cinematography and expensive, artless CGI that just about every blockbuster these days seems to have.  (Yes, it does have a surfeit of nice, Star Warsy scene transitions, but who cares?  Okay, I care a little.)  Meanwhile, when it comes to action, this installment of Star Wars is only good when Kylo Ren is directly and intimately involved—whereas when it comes to spaceship action, it is simply actively terrible, like somebody was trying to make it bad.  (I want you to remember that moment in Jedi, when the Falcon's antenna mast hits part of the Death Star infrastructure.  It is a palpable thing, and you feel it in your bones.  Now turn your gaze to Awakens, which reconceives the suped-up Corellian freighter as an adamantium frisbee, tossing it around without the slightest fear that it will break—or even scratch.)  This is how, despite Abrams' assurances that he would hew toward the OT's own practical and meticulous production methods, Awakens honestly looks chintzier and cheaper than a movie that barely got made in 1977.

But this is a 21st century film, and that means we can't just start with a rollicking adventure—Awakens is obliged to go dark, immediately.  Now, I don't bring this up to discuss the plot, because I'm certain that the darkest turn Awakens takes is also the film's single most effective moment on the screenplay page.  Instead, I bring it up to continue our discussion of Abrams' eroded filmmaking—for the scene relies on a silent beat of hesitation, and this all-important moment is stretched out, far beyond all possible endurance, so that the surprise that no doubt existed in the script is absolutely destroyed in the execution—because, really, who would ever throw that kind of pregnant pause into the climax of their movie, if the resolution was just going to be a hug?  (And while we're on the subject of silence, doesn't it seem like John Williams' score, the most important part of any Star Wars vehicle, is missing in more than just this one scene?)

Yet, taken all in all, I still liked it.  Despite its many detours into ugliness, pandering, and incompleteness, it's still largely fun.  It's certainly less disappointing than many of 2015's abortive franchise continuations—and this is, in its own special way, a triumph.  Has there been any film released this year as weighted with hope as this one?  I doubt it.  The Force Awakens is recognizably Star Wars, and for now, that's enough.

Score:  6/10, but if I revisted it, I'd bet it'd be a 7; so 7/10, though I could easily be wrong [edit from the far-flung dystopian future of May 2017: yeah, okay, it really is square in the middle of the 7/10 range—but it sure as hell is no Rogue One, which frankly I might also have underrated the first time I saw it]


  1. I almost completely agree with everything you've said, though my overall numerical takeaway was a smidge higher than yours. Perhaps it helps that I haven't rewatched the original trilogy in a good while, and thus specific shots weren't floating around in my immediate memory.

    1. It's less a case of specific shots (heck, mirroring the shots and editing structure of Star Wars more closely probably would have made it better). It's more the specific imagery, without taking into account angles, shot duration, etc. Take, for example, the chase into the exhaust of the wrecked Star Destroyer; it's transparently an excuse to dust off the far more awesome and narratively-important run into the infrastructure of the Death Star II. And this isn't good in and of itself, but it's even less good, given that Force Awakens' script mandated retelling the stories of both A New Hope *and* Empire Strikes Back all in in one sharply time-constrained package. There just wasn't time for this kind of plagiarizing nonsense, even if it was enjoyable on its own merits in the first place, which it wasn't.

      But you never know, it might grow on me--especially if the subsequent two episodes are better. (I mean, we're *all* looking forward to Daisy Ridley putting on high heels and yelling at men in Colin Trevorrow's Episode VIII, right?) Star Wars, after all, is a little more threadbare itself without the context of its better, meatier follow-ups.

      Still: I would also not be surprised if, in the next twelve months, there's a reappraisal and backlash to The Force Awakens. I don't think it'll be quite on the same scale as Phantom Menace--there's nothing to really sink your teeth into here the way you could with Jar-Jar and Watto, everybody's favorite racist CGI caricatures--but the mood around The Force Awakens seems awful familiar. That is, everyone really wants to love this movie, so they do, until they can't.

      But we'll see! Looking forward to finding out exactly what you made of it, too, B.

    2. By the way, I may or may not be able to mail you DVDs of the Despecialized original trilogy... I'll send you my email address via Facebook if you're interested.

    3. Bless you, Brennan! But my Bothans have already gotten ahold of what I need.

  2. I think it's hard to judge this movie. Because the original trilogy is pretty central to my youth, right up there with comic books and dreadnoughts, it's hard to be able to look at the movie dispassionately. At the same time, I'm very old now. I know what I liked: Every time Harrison Ford was on the screen, I was entertained. I was surprisingly sad at Han and Leia's estrangement. My wife loved BB-8. Every time Poe and Finn were on the screen together, it reminded me of Han and Luke and their adventures in first film and a half. Your review actually changed the way I thought about Kylo Ren. At first, his tantrums really threw me off and made me think of him as a bitch. But thinking about what you said about a callow villain... If the essence of the Dark Side is selfishness, his behavior is right in there, and probably more appropriate than Vader's calm, callous self-mastery or the Emperor's confidant masterminding.

    I also kind of mourn parts of the Expanded Universe, although only parts. Thrawn, Mara Jade, the Rogue Squadron pilots, they were all a lot of fun. Sure, the EU ended up going to some rather silly places, but there was some stuff in there that I enjoyed.

    BTW: Did they not release the theatrical original trilogy in the US? I hear that complaint a lot, but I have them sitting on my huge shelf of films, so I was wondering what's up?

  3. The original trilogy was, at one point, available on VHS. I think my dad may in fact still have them around. I'm not sure if they're in the proper aspect ratio, etc., but they were definitely around in some form when I was a child, since that's how I first saw them, discounting the fact that my parents took me to see Jedi at a drive-in when I was one. (Needless to say, I don't remember that.) It's possible that the VHS tapes I saw as a small child were recorded off television, however.

    On DVD, they have not been released in a form earlier than the original Special Editions, which have the big Han/Greedo problem. The blu-rays, which I own, have awkwardly addressed the Han/Greedo problem, still feature the unnecessary scene with Jabba, and they introduced major, major issues into Jedi--and thereby contribute to the pernicious myth that Jedi is the bad one. In any event, the original versions (or something close) are currently only available via morally and legally gray channels. As an aside, it is positively baffling that Disney has failed to release the unaltered OT on blu-ray, given the marketfor it.

    The Star Wars EU is... definitely problematic, taken all in all, in part stemming from the fact that SW, while presenting itself as an expansive fictional universe, it kind of isn't. (It really only has the time for two major kind of stories: Jedis vs. Sith and smuggler shit, respectively. I'm sure there are novels that prove exceptions to this rule, but there aren't many. The point is, it's pretty huge, but it's no Star Trek.) Even so, if they don't do a cinematic version of Thrawn, that is the definition of leaving money on the table.

    I'm glad you like Kylo, Neil, because I do, even if he's probably not the perfect version of himself (like you, I have a problem with his tantrums, although it's more of a staging issue--Abrams treating them like a joke, rather than something legitimately terrifying given his obvious powers).

    All in all, it's definitely decent Star Wars product--even though a lot of stuff feels rushed, especially poor Rey, whom I like a lot--and there's a solid chance that when we look back on it in ten years, in the context of the next two installments in the trilogy, it'll look all the better.

    Or, if they don't exceed this first entry, we'll look back and lump it in with the prequels.

    And yeah, nostalgia's a bitch--as much as I'm 100% sure that the OT is more-or-less perfect, I can't escape the doubt that this impression might have a little something to do with watching them a hundred times between the ages of four and fifteen.