Thursday, January 7, 2016

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

A long time ago in a decade far, far away...

The crushed helmet speaks volumes to me.

I'm resigned to the fact I'll never relive that moment or those moments or that experience in 1977 when the words first appeared against a canvas of black and scrawled across the screen--- STAR WARS.

Likely since the original trilogy, reconnecting with Star Wars has been something akin to rekindling a love or romance you once had but no matter what you do or how hard you try the thrill is gone. At a very minimum it has changed significantly. It's simply not the same with her anymore. So, yes, it would seem those days are over.

Who could forget when the words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...." appeared and Star Wars burst forth onto the screen amidst the scoring magic and propelling power of John Williams. People cheered. They clapped. Maybe it was upon repeat viewings of the original and the arrival of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, but the anticipation and excitement was palatable and feverish. I'm sure it's still happening out there somewhere. I was in a packed theatre and never felt that. Apparently no one else did either. We have such strong recollections of that opening it continues to carry over with each successive film as one of the many trademarks of the series.

When the George Lucas prequels came the effect was lessened, the humanity wooden and insignificant amidst a sea of technology and lengthy political soliloquies and with the arrival of J.J. Abrams it has become something of a formula enhanced with the Abrams style.

One beautiful thing about the Star Wars theatre experience though is its cross-generational appeal. That's a rare and special thing to be sure. I had two old women in front of me. And they weren't with annoying or sweet little grandchildren. They were alone together. That's just awesome to see.

Oh, but the whipper snappers were there too. A group of three children headed our way. You couldn't help but notice. The father wore his Star Wars shirt. One of the boys had several layers of Star Wars clothing on. (I saw them in the ticket line earlier and had a sneaking suspicion they were seeing Star Wars.) They were extremely energetic youngsters. They came ever close to sitting directly behind me and my son. As they walked passed the empty row directly behind us, I looked to the cinema ceiling and thanked the good Lord for small favors as they sank somewhere into the middle of the crowd far, far away. Small favors indeed. The force was with me.

It's only fair to submit in full disclosure I am an original trilogy babe. I was raised and reared on the best when it comes to science fiction adventure.

This writer is here simply to offer his reflections on the experience of seeing Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) yet again. In many respects, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) reworks the original and sprinkles in touches throughout the film that echo the Endor forest of Star Wars Episode VI: The Return Of The Jedi (1983) and even elements or component scenes from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The new film is kind of an all-for-one deal with planets and locations all over the map with a kind incongruous aesthetic that reminded me of coloring as a child.

In no way do I mean to be overly critical because Star Wars offers a great deal of joy to a great many people. Certainly that's a great thing and regardless of what I have to offer on the subject here this franchise is going nowhere. But today, for me, seeing Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens felt a bit like going through the motions.

After seeing the trailer for Captain America: Civil War (2016) my son leaned over and noted "I felt like I just saw the film." Amen. Isn't that the truth? I couldn't agree more and even Star Wars didn't offer a great many surprises after all that I had seen leading up to the film. Trailers are a fun business but they are far too revealing today.  It's a shame, but those trailers tend to truly reveal the spectacle and surprise long before actually experiencing a film in its entirety. Some tend to take something away from the experience. My beef with trailers is another matter.

J. J. Abrams is a skilled director and generates some technical marvels when it comes to visual effects, but I always have my concerns going in. The man can reimagine and reboot a property on that level with the best of them. Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) offered old ideas and classic characters from old films and the original series of Star Trek with real vigor and energy. He does so here with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Along with this latest endeavor, his films share a good chemistry, banter and humor throughout a given adventure, but they often feel a bit comic booky, soulless or lacking in quiet beauty and grace, the things that spoke to me in Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969) or in the original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (though I prefer simply Star Wars). These films are nice diversions, but I simply don't put them in the same arena with the originals. I don't even own these pictures.

The characters that filled George Lucas' universe, before he discovered digital effects technology and went bat shit crazy forgetting what mattered, were filled with imagination and stories. It was the actors and the characters they played that mattered most. They were real, tangible, credible people. In other words, they felt human and you felt their humanity. Today, amidst all of the sound and fury characters play like cartoon characters lacking the kind of heart and soul that made a passable actor like Mark Hamill work to great effect as Luke Skywalker. Perhaps we were just fortunate recipients of timing for that first film on so many levels.

Skywalker was restless, frustrated, yearning to learn, discover and do something great and special. Alec Guinness' wise old Obi Wan Kenobi was a mysterious figure, but a master teaching his repressed apprentice in the ways of the force. In the new film, we see a throwaway parts like the one embodied by Max Von Sydow. Here is one of the true acting greats relegated to a bit part simply to fill the needs and components of a franchise. Here was the star of Pelle The Conqueror (1987) doing what? Okay, perhaps it is the desire of an actor simply to be part of something as big as Star Wars even if the film doesn't touch a film he starred in like The Exorcist (1973). Imagine if Sydow were given a role comparable to the one afforded Guinness. None really exist here.

Do you recall the feeling of Luke Skywalker looking out into the setting suns of Tatooine or the lilting melodies of John Williams' score to accompany the complete humanity of the original Star Wars in contemplative compositions or themes like The Hologram/Binary Sunset or Tales Of A Jedi Knight/Learning About The Force. Can you imagine you have to learn about the force? If ever a Star Wars film deserved recognition for greatness it had to the original, because these money makers simply do not deserve such Academy acclaim.

By the way, the cast in the latest edition of the film series is uniformly excellent. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver are all very good. I had my quibbles but they were merely mine. I found the character name of Rey a bit annoying. I preferred Driver in a mask. Darth Vader never showed his face until the third film in a trilogy. Why does everyone need to take off their mask and show their face? This dark villain felt less intimidating with the mask removed and Driver's boyish face reminded me of Josh Groban. Would he break into song at any moment?

I enjoyed the gender role reversal in this rework of Star Wars with Ridley in the Luke Skywalker role. Many moments suggest a passing of the torch with Daisy (a name I would have preferred over Rey) taking her place by Chewbacca's side in the beloved and conveniently available Millennium Falcon. But much of this film and these moments seems overly familiar by now. It's all a bit tired really. Jakku reminds us of Tatooine and we've been to the desert many times as much as it warms our heart with a dry heat. These scenes, purposefully, remind us of the original or Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) just as the screen crawl takes us back there. But none of Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels particularly original or fresh. It sticks relatively close to the planets, ships and designs of the originals and rarely strays into new ideas. BB-8 replaces R2-D2. Supreme Leader Snoke replaces The Emperor. We get a cantina scene. We get the death star again. We get a truly uninspired death star trench sequence. We get a few new CGI monsters to create new figure molds for the masses. I hate CGI and some are excellent while others ridiculously defy gravity.

Still, what doesn't work is Supreme Leader Snoke. What were they thinking? He looked like a CGI reject from the Harry Potter or The Hobbit films. I hate that kind of crap. A film slated to make millions (billions) could have spent a little time on practical effects and prosthetic work here for the new Supreme Leader. Right? Come on. For all the knocks it receives SyFy channel recently aired the mini-series Childhood's End (2015). Actor Charles Dance was bedecked as an Overlord in one of the best Satanic prosthetic, make-up jobs since Ridley Scott's Legend (or thereabouts) and this is the best Snoke we get for Star Wars? I mean SyFy delivered a better villain. SyFy people! It boggles the mind. I'm thrilled Andy Serkis has a job, but I'd rather see true make-up application here for the actor rather than see him rigged up like a Christmas tree for motion capture. Could we have spared no expense on this? What a crime. You my friend are no Emperor. We get a terrific scene where Kylo Ren can stop a laser and then we get left over CGI for Snoke. Awful.

Another issue, and my son makes a good point, but he wondered how two youngsters like Rey and even a former Stormtrooper could be so well versed in the art of the lightsaber so quickly battling Kylo Ren no less. Doesn't it require a bit of training? They may have missed that part in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope to speed up the action. It was a good bit of dumb luck to stumble upon Luke's old lightsaber though, like the Falcon.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens offers a good exercise in action adventure for die hard fans of the Star Wars universe. The little homages and tributes to the past are a delight like the Millennium Falcon Stop motion chess table animation and so on, but again nothing new. The film is merely passable entertainment for those that require or demand a bit more substance and originality from their films or franchises. Think Prometheus (2012). Newcomers, with absolutely no prior exposure, may well be blown away because it is a technical marvel as sci-fi adventure goes. Finding those people is a bit like finding a juror for the O.J. Simpson trial, but they are out there and I spoke with one and he was impressed.

But the latest Star Wars creation feels a bit like Abrams' Star Trek in the form of Star Wars. He knows how to work a formula. It's all a bit paint by numbers for adults. It's as if today's sci-fi director is afraid to slow down the Hollywood machinery on a popular franchise for fear of invoking boredom, but a quality script with strong writing doesn't need the galactic empire whizzing over head at every turn. I'll take a Monsters (2010), District 9 (2009) or Ex-Machina (2015) any day of the week.

And then the film just sort of ends with not a word from Luke. I'd take that paycheck.

On the up side, it was a delight to see the original cast generally speaking. I was thrilled C-3P0 was underutilized, R2-D2 was sidelined and we got the adorable BB-8 droid in its place with no hide nor hair of the awful memories of the prequels embodied by the hideous Jar Jar Binks.

It's a solid piece of entertainment overall but one I could easily have gone without at this point. I enjoyed the paint by numbers coloring books as a kid. I'm a bit beyond those now too.

As I mentioned earlier, an alternative case in point, Oscar Isaac, plays a resistance pilot, but his role is a mere cardboard cut out. A film in which he recently starred, Ex Machina (2015), is superior and an infinitely more rewarding, thoughtful and satisfying picture. (It may be comparing an apple to a rolling orange). Now that's a fine piece of science fiction written and directed by Alex Garland. It reminded me of the kind of original work once written and directed by another once promising director in 1977.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a good tale, certainly not juvenile in its approach thankfully, that traverses the ideas of good versus evil even if it retreads familiar territory. One could certainly say it tells a cyclical story. The more things change the more they stay the same. Evil is found in unexpected places while the force triumphs in equally dark realms. Like life, there is no formula for how these things play out and the new film delivers that message, but sadly and ironically, with a touch too much formula. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is more like Star Wars Episode VII: The Formula Awakens, but you could do much worse and fans have likely received something of a Christmas gift with its release as it checks off a lot of boxes on the wish list.

My lack of an endorsement is intended not to take anything away from all of the efforts that are on that screen which are indeed immense. The fact this is a financial juggernaut is certainly not surprising. Star Wars is a corporate giant---a machine unleashed. It's the Death Star. It could fund wars and countries. It's massive and cannot be stopped. What would be surprising is if it didn't make money. What would be surprising is if someone took a risk with the Star Wars universe in writing a story more intimate and far less commercially predictable for a new entry.

At this point I suppose you could say I'm not a Star Wars fan and I've moved on to more unexpected, more challenging sci-fi pastures. But whether you like this film or not, I certainly count myself among one of the progenitors who helped build and unleash this monstrosity. Like you, I'm also one of the hapless rabble who keep feeding this thing. We have a choice to not be part of the problem. When it comes to Star Wars I'm undeniably part of the problem. We've let this thing out of the cage and we cannot corral it back up.

When the next film arrives, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), will I see it? Or will I be brave and bold enough to make a stand, take one of my fallen tree branches as if I was ten and exclaim YOU-SHALL-NOT-PASS! Aw shucks I'll probably see the darn thing, but I don't plan to. I'm just really not a required part of the commercial equation for this thing.

But is this sensation sensational stuff? Is it the best film ever? Does it deserve all of the money it makes? No, no and well, making money is good for everybody. Look, it's an entirely faithful, reverent exercise in honoring the Star Wars universe, but as an original entertainment---it was alright.


Francisco Gonzalez said...

I think future films will be more original than this one, I think this one was just to grab us by the nostalgia balls. Ha ha and that they did! I'm really curious for episode 8, something tells me it wont be so similar to previous ones.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

"Nostalgia balls" Ha.
Well, it did recreate a general outline of the original.
But, if I had to watch a Star Wars film again I would
likely fall back to the 1977 classic. Thanks Fran. Love
your best and worst list too. Fun read.

Roman J. Martel said...

I see where you're coming from, the film was very familiar for most of its plot points, that is for sure. But I agree with Francisco, I really think Disney and Abrams wanted to assure us old time fans that this was NOT going to be like the prequels. I think they went a little overboard on the nostalgia, but I'm willing to give it a pass. I had a fun time with the movie, but I'm curious if my enjoyment will fade with future viewings (much as it did with Episode 1).

One thing I really liked about the film was the focus on characters. The new and old characters were blended into the story really well. It gave most of them key moments and things they had to accomplish. And this new cast really clicked. They had great chemistry on screen and I want to see what happens to them next.

But if the next film is a full remake of "Empire" then I think I'll be a little bit grumpy about the whole thing.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

I don't disagree with either of you about Disney or Abram's intentions.
I don't say this to be flip either, but I think what they did was pretty obvious.

It just didn't work entirely for me.

I agree. Characters had a nice chemistry there Roman.

Next film, hmmm, Star Trek: Into Darkness was a nice reboot film. Could Empire be next for the sequel? Ha. I doubt it. I think they learned from the second Star Trek reboot film, I think. Hmmm.

Thanks for writing Roman and all the best on your outlet for writing this coming year and your proposed changes.

J.D. Lafrance said...

In regards to the JJ's work on STAR TREK, let's not forget that he's been very upfront with saying that he was never a big ST fan, which certainly explains why the new movies turned out the way they did. No, he has always been a hardcore STAR WARS fan and one could see that the STAR TREK movies were really expensive audition reels for EPISODE VII and hey, it paid off - he got the gig.

I felt that JJ hit it out of the park. Is it a rehash of A NEW HOPE? Sure. I think that was intentional and you could see that THE FORCE AWAKENS was designed to act as a transition, the Original Trilogy characters passing the torch to a new generation. I have hope that the next movie won't be as much of a carbon copy, esp. with someone like Rian Johnson involved in it. I at least remain hopeful until proven otherwise.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

It's unfortunate someone as talented as JJ would get a pass on Star Trek simply because he wasn't the biggest fan. I guess it's a job and not everyone will take on a passion project for every film they make. So fair enough.

And I still liked Star Trek: Into Darkness, maybe more than The Force Awakens to be honest, but they are both technically well made.

I'll keep my fingers crossed to that the force is even stronger with the next one.

And I'm pleased so many love this film, but I'm more inclined to give it a solid double and every team needs a good double. : )